Sunday, December 14, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Respecialization Blues!



Respecialization, or respeccing as the youth call it, is a commonplace affair in most RPGs, or RPG analogs.  It’s a simple concept: the RPG structure hinges on the gradual expansion of an available pool of skills, often through the application of a point-buy system (in its most direct and straightforward formulations).  This system usually revolves around a set of unfolding paths: you navigate that network of paths based on cumulative choices you make, with some choices working to ease the challenge of certain aspects of play, and some choices working to facilitate interesting gameplay developments.  But these choices are made in the fog of war, as the systems of the game are still unfolding, and after the dust of progress has settled, after players have become more acquainted with the gameplay systems that they’re navigating, they’ll often regret the decisions they’ve made along the way.  Perhaps that skill that increased the rate of fire on submachine guns turned out to harm more than help, or that plus-one to damage with axes doesn’t see a lot of use since your dope ultimate primary weapon is actually a sword.  Player tastes can change and shift over time, players can come to better understand poorly articulated gameplay systems, or the needs of a player in a particular situation can change.

There are two ways to address this. 

The old school, unforgiving way, as illustrated by its presence in such laudable bastions of tradition as Wasteland 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, is to just tell players to suck a proverbial dick and start up a new play-through if they don’t like how they developed their skills.  It’s an especially effective methodology in games that encourage multiple playthroughs, since it permits players to reflect on the experiences they’ve had, and test out new choices as they navigate familiar narrative spaces. 

The new way is to allow players to adjust their skills, for a nominal fee.

This mechanic has its roots in World of Warcraft, wherein shifting feat trees with conditionally applications dominated the game, and respecialization to fit a specific role for fellow players, or to adapt to adjustments made by a patch, became necessary.  Shadow Spec was a must for a PvP focused priest, but in an early UBRS run or, worse, an undergeared MC run?  That built was suicide!  You had to respec that shit!  WoW featured a sliding scale fee system, wherein players who respecced frequently paid increasingly large sums of in-game currency until their payments capped out.  This framework, revolutionary in the shifting magma plains of the early 2000s, is now pretty common.  Most MMOs have adopted some version of it, and many non-MMO games have done the same.  Dragon Age: Inquisition even features a “respec” item, one that allows you to dramatically restructure your character as you unlock new features and game areas – Dragon Age: Inquisition, the most old-school main-stream hit of the last half decade!  And that infiltration is minimal compared to the manner in which specialization and re-specialization have become features in the FPS genre, prominently manifesting themselves in titles like Far Cry 3 and PAYDAY 2.

PAYDAY 2 features a set of especially elaborate and specific skill trees, skill trees that fundamentally recompose the manner in which the game plays.  A Mastermind, a Ghost, an Enforcer, and a Technician will all have very, very different experiences heist-to-heist.  It’s not just that certain trees can do certain jobs better; certain trees are the only ones capable of doing certain things.  Want to crack safes by hand?  You’ll need to get up to the penultimate tier of the Ghost tree.  Want to blast the hinges off that armored car? You’ll be putting your points into Technician.  Puzzle solutions, special abilities, and stat-tweaks alike all emerge from PAYDAY 2’s immersive skill-trees, and players who want to test out certain specializations will often have to respecialize some or all of their skill trees in order to unlock new game-changing abilities.  PAYDAY 2 isn’t so unforgiving – it doesn’t charge you to reset your skill points, and it even gives you some of the money you spent back (around 60%), but it does make you pay for each new allocation you make after the fact, adding a de-facto cost to the decision to respec.

