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Thor–The Goddess of Thunder; Why Marvel’s Change is Brilliant and Lazy

Thor Goddess of ThunderToday I read that Marvel plans to completely reboot the Thor franchise and transform the son of Odin into the daughter of Odin, a hammer-wielding Goddess of Thunder. One of my first thoughts when I read this was that this is a brilliant but lazy business decision.

How is it brilliant and how is it lazy? Well, the reasons are intertwined in the decision itself.

[[UPDATE: After reading the Time article about Marvel’s decision that describes more elements about the story, I’ll backtrack somewhat on the lazy part.  This is not a reboot as some of the articles online have described, but a continuation of the story with a female who now wields Mjolnir, with the original son of Odin no longer wielding the hammer and calling himself Thor.  With respect to the creation of new female heroes and hiring female creators as outlined below, I would still say it’s somewhat lazy, but the decision actually goes into more of a creative direction than I originally thought.]]

Marvel understands the growing purchasing power and influence of females in geek culture. Ticket sales to comic-based movies and comic conventions and video game sales are ever increasingly coming from women. Thor - Lady Thor Cosplay Toni DarlingGoing even further, female cosplayers acting out their favorite comic characters have millions of followers on social media and are a marketer’s dream (as a matter of fact, the artists at Marvel can simply use popular female cosplayer Toni Darling’s interpretation of Thor as the basis for their concept sketches). Marvel has stated that the purpose for the change is to bring new readers and to appeal to women and girls whom have long been ignored in comics. Thus, they’ve properly identified this audience as a target for expanding their business.

So, to tap this audience, they have multiple avenues they can pursue. They can hire more female staff writers and artists and invest in creating powerful female characters with their own unique back stories, powers, and story arcs. However, developing new heroes takes significant time and marketing dollars to build awareness, interest, and fans. It also takes a greater commitment to follow through. The other option is simply to turn a popular male superhero with a pre-existing fan base into a female. The awareness is already built in with both the fans and, if the character is popular enough, general audiences with some pop culture knowledge. The marketing is also far less expensive, as the likely controversial decision will garner significant news coverage and discussions on internet forums, being buzzed about until at least the launch of the first comic. Additionally, they are likely using the same team members so they don’t have to hire anyone new for a completely new line (I noticed in the Marvel announcement that the writer, artist, and editor are all male – Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, and Wil Moss, respectively).

Having worked in the video game industry and participated in marketing and business meetings to identify strategies for expanding to the female audience (many times in rooms filled only with men), I can almost envision what happened in the corporate meeting rooms at Marvel before they came to this decision (note: the dialogue below is pure speculation based on experience):

***

Marvel Exec: “Team, we’ve all already identified that we need to appeal more to women and girls. I want suggestions and I want a plan coming out of this meeting.”

Pat in Marketing: “We’ve developed a ton of conceptual ideas for a new line of female superheroes, powerful characters that can be great role models as well. We’ll weave their story arcs into pre-existing franchises like Spider-Man and X-men to build credibility and awareness. We’ve also got several job openings for artists, inkers, and writers and we’ll target hiring as many women as we can for these positions to further build the credibility of the characters and stories. The headcount will cost about half a million dollars a year and we’ll need at least three million dollars in marketing for the first year to build awareness and promote these new characters throughout different channels”.

Marvel Exec: “Whoa, that’s steep. Any other ideas?”

Bob in Marketing: “We can add ‘Woman’ to the end of an existing character and we won’t have to spend as much on marketing. Say, ‘Iron-Woman’?”

Marvel Exec: “No, it’s been done and we know those franchises don’t even come close to the sales of the main character’s franchise. Look at She-Hulk and Spider-Woman. Even our friends at DC haven’t had much success with Super-Girl. Is that all you folks have?”

Jesse in Marketing: “Well, we can just change an existing male character into a woman. You know the forums are already blazing with misogynistic guards of the old order battling women and their male supporters, so the change will add fuel to the flame, generating lots of potential stories and social media references. We’d require very little if any marketing dollars. ”

Marvel Exec: “Hmm, we won’t have to hire anyone new since we’ll just convert the existing team to work on the new character. The controversy will be good for building positive PR, buzz, and awareness. We’ll probably lose a portion of the fan base, but we’ll make up for it on that portion that is curious about the change as well as the new readers, plus we’ll be darlings in the industry for promoting positive change. Excellent, excellent!! ”

Jesse in Marketing: “It would have to be a character whose name doesn’t end in ‘-man’ or already have a female counterpart. So, Ironman is out. Preferably a character that we’ve already developed into a movie franchise to get the halo effect of general public awareness. Someone like Daredevil? No, no, wait, that movie was a miserable failure, we can’t tie it to that. Maybe one of the Avengers? They already have huge mainstream popularity from the movie, so a ton of people outside of comics already know about them. Hulk is out, so maybe Captain America or Thor?”

