I made a comic version of Katherine Cross’ excellent article on Gamergate and gamified activism “Press ‘F’ To Revolt.” I decided to make it in the style of a 1950s EC horror comic. You can read it by clicking the link below the cover preview.
I made a comic version of Katherine Cross’ excellent article on Gamergate and gamified activism “Press ‘F’ To Revolt.” I decided to make it in the style of a 1950s EC horror comic. You can read it by clicking the link below the cover preview.
In designing this Prezi roadmap, I wanted to connect a core idea used by Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois in their discussion about games to the ideas of Ian Bogost and Rowan Tulloch. That core idea is that play and games are bound by specific rules. Without these rules play and games cannot exist.
This idea can also be found in the works of both Ian Bogost and Rowan Tulloch, and their approach to game studies. Although Bogost uses a microanalytic framework that attempts to define many different uses of games, he fundamentally approaches games as rule-bound systems of play. For Rowan Tulloch, this is connected to the idea of “correct play practices” and gamification. He argues that points and progression are necessary facets of games, and that learning a game is fundamentally about learning its rules.
The Prezi roadmap can be accessed at the link below!
Prezi roadmap: Connecting Huizinga and Caillois to Bogost and Tulloch
When it comes to advertising, I have always been strangely fascinated by the aggressive slogans used by game companies to market their products. These catchy phrases are designed to embed themselves into a person’s consciousness, becoming readymade mantras that every loyal follower of Nintendo, Sony, Sega or Microsoft must repeat over and over again. These slogans also communicate the guiding ideologies of these corporations, which often want their consumers to feel like insiders who speak a secret language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand.
Some game designers have embraced this ideology wholesale, viewing game design as a secret and elusive art with its own set of exclusive codes and strategies. Others, however, have been challenging this point of view, viewing game design in a much more critical, holistic, and inclusive light. With that in mind, I’ll be analyzing two game design concepts each from Chris Crawford and Mary Flanagan, contrasting their approaches, and how their concepts apply to Metatopia, the game Matt Bellefleur, Natalie Drumonde, and I made using anna anthropy’s Emotica Online. I’ll also start the discussion of each concept by adapting a slogan from videogame advertising or popular culture.
In advertising the N64, Nintendo used the slogan “Get N or Get Out” as part of an aggressive campaign intended to communicate that not only had the system arrived (after multiple delays), but to declare that Nintendo customers were part of an exclusive elite, to which other game consumers need not apply. To me, Chris Crawford takes a similar approach when discussing topic vs. content in the “Common Mistakes” chapter of Chris Crawford on game design. For Crawford, content is king, and he shows derision for those who decide to lead with what their game is about rather than the problem they are trying to solve. He writes:
A young game designer once told with obvious pride that he was working on a “King Arthur” game. I wasn’t cruel enough to point out that he had already blundered from the get-go by thinking of it as a “King Arthur” game. But the fact is, the topic of a game has little to do with the core design problems.
For Crawford, a game designer should start with the specific interactions they want the player to have in the game. Only when you have decided if your game will require fast reflexes, trial and error, or intuition, can you decide the topic of the game (e.g. science fiction, first-person, or King Arthur). He doubles down on this point of view, writing: “if the topic really is the initiating concept in your thinking, then you simply don’t understand game design well enough to do a good job.”
I disagree with this completely. Crawford insists throughout the “Common Mistakes” chapter that there is a single way to do game design, and that all other methods are illegitimate. I do not think that leading with the topic first is a bad idea, and in fact, starting with your topic can help you better decide what game design tools you want to use and what interactions you want the game to have. I also don’t see topic vs. content being a real dichotomy, as they are not mutually exclusive and both are needed in designing a game.
In developing Metatopia, Matt, Natalie, and I started with what we wanted it to be about. We were very democratic in our process, ensuing each person’s ideas could be incorporated. Matt wanted the game to be about identity and characters treating you differently depending on how you appeared. Natalie wanted to have an educational and environmentally-conscious game. I wanted a game that was irreverent and focused on exploration and discovery.
