Archive for June, 2016

June 30, 2016

#114) Movie review: “Atari: Game Over”

It’s the stuff of geek legend, especially among geeks who grew up in the 1980s. In the summer of 1982, Atari is seeing its domination of the home video game market faltering. The U.S. economy is slow and stores are being flooded with low-quality games. Atari has already taken lumps over the 2600 console’s poorly received version of the arcade mega-hit PacMan, so they need to come up with something big. Feeding on the success of the Raiders of the Lost Ark game, they opt to license another movie for a tie-in: the blockbuster “E.T.” Negotiations for the rights take longer than expected. With the deadline for a holiday season release approaching, game designer Howard Warshaw has only five weeks to complete “E.T.” – compared to a typical time frame of six months. The result is a product that is not only disappointing but also cited as the cause for the subsequent collapse in the video game market. In the wake of the “E.T.” disaster, millions of the unsold and returned cartridges are buried in the New Mexico desert.

Or are they?

“Atari: Game Over” (currently streaming on Netflix and available on Youtube) examines this rumor, weaving two narratives: a flashback of the rise and fall of Atari and indeed all video games between Pong and Nintendo and a present-day (2014) account of geek pilgrims lobbying the city of Alamogordo for permission to excavate the land fill and vet out the legend.

In judging such a specialized film the key question is: will it appeal to those who don’t have particular interest in the subject? In this case…probably. “Atari: Game Over” is short  (66 minutes) and engaging enough that almost anyone can find it appealing. Long story short: you shouldn’t have to beg your girlfriend to watch it with you, especially if you’ve recently sat through a romcom with her.

Director Zak Penn, noted for writing several scripts for Marvel superhero movies and for a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster, clearly has affection for the subject matter and the film plays more as a nonfiction feature than as a documentary. While there ultimately is a little more cheerleading and back-patting than necessary, the film moves at a good pace, providing engaging detail without getting too bogged down in particulars. Howard Warshaw could be seen as the protagonist. As a 25-year old he achieved acclaim with “Yar’s Revenge”, one of Atari’s most popular and well-received games. He also designed the successful “Raiders” but “E.T.” not only hurt his beloved company but sullied his reputation as well. After the demise of Atari, Warshaw moved from one industry to another, never finding the same excitement and purpose, never able to shake his attachment to the doomed game. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and xBox co-creator Seamus Blackley are among those who provide commentary and historical context. Robert Rentschler and Susie Galea (respectively the former and current mayors of Alamogordo) and waste disposal expert Joe Lewandowski are among the players in the present-day excavation.

The two storylines build to a climax on April 26th, 2014. In what has been described as “geek Woodstock”, gamers from far and wide come to witness the dig. One shows up in a deLorean; many are wearing T-shirts of classic Atari games such as “Pitfall!” and “Space Invaders.” The shovels start digging. Will the games be found? Will they be intact? What if the chemicals from the cartridges begat a bunch of radioactive pigs? Will the gathering of gamers mean redemption for Warshaw?

We love to build up and tear down and when something survives that process, be it a movie, book, song or game, it earns a special place in geek culture. Not only did “E.T.” not deserve its reputation but it also brought people together in  way that a game that was simply mediocre wouldn’t have. Ultimately, Penn is no more concerned with the results of the dig as he is with showing how the game became a touchstone for a generation and telling a story of redemption and affection for the past. As Raiford Guins, a professor of culture and technology says in the film, “I would still rather play Atari’s E.T. than any Call of Duty.”

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June 23, 2016

#113) You can’t give it away: #3 (The heartless bastard who wouldn’t let Amazon make a charitable donation for him)

“Would you like to make a donation to your favorite charity (at no cost to you?)” Amazon wanted to know. It turned out that some of the products in my cart were eligible for “AmazonSmile”, the online retailer’s charitable contributions program. Win-win, right? I mean, what kind of heartless bastard wouldn’t want to donate at no cost to themselves?

This guy. (Did I mention? I am the titular heartless bastard.)

In this edition of “You Can’t Give It Away” we will look at my motivation (or lack thereof) in not making a mouse click in the name of philanthropy. If making someone’s donation for them doesn’t do the trick, how are nonprofits supposed to raise a buck?

Whether it’s buying a product, ordering a service or even making a donation, “free” isn’t always the goal. Donors may have any number of motivations, be it emotional satisfaction, belief in the cause or Jewish guilt. According to this article on Philanthropy News Digest, “[P]ersonal connections — not trending topics, gimmicks, or social media engagement itself — are the key driver of charitable giving.” A prompt for a mouse click does not a personal connection make. Indeed, blogger John Kenyon articulates a skepticism many feel about donating through a corporation: “Unfortunately, for years I have seen nonprofits waste time, energy and hope on similar online charity malls…My issues with them – and with AmazonSmile – are…that they only benefit nonprofits with a large supporter base and they usually have a negative overall ROI for organizations that participate.”

Ease of donation can also mean a less rewarding experience for the donor–and makes it less likely that the donor will contribute more in the future. As this article about Amazon Smile notes, “Without a cost there is no actual exchange with the charity. Yet the charitable reward exists. So the question is if you’ve already received a reward, at no cost to you, are you more or less likely to give to a charity when the time comes?”

Let’s face it: when every other social media post in your feed is a Kickstarter or a Go Fund Me and  Rite-Aid asks you if you want to round up your change for charity,  you don’t have to be a heartless bastard to feel saturated by solicitations. Yes, we want to give but sometimes we just want to buy crap online and be done with it. When I am in that mood, vaguely altruistic ideas and omnipotent click buttons just don’t do the job the way a well thought-out invitation and the creation of a personal connection to the story can.

Well, that wraps up this edition of You Can’t Give It Away. I realize this post begs the question, “How can I find time to work on my blog but I can’t be bothered to click a button for the benefit of mankind?”

Told you I was a heartless bastard.