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Strixhaven Standard Set Review with Ali Aintrazi
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Gamer Boy, Gamer Girl: Natasha Lewis Harrington.

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Name: Natasha Lewis Harrington

Screen name: Usually some variation on Natasha_lh or nlh

Avatar of choice: None in particular

Years gaming: I got an SNES for my fourth birthday, so about 22.

Favorite male game character of all time: I have always loved the Shy Guys from the Mario series. There’s no particular reason; I just do.

Favorite female game character of all time: Rita Mordio from Tales of Vesperia has a little bit of everything. She’s a complexly-written female character, she’s an intelligent and powerful researcher/mage, and she’s fun to play as.

First gaming console you ever owned: An SNES was the only gaming console I owned for a long time, and I’m pretty sure I spent the majority of the early years just watching my dad play Super Mario World or Link to the Past. As I grew older, I was really into the SNES RPGs such as Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, and Breath of Fire II. I was pretty disappointed when I saved up all my money and bought a Nintendo 64 only to find that all the RPGs had gone over to the Playstation.

What game have you been most addicted lately? I recently learned how to draft on Magic Online, which has totally sucked me in. The intense focus you need for a Draft is perfect for clearing out all the clutter that builds up in my brain from school, clinic, and dissertation work.

What game have you played for the longest time, and what about it keeps you playing? Well, I could obviously talk about Magic all day here, but I’ll try to think of something else to keep it interesting. Let’s see . . . Do I have to have played it continuously? Now that the old SNES RPGs are available for the Nintendo DS, I’ve started playing a lot of those again—I replayed Chrono Trigger and am now further into Final Fantasy IV than I ever made it as a kid. I love the simplicity of the 2D maps and the turn-based combat, and the story and characters are just classic. I enjoy Pokémon for a similar reason and always buy the new editions when they come out.

What game did someone convince you to try that you just hated? This always seems to alarm people a bit, but I can’t stand Munchkin. It never seems to end. Any time someone is close to winning, everybody else drags that person back down, which I know is the point, but the gameplay isn’t fun enough for me to enjoy going back and forth forever.

What game causes you to rage/tilt the most? Any game with no hidden information or randomness makes me want to flip the board—chess, Othello, and even Connect Four. Thinking several moves ahead has never been my strong suit—I find it incredibly frustrating to know that there is an optimal move and I simply have no clue what it is. That’s the raging perfectionist in me I guess.

Do you have any gamer regrets? Maybe it’s a misplay or a chance not taken. I really wish it didn’t cost hundreds of dollars to put together a Time Spiral– or Lorwyn-block Draft. Those were the first sets I played with, and I loved them so much. There’s a certain added regret because I had fairly serious depression back when those were new, so at the time, it was hard for me to really enjoy things or even think clearly.

My friend Nathan Weizenbaum recently put together a Time Spiral/Planar Chaos/Future Sight Draft at Grand Prix Las Vegas, and it brought back a lot of memories—it was really gratifying to see how far I’ve come since I was nineteen or twenty, both in understanding the game and just as a person.

Trash talk: mandatory or unnecessary? I think trash talk can be a lot of fun between two people with a good relationship or who both enjoy that sort of thing, but if you’re not into it, it can be awful to be on the receiving end. I would never trash-talk someone I didn’t know well unless it was clear the person thought that kind of thing was fun.

Which one do you prefer the most? Video games, TCGs, or board games? Pick one. Hmm. Obviously Magic is my favorite game of all time, but I don’t think my fondness for it is specific to the trading-card genre. I would mostly classify myself as a board gamer (my husband is the video gamer), but I do have a minor obsession with indie Flash games. One of my favorite websites is JayIsGames.com, and they have a tag for interactive art that I check on an almost daily basis.

If you could go pro in any game, what game would it be? I would never be a pro player. I already tend to choose fun cards over good cards when drafting—I just don’t have the competitive orientation that it would take to enjoy that.

Is the overall design of a game the most important aspect to you as a gamer, or is it the fun factor? Depends on how long the game is. I have a strong appreciation for games that are cleverly or intriguingly designed, but that will only convince me to play for five to ten minutes. Longer than that, and it had better be fun.

