ED5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Games and the necessity of rules

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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

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ED5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Thinking critically about game design

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Nintendo’s infamous N64 slogan, which I adapted to discuss Chris Crawford’s game design concept of topic vs. content.

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.

Chris Crawford — Get Content or Get Out!

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.

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The starting screen of Metatopia.

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.

Chris Crawford — Live In Your World. Edit In Ours.

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.

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In Emotica Online, the game and the level editor are one and the same. There is no separation while playing.

 Mary Flanagan—With Great Play Comes Great Responsibility

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.

Mary Flanagan—Now You’re Playing With Critical Power!

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.

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Metatopia’s wasteful and much derided Toilet Town.

ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Connecting the dots of videogame pedagogy

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.

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Figure 1.1: Gee and Tulloch are connected by the concept of how games teach the players how to play or follow the rules. The top row illustrates Tulloch’s concept of correct play practices. The middle row illustrates Gee’s example of Thief’s light/dark mechanics as a teaching tool. The bottom emoji illustrate the connection between Gee and Tulloch.

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.

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Figure 1.2: The top row illustrates Gee’s concept of the player being engaged with the subject matter they are learning through games. The middle row illustrates how Tulloch thinks games keep people engaged.

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.

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Figure 1.3: This emoji illustration is about Tulloch and Linderoth. The top row illustrates how games balance difficulty for learning. The middle row demonstrates how Linderoth think games simply guide the player to the right answer. The final emjoi illustration is about the connection and divergence of Tulloch and Linderoth.

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.

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Figure 1.4: The top row shows how Tulloch believes that games have a deep pedagogic heritage that supports performance. The middle row is Linderoth’s concept of how games provide shortcuts, raining on the parade of other gaming pedagogists.

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.

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Figure 1.5: This figure illustrates the connections between Tulloch, Gee and Linderoth, with Gee agreeing with Tulloch’s concept of gaming pedagogy and Linderoth disagreeing with Tulloch but still connected to him (and Gee).

All illustrations made using anna anthropy‘s Emotica Online.

 

ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Ian Bogost’s videogame microecology

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“…casual games are games that players use and toss aside, one-play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.” Ian Bogost, How To Do Things With Videogames, p.96.

Media ecology looks at the wide range of available media — books, television, advertising, computers, etc. – to determine how each medium functions, and how they interact with one another. This approach is deeply influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed media as the extensions of specific senses (the book extends the eye, the wheel extends the foot, and so on) and also argued that new media create new environments. According to McLuhan, and those influenced by him, the media ecological approach is essential to understanding these new environments.

In How Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost references McLuhan’s approach, but argues that media microecology should be used instead to study videogames. Each medium has a variety of things that it does, ranging from the profound to the purely quotidian. To fully understand each medium and to avoid sweeping generalizations, we need to move from the “macro” level to the “micro” level (he uses the entomologist’s study of insects as an example), to look at the full range of uses a medium has, documenting, describing, and discussing its uses so that we can concentrate on its specific functions. This is the media microecological framework he proposes for analyzing videogames: understanding everything videogames do rather than settling on particular value judgements on the rightness or wrongness of playing videogames.

There are a number of different things videogames can be used for. Videogames can be sites of intense competition, with a focus on achieving high scores and longer play times, which is true of arcade games like Galaga (1981), Tempest (1981), and Space Harrier (1985). Games are also capable of providing expressive and emotionally engaging experiences, like in Dear Esther (2012), Journey (2012), and Gone Home (2013), which focus on exploration and story-telling instead of awarding points or tracking level progress.

