Patricia Hernandez – Nightmare Mode [Archived] Nightmare Mode Archive Fri, 24 Jan 2014 06:23:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 64551392 A Moment of Perfect Beauty Sat, 19 Jan 2013 05:00:41 +0000 A lot has been written about Adam Cadre’s seminal work of interactive fiction, Photopia (1998). A quiet, thoughtful exploration of the preciousness of human life, it remains a deeply moving example of interactive storytelling for adults and is still very much worth playing and discussing. It also contains a moment of perfect interactive storytelling – which is particularly interesting given how often it has been accused of lacking any interactivity at all.


For those who haven’t played Photopia, I will begin with a brief summary: you should play it. It’s free, it’s relatively short, and it doesn’t suffer from the usual parser-related irritations. I’m not going to explore the details of the story in this article, as you don’t need to know them to understand what I want to say, but you won’t regret the experience.


Nevertheless, let me say a few words about the game’s story, just to give a bit of context. Photopia is about the life of a girl called Alley. The player never actually plays Alley, instead it gets to see various events in her life through the eyes of other people; interspersed with these events, which are presented in black and white, is a story Alley tells to Wendy, a younger girl that she’s babysitting. This story, which is presented in a variety of colours, is actually a game-within-the-game, or an interactive-story-within-an-interactive-story if you prefer more hyphens, in which Alley acts as the equivalent of a D&D gamemaster and Wendy is the player.


The story Alley and Wendy tell together begins with an astronaut on a red planet. Eventually the astronaut crashes her ship into the ocean, explores an undersea castle, gets out of the sea on a golden beach, and finally reaches…


As you walk through the pass, you encounter first one shard of glass on the ground, then another. But it isn’t until you crest the final hill that you see what you’ve discovered.

Before the crystal labyrinth

You are standing on a ridge above the entrance to a vast crystal labyrinth. You’d be tempted to call it a city, with its haphazard collection of iridescent towers and spires and arches — “iridescent” means shimmering with rainbow colors — but from what you can see from your vantage point, there is barely enough space between the crystal walls to permit one person to pass between them. The labyrinth is ringed by steep mountains, so going around it is impossible: your only choices are to enter it to the west, or to head back the way you came.


A labyrinth. A maze. Oh dear.


Mazes, of course, are one of the most infamous puzzles that adventure games and RPGs torture their players with. Almost without exception, mazes are a tedious way of stretching out a game’s length without adding anything of substance. Nevertheless, so far everything has been quite doable and the journey itself has been full of great imagery, so why not give it a go?



You step into the crystal labyrinth and immediately get lost.

In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and west.


Fantastic. A typical maze experience, then. Let’s see, maybe you can find some sort of pattern that will help you get through this place…



You wander around the maze of glass until you find yourself at another intersection…


In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and east. Two of the nearby walls intersect to form the base of an immense spire.


>x spire

Though the crystal sparkles in every color, the dominant note seems to be a beautiful light blue, refracted from the sky above. (“Refraction” is what happens when light passes through a medium that bends it, like water or a prism.)


Hmm, maybe you’re supposed to use these structures to orient yourself. You keep going, not really making much meaningful progress. The place itself is described quite evocatively, the writing working on more than one level, capturing both the beauty of the places described and the beauty of Alley telling Wendy about them, but the maze seems like it’s going to be somewhat irritating.




In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and west.


With an audible sputter, the cooling unit of your spacesuit finally gives out.


Hmm? Oh, the spacesuit. Anyway. Let’s keep looking for the solution to this stupid puzzle…


In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, west, and east.


With its cooling unit broken, your bulky spacesuit begins to feel very uncomfortable. It’s like wearing a parka on a warm, sunny day.


Let’s get rid of it, then. Not that it will help with the maze, but at least it will prevent the game from constantly reminding you about it.


>take off suit

You take off your spacesuit and drop it on the ground.


Now, what could be the solution? Something about these larger structures? Always going in a particular direction? Or do you have to draw a map?



You wander around the maze of glass until you find yourself at another intersection…

The cool breeze ruffles the feathers of your wings.


And suddenly the realization hits you.

I have wings.

With trembling hands, you type:



You stretch your wings and soar into the sky.


It is a moment of perfect beauty.

Ironically, this moment is directly inspired by a scene in a non-interactive work of fiction. Adam Cadre writes:


The idea for the sky-blue puzzle came from Ron Hansen’s MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, in which two sisters play a little game: “You’re in a locked room. How do you get out?”  “Call for help.”  “No one hears you.”  “Look for a key.”  “There is none.”  “Dig under the walls.” “The ground is too hard.”  “I give up.”  “The room has no ceiling. And you have wings.”  I thought this would make a cool IF puzzle.


What Cadre has created is far more than just a cool puzzle, though. The concept works better in an interactive story; one could say it only works in an interactive story. “I have wings” is a moment of self-revelation, and such a moment requires a self: not an observer, but a participant.


This reveals one of the fundamental (and often misunderstood) elements of the interactive medium: it is the medium of the first person and the present tense. That the narration takes place in the second person – you do this, you see that – is secondary. The experience takes place now, through the eyes of the player.


I have wings. I am here. These are my actions. This is my story.


Consider the words with which Photopia begins:


“Will you read me a story?”

“What fun would that be? I’ve got a better idea: let’s tell a story together.”


Photopia is not a glorified short story, as some have claimed, because moments such as this one could never be as powerful as they are without interactivity, without telling a story together. And it doesn’t really matter whether the plot is linear or not, whether the world is procedurally generated or hand-crafted, whether there is one ending or twenty. It matters that there is an I and a now, and that this is a story made to be told with these things.


No other artform can make you realize that you have wings.


No other artform can let you soar into the sky.

]]> 5 24467
Communication Impossibilities Fri, 18 Jan 2013 23:36:00 +0000 Communication is the weirdest thing. It just kinda works, unless it doesn’t. In practice, it works not because the connection between thought, intention, and language is perfect. It isn’t. It works because we usually share large parts of our worldview and knowledge with the people we’re speaking with, and because our minds are really good at filling in conceptual gaps wherever we see them. In cases where there are minor hitches in communication, we’re also very good at pretending there aren’t any. We ignore them, or we aren’t even aware that someone else might not understand exactly what we’re saying in the same way that we do.

When communication breakdown reaches a certain point, though, we become painfully aware of it. We cannot express ourselves in a way that will make the other understand what we want to say. There are no words, no gestures, to bridge that chasm between us that suddenly looms very wide and deep.

