Monday, 28 October 2013

My thoughts on GTA Online

Good day to you all.  I've been playing a bit of the MMORPG-lite GTA Online recently, and have developed some strong and often startlingly unpleasant opinions on it.  Before I outline my violent hatred of the thing, though - a little back-story.

Around the time of GTA San Andreas (2004 - a kangaroo's lifetime ago) I spent hours daydreaming about the possibility of a proper multiplayer version of GTA.  This heady vision centred around the prospect of trying to evade a friend flying a fighter jet after me: what would I dao? What would my strategy be?  This entertained a brain otherwise fruitlessly engaged in reading Modernist literature and trying to formulate cogent arguments about the symbolism of umbrellas in A Room of One's Own.  The possibilities of a fully multiplayer map with vehicles, weapons and more seemed too good to be true.  And so it remained, for nearly ten years.  GTA IV had a game stab at multiplayer, but it was truly awful: a lazy, crusted turd of an experience, made good only thanks to the fact the single-player game was excellent.  It was this October (2013) that the dream finally came true.

And like any of my other dreams, it has essentially left me feeling frightened, miserable and totally confused.

You see, it's a terrible, frustrating and generally boring game that has still, somehow, managed to make me a total addict.  I am desperately trying to save the (fake) cash to buy the in-game equivalent of a Koenigsegg.  At $795,000, it's not cheap, even by fake-money standards; the fact that the average payout for a 'job' in-game is around $15,000 makes it a distant pipe dream, given the limited time I can invest. It's making me very unhappy.  But I feel I need to clarify to myself, and to others, what my grievances really are, so here goes...

1) Playing with other people is satisfying but hateful.

You see, it's great to have the challenge of playing real humans, with their initiative, experience, skills and unpredictability.  It's a real joy, and it's this that powers the online gaming world.  However, not only can you enjoy these positive traits of humans; oh no, you also get to wallow in the wonderful world of people's mean side.  And my word, GTA Online really illustrates the dark side to humanity.  Being shot for no reason is desperately annoying in real life, and arguably even more so in a video game.  There you are, merrily trying on hats in a clothes shop called Binco, when a guy bursts in, seemingly bypassing the game's ban on wielding weaponry in the equivalent of a Primark, and shoots you in the hat with a shotgun.  This makes me sad.  But even worse is the irritating tendency for people to stop others progressing through the loading screens.  You see, thanks to the desperately misguided touch of forcing all players in a given lobby to vote whether they enjoyed the race, or which level they want to play next, you spend hours just waiting.  Waiting for some vile little craplet to press a button.  Losing one's living moments to some imagined smirking goon who simply refuses to press the 'Y' button is probably the most egregious experience I've ever had with a video game.  The willingness of people, protected by the anonymity of the internet, to ruin others' days is terrifying to behold.

2) Money is too hard to come by.

All anyone really wants is to make tons of money and buy a fast car and a big house.  Or at least enough money to be comfortable and able to buy a new jumper when you need one.  This is a human requirement.  So why does Rockstar insist on making the earning of money in GTA Online as difficult and onerous as it is in real life?  Video games are meant to be escapes from reality.  Sure, I'll never afford an Aston Martin DBS in the real world (I'm a teacher), so I sure as hell would like to be able to get one in a video game.  What I don't want is to feel just as mediocre and pathetic inside the simulation, anything-is-possible world of San Andreas as I do in the reality of Bristol (only joking, but I'm sure you get my point).  As someone with limited time, I'm forced to race in the equivalent of a Reliant Robin whilst a dozen 15 year olds who can spend their entire lives on the game drive Bugatti Veyrons.  If nothing else, this is massively skewing their expectations of their own earning power in their real lives.  The $500,000 we were all meant to receive by way of an apology from Rockstar from screwing up the launch of the game is nowhere to be seen, so my Swedish Supercar dreams will just have to wait.

3) The missions are too hard.

Anyone who's ever played a GTA game knows that your in-game character can more-or-less take a whole magazine of bullets before expiring.  It's part of the joy of the thing.  It makes you feel like T-1000 in a denim jacket.  It's wonderful.  In GTA Online, however, my character seems to have about the same tolerance of bullet wounds as I do - essentially zero.  Before anyone says, 'Ah, but it's just trying to be realistic', let me just stop you dead with one word - Tetris.  Tetris, Pong and all the rest are proof that people don't want realism in video games.  Nowhere in the real world do the physics of Tetris actually occur.  If they did, the building trade would be bankrupt through inexplicable loss of building materials.  We want realistic graphics, yes - I'll concede that.  But we do not want realistic health systems.  The fact that the computer-controlled characters are better shots than William Tell makes the situation all the more dispiriting.  I've been shot from two city-blocks away, whilst driving, by a man hanging out of the window of a speeding Landrover.  Awful.

4) There's not enough variety.

