Indelible Blue Pen

Jason C. McDonald (CodeMouse92)

December 26, 2011

Red Feathers, Tire Tracks, and a Cobra Mark 3

Ask anyone who knows me really well, and they’ll tell you that I’ve never been much of a gamer. Carmen Sandiego and The Cluefinders is about as far as I would go. That said, I’ve won almost every game in those two series. Any Cluefinders game would take me one afternoon to finish.

However, if the game had no educational value, I had no time for it. Games without an educational purpose were a waste of time, in my opinion.

Oh, how wrong I was.

I’ve been making little educational games for fun since I was twelve. A couple years ago, when I started MousePaw Games with Mal, I became a fully fledged game developer, complete with giant coffee cup and a shelf full of programming reference books. My schedule quickly tightened up, until most of my time (try 85-90% was spent doing school and programming). Not that I’m complaining, since I love both!

But with that shift in schedule came a shift in paradigm. Since most of my time was spent thinking, HARD, during the 10-15% of the time I had off, all I wanted to do was…nothing.

Enter my newfound love of gaming.

My entry into this world was rather unexpected, actually. My business work had created a need for a new, faster computer. Not only did this new system run Windows 7, but it had enough memory to run another operating system which had been a passing interest a few years before. At the time, I didn’t have the capabilities or computer know-how to run it, but with my new skills and system, I was finally able to install Linux Ubuntu (Natty Narwhal, for any tech geeks reading this…)

Immediately fell in love with it. Perhaps my favorite part of Ubuntu was the hundreds of free software titles available. I spent my day off going through the entire software library and trying stuff out. In the midst of that, I made a stop at the “Games” section, and saw something quite intriguing. “Oolite: A space simulator”

I’ve always been fascinated with space. When I was younger, I would spend hours in the backyard with my dog, Bruno, pretending we were intergalactic spies. Time (and lack of hidden backyard) no longer allowed for this pastime, so I downloaded Oolite. “I’ll just try it out and then remove it. I don’t want to waste any time on it.”

My first flight in Oolite was, well…I couldn’t figure out how to make it go anywhere. Not about to be defeated by a game, I did something novel – I consulted the instructions.

In no time, I was zipping around in my Cobra Mark Three spaceship, blasting pirates and trading in big-ticket commodities between planets. Needless to say, I was hooked. A few days into it, I discovered the huge library of add-ons that other users had made for the game. I soon had upgraded my ship to a Tiger Mark One…a fast spacecraft with a sizable cargo bay and an impressive arsenal. Within a month, I had gone from a complete beginner, to a wealthy, high ranking bounty hunter.

Rather inevitably, considering my career, I soon began building my own extensions for Oolite, including the ship of my dreams – a veritable high-speed tank I called the Red Wyvern. A fellow Oolite player whom I had befriended began helping me create a gallery of more add ons.

In the midst of all of this, I began to realize: “I’ve become a gamer.” Then I began really thinking about what had been accomplished. Oolite had given me much needed breaks in the midst of what was one the most stressful periods in my work project.

Not only that, but I had actually learned something from this VERY non-educational game. I had actually discovered more about myself and my personality, helped me look at moral quandaries in a new way, and taught me more about themes I thought I understood – mercy, justice, honesty, and compassion. FROM A SPACE SIM! Not to mention, my eye-hand coordination, concentration, memory, and awareness of surroundings has improved.

I’ve since left this game’s community, but I continue to make extensions for my own copy of Oolite. Today, I’m a very accomplished commander in the game…feared by pirates and respected by fellow bounty hunters. I’ve accumulated over 100 K space credits (the game’s currency). My Red Wyvern, which I’ve named “Fafnir”, is equipped with the most high tech equipment available in game (including a couple things I’ve built myself). And I almost never lose a dogfight.

Oolite was my entrance into the world of gaming, but it is by no means the only game I play these days.