Not a lot of games seem to tackle this problem head-on, and it’s perhaps easy to see why. A lot of single player games have practically no dialogue at all, and those that do have more often feature it in a straightforward manner. Sure, there’s plenty of lies and deceit in games, but the meaning of words is rarely put into question. Either someone’s telling the truth or they’re not, but it’s usually clear what they’re talking about.

However, it is certainly possible for games to shift their attention to a different level, and start to question the fabric of communication. The best way to put communication forward as subject of your game is to introduce non-standard limitations to the communication on the one hand, and to create an environment that stimulates communication on the other. A perfect example is Tale of Tales’ multiplayer title The Endless Forest.

All players in The Endless Forest incarnate as slightly anthropomorphised deer in the game’s forest. There is no chat function in the game, but instead, the deer avatars can use a range of emotes and gestures. As can be easily observed, this forces players to devise a way of communicating that uses no words as such, but that instils meaning into gestures, like a primitive sign language.

Players will eventually want to find some way of coming to grips with this form of communication, because one of the central aspects of The Endless Forest requires cooperation with others: appearance customisation. There’s a broad selection of decorations and colours for your deer’s coat and antlers, a range of masks for your face, and even a few full-body transformations. The thing is, you can only get those if another deer casts the appropriate forest magic spell on you. Consequently, a lot of deer interaction will involve getting others to cast the right spells on you, and somehow signifying to them that you’re content with the results.

Thankfully, the gestures available to the deer aren’t too difficult to link to our own conventions of communication. There are clear yes/no headshakes, you can bow or curtsy to thank someone, rub flanks to show affection, etc. Tale of Tales themselves suggest a basic vocabulary on their website, and some players, such as Flyra, have written short guides on their own deer’s language, combining individual gestures into more complex ‘phrases’ in a process that mirrors one way in which human language might have evolved at some point from one-word to multiple-word sentences.

Looking at communication in The Endless Forest, I would say that Tale of Tales have stripped down the options available to us, first of all to take us out of our comfort zone and ensure that we take relatively little of the ‘real world’ into the game, but secondly to show the possibilities of communicating using such a small set of options, and still be able to get by in the context of the game. Although I personally don’t believe the system does or is even meant to represent actual animal communication, it does show us part of such a form of communication might work.

This minimalistic approach is echoed in Thatgamecompany’s Journey, where the player is limited to ‘chirps’ and the basic movements to signal intent to other players. While this approach was inspired by The Endless Forest, Journey goes a bit further, to the point where it becomes extremely difficult to construct any form of unambiguous communication between players. In this Gamespot article, the interviewed UC Berkeley linguistics students take a look at the game, and argue that the lack of slightly more nuanced calls or gestures hampers the game’s ability to let communication grow. For example, at least a way of distinguishing positive/negative would be needed in order for players to clearly communicate their intent. That said, since Journey is more goal-oriented than The Endless Forest, players will eventually gravitate towards particular actions that further those goals, whereas in the relatively goal-less The Endless Forest, less ambiguous communication might be essential for any sort of meaningful cooperation to arise at all.


Fast forward seven years, and it seems Tale of Tales have returned to the same theme again, though from a different angle. Their latest title Bientôt l’été is about communication as much or even more than The Endless Forest is, but to me it seems it approaches the theme from a much more pessimistic and wistful angle. Instead of focusing on how we could get a workable system of communication from minimal means, the game shows us how despite our elaborate languages and other technologies, communication can still fail utterly and leave us feeling empty.

In Bientôt, the studio’s second multiplayer title, our avatars are future humans, plugged into a holodeckish system on which an abstracted representation of a North Sea beach with a French café is projected. We walk across the beach, picking up phrases that have washed ashore, and remembering them for later use. Here and there, apparitions appear: a tree, a pier, a dead dog. If we approach them, they disappear and are replaced with a chess piece. These, too, we tuck away for later use.

In the café, we meet our partner, plugged into another holodeck somewhere, but of course actually just another player behind a PC. Seated across a chess board, the players can use their pieces to bring forth the sentences found earlier on the beach. Again, there is no regular chat channel, no easy way of communicating. Just the prescribed sentences, the silences you let fall. An occasional sip of wine or drag of a cigarette. The sentences are snippets from slightly awkward café meetings taking place somewhere in the past, in Marguerite Duras novels, and they deal with love, attraction, repulsion, losing oneself.

As in The Endless Forest, Tale of Tales places us in a situation where communication is constrained. Of course, this too offers possibilities. There is potential meaning in the positioning and movement of chess pieces, and the sentences have an obvious and direct verbal meaning. The question is: can they express what I want to say to the person that is sitting opposite me?

One of the game-like possibilities in Bientot l’été is to pick the ‘right’ sentences, those that feel like logical and/or surprising replies to what your partner has just said or done. There are echoes of collaborative storytelling and poetry to be found here. However, eventually you will always run out of things to say, and this again highlights the problems inherent in communication. Ultimately, in Bientot l’été there is nothing that can be gained from a conversation except that conversation itself, which is doomed to be imprecise and imperfect.

In a way, this part of Bientot l’été is not that different from some conversations in real life. Particularly when dealing with love and relationships, it can be really difficult to even realise what exactly it is you want to say to someone, let alone find the right words. The café situation in the game is merely a dramatic exaggeration of that problem, and not really essentially different from it.

At the same time, the game also comments on the additional problems of communication over a distance, with the internet being the obvious reference point. By choosing a futuristic setting depicting a historical setting, and allowing the settings themselves to bleed into each other at some points, the game blatantly points towards its own artificiality, and that of all conversation. It says: “look at what you’re doing here: you’re having a broken conversation of borrowed sentences with someone you don’t know, probably sitting at the other end of the table/world/universe. How can you be sure the messages you send each other aren’t even more distorted than you think they are? Do you know what ends up at the other end?” No, we don’t. We can only make an educated guess, and fill in the gaps ourselves.

To make matters worse, Bientot l’été questions the reality of your conversation partner. They’re represented as ghost images, mere holograms, and there’s no sure way to tell the difference between an actual conversation partner and the computer simulation that’s also available in the game. Sure, the game says there’s a difference, and ‘talking’ to a person feels different – there’s more of a connection, especially in the way your sentences are replied to. But there’s always a distance, that nagging feeling that makes you wonder, like Joe Dassin does in the game’s spectral jukebox: “Et si tu n’existais pas”. What if you didn’t exist?