Marvel Exec: “Great thinking. Captain America outsells Thor, plus he’s the First Avenger, so we can’t take too much of a risk there. Additionally, he’s based on a Captain in the US military during the second World War. More people know about that than they know about Norse mythology, so Thor is the better bet here. Alright team, we’ve got our plan! Jesse, go tell the creative team about our decision and have them sketch up a concept so we can draft a press release. Let’s GO GO GO!”

***

When I was a kid, I mostly knew Thor because I was a fan of ancient mythologies, including Greek and Norse. I had very little money and had to make trade-offs on buying small indulgences, so I split my purchases between comic-books and D&D books. Thus, I only bought comics about my favorite heroes including Spiderman and the X-men and I probably only have one or two Thor comics in my entire comic collection. While I’m not yet a fan of this change to the character, I will likely go out and buy a few copies of the first comic-book of the new female Thor out of both curiosity and because it may be valuable in the distant future – making this the first Thor comic book I’ll purchase in about 30 years.

As I said, lazy, but brilliant.

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12 Ways Dungeons and Dragons Prepared Me to be a Corporate Executive

Image Courtesy of Alex Velazquez at brutecg.comLong before I was an executive at one of the world’s largest companies, I was a blue-collar kid in Brooklyn playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the basement with my siblings and friends. Many decades would pass before it became chic to be geek – Comic-Con, Dragon Con, Marvel, and even The Lord of the Rings have become mainstream hits, television shows around gaming and nerd culture have been developed, The Geekie Awards received a BILLION media impressions in its inaugural year, and so on. My two younger brothers, Alex and Jiovanie, parlayed our D&D experiences directly into careers in video game and fantasy art (Jiovanie’s work can be seen here, Alex’s work here). I went a more traditional route through Engineering and Business degrees to work for large corporations, including Honda, Porsche, P&G, Microsoft (Xbox), and PepsiCo.

After watching the superb “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode of the hit TV show ‘Community’ and the D&D segment from VH1’s ‘I Love the 80s’, I looked back fondly and began to contemplate the impact that playing D&D has had on my career. Dungeons & Dragons is the one single game from my childhood I feel can build multiple skills that can be leveraged in the “real” world, whether that’s corporate America, creative disciplines, or anything in between. So, with a nod to my childhood heroes (including Gary Gygax, R.A. Salvatore, TSR, and many of the folks at Wizards of the Coast), below are lessons I learned as a D&D Dungeon Master (DM) that have helped me climb the corporate ladder from a stock clerk in a Brooklyn supermarket into the executive ranks of a Fortune 50 global company:

Alex Velazquez - The Chess Project - The Black Hearts1) Focus on strategy – Before the start of any D&D campaign, as the Dungeon Master, I would come up with the overall concept and objectives, then I would build the world around it  (this was before the Forgotten Realms came out).  While TSR provided some pre-packaged campaigns, I always preferred to create my own (mainly to fulfill my own vision, but also due to cost, discussed later).   With the vision and objectives in mind, I would start building up the pieces to realize the overall fulfillment of the campaign.  Key milestones and plot points, major character and monster encounters, etc. As the players played the game and the campaign progressed, the tactics would have to change to accommodate the changing variables and unexpected events that would occur, but the overall theme and purpose, what we were all ultimately driving towards, would remain constant.

As an executive in the business world, the main focus is on developing strategy and aligning your resources to execute the strategy.  Strategy development begins with the vision and mission and must take into account a wide range of variables.  Once the strategy is set, the tactics that will be used to fulfill the strategy can be developed.  A sound business strategy will rarely change within its timeframe once it is set, although the tactics and execution plan may be altered to address consumer response, competitive pressures, economic changes, etc.

Image courtesy of jannoon028 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net2) Build a story and present it well – I fully agree with the common saying that “Content is King” and I would add that “Delivery is Queen”.  The content created is just as important as how the content is delivered.  A mediocre presentation of great content is still mediocre, and the same is true for a great presentation of mediocre information.  The presentations I learned to give in the corporate world were directly influenced by how I learned to DM.  The story is indeed king; it will keep your players interested and committed to the campaign. How you deliver the story will heavily influence the engagement of your players.  Not only must you weave a good story, you need to embellish all the details during a game.  Compare two versions of the same encounter.  First – “You chose to attack.  Roll your D20.  OK, you scored a critical hit. The orc is dead”.  Alternate version – “Your sword is at the ready, roll your D20.  You swing your sword in a deadly arc towards your opponent.  The orc tries to step back to avoid the fury of your blade, but to no avail.  His backwards momentum causes his severed head to roll off of his back, his now lifeless body falling limply to the ground”.  These are accurate examples of when I first starting DM’ing and when I learned to deliver more entertaining and engaging encounters for my players.  Needless to say, they were more deeply immersed in the latter example.  Pacing, timing, and delivery can make all the difference as evidenced by Abed’s enactment of a gnome NPC (non-player character) in the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of Community (see here).