The second major game I discovered also came from the world of Linux. I had always been a little interested in racing games. Those few occasions in my childhood that I went to Chuck-E-Cheese or played video games on a friend’s console, I always enjoyed tearing up the track in Mario Kart or NASCAR. I must admit, I earned myself the nickname of “wall hugger”…I always came in last place. That is, until THIS year.

I went to a young friend’s birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese, and spent the afternoon challenging my fellow party goers to Mario Kart tournaments. I won almost all of them. I’m not sure what changed with my and racing games, but I was actually getting…good.

All the same, I was not about to invest in a game console of my own. Then I discovered Super Tux Kart, the free Linux alternative to Mario Kart. And sure enough, I was actually good at it! Within two month’s worth of playing during work breaks, I had beat every challenge, unlocked every level, and came in at least second on almost every track. I even managed to come in first on the “Super Grand Prix”, which was a tour of all the game’s tracks.

Even now, I still play both games for fun. They’re wonderful de-stressers for me, and strangely enough, I actually feel like I’ve accomplished something after I’ve played them!

But I have not yet mentioned the third, and perhaps most significant member, of my gaming repitoire. I’ll give you one clue before I tell you outright: “GNAAAAAWWWWWWWWWW!”

My sister Jordyn about blew a gasket when I told her…Angry Birds.

I’ve told you before that my sibs and I have this hobby of mocking anything popular. I was of the opinion that Angry Birds was a total waste of time, money, and energy. Anyway, I was NOT about to pay for a game! Oolite and Super Tux Kart were one thing…they were completely free and open source. Angry Birds cost. Besides, I didn’t have a cell phone.

Rovio Mobile soon eliminated both of those roadblocks. I discovered Angry Birds, for FREE, on my favorite web browser, Chrome. Having learned my lesson about the potential value of gaming, I decided to give it a try. After all, I wasn’t paying for it.

Like I said, Jordyn hit the roof when she found out that I had played it…and that I actually LIKED it. I still can’t figure out what it is I enjoy about Angry Birds. The idea of destroying structures and popping evil green pigs by launching wingless birds from a slingshot is so…inane. Yet, I should have known by this point – inanity is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

Anyway, to be honest, I thought the little birds actually looked kinda cute. Still, Angry Birds was just a passing fancy, in my mind. I’d be over it in a few days. That is, until I saw Rovio’s half marketing, half entertainment Angry Bird comics and short films.

Without warning, I found myself completely in love with the little flock of flightless birds. I blazed through the first level, then the second…still only during breaks. Then, about halfway through level three, I found that my avian wrecking crew was, well…a bit short for this one job. I consulted all the walkthroughs I could, but my aim and timing was just not up to par so as to beat this one level.

So I did something I never thought I would do. I actually paid for a game add on. (99 cents ain’t too bad!) The Mighty Eagle wiped out that level faster than you can say “canned herring.”

Christmas came, and with it, a new Angry Birds animated short (Wreck the Halls). With it, I found the answer to one of the most pressing questions I had about the game…did those adorable little birds actually die in their brave attempts to recover their precious eggs?

Short answer: NO!

Hard as it is to believe, the whole flock survives the entire ordeal, and goes on to fight the next level. The first way I know this is that there is only ONE of each kind of bird (with the exception of the Baby Blues…there are three of them.) Red, Black, Yellow, White, Green, Orange…oh, and Terrance. In every promotional poster, cutscene, animation, and comic, you never see more than this.

Of course, in the game, we see entire rows of Reds…but then, what other way is there around THAT? Its the simplest way to show “lives”, and quite necessary to preserve the game logic.

The second bit of proof that the birds survive the game is in Black’s ability. For anyone familiar with the game, Black explodes shortly after impact. Actually, in Wreck the Halls, we can see that he explodes on will. Most significantly, though…he survives it! Twice in that animated short, we see him blow up, and come out unscathed.

So the birds survive. But what about the eggs White drops? Aren’t the birds trying to get those eggs BACK? Furthermore, White is a male, so how is he managing this feat?

