Grievances

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Some gaming related buzzwords that annoy me:

“Leverage”: I see this term being tossed around a lot on industry-specific gaming sites like a beach ball at a concert. Something more annoying than seeing this word repeatedly rear its head in the comments section of articles on websites like Gamasutra is the niggling fact that I can’t quite put my finger on why it irks me whenever I see this term being used in a non-programming related statement. I put this word in the same sinking boat as “whilst”: whenever I see someone use this term, I feel like they’re going out of their way to come up with a synonym to what would most likely be, all things considered, a far more effective word in the first place. Basically, it’s a lot of bullshit that benefits no one. Stop leveraging this word to give your otherwise reiterative statement false weight.

“Skinner Box”: I think we can stop patting ourselves on the back for being able to draw similarities between (social) games and the Skinner Box. This term is now the Mother Teresa/Hitler of gaming arguments; bring up the Skinner Box comparison and POW– you lose.

“Poor/clunky/questionable/lazy + Design”: You see this shit a lot in game  reviews, usually around the part where the reviewer or critic (“journalist”, perhaps?) launches into their “this, but that” diatribe about things that work versus things that don’t work in the game being reviewed. Lately, I’ve been seeing a disturbing amount of reviews call a game’s “poor design” into question. To me, this is the critical equivalent of the part in a daytime talk show where an overzealous audience member stands up and bellows something profound to the effect of, “you gotta take care of them kids” to rapturous applause from the rest of the people in attendance. Although I’m glad to see reviewers move away from the Greg Miller school of game criticism (ie. “I loooooooved/haaaaaated this part!!!!”), I’d much prefer seeing a sentence like “the enemy AI is really unresponsive” instead of an empty statement like “poor combat design”. To me, that’s poor/clunky/questionable/lazy criticism.

Some pop culture shit that annoys me:

There’s that one song by some pop star named Adele called “Rolling In the Deep”, which is the safest R&B song I’ve ever heard. It meanders. It never goes anywhere. And that’s not to say it’s a bad song. When held in the same beam of scrutiny as the latest Katy Perry airborne disease or any such related aural diarrhea, it’s revelatory. It’s problem really isn’t quality, but pacing. Shit’s anticlimactic. If you don’t know what I mean, listen to the chorus. Note how the first few bars start off with the illusion of some kind of crescendo, but immediately tapers off, scampering back into its hole as quickly as it began. Afterwards, listen to the first verse in comparison to the second verse. Listen to the chorus again. Then listen to the bridge. Play that chorus again. For a genre of music that has its roots in the free-form improvisational creativity of jazz and blues, there is nothing dynamic about this song. The first time I heard this song, I literally (and not in the figurative sense) squirmed uncomfortably. There was something almost grotesque about this half-written, half-heartedly performed song that disturbed something very fundamental in my bones.

It’s like watching a heroic boxer that’s taken some bribes to throw the championship fight. The fighter gets into the swing of things, and you think to yourself as you watch them, “there’s no way they can lose, lookit ‘im go.” That’s the first time you hear that first verse. But then, then the fighter catches the stern glimpse of the don, surrounded by his mafioso goons, and he immediately allows the next punch he catches in the cheek to floor him. That’s the chorus. Now he’s pouring all of his acting chops into pretending that, man, that punch knocked the wind out of him. That’s the bridge. Finally, there’s the audience booing the fighter, flipping a middle finger as they turn and walk towards the exit. That’s… just me, I guess. Apparently, Adele is filthy fucking rich off of that one song.

 

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Reason #3 Why I Rule All Things This Week

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Since writing about Magic: The Gathering was getting me all hot and bothered, I decided to buy a Mirrodin Besieged Fat Pack today, which contains nine booster packs.

I got two of these, one regular and one foil, in my first three packs:

 

Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas is the most valuable card in the new Magic set, selling anywhere from $45 to $60 USD on websites, and that’s for the regular version only. The foil one sells for as much as $125 on TCGPlayer. Tezz is so expensive because he, like the rest of his Planeswalker ilk, is supremely overpowered. Reading his ability, I had flashbacks of the time I experienced a lapse in keeping updated with technology, saw a flash USB drive that could store 2 GB, and said, “What the FUCK?”

