The Mommy Gamers

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Helen A. Lee

    Cooking with Dice: Making Delicious Food, RPG-Style

    Gamify your meal-planning!

    I love to cook. I get a chance to do it quite often because I’m a single mom and I can’t afford healthy, gourmet restaurant dinners every night. I can barely afford pizza once a week!

    I love gaming. That, I often have to skip because I also have to make money. My time is pretty much always taken up writing, trying to get more writing work, getting my school work done, and doing mom things.

    So – I don’t always have time to game. I have a new PS4 I’ve barely touched. I have Zelda: Breath of the Wild, sitting in my living room starting at me. I drop my kid off at D&D games and then go home to study. This doesn’t stop me from sneaking a few minutes of smartphone gaming at bedtime and Pokemon Go when I’m out and about. But it does mean my gaming time is cut pretty drastically. Every year my #1 New Year’s resolution is to Play More Games.

    So, what’s the compromise? This fall, I’m finding it in a little book called Cooking With Dice.

    Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. A kitchen-based RPG. And it’s going to save my season!

    What is Cooking With Dice?

    This original game, the first in what will be a series, turns cooking into a game you can play alone or with the entire family.

    This past spring, Cooking with Dice was a Kickstarter project offered by the people behind Adventure Scents. Creator Jennifer Howlett says that the project, and her company, started as a way of gamifying cooking to make it more fun for her kids, and to help her family connect. “I think that gamifying something is a great way to drive learning and motivation,” she says. “I love watching TV cooking competition shows (it’s a guilty pleasure) and have always wished I could capture that adventure in my own kitchen. I feel like Cooking with Dice has helped me to experiment more with cooking and try out things I’d never done before.”

    She did plenty of research to create the recipes in the book, and utilized family members and volunteer play testers to complete the project.

    There’s a story. You’re an adventure-chef, journeying through a fantasy setting with different scenarios. Like Dungeons & Dragons, there are classes and races, and you roll your dice to introduce an element of chance into your endeavors. Actually, you start out at Level 1 as a Plongeur (dishwasher), and work your way up to Chef de Cuisine (head chef).

    And it’s fun. Using formulas and gaming tables rather than outright recipes, Cooking with Dice allows you to gamify different aspects of cooking. You can be more creative and flexible, and, as Howlett says in the book, add “your own personal magic.” This first installment of the series forgoes heat in favor of chemical changes caused by acid. Every food you create is a bit different, because the dice decide.

    The Good:

    Quickles (my version had rosemary)

    I’m not really an RPG gamer. I don’t have any patience to read the manuals, and no one has ever invited me into a D&D session that evolved past character creation. But Cooking with Dice is short and the instructions are clear and simple.

    But this concept has made my grocery shopping more interesting. I hate grocery stores. Now, though, I take my copy of this game, and a bag of dice, and I roll to see what ingredients I’m going to be buying. If you see a random person in the produce section trying to find a flat surface, then rolling a 20-sided die, that could be me. Or someone else playing the game.

    Also, this type of cooking is unfamiliar to me. I tend to be more hit or miss when it comes to dishes that require chemical reactions as the main form of food alteration. However, this is giving me a chance to try things I’ve never done. It’s fun, and getting kids on board is easy. The writing is engaging and witty, and the recipes and instruction are creative, well thought out and simple.

    I made pickles (see above)! In fact, I made quite a few items that are outside my comfort range, and my son helped. He hates pickles, but would eat the game’s Quickles all day. (Ours were cucumber seasoned with rosemary, based on our roll.)

    So, success! Howlett’s goal worked for me. I’m sold! And my son has never had so much fun cooking. I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but I’m getting there. This is a really good way to get your kids involved in the kitchen.

    The Bad:

    I can’t think of anything, except that failure can be discouraging, and I failed with the cheese the first time because I used pasteurized milk. I also failed with the Dragonfly Jam because I could not locate the right kind of pectin. But those things aren’t Cooking with Dice’s fault. The book clearly said I could not use pasteurized milk, and I could not locate the correct kind of pectin. Oops. Like I said, this is not an area of cuisine that I’m terribly familiar with.

    Ceviche Tomato Bombs (with shrimp)

    To be honest, it’s actually taking me a long time to get through the game because I’m always so busy, and finding other ways to use up ingredients I bought for the game is sometimes beyond my mental capability, even though they aren’t weird or anything. So my son and I have to make an extra effort to do the game justice, but Cooking with Dice gives our kitchen a much-needed culinary spark on nights we decide to play. It’s a good thing the game is so easy and flexible, because otherwise it’d just be another Crock-Pot dump meal for us.