These are, on some level, silly questions. If we’d continually pose them we’d go mad, and would be unable to communicate at all. But there’s definitely something to be said for looking at them through the window of a game, to re-examine what we take for granted. The Endless Forest shows that if we really want to, we can make do with even a tiny set of linguistic tools to eke out some form of basic communication needed to cooperate. It is an ode to the pragmatism that underlies all animal and human language from the very basic to the highly complex. At the other end of the spectrum, Bientot l’été laments the absence of an essence of truth and reliability in communication. It sings wistfully about how when a bridge is built from both sides of that vast chasm, it ultimately fails to meet in the middle, crumbling at both ends, the other side always just out of reach.

]]> 5 24464
How Portal portrays science Tue, 25 Dec 2012 13:00:20 +0000

Portal presents a world that indulges in the idea of science. The facility of Aperture is a place of endless testing and research, where every placement and movement is calculated and pre-determined. It’s walls are endlessly white, it’s environments are sterile and void of any character or sense of human touch. This is how Portal, though Aperture, presents science to us. Science is shown as something straight, efficient and consistent.

Portal 2 is different. It presents a world whose walls are scratched and dirty, overgrown with vegetation. It shows cracked tiles falling into the underground ocean, rooms filled with broken machine parts, turret bots assembled and disassembled. Aperture turns from the straight and sterile into mess and malfunction. And through Aperture, Portal 2 presents science as confused, uncertain, and perhaps even purposeless.

It’s a trickle down effect. Aperture carries a warped view of science, a mindset imposed on by its founder, Cave Johnson, and his successor GlAdos. Cave’s tapes, played throughout the old test chambers, permeate the facility with science rhetoric, but are void of substance or context.

At Aperture we do all our science from scratch; no hand holding.

I’ll be honest, we’re throwing science at the walls here to see what sticks.

Worst case scenario, you miss out on a few rounds of canasta, plus you forwarded the cause of science by three centuries

Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: why not marry safe science if you love it so much.

Cave’s use of science is vague. It demonstrates no understanding of what science is or how it works. Instead, science becomes a rhetoric, an umbrella term for all things grand, precise, and trustworthy. The idea that the science itself could be a “cause” to be “forwarded,” implies a kind of science that acts purely for its own sake, in an endless circle, a void. And that’s what Aperture becomes long after Cave’s death: a facility that acts purely for itself, performing endless tests conducted by robots in isolation and irrelevance.

Cave’s humourous, outlandish one-liners turn his ignorance into something conspicuous and caricaturish; it criticizes and makes fun of his nature through humour. His diction also paints him as an everyday man. His level of understanding is closer to the typical layman or the occasional science consumer, rather than one who should be running a research facility. Cave, then, seems to reflect more on us as the public that absorbs science media and culture throughout our lives. His ignorance and sensationalization of science becomes a reflection of the publics.

The People

It’s a known phenomenon among scientists that the general public doesn’t understand science very well. Many people surveyed by the Pew Research Center don’t understand basic science–for example, only 46% were aware that electrons are smaller than atoms, 47% understood that lasers work by focusing sound, about 60% knew that Pluto is, in fact, not a planet anymore, and 61% were aware they’ve recently found water on Mars. When the Charlton research company performed a health survey in the U.S, they found that 66% couldn’t name a working scientist; most of those who could chose Stephen Hawking. 84% couldn’t name their government agency that funds science. 62% couldn’t name the government agency whose job it is to prevent diseases, and promote health.  And 50% couldn’t name the agency that funds medical research, an agency paid by the public through taxes. Those aren’t textbook questions; they’re basic knowledge of how science functions in one’s society.

Despite this, the public, like Cave Johnson, has high regard for science (at least in the U.S.)  Most of those surveyed believe that science has a positive effect on society, and that scientists contribute to the well-being of society. Most believe that scientific research is necessary and should be government supported.  Our culture is engaged with the idea of science, since it is a part of popular media such as speculative fiction, high-grossing films, AAA games and popular literature.

In 1994, Alan G. Gross discussed two ways in which science is communicated to people. The first was a deficit model, a one-way flow that “implies a passive public;” practitioners don’t try to persuade people of the value of science, but act as though the public is already persuaded; they refrain from convincing or building trust. The second was the contextual model, a “two-way flow” that stresses the “interaction between science and its publics;” public trust is built, not assumed; the needs of science and the needs of those who aren’t fully engaged into science are better integrated.

Aperture Testers are intimidated, deceived,  and taken advantage of. There is no communication or building of trust, only condescension and the belief that their experiments are worth the pain caused to others. This is the “one-way flow” that Alan discusses. It’s a mindset that’s assuming of its own importance, and lacking the need to justify itself. But Aperture acts in isolation. What’s different here, is that science is an interaction between two forces: those who communicate science, and those who consume it, though scientists, science media, general media, and pop culture. The way we interpret science is influenced by those who communicate science to us.

In the end, it’s not necessarily how much science we as a public know, but rather how it’s interpreted. If science is a tug between two forces, then wouldn’t that mean science is best interpreted as a two way flow as a conversation between those forces. When we see rovers land on neighboring planets, or mathematicians teach cardioids through notepad doodles, or documentaries where physicists describe their excitement towards finding new particles, science isn’t planting its feet in the sand and waiting for us to learn how to appreciate it; it’s adapting its language towards the way people engage themselves: through ambition, imagination, dedication, and passion. Here, science doesn’t assume it’s own righteousness, but acts to justify itself and convince others of its value.

Perhaps then, there’s a way a society can be in constant conversation with science. Portal 2 conversely, presents a world where science only speaks to itself. It’s quite lonely, really.


The roles of rhetoric in the public understanding of science

US Public Opinion: An Untapped

Resource for the Science Community

Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago

]]> 10 24400
Rinoa and death Mon, 24 Dec 2012 12:57:28 +0000 Rinoa is mind controlled. Rinoa does something bad. Rinoa floats through space. Rinoa dies.

You should watch the scene here (turn off the sound, the LPer running the game is a total asshole who ruins it.)

For those who don’t want to spend three minutes getting caught up: Rinoa, arguably the focal character of Final Fantasy VIII, is drifting away from a space station. She is in a suit, but that suit is running out of oxygen. There is an internal monologue that runs. Text boxes appear with internal monologue. “I’m helpless,” she thinks. “That’s it.” “I’m gonna…die.” “Good bye.”

Let me back up: onscreen death in the Final Fantasy series is defined by Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII. It is a keystone event in video games, period, and I’m not sure there is anything left to be said about that after Brian Taylor’s “Save Aeris.” In any case, Final Fantasy VIII exists, and was developed in, a post-Aeris world. That world has a particular politics attached to it–Aeris’ death, after all, is a plot engine. It gives the (male) character a reason to struggle on in the world, against all odds, and whatever. If you could hear me reading that last sentence, you would understand how much I’m not into women being refridgerated for the sake of plot.