One use for videogames that Bogost identifies is “Throwaways.” According to Bogost we often link the idea of “throwaway” games to “casual” games but he challenges this in the following three ways:

  • Although “casual” games like Bejeweled or Tetris, do not feature the more complicated controls of “hardcore” games, they can still be played for the purposes of mastery and personal achievement and often have long-term play investment.
  • The various meanings of “casual” such as indifferent, spontaneous and fleeting all contain an important element of how actual “casual” or “throwaway” games should be conceived. A game made specifically for the “Klik of the Month” club on glorioustrainwrecks.com could be an example of a “throwaway” game as these take minutes to play and are often played once and then completely forgotten.
  • Throwaways games should be short, significant play experiences (no more than a few minutes) that someone can quickly experience and move on from without long term investment. Bogost uses “newsgames” like the Zidane Head-Butt (tied to Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Italian soccer player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final) and his own game, The Arcade Wire: Airport Security, about arbitrary airport security rules (in response to the TSA’s banning of liquids in carry-on bags) as examples.

I agree with Bogost that we need to change our understanding of what casual games actually are, from “easy to learn, and hard to master” to games that focus on shorter experiences. Although such games may be fleeting and often played only once, I think they have the potential to resonate with people.

A couple of “throwaway” games that I enjoyed recently were Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan by Stephen Murphy aka “thecatamites” a bizarre and hilarious parody of History Television style ancient civilization “travelogues” that can be played in only a few minutes. The other one is Ohmygod Are You Alright? by anna anthropy, a game that is short, personal response to a car crash she experienced last year. These games focus on a particular experience rather than long-term play investment and mastery.

I’ll leave this question for you: if you designed a short, “throwaway” game what experience would you want it to give to the people who play it?

Rare replays and hard labours

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August 4 saw the release of Rare Replay for the Xbox One — a collection of 30 games from Rare, the storied British video game developer. While not a comprehensive collection — due to licensing issues there is no Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing, or Goldeneye 007 — it does a fairly good job of covering the studio’s history from its origins as a developer of games for the 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer, to the games it made for the NES, SNES, and N64 while a second-party developer for Nintendo such as Battletoads, Killer Instinct Gold, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day; and into the Microsoft era with Perfect Dark Zero and Viva Pinata. For gamers who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, the mere mention of Rare is enough to send them into combined fits of nostalgia and reverence. The games that Rare developed for Nintendo’s early consoles are held in the highest esteem, and before they became part of Microsoft, the Rare name was synonymous with quality entertainment and excellent game design. However, what’s seldom discussed is the work culture that produced their best games.

What is little known — but not exactly a secret — is that the classic games Rare produced in the ’80s and the ’90s were the result of a punishing work ethic: a constant crunch mode that ground down the studio’s game developers as much as it ground out hit games. Typically, such facts are buried within articles that breathlessly tout the studio’s successes but downplay the significance of how Rare was run as a game studio. IGN’s 2008 retrospective “IGN Presents The History Of Rare” is a good example. Discussing Chris and Tim Stamper, the brothers who founded and managed Rare during its heyday, the article says:

“They were renowned for working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, only knocking off between the hours of 2:00-8:00 a.m. Their philosophy was that a part-time employee resulted in a part-time game. By contrast, they committed totally and required their team to do the same as well… the first true crunch mentality in the industry. Nobody was held to that philosophy more stringently than the Stampers themselves. In the three years they slaved to Ultimate [Rare’s predecessor], they only ever took two days off. Both were Christmas mornings.”

“Crunch” is game industry jargon describing the extra time and effort required to put out big budget games. Everyone is expected to crunch, especially when it comes to meeting big release deadlines. The result is 60 to 80 hour work weeks and eventual burnout. As the IGN article goes on to reveal, Rare began experiencing problems with high employee turnover in the late ’90s:

Publicly, Rare was on a roll. Behind the scenes, employee turnover bordered on disastrous.