    The Final Word:

    In a world that’s becoming more and more digitized, in which we have much less free time than we’d like, Cooking with Dice is a breath of fresh air. My son isn’t always a super-adventurous eater but he’ll try new foods, especially if we make them ourselves.

    Cooking with Dice lets us fit gaming into our busy lifestyle, and eat better food while we’re doing it. That’s a win-win in my book!

    Howlett and her 12-year-old daughter are working on a sequel for 2018, which would contain formulas that are easy for kids to make with minimal supervision. I’m on board with that!

    If you’d like more information on the book and Adventure Scents, visit www.cookingwithdice.com. Next month, Cooking with Dice: The Acid Test will be available via the website and through Amazon.com.

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    Richard Hatch: The Heart of BSG Goes Missing

    As a child, I think you connect with role models and heroes in a way that you don’t when you’re grown up. You’re learning about yourself, finding your passions, figuring out where you fit in. You attach yourself to people you see on screen, relating to them in deeply profound ways and perhaps not understanding exactly where reality detaches from fantasy. Those characters become a touchstone for your life. As you get older, you may grow out of that intense passion for your heroes, but they’ve left an indelible mark that never quite fades. 

For me, Apollo of “Battlestar Galactica” is one of those icons.

    I was just eight years old when the series first started airing on ABC, and I have hazy but fond memories of sitting in my living room in front of a console TV, watching a traitor named Baltar give silver robots orders from a high pedestal in a dark room. I have clearer memories of reruns being aired every single weekend throughout my entire childhood, into my mid-teens, even though BSG was canceled after just one high-profile season. I watched the series over and over again. I’ve probably seen every episode of the 1978 series 50 times.

    Two Apollos – Jamie Bamber and Richard Hatch

    One of the show’s main actors was Richard Hatch, who played Apollo, and who died this week. He was my first star crush. I was way too young to think of Luke or Han as potential crushes, when I saw “Star Wars” at age 6. And I’ve always been more drawn to strong female characters than male ones. This means that though Apollo was my first crush, I always wanted him for Sheba, played by Anne Lockhart – not for myself. That was my first ‘ship. Not that we had a name for it in those days.

    By the time I met Richard Hatch in person, I was too wise to the ways of the world to expect this actor to be anything like the character he portrayed, and he isn’t – exactly. The two are both dark and handsome and charismatic. Apollo is serious and uncorruptible, the brooding hero that good girls like me dreamed of. Richard Hatch is outgoing, fun, and easy to hang with. In my limited encounters with him, his charm has seemed more what I’d expect from Apollo’s fictional co-conspirator Starbuck, played by Dirk Benedict.

    I’ve been told that girls either gravitated to Starbuck or Apollo. This told you pretty much everything you needed to about said girl – and I was an Apollo girl. Whatever that says about me. This didn’t change after I met the man who played him. That was on the 2008 Galacticruise, celebrating the series’ 30th anniversary. I am just one of many fans who experienced the Hatch charm, and found my love for BSG revitalized by his clear passion for the series, even after all these years.

    Richard Hatch has a way with people. In my journal from 2008, I say that he’s “handsomer in person,” which is very unlike me. But his attractiveness is more than skin-deep. He makes every single person feel special. You know, at first I thought it was just me – wow, he really thinks I’m cool, I thought. But nope. It turns out he’s that way with everyone. Just ask anyone who’s ever met him. It’s easy to react positively to that vigorous, yet authentic charm, and to be enthusiastic about whatever Hatch is enthusiastic about.

    Photo from last summer, courtesy of Richard’s friend and publicist Mina Frannea

    And some of his enthusiasm has always been reserved for BSG – the story, the characters, and the family that has grown up around the series over decades, which expanded when the newer SyFy reboot entered the fold. Over the years, he’s spent much of his time and energy campaigning for another version of the series, being an ambassador for the show, and otherwise strengthening the bonds between BSG and its fans. It has been his life’s work, in a way. The fact that he ended up playing Tom Zarek in the new BSG was simply – fitting.

    I’ve met him once or twice at conventions since then, because he’s always going to them all over the world, and I interviewed him just a little over a year ago. He remains one of the most approachable actors I’ve ever spoken with, and I’ve interviewed my share. I also took one of his acting seminars. Now I’m no actor, and I have no pretensions that I’d ever be good at it, but here’s what I remember learning during that experience: acting is a lot like life. You may not be a professional actor, but the techniques used to improve one’s acting ability can help you work through your feelings and establish self-esteem. You can break through the fear that’s sapping your energy, poisoning your attitude, and holding you back from discovering your best self.