This is an odd thing for an FPS to do.  While Role Playing Games are normally oriented around occupying a narrative space and generating a character who can inhabit that space in parallel with an unfolding narrative, First Person Shooters are usually more concerned with notions of “play.”  As such, the idea of “playing a role” usually takes a back seat to unlocking new toys, especially in a game like PAYDAY 2, where the variety of heists present you with a perpetually shifting set of potential solutions that fit the challenges you’ll be encountering.  But this skill system, with all its associated costs, actively discourages that kind of experimentation by encouraging dedicated specializations in most trees; the most useful abilities on the Ghost and Technician trees, the ones I mentioned earlier, are buried so deep that they require abandoning most other skill trees completely, at least until you near the level cap.  And making any changes to your skill tree, whether you make them for the sake of experimentation or for the sake of correcting a mistake you made somewhere along the way, represent a considerable commitment of resources.  The respec is a nuclear option in PAYDAY 2, the same way it is in most games: it completely eradicates all the work you’ve done in a particular tree, and requires you to spend all the money you’ve earned to reallocate your freshly liberated points.  That means one errantly spent skill point, selected early in your career, will haunt you forever unless you’re effectively willing to pay a nominal fee.

It’s a counter-intuitive frame, one that most games have become acclimated to at this point.  We’re so used to the idea that respeccing is an expensive and inconvenient process that theoretical skill point arrays have become a feature of many games.  Borderlands 2 went so far as to release a first party feat-specialization simulator, to keep players from having to waste their hard earned Borderbucks on respecializing mid-game.  But the whole point of these specialization trees, at their best at least, is to open up new avenues of play, to give players new and engaging tools to solve problems with.  By gating this behind a fee structure, which, even at its most merciful in games like PAYDAY 2 requires a substantial reinvestment of time, developers discourage experimentation.  Players are effectively pulled in two directions at once: they’re being shown all these neat toys they can play with, but they’re being told they’ll need to put in extra time and effort if they want to test out these different ways to play, and that they’ll have to spend time and money to get their current set of hard earned skills back, an especially infuriating experience if they discover that they don’t enjoy the new skill set that they’ve selected.

Removing this fee structure, however, still isn’t ideal: player mistakes should have consequences, and most progression frameworks work best when they reward specialization.  That’s what adds weight to these choices; even in the olden days, Blizzard knew that they needed to make priests pay to switch between PvP and PvE specialized branches, lest they bandy about, willy-nilly, shifting their specializations daily, not just for the obtuse sake of balance, but for the sake of adding weight to each player selection. By making it difficult to change paths, those decisions become meaningful.  That’s an important part of making choices rewarding: it isn’t enough to give us nice toys, we have to understand that our ability to effectively use those toys is impacted by our ability to make responsible choices, and our ability to act with foresight.  Adding consequence and cost to those frameworks insures that players carefully measure each choice they make, lest they waste their precious time and effort.

But even that is an imperfect system.  Ideally players would be able to test out play styles before making decisions, but such firmaments can easily promote metagaming.  Instead we’re left with a kind of queer, accidental compromise that emerges every once in a great while: the noble “forced respecialization.”  While this almost always follows a full-game overhaul of some sort, it carries with it an invitation to explore, to reinvent oneself in-game and try out new approaches that you might not have considered before.  Unexpected, sure, and often in service of reinvigorating player interest by allowing easy experimentation with new toys and tools, these events can initiate referendums on approaches to play.

Ideally.

PAYDAY 2 recent had two massive gameplay shifts, within weeks of one another, each of which came with a forced respecialization, a full point refund.  I rebuilt my skill tree, brick for brick, each time. I didn’t want to put myself outside my own comfort zone.  After all, why bother heisting at all if you can’t blow the hinges off a safe?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Penetrating the Mists of Dragon Age: Inquisition's Play!

It’s rare that I actually get a chance to write about games as they’re emerging, rarer still that I have occasion to pre-order and play through titles as they exist in the public consciousness as “things,” fetish objects that people are collectively processing during the first cycle of the effervescent cultural existence of video games.  That Dragon Age: Inquisition occupies such a space in my life is, in and of itself, a ringing endorsement: this is a game that has managed to disrupt my work schedule during one of the busiest times of my year, a game that I go to sleep dreaming of, a game that I’ve stopped playing over night not out of exhaustion, but to give myself time to mull over especially difficult or challenging choices that I knew would fundamentally alter the game world.  I’ve been so concerned with the choices I'm making that I've established a series of nested save files to account for potential decision points and to double check the outcomes of vaguely executed-upon quest variables that I encounter.  I’ve been so taken with Dragon Age: Inquisition’s circuitous and many-fractured plots, with the multitude of characters it introduces, that just now, after I wrote the beginning of this essay, I actually paused in mid-writing to access a wiki and double check that a character I had saved and then lost track of was actually alright, despite an apparent disappearance following my tenuous rescue attempt.