One of the best presentations I ever gave was for the Xbox Marketing group for a new special edition Xbox 360 console I had proposed. Leveraging compelling content with audio and the theatrics I first developed as a DM, I gave a presentation that I was told set a new bar for future presentations and kept the group enthralled on a normally tame post lunch group gathering.  Not every presentation has to be a theatrical production, but the core concepts focusing on both content and delivery always apply.

Blade Scholar - Wizards of the Coast3) Do your homework – not many things are worse for a DM than when a player calls you out on a mistake in the campaign. “A Succubus(?) can’t drain my constitution three times in one encounter… they can only use this ability once per day”.  Fenris was correct, but we had already completed the entire encounter by the time he found out this information in the Monster’s Manual.  A small detail I missed, but it had a big impact as I had to break continuity to figure out how to fix the error.  While you can’t be expected to be the expert in all matters (hence the importance of cross-functional teams), in my experience it’s always better to be over-prepared than to be caught off guard.  From then on I made an extra effort to fully study each monster I planned to use in encounters, made better use of maps to be prepared with the different types of terrain that would be traversed, learned the limitations and effects of magic spells, and so on.

I carried this lesson over into the business world.  You should know all the details pertinent to the issue at hand in the context of your overall goal, presentation, or meeting.  In general, my presentation decks had expansive appendices with back up information for most conceivable questions and important data.  All stats that I leverage in a presentation have appropriate references.  I strive to minimize the number of times I have to say “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on that”.  And now as I lead larger teams, I appreciate it when others come to a meeting equally prepared.

Fantasy Improv4) Learn to improvise  – When creating my D&D campaigns, I made my world’s large enough and the campaign broad enough to deal with multiple contingencies.  What if the players didn’t believe the lonely adventurer in the tavern with tales of treasure?  What other ways could I devise to spur them to take on the campaign in the game world?  However, no matter how thoroughly I prepared my campaigns and how many alternate story versions I developed, the players would always find a way to get into an area or situation that could not be anticipated.  Thus, as a DM, you must learn not to become flustered when something unexpected happens and to improvise in a quick manner.

In the business world, projects will rarely go exactly as planned.  Getting flustered and losing focus in these situations is counter-productive.  You have to learn to be adaptable and use your knowledge and experience to manage unexpected changes effectively.  You’ll also come to be viewed as more stable and dependable when you can manage unexpected situations quickly and decisively, leveraging your experience and knowledge to improvise as needed.

220px-Dungeons_and_Dragons_DVD_boxset_art5) Teamwork is critical – most of the challenges brought to a group of D&D players in a campaign could not be overcome unless they all worked collaboratively.  A single elf, no matter how highly leveled, can rarely take down a dragon.

As a general rule, a single individual can rarely produce as much as a group of people.  Additionally, it’s generally impossible in a corporate setting to get anything done on your own, even if you are considered an “individual contributor”.  Being a good team player and effectively collaborating with others is an important skill.  As you advance in your career, being able to form and lead high performing teams that can work well with cross-functional groups will allow you to have a much bigger impact on your organization than sitting at your desk with your head down pumping out as much work as you can.

D&DCharacters6) Embrace diversity – a D&D campaign would be quite boring if every player was a human fighter.  In addition to making a campaign more interesting, a diversity of characters (classes and races) introduces many more ways to overcome challenges and obstacles.  For example, the Halfling thief can find the way into a secret corridor, the Elven ranger can dispatch enemies from afar, the Human wizard can do massive damage in large areas against multiple adversaries, and the Half-Orc fighter can protect the others and pick off enemies in close quarters.  Whenever I started a campaign, I would work with all the players to make sure there was sufficient diversity in the characters to make the adventure both enjoyable and successful.