It was after we thought about these topics and how we would bring them together that we then thought about the specific interactions in the game. Matt wanted randomization and player identity change. Natalie wanted there to be strong environmental and environmental messaging delivered by characters. I wanted to have something that was easy to pick up and play as I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with games that demand significant affective labour.
This is what led us to settle on Emotica Online as our game design tool, and to make a game that had a series of different environments and mini-narratives. We brought the topic and the content together, and I believe made a strong game, even if we lead with our topics before deciding on the game’s interactions.
The big slogan for the Playstation 2 was “Live in your world. Plays in ours.” The idea is that you have a normal, everyday, and possibly less thrilling corporeal existence. However, the world of the Playstation 2 is one of play and possibility. Crawford has a similar philosophy about game design toolsets: tools allows you to create, but they can also constrain you to another designer’s way of thinking. For Crawford, having cost-effective tools is desirable but he also thinks it shortcuts creative thinking. You’ll be editing in someone else’s world rather than your own. He singles out the level editor that ships with some games as his evidence. Level editors have made it easier than ever to make good levels thus people are focusing more on level design to creating more interesting game mechanics. He writes:
A truly fine tool is like a freeway: It gets you there especially quickly. Of course, like a freeway, a fine tool attracts a great many users, all of whom end up going to the same place, and if you take the freeway, you end up at a crowded beach.
His problem with level editors is that they are fine tools that always lead you to the same place. In this way of thinking, you are following the logic of the designers who included the level editor of the game rather than searching out the great peaks of good game design. Once again, I have to disagree. Simple tools are absolutely necessary for creativity.
I am sure Crawford would be contemptuous of Emotica Online as a design toolset, as it is very simple to use and furthermore fuses the level editor with the game itself. In Emotica Online, you are constantly aware of the toolset, and can instantly play around with the gameworld someone has designed. Furthermore, the game’s “programming” is very simple: you drag and drop emoji (the building blocks of the game) and define it as an item (which can be picked up), a player (which can be moved with the arrow keys), or a solid (a block that cannot be moved). We can also program simple transformations and animations. In contrast with what Crawford argues these constraints were good for our creative output and did not hinder it.
For this slogan, I had to look outside of videogames for a slogan that fit Flanagan’s concept of responsibility in creativity and play. The line “With great power comes great responsibility” is from the Spider-Man comic, arguing that power confers on those who have it (whether they are creative powers or web-slinging) an obligation to use it wisely and responsibly. Flanagan has a similar argument for the creative process:
As game design matures, and as games themselves become more ubiquitous and more meaningful to culture, there is a growing need for designers to approach the creative process with increased awareness and responsibility to be inclusive, fair, and cater to a variety of play styles.
I agree with this completely. Often I find that games and game design are marketed to a select “elite” who are the ones conferred with the power and the ability to create. This is simply not the case. Tools like Twine, Game Maker, and Scratch, have opened up a plethora of creativity. Not only that, they have ensured that people are able to tell stories outside the “mainstream” of current games, focusing on topics like race, poverty, and systemic injustice. As Flanagan writes: “Perhaps even more than these “tools,” these games are simultaneously systems of information, cultural products, and manifestations of cultural practice.”
One reason I like Emotica Online so much is that it simplifies the process of games and game design. Metatopia is very easy to play and edit. Matt, Natalie, and I were also conscious of the messages we embedded in Metatopia. We had the player character start off as the cat emoji as it is gender-neutral and a fairly friendly starting option. I wouldn’t say that Metatopia is completely barrier-free as it requires a computer and access to an Internet connection. However, I do think our game lowers the barrier of entry to play.
Nintendo used the slogan “Now you’re playing with power” while advertising the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late ‘80s. The slogan also lent its name to Nintendo Power magazine. I adapt it here to talk about Flanagan’s Critical Play game design model. This model is supposed to embed specific values and critical play within the game design process. She contrasts this with the traditional model of game design, which sets up systems and rules, and iterates without considering diverse play styles and approaches.
We definitely embedded our particular values in Metatopia, using specific stories and environments as sites of criticism. While on the surface, Toilet Town seems to exist for the purpose of a joke, we created a storyline where Toilet Town is implicated in high consumption and environmental degradation. Most of Metatopia’s resources are being used by Toilet Town and another city called Terminalia. Frog Town also exists to critique the loud, insular male gamers who are distinguished by their misogyny, racism, and continued harassment of feminist game critics and game makers. This group has chosen the frog emoji as its most significant symbol, so we used that in our parody.