In the few interviews they granted, Tim and Chris Stamper came across as quiet, unassuming Englishmen, but the pace they maintained and the demands they set could grate at closer range. Their longtime partners at Zippo Games, the Pickfords, left shortly after the Stampers bought them out in the 80’s and deep-sixed a favored wrestling game. By the N64 years, their tiny company had grown from the low teens to several hundred, but the Stampers kept their hands firmly in every project, and that management style didn’t sit well with everyone. The first public defection happened in 1997, when a group of employees marched out en masse to form Eighth Wonder, a studio dedicated to developing for Sony. Well into the three-year production cycle for a successor to GoldenEye 007, [Martin]Hollis and [David] Doak decided they’d had their fill as well, taking much of their production teams with them.”

Hollis and Doak were both responsible for the development of Goldeneye 007, one of Rare’s most praised and commercially successful titles for the N64. By the time Rare was bought by Microsoft for $377 million, their output began to dwindle, and their games were less successful, receiving less positive critical notices. When writers and critics look at the decline of Rare, the onus is often placed on Microsoft for supposed interference and mismanagement of their games for the Xbox 360.

Who Killed Rare?” an article by Simon Parkin speculates about Microsoft’s connection to the reduced quality of Rare’s output. In interviewing ex-Rare employees, including Martin Hollis, there’s a suggestion that Microsoft shifted Rare’s culture leading to worse games. However, there was clearly something wrong Rare’s previous work culture, especially if there were resignations and defections before Microsoft’s acquisition in 2002. To me this means that there is a correlation between the loss of some of Rare’s most talented developers, and the eventual decline in what Rare’s output. The management style of the Stampers seemed to encourage an insane work ethic that most likely caused many to quit in frustration. When Martin Hollis left Rare, his only public statement was that “both of us were asking for more than the other could give.”

Crunch  has never been unique to Rare and has become a widespread problem as video games have become a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Back in 2006, EA settled a lawsuit for $14.9 million with its programmers and engineers, who argued they were owed unpaid overtime. An infamous blog post by the spouse of Leander Hasty, the engineer who brought the lawsuit, circulated on the web, detailing the 9am to 10pm work days and dreadful working conditions. In 2008, former Epic Games president Mike Capps was heavily criticized when he said that 60 hour work weeks are expected of all Epic employees and that someone looking to work 40 hours a week would not fit in with the game studio’s work culture.

In her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, game designer anna anthropy details her brief time at the Guildhall program at Southern Methodist University in Plano Texas, which is deliberately structured to get you used to working in crunch time. She writes:

“You’re at school from nine to five. You stay after and do your work with the teams they’ve assigned you to. Late at night you drag yourself home and do your actual homework. Maybe you get a few hours of sleep. The idea behind that school is that you’re always in what the Big Games Industry calls: ‘crunch time’: unpaid overtime.Your masters want the game done by Christmas, so you don’t leave the office until it’s done. This is why people in the industry aren’t healthy; this is why they burn out and quit games within a few years.”

It’s frightening that crunch time is an expectation rather than exception for meeting tight deadlines for big-budget games; that this is the price that programmers, designers, and artists are forced to pay for doing what they love. This quote from Tom Bissell’s review of The Last Of Us seems more relevant than ever:

“From the little I know about game development, I can all but guarantee that the amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers. To work on something — even a video game — for 12 to 15 hours a day for a year is not enjoyable or fulfilling. I have no doubt that to make this game, hair was grayed, health was ravaged, friendships were tested, and marriages were strained. Before The Last of Us, the same could be said of the Tomb Raider reboot or BioShock Infinite or L.A. Noire or Red Dead Redemption or any number of other ambitious titles. What I’m saying is that these glorious games are, in real and measurable ways, born of human misery. “

I’m happy that Rare Replay exists, even just as an archival project that gives a players a window into the evolution of the studio’s design philosophy and their place in games history, but I think it’s also important to highlight the kind of labour that goes into making the games we love.