    I know, it all sounds like cliched self-help stuff, but I can’t do justice to his actual words. When Richard Hatch said it, it was quite moving and very inspiring. And I’m a cynical Gen X-er so that means something. It’s not so much the words I remember as the kindness, and the sincerity, behind it. He really wanted to help us achieve our dreams.

    I have come to know firsthand how amazing, interesting, and generous the BSG community is. This is no accident. The fans have had, as their champion, a man who who truly believes in the BSG story – its “heart and soul, and spirit,” as he described it to me in an interview in 2015. In a very real way, Richard Hatch was the heart and soul and spirit of the BSG fandom, and he will be missed. Those of us who were “Apollo girls,” or kids who aspired to be like him in a world that needs heroes, will not forget.

    And Apollo, that upright, good, honest man who saw so much darkness but imparted so much hope, may very well be waking up on that Ship of Lights again. At last.

    Click here for a Nerdist video paying tribute to Richard Hatch. And click here to go to the article I wrote on BSG, “A Fan History of Battlestar Galactica,” which explains Hatch’s contributions to BSG fandom (and a lot of other things…).

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    Category
    Television
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    A Close Encounter with the Hello Kitty Cafe Food Truck

    Close, but no cookie (literally)…

    20160813_131601
    I know, everyone likes Hello Kitty. She’s adorable! Even so, apparently everyone still underestimates her popularity. Including the people who run the Hello Kitty Cafe’s food truck. Including hundreds of fans who showed up today to check it out. Including me.

    When I left my house around noon in hopes of catching the Hello Kitty truck, I really had only a vague idea what I was doing. I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of food would be offered, or how long I’d be there, or if there’d be a crowd. I brought my camera, some sunblock, and a copy of Quidditch Through the Ages (because I was playing in a Facebook-based quidditch trivia tournament at 5 p.m.). I was prepared to stand in line. Or so I thought.

    P1060486

    My view from the back of the line

    I’ve been a Hello Kitty fan since I was five or so – my dad would bring me Hello Kitty souvenirs when he went to Taipei, Taiwan starting in the mid-’70s. Today I still have my share of Hello Kitty merch – t-shirts, a keychain, a purse. It didn’t occur to me to wear any of it today, but lots of other people did. I saw t-shirts, mostly, but here and there you could see a clear kawaii influence. Parasols! Mini-bun hairstyles! And lots of geekery. Turns out, the Hello Kitty fan base (more adults than kids) also loves Pokemon, “Star Wars,” “Doctor Who,” and cute Chucks. Ah, my people.

    When I heard that the Hello Kitty food truck was coming to Oakbrook Mall in Oak Brook, Ill. this weekend, of course I planned my day around it. Not very well, as it turns out. I forgot the sunblock in the car, didn’t think to eat beforehand, and walked around the mall for like 30 minutes before I figured out where the truck was parked (in front of Urban Outfitters, duh). By the time I arrived, my phone battery was already depleted from trying to catch Pokemon – which I didn’t do much of, seeing as I was plumb out of Poké Balls. I debated for a few minutes as to whether or not I should bother to get in line, because the posted menu consisted of donuts, cakes, cookies, macarons, a water bottle, a mug, and t-shirts – and the donuts were already sold out. The offerings didn’t seem very filling, and the line was already pretty huge.

    P1060489

    This is the closest I got to the macarons, which are in the bowtie-shaped boxes

    I decided I’d get in for a few minutes and see how fast it moved. I was right behind the mom of a little girl in blonde pigtails who declared passionately, when asked if she was sure she wanted to do this, “I’ve been waiting for this my WHOLE LIFE!” It wasn’t too bad, so I stayed – but it got worse. I had time to re-read Quidditch Through the Ages and memorize the entire list of fouls and the names of the 13 English teams. Then I had time to memorize the entire list of broom games of the wizarding world that were precursors to quidditch. Then I was able to memorize the entire lineup of European quidditch teams. Then I memorized the names of everyone who had ever played quidditch. Then I memorized the length and width of the quidditch field, and the names and previous names of all the positions of all the players, then the history of the Golden Snitch (it was introduced in 1269). And then I was sick of quidditch.