I also made a Game Theorist’s Play Area, that pokes fun at the assumptions of certain game theorists about play and pedagogy and to further the critique of self-identified “gamers.” From the standpoint of being made from emoji, Metatopia is mostly fun and irreverent, but we also wanted to encode our values and principles.
Overall, I would say that Flanagan’s methodology of critical play exerted a substantial influence on our game design practice. Using Emotica Online and designing a game that includes our personal values made Metatopia something fun and enjoyable, that is also a substantial exercise in critical making.
In Race and the First-Person Shooter: Challenging the Video Gamer in Bioshock Infinite, Diana Adesola Mafe argues that Bioshock Infinite uses the hegemonic trappings of the first-person shooter (FPS) videogame to initiate critical discussions about race. Mafe frames her discussion of race in two ways. First, how race is embodied, such as the type of avatar the player inhabits. Second, in how it is experienced, in terms of how the narrative and world-construction come together to highlight the main issues in the story. Mafe contrasts her point of view with that of games scholar Espen Aarseth, who argues that focusing on the appearance of videogame avatars is a distraction from good narrative critique. She disagrees and sees embodiment and narrative experience as essential to undertaking a critical discussion of race in videogames.
Hegemony is the crucial power relationship she uses to frame her discussion of race. She quotes Raymond Williams who defines hegemony as “a particular way of seeing the world and human nature and relationships.” She also draws on Toni Morrison’s metaphor of the fishbowl to draw out this discussion of racial hegemony. Much like the hegemony, the fishbowl is “invisible” but “contains” and “contextualizes” the world and how you view it. The player embodies the hegemonic perspective of Booker DeWitt — the typical white, masculine hero found in most FPS videogames. From this point of view, it would initially seem impossible for Bioshock Infinite to be able to perform any kind of substantial critique. However, Mafe argues that the game simply uses this as a device to force the player to notice race and question their own beliefs and assumptions. As Booker, you’re not initially threatened by Columbia, a floating, religious city that seems idyllic and peaceful. However, the appearance of white nationalist propaganda, and whispers about racialized “others” begin to unravel the illusion, until you are engaged in bloody battles with Columbia’s police forces, who proudly proclaim that they are “Protecting Our Race.”
This leads to the primary takeaway of the article: Bioshock Infinite uses its hegemonic framing in narrative and gameplay to bring more awareness of racial issues to the player. Mafe argues: “Bioshock Infinite features constructions of race and an overarching nationalist narrative that challenges gamers to think critically about hegemonic power structures.” For Mafe, Bioshock Infinite is at the intersection of games as entertainment and education, using its initial promise as a fun, thrilling action game to bring the player into a much more serious realm of discussion and critique. She highlights several scenes in the game that do this: the tour through the headquarters of the KKK-like Order of the Raven; the lottery where the player is asked to throw a baseball at an interracial couple; and the museum tour depicting grotesque racial caricatures of Native Americans and Chinese Boxers. She also sees your interactions with Daisy Fitzroy, the black female leader of the Vox Populi resistance movement is another crucial part of understanding the racial issues at the heart of the game’s narrative. For Mafe, these obvious but necessary interventions are what make Bioshock Infinite unique. She acknowledges that Bioshock Infinite isn’t perfect especially in how it mishandles the end of Daisy Fitzroy’s storyline. However, for Mafe, the issues highlighted in Bioshock Infinite are proof that videogames have the potential to force players to think critically about race and racism.
Can videogames be used to teach kids? That’s what four researchers set to find out when they created a social networking game called Epidemic, which was designed to teach kids about communicable diseases as well as test if digital games could offer newer, more critical ways of learning beyond what is traditionally taught in the classroom.
Epidemic is an online, game-based learning environment where kids create custom viruses based on real epidemiological facts and virology, make and remix disease PSA posters, and write their own stories in comic form. Each student also cultivates a “viral” social network where their virus’ potency is tied to their creative output and the number of friends they make.