As I play through DA:I, I find myself thinking not just of the playthrough I’m engaging with now, but of the future playthroughs that I will be engaging with, the variables I’ll be tweaking, the histories I’ll be altering and enacting to see how the plot will twist to adapt.  There’s a glorious elasticity to DA:I’s plot, a very real sense that the decisions you’ve made or are making, minor or major, are reshaping the story in a fundamental way that actually supersedes the epic, if a bit pat and straightforward,  plotline unfolding before me.  That makes discussing the narrative of DA:I difficult for me. The game I’m playing isn’t the game entire, and while the Tolkien-inspired musical breaks, cinematic imagery, and reactive plotlines are all coming together in a wonderful way, I don’t think that’s the most important thing that’s happening here. Bioware is firing on all cylinders, from their micro-manage-y inventories, to their conversant, nuanced companions who can be talked into darn near anything, given enough time, to the epic scope of each area I find myself exploring.  This is what Bioware does: they make buggy, ambitious games that echo the best defining characteristics of Western RPGs, games that take over a hundred hours to play in their entirety, games that warrant multiple playthroughs to fully realize. While Bioware’s successes are evident, and the lessons they learned from previous iterations proudly displayed as well: Dragon Age II’s clumsy combat system and decidedly non-epic scope is not on display here.  There’s none of the baffling ground-level refugee dallying that made DA2 special, and made so many people hate it; this is raw, uncut epic game, a confection of consequence fired and taken out of the oven too early so that its doughy fleshy can be cut and re-cut.

But this is just talk of concept, conceit, and heritage: the narrative of DA:I skitters at the edge of all of this, and it certainly deserves to be spoken of.  The threading of each decision is maddeningly complicated, a facet readily represented by the first major decision I’ve hit so far.  My choice hinged on one major decision, but that was in turn shaped by five or six other, smaller decisions, many of them possessed of several variables in their own right.  The number of permutations possible therein is profound; how the fuck does one assess narrative efficacy under circumstances like that? To say that Dragon Age: Inquisition has a plot at all is a misstatement.  It has many plots, and you, as a player, have an active hand in discerning just what that plot will be, far more than you did in any of Bioware’s other epics.  Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have shit on these plot decisions.  The best I’ll be able to do, when all is done, is reflect on the seams (or seamlessness) of those decisions as I see them fitting together and shaping the story.  I just can’t do that right now.  But thirty plus hours in, and barely into the story proper, how can I comment on something with this epic a scope to it?

By discussing its most limited portion, its smallest and most ephemeral aspects: its alarmingly robust multiplayer addition.

The idea of a “multiplayer Dragon Age game” should sound like bunk, and it would have to me if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.  Story is, as I just spent too much time discussing, such a major feature of the series and its play that multiplayer, a format which conventionally defies such things as “consequential choices” and “enduring progress,” is antithetical to the very notion of, particularly when we're looking at the kind of world shattering choices that populate Dragon Age: Inquisition's world.  Epic scope in multiplayer games seems to be better reserved for 4X games, games like Civilization and Sins of a Solar Empire, where battles can burn over multiple hours or even days, and play can be readily saved and taken back up again as needed.  Dragon Age can’t do that shit – Dragon Age is a series about leaping into combat and coming out, covered with gore, to have a long conversation with your sweetie-to-be about your childhood in the Free Marches.  So how do you make a multiplayer game out of Dragon Age?

You remove the sweetie schmoozing.

