Friday, April 30, 2010

Heroes , Idols & Role Models (Part One)

There's a video of me when I was 4 years old flying into my mother's couch over and over again, pretending to be Superman. It's pretty adorable. I specifically remember practicing my technique - during each leap I was adjusting my arms in different ways to determine which of the established flying positions was best for me. Did I prefer the classic 'both arms out' form? One arm tucked in? Or the dangerous but sexy "both arms back" position? Obviously I hadn't gained the power of flight just yet, but I wanted to be ready for that time once I inevitably could.

That was just the first of many other times in my life in which I've looked up to others - mostly fictional characters early on - to figure out how I wanted to live my life. And while Superman was a fine role model for a 4 year old, since that time my heroes have been people a little more grounded. A lot of them are artists of one form or another, which makes it clear the kinds of traits I'm attracted to. But more than anything else really it's their PASSION that really draws me to them.

But what else can I draw from these people that I adore so much? Let's find out shall we?

MY HEROES, IDOLS AND ROLE MODELS (PART ONE)

JASON MANTZOUKAS

It's actually a little tough to name only one improviser I really look up to, because there are dozens of people that have truly inspired me and convinced me many times over to invest myself so fully in the world of improv. But Jason Mantzoukas has blown my mind on so many occasions that I think I have to give him the top prize. No matter what the characters he's playing, no matter what scene he's in, he is 110% committed to it. And usually that extra 10% is total logical, percentage-defying bullshit to me, but it actually perfectly describes him - the biggest laughs he gets comes from him playing a scene as real as possible.

I once watched him and Ed Herbstman (another fantastic improviser - I could watch them both on stage forever) in a scene together where Jason started off holding himself back from vomiting for a minute after drinking too much while Ed silently watched from the side. Eventually it was revealed that they had met through a craigslist casual encounter, and while slowly discovering some suspicious objects in the room, Ed suddenly came from behind and starting choking him to death. And Jason's slow, painful death - flailing about, struggling to breathe - could easily rival the chocking scene from Inglorious Basterds. 99% of similar scenes like that would end with the actor playing that moment for a laugh, but he didn't. While that isn't an example of comedic brilliance per se, the scene was amazing to watch, and it's an example of how committed to Jason is to his scenework. And it's become the gold standard I try to hold myself up to in my scenes. Also, in case I haven't made it entirely clear, the guy is brilliant, and consistently hilarious.

Improv in general is a great example of how sometimes you have to go about getting what you want in an indirect way. I've said this before, but if you're specifically going for laughs in a scene before you've done the groundwork established believable characters and relationships, inevitably you're going to fall flat. I recently played Gwenyth Paltrow in a scene giving a handjob to a stranger in a movie theater while watching herself on sceen in Sliding Doors. Now that description, I'm fairly certain that won't make you laugh hysterically now (though the image of her doing that should probably bring a smile to your face), and had we started the show doing that right off the bat, it definitely would not have worked. But we got there naturally, through discovery, and when we did do it, we had earned it, and we were rewarded for it.

So, lessons learned from Jason Mantzoukis?
PATIENCE & COMMITMENT.

DAVID SEDARIS & BEN FOLDS


It might seem a little strange at first to single out a lesser known* improviser and clump together two fairly well artists, but bear with me here. I won't waste any time here going on and on about how great a writer Sedaris is, or how great a musician Folds is. At this point you've probably heard of both of them, and you've probably formed your opinions on their work one way or another. But what draws me to both them, and the reason I've listed them both here at the same time is that they both inspire me in very similar ways.

David Sedaris' books immediately drew me in me because his stories, on top of being incredibly well written,  were also all very honest and personal. And his stories, written by a lesser author, or seen through say, something as dry as a wikipedia article, could be seen as ordinary, mundane. But his writing makes all of his experiences larger than life. A frustrating flight from Raleigh in his hands becomes more than a story of how annoying the woman sitting next to you was, and winds up being a honest, reflective look at one's own subconscious, and how strong an effect the person sitting next to you on a 90 minute flight can have. If there's any writing style that's ever inspired me directly, it's his.

What's kind of funny to me is he once shared a story about so desperately wanting to be seen as a greater writer than he would leave copies of his idol's works in his typewriter when he left his house, so that any would-be snoop or thief would apparently be convinced he was brilliant. I've never quite gone that far (and somewhat impractical to do via blog), but here I am basically doing my best to imitate him here on a regular basis. The cycle of emulation continues...

Ben Folds writes incredibly personal songs that, while not necessarily all autobiographical, are all honest and are less likely to be about lost love, or romance then they are about taking on a mistress your own daughter's age, a secret nightlife of an investment banker as a drug dealer, or being forced into retirement from your job. Aside from all of this, Folds is an amazing performer who really brings a ton of energy to his concerts. He'll gets the audience to play the saxophone and trumpet parts in his songs (via harmony), he allowed improv everywhere to pull off an impersonation stunt once mid-concert, and recently he's started improvising songs live on stage through chat roulette. He obviously loves what he does, and he's always finding ways to keep it fresh, both through his music and through his performance.

