Posts tagged games

ONLINE Northwest Conference & a step back from gaming

I just got back from the 2009 OLNW conference. I love this event. The people and content are always strong and the focus on technology in libraries makes it a very focused single-day event. This time, I did not present on games and learning in libraries and it was a nice change of pace. My colleague Lorena and I gave a little talk on teaching Zotero (a citation manager plugin for FireFox). I enjoyed our talk and working with Lorena (of course!). I recommend OLNW for any librarian who has a bit of the geek in their personality.

Anne-Marie & Rachel gave an interesting and personal talk about how Twitter & other social tech are influencing civic engagement. The conversation was interesting and engaging, plus I think the metaphors really worked. Next, I attended Anna Johnson's  2, 4, 6, GREAT: Handouts they'll appreciate. If it hadn't been Anna, I don't think the presentation title would have lured me in the door. That would have been a HUGE mistake. This was the high point of the conference content-wise. Anna combined Edward Tufte's printed handout design methodologies with a ready-made workflow for a library's instruction program. Chapeau, Anna, Chapeau. Next I attended a nice little bit on a collaboration at Clark College. Clark is our friendly neighbor and parter in educating Clark County students. I was a bit pre-occupied with my upcoming session, so what I really took away from this one is that I'm jealous of librarians who have faculty hungry for partnerships. The last event of the one-day conference was my presentation on Zotero w/ Lorena O'English. I'm pleased with how it went. I did forget to use my favorite metaphor and neglected to say "jiggery-pokery" but it did go fairly smoothly.

This is an insanely stessful and busy time for me at work. I've got my third-year review (part of the tenure process) pending and I'm presening three times in six weeks. This means that my gaming has been strickly limited to playing LOTRO w/ N. and mostly with mundane MMORPG tasks such as collecting resources and grinding my crafting skills higher. There is hope for some new blog content coming up, however. First, I have an idea to write about Alasdair MacIntyre's virtue theory of ethics in relation to games. He uses chess to explain how virtue theory works, and I think most gamers would recognize what he's talking about, even though he uses a different vocabulary. We often hear of politicians or business leaders "gaming the system" or following the letter of the rules to achieve ends that are outside the spirit of the rules. Gamers have a word for that, we call it an "exploit", and in a good game it quickly leads to the exploit in question being "nerfed" or weakened to balance game-play. That is a conversation I'd like to explore further.

Also, Henry Jenkins mentioned a fork in game studies academics. He classifies us as either ludologists or finding a game's central meaning in game-play mechanics or narratologists who find meaning in the story being unfolded/invented by the player(s). You'll find this kind conversation every day on gaming blogs, but I find the application of labels to the taxonomy of gamers to be interesting.

Finally, I started playing Tomb Raider: Underworld this weekend. I bought the game a while ago on Steam, mainly because I'd never played a Lara Croft game and J.P. Gee has interesting things to say about some of the series. I'm really enjoying it, but I'm not sure how far I'll go. I'm using an Xbox 360 controller and finding the control scheme and third-person viewpoint to be very different from the keyboard and mouse WASD control I'm used to. Still, it seems new and fresh to me and I'm sure I'll have things I want to say about it after I play a bit further into the story.

Fallout 3: Impressions

Fallout has impacted my thoughts on violence mostly as a counterpoint to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I didn't really get San Andreas. I was interested in the game and the context it immerse the player in. In the end, I really didn't have much fun playing it and uninstalled it in favor of other games. There were configuration issues (I couldn't get the camera controls to work on my controller and I can't drive using the keyboard and mouse) but I think really just don't care for the GTA games. I had a similar experience with Vice City on the PS2. Fallout 3, however, I really enjoyed. The original Fallout games were iconic games that I played in my late 20's and along w/ Betrayal at Krondor, the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight games, and the NOLF games made me realize that I was a gamer.

Thinking about why I prefer Fallout 3 to the GTA games, I've come up with three features or aspects to Fallout that add to my enjoyment that GTA lacks. First, Fallout 3 provides options and encouragement for acting generously or against one's immediate self-interest. Second, Fallout 3 offers multiple paths to success against certain challenges. Third, Fallout 3 engages me in role playing deeply, so that I'm more interested in being my character than I am in beating the game.