Sacrifice — the lost world

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The year 2000 saw the release of Deus Ex and Sacrificeboth innovative, genre-bending titles for the PC. The first would go on to have strong sales, critical acclaim, and would retrospectively redeem John Romero’s troubled studio, Ion Storm. The second would garner critical acclaim but none of the sales: it would be the last burst of creativity from Shiny Entertainment before the studio would go on to make three terrible licensed games that buried forever its reputation for creating fun, unique, and often humourous games. 15 years on, Deus Ex has spawned two sequelswith a third due out in 2016 — and was recently the focus of an oral history and video retrospective on Gamasutra. Deus Ex is a byword for innovative, immersive and intelligent game design and has had a significant influence on first-person action titles and role-playing games, while Sacrifice — also innovative, immersive, and intelligent — has disappeared down the annals of video game history, never to be heard of again.

A tale of two games

What happened? Why did Deus Ex flourish and Sacrifice simply vanish? I think the answer lies in these games respective genres and design histories. Deus Ex is a blend of first-person gaming and role-playing and is also the culmination of a design philosophy of immersive, first person games pioneered by Looking Glass Studios that began with Ultima Underworld and then continued with System Shock and Thief. Warren Spector, the head of Ion Storm Austin and Deus Ex‘s director, was a game designer of considerable reputation who had also been producer on both Ultima Underworld and System Shock while at Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studio’s publisher. When Looking Glass Studios closed down in 2000, he folded some of its personnel into the development team for Deus Ex. A storied history of developing and refining similar design concepts for half a decade as well as the — by that time — familiarity of navigating 3D spaces from a first-person point of view certainly helped Deus Ex‘s general appeal.

Sacrifice on the other hand blended real-time strategy conventions with the frenetic pace of third-person action games and mild role-playing. You are there on the battlefield, summoning strange creatures that look as if they just fell out of a painting by Martin de Vos or Hieronymus Bosch, and casting spells at opposing wizards and their armies. In Kieron Gillen’s interview with Sacrifice‘s lead designer Eric Flannum, Flannum confessed that Sacrifice didn’t have a difficulty curve but rather “a difficulty wall.” This is a game that comes with not one but three different tutorial missions for you to play: there are just that many new concepts you have to buy into. This might have had to do with the fact that the game had a core design team of just three. Shiny Entertainment was a successful contributor to gaming in the 90s, with the 2D platformer Earthworm Jim, and a successful breakthrough into 3D with MDK. The beginning of the end came at the start of the new millennium: Messiah, the 3D game Shiny used to debut their new tessellation technology was a mess of weird ideas that never really clicked. Sacrifice on the other hand was a mess of even weirder ideas that absolutely worked. However, neither game sold much and the company’s reputation for smart, unconventional games disappeared forever.

Sacrifice Multiplayer

Sacrifice blends real-time strategy conventions with the frenetic pace of third-person action games.

Why am I taking so much time to explain what Sacrifice became rather than what the game actually is? As Kieron Gillen, one of the few game critics who ever championed Sacrifice, so aptly put it in his overview of the game:

Sacrifice reminds me exactly how good, how imaginative, how brilliant it’s possible for a videogame to be and it’s clear that no-one’s going to spend serious money on making a game like it ever again.

It’s because I want you to understand: the fact that this game didn’t have more of an affect on games and games history is heart-breaking. To talk about Sacrifice is to talk about a world that can no longer exist. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great, interesting, experimental, or even unique games being produced today — it’s just that we’ll probably never something quite like Sacrifice appearing again in our lifetime. Unlike Homeworld we won’t see a lovingly remastered version of the game. We won’t even see a revival —in the same way that classic cRPGs have been revived for the PC through Kickstarter — of its particular blend of third-person action and real-time strategy.

Much like the animated films of Fleischer Studios, Sacrifice never influenced games in a larger fashion, remaining sealed forever within its own mysterious world. So why is this game so important to me?

Sacrifice, my first immersive world

Sacrifice is a game of deep, personal significance for me: it showed me just what was possible in the context of a video game. I first came across Sacrifice in 2003. It was a piece of software packaged with a new computer my father had built at a local computer store. All I had to go on for a recommendation was purple CD that had a strange-looking creature with a cape and spiked head running into the clasped hands of a God.