Much like Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer is essentially a distillation of the raw, visceral combat portion of the core game, minus the strategic overlay that allays the chaos of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s clusterfucky combat mishmash to a limited extent.  There is, much like Mass Effect 3, a constantly expanding shared weapon array, and several character archetypes, all of them limited rehashings of DA:I’s more expansive single player classes shaped into more linear, focused trees.  You progress along each character tree individually, acquiring experience for whatever class you’re playing, randomly assigned gear for completing challenges, and money that you can spend on gear drops in place of real world money (a tactic ripped straight out of ME3’s bitter, gnarled hands, a tactic I’d be fascinated to hear of the effectiveness of).  It’s essentially a distillation of the combat-loot-response mechanism of the game itself, a representation of DA:I’s grind made manifest.  If you don’t like DA:I’s second-by-second play, if you’re mostly there for the conversation and the awkward CGI sex scenes, multiplayer isn’t for you, but if you like the “leap-stab-loot” pattern the game provides, it’s essentially a concentrated form of that. The parallels with Mass Effect 3’s system are readily apparent, minus the finnicky impact on the “galactic combat readiness map” that ME3 used to force people to “pay or play” if they wanted to get “the best” ending.

DA:I ditches that bull hooey, in favor of a nice, neat streamlined kind of “fuck around” play – it’s not about killing things in the service of some greater good, it’s just about the joy of murder.  It also dramatically improves the internal and external character progression system that Mass Effect 3 featured.  ME3 forced players to buy boxes for a chance at unlocking a new character.  There was no other way to do it – you just had to roll the dice and hope for the best.  You received a handful of default characters, but the rest all had to be unlocked through a combination of luck and perseverance.  DA:I does something similar, but it also utilizes a secondary progress structure, parallel to the “buying loot boxes” one, that allows players to steadily advance towards unlocking targeted characters by interacting with a progression system disguised as a crafting system.

See, the bulk of the loot you find while playing DA:I’s multiplayer is garbage, little better than vendor trash.  Once in a blue moon you’ll find an especially good item, but the relative infrequency of those items, paired with the fact that all characters share equipment in a fashion that only necessitates having one “good” weapon of each type, means your inventory will rapidly fill up with white-text low quality weapons that you’ll never use.  Instead of selling those items to vendors, DA:I's multiplayer lets you break them down into crafting resources, similar to the ones you collect in DA:I’s single player.  These resources can be used to produce a variety of mods, or to craft armor, the component part in unlocking characters. That means every worthless piece of loot can be turned into a handy-dandy asset that you can, in turn, use to progress towards completing a new piece of sweet-ass armor that either dramatically improves an existing character class, or unlocks a whole new one.  With only three classes initially available to players, this is a big deal; if you want to play a character who is even somewhat exotic, like a dual-weapon rogue or a two-weapon fighter, you’ll probably have to craft some gear.  And you’re going to want to play those classes, because while the starting classes are fine and dandy, those secondary classes are a shitload of fun to play.


This movement, while somewhat randomized, is still rooted in kind of objective oriented system that forms the core deviation from Mass Effect 3’s model.  While ME3 had the “distilling combat and leveling up” thing down to a science, the game itself was a mess of passive play tropes: every level was essentially a survival level with randomized “necessary objectives,” and there was no control whatsoever over character unlocks. Players who unlocked characters could even find themselves unlocking the same character again, gaining experience points in place of a new toy, a dubiously useful prospect, and only assigned to that already unlocked character, making their applicability especially questionable.  DA:I abandons all this: levels are centered around clearing out areas and accomplishing objectives.  All optional objectives are highly optional, and while progress is gated by random drops, all of those random drops can be turned towards some kind of overarching progress given enough time and consideration.  DA:I lets you set a goal, whether it’s completing a single mission top to bottom or unlocking a certain character, and actually attain that goal in a reasonable time frame, without curtailing or limiting the raw scope of overarching progress available to players. I’ve already set a personal goal (unlocking the Assassin character) and achieved it.  Now I’m working towards unlocking every single character in the catalog, playing around with each of them, and maxing out the armor of my favorites.  I’m always moving towards those goals, and I’m always tapping back into DA:I’s RPG feedback loop of kill-loot-level.  Arranging skill points and swapping out knives, rings, belts, and necklaces is a heady reward for a foe well killed, and its placement in the overarching tapestry of DA:I’s gameplay is superlative. DA:I’s single player might be too vast to even effectively discuss, but its multiplayer is simultaneously perfectly bite sized and consumable, and so overwhelming large in scope that I can’t see myself ever finishing with it, even as I’m constantly progressing within its frames, unlocking new toys and achieving the myriad goals presented to me along the way. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Dragon Age: Inquisition's Inquisitive Initialization!