Fallout made a counterpoint to the GTA games in that it (Fallout) provided certain rewards for selfless or "good" behavior that GTA didn't. In Fallout, one can choose not to be a bastard. This means that when one chooses to play an evil character, the evil is the result of one's choices. What do we make of a world in which there are no good options? So while I enjoyed the fuller range of options that Fallout offers, GTA raises more interesting questions about the nature of choice, free will, and individual responsibility. So while Fallout may not cover new or interesting ethical ground, it makes my character's choices seem more significant. I get that being thrust into a world were characters are condemned to violence and there are few or no good options is a useful and ethically interesting expereince. Some of Socrates best insights came when he was asked whether it was better to actually be good or better to be though of by others as good while doing what one pleased. GTA immerses us in a world where simplistic morality and piety are of little use and it teaches us something about ourselves as we navigate a dark and violent world. The fact that this world is based on the recent past in the United States only drives home the lesson more firmly.

A second feature of Fallout that makes the game fascinating is that it gives different kinds of players different avenues of success. One can choose to become proficient with weapons and fight one's way out of every situation. Players also have the option of gaining clues from the environment and conversations and negotiating solutions that work for all sides. There are other paths to success as well. (The following example is a bit of a spoiler)

The Tenpenny Towers scenario is a great example of this. Ten Penny Towers is a luxury high-rise that survived the nuclear apocalypse largely intact. Inside, rich humans live a life of secure luxury that few others in the wasteland enjoy. A population of ghouls (radiation ravaged former humans) have the money to live there, but prejudice keeps them outside. As a player, one has the option of just killing one side or the other (or possibly both). Else one can convince either side to compromise. One also has the option of tricking the sides and finding another solution to the issue. One problem of the violent content of most games is that seeing most NPCs (non-player characters) as enemies or targets gets a bit stale after a while. Photo-realistic graphics and new gameplay mechanics don't always spice up the action enough to combat this boredom. Having the choice of who to fight, of whether or not to fight, and of how to resolve a thorny issue with many aspects is interesting. It also creates the desire to replay the scenario to see what would happen if another choice were made.

Another big success of Fallout is that it encouraged me to play a role. Many so-called role playing games come with an irresistible urge to "game" the system. In some games I find that I'm much more interested in finding the "right" answer to puzzles or the story and so instead of making choices based on my character, I find myself trying to "beat" the game. In other games I find myself so wrapped up in stats and strategy that my in-game experience becomes reduced to a level-grind in search of the perfect spec and the best
loot. In Fallout I found the game guiding me to make choices that were right for my character and not based on getting a stat advantage or finding a certain path through the story. Fallout isn't a perfect game
and the story is probably no more than mediocre. However, interactive entertainment are more than just another way of telling stories. This particular interactive entertainment succeeded in drawing on my
imagination and creativity to "write" a character and a story that took place on the canvas designed by the game designers. So, despite the temptation to see how Tenpenny Towers would play if I chose other methods, I'm not doing that for now. I have chosen a character and his motivations and I'm playing the game from that single perspective rather than looking to see every option.

This, I think, is the significant challenge of interactive entertainments. We are quite used to seeing the entire story in films or books. Games give the authors a chance to write multiple resolutions and players the chance to choose their path. Unfortunately, if we as players try out all the options to choose the best one, we end up in a paradox built out of Nietzsche's theory of infinite return and Milan Kundera's take on that in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If we want to make the best choice in a given situation, we really need to see the consequences of every possible choice in order to know which one is best. As humans, we don't have that option, so our choices are significant and their impact unknown. Game players have the option, by saving and re-loading, of playing out every possible option and choosing the one with the most rewards. The problem with that is, playing like that is a lot less fun and immersive than making a choice and living with the consequences. However, as a player I rarely have the self-discipline to live with the concequences of my choices without going back to see if another option would be better. Fallout 3, by making playing a role rewarding, makes it easier to give up on "winning" the game (or "gaming" the system) by rooting the player more firmly in a chosen role. I think this feature is key to making an interactive entertainment truly work.

