How Games are Changing the World

October 12, 2020

Colin Campbell, previously of Polygon and IGN fame, has launched an important newsletter devoted specifically to idea of How Games are Changing the World.

I’ve been enjoying some recent issues and figured I’d share an excerpt from one in particular that had an especially profound effect on me.

The talent of empathy:

Chris Metzen retired from game development in 2016. He’d spent 23 years in the game industry, working at Blizzard on some of its key games, including Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, and Starcraft (a solid bio is here). Yesterday, he spoke about his struggle with mental health challenges, and the game industry’s long-standing absence of understanding the centrality of mental health.

Speaking at The International Games Summit on Mental Health, with Take This executive director Eve Crevoshay, he talked about his experiences in an industry that saw itself as a warrior culture where performance was all that mattered, and where a relentless competitive spirit was valued far more than empathy or care. The session was called “The talent of empathy.” (Note. I’ve tidied up some quotes, for clarity.)

“Part of my leaving was I started having some serious issues with anxiety and panic and horrific imposter syndrome,” he said. “It was there all along. The psychology of being afraid, of feeling unworthy, and not being able to ask for back-up from friends and co-workers. There’s a lot of shame that can come with that. It doesn’t feel safe to talk about that.”

He acknowledged his privilege in being at a point in his career that he was able to step away from his work and find “perspective and time”. Most people have to endure the particularity of their workplace, and to compete for position, recognition and career survival.

He began at Blizzard when he was 20 years old. “It was a frat-house. Even though we were all nerds, everyone was trying to be a tough guy. The expression of emotions like tiredness or fear was not culturally acceptable. If you feel overwhelmed then you feel like a weak link, like you’re breaking a grand tradition, like you’re breaking a contract.”

As the years went by, and despite a record of high level success, Metzen was struggling. “I was a grown man and was feeling things that I didn’t know how to process. My performance was linked to my self-esteem and my sense of purpose. I was terrified by the question of ‘who am I’, if I wasn’t this creature who was here to perform in this way.”

I strongly encourage you to read the rest of the piece and subscribe to Campbell’s newsletter.

One of the ideas behind Zero Counts was to share positive impacts video games have on the world. But I remain an outsider to the industry — simply observing and playing here and there. Yet, I recognize the toxicity in it, which hurts. It sucks to have such a pleasant part of your childhood associated with so much pain for others. Video games are joyous marvels of engineering and art. They spark conversations of curiosity and wonder and should be just as fulfilling to work on.

I’m so glad there are more outlets popping up with the mission of sharing positivity within the industry. But positivity holds no weight without also holding others accountable. Outlets like Into the Aether, Polygon, and not only showcase positive stories and emphasize fun, the hold feet to the flame of injustice, discrimination, and exploitation. I’m happy to add How Games are Changing the World to that list.

Vintage Nintendo games are good vibes made playable

October 04, 2020

Allegra Frank, Vox:

Finding comfort in games is what’s drawn me to them the most this year. Which is why I’ve turned obsessively toward the types of games that exude friendliness. I’ve found this most in the nostalgic charm and childlike wonder of (mostly) vintage Nintendo games. Gone is my interest in the new and buzzworthy; I’m here to revisit the kindly faces I can find on my Switch.

And it doesn’t matter if you have pre-established nostalgia for the halcyon days of simple, E-for-Everyone-rated Nintendo games or not. In the same way that Nintendo’s small-town-life simulation game Animal Crossing found mass appeal earlier this year for its coziness, these games promise morally uncomplicated fun from the onset. They’re good for anyone who’s craved some virtual, pleasant, joyous worlds to escape to.

This harkens back to Amanda Hess’s feelings at the beginning of lockdown in the US — nearly seven months ago, for those counting.

The handling of the situation globally has been fraught with anxiety. In the US, it’s a complete shitshow. I can’t take my eyes off of the news. Email newsletters pile up in my inbox — two from The New York Times, one from Vox, one from Apple News, and Dave Pell’s NextDraft to add some levity and (surprisingly) reality to the avalanche nay cavalcade of bad news. Even tech focused newsletters from Ben Thompson, Casey Newton, and Dieter Bohn ring with a tinge foreboding. OK, more than a tinge.

Every day feels the same. Whether I’m trying to navigate corporate bureaucracy, social unrest, brain chemistry, or electrical wiring — there’s lots of home improvement going on in the Starr Household these days — every day feels the same. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss my co-workers. Thank every otherworldly being that my wife and I pair like chocolate and peanut butter. She’s my saving grace.

Yes, I have distractions. We watch great TV like Watchmen, Seinfeld, and Ted Lasso. We cook together, clean together, and decorate together. We have it as good as it gets. Solitarily, I work on remotely recorded ’90s covers with a group of dudes (less often than I should be) and I’m in a book club.