    So I made friends with a mom and seven-year-old daughter who told me all about their charm necklaces and gave me a catalog. I petted two tiny puppies in line with me, one of which was wearing a Hello Kitty harness. I listened to the Harry Potter conversation of the people who were right behind me until they gave up. I admired someone’s “Doctor Who” bag, which had Tardises (Tardisi?) on the outside and cartoon Doctors along the inside lining. I spotted some friends who had been in line since 9:30 a.m. And then I got thirsty. Everyone in line had someone else with them who was passing them drinks from Argo Tea, except me. At one point, we passed waters down the line to someone, and I wasn’t the only one tempted to just grab the cup and drink it myself. So many people around me were sucking down bubble teas that I started brainstorming ideas of how to get myself one (Taskrabbit? Paying the seven-year-old girl to do it? Bribing someone in line for their drink?). In the end, the mom and daughter offered to save my place, and in return I got them bubble tea and water. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, saving those of us who are way unprepared.

    I managed to not take any pictures of people wearing cool things, but I did get a picture of a tiny puppy in line!

    I managed to not take any pictures of people wearing cool things, but I did get a picture of a tiny puppy in line, being petted by my seven-year-old friend

    I snaked my way through three sets of zig-zagging line separators designed to contain us as we slowly got closer to the pink food truck. At some point I figured I was in it for the long haul because I had already been in line for two and a half hours. I was maybe 40 minutes from the end when the macarons ran out. The truck employees first passed word back that three boxes only were left.  I said, optimistically, “Well, as long as there are still some on display at the front of the truck, there are still more left, right?” At which point a person in the truck took down all the boxes of macarons at the front of the truck, and my new mom and daughter friend gave up and went to go get macarons at Godiva instead. I was about 20 minutes from the end when the cookies ran out. There was no food left, and my Facebook-based quidditch tournament was about to start.

    Hell hath no fury like a crowd deprived of Hello Kitty sweets. A bunch of people left disgusted, and others went up to the truck and asked about the situation – could the people who were left at least get the bags (free with a $25 food purchase) for standing in line for four hours with nothing to show for it? It’s my understanding that the employees called in, but were not allowed to do anything for anyone. More rumors, naturally, ran rampant – there were no mugs left, they were going to stop selling after another 15 minutes so they’d still have merch left for tomorrow, that sort of thing.

    My phone, an ancient Samsung Galaxy S4, had been turned off early so I’d have battery power for the quidditch tournament, should I still be there at 5 p.m. I was. I was the first on my team to play (as Keeper). It was Slytherin vs. Hufflepuff (I’m a Puff). The question that was asked…was NOT IN QUIDDITCH THROUGH THE AGES. It never is, especially when I’ve spent the last three hours in line memorizing every fact about quidditch in the entire freaking book. I answered it correctly, immediately, probably because the answer had come up in a study session with my fellow Puffs at some points (yay me). Then the Slytherin Seeker caught the Snitch. Tournament lasted 3.5 seconds, score 100-10, which ties the shortest Quidditch game on record. A fact I know because I spent three hours memorizing every fact about Quidditch in the entire freaking book.

    20160813_201732Meanwhile, in the line, things had reverted to controlled chaos. The line seemed superfluous, as the truck had completely closed down and the workers were selling out of a tent next to it, as fast as they could. Some people  were convinced several lines were now being formed, and yelled at the mall security to stop letting people buy over those of us who’d been standing in line for four hours. There were 50 (or was it 15?) mugs left, and the free bags were long gone too. The rest of us in line had to have SOMETHING to gripe about, so we complained about how long people were taking to decide on which style of t-shirt to get, because after four hours in line shouldn’t you pretty much already know? A bunch of people also started getting on the Facebook page to complain.

    In the end, I left with a mug, a $25 t-shirt, and two pins. The pin is my badge for sticking it out. I wasn’t even planning to buy the shirt, but, well…there weren’t any cookies.

    Curses, Hello Kitty Cafe food truck – turns out, the people in charge were just about as unprepared as I was. We suburban Chicagoans (and some Wisconsinites, and some Hoosiers too) are a tetchy lot, and we don’t like when people run out of food. If I were a real wizard, I’d find a curse and hex the people in charge (okay, maybe not, since I’m a Hufflepuff). As it is, I don’t actually believe in magic, so I’m going to sit here drinking tea out of my new Hello Kitty mug, wearing the hell out of my new pink t-shirt, and wondering if Hello Kitty cookies are really just that good. I may never know.

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    Food & Drink
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    What Is It with This Pokemon Go Thing Anyway?

    Everything Non-Gamers Need to Know…

    pokeGOlogoYou’ve been hearing about it ad nauseum, and you’re shaking your head at the bands of kids trespassing on your property in search of the Pokemon that’s apparently hiding in your backyard. You put up this meme:

    pokemongo

    Nevertheless, at least half the people walking down the street with their phones are clearly not 10, either. Some of us even have jobs. So what is the deal with Pokemon Go? Why do you hate it so much? Why does it feel so invasive? Why is everyone playing it in inappropriate places? Well, before you out yourself as the grumpy old person yelling at kids to get off your lawn, here’s what you need to know:

    

The Basics

    pokemonteams

    The teams are Valor (red – discipline), Instinct (yellow – intuition, and Mystic (blue – intellect). Players can choose a team at Level 5.