There are a couple things to note here: First, Rinoa doesn’t die. Second, the scene ends in the most stereotypical “Let me tell you all of my feelings” JRPG way imaginable when the “protagonist” of the game, Squall, shows up and saves her and they declare their eternal love for one another blah blah blah.

There is something to the risk of the scene that I am attracted to. There is something about the aesthetics–Rinoa is reduced to a dot at the bottom of the screen. The infinity of the universe stretches out behind her. It scrolls slowly. Behind this, a counter ticks slowly, breath by breath. Life support runs out. [Life Support Has Terminated]. In this moment, Rinoa knows that she is going to die. The game doesn’t have anymore use for her. She drifts.

In the real game, in the canonical universe, Squall intervenes. Rinoa lives.

But I keep drifting back to a speculation. Rinoa knew what was going to happen. “I’m gonna…die.” “Good bye.” I get stuck here. My lesson comes from holding back time, holding back narrative, preventing the future from happening. If I never touch the X button, if I let the text box hang forever, then Rinoa keeps scrolling. She drifts in space, dying and then dead, without an intervention to save her. I have to press X; I have to extend love, to move time forward, to release her from stasis

My power as a player in a JRPG is to press buttons during cutscenes. Sometimes I press buttons to select from extensive menus during combat. If I don’t press X, the world is paused forever. Rinoa becomes trapped; a real death never comes. Matthew Weise, in his “R.I.P. J-RPG,” writes about the RPG genre in and of itself as “a group of shallow systems arranged in a way that reinforc[es] each other enough to sustain a narrative.” One of these shallow systems is, weirdly, my neurological system; serpentine muscles twitch in my arm, my wrist draws together so slightly, and I tap the X button.

Is there anything more horrifying then that never happening? Something breaks down. Communication lost in biological static. Squall never comes to the rescue. Rinoa drifts forever. This moment, extended for all time based on a total system failure of my body coming into contact with a controller, lingers.

An existential gap widens. The full reality of being yawns in the scrolling stars. The fantastic story of Squall and company saving the universe means nothing against all this backdrop.

There isn’t anything to bring all of these heterogeneous pieces together. Another criticism of Final Fantasy VIII is that it is fragmented, that pieces come out of nowhere to unsettle the plot. Characters appear and disappear. Life appears and flares out.

The game doesn’t run up against anything “profound” when Rinoa’s life support fails. It just reveals; it shows both how powerful and finite the player is in relation to the game. It shows us our existence, a Squall-less existence, where we float forever. Players can be saviors or they can be absent gods, smiling down, watching characters drift forever.

I leave the game running. Rinoa floats through space. Life support failing, forever.

]]> 6 24395
The Negative Influence of Games: An Autobiographical Essay Sun, 23 Dec 2012 05:08:38 +0000 I spent 803 days unemployed after I left college. Each day I would start by writing to companies to explain how I am just the right person for their position. I would then set about organizing and cleaning an ever-increasingly out-of-date set of thrift-store purchases. Sometimes, I even went to parties where I tried to make being unemployed sound cool. Most of the time, however, I played a lot of video games.

The time spent organizing my pile of belongings made sense to me – even without a job I feel a need to maintain my life – but the time spent playing video games was always deeply confusing. Inside video games I become a world-famous hero, and yet in the real world I have trouble even getting an interview. Why can’t the willful leader and the inspired artist in me show himself?  Why can’t I reach the next level in the real world?

I am coming to the conclusion that the answer is video games.

At age thirteen I was introduced to the first game I took seriously by a well-meaning teacher who taught at my Jr. High School. He made the whole class a deal each day: if we finished our lessons we could play on the private server he hosted on a small Pentium 3 computer in the corner near his desk. I quickly signed the manilla waiver that said Ultima Online may contain content that was not suitable for kids my age.

More like a game of make-believe than a single fantasy adventure, UO offered me a world in which I could visualize myself completely. My character could spend his days slaying skeletons, mixing potions, or even baking bread. Most exciting of all, however, was that with each click, the worth of my effort was clearly defined by the steady ticking of stats ever upward. When my Musicianship skill jumped 20 points in a single week so that I could tame Dragons my teacher praised me as “one of the smartest students I’ve met.” This when I began to try and take the same approach in my real life; this is when the end goal began to matter more than the journey.

One day when I came to school the gamer circle was talking about a new game: Everquest. Ultima Online was a joke compared to this game, they boasted. Only babies would be playing UO anymore.

To me, UO felt less like a game and more like an extension of my neighborhood; a real world with rules I was just beginning to understand and internalize. I refused to give it up, and was promptly rejected. The gamer group refused my entrance at lunch. This rejection was heartbreaking, but I consoled myself with the idea that I was getting the better end of the deal. What was the point of being on cordial terms  with a group that even on the best days could not be described as friends? I took to spending my lunches reading printouts from various Ultima Online fansites to improve my tick rate; UO, and the resulting praise from my teacher, provided me the edification I had been searching for.

The next year was filled with a series of troubles and anxieties – from professional rejection, to typecasting based on my weight, and finally my mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. These events combined to create a strong sense of fearful pessimism about the future; not so much a hopelessness but a deep and terrible panic. Fortunately, UO provided me with the daily routine and positive reinforcement that I so desperately craved. It became a hiding place where I could pretend that I didn’t feel powerless and incompetent in real life.

When the year came to an end I “graduated” into high school and the server my teacher ran was no longer available to me. At first this did not bother me; I had seen it coming and had planned to join an official server as soon as it happened. My first few hours on the Great Lakes shard felt comfortably familiar, but very quickly I came to see that nothing was the same. On a public server, Ultima Online could be best described as a mixture of Atlas Shrugged and Mad Max in Medieval England. All the uncertainty, tragedy, and betrayal caused by the collision of human begins existed as a pure distillate; unspoiled by by any limits on player conduct.

The empowering isolation of my teacher’s private server now a memory. I found myself at the mercy of people who seemed to take great delight in making me feel powerless. I still have scars on my hands from the time I slammed my fist against the wall in impotent rage as the work of hours of mining was lifted from my corpse by a PK as he recited a list of the different ways he wanted to copulate with my mother.