I wish I had been following Magic intensely enough to where cracking (that’s cool kid terminology for pulling certain cards from packs) two Tezzerets in a row would be enough to produce more than a “keen!” and “neato!” from me, but I’m happy nonetheless.

Basically, life has been very good to me this week. With two days left to go, I can’t wait to see what happens next. My human noble warrior wasn’t able to seal the deal with Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins in any of my playthroughs. Maybe she’ll be down for some hot, intimate action with Sedra, my foxy female rogue in Dragon Age 2. I rule all things, Morrigan. Including you.

On To The Next [MMO]

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

 

I’m not sure what degree of cynicism is required to maintain this type of reverse-pessimistic detachment from reality and authority that I’ve harbored all my life, but conspiracy theories and the cross-pollination of secret societies with occult practices is fascinating to me.

One of my hobbies that I’m confident will never fade away is my love of not so much playing pen-and-paper RPGs, but digesting sourcebooks, campaign settings, and monster guides. Countless hours of my youth that should’ve been spent honing my Street Fighter and later, Starcraft skills were squandered on flipping through White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” campaign settings. I’m as much a fan of wracking my brain through a series of encounters built around deterministic systems as the next D&D fan, but what’s always piqued my interest more is the deconstruction of these fictional worlds, and then putting them back together and seeing what makes them tick.

I think my fascination with occult conspiracy began in elementary school, when I tore through books on the afterlife, Dante’s Inferno (not the EA version, although that happened years later over the course of a very bland weekend), and reincarnation. This fixation grew with religious viewings of “X-Files” and “Millenium”, the latter of which had greater appeal to me due to the suffocating dark and nihilistic atmosphere that made viewing each episode from start to finish an exercise in willful masochism. I wonder, if Deus Ex wasn’t packed with as many references to New World Order, the Illuminati, and Ufology, would it still rank as high up on my list of all-time favorite games? I prefer not to answer that, out of fear of making myself seem superficial. Also, let’s not forget volumes of Lovecraft that sit on my shelf. Yeesh.

 

 

This is why Funcom’s Secret World probably is and has been my number one most anticipated PC game for this year, taking a close tie with Deus Ex: Human Revolution (multi-platform, doesn’t count, ya console kid!). To some people who know me, it should be Diablo III. To my friends I hung out with in high school, it should be Star Wars: The Old Republic. “Anticipation” in this sense does not equate to “eagerness to play”, but more on that later.

My earlier musings deserve a little bit more clarification in that my detachment extends more towards institutionalized channels of authority and ages-old establishments. I’m skeptical towards intangible precepts of “order” and “truth” that we’ve grown so accustomed to. That’s not to say I’ll balk outright at the established order either; my absentee ballot had Obama’s name on it, after all, and I voted for Meg Whitman just to spite Jerry Brown. Deep down, I know he felt it. I don’t believe there’s any greater “truth” out there, either; I’ve been a respectful atheist my entire life, and I’m comfortable saying this without fear of repercussion from the zero people who stumble across this blog because I state my position without a hint of malice or claiming that my belief is the correct one.

 

 

Talking about the Georgia Guidestones with my friend Elliot the other day (he is perhaps an even bigger conspiracy hound than myself), we both expressed similar sentiments of disbelief at how a place like this could exist. Like the Pyramid on the back of the Dollar, masonic symbols and architecture scattered throughout our nation’s capital, and the eight-point star of Isis appearing on just about any marble-tiled floor, I’m amazed at how symbols like these have penetrated American consciousness so deeply to a point that we don’t question their existence and meaning. And like my love for RPG campaign settings, occult conspiracy is so engrossing to me as a form of entertainment because of the amazing amount of detail, research, and ability to link these patterns together throughout history and then stack layers upon layers of meaning on top of one another in a purported search for the “truth.” Believe in conspiracies, secret societies, and New World Order or not, I think it’s undeniable that the formulation of said theories is evidence of a very observant, meta creativity at work amongst bored Americans. What sets Dragonlance apart from the numerous copycat Tolkien fantasy worlds is the cohesion and unity of the campaign setting’s history. Patterns that grow organically (these days, we say “virally”) are a sign of civilized society, and one thing we do best as humans is recognize patterns and assign meaning to them. There’s an order behind all the chaotic randomness we come across each day, and as a species, we’ll go through Lot 49-like stretches of narrative meta-realism to sort these patterns out. What conspiracy theory is is this recognition and ordering of patterns taken a step further. Once a person has seen and identified patterns they should not have seen, so begins the manifestation of their inability to remain willfully ignorant any longer.

