Saturday, January 19, 2013

What a rush of sugar

All hail Vanellope Von Schweetz, the latest addition to Disney's pantheon of princesses... although her political status as 'princess' is complicated. Also, unlike her pulchritudinous colleagues, Vanellope is not pursuing a male figure to define herself by but rather seeking to come to terms with herself and her flaws that keep her outcast from both her immediate and wider society.

Everyone calls Vanellope a 'glitch', an appellation she accepts as what makes her different from everyone else. In a game world, graphic integrity is a premium so a sprite that occasionally de-rezzes cues the gamer that the game is malfunctioning and should be trashed in favour of a better one.

It's not clear whether Vanellope understands this rationale keeping her from participating in the game her character is designed as an avatar for. All she is told by her fellow racers is that her existence is a mistake and as such, she is not permitted a space on the roster of playable characters.

Secondly, her game world's economic model is such that racers have to ante-up a gold token before racing, and she being outcast has no opportunity to earn tokens and is therefore priced out of her own employment market. In an economy of plenty, she represents the 1% destitute.

What's admirable about Vanellope is that she never loses hope. Although very clear in her mind who she is -- "racing's in my code!" -- her difficulty is in proving it to the other racers. She may have been unscrupulous in acquiring her first gold token and impossibly optimistic in self-building a pedal-operated cart to compete against powered engines, but such optimism in the face of impossible odds makes it easy for the audience to root for the underdog in this race.

The race itself, of course, is only a plot device. While ambition motivates us to do more than we think we can, it's in developing our "softer skills" such as love, friendship, trust, and making up our own minds about what is right and wrong rather than just having our moral sensibilities dictated to us that rounds us out as people instead of being merely 2D sprites fixated on a singular goal: winning at all cost.

What I really like about 'Wreck-it-Ralph' is how tightly the story is guided by its own internal rules and logic:
1) Bad guys (function of external perception based on one's prior actions) are not necessarily bad guys (function of personal character)
2) Sprites automatically respawn in their own game worlds, but are unable to respawn if they 'die' in another game world.
3) 'Pulling the plug' in the real world results in the annihilation of the game world. However, sprites who evacuate the endangered world in time can continue to live in Game Central Station, the nexus connecting all the game worlds in the arcade, though as homeless refugees.
4) Glitches lack the ability to leave their game worlds.
5) Cy-bugs are attracted to and are annihilated by lighted beacon towers. This procedure is necessary to eliminate all Cy-bugs after a game run ends as they are not characters as such but behave as viruses if they ever leave their game world.
6) 'Going Turbo' means to permanently jump a game world, resulting in the glitching of both worlds, the consequence being 'pulling the plug' (3).

By keeping to these rules, the story avoids fluff and arbitrariness, doing away with the need for a deus ex machina to save the day. Every scene and interaction is essential, providing enough exposition to advance the plot, yet not give too much away. They also provide context for the sight gags that come thick and fast; and for credible character and relationship development.

Problem-solving is up to the characters' innovativeness using game mechanics that are already present in their specific game worlds. While Felix has his magic hammer, it's more fun to watch Vanellope and Ralph fix-it themselves with trial-and-error, lots of elbow grease, out-of-the-box thinking, and a sense that if I don't help myself, no one will.

For Vanellope and Ralph, it really is suck it up and "make [their] mommas proud time". And they do.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stray wars

Dang! Two stray cats living in the multi-story car park were discovered dead this morning. Initially suspected of being poisoned, the case was reported to the police for further investigation. Latest update cites evidence of the killer/s most likely to be dogs, possibly also strays.

I wasn't close to these two cats, but they were familiar. One of the victims was part of a pair that always hung out together; the other a rather anti-social Maui lookalike who lived a short distance from the car park.

Now we are worried for the well-being of the two strays we are rather fond of and who live in the immediate vicinity. But here I'm running up against a moral dilemma. Saving the lives of our stray cats is most likely to mean the culling of a stray dog or two. But I can't see another way out of this situation. One way or another, somebody's day is going to be ruined. :'(

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Application Question confusion

Just because there is a question mark behind a sentence doesn't necessarily make it the main question for the GP Application Question (AQ) component. Too often, our practices default to whether the student agrees with the author/s or not, but this kind of evaluation tends to miss the point of the question altogether.

Take this one from a recent practice session. Given a piece of text about the pros and cons of fashion, the AQ goes:

In this article, Jean Jacquard comments on the importance of fashion to society and how it can be useful, and at the same time, problematic to us.
How far do you agree with his observations on fashion and clothing? Illustrate your answer or own views by referring to the ways in which you and your society regard fashion.

First, the sentence that ends with the question mark is itself a problem. A person's observations are hardly open for dispute. What a guy sees is what he sees so agreement means that you agree that he saw what he saw, whereas disagreement means that you think he didn't see what he thought he saw. Now that's confusing enough without adding the further complication that he is not in a position to see what you see, and vice versa. So if the answer focuses on this question, there's going to be confusion all round, leading to frustration for both assessor and student alike.

If the question mark is an unreliable indicator of the main question, then which one is it? We need to look at the purpose behind the question holistically. If I asked you such a question, I wouldn't care whether you agreed or disagreed with the source, nor your justifications why. What I would want to know is how a new context in your estimation compares against the situation that the source has identified. So the focus is on the new context (in this case, "you and your society"), not on rehashing what the source has already provided.

Another concern is the limited time and space allotted for this question under exam conditions. We need to identify context and parameters really quickly in order to provide a sharply-focused, narrow-band answer rather than a random, broad-based one. The AQ's lead-in or introductory sentence provides the parameters, while the final instructions provide the context. That leaves the sentence that ends with the question mark as merely a stimulus to begin writing.

Below is a link to my treatment of this question, including my highlights of key ideas from the source; my remarks on sticky notes (open the .pdf in Adobe Reader or Acrobat to see them) and my sample answer. Oh, if anyone wants to know if my answer follows a template... yes it does! It's provided by the source. Figure that one out!

Click here.