I lingered for a few more weeks, but reality had moved in. Its cold, cynical, girth was making itself comfortable on my couch when I cancelled my account. “It’s for the best” my family would say, “now you can focus on what is actually important.” My mother was very sick at this point. I agreed with them, using the vehemence of my words as a way to drown out the voice in my head pleading with me to find a new place to feel powerful. I thought I found what I was looking for in my High School’s JROTC program because it gave me an opportunity to follow simple rules inside of a clear worldview and earn straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals.

What I found was a new game that was just as troubling as the one I had just left. The difficulty of dodging player killers was replaced with the grueling work of morning physical training. What seemed so easy for everyone else felt insurmountable to the extremely obese kid I was at the time. Having to face the frustrated visages of my classmates, who had to keep running while they waited for me to finish the lap (as I had already stopped three times to catch my breath) was completely disheartening. The public UO servers had shown me the shittiness of others, but JROTC made me face my own shittiness. It held a mirror up to my own limitations, and I turned away.

I didn’t feel strong or successful standing in formation (being shown by several cadets just how bad I was at standing in formation). I just wanted to find a place where I could recapture the happy confidence of my teacher’s server. Slowly I began to put less and less effort into my duties; I traded shining shoes for searching the web for some new game to play. My mother was too sick to register the downward slide of my JROTC grades. She didn’t live to see me quit the next year.

First my virtual world, and then my real world were shattered. This was probably one of the most hopeless times in my life. One of the people I cared about the most was gone, and I felt like it had been my fault. I know now that guilt is normal, and irrational, but at the time all I could think about was how weak I was. I couldn’t hack it in JROTC, and I couldn’t even be a good enough kid to give my mother the strength to fight for her life. Despite all the hours I had played a hero in Ultima Online, I couldn’t find the strength to be one in real life.

All I could think to do was keep practicing. At this point I began what I now call “The Cycle.” It can be outlined in seven steps.

A. Decide life is too (difficult, troubling, unfair, hopeless, etc.) and choose a game that is easy, repetitive, and comforting which provides a high level of wish fulfillment. The protagonist must normally end up accomplishing things I feel incapable of.

B. Grow increasingly disillusioned with the experience and stop playing.

C. Find a new game that embodies that is incredibly difficult. Usually this means a complicated flight sim or a competitive online game. Either way it must have an incredibly high bar for success.

D. Slowly realize that I am not that good at the game from part C. Become intensely focused on succeeding, and start playing constantly. Refrain from normal activities and avoid work to spend more time practicing.

E. Come to the conclusion that success is not coming fast enough, and even if it does – which it probably won’t – the reality is I am devoting my time to a fantasy. Decide that if I am going to devote myself to something it should have something more real at the core of it. Quit what I have been playing since step C and attempt to find success in education or professional life.

F. Grow frustrated with my lack of  success and depressed with the indeterminability of my future. (Unlike game universes, the real world has no clear designer’s intent. There is no single walkthrough, and success is not guaranteed.) Begin to long for gaming experience like the one I found in my teacher’s Ultima Online server, where objectives are clear and success is inevitable and imminent.

G. Return to A.

This cycle functions because of one simple character flaw: a need to maintain my self-esteem by continually reliving my successes. I return to certain games (and even within games certain scenarios) that make me feel successful. At the time of writing Medieval 2 Total War, and Mount & Blade: Warband both have 600 hours of playtime; with many of those spent replaying the same victories over and over.

The ease with which games and especially RPGs allow us to feel powerful and to repeat ad infinitum these rituals of self-empowerment are part of what makes them so successful. It also makes them capable of becoming so tightly wired into our perception of reality that they can alter our psyche. The resultant change is very similar to what William Deresiewicz describes as the disadvantages of an elite education:

“…students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure…”

The difference between my own experience, and that of a typical hyper-successful ivy-league-bound student is that my sense of self was built around fabricated success.  Video games present a fictitious sense of trial that produce a baseless sense of accomplishment.  Saving the world feels like it’s worthy of note but it is simply the outcome for every person who plays the game and doesn’t turn off the console.

I chose to define myself by my gaming successes as a way of displacing the definition given to me by my circumstances.  This has brought with it all the consequences Deresiewicz describes, but without any of the benefits gained from the hard work real-world success requires.  I still craved the type of success that Ivy League schools looked for, but the ease with which I could turn on a video game and feel successful without any of the work was (and still is) incredibly difficult to pass up.

When I was applying for college I was right at the part of the cycle where I once again become obsessed with real-world success. My father and teachers encouraged me to study English and Writing in college. Writing had always come naturally to me, and without realizing it I had logged a significant chunk of the 10,000 hours needed to master the craft engaging in collaborative storytelling in various multiplayer games. At the time none of this was clear to me, and I perceived their encouragement as an attempt to get me to accept my limits and simply enjoy mediocrity. Choosing English felt like a conscious choice to replay a game I had already beaten over and over forever. I decided that a true winner would take on a hard game and win. I chose to attempt a degree that teachers had told me repeatedly I had no real talent for: art. I found a school that didn’t require a portfolio to prove my qualification and began a degree in Animation.

Top grades became the new win state, and being the teacher’s most promising pupil became the threshold for winning the game. Each class that found me behind someone else made the tug in my brain to retreat into games even stronger. For two years I toughed it out and through sheer determination (and many all-nighters) made a straight “A” average. But then I met a classmate who seemed capable of accomplishing any animation task (and rising to the top of the class) without any effort. I couldn’t beat him, and the tug became too strong. I retreated hard, and the cycle began again.

During a long winter break, half way into a bottle of rum, I found a gaming group that enticed my compulsion; a pseudo military unit playing Day of Defeat: Source. There were tests to pass, inspections to clear, and medals to win. It was everything I had wanted to find when I quit JROTC; an easier path to feeling like a hero. I thought that maybe if I went through the boot camp (just until break was over) I could return to class refreshed and confident.

Classes resumed, but part of me decided not to return. I was good at this new game, and I wanted to keep feeling good. As my rank rose I spent more and more time inside the “unit” as we called ourselves. My grades slipped accordingly and, though outwardly I expressed bravado, inside I was torn and afraid. I wasn’t willing to say it out loud, but part of me believed that this ‘unit’ was the only place I’d ever feel proud of myself.

My straight “As” turned into rocky “Cs” and I left school with a reputation for being unreliable. At around the same time I “retired” from the unit a Second Lieutenant. A captaincy or executive officer position – what I saw as the end goal of this game – was not something I could achieve. My superiors had decided I was “too intense, too eager” for high command. I was angry. I was ashamed. I had thrown away my college experience for a shot at winning this game. I hated myself.