The researchers took 178 kids, ages 11-14, from two suburban schools in Ontario, and put them into three groups: a standard group, an experimental group, and a baseline group. The standard group was taught using a traditional lecture format, the experimental group played Epidemic, and the baseline group was given no instruction and allowed to play their favourite online game. All three groups were then tasked with making their own disease posters or comics.
Comparing test scores and creative output from the first two groups yielded interesting results. The standard group scored higher on a final test but their posters simply repeated the given facts. Despite a lower test score, the experimental group was better able to critique, parody, and engage with the material in the digital comics they made using Epidemic. The experimental group demonstrated learning that could not be captured in standardized testing.
Digital, game-based learning environments can teach but what they teach is ignored by print-based assessment methods. This means newer assessment models are needed to truly uncover what kids are learning when they play videogames.
— Article excerpted from “Real Play 4 Kids” non-profit newsletter
If we were to break down the pedagogical concerns of James Gee, Jonas Linderoth, and Rowan Tulloch about videogame pedagogy into single phrases these would be: what games teach (Gee), what gamers learn (Linderoth), and what games are (Tulloch). At first it would seem that each theorist’s concern is separate from the others. But an investigation into Tulloch’s argument for gamification as an alternative pedagogy, using connecting concepts and emoji (figures 1.1 to 1.5) will demonstrate that Tulloch is connected to Gee and Linderoth, even if the latter two theorists never specifically reference gamification.
Two central claims about videogame pedagogy are shared by Gee and Tulloch. The first is how games ensure the player engages in what Tulloch terms “correct play practices.” For Tulloch point systems like high scores and health bars provide important feedback to the player about how well they are performing. The higher the number of points they accumulate, like in Pac-Man or Space Invaders, or the less health they lose, found in first-person shooters such as DOOM or Half-Life, the better they are performing. Being able to progress through a game’s discrete but connected areas (levels) is also an indicator of good play practices. An example would be getting higher up the parallel construction beams of the original Donkey Kong, clearing as many of the game’s 22 available levels as possible. The more levels you clear, the better you’re playing.
Gee invokes these same concepts using the game Thief: Deadly Shadows as his example. While playing Thief, the player must learn to use the mechanics of light and dark to their advantage so as to avoid patrols and successfully steal the treasure. Failure to learn the principles of good stealth in Thief will lead to deadly confrontations with the game’s guards. Learning to navigate the virtual environment as Thief’s main protagonist Garrett is essential if players want to achieve a “win state” and progress to the next level.
A further connection between Gee and Tulloch is their conception of games as an alternative pedagogy with good principles for learning. For Gee, this is because games offer newer contexts for players to learn. These include principles include embodied movement through action and goal-oriented complex systems, the ability to reconfigure and resituate meanings, multiple pathways to completing a learning goal, and so forth. Ultimately, there is an identification between the learner (in this case, game player) and their subject (the game), which when applied to another context creates an important level of identification. An educational game like Oregon Trail, which places you in the role of an American settler would be an example of this kind of identification.
Tulloch offers a similar thesis arguing that games offer an alternative to unsuccessful pedagogies that do not build in engagement or a real sense of achievement. Gamification is more than just game-based mechanics overlaid previously ungamified subjects. It represents a better way of engaging with complex subject matter and train the “profitable consumers, obedient and efficient workers, healthy citizens, or knowledgeable students” that are currently needed. One can cite the mid-2000s craze for “brain-training” games like Nintendo’s popular Brain Age series for the DS as an example. Brain Age offers its players short, fun minigames that are specifically designed to increase math and logic skills as well as improve their spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, and hand-eye coordination.
Between Tulloch and Linderoth there might seem to be even less of a connection since Linderoth is skeptical about how much gamers actually learn. Tulloch and Linderoth are connected by two significant concepts: difficulty and player performance. Although their conclusions about what these concepts mean when applied to learning diverge, they both still explore these ideas to their fullest.