In the business world, diversity is equally important.  I still vividly recall a meeting with the Xbox team a couple of years before the launch of Kinect when Nintendo Wii was eating everyone’s lunch.  The meeting was a brainstorming session to identify what we could do to get more women and younger children interested in Xbox 360.  Looking around the room at the dozen or so men pondering the issue, the one thought I had was “Perhaps we should start by including some women in these discussions”.  Ensuring that your team is as diverse as the markets they’re meant to serve is not a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative.  Studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative and successful than homogeneous teams.  Additionally, while many people focus on racial/ethnic and gender diversity in the workforce, there are many different forms of diversity, including age and experience.  One of the best managers I knew at Microsoft created a high-performing market research team with professionals from multiple fields not directly related to market research.  It takes courage to make that kind of move, but I believe the results are usually exceptional.

DND TV Unicorn7) Deal quickly with disruptive team members – a campaign that I spent months planning on the Moonshae Islands of the Forgotten Realms was pretty much derailed by the antics of the human barbarian Fenris the Ferocious and the High Elf rouge Zandelle, as well as the human cleric Penelope Fenelope.  The real players of the characters of Fenris and Zandelle simply couldn’t get along in real life, leading to antagonistic situations in the game (such as Fenris carving an “F” across Zandelle’s face and keeping him hostage on a wagon).  And then there was Penelope, my high school girlfriend’s character, who was added so she could feel included as part of my group of siblings and friends.  She couldn’t take the game seriously and detracted greatly from the fantasy world we tried to create.

At some point, you have to make the determination whether a player needs to leave the team for the good of the collective.  This is always last resort, and forces you to think about finding ways for them to realize their mutual goals can only be achieved through cooperation.  In business you will often come across disruptive individuals, naysayers, apathetic workers, and generally unpleasant folks who can quickly sap team morale and hinder the group’s progress (not to be confused with individuals whom dissent with good cause).  Addressing these individuals right way is the best course of action, determining the root cause of their issues, emphasizing collaboration, and sometimes transferring or removing them from the team.  You can’t let it get to the point where it’s disrupting the work of the entire team.  Swift and appropriate action is necessary for the good of all.

tavern-brawl8) Build your networks – In D&D, players need to network constantly with NPCs to advance in the campaign.  You must talk to the local tavern owner to hear about strange happenings; meet with the local peasants for information that will lead you to the source of the local scourge; seek out  the reclusive mage who’ll provide the key spells to your victory or lead you to artifacts of great power; visit the local healer to tend your wounded; etc.  Every good D&D campaign involves interacting with individuals and groups beyond the core players to accomplish your main objective.

Throughout my career, networking has led to new funding for multiple projects, new business opportunities, and even new career opportunities. My jobs at Porsche in Germany, P&G in Puerto Rico and Xbox at Microsoft in Seattle all came about as a result of networking with my peers.  Within corporate America, the value of internal networking leads many companies to adopt open floor plans and central community areas where random, serendipitous encounters with other employees leads to new innovations, new product concepts, and overall workplace efficiencies.  A major global marketing campaign using technology my team designs will be launching for PepsiCo this year thanks to this type of internal networking.

treasure_dragon_by_lordhannu-d4e4jr59) Effectively manage your budget – I manage a multi-million dollar budget at work.  My first childhood examples for managing finances and building a budget came from D&D.

Within the imaginary world of the D&D campaign, managing one’s finances is a critical game play element.  When you start a character from scratch, you’re provided a small allotment of gold.  A key factor in your ultimate success or failure in the game is how well you can manage your allotment and future cash flows.  Key questions I needed to ask:  Should I spend all my gold up front or save a portion for future contingencies?  If I save, what proportion of my allotment should be spent?  How should I prioritize my expenditures between supplies, provisions, armor, weapons, horses, spellbooks, etc?  Throughout the game you find opportunities to earn more money, either through employment (i.e. join an adventuring group with associated payment) or through battle (monster and NPC encounters lead to good booty).  In addition, there were real world lessons gained from running a campaign.  With limited real money, I had to make decisions on which AD&D assets to buy – for example, should I get the Monster Manual 2, Unearthed Arcana, or Forgotten Realms Atlas?  Which asset would give me the highest ROI in terms of game play?  A Dungeon Master’s Screen would be a great productivity asset, but at $20, could I build it myself and allocate resources elsewhere (the classic build vs. buy analysis)?

It goes without saying that building and managing budgets, setting priorities, and asset allocation is also a key element of operating in the business world, as well as the real world which we all grow into.