It was a pretty grey, bleak and rainy morning in early spring. There wasn’t much for me to do so trying a game that came with our new computer seemed as good an idea as any. The opening of the game makes you feel like you’re stepping into a different alien world. The music is haunting and ethereal and you’re greeted with the image of portal, whirling and spinning out of control. When I finally opened the first tutorial mission, I was greeted with the site of a large, insectoid creature standing in the midst of a beautiful green landscape. My breath was nearly taken away. The landscape and the sky were the most beautiful I’d ever seen in a game. While Sacrifice looks a little more dated now than it did in 2003 when I first played it, I’d never seen anything that looked so verdant and alive in a game before. The music was also incredible; it was epic and expansive much like the tesselated landscape I saw before me — the possibilities seemed endless. A little homunculus with small purple pants flew over to me and greeted me in a British accent, and there my adventures began.

My first look at Sacrifice when playing its first tutorial mission.

My first look at Sacrifice when playing its first tutorial mission.

Sacrifice’s story is basically a black comedy version of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. I’m not kidding— that’s the best possible description of the game’s narrative.There are five gods — Persephone, the God of Life, James, the God of Earth, Stratos, the God of Air, Pyro, the God of Fire, and Charnel, the God of Death. To showcase just how ridiculousl this game is: Stratos is essentially a balloon being continually inflated and deflated as he talks to you. He’s also voiced by Tim Curry. James is basically a 3D version of Shiny’s Earthworm Jim wearing overalls. When Pyro or anyone else speaks about Pyro’s inventions, a trademark symbol is added after each instance. During an argument among the Gods Persephone says “Charnel! Death isn’t the answer to everything!” to which he replies: “Yes, torture also has its merits.” Charnel later says he doesn’t want to destroy the world “because that’s where all the best slaughter takes place, you know!” The script is often perfect in its comic timing.

The game’s design looks as if Antoni Gaudi, Salvador Dali, and Hieronymus Bosch had a fun weekend together. The actual gameplay has a few twists on regular strategy tropes. First, instead of being a disembodied person overlooking the entire battlefield, you’re there in the thick of it with the rest of your army. You are responsible for casting spells, summoning creatures, and building the structures that will ensure your victory over any rival wizards. You also each have an altar dedicated to your chosen God. The point of the game is to fight enemy wizards, destroying their structures, and sacrificing their creatures at your altar to get souls. To defeat them you have to take one of your own creatures to their altar and sacrifice it there because if you sacrifice at another wizard’s altar their altar is desecrated and the wizard is banished from the realm, and you win. Got it?

The game at times is also really, really difficult (remember the difficulty wall?) and I can see how that limited its appeal. I remember when I first played I was completely stuck on Charnel’s second mission where you have to resurrect a forbidden demon gate. A rival wizard — an ethereal and distant sorcerer by the name of Lady Abraxus — simply kept pummeling me! By some miracle I found the right combination of creatures and spells and was able to pull on through. It might have been that I memorized the keyboard shortcuts for the most important spells. I don’t remember. Anyway, it “clicked” for me and then I was off. It was my first, truly immersive world; the first time I played a game that I felt was inside a unique, living, breathing, and interesting world.

Sacrifice game

One of Sacrifice’s campaign missions.

I was so passionate about the game that I even tried using it’s custom map-building tool, Scapex, to create worlds of my own. Building maps was easy and intuitive to use. You simply dragged and dropped different pieces of the world, raising impossible mountains or even placing or even creating small villages full of interesting looking houses and creatures. I even wanted to create a series of maps for my favourite character from the game, a gravelly voiced necromancer with a top hat named The Ragman. Sadly, nothing came of my youthful ambition except a few custom maps I played myself, but it was still fun and interesting nonetheless. This was my attempt to get into the guts of the game, to discover more about this fascinating world and its creatures.

