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: Racial hegemony in Bioshock Infinite

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The box art for Bioshock Infinite. Mafe brings this up as an example of how the game initially emphasizes a particular presentation of white masculinity and violence, never hinting at the racial issues that are a core part of the game’s narrative.

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.”

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The disturbing white supremacist slogan of Columbia’s police forces.

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.

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Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the Vox Populi resistance movement. The player’s interactions with her are a crucial part of the game’s framing of racial issues.

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.

 

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Framing In Videogames

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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.

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You play the entire game from the viewpoint of FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver.

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:

  • giving the player a very specific point of view (FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver) and using that for strong characterization and narrative depth;
  • avoiding extraneous, unnecessary information or activity (hence the very specific forms of interaction)
  • ensuring the experience is contained within a specific point of time and is not padded out for the sake of increased playtime (the game can be completed in about two hours and you are often moved from scene to scene without too much time passing); and
  • providing the player with a clear path to navigate the story and gameworld.

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.

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The appearance of a bison is a recurring visual motif throughout Virginia

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.

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One of the many times you’re in the passenger seat with your partner Maria Halperin

References

Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with videogames. University of Minnesota Press.

Variable State Ltd. (2016). Virginia.

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?