Tulloch sees difficulty as an intrinsic part of game design. He argues: “The gamification of difficulty is about recognizing difficulty as part of play’s pedagogic process and understanding the intellectual history behind it.” Balancing difficulty is important to the training aspect of gamification, as the one gamifying a training exercise wants the game hit that sweet spot between being challenging and fun; the game is difficult enough to give the player a sense of satisfaction at overcoming an intense challenge but not so difficult that they give up in frustration. Sites like Code Academy use gamification (specifically distributing badges and achievements) to encourage people to learn coding languages like HTML and Ruby on Rails.
For Linderoth, games superficially appear to give players the ability to learn and that although challenging, there is a satisfaction in mastery that provides a feeling of “empowerment.” However, they are not teaching as much as we assume. He writes:
“Games are…described as being something utterly complex that by its very nature is challenging. The complexity is said to gradually increase as a player progresses through a game. Thus the fact that a player can play through a game is taken as a sign of learning.”
This assumption of difficulty, Linderoth claims, is due to game environments generally being unfamiliar to the average teacher or parent. However, games tend to guide their players through difficult passages and offer many tools for shortcutting these complex systems. Level-5’s Professor Layton series give its players difficult puzzles to solve. However, each Professor Layton game also has a built-in hint system that can help a player solve these puzzle without necessarily going through the complex learning process of grasping its internal logic.
Player performance is the key to understanding what gamers learn for both Linderoth and Tulloch.
For Tulloch, gamification is part of a deep heritage of game design that facilitates performance. Game designers understand that they have to provide tools to players so that they can navigate games and also remain consistently engaged. Facilitating player performance using the learning found in game design will produce the “profitable consumers, obedient and efficient workers, healthy citizens, and knowledgeable students for which gamification strives.” While schools have linear, conformist curves of learning, the alternative pedagogy of games offers a dynamic method of learning and good performance. An example of this kind of learning could be Portal, which teaches the player the game’s basic puzzle mechanics, but then lets the player solve each puzzle room on their own.
Linderoth sees this differently. He argues player performance is enhanced in games through the provision of special hint systems or specific game mechanics that make game environments much easier to navigate for the player. This is what undermines games as complex systems. An example is Assassin’s Creed, which allows players to enter into an “eagle vision” mode that easily highlights targets in the game or temporary power-ups like Mario Kart’s Blue Shell, which make these games less complex and easier to complete. What you can accomplish in a game is not solely due to learning, but actually due to what the game gives you to complete it.
These three theorists do not work in isolation but have views about games and learning that connect in distinct ways, especially when it comes to the pedagogy behind games. Tulloch’s conception of games as being part of an alternative pedagogical tradition is shared by Gee and significantly critiqued by Linderoth. Tulloch’s central claims about what games are (alternative pedagogy) can be linked to Gee and Linderoth even if Linderoth’s concept of what gamers learn diverges from the other two theorists.
All illustrations made using anna anthropy‘s Emotica Online.
On the surface, it would seem appropriate to compare videogames to movies. Certainly, big budget videogames have often put on the appearance of being like blockbuster films. From the badly compressed and poorly acted Full Motion Video (FMV) cutscenes in Sega CD games like Sewer Shark and Night Trap to the recycled Hollywood action of the Call of Duty series, AAA games invoke the techniques and tropes of mainstream cinema. Of course, the main problem with many of these games is that they fail to effectively adapt the techniques of film to the game environment. They never explore what each medium has to offer the other.
Virginia, a narrative videogame about two FBI agents investigating the mysterious disappearance of a boy in the early 1990s, is one of the few videogames I have played that successfully navigates the impasse between games and cinema. Furthermore, it adapts an underlying principle of film that all cinema-inflected and narratively driven videogames should adopt.
So often when discussing what makes a “good” videogame buzzwords like interactivity, immersion, and emergence are used. These principles are often presented as the holy trinity of good game design. All videogames should be easy to learn and hard to master, so we’re told, and these three principles are the way to get there. A good videogame should privilege the ability of the player to interact and move about in the gameworld, it should have the player become totally immersed in the gameplay, and furthermore the player should be able to find emergent strategies while playing to hit the sweet spot between challenge and fun. It may be surprising then that Virginia is a great videogame that does not respect any of these principles.