I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Didn't just buy it.  Pre-ordered it.  It's the first game in a while I've been excited to play, which is why it's so hilarious that it's premier timed almost exactly to the busiest part of my year: for the next three weeks, I'll be spending the bulk of my time editing papers and providing feedback to students, leaving me with precious little time to sit down and do things like "enjoy amazing video games."  But still, I'm trying.  I've put a decent chunk of time into DA:I, a few hours so far.  But even before that, I found myself investing a tremendous amount of time in DA:I's legacy "web app." 

To those of you who didn't pre-purchase Dragon Age: Inquisition, or even play the first Dragon Age, the "Dragon Age Legacy" app is essentially a giant spreadsheet that EA is asking its players to complete before they begin playing Dragon Age: Inquisition.  It's a floridly designed, wonderfully artistic spreadsheet, but a spreadsheet it remains, resplendent with variables that detail the outcomes you determined in previous games.  The events in question vary in memorability and severity from "Did you sacrifice your life killing the Archdaemon?" to "Did you give a bracelet to a young woman in a fruit stall in a flybitten shithole town just outside of the capital city?"  These choices are, in fact, presented as having the same level of import to the game itself, and who knows just how accurate that portrayal is.  So far, I've seen some variables manifest themselves that I didn't consider significant at all, like the outcome of a quest that I may or may not have represented accurately, in some pretty dramatic ways, like the well-being and disposition of the starting location of the game itself.  Characters from the game who could potentially die are already popping up, and references to the King, who could've theoretically died, are popping up as well.  This spreadsheet has already had a massive impact on my gameplay experience, which is good, because I spent around as much time filling it out as I've spent playing Dragon Age: Inquisition itself so far (around five or six hours, all told).

How did I spend that time, you ask?  Largely attempting to reconstruct my playthrough of the first Dragon Age game, which features the largest concentration of variables, an unsurprising fact considering how long and detailed that game is.  I picked over Dragon Age's surprisingly porous questlog, locating a number of suspicious outcomes that indicated I'd done things like had a child with a woman I'd never met (seems unlikely) or sprinkled blood on the holiest of ashes that I remember gaming my way around defiling so that I could still unlock the class that required destroying an important piece of Thedas' shared cultural heritage.  I spent an entire evening after I finished teaching picking over those variables one by one, trying to sort out just what the vague post-quest wording behind each one meant, or where the quests might actually exist in that framework, until finally I gave up and, hat in hand, filled out the outcomes that I could remember, and improvised the ones I couldn't.  It was easier for Dragon Age 2, which was both fresher, and possessed of fewer variables (though I couldn't for the life of my remember who I'd romanced; either Isabella's fine pirate booty of Merrill's sweet and shy heart) but I still spent more time than I should've checking and double checking my results against the quest log, and even shifted a particular variable that had an immediate impact on Dragon Age: Inquisition's plot.

All this effort occupied a place for me adjacent to the game itself, a space where I could reflect on what had come before in various Dragon Ages, and what would come next in this new adventure.  The raw number of variables was so overwhelming, so intoxicating, that it made me remember just how queerly wonderful the sense of choice and consequence was in the first few Dragon Age games.  Some of them were obvious, for sure, but the very notion that some of those decisions, things as simple as completing a particular quest line, might reverberate through other games, is impressive in a way that even the Mass Effect series' heavy interconnectivity doesn't manage.