So, lessons learned from Sedaris and Folds?  
MAKE IT PERSONAL & KEEP IT HONEST AND FRESH.

Many more to share, but it's gorgeous outside and I need to get out there and enjoy it. Back soon...

-Matt

PS: 8 Blog Entries In April! That's a new record! Looks like I'm off to a good start with my goal for the year.

*For now - it's only a matter of time before Mr. Mantzoukas gets his due.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Take the key and lock her up, my fair lady... (Reprised)

A few months ago I wrote a little piece recommending a couple of really fun party games (Celebrity and Werewolf) and afterward, people starting saying to me: "Great job on the party games, Matt! Now, how about you share some of your wisdom regarding more traditional board games?" Well, once again no one has said that in so many (or any) words, but I'm still going to pretend as though people have anyway, and take some time to promote two games that I recommend checking out the next time you find yourself walking down the board game aisle looking for something to spice up what will ultimately be an otherwise uneventful gathering of friends, coworkers and/or family.

"Don't just SAY how you feel man, TELESTRATE that emotion!"

Telestrations

Telestrations may sound like some new-age form of gesture-based communication, but it is in fact a relatively new board game that's a little bit like Telephone meets Pictionary. Each player (anywhere from 3-8) gets a little dry erase booklet and pen and selects a card that gives them the word they're going to sketch to start the game off (there's also a die roll involved but I don't want to scare anyone off just yet). During the first round all players draw, to the best of their ability, the word or phrase on their card, which can range from simple objects such as "Shipwreck" and "Muscle Car" to more abstract terms like "Bird and the Bees" and "New York Minute". No letters or numbers can be drawn, just like in an a traditional game of Pictionary.

After the 90 seconds are up every player takes their pad, and hands it to the person on their left. Now each player's job in the second round is to look at the drawing on the pad they now have and guess what it is they're looking at. On the next page of the booklet, they write down their guess (in words) and pass it once again to the left. And now the third round beings, where the players must once again draw the words in front of them on the following page. This continues as necessary until the booklets have made a full circle and come back to the original players.

A sample game containing Epic Failure

Now the fun begins. More often than not, like in a game of telephone, the final drawing will most likely not at ll match the original one. Each player takes their turn going over the progression from their original word to the final drawing, doling out points to other players as they see fit. Yes, the scoring system in the game is inherently arbitrary (though, on top of the 'casual scoring', there is supposedly a 'serious scoring' system in place in the instructions*), but even as a highly competitive no-nonsense gamer, I really do think this is the most fun way to play. Each player can give a point or two for highly accurate drawings/guesses (and this is of course based on what the player in question saw before them, not necessarily the original word) or just for highly creative/bizarre/hilarious responses. If the final word actually does match the original, then the player gets 2 (or if you want, a MILLION) points himself. The game runs for three rounds, or you know, until the wine runs out.

Quick random example of a near-pants-wetting moment - someone started off with "Car Air Freshener" which led to a drawing of a pine tree hanging from a dashboard mirror in between two car seats. This drawing got mistaken as a Christmas tree sitting on top of a butt (the two car seats). So the new word became Christmas Butt, and every subsequent drawing was a more elaborate iteration of this theme. And the best part was that Christmas Butt was never misinterpreted!

One final note about this game, which should tell you how it usually goes over. My friend Maddy who introduced the game to me told me that she had a 100% conversion rate with the game - whenever she introduced it to a new group of people, someone from that group went out and got the game shortly thereafter, myself being one of those people. And the first time I brought it over a friend's to play? Two immediate purchases, and one more potentially forthcoming. The game is highly entertaining, and I honestly haven't had this much fun with a board game since I first discovered Taboo (also a classic) many years ago.

The game retails for $30, though you can often find a sale online.

Hey hey, don't run away just yet - it's non-nerdy friendly!

Munchkin

I mentioned this game briefly in the post about my most recent trip to PAX, and while the game is certainly a gaming convention enthusiast's delight, I think the appeal spreads much farther than that.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most people who are willing to sit still long enough to play a game of chess, Stratego, or even poker (all games I also love) are at least potentially recruitable into a game of Munchkin, which is a combination of Dungeons and Dragons (without all the books, dice, and a generation of nerd-related shame behind it) and Magic: The Gathering (without the hundreds of dollars of investment into a "winnable deck" and a generation of broke nerd-related shame behind it). You're basically playing an adventure game, complete with classes, races, equipment, monsters and treasure based soley on random card draws.

Everyone starts off drawing from two decks of cards - the Door pile (which contains all monsters, curses, races and class cards, and the Treasure pile, which is filled with stuff you want. Once the game begins, each player takes turns turning over door cards, and either fighting monsters or building up their character. Fighting a monster is as simple as counting the number of bonuses you have (from your level, race, class and every relevant item you have on you) and seeing if they beat the monster's level. Defeating a monster raises your level. Every player starts at level one, and the first player to reach level 10 wins.