Sacrifice is the reason I think games are important cultural artifacts to write about. It’s what showed me that games were more than narratives about shooting things with guns or lasers. It taught me that games can be smart and different too. For me it’s a game of endless possibilities and branching storylines, of different nuances and ways of looking at a three dimensional world, of beautiful, haunting melodies played through mysterious islands floating in the sky.

Are video games too violent?

Doom

The question of violence in video games has recently been cropping up a bit more recently, and as the understanding and development of unique virtual spaces continues to advance, it’s important to consider what having the ability to destroy virtual lives actually means. Recently Critical Distance — a fantastic aggregator of commentary and criticism on digital games— posted two pieces discussing violence in video games: “Violence begets violence” the first post by game designer Michaël Samyn on his new blog Silent No More, and “Fight Club: How Masculine Fragility Is Limiting Innovation In Games” by Sheva of FemHype.

Both pieces are interesting in the contrasting ways they address the prevalence of violence as a mechanic in video games, what the consequences of violent video games might be, and what steps should be taken in the future to diversify games and gameplay. Of the two pieces, I liked the latter more than former, and it’s interesting how they capture the relative successes and shortcomings of the discussion about violence in video games.

After violent games, violent gamers

Michaël Samyn is a noted game designer, who as part of Tale of Tales,  focused on creating immersive, meditative games like The Endless Forest and narrative driven games like The Path and Sunset. This is a design philosophy that I wholeheartedly agree with and always happy to see implemented more. However, I have some disagreements with the major arguments of his piece “Violence begets violence .

After stating that many online competitive spaces often feature intolerance, bullying, and harassment (which is undoubtedly true), he argues:

“We don’t need theories about the correlation between violent games and violent behavior. Many players of violent and antagonistic games engage in violent and antagonistic behavior. Whether violent people are attracted to games or games arouse violent emotions is irrelevant.”

For Samyn, there is a direct causal link between violent games and violent behaviour. He lays blame at the feet of the games industry, which he says “actively breeds a group of belligerent hooligans for profit.” He continues: “And the longer this process continues, the tighter the vicious circle becomes: only violent games sell well, so only those get made, so only violent people buy games, and so on.” He compares the games industry to the gun industry in the United States, which claims no responsibility for the deaths caused by the weapons they sell. He concludes by writing:

“A game developer who claims to be a peaceful tolerant person while producing murder simulators is a hypocrite. I will not accuse them of being directly responsible for mass shootings and online harassment. But they are beyond a doubt guilty of neglecting to prevent such things.”

There’s a lot to process here. While, like Samyn, I’m frustrated that Mature (M-rated) titles are so heavily marketed — even though they only make up about less than 10 per cent of games produced — I find his argument to be flawed, reductive, and not adequate in addressing the actual structures that create violence in the first place.

Samyn’s argument basically boils down to post hoc ergo proctor hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.” There are violent games and there are also violent gamers, so one must cause the other. To follow his line of thought, one would have to believe that players of M-rated games are not interested in challenge or narrative or wanting to experience something cool and different; that all they want to do is spend all their time killing virtual people, and that this eventually leads them into attacking others in the real world, whether online or in person.

Now to be fair, there are plenty of people who play games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim or Fallout and see how much chaos they can create, but is this necessarily a sign of latent violent tendencies? Or could this be construed more as an individual wanting to test the limits of a designer’s intentions within a virtual world? I think the latter is more likely than the former mostly because destruction in a virtual space does not necessarily signal a desire to destroy in a real one. While games, like other media such as books, TV, movies, and so forth certainly affect us emotionally, making us joyful, sad, intrigued, or even occasionally angry, it would be wrong to say that the affective relationship one has to their media completely transforms them into something they are not. There are more complex phenomena at work and to reduce it to one simple cause is to actually denigrate the actual power of the medium that one is criticizing or praising.