I spent two years out of college unemployed because I stuck to a routine. Wake, eat, play the same games that make me feel strong, promise myself that tomorrow I will move past this, sleep, do it again.

I’ve read about how video games are shaping culture in positive ways, and heard from countless people on Twitter and in person that games have opened their eyes to new ways of viewing the world. Deep down, I feel none of this. Games have allowed me to hurt myself in ways that I am not sure I will ever recover from. At the same time, they are such a core part of my life that I don’t think I can ever give them up. So instead I pretend to agree. I talk openly and loudly about how games are one of the highest forms of art; I defend the position that games will change the world for the better; I keep writing cover letters telling game companies how excited I am to work for them. I pretend because admitting to myself that I’ve screwed my life for good is worse. I begin the cycle again.

]]> 33 24380
If gamers are the "educated elite," then…. Tue, 11 Dec 2012 17:18:32 +0000 THE UNEQUAL PROVISION OF EDUCATION IN THE FIELD OF VIDEOGAMES

Good morning. I’d like to begin this article with a short exercise. Accompanying this paragraph is a picture of Magdalen College, one of the largest and most prestigious colleges of Oxford University. It is so big and so rich that its grounds contain a deer park.

Please take a moment to say the name of Magdalen College out loud.

If you pronounced it ‘mag-dal-en’, then I’m afraid you’re quite wrong. But if you pronounced it ‘Maudlin’, congratulations – you have a familiarity with the obscure mores of Oxford that separates you from the mere proles who never heard their parents or their teacher or their older sibling pronounce those words out loud. And now we all know it, you posh twat.

This was the test that sprang to mind when I first read Jim Rossignol’s piece on games and ‘high culture’ back in October. Games, he argued, require a great deal of education to engage with, let alone appreciate; they’re packed full of obscure conventions and assume hours of practice. We shouldn’t worry about what non-gamers think of games, because “in this instance,” he wrote, “we are the highly educated elite.”

It’s a good point. It arouses in me the instant desire to defend the fruits of the traditional education I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy (a word I choose advisedly) in both games and ‘real life’. Complexity of the kind impenetrable without years of copious and counter-intuitive study is valuable and beautiful for those who want to dance with it and I will defend it forever and always on those terms. Not everyone, however, gets invited to that party – and others are denigrated simply for not wanting to go.

This article is about how if the comparison of games to education is taken seriously and to its logical extent, it gives context and clarity to some of our loudest critical debates. But it’s also about how that comparison has cultural and political cultural dimensions we can’t avoid, because if gamers are an ‘educated elite’ they also act like one: valuing some kinds of game literacy over others, and restricting the provision of the higher forms.


This begins, of course, with one of those articles. Last week, it was troll-faced Jonathan Jones at the Guardian; before that, it was Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times. Okay, says some high-falutin’ artsy-fartsy type, so Frog Factions is pretty fun – but it’s hardly Joyce (actually, it blatantly is). The genre is now so familiar that it’s usually more interesting to see how gamers respond than to read the tired original.

For example, Rossignol starts his article by (skeptically) paraphrasing the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who wrote that there are two kinds of culture:

“High culture”, which is best appreciated with some formal education about what is going on with it (difficult literature, opera) and “Low Culture”, which is basically everything in folk, primitive, and pop culture, for which education is not required.

But Scruton is wrong. The difference between high culture and low culture is not the level of education they require (because they both require plenty). The difference is that one kind of education is available to everybody, and the other is restricted to a relatively small group; one esteemed by society as being of the highest importance, the other just a waste of time. Exercise 2: match the pairs.

Before we go on I’d like to relate two incidents occurring in the 20th century which together contain the two most important things we need to understand about education. In 1971 an English professor called Stanley Fish left a reading list from a previous class on his blackboard and told the next batch to analyse it as a poem; he found that it was mainly his students’ goals and preconceptions which determined how it was read. In the 1960s a psychologist called Robert Cole gave American intelligence tests to Liberian tribesmen regarded as intellectually deficient by local development workers and found that they were easily capable of getting the correct answers – but only when asked “how would a fool do it?”

The first incident was the springboard for Fish’s masterful, witty essay ‘How to Recognise a Poem When You See One’, which shows that even the simplest or most obvious facets of ‘common sense’ are only simple and obvious because our whole lives have been training us to see them that way.  The second is related in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker profile of the social scientist James Flynn in the New Yorker, and shows how IQ tests don’t really test intelligence but at best “modernity” and at worst merely the ability to perform an IQ test. Upshots: one, ‘ordinary knowledge’ is in fact highly educated knowledge; two, valued forms of education are not the only form of education.

So I don’t think that games average a greater complexity than rap music, or lace-making, or advertising, or fishing, or reality TV, but they do involve plenty of knowledge. This is even true of the titles dismissed by Alan Williamson in another response to Kellaway as “superficial junk food for the brain”: Call of Duty and FIFA. Despite its infantilizing compulsion loops, modern CoD requires great dexterity and special awareness, and assumes learned familiarity with trope upon complex trope. As for FIFA, what praises cannot be sung of this subtle and beautiful game? What other title more perfectly balances the cold and tactical calculation of the sporting mind with the instinctive muscular rhythm of the sporting body – or tempers them both with the daring, courage, caution and cowardice of the sporting soul? Not even fighting games punish uninformed button-mashing like FIFA does.

But, as Gladwell’s example suggests, society values some types of education very differently. The word very ‘educated’, standing alone, literally means ‘allowed access to a particular narrow and historically exclusive form of knowledge’. In America, this knowledge is valued at tens of thousands of dollars per year, its cultural capital enforced and maintained by colleges which once officially excluded women or blacks but now just charge a fucking fortune to get in (to say nothing of unofficial discrimination). They are supported by a culture which sells this bargain as desirable and denigrates those unable or unwilling to make it – which fills our conversations with Magdalen College traps designed to identify and punish the ‘uneducated’. And they are of course synergetic with a society which destroys free time and chokes people of opportunities to do anything but scramble for their immediate survival.

These are just some extreme examples. If you don’t share my anti-capitalist soapbox, I’m certain you can find your own (call it Exercise 3). But did you know that in 1989, the year I was born, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defined “whom” (based exhaustive study of written and spoken English) as a word that has passed out of the grammar of ordinary speech? It is now part of what linguists call a prestige dialect, which means it has no functional purpose except to tell everyone else around you that you’re more educated than they are.


