Author Archives: kaitelyiand

Reading Response: Unit Operations II

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. MIT Press, 2006 (Chapters 5-9).

I found the passage on game engines in chapter 5 perhaps the most revelatory because I tend to think about the specificity  medium in terms of its effects (interactivity, etc.) rather than in how video games are actually constructed. However, Bogost makes a good case for why engines, like genre, should be studied for “what they enable, and what they forgo of expression in videogames” (60). Of course, as he points out, engines create limitations and enable designs far differently than genres do (“intellectual proprietary, material, functional, and discursive” (60)), although they do intertwine a bit since, for example, an engine originally made for First-person shooter games will incline its users more towards using the engine to create more FPS games (although it’s important to note that they aren’t limited to that genre by the engine, just that it would direct them more towards it).

At the same time, I do question Bogost’s claim that “Unlike psychoanalysis or literary theory, IP is a stable relationship regulated by governments and markets instead of critics” (61), mostly for the use of “stable” since I think he’s claiming a stability that doesn’t necessarily exist. Bogost seems to agree, too, since in the next sentence he writes that “The rules of IP are flexible and may change, but its fundamental principle is legal, not literary” (61). I take issue with his example too; yes, “T.S. Eliot did not license rights to Homer and Dante in order to make their works fungible in his own” (61), but that’s basically because Bogost has picked a literary example where IP rights wouldn’t apply in the first place. Finally, I’m a bit concerned about Bogost’s desire to mix intellectual property rights with literary criticism.

I also appreciated in Chapter 8 when Bogost calls Juul to task for privileging “the formal quality of the game over its expressive potential” (121) as if emergent and thus replayable gameplay is all that a game should strive for. I may not agree with Bogost on everything, but I think I’m willing to defend “videogames need not participate in such an economy. Rather, they may strive to make highly isolated statements that pursue specific goals through the gameplay experience” (122). I would like to see video games (and their audience) outgrow this desire for all games to be always, unthinkingly fun in the same way that film outgrew its need to be always, unthinkingly fun.


Moral Choice Systems and Their Problems

Moral choice systems are popular, and I do believe there are some fairly reasonable reasons for using them. However, there are also numerous problems with using moral choice systems, sometimes with implementation but often with the very concept itself. The main issue I find is that, for various reasons, the use of moral choice systems winds up creating a state of affairs where, because of the very nature of how moral choice systems and games work a) the players are no longer actually thinking about how moral an act is in any given “instant” of a moral choice system and b) the game essentially forces players to become either cartoonishly evil or good. Both problems serve to destroy a game’s ability to present truly complex moral choices and force players to consider the morality of their actions, an ability that is unique to video games of all media.  In addition, the moral choice systems often create a clash between the narrative and gameplay mechanics.

Inconsistent morality: I’m picking on Knights of the Old Republic a bit here because I’ve played it recently (and I really do like the game!), but, just as an example, why am I getting dark side points for forcing someone to tell the truth but not for stealing $100 from that same person? It kind of defeats the purpose of having such a “system” that’s supposed to monitor the player character’s actions and decide the correct alignment if some obviously good or evil actions don’t count.

Progress bar: There’s an issue wherein many games, such as Mass Effect, will actually inform you when you are receiving good or evil points for an action, how many points you are getting, and tying those points to a little scale that informs you how good or evil you are. I find this the most obnoxious implementation because it destroys any chance for a truly complex, ambiguous choice because the game is always happy to tell you that what you did is either good or evil. At least with tying external consequences to the choices (whether in the form of changes to your character’s appearance or how other characters treat the player character), the consequences for actions seem a bit more organic. For example, I mentioned the household looting in Knights of the Old Republic not having any consequences. However, I did actually get in trouble for that. Once. It wasn’t a little window popping up to tell me that I was doing something “dark” though; it was the actual residents responding with great hostility to my actions, which seems a much more logical and realistic consequence than a little floating number.

There’s also a problem with the bar being so two-dimensional. This measurement doesn’t reflect reality particularly well since many actions aren’t defined as simply “good” or “evil”. For example, lying is immoral, but so is hurting someone, so should you still tell the truth if the other person might find it painful? Such a problem can be easily answered by a game with a moral choice system, which will helpfully inform you which is the right choice. There’s something very irritating about being told whether a character or your own actions are good or evil rather than the game letting you figure that out for yourself.