See? Look at the adorable pictures - now roll for initiative!

I won't spend too much time going into the intricacies of the game, since like with many other things I discuss on this blog, either you're already on your way to purchasing the game now, or you've already starting scrolling down and aren't reading this line anyway Jeff, you fucking poser. Ahem. Suffice it to say that the real fun comes in messing with the other players. Players can all interact with one another at all times, trading items, assisting in battle, forming alliances. But of course, it's much more exciting to HURT another player - say, when one player hits level 9 and is about to win. Players have all sorts of ways of messing with another player's progression, adding or strengthening monsters to a battle, backstabbing them, preventing them from running away. It's actual a pretty fun scene to just sit back and watch as during the beginning of the game everyone's doing their best to help the other players, either to get some of the loot, or to simply level the playing field. But towards the end it's every man for himself, and sometimes threats such as: "If you do that and he wins I will make it my life's mission to DESTROY YOU...in the next game we play!" eventually come out. That one came courtesy of yours truly.

The average game can typically last more than 2 hours, so again the biggest hurdle to climb is patience on everyone's part. Also sobriety is probably encouraged here more than in the other games I've played, but probably the same level you'd need to play a decent game of poker. And I suppose taking advantage of someone who's inebriated at the Munchkin table might have its merits. Bottom line: you probably want people who can really invest themselves in a game and aren't just looking for something to do until the pizza arrives.

The game retails for about $25, and has many many (admittedly a little too expensive) expansions, iterations, and actual board to make it more of a traditional RPG-style board game. Still not satisfied? Well then...uh, yeah, just go out and buy some Magic cards, and some D&D books, because man...you got the bug.

*****

Well, that'll just about do it for now. Now I return back to hunting for new and exciting electronic and non-electronic games to spread the word about. Until next time, happy gaming friends!

-Matt


Currently Playing: Halo 3: ODST - I just completed the not-so enthralling campaign, but that's ok because I mostly got the game recently just to be able to take part in the Halo: Reach Beta starting next week!

*The first instruction is, strangely enough, to push the stick in your ass up an additional 3 inches.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sleep Is Death: The Improviser's Playing Guide

You guys! I'm really excited right now. See, I'm not an expert on a lot of things. Sure, you could start to quote any line from the first 10 seasons of The Simpsons, and I'll most likely finish it (I actually spent a fair amount of time doing this last night), and I'm pretty sure I could review every single item/ingredient on the Chipotle menu. However, when push comes to shove, I'm spent more time on video games and improv than pretty much any other field of interest.

It's rare that this expertise crosses over, as video game improv scenes to fall flat - a problem I attribute less to the difficultly of mining humor out a mostly passive, non-personal experience and more to audience members simply not boning up enough on their Castlevania lore. But recently I discovered a little gem of a game called Sleep Is Death, that wonderfully combines these two disparate hobbies of mines, and I'd like to take some time to introduce the game (to those of you who haven't played it yet), encourage any and all of you to play it, and offer up some tips that I think will lead to a great experience for everyone involved.

Spoiler Alert: The fish did it.

Sleep Is Death is described by it's creator Jason Rohrer as a 'storytelling game'. The way it works is two players each sign on to the game (and when you purchase it, you receive two copies immediately so you and a friend are good to go) at the same time, one as 'controller' and one as 'player'. The controller has access to an entire library of characters, set pieces, objects, and locations which he can design on his own before the game starts (and if he's quick enough, during the game itself) or use from available templates. The player interacts in the world set before him, moving around, interacting with objects and speaking whenever he wants.

Once the game begins, each side has 30 seconds to make their move(s). The controller sets the player in an environment, and usually has a basic scenario in mind, i.e. you've woken up in a hotel room covered in blood with a dead body lying on the floor. And the player then decides to make a move, which can be anything from investigating the body, to answering the ringing telephone, to deciding to ignore everything going on and just making himself a cup of coffee instead (seriously Ro, who would ever do that?).

I spent the first 8 turns saying "But I don't WAANNAAAAAAAA"

From here, everything is up in the air. However much planning the controller has done, inevitably it won't be enough, and ultimately the game becomes a virtual improv scene between both player and host. Each side has only a limited amount of time to react, and as frustrating as this can be for the controller, it's actually a good thing, because it encourages spontaneity. And this is where I can start applying some of my improv expertise to my fellow gamer friends.

As an improviser on stage, you don't have the luxury of writing your scene. All you can do is react and respond to what's been set in front of you. And while the goal is most improv scenes is to get a laugh, simply trying to be funny generally gets you nowhere. It's the discoveries you and your scene partner make together that get the laughs, and move the scene forward.

Your snarky sex-bot has awoken...is this really what it's come to, Master?

The first and most obvious tenet to any good improv scene is to "yes and" whatever is happening around you. Denying a character's move ("I'm not your father, I'm your principal!") is the quickest way to grind a scene to a halt. On the flip side, accepting a move that is made and letting it affect you is going down the path to discovery. There's a lot of nuance to this rule - for example, an argument scene between two improvisers, while potentially disastrous for inexperienced improvisers simply trying to find something to do in a scene, can actually be based on agreement between the actors and be incredibly hilarious.