220px-MazesMonstersVHSCover10) Learn the fine art of PR – when I was in grade school my half-sister, in a bout of religious zealotry, tried to convince my mother that D&D was the devil’s playground and she was a bad mother if she let us continue playing.  It didn’t help that the TV movie ‘Mazes and Monsters’ came out at the same time, where the young Tom Hanks goes insane by playing a D&D style role-playing game, and eventually is unable to tell reality from fantasy.  I had to get a story and arguments together to counter these attacks and had to recruit my friends and siblings to make sure we all had the same talking points and could deliver them convincingly and consistently.  Much of this happens in the business world as well.  Whether good or bad, you cannot control the news, so you have to be prepared to respond and get your organization on board to deliver consistent and compelling messaging.

knighting11) Give others an opportunity to lead – one of the most successful tactics for creating team harmony is showing a willingness to relinquish power.  Give up the Dungeon Master reins to someone else so that they can see what you go through and how difficult it is to create and manage a campaign.  It’ll teach your teammates to approach problems in a more productive manner and offer solutions instead of just identifying problems or complaining. 

In the business world, many people want to jump straight into the leadership role and feel that empowering others on the team with significant responsibilities or leadership will compromise their own position or their standing in the eyes of upper management.  Those attitudes generally lead to a road of dysfunction.  As a people manager, I want my employees to be the leaders of their respective projects, and the go-to people for key decisions that need to be made.  I feel my role, aside from the overall strategic vision and direction of our programs, is to break down barriers impeding progress and to ensure they have the resources they need to succeed.  Entrusting someone with leadership responsibilities generally leads to greater confidence on their part and their desire to rise to the challenge.

Alignment Chart12) Get to know your people/players – Your players are all unique and are generally motivated and compelled differently.  Not everyone seeks the same rewards – some people campaign for the experience and to level their characters, others for the opportunity to amass a dragon’s hoard of gold, and others lust after magical items like the +3 Sword of Flames, etc.  The same applies to your teams in the corporate world.  Some people seek recognition and awareness of their efforts, others are focused on their bonus award or base salary, others are happy with a new title.  Understanding these motivations allows you to plan projects and rewards accordingly to maintain and build morale and keep the team and projects on track.

***

When I first started this list, I had only seven items, but it started to expand the more I went back and thought about what I learned from playing D&D.  While I retired my Dungeon Master cloak many moons ago, I still hold a great deal of respect for the game and its many players and leaders around the world.

I still recall my first internship interview over 21 years ago.  When asked what my greatest accomplishment was, I told the interviewer how I created an entire D&D world from scratch, including terrain, cartographer maps at multiple zoom levels, history and lore, and much more  (mind you my only work experience at the time was being a stock boy in several supermarkets, working a deli counter, and being a butcher).  I didn’t get that job, but at least he referred me to another, better fitting job in the company focused on truck design which kicked off my career.  Looking back, I realized he probably didn’t appreciate the example I provided as my greatest accomplishment.  For you D&D players and DMs out there, the world may still not be ready to learn how you’ve come to be so capable.  You may not want to disclose where your great power comes from, but know that if harnessed correctly, you can accomplish anything!

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Summer Movie Watch List 2013

Magazine Cover (Apr 19, 2013)I just got back from Cinemacon 2013 in Las Vegas where the 7 major studios showcased their movie lineups through 2015.  I came home to find the annual Entertainment Weekly Summer Movie Preview edition, my key resource for sorting through all of the new releases for the summer to compile my “must see” list.  Quick observation; after reviewing my blog post for last year’s Summer Movie Watch List, I noticed that with the inclusion of the Man of Steel in this edition, for two years running they used DC Characters for this issue (last year, The Dark Knight Rises).  This is despite the fact that Marvel has more box-office mojo than DC.  I predicted last year that The Avengers would surpass The Dark Knight Rises in box-office gross.  I think the easy money this year is on Superman.  I also find it interesting that the movies are released with the hero monikers (Man of Steel vs. Superman, Dark Knight vs. Batman) – a marketing tactic that seems to be enjoying some success.  Anyway, once again, below are the movies I will be watching on the big screen this summer (sorted by release date).  I have more than twice as many movies on this list as I did last year (19 vs. 9), so this may be a huge summer for Hollywood if that’s any indication:

And here’s the list of movies I’d like to see, but can wait until they are available for instant streaming on my Xbox:

  • The Great Gatsby (May 10)
  • Fast & Furious 6 (May 24)
  • We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (May 24)
  • The Internship (June 7)
  • The Heat (June 28) – They showed us this entire film at Cinemacon too, so I can wait for DVD/Xbox streaming.
  • Grown Ups 2 (July 12)
  • 2 Guns (August 2)
  • We’re the Millers (August 9)
  • Planes (August 9) – Normally I go to see all Pixar films at the theater.  For some reason, this isn’t grabbing (even as a pilot of the paragliding kind)
  • The To Do List (August 16) – CBS Films showed the full movie at Cinemacon, it was raunchy and funny, but the kind of movie I can wait to see.
  • Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (August 16)
  • The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (August 23)
  • The Colony (August 23) – I heard nothing about this until I saw it on the EW Summer calendar, so I had to look it up on YouTube.  Has a “Day After Tomorrow” combined with “I Am Legend” type of feel…
  • You’re Next (August 23)
  • Don Jon (August TBA)

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Be There TO Be Square!