In addition, and I believe it’s Miguel Sicart I’m paraphrasing when I say that if you tie moral choices to a statistic, the player stops thinking morally and starts thinking statistically. It no longer matters to the player which action in a given situation is right or wrong except to try to figure out how to “level up” in either good or evil along the progress bar.

Sluggish gradient:  Another issue with progress bar is that the player character can act very good or very evil in any given situation, but this action might only make the character slightly more moral or slightly less moral overall, which doesn’t really reflect reality particularly well. This may be one of the few occasions that I stick up for Bioshock’s moral choice “system”, but I like that killing a child leads automatically to the “bad” ending. I’ve seen some complaints about this, and I realize why it might seem counter-intuitive to let one action in the entire game decide the ultimate ending even if you don’t repeat that action given how familiar the progress bar morality mechanic has become. However, you can’t pretend the character is a good person because, well, gee, he only killed one small child in cold blood.

Just for another example, in Knights of the Old Republic I’ve killed at least a half dozen innocent people by this point, but the character is only slightly in the red:

And again, this oddity occurs because of the nature of the video game being a video game. If a player could rocket back and forth along the scale, or if one deed sets a player’s alignment for the entire game, this could break the game’s balance in the former case and anger the player in the latter. However, at the same time, now there’s a situation where a character can kill a half dozen people for fun and profit and still be mostly neutral.

Equal options: In most cases, the player receives essentially the same reward (more points up and down a morality bar, usually) for essentially the same amount of effort/sacrifice (none, usually); basically there’s no reason not to be a good person, so the only reason to pick an evil choice is because it’s an evil choice. Again, this equality is not reflective of reality. It removes an excellent opportunity for allowing players to consider, for instance, how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to do the right thing or whether they would rather make the easier, but perhaps more selfish or callous, choice.

Of course, making the player sacrifice anything in order to be a good person might inhibit his or her ability to complete the game, so this situation is almost unavoidable in video games, once again because of their very nature. Similarly, the player is rarely punished for taking the evil option in any meaningful way. Off the top of my head, there’s only one series I can think of that will punish players for unnecessary cruelty in ways that can actually prevent them from finishing the game, and those games don’t really use a “morality system” anything like the ones I’ve previously discussed.

Bioshock is another interesting case. Lars Konzack argues that the ending of Bioshock is a statement that “greed is not good” (40), with the good ending resulting from saving all the Little Sisters (and requires reducing the amount of ADAM the player character earns) whereas the player character achieves the bad ending by killing at least one Little Sister (but getting a lot more ADAM). However, savvy players will realize that a) they get small rewards for saving the Little Sisters throughout the game and b) the amount of ADAM that they sacrifice is pretty much negligible, which means that the player is actually learning a different lesson along the lines of “greed is good if you’re smart about it”. Once again, an interesting attempt at a moral choice, one in which the choice is actually quite clear but doing the right thing requires a sacrifice, is hobbled by the fact that it occurs in a video game, as Bioshock must balance itself to allow the moral player to actually complete the game.

Simple choices: If I may pick on the Wired article and Bioshock again, to kill or not to kill a helpless child is not a “moral conundrum”. Additionally, even if the choices manage to be less extreme, they’re still frequently very simple and shallow; to quote James Portnow, “If you peg morality in your mechanics to a 2d bar, your moral choices will be 2 dimensional. No writer can write around this, no level of voice acting is going to save you.”

Extreme ends: In many games, moral choice is often tied to particular powers, and often the best powers for either the good or evil alignment require being the best or worst possible person. As a result, the player will no longer be making some good and some evil choices, but just decide to be either extremely moral or extremely immoral in order to earn the better prizes.

Anthony Burch, former features editor for Destructoid, rants briefly on a few other problems that occur as a result of moral choice systems forcing players to opt for moral extremes.

Reading Response: Unit Operations I

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. MIT Press, 2006 (Chapters 1-4).

I’m in general agreement with the sentiments Bogost expresses in chapter 4 regarding certain issues in game studies. While I’m sympathetic to the Aarseth’s statement that “’I wish to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved” (51), this sympathy is more with the latter half of the statement. I don’t believe there is a problem with applying literary criticism to video games; it’s just that, as with any other medium, the criticism must take into account the differences between media.