But in the flood of bad news and rip current of quarantine space-time, I find great serenity wading deep in the waters of childhood comforts. The latest of which is Super Mario 3D All-Stars.

There are better sources to explain the strengths and weaknesses of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. After much consideration, I don’t aim to do that on Zero Counts. What I will say is that Super Mario 64 is my You’ve Got Mail. If you’re my wife or have a fondness for bouquets of newly sharpened pencils, you get it. That’s a big deal.

This is a long way of saying that I agree with Allegra — vintage Nintendo games are good vibes.

Ben Thompson on Microsoft's Game Plan

September 17, 2020

Ben Thompson, Stratechery:

In fact, if you would have subscribed to the $15 Xbox All Access anyway, you actually save money by paying monthly: $19 in the case of the Series X, and an impressive $59 in the case of the Series S.

That last discount is the tell as to what Microsoft is up to: the truth is that anyone buying a “cheaper” console that, unlike the PS5, is in fact worse in performance, is pretty unlikely to sign up for an additional $15/month gaming service. Subscribers, though, are exactly what Microsoft wants, and when you consider the fact you can pay only $25 a month, get all of those free games, and “save” $60, the offer becomes pretty compelling to more casual game players, and parents.

More broadly, Microsoft is seeking to get out of the traditional console business, with its loss-leading hardware and fight over exclusives, and into the services business broadly; that’s why Xbox Game Pass, the cloud streaming service that is available not only on Xbox and PC but also on Android phones (Apple has blocked it from iOS for business model reasons), is included. In Microsoft’s view of the world the Xbox is just a specialized device for accessing their game service, which, if they play their cards right, you will stay subscribed to for years to come.

This also explains the hardware differences: Microsoft actually wants developers to focus on scalable games that work anywhere, as opposed to targeting one specific hardware configuration; their strategy is just as aligned as Sony’s, it’s just pointing in a very different direction.

This is the best take on Microsoft’s gaming strategy I’ve read.

From WordPress to Gatsby

September 14, 2020

As of today, I no longer have a CMS backing Zero Counts, my analytics have been wiped away, and most of my posts have been removed from the website.

No, this is not the next catastrophic event of 2020. The internet is not slowly dissolving like a post-Thanos snap. Quite the opposite. This is self-imposed (and maybe a huge mistake), but it’s a project I’ve been meaning to take on since the beginning of quarantine. (As if I didn’t have enough to worry about this year.)

As the title states, I moved Zero Counts from a self-hosted WordPress instance hosted with DreamHost to a static site built with Gatsby.js and hosted with Netlify CDN. What does this mean? In short, Zero Counts is faster, more efficient, and better suited for SEO and accessibility.

For those unfamiliar, with WordPress, all of my posts were published with the WordPress CMS and stored in a database. When you visited the website, your device had to make several roundtrips to a server to fetch each post. However, with Gatsby, the site gets regenerated every time I make a change to the codebase, including posts. Therefore, most everything — HTML+CSS and content — is compiled into a single static application that your device fetches (generally) once from a server.

On top of that, when visiting the WordPress version of Zero Counts, upwards of 10 CSS files were downloaded into your device — including the Bootstrap CSS necessary for the grid system I used for page layout — totaling 225KB, give or take. This may or may not have been WordPress’s fault; maybe just my inexperience with PHP and Wordpress themes. With the Gatsby version of Zero Counts, I wrote a single bare minimum CSS file including a Bootstrap grid clone using CSS grid.

On the authoring side, all of the website’s code and content are stored in a single code repository that I push to GitHub. I no longer write or manage any content in a CMS (for now). Instead, I write raw Markdown files and push them straight to GitHub. (God, I love Markdown.) I can write these in an IDE like VS Code or a Markdown compatible word processor like iA Writer. Once I finish a post, I push the file to GitHub, Gatsby re-generates the HTML for, and the new post appears.

I won’t go into a lengthy piece about how all of this was done. Instead, I’ll point to some resources that helped me get here:

The migration is not entirely complete. While ExitWP is a great tool, each post requires a bit of Markdown clean-up. Therefore, I’ve only ported over posts from 2019–2020 as well as any interlinked posts prior to 2019. I’ll be chipping away at the remainder of posts from 2013–2018 over time.

Zero Counts began as a Tumblr blog called The Starr List back in 2013 or so. Over time, I moved over to, dabbled and stumbled around in code, migrated to a self-hosted WordPress site using a stock theme, created my own child theme, and eventually moved everything into a single codebase, allowing me quickly develop locally and offer up an optimized version of Zero Counts.

It’s been a lot of work and education, and finding time is not easy. In any case, here’s to another iteration of Zero Counts. Here’s to you, old sport.