In this analysis, Kellaway’s article was a clash between a highy-valued kind of education and another existing lower on the scale. Indeed, it came about through a prize specifically designed to produce such a meeting. Kellaway was chosen to try and “start a national conversation about games” because she is a published author, a successful journalist and a cultural arbiter – and while she was ultimately ill-equipped to judge the games she played, she went about the task with wit and self-depreciating humour. This is one reason her article transcends the genre that Roger Ebert founded, and is readable as more than just another pompous wank.

Another is that, unlike the spectacularly oblivious Jones, Kellaway recognises the truth of Sophie Houlden’s ‘Can Art Be Games’? She realises that knowing how to enjoy games is in itself a skill and admits that she lacks key forms of game literacy like the ability to make Commander Shepherd walk in a straight line. Moreover, she explicitly understands that skill as an education and not the absence of one (she compares her failure to play with her son’s failure to learn French). Ultimately, however, she sticks to her habitual valuation, concluding that if there is any kind of value or complexity in the games she plays, her high-culture education (Oxford, as it happens) is not designed to appreciate it, and she has better things to do. Fair enough. Cartoonist Gary Larson expresses the central irony of our luderacy: the ‘work’ and education it takes for us to enjoy videogames is not valued by employers, cultural arbiters, and parents as anything except a waste of time.

Some gamers dismissed Kellaway’s importance: for Jim Rossignol, she lacked an “education in the school of games”, so who cares? To each their own. Others championed her: Mattie Brice wrote that education consisted mainly of “inbred conventions” – “superficial, unexplained, and frankly discriminatory barriers to entry.” Others, like Williamson, came down in the middle, admitting that there was a grain of truth to what she said. The crux of the argument is about how we as a medium respond to outside valuation.

Do games need to make themselves readable to a high culture education, or is it enough that nerds understand them (we see games like Dwarf Fortress as most ‘geeky’ precisely because they are the most impenetrable without a geek’s education)? When Rossignol wonders why people “get caught up on games not having anything to say,” it is a crystallisation of this conflict. They mean ‘say’ to high culture, speak in a manner intelligible to outsiders, through ‘messages’, morals, meanings, and so forth.

Like in some local war fought in the shadow of rival superpowers, this context patterns our most persistent critical disputes. Is it unfair to see Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless as an attempt to show the disapproving dad of high culture that games really can be worth something? I think many game critics see that as their job description. On the other hand are the Keith Burguns, the Tadgh Kellies, even the Alex Kierkegaards, for whom games have sufficient value on their own terms and for whom any attempt at holding them to other value sets is an alien imposition to be fought off (back in the war, ‘ludologists’ claimed ‘narratologists’ were trying to annex games for the Humanities). Then there are those, like Liz Ryerson and J. Chastain, who reject the shared premise that videogames are already good enough, and shout at gamers: wake up! Demand better! This Stockholm Syndrome bullshit you’ve given half your life to has never loved you back! It is a struggle to claim or reclaim the soul of a medium for or from the devils that are bidding for it.

But it would be ludicrous to say that gamers are treated anywhere near as badly as the ‘uneducated’ poor, and the videogame education is by no means among the least valuable. Games are at MOMA, games are in the Library of Congress, games are getting all up in Lucy Kellaway’s face when all she wants to do is curl up with her readbooks. Hell, it’s possible the long-awaited third edition OED might have dialogue from games among its millions of usage citations (I know it’s got Dylan lyrics in there). Games academia is a burgeoning field and games writing is more common than ever – though it pays a pittance, for reasons that have more to do with the decline of print journalism and thirty years of plutocratic wage suppression. We only take umbrage at Ebert or Jones because we’ve gotten to the point where we reckon we can take them.

Perhaps more importantly, as we all know, games are a multi-billion dollar industry blah blah blah $$$$$$$$ bigger than Hollywood movies blah blah misleading PR claims uncritically repeated. The converse of that is that your videogame education makes you highly valuable as a consumer: £40 for a game, £100 for a special edition £200 for a console, £800 for a computer, and then there’s the DLC (not to mention Kickstarter). Let’s not forget real, massive time cost of a real thoroughgoing videogame habit: hour upon kilohour of harmless, healthy pastime or pathological self-abuse, depending on the time and place and person (I’ve done both).

In terms of knowledge value, that’s not quite the price of college, but the comparison is indicative. We sink a lot of ourselves into games, and maybe that’s why some people think they have the right to decide who gets to join in. Forget the rest of the world: the real problem is what kind of education we value, and who we exclude.


Spacewar! is one of the first videogames ever made, and it ran on a computer that would cost a million dollars today. That cost has come down (incidentally changing the world, nbd), but the wider point is that computer gaming is historically linked with an economically and culturally privileged form of knowledge. Yes, we nerds are often denigrated, but come on: Silicon Valley? Financial industry quants? Regular access to computers and free time to use them? Even in the 1960s, MIT university departments were not a very wide demographic pool. Besides pricing on the consumer end, there is the human cost of producing games consoles and smartphones: the child miners, the torture squads, the suicide nets, to say nothing of the power plants, the greenhouse gases and the global banking networks that surround and license them. Gamers are by definition a privileged group.

They act it, too. Exercise 4 comes with a trigger warning. Please read about or bring to memory the following three examples of gaming misogyny: Maddy Myers’ account of being mocked, belittled, and tacitly excluded on the fighting game circuit, Miranda Pakozdi’s forced forfeit in the face of sexual harassment, and Ryan Perez’ drunken attack on Felicia Day.

These are well-covered issues, but I would like to place them in their educational context. All three involved subtypes of videogame literacy which are highly specialised and take extreme devotion to achieve. The best fighting games do demand the psychological brinksmanship of poker and the motor skill of a musical instrument, no matter how foul this fact is made is in the mouths of fans who enlist it to defend their misogyny. Likewise, high-level raiding in World of Warcraft requires intricate knowledge of its fighting systems and levels of team coordination to make management trainers envious (plus, let’s face it, weeks of bullshit grinding).

But for Perez, who called Day “a glorified booth babe”, or Aris Bakhtanians, who said the fighting game community and rape threats were “one and the same”, it is not enough that these women fulfil the ostensible requirements of these advanced forms of education. Maddy Myers says repeatedly that all she wants to do is learn the game and get better, but the community will not allow her to do so on the same level as a man. Pakozdi cannot compete fairly with men but must also suffer abuse that is specific to her gender and whose direct equivalent, if any exists, is not imposed on her opponents. And what Perez is really ‘asking’ Day is whether her educational credentials are real; like Donald Trump on his quixotic quest to debunk Barrack Obama’s academic achievements, he just can’t believe that a woman, of all things, can possibly be qualified.