I'm sick of racing now.  I never even began liking the deathmatches.  Parachute jumps can just sod off.  But that's it - that's the variety of jobs in the game.  No heists (yet), no utilisation of the truly incredible landscape and city they've built, nothing.  I want to see more little sub-games and treats.  Perhaps a fishing mode, or a gym, or even some more playable arcade games?  An orienteering activity or treasure hunt would be nice, or even a scavenger hunt where you have to go about with mates finding and snapping hidden easter eggs?  I don't know, but they should - it's their game and they are clearly masters of game-creation.  They should flex their creative muscles and make GTA Online the treat I always wanted it to be.

Saturday, 12 October 2013


As you may have guessed, I've been very busy.  Not just playing GTA V - not at all.  In fact I'm playing that far less than I'd like to, thanks to work commitments.

You see, I'm now Cross Phase Leader for English, which is a new post that more-or-less combines managing KS3 (minus those dastardly Year 9s) with some really intensive outreach to primaries.  I have four primary schools currently working with me on a variety of blossoming projects, from tuition for the Level 6 exams to creative writing workshops and Spelling Bees.  I am also the Centre Co-ordinator for EPQ and the English department's PGCE mentor.  So blogging has taken a bit of a backseat this last few weeks.

But now I'm in the swing of it I thought I'd come back, all guns blazing.  As I do a lot of crazy jobs this year, I think it would be only fair for me to share these with you, so I can bore the hell out of you and possibly even discuss best practice and what to do and just how the hell I can make these things work.  So here's my first thing - EPQ.

I love the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), and I have done since first acting as Centre Co-ordinator six years ago at my first school.  I've worked on it, as Co-ordinator and Supervisor every year since, and I'm currently doing a little of both roles.  I've seen it develop as a course; I've had terrible freak outs about not delivering enough taught time; I've had my marking lambasted and yet I still keep doing it (in fairness most of these issues have now been ironed out...).

You see, it's such an enlivening and exciting qualification to teach. It gives an unprecedented level of freedom to students just as they reach the age to really make the most of that, and the results can be awe inspiring.  I've read incredibly detailed and scientific analyses of various disorders and medical problems, seen wonderfully designed dresses and heard beautiful strains of music all created by Year 13 students who have been given the freedom to do something they love for a qualification.  But there is a serious side - the administration of looking after a thriving EPQ is hard work and often challenging, so I've put together a few top tips for anyone new to the thing:

Tip 1: Make sure you can account for the 30 hours of taught time.  AQA are very hot on this, and expect a clear outline, probably pasted into the relevant box of the log book, that gives a detailed description of exactly what they've been taught.  Failure to do this can lead to moderation and a slapped wrist at best.  Failure to deliver the taught element is even more dangerous.  Sure, your students may be able to reference effectively, but can they run the gamut of online research without falling foul of hearsay and subjectivity?  Unless they're history students, chances are their research skills would be limited.  As such, teaching explicitly how to research their topic; primary, secondary and tertiary sources; evaluation of material and even Google search terms is vital.  The presentation at the end of the course (more later) should also be explicitly taught, as should academic register.

Tip 2: Ensure you force the students to maintain and fill out their logbooks.  These diaries are incredibly important in the marking process, but also help guide the students through their project.  The temptation can be to leave them to it - it's their work after all - but it will save you a lot of horrid fuss later if you essentially force them to fill it in after every meeting.  The entries should be extremely detailed too, in order to allow the moderator to get more of a sense of the work they've put in.  Basically, they should make a note of everything they've done.  And for God's sake, sign and date it as you go along - don't end up in the position of having to post date everything using a variety of different pens for a veneer of authenticity...

Tip 3: Prepare them for their presentation.  Preparation for this comes in two guises.
1) Make sure they know that it will be happening in the future, and try to give them a rough date (week beginning, for example).  Inform them of the purpose of the presentation at the same time - it is a reflective and evaluative explanation of the project's process, not an explanation of what has been discovered.
2) Use the taught component time to teach them vital presenting skills, like creating workable PowerPoints, rhetorical techniques, coping strategies and practise. This will vastly improve the nature of their presentations, which should be almost degree-level in their professionalism and content.  There can be no temptation to think that the A* grade descriptors for Speaking and Listening in English are of any use.

Tip 4: Force them to focus their topic into a question that can be answered by a Yr 13 student in about five months.  They must word their title in such a way as to give them this opportunity.  'What causes cancer?' is far too broad and impossible to complete.  'What treatments are used in the fight against breast cancer, and what appears to be most effective?' is better and more workable. 'Can I make a guitar?' is cute, and sounds lovely, but isn't focused enough.  'Can structural and electrical elements of a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul be merged to create a successful and usable guitar?' is much more useful.  Of course, large swathes of this last title will need to be clarified in the write-up, but so long as this is done, there should be no problem.

So there we are, four tips that may or may not be useful to any EPQ people out there.  Now I'm off to cry over the amount of marking I have to do.