Do you listen to video game soundtracks? Why or why not? I love video game soundtracks, both the original versions and instrumental covers. Many of the SNES RPGs such as Earthbound and Chrono Trigger had incredible music that really heightened the mood. My favorite modern soundtrack by a long shot is Xenosaga II’s—go to YouTube, and check out Fatal Fight or Bitter. I played the Xenosaga series back in college, and Fatal Fight still gives me chills to this day.

Tell me about the game you would create if I gave you unlimited resources. My first thought was some kind of top-down, sprite-based game like the old-school RPGs or A Link to the Past. I recently became hooked on Anodyne, which had that kind of atmospheric, densely-packed world.

If I really had unlimited resources, though, I’d really want to do something that did cool stuff with artificial intelligence. As a kid, I was really hooked on the Creatures series, which was an artificial-life simulation with really complex genetics for the creatures. I’m currently backing the Kickstarter for the creator’s newest effort, which he (Steve Grand) is calling Grandroids. I don’t really know exactly what I’d do, but emergent behavior in AI has always fascinated me.

Whom do you consider one of the most sexually attractive characters (male or female) you have ever played? Was this based on pure artistic design of the character or overall character traits? There’s a relatively minor character in Tales of Vesperia named Kaufman, who is the leader of a major political group. She’s an amazing mix of serious business and sexy-but-not-sexualized that must have taken a lot of thought to design. To me, that is incredibly attractive.

If you could be any character from any game, whom would you morph into? Hmm. Maybe Milla Vodello from Psychonauts. She has cool powers, and her job is not so different than what I already do: one part working with kids, one part getting inside people’s heads, and one part secret spy missions. (Wait—don’t print that last part!)

Do you see an issue with the portrayal of women in games, and why? I get tired of the limited types available for women. People try to say, “Oh, it’s fantasy; everyone has to be attractive,” but that’s simply not true. Compare the men and women of Ravnica—Orzhov and Izzet and Azorius have old men and fat men and old fat men, but pretty much all the women are within a very narrow range of age and BMI. This applies across games—someone at Gen Con made a joke about magic users in RPGs beginning life as beautiful women and then disappearing into a cocoon and emerging as old men.

Sadly, this sends a very clear (if sometimes subliminal) message to women that appearance is the most salient quality in the gaming world. In a fascinating study (summarized here by me), women who played a Tomb Raider level wherein Lara Croft was dressed revealingly saw themselves as less capable than women who played a level wherein she was dressed practically. The authors say, “[T]his may have occurred because the sexualization of the character confines her and limits her power by making her sexualized body her most prominent feature”—you take this skilled, intelligent woman, and brush all of that aside to focus on her figure.

That said, I think it’s growing better. Magic 2014 Core Set has taken a magnificent turn in terms of practical armor for the women, and there is a lot of good conversation going on. If you ever have a chance to talk to Angie Hickman or Julian Leiberan-Titus, creators of the game Storm Hollow, ask them about all the decisions they made regarding the design of their female characters. It takes a lot of thought and effort to fight the status quo, but people are doing it.

Describe what makes a central character in a story-driven game appealing to you. Hmm. I don’t think there’s any one thing for a central character. I’m really interested in relationships between characters, so I tend to prefer games with ensemble casts.

Have you ever cosplayed a character or could ever see your future self cosplaying a character? I’ve been Paula from Earthbound and Milla Vodello from Psychonauts for Halloween. Sadly, I can’t imagine ever doing it at a con because of the objectification culture surrounding it.

As a petite woman who often is perceived as younger than I really am, I feel that drawing attention to my appearance would make it harder to be taken seriously—even if the character doesn’t have a revealing outfit, it still seems to get people talking about your weight and your figure and how pretty (or not) you are.

That’s just not where I want the focus on me to be. I have a lot of respect for people who do it and fight that culture, but it’s not something I would be comfortable doing.

Have you ever related to any female character you have played? What about any character in general? Oddly, the character I identified most with was a child. There’s this haunting Japanese game called Ib, starring a little girl of the same name. I liked Ib because instead of being this in-your-face powerhouse, she has this quiet, enduring strength.