For time immemorial, people have been goaded into attending events with the threat that non-conformance will forever tag them as a non-desirable.  In the vernacular, “Be there OR be square” has been the catchphrase of this popular marketing ploy.

As I was organizing a trip to see the much-anticipated Marvel movie, “The Avengers” tomorrow in New York City, I was about to use this classic tag-line to gently provide incentive to join our little troupe.  As I was writing it, I realized the irony of the situation – “The Avengers” movie premiere is going to be a veritable Geek-fest…. attending the event on opening night is as close to square as we could possibly get.  With more acceptance of geek culture in the mainstream, I decided to change this marketing pitch to embrace the geeks, comic aficionados, and super-hero movie-genre lovers…. “Be there TO be square!”

Therefore, embrace your inner geek and come join our merry gang at AMC Theaters 84th Street in New York City for the 10:30pm show on Friday, May 4, 2012.  This movie kicks off the 2012 Summer Movie Blockbuster season and there will be a dozen more opportunities to be square this summer.  Be there!

(Twitter hashtag, #BeThereToBeSquare)

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Summer Movie Watch List 2012

Thanks to Entertainment Weekly’s excellent Summer Movie Preview edition, I can plan my must see movie list.  It all kicks off, of course, with the Avengers.  Here are the movies I’ll be watching, most likely on opening night (sorted by release date).  Hollywood will be making a nice chunk of change off of me this year:

  • The Avengers (May 4)
  • Battleship (May 18)
  • Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1)
  • Prometheus (June 8)
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June 22)
  • Brave (June 22)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (July 22)
  • Total Recall (August 3)

Some other movies I’d be interested in seeing, but will most likely wait until they are available for instant streaming through Zune on my Xbox would be:

  • Dark Shadows (May 11)
  • The Dictator (May 11)
  • Men in Black 3 (May 25)
  • Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (June 8)
  • Rock of Ages (June 15)
  • Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22)
  • To Rome with Love (June 22)
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation (June 29)
  • Katy Perry: Part of Me (July 4)
  • Ice Age: Continental Drift (July 13)
  • Ted (July 13)
  • Neighborhood Watch (July 27)
  • The Bourne Legacy (August 3)
  • 2 Days in New York (August 10)
  • The Expendables 2 (August 17)
  • ParaNorman (August 17)

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SXSW 2012: A First-Timer’s Perspective

PepsiCo Central Lounge at SXSW Austin, TX: This year I made the pilgrimage to the annual expo known as South by South West (SXSW).  As one of the Executive leads of Equipment Innovation at PepsiCo, I was there to showcase examples of innovation in marketing equipment, specifically our Smart Digital Cooler and Social Vending Machine concepts.  PepsiCo is a platinum sponsor of SXSW, so we had a large corner of the Austin Convention center dedicated as Pepsi Central, with our digital marketing equipment, the Zeitgeist, and Pepsi Central Digital Message Board.

In addition to working, I was able to enjoy panels, sessions, and parties at SXSW.  It was definitely an interesting and memorable experience, and here are a few of my observations about the event.

Registration/Badges:

Fortunately, I arrived on Thursday and checked in early for my badge.  My total wait time was less than 10 minutes as I waited in the ‘Platinum Sponsors’ lounge for my badge to be printed.  Folks on Friday were not as fortunate.  The line wrapped around the entire convention center, twice.  There was roughly a 2+ hour wait for attendees to get their badges.  For a conference that has a huge interactive component to it, I would have expected a much more efficient registration process.  They might want to take a page out of the book of CES and consider mailing out badges ahead of the conference.  For badges that cost $400 – $1,000, that would be a comparatively small incremental cost for a significantly improved user registration experience.

Panels and Keynotes:

The sheer number of panels was a bit overwhelming.  The first time I went to the SXSW website to investigate the panels which I was interested in attending, I selected a dozen from the list, before I realized they all occurred simultaneously.  You have to plan well ahead of time to see the panels that are of most interest to you, especially since the panels are spread across Austin.  Fortunately, the SXSW organizers had great apps for both iPad and Windows Phone 7, which helped tremendously in discovering and scheduling panels of interest.  I had an interesting conversation with someone I reconnected with at SXSW.  She mentioned the she and her husband no longer go to panels because they get well-recognized folks who don’t prepare, and since the moderators are talking to well-known figures, they don’t prepare either.  That was an interesting perspective that I actually experienced on one of the panels, but I wouldn’t say it was the norm. 