"Show, Don't Tell" is another great rule of thumb, not just for improvisers but for writers as well. A good story generally lets it's characters speak for themselves, and reveal who they are through actions rather than pages and pages of exposition. Applying this to Sleep Is Death means to focus less on having every character talk or explain (in the case of the controller) everything, and more on simply making physical moves that are true to their character. This is actually something I myself am guilty of and am trying to work on, both in improv and in SiD. Remember: Action > Dialogue pretty much every time.

Sometimes actions lead to, well uncontrollable fires.

Finally, embrace everything, even the mistakes! I once forgot to load the dead body back into the hotel room in the aforementioned hotel murder scenario. So, what could I do? Well, one choice is to simply ignore it, pretend that mistake never happened, and if the player references it (as he did in my game), simply correct him. Alternatively, I could decide the mystery just went a little deeper - where did that body go? Who took it away so quickly, and how? Be willing to make a discovery even if it's going to seemingly drive you off a cliff. Remember that it's a game and the brilliance of it is there are no points, no set goals or path to victory and the game only has to end when one of you decides you've had enough.

I highly encourage any and all of you check it out, even you non-gamers, as on the player's side it's incredibly simple to play. And if you have a scenario or want to check out my own (I've been the player about twice as often as I've been the controller, so that's something I'd like to balance out), definitely hit me up. It's a gaming experience unlike any other I've ever encountered.

-Matt

PS: Dammit! For a minute I really did think I had a wonderfully unique blog post here. Ah, well. This guy says a lot of what I've said here, and adds some good specifics of his own. Worth checking out if you're looking for even more improv-related SiD tips:

http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2010/04/improv-with-avatars.html

http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2010/04/sleep-is-death-player-manual-and-guide-to-better-living.html

PPS: Some other reviews on the game that got me excited for it in the first place:

http://kotaku.com/5507753/a-video-game-death-made-for-me


http://www.joystiq.com/2010/04/05/hands-on-sleep-is-death/

And of course, in case you missed it earlier, the link to the site itself:

http://www.sleepisdeath.net

Monday, April 19, 2010

For The Love Of (There Is No) God Part II

Here is the thrilling conclusion to the story I started last week. Don't read this part if you haven't read part one yet...

For The Love Of (There Is No) God Part II


The Williams Christian Fellowship and I, for obvious reasons, had almost never crossed each other's paths in the 3 years prior to my dating Annie. I may have stumbled into a church at some point during my freshman year desperately looking for a classroom (true story!), but before this moment in time my relationship with the WCF was the same as it was with every single sports team, publication, a cappella group, as well as the math, economics, art history, language, philosophy, computer science, gender and asian studies and 75% of the science departments: we pretty much ignored each other. But our relationship brought me to the center of their attention. And so, they decided to have a meeting about me. That's right - A meeting. About me.

Now, as I was not present at this meeting, the details are lost on me (in fact, I can't say with absolute certainty that the meeting that took place was entirely about me , and not something more along the lines of a "Spring Bake Sale Update / Matt Shafeek Threatens Our Very Way Of Life" split. But what I know for sure is that a conversation definitely took place (most likely in a secret underground room in near total darkness save for the light of the inscribed candles) amongst senior members of the WCF (who all probably wore thick robes with hoods that were kept on the entire time, and spoke with a serpentine-like hiss at the end of their words) where the subject of our relationship was discussed (and there's little doubt you'd hear lines like "The Heathen knowsssss too much" and "You all talk during a time where action is necesssssary! I ssssay we kill him NOW!") and ultimately it was decided that the best course of action was to attempt to break us up.

Their approach was two-fold. One was to speak to Annie directly, which I'll get to shortly. The other was a little bit of psychological warfare, aimed squarely at me. This part of the plan fell on a woman we'll call Fran. Fran and I were in Psychology 401 together (as you can see, they clearly thought this through). Everyone in the class was fairly close at this point, since we had all spent 2-3 together in a lot of the same classes. Fran and I got along pretty well - I made her laugh out loud (or "roflmao," if you will) on a number of occasions. In fact I'll go so far as to say in that class she was my biggest fan - I'd point to her guffaws as confirmation that while I may not be the smartest, most athletic, attractive or otherwise talented person in that room, I sure as hell could make with the funny.

But then all of a sudden, on this fated day, things went very, very wrong. I'd make a witty observation about borderline personality disorder ("I guess they just kept on pushing her love...over the...Borderline! And now she's...going to lose...her mind!"*) that clearly should have killed. But when I tossed to Fran for the period on the line of my exclamation point, she was silent. It was like Conan O'Brien telling a joke and then getting a dirty look from Andy Richter! Inconceivable! This continued for several days, and I had no idea what was going on. Obviously the material was good, no, great...but then what could explain Fran's sudden change of heart?