That being said, the release of Secret World both excites and terrifies me on the same level. Ragnar Tornquist and his talented band of developers have a proven track record, one I’ve been privy to with Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and Age of Conan, which was interesting up until when I finished all of the single-player “night” missions. AOC demonstrated that Funcom could not only deliver a solid MMO experience, but that the studio knows how to pay respect to source material. Robert E. Howard’s Cimmeria is a land of washed-out grays and volcanoes dictated by Darwinistic rules of nature, and Funcom relayed this design philosophy through what was at release touted as an innovative, action-packed melee system in which the winner of a stand-off was determined through linking combos, finding weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses, and knowing when to attack from what direction. Brutal, yes, but a little superficial if one was to tinker with the combat system in the later levels.

 

 

What kind of source material does Secret World pay homage to? The obvious answer is conspiracy theory, occult, and secret societies, but I’m not quite sure how this translates into something that’s fun for players. In any instance of popular media, protagonists have traditionally been the ones uncovering the conspiracy, not the puppet masters. Even popular shows like Buffy and Angel made it clear that the titular protagonists were pawns in unseen conspiracies existing in the darkest of places that neither of them could comprehend. Conspiracy theory as a whole makes sense objectively, because the operating word here is “theory”. It always has and always will. To put this into “g4m3” terms, conspiracy theory is a procedural, “player-created” process in that there’s no right or wrong way of looking at things. The proposed outcome of conspiracy theory is to educate the ignorant masses to the great occult evils that wish to enslave us, but no one can say for sure whether or not there really was a demon’s face in the smoke on 9/11 or in the drops of water in, ahem, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” music video. And no, no one can say for sure if Jay-Z’s music video for “On to the Next One” really contained a subtext that illustrated his ascension to the 33rd tier of Masonic hierarchy, except for Jay-Z himself. It’s procedural because it’s making meaning out of nothing, and then running wild with that meaning. How does this translate to Secret World‘s design?

On some level, the class-less system and “battle how you wish” conceit that surrounds the progression design of Secret World is making meaning out of nothing, but like AOC‘s combat system, it’s a superficial representation of the source material. And that’s what bugs me about the conspiracy, shadow organization setting of Secret World. Conspiracy theory’s role in our society has always been about choosing sides; either you give in to the power that pulls the strings behind the curtain, or you join the ranks of free-thinking individuals that will not be swayed by a power elite. Deus Ex communicated this perfectly; the aptly named JC Denton is a blank slate for the moral and political decisions the player makes, ultimately choosing one of three outcomes. The great part about the three unique endings of the game is that they can all be achieved in the final area of the game; there’s no linear path of objectives that the player needs to complete that might bar them from viewing other outcomes. And like modern conspiracy theory, the player as Denton has to make sense of all of the patterns they’ve thus far come across and choose an outcome for not only themselves, but all of society. This point is driven further home in the ending of Deus Ex: Invisible War, where the player as Alex Denton has to choose his or her allegiance to one of many different shadow organizations, each with their own philosophy on governance and a selected quote from John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Aristotle, John Locke, et al. to correspond with the outcome the player chooses.

 

 

Thematically, conspiracy theory-based entertainment has always centered around a solitary protagonist’s search for meaning or to uncover a truth, whether or not the so-called “truth” in question happens to be a Macguffin that strings the plot along. The more people the protagonist interacts with and the more events transpire, the less and less the protagonist starts to share anything in common with the people he or she once knew and it is upon reaching the truth, however it might be defined, that the protagonist is finally alone, trapped in a psychological island of their own design. Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, Fox Mulder in The X-Files, and Richard in The 39 Steps are all examples of people who are very much alone in their struggle to make some sense of their reality, a tradition of which was carried on by Deus Ex‘s JC Denton. You might argue that for Mulder, he had Scully, but her original function on the show was to act as a thematic foil for Mulder’s hare-brained theories and matter-of-fact view on extraterrestrials, colonization, and El Chupacabra. Conspiracy-based entertainment is ultimately about, as John Tynes’ pen-and-paper Unknown Armies‘ subtitle states, “power and consequences”. In this case, knowledge equals power, but as is always the case, it’s pretty lonely up top.