    Pokemon Go is a free app available for smartphones, an “augmented reality” game from The Pokemon Company and Niantic, Inc. This basically means that it puts virtual gameplay onto a map of the real world, and players interact with both. Pokemon Go is designed to get people out and about, to make them happier and healthier. It does this by generating virtual “pocket monsters” (that’s what Pokemon stands for), well known from previous Pokemon games and thus already favorites with fans, that appear on the phone screen.

    Players catch Pokemon with a flick of the wrist – throwing a virtual Pokeball toward the target. 

In addition to roaming Pokemon, the game also includes PokeStops and Pokemon Gyms. PokeStops are basically stationary rings that you can spin to get free items such as Pokeballs, which are used to catch Pokemon, along with eggs, which hold Pokemon inside and can be hatched if you do a certain amount of walking, and other enhancements. Gyms are places where players can battle each other. If you win a battle, you can take over the gym.

    Playing Pokemon Go is easy. Open the app, and the GPS finds your location. Your screen shows you which Pokemon are close, and where nearby PokeStops and Gyms are located. Start walking. You’ll find Pokemon along the way. At level 5, you can join one of three teams – Instinct (yellow), Mystic (blue), or Valor (red). Think of it as being sorted into a house at Hogwarts – your identification becomes tied in with these groups.

    

The Good

    artinst

    The Art Institute of Chicago posted a controversial Facebook post this week encouraging visitors to come find Pokemon inside – in this case, in front of its iconic Chagall windows.

    Pokemon Go is a game of discovery. It makes people get out and explore their neighborhoods, and it encourages socializing. My son has actually been getting off the couch this summer and going outside. Last night I took him to Ravinia Festival for an outdoor musical concert, and he talked to at least ten people about the game. We went to the zoo, where I’ve been volunteering every other week 20 years, and I didn’t recognize half the PokeStops because they were at statues and landmarks I’ve ignored in all my visits there. I had no idea they existed. In my hometown, I discovered a war memorial I must have passed 100 times, and never noticed before.

    Anecdotes already abound about how Pokemon is helping people’s mental health. And it’s giving local businesses a boost. Because Pokemon Go is so popular, entrepreneurs are trying to figure out how to utilize it for their own purposes and small businesses are seeing an uptick in sales from people coming in the door to find Pokemon. Pet shelters and museums and retailers are advertising the presence of Pokemon to get people in the door. (If you are looking for ways to leverage the popularity of the game, I recommend making an in-app purchase; spend $1 – 100 PokeCoins- and set off a lure, which will attract Pokemon and customers for 30 minutes after you activate it.) Also, T-Mobile just announced that data used to play Pokemon Go will not count towards its users’ data allowance.

    Ultimately, the addictive appeal for Pokemon can be a good thing. The goal of hatching eggs is already making more inroads than my Fitbit Alta in getting me to walk places, and I’ve never seen my son so excited to go places that might have Pokemon. The zoo! The botanic garden! The hardware store down the street, which has a gym! And there will be more ways for small businesses to leverage the game’s popularity, too, such as sponsorships that will turn them into portals.

    The Bad

    Screenshot_2016-07-14-23-02-49

    Here’s a screenshot of my phone, with a promotion that showed up on my feed from Binny’s Beverage Depot.

    As with any other engrossing app, Pokemon Go has people looking down at their phones instead of ahead. This can cause problems, because people not paying attention can cause accidents and such (although that traffic accident supposedly caused by someone playing the game is totally false, bad things are happening to players who are careless or who are putting themselves in danger). In addition, Pokemon tend to spawn everywhere, even places that aren’t necessarily friendly to the public, and Gyms and PokeStops can be located in unexpected locations.

    This is because, by the way, Niantic put out a previous game called Ingress, in which users submitted “portals” to be included on the virtual map that’s now basically being used for Pokemon Go. There are rules for these submissions, so PokeStops and Gyms do not interfere with private property, emergency services, or schools. Not all of these locations are completely current because things change so often in the real world, which is why players may end up in locations that don’t truly exist anymore (Please note: you can now submit requests to create portals in the game).