So Fallout 3 is a big success in my book. While it lacks the troubling perspective of the GTA games, it is more fun (for me) to play and it uses advances discovered by other great games to make an interactive entertainment that pushes the games medium forward. In the end, it may get my vote for Game of the Year. I don't think it is as groundbreaking as Portal or The Witcher were last year and it has its flaws, but the overall package is quite good. It is highly derivative (explaining this would be another post, but the best things about Fallout 3 were previously done in The System Shock series, Deus Ex, The Thief series, Oblivion and the Elder Scrolls games, and Fallout 1 & 2) but it does an awful lot of things really well. There is nothing wrong in creating a highly polished game and breakthrough games have their own unique frustrations when one's experience is crippled by bugs or other issues. Fallout 3 does most things well and a few things spectacularly.

How do games justify their violent content?

As I've mentioned, I've been reluctant to write about the ethics of violence in games. However, last week, Jack Thompson was disbarred in Florida and that changes the landscape of the conversation significantly. Mr. Thompson's presence in the debate meant that it was all too easy to reduce any conversation about violence and ethics in the gaming media down to a shouting match between: "video games are the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio" and "first-amendment violating, thought-crime, fascist!"

Now that reason has temporarily triumphed, I want to look at violence and ask how certain games justify it in their narrative. I do this in hope that in asking these questions we can learn something useful and reach conclusions without the polarized rhetoric. The first question I want to ask is: how do games frame violence in their narrative and storytelling?

Looking at the games I've played and going so far as to purchase and play some familiar examples of violent games, I've stumbled upon three broad categories that generally describe how games justify violent content. First games situate their violent content in a justified situation. I call this the "just war" doctrine. Using socially accepted justifications for violence: gamers simulate soldiers in a just war, police protecting society from criminals, or the last defense of human civilization from genocidal aliens. These games present violence as justified, necessary, and good. "Personal context" games are another set of games takes a less black and white approach to violence. Rather than presenting the player as fighting for good, they situate the violence in a context. Role-playing games in particular situate action and player choices in a character. Thus a player simulating a "terrorist" in a game can see the charachter's choices in context and perhaps justify the actions as being a "freedom fighter" or perhaps not justify them any further than an extension of the characters will to power. A third option is games that do not attempt to justify violence at all. Games that refuse to justify violent acts either in a socially acceptable context or in a personally justified context raise different kinds of questions. For a "just war" game, it is relatively easy to judge whether or not the violence is ethical. If a person accepts the conflict simulated as being just, then the violence is justified. In personal context games, the ethics of the violence can be judged according to how identifies with the simulated context, i.e., if one can find empathy for the character one can understand why the violent acts were committed. This third set of games risks undermining social constraints against violence by not seeking to justify or condemn it. They also, if they are well designed, offer the player insights into understanding the nature of violence and its effects that other games do not.

I'm at risk of running on here, so I'm going to describe each of these three categories in future posts. In order to examine the just war justification I will look at the games Call of Duty, Doom, and Swat. Situated context games will be explored in Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Oblivion.
For unjustified violence, I will examine The Witcher and Deus Ex.

Games as an excuse to think about ethics

I don't find all conversations about ethics and games interesting. Controversies surrounding the effects of violent games on juvenile behavior or restrictiing access to content that challanges the dominant cultural mores in general bore me. It isn't so much that there aren't interesting things to say about these issues, but the public discourse is too polarized to be very interesting.

There are, happily, some topics that do make for scintilating conversation. Say, the ethics of cooperating with strangers in an online game, how intellectual property and DRM work in online game transactions,  or culture affects in-game and real-world decision making. Still, when it comes to analysing ethics I feel pretty strongly that talking about ethical conclusions before we talk about ethical methods is a dead end. Contrary to what the polemicists and demagogues would have us believe, very few ethical disagreements are conflicts between good and evil. Rather, they are conflicts between competing sets of priorities or competing ethical methodologies. This is not to say that there is no such thing as a poor ethical choice, there is a wealth of prima facia evidence for that! Instead I'm just pointing out that when someone disagrees with my strongly held ethical position, automatically assuming that they are motivated by evil isn't the most thoughtful response. So, in order to give our conversations about ethics more depth than what we'd find in a drunken confrontation between Bears and Packers fans, I'm going to try to focus on the underlying methods that lead to certain ethical choices rather than comparing the choices themselves apart from their various contexts.

A Series:

In order to examine some of these lines of thinking, I'm planning on a series of posts that examine particular aspects or controversies in games and ethics. In separate posts I'll try to examine a few areas that hopefully with shed some light on how we think about ethics in our games.