That game also has one of the neatest little tricks I’ve seen in terms of getting you immersed in the character. Ib has this very sweet, sisterly relationship with teenage boy named Garry. The game takes place in an art gallery, and when Garry’s not with you, some of the words on the plaques are too hard for you to read. The well-crafted story already gets you to miss Garry when he’s gone, but the “???”s in the text really drive home the feeling of being a child trying to get by alone.

Have you ever used (or considered using) a male avatar and name while gaming to avoid people knowing you are a female? As a general rule, no—I choose my avatars based on aesthetics, so it’s pretty dependent on which character designs I like best.

What do you think about the phenomenon of turning popular gaming characters into types of pornography? Some people seem to have trouble with boundaries—at Grand Prix Las Vegas, someone had a play mat on which it looked like Tamiyo and some other female character were being molested by some kind of smoke monster. I pointed it out to a judge, and I would encourage others to do the same.

But if you’re keeping it corralled where the only people who find it are people who are looking for it, it seems fine to me. I don’t want anybody telling me what I can or can’t personally find sexy—your fantasies are between you and whatever consenting people you decide to share them with.

What book or series not already made into a game do you think would just kill it? I’m a big fan of the Fairyland series by Cat Valente (to date, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There), and I think a card game making use of its world and characters would be phenomenal. Not a trading card game, but something like Ascension or Lifeboat. Or maybe something with a creative element like Once Upon a Time. I know somebody is working on an RPG for it right now.

How have your friends and family supported your gaming or tried to change it? My friends are mostly gamers, and the ones who aren’t think it’s pretty cool. (Or so they tell me.) My parents have always been pretty neutral about my gaming—they're just glad I'm enjoying myself I guess.

Do you look for a love of gaming in the people you date or do you find it irrelevant? When I was doing online dating, gaming was a pretty central part of my profile. Anyone who didn’t appreciate gaming on some level would probably find my lifestyle boring or annoying. My husband Richard isn’t terribly into Magic, but he feels similarly about his own games, so he understands where I’m coming from.

Richard claims I once told him I couldn’t see myself marrying somebody who didn’t play Magic at all. I don’t think that’s true—that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would say out loud.

What kind of impact do you think MMOs are having on society? Would you change anything? I’m actually doing my dissertation on MMORPGs, so this is something I’m really interested in. I think they’re terribly misunderstood by the media and even a lot of mental health professionals. Some people do use them in an unhealthy way, and unfortunately, they kind of lend themselves to that, but they also appear to have some incredible benefits, such as connecting people to an international community and teaching leadership skills.

I’m also really intrigued by people who play with family members—especially parents and children. It seems to offer a lot of opportunity for people to experiment with different family roles—for example, the youngest child having a turn to be the expert and help his or her parents.

Do you believe there is a correlation between violence in video games and violence in society? This is such a hot-button issue that I’m mostly going to keep my mouth shut. It is a complex issue, and evidence is inconclusive. I will say that I think the media tends to present things as a lot more black-and-white than they really are.

Can you rank what you would consider the top five games you have ever played? Can I do something different? I want to talk about five cool games you’ve probably never heard of.

  1. Anodyne is available for Steam and the iPhone. Its real selling point is its dreamlike and densely-packed world, but its solid Zelda-like gameplay is also commendable.
  2. Ib, which I mentioned earlier, is a freeware Japanese horror game. The game has two moods: spooky and melancholy, and it executes both masterfully.
  3. The Fabulous Screech is a short Flash game. It’s really more of a picture book or poem in point-and-click form. Despite its brevity and simple, hand-drawn graphics, it packs quite a punch—heartbreaking but not bleak.
  4. I don’t know whether Psychonauts qualifies as obscure, but it’s incredibly underappreciated. You play as a character who can travel into people’s minds; each mind-world is incredibly distinctive, lovingly detailed, and often hilarious. The characters are endearing, and the platformer gameplay (including mental powers like telekinesis and pyrokinesis) is a lot of fun.
  5. Now for something completely different: Lifeboat is my favorite (relatively) obscure card game. It’s a big group game with a lot of politics, but a hidden ally/enemy system and some really good balancing gives it endless replay value even within the same group. Also, it creates some incredible narratives, which is one of my favorite characteristics in a tabletop game.


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