WP_001427 I plan to write about some of the panels and keynotes I attended on a separate blog post.  In the meantime, I’ll just say that I was impressed with the list of individuals that were tapped to speak at SXSW.  The sessions I was treated to included appearances by Biz Stone (founder of Twitter), Bing Gordon (EA legend), Al Gore, Sean Parker (of Napster and Facebook fame), Andy Cohen (Bravo), and others.

Parties:

WP_001530 There was certainly no lack of evening events at SXSW with many sponsoring and non-sponsoring organizations hosting some impressive soirees.  I attended two hosted by PepsiCo (one with Turntable.fm and the other with Star Wars and Brisk).  I also attended the Tweethouse Tweetup and a few others.  I’ll say that most were really not my scene (large mosh-pits of music where it’s really impossible to talk to anyone).  The Tweetup had a good music act but also the opportunity to converse with attendees and was held in an interesting spot (Lance Armstrong’s Bike Shop).  Easily my favorite was the Brisk Bodega sponsored by PepsiCo and Lucas and featuring Star Wars artwork and Brisk Star Wars TV Spots.  They had a great DJ playing the bottom floor, but also an open-air upper level allowing you to connect with attendees.

Films:

WP_001473 Unfortunately, my only experience with SXSW film screenings was just how hard it was to get into them.  I only tried to get into two, and the lines literally wrapped around the block.  It’s a shame because there seemed to be a really good selection of films there, but I no longer have the time or patience to form a queue two hours in advance of a film.  I ended up just taking pictures of the film posters to remind myself of the ones I wanted to see eventually.  One of those films was ‘The Hunter’ with William Dafoe.  Scheduling didn’t work out, but when I got home this weekend, I noticed on my Xbox 360 Zune Video Marketplace that I could actually watch the film before it hits theaters.  Sometimes it’s just worth paying for stuff.

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Video Games – A Child’s Friend or Foe?

Doom Having worked in the video game industry for many years, I’ve been exposed to a wide swath of individuals that brand video games as detrimental to children and claim these games promote violence.  I grew up with video games – from Pacman on the Atari 2600 through the PC revolution with Sierra games like King’s Quest and more hardcore fare such as Castle Wolfenstein and Doom – and shared these gaming experiences with my family and friends.  I generally tend to disregard the doomsday scenarios about video games and attribute them to the over-protective instincts of parents and orthodox religious groups.  After all, my brothers and friends and I all turned out to be relatively well-adjusted individuals with no criminal records, so obviously the fears are overblown.  A recent event in our apartment made me start questioning my beliefs and “I couldn’t help but wonder” (*wink to my wife), are video games a child’s friend or foe?

Sonic Free Rider My wife and I invited a friend and her two young boys over for breakfast (to protect the innocent, I’ll call her Ribbon and her two boys Abel and George).  With childhood exuberance, Abel discovered my stash of Xbox 360 games and naturally wanted to play.  We first started off playing Sonic Riders for Kinect, or, I should say, he started off by showing me how to play Sonic.  As a Kinect video game, there are no controllers required and the game involves the child pretending to skate through an imaginary world (harmless enough).

children-reading-books-ny10x9 During breakfast, we had a philosophical discussion about video games and books, and their respective merits and limitations.  What many people may not realize is that video games teach kids crucial skills and lessons that cannot be learned from a book.  Books are great to learn vocabulary and grammar and to spur the imagination.  However, their greatest limitation is that they are completely linear and the reader cannot affect the outcome of the book (with the exception of those Choose-your-own-Adventure books I grew up with).

Video games, on the other hand, are completely dependant on the user’s actions because it impacts the narrative and the outcome of the game.  Kids can learn some very useful skills, such as collaboration, strategy, improvisation, logic, and deduction (depending on the type of game, of course).  Additionally, I’ve read about some studies that show that surgeons with video game experience excel beyond surgeons without this experience because of the improved hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and reflexes developed through video gaming (I really need to start documenting things I read so that I can reference them appropriately).

lego-star-wars-the-gameAfter breakfast, Abel continued his search and uncovered Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga.  Now Ribbon wanted to make sure that Abel wasn’t exposed to any violent or shooter type games
(such as Halo, Gears of War, Oblivion, and dozens of other games in my collection).  Lego Star Wars seemed harmless enough.  After all, it’s designed for this age group.  So I popped it into the Xbox and we got started.