It also highlights my lone disappointment with the first few hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition: the limited character background options.  I know, it's a bit silly to harp on considering the history of the series, and the way that options were so dramatically scaled down in Dragon Age 2, but I still miss the thorough interactivity that Dragon Age: Origins allowed you to impose on your character.  The raw, overpowering number of variables available to you was tremendous, and the way it shaped gameplay simultaneously so minor and yet so fundamental.  I desperately wanted to play as an elf from an Alienage who had carved his way into a position of authority, only to be laid low by a single ill-timed explosion after a career of taking advantage of such moments, but no joy.  My options were limited; only one selection per race/class combo, many of those outright duplicates.  While it's far from the worst thing to happen to the series, it was somewhat disappointing to encounter after reflecting on the rich array of choices available to me in previous games.

But perhaps it shouldn't be.  Given Dragon Age: Inquisition's focus on previous events, and the dexterous little character creation system that, while not as robust as Dragon Age: Origins, still provides enough options for me to be the person, more or less, that I want to be, perhaps this is just a nod at how important those previous choices I made were and how, in time, the choices I'm making in Dragon Age: Inquisition will rise to prominence as well.  Perhaps these limitations aren't limitations at all; they're strictures placed on a system so that all the choices I've made before can have a chance to play out and create a world, a narrative all my own, fulfilling the apparent goal of the Dragon Age series since it kicked off its early days as a roughshod Facebook game that gave you a chance to piss around on the Deep Roads, pre-Origins' release.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The Poetics of Hip Hop!



The poetics of hip hop occupy my thoughts, if not as much as they used to, quite often still.  Hip hop as a genre has saturated popular culture, moving from a musical subculture to an effective subset of pop music with its own indie movements, entrenched "classics" and bubblegum sweet iterations on genre themes aimed at providing commercials, movies, and pabulum television with evocative soundtracks.  The genre now reaches from Drake and Chris Brown to RZA and Snoop Dogg all the way out to the old school indies, like Aesop Rock and Blockhead.  The last two hold a special place in my heart; Aesop Rock remains one of my favorite rappers, and his approach to the genre of hip hop actually helped me see the poetic quality that it inherently possesses.

Because hip hop is poetry.  It's a particular idiomatic form of poetry with its own ill-defined rules and traditions and constantly shifting boundaries, oft confused or conflated with existent subsets of poetics like spoken word and performance poetry.  But hip hop isn't either of those things.  Hip hop is its own genre of word play conflated with musicality into an intellectual slurry of extraordinary potential.  You can break down the lyrics of a particular piece of music and examine them the same way you'd examine the lineation and measure of a particular piece of poetry.  You can pick through the imagery of Aesop Rock's Labor and come out richer for the experience.  You can look at how cadence, measure, and meter all function in a given rapper's work, and, for your effort, understand how things as fundamental as enjambment and stanza structure function in other, more conventional works of poetry.  In fact, I owe much of how I understand cadence and flow in my own work, as well as how I conceive of line and structure, to the poetics of hip hop - Marianne Moore and Ian Bavitz both taught me how a line should work, in very different ways, at around the same time in my life.

But there's a problem with that comparison I just made, a problem buried in the connection that I just elucidated: cadence, measure, and meter aren't terms native to the discourse of hip hop.  And their equivalents, things like tone, flow, and beat, aren't things that poets are particularly game on discussing.  Hip hop exists outside of the discourse of contemporary poetics, at least in part, because the people who normally sit down and "talk poetry" don't have a language to actually engage in a discourse about it.  They often don't even have the language to acknowledge the foreignness of certain concepts.  A contemporary academic poet knows slightly less about flow than a particularly active teenager who spends all of his allowance trying to hit up all-ages shows and building up enough clout with the people who run the venues he frequents to sneak into 18-plus shows.  In fact, I'd bet on the teenager being able to talk intelligently about how structure influences poetic flow over the academic poet, who'd probably talk your ear off about Mandelstam's bleak imagery.  They're both valid conversations to be had, and they're actually both pretty important to having a fully realized discussion about poetry in contemporary culture.  The issue isn't these two interests exist; it's that they have trouble co-existing.