    There are other issues (for example, click here for the word on the game’s overly broad permissions ask). Different Pokemon are found in different locations, and at different times of day. So it can very well be dangerous for some people to play. I know a white man who feels uncomfortable loitering around parks where women and children are clustered. I’ve heard stories of black men who feel the game is too dangerous for them to enjoy, given the present climate. I’ve heard tales from physically disabled people who literally cannot access places where where Pokemon are found. It is not a perfect situation.

    

The Ugly

    Screenshot_2016-07-15-09-04-32

    A game screen, with map. The blue rings at the bottom are a PokeStop; click on it, and a photo of the landmark appears. You spin it to  get items. The darker blue landmark in the distance is a Gym, and it’s blue because right now it’s controlled by Team Mystic. On the bottom right of the screen, the white box tells you which Pokemon are near. If you click on a Pokemon as it appears, the screen changes to a camera image of what’s in front of you, with Pokemon superimposed and a PokeBall ready to “throw.” I caught a Rattata on my bed this morning…

    In the nine or so days that the game has been available, there’s been been a lot of buzz on the Internet, and much of it is bad. Any obsession, enjoyed without rules and not in moderation, can of course be dangerous, and there is etiquette to be learned and followed. The game is new, and people haven’t thought about the consequences of their actions yet (most of them have never heard of Ingress, so they don’t have experience with a game of this type). On the other hand, Pokemon Go gamers have been called many bad names by people who don’t understand the game’s appeal. The Internet is judgey, as usual. The comments sections should not be read.

    If Pokemon Go players are encroaching on your space, you have every right to say something. If they are breaking rules by sneaking in someplace that requires paid admission, that’s wrong. It’s true that there are currently PokeStops in some places that might be viewed as inappropriate – those places were put on the map by previous Ingress players and are only now being deemed offensive because of the number of people playing Pokemon Go. No one even noticed them before. In the past, however, Niantic (once a part of Google) has been responsive about removing them. The people who placed portals in these places most likely had good intentions – bringing people in, for example. It doesn’t mean players are being forced to use those stops, though. As more people play, and as everyone understands the problems of having Pokestops in these locations, things will change.

    But in my experience, it is both possible to stay out of the way of people while I’m playing Pokemon Go, and also be tolerant of people who are, after all, simply enjoying a fun little game that is getting them out and about. Just give players a little time to adjust. I’ll also remind the naysayers that the novelty will wear off – and although there will be updates and changes (an announcement about trading and other improvements has already been made), Pokemon Go – which is, after all, a fun game but not a really great one – will be much less appealing in the winter. At least, here in Chicago. If you live in Florida, you may be out of luck.

    If some kids do cross your lawn in search of Pokemon, feel free to channel the spirit of the game. Instead of yelling at them, why not ask them about it and make some new friends?

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    Category
    Apps, Games, News
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    A Noir Comic for Kids: Fourth Grade Confidential

    AA Comics’ quirky and cute detective saga is perfect for families

    fourthgradeFirst, a disclaimer: I know Neal Simon, the mastermind behind AA Comics. I think he’s awesome, I think his kids are awesome, and his brilliant wife is one of my closest friends. It doesn’t hurt that my own kid, a.k.a. “Noel the Mole,” has been rendered in black and white glory within the pages of this comic book. I believe this was a wonderful project for a lawyer-by-day, creative-type-by-night to do with his kids, and I hope it inspires more of us to do the same. So I am a bit biased. I make no apologies for this fact.

    Fourth Grade Confidential is one of those perfect family-friendly entertainment mixes – fun for kids, yet smart enough for adults. It features great, silly, cheesy one-liners that kids will appreciate, and references that they won’t. As a writer, I always tend to notice dialogue first, and here it’s both enlightened and funny – in the dry, Simon-esque way I’ve come to know. Some examples:  “My words fell harder than a kid on a defective Slip ‘n Slide.” “I’d accuse him of Napoleonic complex, if he could understand it or I could spell it.”

    4thconfidOr this exchange between Adin and Noel the Mole: Adin says, “I’ll tell the other kids you like ‘My Little Pony.'” Noel’s response is, “It’s 2015. Gender stereotypes are lame. Plus, these days it’s socially acceptable to be a brony.” Basically, the author takes a bunch of noir cliches and pop culture references and makes fun of them in a way that’s totally acceptable for everyone in the family.

    The black-and-white quality of the art lends it drama, as with real noir, and Simon’s bold, often stylistically simple drawings fit the style well. I can confirm that his characters, based on real people, are fairly accurate representations. Many of the settings are real too, and it’s fun for me as a resident of the northern Chicago suburbs to see how he’s transformed them into comic art.