I’d hate to see conspiracy theory romanticized in the player’s role in Secret World, as the appeal of such franchises as X-Files and older shows like The Prisoner has always been about what the audience doesn’t know as opposed to what they actually know (or think they know). In an MMO setting, the last thing I want to see is player-to-player interaction boiled down to mafioso-type power struggles for turf and respect, where highly organized paramilitary groups battle one another with laser-scoped SMGs and intricately crafted katanas. True, all games are wish fulfillment rolled into power fantasies, and Secret World promises players the license to go after the dark forces that hinder mankind’s cultural and societal progress, but again, it’s about thematic consistency and whether or not this type of power-granting makes sense given the source material. The game holds a lot of promise, don’t get me wrong, and I remain cautiously optimistic about its release. Elliot and I came to a consensus that conspiracy theory was fascinating to both of us in that the intricate timeline theorists have set forth details an alternate lens in which to view the power structures we’ve grown accustomed to in these modern times. It’s not so much the hidden truth as it is simply someone’s truth, and it’s really fascinating to read about. On the same note, I doubt there will be much fanboy-like bouts of Asperger’s possible with a game based on the game’s source material; after all, conspiracy theory has always been about making sense of patterns and the context in which they are presented. Let’s just hope Funcom’s using the right patterns this time around.

Getting Carded

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

While cleaning up all the crap I’ve since accumulated in my closet for the umpteenth time this week, I came across my old CCG, or collectible card game collection, stored away unceremoniously in a DVS shoebox and a Linksys wireless router box. Although I’ve since curbed my packrat tendencies of yore, this is one of those instances that I’m glad I held onto things that ostensibly served me no outright purpose and only seemed to take up space at the time of cleaning.

Finding my old Magic: The Gathering cards was a delight; multiple copies of Balance, Necropotence, Hypnotic Specters, Crusade, Wrath of God, all of my Tolarian Academies, and my full playset of Cursed Scrolls were just some of the singles I forgot I owned. Digging deeper into my collection, I unearthed swaths of different games that I at one point entertained the notion of playing full-time. Amongst the good (Doomtown, L5R), the obscure (Mythos, X-Files, Kult), the criminally underused (Illuminati: NWO, NetRunner), and the shitty (Spellfire, Overpower, Galactic Empires), were stacks of random Marvel Universe and DC trading cards that I religiously collected in my elementary school days, before Richard Garfield added a layer of functionality on top of these otherwise unusable pieces of cardboard.

From an outside perspective, lots of these games that came out after Magic‘s CCG renaissance were copies attempting to cash in on some kind of trend and for many of the games of lesser quality that came out, this statement holds true. But there was also this undeniable sense of creativity and freedom of expression that emerged as games came and went. Designers started to utilize then-underused mechanics such as bluffing and, my favorite, non-violence to define victory conditions for players that were used to Magic‘s melee/damage-based player interaction (in L5R, this was aptly known as the “Enlightenment Victory”). It didn’t take long for games to shrug off the moniker “Doom clones” and grow into “First-person shooters”, which then gave us games like Deus Ex, System Shock, and Oblivion, and it saddens me to come to the realization that the CCG boom, oversaturation, and eventual implosion was a one-time fluke that will probably never replicate itself again.

I think that happened to the CCG movement as a medium of entertainment was unique in that Magic gave birth to and subsequently quashed the market’s chances of evolving. Because Wizards of the Coast trademarked “tapping” a card (to turn the card 90 degrees and indicate that it’s been used), lots of CCGs that came out had to either find ways around tapping as activation. Take a look at any card from those anime-based CCGs and place it next to some Magic cards; to this day, Magic has the most streamlined, easy-to-read visual design in contrast to many later CCGs that had a gajillion different icons with various numbers squeezed onto their cards. And try as they might, no card game ever came close to emulating the stable of artistic talent Magic cards had behind them. Artists like Anson Maddocks, Mark Tedin, and Brom created a flexible yet uniquely recognizable aesthetic for the game that continues today with newer artists like Jason Chan and Raymond Swanlund. That’s not to say that, like always, the internet didn’t play some pivotal role in paving the CCG industry’s path to destruction, either.