halo_reach_controller_final Abel had never used a dual-analog game controller before (he’d only used the Wiimote and Kinect), so I was astounded at how quickly he learned to navigate his character on screen, jump, and wield his light saber with the Xbox 360 controller.  According to Ribbon, he thought the controller was only used for starting a movie as he hadn’t gamed with it before.  In any case, he got into the game with gusto.  He began to dispatch the enemies at a phenomenal rate, with just a swipe or two of his light saber.  This is where the transformation occurred that prompted me to write this blog post.  Once he was fresh out of enemies, and with no one left to dispatch, he turned on me and his other in-game companions, whacking away until we were nothing but little Lego bits.  And even though I spent years playing on a controller, in just the few minutes of playing the game, he was able to kill my character twice before I could get away.

At this point Ribbon intervened and told him that if he killed his friends, he couldn’t play anymore.  That was sufficient for him to hold his light saber at bay for the rest of the game, although I could still see how antsy he got when there was nothing left to dispatch on screen.  When we finished a level, he asked to make sure that the next level had as many enemies as possible.

This all prompted me to start questioning my long-held beliefs about video games. What had turned this mild-mannered, well behaved child into this feral, single-minded killing machine?  Did exposing him to Lego Star Wars the video game open the door to the Dark Side in this youngster?  Do video games really teach kids to be violent, no matter how innocuous the game may seem?

I pondered this for over a week before I decided to write this post.  After a lot of reflection, I began to surmise that it wasn’t the video game that caused this reaction, but some kind of baser instinct that emerged when he was given the power to be destructive.  After all, if you give most little boys a stick, they will wield it like a sword and hack away at anything in sight.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with a stick.  Similarly with Lego Star Wars, there’s no instruction nor incentive for anyone to attack their own teammate (aside from the cool animation of seeing the characters fall apart into little Lego pieces).  So does the act of turning on your friends with a sword reflect upon the game or the individual?  Do we keep the stick away from the child for fear of how they will put it to use, or teach them how to use that stick responsibly?

As a gross generalization, I’ll hypothesize that if I put a young girl in the place of Abel in this situation, the outcome would’ve been completely different.  She probably would have wanted to explore the world in a collaborative manner versus trying to destroy everything in sight.  If this is true, his reaction could be attributed to an inherent difference between the sexes that one can evidently see when little boys and girls play with the same physical toys, or their predisposition to select certain toys over others.

So, if the hypothesis holds and the video game is just a tool that can be used for good or ill depending on the individual, the next logical question is – is it a good thing or a bad thing to give children access to these tools?  Does a violent video game (or even a non-violent one) lead to violent behavior, or is it a useful outlet for these natural tendencies?  If not video games, do these behaviors come out in other ways, for example, schoolyard bullying, screaming sessions, animal abuse?  I don’t have the answers, but I would love to see a study of child bullies and how that correlates with exposure to video games.  If they let it out in a game, can we prevent it from coming out towards others at school or does it exacerbate the situation?  I know as an adult it’s a great outlet to kick back with Gears of War in Horde mode and slaughter wave after wave of enemy monsters.  How does that translate in a less-developed and more impressionable mind? 

Mazes and Monsters VHS CoverA lot of these issues and questions remind me about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in the early 1980s.  I would contend that the D&D role-playing game probably best captures the benefits of both books and video games (the strategic thinking and improvisation skills coupled with the tons or reading required to learn and master the system).  And yet, I still vividly remember the fear-mongering that occurred in that time period as parent groups and religious organizations decried D&D as a cult that had negative psychological consequences on players, especially children.  I played D&D and was even a Dungeon Master, and recall how my very religious half-sister tried to convince my mother that we shouldn’t play the game because it promoted Satanism.  This hysteria was best captured by a made-for-TV movie Community Dungeons and Dragons Episodewith a young Tom Hanks called “Mazes and Monsters”.  It seems after 30 years, the hoopla has died down, and D&D role-playing was fondly featured in VH1’s ‘I Love the 80’s’ (skip to 4:21 in the video) and more accurately portrayed in a recent episode of the TV series “Community” entitled “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons“. (Read a very good article on this great episode by clicking here).

I predict that in the next 10-20 years, the hoopla around the perils of video gaming will also simmer down as a new culprit for childhood depravation emerges (holographic immersion or direct synaptic connections anyone?).  There will still be parents that will judiciously decide if and what games their children can play, and I believe that it is a good thing.  Since I don’t have children, I would love to hear any stories from others about how video games have impacted their children, whether positively or negatively.  Ultimately, the answer to the titular question, like most things, is probably “it depends on the child and the game”.

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