The level of interaction is very limited. Each scene in the game has very few items you can touch and use, and these are often made quite obvious to you. The gameworld is beautiful and engaging but generally not immersive in the way videogames are supposed to be. Cinematic editing techniques like match cuts and dissolves transport you from scene to scene, preventing you from lingering too long at any point while playing. Finally, the game can be finished in about 90 minutes to two hours and is easy to play. There are no emergent strategies or mastery involved. It provides you with a very focused and specific experience, and then it’s over.
So why do I think Virginia is a great game? I argue it’s because Virginia adapts a particular principle from film that makes it successful in keeping the player engaged with its story and gameworld. That principle is framing, which can be defined as the particular composition of the visual elements in a scene. Virginia does this masterfully, as every scene is well composed and visually coherent, even though you essentially act as the game’s camera. The player experiences the entire game from the first-person point of view as FBI special agent Anne Tarver. The game never breaks this point of view, having you experience everything from basic interactions (like shaking someone’s hand or picking up an object) to your brief encounters with text (such as quickly reading a file on a computer screen) entirely from Anne’s eyes.
Throughout the game, you feel like you’re moving Anne and a movie camera at the same time, but it’s never confusing or incoherent. This is because Virginia’s directors, Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny, ensure that their use of framing is gamelike and dynamic. The game directors bring together strong visual composition with playful movement by:
Another reason for the game’s unusually strong scenic composition is that there is not a single line of spoken dialogue. The entire story is told through animation, music, your interaction with the gameworld, and the repeated use of specific images and symbols. Certain motifs such as sitting in the passenger seat of a car with your FBI partner Maria Halperin, holding a dead cardinal, being confronted by a bison, seeing a mysterious red door, or looking down at a broken key, recur often, giving vital clues to unlocking the story.
These recurring visual motifs are necessary as the game’s narrative has quite a bit of depth. The story of Virginia is one professional betrayal, conspiracy, cult activity, departmental corruption, and even gender and racial discrimination. It also relates many of these events in non-chronological order, while blending together fantasy and reality (mostly in the form of dream sequences). That Virginia can handle these themes and story-telling techniques deftly and subtly without dialogue is a testament to how well it uses framing to anchor the whole experience. While the makers of Virginia have mentioned ‘90s cult TV shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and The Outer Limits as inspirations, they’re able to create their own visual language that is not just a pastiche of these influences.
To reiterate, the principle of framing, especially in the videogame context, requires strong visualization, coherent action, a specific time frame, and finally clear navigation through the gameworld. This ensures you can combine filmic techniques with gamelike elements to tell an interesting, compelling story. The lack of good framing is why I think games like Konami’s Metal Gear Solid series— which certainly has cinematic ambitions —fail to combine games and films effectively. Although Metal Gear Solid game director Hideo Kojima’s fourth-wall breaking and detached irony are amusing, it must be admitted that his games are overly expository, narratively confusing, and quite visually jumbled, even if they offer fun stealth action.
I also want my concept of framing to stand in contrast to Ian Bogost’s concept of proceduralism. In the “Art” chapter of How To Do Things With Videogames he uses this term to describe one way of understanding the games of designers Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow. He writes:
“…proceduralist games are process intensive-they rely primarily on computational rules to produce their artistic meaning. In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects.” (Bogost 2011, p.13)
Bogost argues that proceduralist games reveal the form of a game in order to have “meaning emanate from the model.” (Bogost 2011, p.13) My account of framing is different in that the visual, aural, and textual aspects are made central to communicating the game’s meaning. I’m not against Bogost’s concept as it may apply to games like Passage and Braid, but rather I am trying to provide another way of thinking about how a game can convey itself meaningfully to the player.
Studying the visual coherence that a game brings to each scene, and how it handles player visuals and movement is an important and overlooked aspect of games criticism. While games critics tend to gravitate toward whether a game is sufficiently interactive or challenging, the actual composition of each scene of game, whether it is experienced from the point of the view of the player or through a cutscene, is ignored. Framing is a valuable tool for thinking about strong visual storytelling in games, and can help critics discern those games that successfully adapt techniques from a medium like film to tell interesting stories.
Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with videogames. University of Minnesota Press.
Variable State Ltd. (2016). Virginia.