The WCF's approach with Annie was a lot more straightforward: they simply informed her that if she continued to go out with me, then they couldn't be so sure how committed she was to her devotion to God and the WCF. So it stood to reason that they probably couldn't let her run a certain program teaching children she had very much been looking forward to teaching next year. Now, that may sound to you like a religious organization butting into the relationship of one of its members and issuing an ultimatum, essentially saying "break up with Matt or lose this thing you want that we're dangling over your head" and that's because yes, that's exactly what this was.

Annie called me over that night to her dorm and sat me down on the ledge outside her 2nd floor common room and told me what she'd be told. And, as if I didn't already know, in a sea of tears she told me she had to break up with me. Logically, it made sense. We weren't in love, there probably wasn't much of a future for us past graduation in less than a month, and she had everything to lose by pissing off this organization that she had been very dedicated to her entire time at Williams. But emotionally - OH FUCK NO! There were principles involved here! Principles that were being challenged, rights that were being denied! This was an injustice that Could. Not. Stand. I gave Annie an obligatory hug, told her she had to do what she had to do, and as I was the one being dumped, I felt no further obligation to stick around, even though Annie probably wanted a little more of a confirmation that she wasn't a terrible human being. But I wasn't giving her another moment of my time. With dry eyes and determination, I ran to my dorm room to plan my next move.

I sat down at my computer and my hands, as well as most of my body, were shaking. This has only happened a few times in my life. I rarely get what I'm going to describe here as 'livid' -though it's perhaps not the best word- but whenever I get this emotional, my body literally responds in kind with my mind, unable to remain calm, or still. I'm clearly upset and I have excess energy to expel - but I don't do that stereotypical guy thing where I punch a wall or kick someone's dog. Instead I just kind of shiver. But you know, like, a dude shiver.

Anyways, at that moment I composed the most epic email of my life. At that moment I believe that this was THE EMAIL I WAS BORN TO WRITE. Everything in my life had led to this moment in time. I was about to change the world with this letter - which, incidentally, was addressed to the entirety of the Williams Christian Fellowship. And Annie. And all of my friends, acquaintances, the school Latino organization I belonged to but never did a single thing with, various faculty, the school paper, and if I could have found his email, the Pope would be on the list as well.

The exact wording of the letter - which I would absolutely love to put here for posterity's sake - has been lost to the ages (though if any of it's MANY recipients still have it and want to send it to me, I will immediately post it), but I can remember enough of it to get the point across here. Really, it can be summed up in three sentences:

THIS IS EXACTLY WHY I DON'T BELIEVE IN ORGANIZED RELIGION.

SHAME ON YOU.

EAT A DICK.

In hindsight, I really wish I had wrote just that. And also, that the Pope had received it.

Truth be told, this is really the only part of the story where, looking back, I feel a slight twinge of regret. A simple, calmly worded message to the WCF - something along the lines of "I think you'll recognize the hypocrisy in what you've done. I doubt any of your recent decisions follow the tenants of what the Bible has taught. If you would be so kind, please ingest some male genitalia" sent to the head council of the WCF would probably have been enough. But, true to my 'life as an open book' style, I wanted everyone in on this momentous occasion. I wanted everyone to both sympathize with poor, victimized me AND rally behind me in my unflinching rage. Perhaps if I was a little less selfish I would have actually gotten a stronger message across.

Shortly after I sent the email Fran approached me after class and asked to have a talk with me. She finally revealed to me why she had been acting so strange, and though she admitted to me that my jokes were "beyond hilarious" (my recollection of her saying that is fuzzy, but it feels right) she said that she was conflicted as a Christian by what I was doing. I told her I never did anything but respect Annie's beliefs and she did the same for me, and that what her organization was doing was the opposite of respect. We went back and forth for a while. At one point she actually asked me when I decided I didn't believe in God, and I told her I always basically felt that way but didn't really know for sure until I was a teenager. I asked her what made her so sure there was one, and she essentially mirrored what I said. Then we sat in silence for a while, and ultimately agreed to disagree but hopefully put this whole mess behind us. I think I even got a few more laughs out of her before the end of the year.

Annie reacted about as well as one could expect to the email I sent. My assumption is her guilt basically gave me a pass on my email retaliation. We actually managed to stay friends for a while, but for no particular reason at all other than the passage of time, we've lost touch. After all was said and done, I have my regrets, but I'm sure I don't regret dating her. And while I don't think anyone's core beliefs were changed during that time, I think it's safe to say we all learned quite a bit about ourselves from the experience. Journeys of self discovery and PG-rated hookups - that's what college is all about right? At least according to what I grew up watching on TV.

If nothing else, I was able to coin the term "God Equator", which I think would even make Fran smile.

-Matt





*And I meant this in the most respectful way possible.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

For The Love Of (There Is No) God Part I

This is a story I've told regularly many, many times as my signature "crazy dating story", "amazing college-era eye opener," or "that time I went ballistic on the Williams Christian Fellowship", but now, almost exactly 9 years later, with a little more life experience and wisdom under my belt, I'm going to retell the story here with a large amount of honesty, self-reflection, and of course, crudeness.