This passage is particularly frustrating:

“I think game developers, as creative people, probably middle class, probably intellectuals, underestimate how unstable some members of their audience are, how isolated they live, how little access they have to education and broader culture, how little context to place these games in that are so important to their sense of self. We could help these people with entertainment that demonstrates the beauty of life, the value of non-violent interactions, how much better it feels to care than to hurt, how big and diverse the world is, and so on.”

This assumes two things:  that only uncultured, unsophisticated, and disenfranchised folks engage in online harassment and see violent games as their raison d’etre, and that games that centre story or interactivity or quiet, meditative spaces rather than action and violence should be created as some sort of corrective on bad behaviour—that these can’t simply exist or be developed for their own sake— and affect people in a way that’s deep and significant without serving an undeniable social good. Simply stating that more empathetic games will create more empathetic gamers is just as bad as saying violent games create violent gamers: it’s not a simple 1:1 relationship. Furthermore, such an argument seems to say that a simple change in consumption will lead to a change in attitudes. Games, while powerfully affective are not necessarily motivational: what one does in a game is not tied to what one does in real life, and we need to do more than change games to change attitudes.

Let’s talk about Fight Club

This is brings us to Sheva’s “Fight Club” piece on FemHype, which offers a more nuanced and interesting discussion of what violence means in the context of gaming. The piece wonders why it is that despite our ability to now craft incredible virtual worlds that violence is often retained as the core mechanic. Other things can be done, but still in a big open-world role-playing game like Fallout 3, you’ll be spending a great deal more time shooting giant ants and Super Mutants than, say, debating The Enclave on their lack of a constitutional mandate. At first, Sheva says, her reaction in conversation with others was to advocate for more choice even in violent games, but then she realized that even in a game where you can choose not to be violent, violence still informs the game world and how the player progresses. So even if violence doesn’t create violent video gamers why is there such an insistence on violence existing in games in the first place? Sheva writes:

“There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. Many of these are in the independent sector—The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, and Never Alone are a few of my personal favorites. Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations made by what one would now consider to be AAA companies, and yet, since not one of these games has violence as a core mechanic, each and every one of them has been criticized as not being ‘game-y’ enough.”

Gone Home game

This gets us closer to what is going on, that there is a tendency for people to argue that games without violence as a central mechanic are not games. This a dangerous tactic often used in online debates to delegitimize the significant, artistic work done by independent game developers who are expanding the language of games. For example, although a game like Gone Home was widely praised by the gaming press and was a commercial success, there was a vocal group of gamers who argued that since Gone Home is about exploration and discovery it cannot be a real game. This is where we get to the root cause of the kind of online harassment we see too often on Twitter and other online spaces: the pernicious belief that games and other media should only have one form, and that they exist to cater to a single group of male gamers. As Sheva says in her article:

“Violence, goes the logic, is what makes a game masculine—and, by extension, being masculine is what makes a video game a video game.”

It’s this belief system which causes women, persons of colour, and others to be attacked online for even suggesting that games should do more. One might say that it’s the players and not the game. The answer is both yes and no. This behaviour is informed by a specific kind of reactionary right-wing ideology — the same you find fighting against gay marriage, health care, or welfare. It’s the ideology that is against equality of any kind, that wishes to preserve one type of power and privilege for a limited group of people. This is the root of the “masculine fragility” that Sheva mentions in her article — it is an attempt to circumvent the greater equality afforded everyone within games and games culture through intimidation, fear, and harassment.

Playing a violent game or making one or even enjoying one doesn’t make you a bad person, but seeing it as the only expressive form for games and then attacking other people for disagreeing with you certainly does. It is only through more sophisticated critical commentary, the building of new, diverse communities of game creators, the continued expansion of the expressive power of the medium, and actively challenging the social and economic structures that reproduce, support, and enable one limited point of view about games, that we will ensure that a safe space for both players and creators will be the norm rather than a pleasant exception.