Like Bogost, I find the self-imposed “functionalist separatism” (52) of the field of video game studies to be problematic, even dismaying in its reversal of previous attempts to “connect games to other cultural forms” (53), as this separation can only serve to isolate videogames from meaningful interactions with other cultural objects and reduce many possibilities for criticisms, analyses, understandings, and, ultimately, improvements of the medium.

I also share Bogost’s concern with privileging “the ludic over the literary” (53), as the attempt to cordon off narrative elements, such as cut scenes, from the rest of the game has always bothered me as—and please forgive the tautology—so long as it is part of the game, it is part of the game and can’t just be ignored. This way of thinking also creates the binary between gameplay and narrative that I don’t believe necessarily exists.

Finally, I’m interested in what seems to be a more rhetorical focus, with Bogost mentioning his own desire to “Instead of focusing on how games work…turn to what they do” (53), so I’m looking forward to how that works out in later chapters.

Also, I have a few Bogost-related links in Delicious, but, since they’re now buried, here’s a link to the Persuasive Games site (founded in part by Bogost, focusing on creating games in the “serious” genre for instruction and activism and which refers to video games’ potential as “rhetorical tools”) and an archive of his “Persuasive Games” column at Gamasutra, which in turn links to his website.

Reading Response: Critical Play III

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 7 and 8 )

Ah, the well-worn debate about video games as art. This chapter brought up a few issues that I think are important for explaining why commercial developers are reluctant to create games that are challenging in either their presentation or content.

First off, I do wonder if there might not be a problem with claiming as fact the statement that “artists’ games by definition take an ‘outsider’ stance in relation to a popular commercial games culture” (226). While it’s true that “This position itself suggests alternate readings of contemporary issues in electronic media and offers the possibility of commentary on social experiences such as discrimination, violence, and aging that traditional gaming culture either avoids or unabashedly marks with stereotypes” (226), and I definitely do not disagree that this is very important, I think this might create a self-perpetuating problem. Reinforcing the idea that art and commercial games are automatically different–if not outright in opposition to each other–might restrict the art games’ influence on commercial games, enforce a false dichotomy between the two, and create the same chasm between “art game” and “commercial game”  that currently exists between “educational game” and “commercial game”, which would be extremely unfortunate.

Also, I may as well comment on the following question: “If games are supposed to be a source of entertainment, should they also attempt to enhance critical thinking as well as address social and political issues?” (247). Because video games are often viewed as (and often are) playful, light entertainment, if they address serious issues, there’s a good chance that they can be seen as disrespectful to or exploitative of that subject matter in an offensive manner (though I would argue no more exploitative than your average Hollywood movie). However, this issue does not necessarily need to be seen as a problem or obstacle to making a game with serious content; rather, it can provide extra incentive for the developers to put more thought and care into the game that they’re creating. Unfortunately, the idea that games are and should only be for entertainment can also become an excuse for dangerously sanitizing serious issues. For the purposes of my own blog, I consider this a particularly important issue to consider because a refusal to address serious content, or take serious content and distance and distort it as much as possible from reality, can restrict the potential for games to explore moral dilemmas that aren’t clearly black and white or that have relevance outside of the game.

As for educational games, Extra Credits had a helpful episode detailing a few ways that educating players can be achieved in commercial video games in ways that aren’t overly heavy-handed and obvious.

Reading Response: Critical Play II

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 4, 5, and 6 )

Of the three chapters, (“Language Games,” “Performative Games and Objects,” and “Artists’ Locative Games”), the one I found myself thinking about the most was “Artists’ Locative Games”. More specifically, I was interested by her comments on the issue of the objectification of “non-players” in these games as well as the commodification of the city.

I think Flanagan raises a very important point when she states that certain locative games have an unfortunate consequence when “most participants are not players; the NPCs are unaware that there is a game going on, and unwillingly commodified by the players” (206). In essence, these types of games turn anyone who isn’t playing the game into game pieces. For instance, one of the examples of locative games, Cruel 2 B Kind, is an attempt to spread “random acts of violence” by using good deeds as weapons to “kill” opposing players. However, while the actions performed by players to accomplish their goals might be different (compliments instead of stabbings), and while the intentions of the game’s creatores are also obviously quite well-intentioned, in practice the game turns the people who aren’t “in the know” into objects to be used, objects with as much agency within the game as the computer NPCs in a round of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which is a quite problematic attitude to encourage in the players.