As someone who was introduced to the game before 4th edition, I consider myself to be an old-school Magic player. This was when the Serra Angel, Shivan Dragon, and Lord of the Pit were considered to be the best creatures in the game. This was when we all took the game-changing power of Counterspells and Lightning Bolts for granted. This was when I ran 2 copies of Demonic Tutor in any Black deck, mono or multi, that I created (natch for Balance in mono-white). This was when we, much like early Street Fighter II players discovered linkable combos, figured out how to get the most out of 60-card decks by creating tribal themed decks before Lorwyn introduced the mechanic, Black-blue control before the combination became a paradigm in today’s Type II metagame, and the “Red Deck Wins” design strategy was called “Sligh”. This was when combinations and effective deck types grew organically out of the groundwork Wizards of the Coast’s game designers provided for players, a toolbox of sorts that gave birth to the insane power of the Necropotence deck, along with recurring champion Mark Justice’s bizarre creations. This was before the internet and net-decking.

When I get a chance, I’d like to write some retrospectives on some of these card games I’ve since abandoned, but sounds like positive, feel-good bullcrap. As it’s hardly my intent to abandon the humorless curmudgeon of an alter-ego I’ve thus created for myself on this blog, I’m going to bitch about Magic when the opportunity presents itself. My fingers are too tired from a combination of typing and organizing thousands of cards that I can’t bear to part with. Also, my brain’s fried from the different deck combinations I’ve come up with while trying to write this blog. Ugh.

Level 15 Moment of Doubt

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

As the eldest son of a mother with numerous successful Chinese friends, I’ve had to justify my decision to major in English on numerous occasions. The first and most obvious question I’d get all the time was, “So… you want to become a writer?” If it wasn’t that, the topic of discussion would inevitably turn towards prospective careers in education and academia, of which I had no interest in. “Well,” I’d offer, “majoring in English is a great stepping stone towards building a fruitful career in law or business.” Many of my classmates, I explained,” although this statement would often blow up in my face, as the parent I was talking to would ask, “So… you want to become a lawyer?” to which I would sheepishly reply, “I’m not sure.” I’d look up furtively, appearing to be in deep thought. “No. No, I don’t.”

“I can’t stand it,” I’d moan to my friends or whoever was willing to listen at the time. “I can’t stand how all of these people depend on these neatly-packaged prescribed life choices so as to lend more meaning to their meaningless lives.” And then, once all of that was out of my system, I’d start to panic.

English? ENGLISH? What the f– what am I doing?

What I’m going through now doesn’t reek of the same degree of loathsome self-doubt and insecurity that plagued my remaining quarters at college. And yet, I’m still hit with those same undertones of deja-vu every now and then.

The fact that I’m willing to describe myself as a game designer is liberating, but there’s still a lingering degree of not so much insecurity, so much as self-consciousness, made all the more significant due to the fact that I am currently, and some might argue willfully, unemployed. Namely, I’m having a hard time describing what my skills actually are.

Since my return, I’ve come across the same parents that unmaliciously sprinkled those doses of doubt into my brain, and I’m still coming up empty. “So, you write programs?” Nope. I can do very basic scripts, but that’s it. “Oh. So you create the graphics?” Nope. I have artistic ability, but none of it’s digital. “Oh. I see.” An awkward silence inevitably ensues before they follow up with, “So, what exactly do you do, then?”

That’s an excellent question. I guess I could say that my job is to make sure the game is fun, but that’s a loaded statement. “Fun” in the sense I’m using to describe games is a collaborative effort, as bugs and crappy art do the opposite of contributing to fun. I could say that I establish the rules and setting, but it’s not really my say, either. We had a lead design and project director for that. When confronted with this question, I’ve stammered out a list of things I’ve done befitting my job description: I have created characters, their attributes, and the various pieces of gear that augment their performance. I’ve created playing fields for these characters to do what they do best. Order out of chaos, I’ve then created rules and logic for programmers to create a sustainable environment, a social contract of sorts for my characters to ensure that what my characters do best also elicits some type of positive reaction from the end-user. And finally, if and when everything falls apart, I’m one of the guys that has to come up with ways to fix and then improve things without pissing away months spent on art assets, environments, code, and not to mention my metagame design. Please, don’t ask me what “metagame” is. It’s for the best, really.