    The story is fairly straightforward: Ayla, Adin’s little sister, loses her stuffed bunny. Adin, being the good big brother he is, takes on the case. He consults informants, who send him along the path towards solving the crime. He encounters kids who are clearly bad news. He even gets help from some new allies – a friend and cousin show up late in the story to help (this part feels the most obligatory, but I get it – these awesome girls had to be included).  The story is well-told and understandable, though there’s nothing new or especially polished about the plot’s actual execution. The strength of this mystery is in the humor and personality that permeates throughout.

    The comic book also includes parody ads, geeky references, and additional art clearly inspired and spearheaded by the kids involved. It’s obvious this project was a labor of love, and I look forward to the proposed (as in, I proposed it, just now, are you listening, Neal?) sequel, “Sixth Grade Confidential,” which hopefully will feature a new member of the Simon family and the return of its sassy-yet-sweet cast of young characters – including Noel the Mole (hint, hint).

    Fourth Grade Confidential can be purchased at DriveThruComics.com and on ComiXology for $4.99. There’s a Facebook page, and even a card game. You can find AA Comics at www.aa-comics.com.

     

     

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    Yaya Han’s new cosplay fabric collection is out!

    The line, featured at C2E2 this weekend, is now available at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores

    The Yaya Han Collection Fabric (2)

    This past weekend at C2E2 in Chicago, I saw probably more costumes than I ever remember seeing at the comic book convention. Now, I’m no cosplayer myself (I mean, I can technically sew…). However, I can certainly appreciate the artistry that goes into creating costumes, and I’ve often marveled at how lovingly crafted they are. And yes, I’ve wondered, where did she get that material and how does he go to the bathroom?

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    Cosplayer extraordinaire Yaya Han, speaking yesterday at C2E2 about her new line of cosplay fabrics, says she was “honored and flattered” to be tapped to help out with the fabric line.

    So, earlier this year when I heard about Yaya Han’s line of cosplay fabric, I was interested in an academic and abstract way. I very well might have gotten more into cosplay when I was younger if I knew at all where to find stuff (I used to dress up as Deanna Troi because it required one low-cut flared dress and one Starfleet logo communicator pin). And I like pretty fashion things.

    Given the coalescing of mainstream culture and cosplay represented by my very anecdotal observation about the proliferation of costumes at C2E2, this feels like an idea whose time has come.

    The Yaya Han collection, an exclusive line created by CosplayFabrics.com with input from Han and available only at JoAnn Fabrics stores and joann.com, officially debuted on Friday. In fact, I hear that some people at C2E2 were already wearing costumes made from them. I had a chance to experience the fabrics for myself on the show floor; now, I have no idea what constitutes great cosplay fabric, but I can tell you many of them do stretch in four different directions as advertised and there are some really lovely colors and patterns.

    “Sourcing fabrics has been an intricate part of cosplay,” Han said at her press conference, noting that in the past, cosplay has often consisted of dyeing, manipulating, and digging deep in terms of research. Finding the very materials needed was a huge part of the process. So, streamlining this part of it helps cosplayers in a big way: “This puts the focus on creativity, instead of running around finding things,” she said.

    Yaya Han cosplay fabrics

    A rep demonstrates the four-way stretch capability of one of the fabrics on the show floor.

    The fabrics are now easily accessible by everyone within driving distance of a Jo-Ann Fabrics store, which is huge. Previously, specialty fabrics like these had to be purchased online, which made it impossible for cosplayers to determine quality, flexibility, breathability, durability, texture, and accurate color-matching. In addition to accessibility, Han believes it’s important to offer a variety of materials and colors in different designs for different genres, from anime and steampunk to fantasy and superhero. And naturally, comfort is a big deal too.

    It sounds like Han and CosplayFabrics.com are already looking forward to expanding the line, which currently consists of 75 different fabrics across 16 different categories. They include four-way stretch spandex, four-way jumbo spandex, brocade and coutil fabrics. Coatings include foil, leather, and embossed armor plate. So, if demand is high, the Yaya Han collection could be here to stay – and it might get bigger and better.

    For cosplayers, this could represent more than just another step in the right direction. It’s also recognition that cosplaying is an innovative and creative art form, one that’s becoming more popular, more visible, and more mainstream. “The most wonderful thing here is that somebody noticed us little cosplayers,” Han said.

    CosplayFabrics.com appears to be open to feedback on how to improve the collection, once everyone has had a chance to actually experience the materials in real life, so go check it out at your local store and see what you think. I’d be interested in hearing input from actual cosplayers as to how the fabrics really work.