For The Love Of (There Is No) God, Part I

I met Annie (not her real name) during the production of The Price of Paradise, a show I was performing with Cap N' Bells, the student-run theater company at Williams College. We hadn't spoken or hung out much before the show wrapped, but during the cast party I sat down next to her, and we got to know each other. One thing led to another, and I ended the night going back to her dorm.

Immediately upon setting foot into her room, I realized that Annie and I were probably not going to be a great match. Whereas the walls of my dorm room were mostly littered with video game characters and Maxim women (I was in the prime of my 'I heart Jessica Alba!' period), hers were actually filled with Bible verses. John, Peter, Murphy, the whole gang made an appearance. It was more than a little unsettling for me. Mind you, not enough to stick around for a lovely little make out session. Shortly after that the night ended, and I made my way back home. The next day over IM we had a little chat about our potential future as a couple, or friends with bennies, or whathaveyou.

Now, a little background information for you. By senior year at Williams I was known for being three things:

1) A hardcore video game geek
2) A theater brat (though by this point in time there was a mutual separation between myself and the 'legitimate' theater community. This is a story for another time)
3) A staunch atheist.

I know what you're thinking! But sadly I hadn't yet become the amazing improviser/world famous blogsmith I am today, and my Matt Shafeek Fan Club Newsletters, (if you don't know me or didn't know me back then, these were real) while well received, hadn't quite made me the campus comedy legend I'd hope to become.

Regardless, even though there wasn't paraphernalia on my wall to prove it (mental note: look into potential Atheism-themed College Posters. First potential slogan: "This Is What I Worship!" accompanied by a picture of a fantastic pair of boobs), I was about as far on the other side of the spectrum from Annie as one could possibly be. Yet despite this undeniable truth, we both decided to just see where it went. A loving compromise of tolerance, understanding and hormones. Personally, I knew I was graduating in two months anyway, so I figured, why not?

For a while, things were nice. Annie was, in a word, adorable. She walked me to class, she hung out in my room while I played Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, she even tucked me in at night and made fun of the fact that I slept with socks on (so much for religious people being tolerant!). Unfortunately there's a downside to being adorable too. Usually when you think of someone or something adorable, you don't really sexualize them much, do you? I mean, sure, Jessica Alba started off as an adorable teenage scamp in Flipper, but then she grew up to be 'the hotness' years later. Annie was more of a Flipper-era Jessica Alba, and there were none of those pictures of her on my wall.

One time while fooling around in her bed she stopped my roaming hands and made it a point to tell me: "I need you to understand that everything from here (her waist) down belongs to God." Which to this day is one of the greatest things that's ever been said to me (Oh and FYI, apparently those same rules somehow applied to my heathen body as well!). At the risk of sounding completely insensitive - though honestly, I'm already going to hell anyway, right - I'll just come out and say it: that statement is just bananas. Overripe, mushy, oozing out of the peel B-A-N-A-N-A-S. After fighting off the strong urge for a loud, incredibly offensive laugh, I merely smiled at her and nodded. And it was an honest smile, because I knew I just had just been given the gift of a comedic gold mine that would bring that same smile to my face and many others for years to come.

So you might say things were going 'PG-13 rated' well, but not, you know, 'Hard R' or 'NC-17 rated' well*. I guess it was just about as good as could be expected. We had the talk about religion a few times, but I did my best to just nod my head and bite my tongue, which was very difficult for me as a highly opinionated 22 year old just-about-fully-college-educated young adult. Plus there was the fact that around this point in my life I was what you might refer to as a 'militant atheist'. Or an 'ironic atheist', as it were.

I was so passionate, so absolute in my knowledge that there was no God, and that religion was a JOKE, that anytime the topic came up I made it clear to to everyone in the room that you-had-to-be-fucking-kidding-me if you believed any of that mumbo-jumbo from any set of beliefs that came from a place other than scientific FACT. So agreeing to disagree on the subject with Annie was a BIG moment of personal growth for me. Personal growth, or perhaps the prospect of getting to 2nd base - which, naturally was north of the God equator.

Right about that time Annie's religious brethren - the Williams Christian Fellowship - caught wind of our relationship. Things were about to get messy.

Next Time: Part II, Or: As I Just Mentioned, Things Get Messy!






*Keep in mind I'm not just referring to sex here. There was also no drug use, nor excessive use of profanity. There was however, a fair amount of cartoon violence.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Level Up! Your Blog Score Has Gone Up By 1

CNN posted a great interview the other day with Jesse Schell, a game designer and professor at Carnegie Mellon who talked about how games are slowly but surely inserting themselves everywhere into our lives these days, in something of a "Gamepocalypse," (his words, sadly). Here's a quick little transcript from the interview:

CNN: Will that (technological advances in products) change our everyday lives?

Anybody who has a product that can sense that the product is being used ... they're going to want to create motivations for you to use the product.