While I do appreciate it and respect it on a profound level, I want to have little, if anything to do with the “intellectual” theorizing about what games have, can, and should be. Not because I don’t agree with what theorists say, because I really do, but simply because I’m hard-pressed to see the point. I’ve been biding my time by reading Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, and it’s been, echoing what the numerous positive reviews on amazon say, an absolute joy to read. I can’t say I’ve spent too much time analyzing documents that contain buzzwords like “emergent gameplay” or treatises that refer to game design as “Ludology” (my spell checker just registered that as a typo; make of that what you will), but Koster’s book essentially streamlines and then distills everything I’ve ever asked for in a quasi-intelligent  discourse on games as both a measured art form and as an educational device. Koster’s book has been a quiet revelation for me, as I’m finding more and more of what I’m creating to be broader, more expressive, and to be of a more primal level, as well as parsing what I’ve been experiencing when playing games on multiple levels of thought at once (while also having fun, natch). I can’t say whether the quality of my work and observations is any good, but for me, it’s significant, because it’s progress.

Another altogether humbling and ultimately gratifying book I’ve been following closely and clinging onto is Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers, which offers exactly what the title of the book states: non-digital challenges meant to test, push the limits of, as well as call into question the methodology and output of one’s skill in game design. When I interviewed for the first time at my old company, Possibility Space, I was asked, “Why do you think you’d be a good designer?”, to which I responded, “because I love to play games” without a hint of irony. Granted, a love of experiencing games of all forms and genres is undoubtedly important, but it’s not enough. Smash cut to a year later, I was the person in the meeting room raising an eyebrow at the poor, idealistic individual sitting in front of me, saying, “That’s really awesome and I definitely think it’s an important passion to have! But I need you to tell me more about your skills and qualities. What is it about YOU that is suited towards making games?”

I guess, to answer my own question, it’s what separates good teachers from bad teachers, or effective, observant parenting from ineffective, doting parenting. It’s being able to analyze a specific type of person and determine how to best challenge them, hook them into this device you’ve concocted for them, and keep them coming back to your creation without frustrating them. Honestly, without sounding too idealistically utopian, I think the core tenets of game design surround our everyday lives. While making my rounds slowly but surely through Challenges for Game Designers, I’ve hit dead-ends on numerous occasions and I’ve banged my head against the wall past my fifth dead-end in rhythmic percussion: “WHY-AM-I-SO-FUCK-ING-DENSE” And you know what? It feels great.

Great in the sense that I’m starting to get an idea of what my skills are, regardless of whether or not they jump off the page and throttle the reader’s attention. I have an appreciation for prescribed systems that allow freedom, and illusions that are actuated in a person’s mind. And if there’s one thing that gets under my skin, it’s self-conscious design that lacks confidence, as evidenced by my previous ramblings. I’m not one to talk at the moment, but my greatest wish is that someday, I will be.

Have I told you about my design for a 4-player competitive card game centered around assassinating other players in a cooperative game setting? No? Well good. It’s an absolute piece of shit. But, believe me, I’m working on it. And I’m having a blast.

Dear Assface

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Hey Robert, it’s me. You remember me, right? Your sense of obligation and drive to improve yourself as a person of conviction?

What happened to writing in this blog at least once a day to, and I quote, “sharpen [your] ability to churn out fast writing” and “expand [your] vocabulary”? That’s great work, man. All that talking has gotten you nowhere in life. You may have sweet-talked a great girl into marrying you, as well as her family into trusting you with her hand, not to mention future, but sooner or later, all your bullshit’s gonna catch up to you.

You dick.

Categories: Uncategorized

Battle Spawn of the Tiger Mother (not a book review)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

As the offspring of two Chinese parents who were never able to agree on the definition of “good parenting” but always put me and my brother’s wellbeing and passions very high on their list of priorities, there was lot that I could hate about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, from the schlocky dime-store Amy Tan-sounding title right down to the continued poor stereotyping of Chinese-Americans as a proud race of dragon-tamers who cling onto the clandestine ways of the mystical kingdom they can no longer return to (from one of our own, no less!).

Before I decided to take the plunge, I’d already been privy to ample context. Various news outlets outlined the story of Mrs. Chua’s oppressive, nigh-fanatical measures used to raise her two daughters, inciting polarizing statements made towards Mrs. Chua’s philosophies and, in some cases, her mental stability. Reading customer reviews on the book’s amazon.com page provides a great visual reference for the outpouring of opinion, as the number of 5-star to 1-star reviews–as well as everything in between–creates an expected bell curve not unlike the ones Mrs. Chua’s children will one day encounter at their respective Ivy League establishments.