  • Violence: This certainly is an issue that gets a lot of press. For whatever reason, there are a lot of violent games consumed by our culture. Examining games that I've played and enjoyed, I'll try to discover different approaches for explaining, justifying, and portraying violence as a theme in computer games. I want to look at how the games themselves justify the simulated violence and
  • Sexuality and Gender: These are two very distinct topics. However, western video games portray an adolescent view towards sexuality and gender portrayals, enough so that it seems fitting to talk about sexuality and gender roles together. In this post I'll try to answer why it is acceptable to simulate beheading in games but not orgasm. I'll also examine how games I've played deal with avatar appearance and starting stats with both male and female characters.
  • Ethics of Gamers: Many games are played online with other players. So, questions about how communities of gamers self-regulate, how certain behaviors and rewarded or stigmatized, and how these gamer ethics correspond to other social ethics will be investigated. Also: I'll look into John Gabriels Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory. (NSFW: Language, obviously. The theory posits that a normal person plus an audience plus anonymity equals bad behavior. Given how online gaming brings all those ingredients together, how do gamers regulate their environments and behaviors?

This is what information. games. has in store for the immediate future. Hopefully this will be more interesting than silence or nattering on about conference presentations. If not, blame Elizabeth and Matt who met me in a dive bar and asked me interesting ethical questions last week.



What is interesting about games?

I ask myself this question because after doing a lot of work (soon to be published!) on Portal I found myself in a bit of a lull when it comes to being reflective about my gaming experiences or doing games analysis. It might just be an understandable reaction to being done with an intensive project. It might also be a reflection of my gaming practices. I haven't been playing much and when I have I've been doing LOTRO quests with my partner. This is a lot of fun, but I've always felt that I don't really play MMO games "correctly". I'm not really interested in making friends or playing with others, I've used LOTRO basically as a chance to role play with a few select friends. The MMO phenomenon is such that there is interest in research about these games, but I can't really tie what researchers or librarians are interested in with the way I like to amuse myself in the game world. As a consequence, I haven't really come across any new parallels between what instruction librarians and game developers do or found any new perspectives on how teachers can use gaming culture to connect with students.

I did have my students read Gerald Graff's essay Hidden Intellectualism (versions of this essay that can be found in his books Clueless in Academe and They Say, I Say) and it reaffirmed my conviction that teachers who can get their gaming students to recognize the critical thinking that goes into their gameplay for what it is will have an great opportunity to transfer those skills to academic work. I think this is important, but there isn't anything new about games in this particular line of thinking.

So maybe I need to look at another approach. I've been analyzing the structure of games and how successful tutorials are designed. I've avoided, up to now, looking at narrative or storytelling in games. However, with the games I have lined up to play next: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, Fallout 3, and The Witcher: Enhanced Edition narrative, interaction, and storytelling/creating are some of the things these games do best. I'm just not certain how that ties in with library instruction.

Another thought is ethics in games. This is another subject I've shied away from partially because the public discourse on the subject is banal and partially because I'm having trouble articulating my ethical framework these days. Still, I was invited to a departmental party the other day and had a brief, but interesting conversation with a digital ethics instructor who wanted to use Manhunt 2 as his example of ethics in games. I really struggled to find a way to communicate why I could think of almost nothing interesting to say about that particular game and ethics. (The game simulates a snuff-film reality show.) I settled on explaining that it just isn't a good game by any measure and he might want to look at a higher quality example of a game, such as Bioshock, when talking about ethics in games.

Thinking about this conversation, I realized that I'm not so much annoyed by the way we talk about gaming ethics as I'm annoyed by the way we talk about ethics in general. Listening to what a person or group has decided is good/bad is not interesting. Listing to how a person or group sets ethical priorities is interesting. Why is it that as a culture we don't seem to be able to do more than express our indignation and outrage at either the deplorable actions portrayed in Grand Theft Auto IV and/or the censors who want to legislate a lowest-common-denominator groupthink by restricting games that don't reinforce the values of the existing cultural hegemony? Surely we can do better.

What do you all, my valued readers, think? What is interesting about games? I'm not so much asking what makes you want to play a particular game, I'm asking what makes you want to talk or think about games.