In addition to how these games treat non-players, another important point that Flanagan brought up was how these games treat the urban environment, and I think this treatment has important ramifications for video games as well. Flanagan states that “the type of space these games typically produce rely on an abstracted, loose relationship to the location in which they are played, thereby commodifying the urban landscape” (199) and that “major urban centers have become spectacles of tourism and entertainment, and that these spectacles no longer serve residents, but have become tourist destinations in their own right” (200), which brings up an important cautionary point about these kinds of games. Now, for video games, I think a similar sentiment applies, and that this view of “the city as a game board” (204) by the creator and player is even heightened. Many games, especially urban sandbox games, will model their setting after a real city, to greater or lesser extents. However, in video games, the city is not merely transformed into a game space, but actually only exists as one, with the player as the ultimate, empowered tourist for whom the city exists. I don’t mean this as necessarily a criticism of these types of video games though; they might actually be more honest than similar locative games in that the video game presents a simulation of the city while the locative game presents a simulacrum.

Reading Response Round Up: Bonus Round

Arsenault, Dominic and Bernard Perron. “In the Frame of the Magic Cycle.”

I forgot about chapter 6 of The Video Game Theory Reader 2, not that I have all that much to say about it. I rather liked the “magic cycle” with its layered approach as a particular model for understanding video games games . However, I have to question the third layer, the “hermeneutic circle”, mostly for what seems like a separation of “comprehension” and “interpretation” (117) that I don’t agree necessarily exists. Is it possible to comprehend something without first interpreting it?

Also, and this issue I have is not specific to the text but an issue with a general trend I’ve seen in many places: I strongly disagree with this dichotomy between narrative and gameplay, as if they never interact or overlap (although at least Arsenault and Perron don’t establish them as directly conflicting with each other). I consider this idea to be one that creates numerous problems in games, and while not limited to morality, these problems that can certainly occur when games do try to use morality as an aspect of the narrative or gameplay. For instance, a game’s narrative might establish a certain moral stance for the character that the player is then free to undermine, and I think one of the reasons these situations occur is because gameplay and narrative are so frequently treated as completely different aspects of a video game that the ways in which they can affect each other is overlooked.

Moral Choice Systems, Some Examples of

I’m still having trouble finding any sort of authority I can fall back on for a definition of a “moral choice system”, and I’m not being helped by the fact that different games call them by different names, so how about a few examples? This way we can all be on the same page about what I’m railing against.

Just to expand a little on what I said in my first post, I group together under the heading of “moral choice system” any system in a video game that tracks the main character’s moral behavior (almost invariably in the form of a very obvious choice between several clear options), quantifies it, and ties it to some sort of consequence for the player character. The consequences are generally

  • changes in the character’s statistics, such as what powers are available to them
  • changes in the character’s appearance
  • changes to the world around the character, such as interactions with non-player characters or changes to the narrative or environment

Games employing such a system include

  • Knights of the Old Republic (“alignment” along one spectrum of light-dark)
  • Infamous (“karma”)
  • Fallout (“karma/reputation”)
  • Fable (“alignment” along two spectrums of good-evil and pure-corrupt)

In Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, players are given one scale of alignment scaling from good to evil (or “light” to “to dark”).

The character’s statistics screen in Knights of the Old Republic. The alignment meter (currently neutral) is to the left of the character’s portrait.

As players go through the game, they are presented with scenarios with several options they could take, usually one that will give light side points, one that is neutral, and one that gives dark side points. The results of these choices will send the player up or down the light-dark spectrum, resulting in different powers and changed appearances although, oddly, the ending is decided solely by end-game choices as opposed to the player’s behavior throughout the game, which can be just a bit inconsistent.

A scenario in which the player’s options range from helping someone out to threatening him for money.

The player chooses option #3. Dark side points obtained! It’s worth noting that the game doesn’t seem to give dark side points for looting the dead, breaking and entering, burglary, or terrifying a households’s residents–just for the choices made in scenarios very obviously set up for determining the player’s alignment.

In addition to the moral choice systems directly tied to a character’s statistics, I’m also going to be talking a bit about games that implement moral choices differently, such as by punishing or rewarding players for their behaviour. For example, in Bioshock there’s only one choice that occurs repeatedly through the game. If the player makes the wrong choice, a bad ending will result, and the choice also affects the resources available to the player instead of changes in the player character’s statistics.