When I first started reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I went in with preconceived expectations of completely disagreeing with the methods of her well-documented madness and to abhor this woman from the acidic depths of the hate-vessel I call my heart. That might’ve been some of the impetus behind my decision to read her book over Greg Bear’s Cryptum; like any person of opinion, I require vindication, or proactively substantiating my opinion in one long figurative pat on my own back.

After reading it, I can still firmly attest to my earlier prediction of disagreeing on just about every facet of parenting she could slingshot at me in 256 pages holding up. But, much to my quaint and pleasant astonishment, I don’t hate her. More specifically, I can’t.

I’m not sure when our society, domestic or otherwise, suddenly decided to unanimously fixate on this so-called “science” of child-rearing and development, but I remain confused as to why rational and clear-thinking adults will devolve into packs of rabid Christmas shoppers when new theories on parenting and youth education pop up. From what I’ve witnessed in my 27 years of parental theory-free existence, there is no better way to divine a grown parent’s true personality than to ask them about their children. There are certainly scarier things than a knitting circle of middle-aged women comparing their children’s achievements and then talking about parenting in the same tone an auto mechanic would use to describe oil changes, but I haven’t come across them yet.

As mentioned above, both my mother and father, with the exception of my consistent 2.5GPA through high school, have never seen eye-to-eye on how to properly raise my brother and I. My father, due to the way he was brought up, placed huge emphasis on grades and SATs, frequently resorting to monetary or material rewards to unsuccessfully goad progress. My mother, in large part due to her household growing up and her subsequent rejection of what she saw, placed firm emphasis on being a person of resolute morals and strong conviction; “strengthen your heart, and your brain will follow suit; true intelligence comes from the heart.” In hindsight, I think my mother had the more bad-ass of technique, because her vastly more macrocosmic world view also lumped in good grades as evidence of a person’s convictions. Loop-hole! GJ, ma. Regardless of momentary successes and/or failures in the past or how much I actually paid attention to them, their lessons stuck with me to the point that I echo my father’s sentiments now and then on a purely subconscious level.

Reading Amy Chua’s brisk prose, I slowly came to the realization that, like her parents before her, she simply wants to impart on her children the abilities she believes they will require to make a name for themselves and raise children of their caliber. I think one key element a lot of the public who has yet to read the book is missing is that at no point does Chua ever proclaim that her parenting style is better or more effective than others. Throughout the book, Chua expresses the heartache she feels, particularly towards her younger, more rebellious and strong-willed daughter. Numerous times, Chua points out the pride she feels alongside her children as they come to the realization that they’ve overcome something they perceived to be unsurmountable. Chua also makes a clear argument not for why her methods are correct, but rather why she chooses to use them. Unlike other children, and possibly lots of people from my generation, Chua never internalized her parent’s stricter punishments. A precocious child, from what I’ve gathered, she was always able to delve deeper into her parent’s anger and ask herself what prompted her parents to react towards her as such. Throughout the book, she focuses purely on the positive aspects of her upbringing at the hands of her parents and how they shaped her into what she is today. In light of this, there’s some arguments that can be made in that as a child, Chua’s ability to accept criticism with a level head wasn’t so much innate as it was more artificially manifested through brainwashing imposed upon her by her equally strict parents. Then again, I would argue that’s some damn good brainwashing going on. Chua’s parents were definitely onto something.

The term ‘brainwashing’ evokes negative imagery like Orwell’s “He loved Big Brother” refrain, but the fact of the matter is that brainwashing happens whether the parent is aware of it or not. When a parent picks up after their children’s dirty clothes when the hamper’s just an arm’s length away, they’re brainwashing their children in thinking that someone will be around to always clean up their mess. When a parent spanks a child for being naughty, they’re brainwashing their child to believe that violence can be used to get what they want. And when a parent makes an offhand, seemingly harmless comment about homosexuality, they’re brainwashing their child into recognizing palpable differences between what society considers to be “normal” versus “abberant” behavior. Chua is guilty of brainwashing her children in the same way we’re all guilty of brainwashing a younger, more impressionable person in our life through our actions, intended or not.