Simple. The eggs aren’t real. Its somewhat established in the Angry Birds community that the eggs are more like acid bombs that White carries up and drops on the pigs’ structures (how he does this without feet is beyond me).

The other funny thing I’ve discovered about Angry Birds is that, the only bird with a legitimate (and consistent) temper issue is Red. Yeah, they’re all angry in the game, but then you would be too if your soon-to-be-offspring were kidnapped by a bunch of green pigs, with intent to eat.

But outside of the game, when the eggs are safely in the nest, Red is the only bird we see getting mad over, well…everything. He’s a pessimist, it would seem.

Yellow comes in second in the temper department, though he’s more unsure of himself than anything. Paradoxically, he’s a bit reckless (hey, his ability is speeding, what do you expect?) The Baby Blues (they actually are juveniles according to the comics) are the least angry of the bunch. They’re fun loving and optimistic. And they love pranks.

You might expect that Black also has a temper issue, but while he does blow up when angry or upset, its more in the literal sense. He gets over it rather quickly, to the point of actually cracking jokes (again, see Wreck the Halls).

Green is cheerful but clumsy. Orange is lighthearted, but goal oriented to a fault (see Ham-O-Ween, in which he has one intent…eat candy). Terrence (Big Brother Bird…the name is mentioned in the Christmas comics) is the quiet, protective type. And of course, the Mighty Eagle, the oldest and wisest of the birds, is ALMOST always willing to lend advice…as long as a can of herring is involved in the discussion.

That little summary of the characters should explain what I love about Angry Birds. I find it incredible that a game as simple as this one can have such excellent character development. Rovio is actually planning a movie and TV series starring this colorful flock.

I mentioned earlier that Angry Birds was the most significant out of all the games I play. In truth, this game has been a Godsend. I have some bad habits that I’ve been trying for YEARS to break, to no avail. Now, every time I feel myself going down that road again, I turn on Angry Birds. It takes so much of my focus that it gets me through the worst part of the habit urges, at which point I can resume my normal schedule. Thus, Angry Birds has actually allowed me to get more work done than I would without it.

Last night, the last vow in regards to gaming fell to the ground. Some of my Christmas money went into buying the PC version of Angry Birds and Angry Birds Seasons (they were both on sale). I don’t regret it in the least.

Meanwhile, this past November, I bought a joystick at Goodwill, which made piloting my Oolite spacecraft much easier, and made steering in Super Tux Kart a lot simpler.

I’ve learned my lesson. Games are not a worthless waste of time. They teach us more about ourselves. They give us a distraction when this world is getting to be too much. They help us improve our motor and mental skills. And they can be used to combat addictions.

Even my parents are starting to take interest in the games I enjoy. My Dad flies an Anaconda in Oolite, running passenger and long-haul cargo contracts. Mom plays Angry Birds, and has taken a liking to the comics and animations like I have.

But this medicine, like anything, must be taken in moderation and with wisdom. Not every game is worth our time, or our money. Our excursions into the game world must be limited, to keep us from become obsessed.

And, as with anything else, the decisions we make in games must follow the same morals as our real life choices. Decisions made in games condition our response to a similar situation in real life. Deciding whether to risk our character’s life to fight off a space pirate that is trying to shoot down a helpless merchant, even when we know we may not make it out alive, will determine whether or not we’ll stand up and protect the weak in our real lives, even if it means risking our own.

I guess my love of games was inevitable. I’ve a game developer myself. The only real way to become a professional in a market is to know the market. All three games have given me new ideas and insights into my own project.

It’s about time for me to wrap up this blog post, as we have friends coming over soon. Though who knows…I may take out one more pig fortress before I go!

If you want to check out the same games I play, here are the links:

Super Tux Kart
Angry Birds Chrome (Free)

Also, since I mentioned it so many times, here is that adorable Angry Birds animated short, Wreck the Halls. I LOVE the song at the end!




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