Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Nerfening

OK, you got me, “nerfening” isn’t really a word, I just kind of like the sound of it. “Nerfing”, on the other hand, is a word, or at the very least a piece of argot used by video gamers. It refers to changing the way that elements of a video game behave, ostensibly in the interest of eliminating a too-easily exploited unfairness. Video games spend years and years in development, and the programmers and testers inevitably fall into certain patterns in the way they look at things and expect the end product will always be used in a way that more or less conforms to their vision. (As a programmer and tester myself, albeit not of video games, I’ve certainly fallen prey to this mindset myself.) Then the game is released into the world and players suddenly start doing unanticipated things which the programmers never had intended, and certainly would have expressly forbidden, if they had had the foresight to even predict the very possibility. But barring time travel, the only recourse the programmers have is to release a patch to the existing game, or an entirely new version of the game, and in that revision the offending code gets changed to bring things back in line with the original vision, which is almost universally to create a fair, challenging virtual experience. Of course, some people don’t like fair challenges; some people like cheat codes and one-sided slaughters, and they really like finding an advantageous loophole in a game’s internal mechanics which allows the player to be more powerful than their opponents. “Nerfing” thus is usually spoken of in sour-grapey tone; the speaker was having so much fun smashing things with a real wooden bat, and now has been given a foam bat in its place, which means the bashing is more work, less effective, and less satisfying.

I first heard the term in reference to the video game StarCraft, when a friend of mine explained that a certain aspect of the game had already been nerfed out of the original PC version by the time I got around to playing it on the Nintendo64. (I could go into detail about the exact example to which I am referring, but that would probably run a thousand words and I think I’ll just spare everyone that all the same.) So this is actually timely, ruminating on this particular brand-name-turned-verb, because a long-awaited sequel to StarCraft was just released last week and I have to admit, the temptation to run out and buy it is strong. Sure, I have Netflix movies that have been sitting around the house since March, unwatched, and I never did finish Guitar Hero: Metallica, and there’s a million other demands on my time and “demands” on my leisuretime, but man, I love me some StarCraft.

Yeah I pretty much always play Protoss because OF COURSE I DO.
I also was thinking about nerfing lately in a somewhat more abstract way, thanks to the ongoing development of my little guy’s verbal abilities. He has recently stormed right into the mimicry phase and while that absolutely includes aping certain actions (mostly mine, which I lay 100% at the feet of developmentally normal gender-identification-with-father-figure and not at all on my quotidian actions being remotely interesting) it also means he repeats pretty nearly every word that comes out of my wife’s mouth or my own. I think I’ve mentioned before that neither my wife nor myself is a stranger to profanity and we know we need to clean up our language around a parroting toddler, but lately we’ve been realizing that a lot of non-four-letter words coming out of our mouths sound harsher than we’d like when repeated verbatim by a high-pitched voice originating somewhere nearer to the floor.

Our pets, for example, are sources of both joy and frustration, and when they are underfoot they tend to get a lot of haranguing that usually leads off with something like “Stupid dog!” Normally I wouldn’t think twice about that, but when the little guy toddles along chanting “Stupid DOG stupid DOG stupid DOG” over and over it forces me to think about it three or four or sixty-eight times. So I find myself holding back a bit, softening my self-expression somewhat around the edges. Nerfing my words, as it were. And I know that on balance that’s a good thing, but I still can’t help but feel a little sour-grapey about it.

Still, at least it’s still at the point where my innocent little child repeats an unkind word here or there and I’m the one who realizes it and chooses to do something about it. I know that not too far down the road is the point at which an unkind word will slip out of my mouth and my own child will admonish me for breaking the same rules of decorum we’ve managed to inculcate him with. But that’s a trippy feedback-loop for another day.

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