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    J.K. Rowling Makes Missteps, But I Still Heart Harry Potter

    Thoughts on Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”

    pottermagicnaNot too long ago I joined my very first Harry Potter-based fan group, a Facebook group called Platform 9 3/4 (for those of you who care, I was sorted into Hufflepuff). As a result, my feed is full of Potter-related memes these days – everything from silly jokes to tributes to Alan Rickman, and I’m part of a community of passionate fans. I was as excited as anyone to hear about J.K. Rowling’s release of information, in four parts this past week, regarding North American wizards. It comes in anticipation of the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a movie trilogy slated to begin later this year. The movie series is set in historical New York.

    As you may know, the very first installment of “History of Magic in North America” (which, by the way, does not at all mention Mexico or Canada), titled “Fourteenth Century-Seventeenth Century,” caused an uproar almost as soon as it showed up on Pottermore, the official Harry Potter website. Unfortunately, J.K. Rowling made some mistakes here. The most obvious one for me, as a non-Native American, was the way she identified the whole population of indigenous people as one big culture. There are other issues, such as her treatment of the legend of the “skin walkers,” a distinctly Navajo tradition that she says has a basis in fact because they are actually Animagi.

    Basically, her blunders in this piece can be summed up to generalization and appropriation. She takes a non-mystical culture and claims it for her magical Potter world. She’s guilty of treating Native Americans the way that most stereotypes in literature and other forms of media have done for hundreds of years. (You can read more about this on the Native Appropriations blog and at National Geographic).

    I’ve been privy to some discussion about this piece through Platform 9 3/4, and the general consensus of people who don’t get where I’m coming from is this: “It’s only fiction. What’s the big deal?” Coming from people who’ve invested so much time, energy, and emotion into the Potterverse, this is a bit ironic. The problem is that stories have power, and they educate just as much as non-fiction does – maybe more, considering how many people read Rowling’s stories. So many fans missed the whole point of the criticism because they’ve been hearing this same sort of thing and seeing misrepresentation all their lives. They didn’t even notice that the piece was problematic. THAT is the “big deal.” That we don’t know our history, and we accept the homogenization of an entire culture without questioning it at all. If you don’t think this has real-world ramifications, check out the support base of one Donald Trump. The Mary Sue explains the whole controversy better here.

    ilvermornyI believe that Potterheards are bristling at any takedown of Rowling, whom they refer to as “the Queen.” Rowling has historically been sensitive to issues of race and gender. She defends Serena Williams, thinks its great that the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” will have a black Hermione, and defends her decision to make Dumbledore gay (selections from her Twitter feed can be found here). But she’s still a white woman who lives in the U.K., not America, with all the privilege that comes with that identification, and she’s human. I don’t think she’s a bad person at all – she just drank the Kool-Aid, and she shouldn’t have. As the creator of a world loved by so many, I wish she’d done better.

    This isn’t the only error Rowling has made, although it’s the biggest. As a lover of her stories, I have tried to rationalize other (mostly small) Rowling mistakes. For example, snakes don’t blink in real life, and that bit has always bothered me about the first Harry Potter book (see the scene, early in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where Harry meets the snake at the zoo). I’ve always explained this away to kids at the zoo where I volunteer by saying that “maybe magical snakes don’t blink.” The most glaring example of this in these four short essays that make up the history of North America appears to be the formation of MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, in 1693. I suppose I’m willing to believe that the wizards influenced the naming of the U.S.A….but the thing is, we were still just colonies all the way up to 1776.

    My criticism doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the rest of the history, which is interesting both in terms of the differences between Rowling’s English world and the American one, and in its own right. It’s clearly a rich source of potential story material. She goes into the witch trials, segregation, even Prohibition. In doing so, she mentions some of the magical creatures of America, such as Sasquatch, and groups of evildoers such as the Scourers – wizarding mercenaries that played a role in the Salem witch trials.

    Rowling clearly tried to incorporate some of the major themes of American history, although she skates a bit over things like slavery (sounds like the Scourers may have been involved here, too), the massacre of her mystical Native Americans, and our wars. She doesn’t even talk about Ilvermorny, the wizarding school, much. I mean, I realize she has to limit the scope just for the sake of brevity, but I’d have liked to know how those issues played out in the wizarding world, and can I get sorted into Ilvermorny or WHAT?

    Overall, I liked delving into the American Harry Potter world. “History of Magic in North America” did what it was supposed to, which is to psyche me up for the release of the “Fantastic Beasts” movie and spark my imagination about what wizarding would be like in my own country. I love the world Rowling has created, and I am glad to be part of a community that’s so fiercely loyal to it. I do hope “the Queen” herself, based on the progressiveness she has shown in public, would challenge herself in the future to do better in understanding and representing marginalized cultures, and so I have no trouble doing the same.

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