So fundamentally, they're going to make games out of it, because games are reward-based systems that motivate us to do things.

In fact, Oral-B is like halfway there. They already have a toothbrush that senses when you're brushing your teeth. And every 30 seconds, it beeps, meaning it's time now to change to a different corner of your mouth. So you do the four quadrants of your mouth, and when you've done all four, then it does a little special beep, and a happy face appears. And you don't get the happy face, you get a sad face, if you don't finishing brushing your teeth properly.

Now, that doesn't connect to the Internet yet, but, you know, it's about five seconds from connecting to the Internet. They already have a bathroom scale that uses Wi-Fi and connects to the Internet, so that every time you weigh yourself, it uploads it to a database so you can track your weight over time. You can configure it to automatically tweet your weight, in case you want that.

CNN: Is that supposed to be fun, or beneficial, for the consumer?

It depends on the product. If it's a product that gets you to brush your teeth more, or what if it not only it gets you to brush your teeth, but you floss?

That sounds health-giving. But if you look at people who make soda pop, they're going to try to incentivize you to do things that are less healthy. I hate to think about the systems the cigarette companies are going to come up with in order to incentivize people.

Whether it's fun is going to be important, because it's going to be competition. The 21st century is going to be this war for the attention of humanity.

I will obey your every command, Tooth Brush Smiley Face

Call me crazy, but I kind of LOVE this idea. On a global level, and even with the toothbrush idea. No matter how hard I've tried in the past, I cannot seem to get motivated to floss regularly. But an incentive based level up system, where the more I floss, the more anti-tooth decay points I earn, to be redeemed, for I dunno, some $5 gift card sometime down the line? I guarantee you I'll be flossing on a regular basis. Toss in a competitive multiplayer ("Compete with your friends to find out who's the King of String!") and hoo-boy, I may out floss my own dentist.

He pretty much hits the nail on the head with the whole thing here:

CNN: Why are we attracted to games?

One of the main things that's appealing about games is that you know a game can be won. It's an unusual game that's impossible to win.

In real life, we have these problems, and the problems are hairy, and they're messy. You look at the problems that you face in your job or in your relationship or in your family, and it's like there's no clear winning, and there's no clear losing. Whereas, in a game, things are crisp and clear.

The game presents you with challenges that can be met, and then it congratulates you on your successes at those challenges. It's a thing we don't get everyday in life.

Oh man...this guy just GETS it, you know? You just earned +757 Admiration Points from me, Professor!

-Matt

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/04/05/games.schell/index.html

His Blog, 'Gamepocalypse Now': http://gamepocalypsenow.blogspot.com/

Monday, April 5, 2010

You See, Life Is Full Of Giant Containers Of Super Slurm

You know, even after seeing the whole story, I still kind wanna try it...

As I sat down to write today, fending off a number of distractions before actually getting to this point in time, I am reminded of a classic Futurama episode in which Fry, the series protagonist, is offered a trip to go to the factory where they make his favorite drink, Slurm. Now, it turns out Slurm, whose slogan is "It's highly addictive!" is not actually an innocent combination of chemicals concoted by a team of flavor scientists, instead comes from a secretion from the gross end of a giant space worm. Once this space worm discovers Fry and his friends spying on them, she sentences them to death, but in an unnecessarily complicated way (as super villains are wont to do). She knows Fry loves Slurm, so she squeezes an extra concentrated dose of Super Slurm in a giant tub, gives him a spoonful of it, then tells him he's free to leave, knowing full well that he'll just keep eating until he bursts. Meanwhile his friends are set to die on slow moving mechanical traps (having used up her ingenuity on the first trap).

Fry obviously wants to save his friends but he simply cannot bring himself to stop eating the deadly, delicious Slurm. Eventually, he only manages to save the day by splitting the difference - he slowly drags the Slurm vat with one arm and continues to eat while at the same time attempting to save his friends. He only stops eating when Leela (his one eyed, purple haired, voiced by Peggy Bundy alien love interest) eventually kicks the vat over and pours the Super Slurm down the drain, to which Fry, horrified, attempts to chew his arms off to get through the grate until he is dragged away.

I bring up this story because I very often find myself dragging along my own Giant containeR Of Super Slurm - or G.R.O.S.S , if you will - in my everyday life. Giving my room a quick scan, here's a list of the distractions I can think of less than 10 feet from me:

Matt Shafeek's G.R.O.S.S. Domestic Products*:
(or G.D.P.(2)? Does that work? Oh geez, I think I'm in over my head here)

-My Computer (in fact, I am using it right now!)
-Email
-Chat
-Facebook
-Google Reader
-Twitter
-Internet
-Wikipedia Tangents
(see: Futurama episode lookup to multi-episode recaps)
-iTunes/podcasts
-My Television
-DVR with way too many hours of The Daily Show/Colbert Report on it
-Netflix subscription
-Game Systems
-Xbox 360
-Nintendo Wii
-Nintendo DS
-Playstation 2
-PSP
-And a "To Play" list burning a hole in my pocket
-Telephone
-Many many phone calls and texts from gorgeous women who
only seem to become more attracted to me the more I push them away

Kind of a ridiculously long list, right? When I went 'Paused' in 2008, it was a decision to specifically walk away from something that had become a major consumer of free time in the past. Nowadays video games are just the icing on the cake. I can play a game for 20 minutes and then sit down at my computer and waste another hour doing nothing especially productive. Distractions have become my new mortal enemy (and strong inhibitor of writing more, as I recently promised to do), and I'm going to dedicate the next few days to trying to rid myself of some of them. Hmm, I wonder how Snarf would have handled a situation like this....