There have been a handful of attempts to rectify this.  Yale released the Anthology of Hip Hop a while back, a well intentioned and deeply problematic book written by two academics, with limited input from Henry Louis Gates Jr., a wonderful academic in his own regard whose conflation with the fields of both poetry and hip hop is somewhat baffling to me, and commentary from Chuck D of Public Enemy and Common, two artists firmly rooted in the popular hip hop movement, with Chuck D moving closer to that sort of "old school" or "classic" hip hop that many cultural commentators focus on when they discuss the evolution of the genre.  The scope of their discussion was predictably limited, in part because of the necessity of determining an effective scope when anthologizing a particular body of work (you can't fit everything into one book, to paraphrase Basel King) and in part because the book itself seemed to be largely influenced by the interests of the writers, rather than any sort of exhaustive study of the field.  Much of their discourse focused on interrelated artists from similar schools of thought and movements, and their effort to include an exhaustive list of artists seemed to look forward, rather than backwards, anthologizing contemporary artists whose impact was still largely unknown in favor of older, more established obscure artists whose important work at the fringes of the community  has had a tremendous impact on the genre as a whole.  Even without that issue, the book is riddled with transcription errors: there's a great Slate piece that details many of them.

The existence of the book, again, isn't the problem: the problem is the slapdash way much of the subject material is dealt with.  It's part of a borderline disrespectful pattern of behavior that academics often engage in, wherein they insert themselves into a subculture or subgenre and attempt to define it in their own terms, projecting their own hierarchies on to fields where those hierarchies are both unnecessary, and ill-fitting.  Here, academics did so to the extent that they limited the scope of their discussion while focusing heavily on artists they believe will appeal to a mainstream audience, undermining the impact an anthology can have on public awareness.  It's great to have MIA and Slick Rick in an anthology of hip hop, but if the artists can bring awareness to other lesser known and still important artists, like M.O.P. for example, the anthology has actually done what anthologies are meant to do: it has expanded the notion of what we should consider art, and allowed us to establish a broader context for a genre beyond the "first thought-best thought" response we usually bring to bear on discussing popular culture.  There's also the issue of just developing a shared language for the discussion of hip hop and poetics.

This is a deeper problem, and it's something that occurs whenever you're attempting to avidly discuss a subculture or subcultural institution: without a shared language, it's impossible to have a real dialogue about something.  Hip hop doesn't even have this shared language internally, and some of the terms inherent in hip hop, like beat and rhythm, mean completely different things in poetic terms.  The end result is that two people entrenched in their own communities could have a very long, very thorough dialogue about the subject at hand while thoroughly mis-communicating with one another.

So how do we address that issue?  One way is to organically develop terminologies as they're needed, but that just patches the issue; it doesn't help us fix the problem long term.  The real answer is to have academics sit down and seriously examine hip hop as a subgenre of poetry, and to have a real effort to engage with hip hop as an appropriate academic topic in higher education.  A freshman class taught by an enthusiastic professor who knows and loves the two or three dozens artists he wants students to listen to over the course of a semester could build a terminology that we could use for years to come.  A full cirriculum oriented around writing papers about the social real-politik of The Diggable Planets buried in dope, structurally simple lyrics metered out hypnotically would be a god damn dream to teach, but the first steps need to be taken before we can get there, and at present, it's difficult to find a professor who even knows Blackalicious from Berryman.  Perhaps this paradigm will shift in time, but for now I'll keep dropping Aesop Rock references into my own work, and keep breaking down how hip-hop isn't performance poetry for my students whenever they ask, because it's important that we acknowledge that hip hop is simultaneously poetry, and its own wonderful genre with its own rich history and cultural background.