Chua also provides the Western reader with insight into why Asians are typically the most academically successful cultural group in the American educational system and it sure as shit doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. As someone who’s invariably tapped in to the Asian networks of south Orange County and spent two years cavorting with Asians at UCLA, I’ve met very few “smart” Asians as opposed to those that are genuinely intelligent (for the record, I’m excluding myself from this cross-section, thankyouverymuch). Most of these kids are biology, math, and not to mention musical whizzes. They can postulate on string theory, diagnose thirty different types of cancer, and they all learned to play Rachmaninoff years before their WASP peers, and for all of their success and progress, little has anything to do with intelligence. Some will occasionally catch me off-guard with an insightful comment that contains equal parts humor and truth, but most of the time, they’re lucky if they can form a coherent, original thought. No one is born “good at math” or “smart” in the academic sense.

The real reason Asian students are so successful is not just because their parents instill in them this drive to succeed and create an environment that fosters this competitive mindset; going one step further, Asian parents also introduce strict doctrines to their children that objectively define success and through rote repetition and studying, bequeaths upon their children a tried-and-true funnel in which to pour all of their potential into. Chua outlines the pattern of Asian immigrants in America as one of the contributors to this outlook on academics. The first generation, having escaped a life of abject poverty, are driven to make something of themselves in a capitalist society rife with opportunity. Because their lifestyle is deadlocked in the “survival” section of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they stress the importance of making money to their children and push them to their potential, which means they end up becoming doctors, lawyers, or businessmen. In the following generations, American-born Asian families become more and more acclimated to this individualistic notion of the self and sooner or later, they decide to rebel against the outdated, old-world machinations of their parents or embrace the concept of finding one’s own passions through assimilation into American society. This creates a downward slope in family riches and resources as this highly individual, American style of thinking is propagated from parent to child to grandchild. For Chua, this is where she sees modern American families at: soft, indecisive, and lacking focus and drive. Amy Chua wants her children to be rich and successful, yes, but above all, she wants to break any silly notions of entitlement free from their minds. At the risk of sounding like a broken parrot, I hardly agree with her methods, but her reasoning is strong and I think there’s some positives to be extracted from all the accompanying sturm and drang.

People who are referring to Amy Chua’s parenting methods as “typical Chinese” need to read more news and commentary, because China’s gone through some changes as well. The One Child Policy, coupled with high demand and low supply, exacerbated by a population problem, compounded by the Chinese obsession with “face”, and fully supplanted by costs of living that have tripled in less than three years has created an army of “little emperors”; spoiled children who have every whim tended to by parents and grandparents, who in turn have placed all of their hopes and dreams on their child’s shoulders in order to one day live vicariously through him or her. Sorry, China, but I’d take even Amy Chua’s style over yours any day.

That’s not to say I will, though. I will never, ever use Amy Chua’s child-rearing techniques, even under subtle suggestion from a dark, ancient entity. Contrary to what Amy Chua might think she’s doing for her children, never allowing one’s daughters to attend any social gatherings or slumber parties is ridiculous, especially at such a crucial point in a person’s development of social awareness and interaction. And, Amy? Nobody forced you to birth these two girls. They owe you a fraction of what I owe you, which is nothing.

And, in keeping with my original knee-jerk sentiment, I hate, hate, HATE the title of your book, lady. It annoys me how, in order to gain acceptance in the West, Chinese and Asian authors at large have to resort to pigeon-holing themselves into these neat little cultural boxes. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The Woman Warrior. And now, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Sell your product based on the strength of the content, not through cheap exoticism and outdated Orientalist-pandering attention catchers.

All in all, I’m glad I read this book. It made me upset at times, but it mostly forced me to think on my upbringing and, in a time far, far away, how I’m going to raise my children (I shudder to think). My parents lessons have and always will stick with me. For better or worse, I owe a great deal of my successes and interactions with others on the strength (or shortcomings) of how they chose to raise me. They gave me what they believed to be a tool kit that I would use in the years to come in dealing with life’s ups and downs. Not the best tool kit, nor the worst, but simply the tools they believed to be most appropriate. It’s parenting, and no one, not even Amy Chua, can say their method is the best. So, for all the people hating on Amy Chua, read her book first. Know what you’re bitching about before you actually do it. That’s one thing my mother taught me.