"Snarf, snarf...get back to work, you lazy fuck!"

Dammit! Anyways, for now when I want to write I suppose I'll have to close all the extraneous tabs and windows, take advantage of the nice weather and take my laptop outside, while the battery lasts. Anyone else have any better ideas? Also - I encourage you all take your own G.R.O.S.S. test, if only to see if I'm officially the man fighting more distractions than anyone else in the world...

-Matt

PS: Still stalling on the story I wanted to write for my 100th post. Man do I love unnecessary build up!

Currently Playing: Well, when I'm properly allotting the time to enjoy some gaming, I'm playing Mega Man 10 (it's classic, old school sometimes-incredibly-frustrating-but-generally-fun, just like the last one), the Blur Multiplayer Beta (MarioKart + Project Gotham Racing = GOOD TIMES. Great demo, free for everyone to check out tomorrow on Xbox Live) and some Mass Effect 2 DLC (mostly the ship stuff, but I'm looking forward to the new content coming out tomorrow - hope you're gonna make it worth my $7, Bioware!)

*To say nothing of MANY books I have in my possession that I haven't read but I won't kid myself here and call themselves distractions (in fact, I'm sure I'd use my blog as an excuse to delay finally starting "Easy of Eden" after letting it gather dust for over a year).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Now Entering Phase Two

"No officer, trust me, this'll make sense in a...RUN FOR IT!"

What's that picture all about? Why am I getting naked on the subway? Is it a metaphor for how this blog makes me feel, emptying my soul into a public venue like this? Well, before I explain that, let's get a few things out the way.

First things first:

Achievement Unlocked:
100 Blog Entries Written!


Yup that's right.

Here we are. 99 blog entries since I started my long journey into the world of...well, not playing video games for a year. What started out as a silly self-dare became a pretty important stepping stone in my life. And while that experience is behind me, this blog lives on, having evolved into much more than a simple chronicling of my day to day life. Of all I accomplished during that year, I'm most proud of this blog, and it shows – as it's the one thing I've stuck to now that I'm 'Unpaused' more than anything else.

The way I see it, the simple absence of a vice, bad habit, an obsession - whatever you want to call it - isn't all that remarkable until it's replaced with something positive or personally fulfilling. A heroin addict who gives up heroin and spends his time sleeping more instead isn't exactly doing anything more with his life, right? I mean, heck, if that's all he was doing, he might as well keep getting high, amiright? Ok, maybe not.

To be clear, I'm not comparing video games to heroin. I've never been 'addicted' to video games, per se, but if there's one thing I am actually addicted to, it's procrastination (now that is exactly like heroin!). Television, video games, email, podcasts, text messages, there's no question if I have something to get done, I can way too easily figure out a way to "ease my way into the day," on a free day and find myself late into the afternoon before I get a single productive thing done. And forget about it if my goals for the day are something nebulous, along the lines of "be productive!" If I don't make a to-do list, I might as well write off the day.

I've gone off on a bit of a tangent here. Anyways, the point of this post was to give myself a little pat on the back for slowly but surely becoming the writer I've always pictured myself being. And it certainly doesn't stop here. The goal for the next 100 entries and beyond is to get even more done. More specifically, I present to you the following Unpaused Agenda*:

1) Write at least two blog entries per week (meaning entry #200 should be here less than a year from now!).
2) Make some attempts at writing fiction (for this blog and in the non-public domain).
3) Add more personal challenges to myself (both in writing and life in general) that I catalog here.
4) Never stop having fun with it! (which sounds dumb, but that's the fear that's keeping me from doing the above)
5) Rely less on extraneous parenthesis (nah, that's not gonna happen).

I had a real long, personal story I was going to tell today, but now I'm thinking it's probably best served as it's own entry. Plus - I'm not too proud to take it easy on myself now that I've got to write two entries a week!

So I guess that's that. Thanks to everyone who's been reading this blog since the beginning, as well as those of you who stumbled in somewhere along the line. There's a reason this isn't being written in a private journal. I very much value all the feedback, criticism and support you all have to provide.

-Matt

PS: Oh yeah, the picture. Well, I got naked on the subway recently for a mission with Improv Everywhere:



PPS: In case you don't get it yet, take a moment to think about what day it is today (or what day this is being posted)

*Well, there's the list, it's official. Guess there's no more slacking off!