In general, I’m hoping to use these and other examples in order to discuss the various ways morality and choices in video games are used and the advantages and disadvantages of the concepts and implementation involved in creating and using these systems.

Reading Response Round Up: Video Game Theory Reader 2: I

Perron, Bernard and Wolf, Mark J. P, eds. The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Routledge, 2009.

Alright, I’m commenting on five chapters from The Video Game Theory Reader 2, so let’s try for 200 words or fewer for each:

Perron, Bernard and Mark J.P. Wolf. “Introduction.”

I was interested by the comment on how “the multidisciplinary nature of video game studies” (3) was holding back video game studies since I’d love to know how that compares to the study of other media, such as film.

Additionally, keeping a video game history was one of the seven “challenges” facing video game studies that caught my eye because I have previously encountered problems getting computer games only a decade old to play, so I can only imagine the difficulty of getting a 40-year-old game in its original condition to work. As for some of the other “challenges”, I question whether some of these (such as #4, technology) always need to be taken into consideration in order to study a game any more than for any other media.

Konzack, Lars. “Chapter 2: Philosophical Game Design.”

I think that this chapter would have been responded to more charitably if, instead of “philosophy”, something like “ideology” had been used instead. I doubt there should be any question that games do communicate ideas and that game designers should understand this and consider what ideologies they’re pushing and how.

Now, for the bit that applies to this blog, the section on “Ethical Game Systems” (36), I think that “quantization” (37) of aspects of the game world, such as ethics and morality, while no doubt convenient for developers, is detrimental to actually presenting a sophisticated sense of morality in a game. Otherwise, I generally agree with the comments such as Black & White’s “ethical system” lacking “complexity past simplistic dualism” (38), which is the main problem with these systems as they are implemented (I do think he’s a little too impressed by Bioshock, but I hope to get back to that more in depth in another post). I also broadly agree with the criticism of persuasive games usually being too simplistic and shallow to actually accomplish their aims.

 Myers, David. “Chapter 3: The Video Game Aesthetic.”

First, I think he’s being too dismissive of playing that involves being “quiet and contemplative” by saying that “we prototypically describe human play using categories similar to those describing animal play” (45-6). Secondly, I think he’s again oversimplifying what playing is by focusing so much on insisting that playing is always “playing with something” (46). Why should I assume that “playing with something” is “fundamental to human play” (46)? I can play hopscotch. By myself. I certainly don’t play “with” hopscotch. In short, I believe that “locomotor play” is him trying to force a category into his thesis that doesn’t actually belong. This is just one example of Myers’ tendency to overreach that undermines a lot of valuable information that his chapter does contain.

Gregersen, Andreas and Torben Grodal. “Chapter 4: Embodiment and Interface.”

I thought it was very interesting to see how physical participation can help with empathy, and I would have liked a more in-depth look at how interfaces can enhance/interfere with interaction in video games. I was most interested in the concluding discussion about getting feedback from the video game, of being acted on instead of acting.  More physical “receptions” (80) might enhance immersion, not that that’s necessarily a good thing. Anyway, the only time I’ve ever seen the force feedback feature on the Playstation used in a novel and striking way was with Metal Gear Solid, so it would be kind of neat to see physical response somehow implemented in different ways by more games.

Jarvinen, Aki. “Chapter 5: Understanding Video Games as Emotional Experiences.”

In spite of my own indifference as to whether a game will cause me to break down in tears of either sorrow or joy, I would like to see the occasional video game master the ability to provoke an emotional response from players besides “yay, this is fun!”, especially since one would think that video games, as interactive media, would be better at involving their audiences in a fictional world. I also just like to see the medium increase in the diversity of experiences afforded to the player and for developers to take more chances and try new things (and while I’m at it, I’d also like a billion dollars and my own private island).  Anyway, interesting breakdown of different kinds of emotional experience, but it was more like advice for designers than a critical analysis.

Also, small quibble with the statement “games with their rules and roles are coercive in nature” (88). While you’re forced to play the game certain ways, you’re not forced to play the game, so “coercive” seems a bit of a stretch. Plus, game rules, especially those of non-video games, are frequently bent, broken, removed, and added to by players. It’s more of a social contract deal, I would think, where all players mutually agree to the game rules and are expected to abide by them. And not everyone always does.

If anyone’s interested, I found and bookmarked a bunch of links that were related this week’s readings; click on the “Delicious video game news” section of the sidebar to see them.