There are a hundred more examples, large and small, every day. This is a culture of exclusion. It functions to dismiss and deny the luderacy of women, and dissuade other women from trying to achieve it even if it interests them. Day’s experience, for example, should be seen in light of the ‘fake geek girl’ meme that recently blew up in the world of comics – another geeky subculture where prominent individuals apparently fear infiltration by man-eating shape shifters dressed as Sexy John Constantine or whatever. The discourse is all about ‘posing’, ‘really’ knowing, the true believers and the pretenders, and extra tests are introduced in order to distinguish them. Can you name every Green Lantern ever? Come on, it’s just trash talking. Hey, get on mic so we can scrutinise your voice. Hope you’re ready for a literacy test if you want to vote. Can you say ‘Magdalen College’?

As in real-world education debates, nobody is claiming that no tests and no standards are ever legitimate. In a fighting game tournament we accept that some people will have to lose and drop out, just as others must win; likewise, I wouldn’t let you join my WoW raiding guild if I didn’t think you could cut the mustard. The problem is of dishonest requirements. Whatever test gets set up, it somehow always seems to apply differently to women, or blacks, or gays, or whoever. Sometimes, as in Gladwell’s example of the Liberian IQ test, it starts as an accident; a test designed for one culture doesn’t work in another. But when people defend the test as ‘objective’, denigrate those who it excludes and wilfully blind themselves to its bias, the effect is exactly the same. Just look at the BritRuby scandal in the programming world, where some people couldn’t stand the idea that privilege might exist and play a part in their success. Or see the case of Rebecca ‘Skepchick’ Watson, whose right to speak about science was questioned (but not that of her equivalently-educated male peers) once she wrote about sexism at skeptic conferences. In his book Outliers, Gladwell compiles many striking examples of false requirements in sport, business and politics. He did so not out of pure curiosity but because he didn’t like living a culture which constantly tells itself that all its tests are fair.

One way to phrase this is that education is itself a game in which players are rewarded for learning certain skills and having certain abilities and that our culture thinks some of these games are more hardcore than others. In his book Half-Real, Jesper Juul defines games as having “negotiable consequences” and illustrates by contrasting ‘games’ with ‘elections’. But elections are negotiable too; their consequences have already been negotiated by power elites and their inherent negotiability is obscured by the respect or even pseudo-biblical reverence we give to constitutional authorities. Accordingly, some of these games are broken. Just as elections don’t always elect the best (or even the most popular), the rules of the fighting game tournament covertly slant away from their ostensible purpose of ‘finding the most skilled player’ and towards the purpose of excluding women from the definition of ‘skilled’. That is to say that videogames, along with education, NHS privatisation, always-on DRM and most of contemporary capitalism, suffers from a grand form of ludonarrative dissonance. The fiction doesn’t match the rules.

Meanwhile, the gaming world practices its own matryoshka valuation of different kinds of luderacy. Casual is bad and hardcore is good, even though nobody agrees on how those terms are defined. Games that don’t require hours of devotion and white-knuckle skill are for pussies and women (and notice that those striking examples of exclusion are from these highly valued luderacy subtypes). A woman who finds the stories of Bioware games more interesting than their gameplay is ruining everything. And hey, if you’re not a straight white dude and you still want to gain or demonstrate a videogame education, add to your list Exercise 5: endure and brush off a brand-new scandal like the monstering of Jennifer Hepler pretty much every day.

This is not to mention the persistently juvenile and frequently misogynist aesthetics of the medium (something Kellaway complains about). You must volunteer to try and learn about videogames even though sometimes it seems like their every pixel berates you for not being part of that small section of humanity. And no, this is not the result of ‘market forces’. Latinos drive videogame sales but are poorly represented in the medium. Black and hispanic people play more videogames but don’t get to make them (or be in them). Games with woman protagonists have marketing budgets 40% lower or less than man-games. The straight, white, male, young  ‘target audience’ is a fiction and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Somewhere out there, growing up quiet and nerdy is traumatic enough – and it can be tough – that some kid will deal with it by making ‘gamer’ or ‘nerd’ a big part of his identity. Maybe he goes further and buys into the myth that girls are oppressing him by invading his hobby; maybe, just maybe, there is some kind of real hurt behind that psychological shift. But if you feel persecuted you don’t get to take it out on the people that society has conveniently placed below you as a sacrificial class to divert your anger from your actual enemies. Fucked doesn’t have to mean fucked up, kid, and this is fucked up.


Everyone is right about Kellaway. Gaming is a complex field and it would be churlish to expect her to magically ‘get’ everything worth getting about it. And as far as our interaction with external valuation goes, we don’t need to bring Mohammed to the mountain; we can call the mountain right the fuck here. We are getting better at wielding our own kinds of education and complexity for a rainbow of reasons, and for every model of what games should be and do there is a polemical counterattack (although some are more prominent and powerful than others). The most vital, radiant and penetrating critics of videogames are bilingual, with one foot inside the magic circle. They have this education in their bones – even though in some cases they have had to seize it from between the teeth of the whole exclusionary arsenal.

But Kellaway’s lesson is valuable because some of the things that dissuaded her are the same things that form this arsenal. Fighting false exclusion everywhere it appears with every available fibre is an obvious step to prevent this. But perhaps we also need to make it a mythic and foundational ideal that our medium and all the forms of education it involves should be open to everyone without scruple or exception. Everybody gets to play and everybody gets to learn.

We see this kind of sustaining ideal operate in the sporting world, where the UK has a publically funded scouting body (Sport England) modelled on the Soviet Union’s and designed to find Olympic talent anywhere, while the US allows talented athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds to be offered scholarships to excel in college. This myth does not function perfectly: a high proportion of British medal-winners were privately educated, and nerds at college like to rage against sport scholarships because it devalues the exclusivity (not the utility) of their own extortionately-priced education. Meanwhile, male footballers sell on the international market while female ones are ignored. But the ideal informed every level of discussion and coverage about the 2012 Olympics, and was central to the most successful Paralympics ever. If it isn’t working, it’s valuable enough to be worth working towards.

Even where there are explicit, rigid criteria for participation or success, as in sport or fighting games tournaments (but not in ‘having fun with videogames’ or ‘being allowed to talk about videogames’), it’s bullshit to dismiss access measures. You wouldn’t object to a pop science book that distilled the work of specialists for uneducated appreciation, or to an introductory text that aimed to give aspiring specialists a first step.

In reality this is also a method of bringing the mountain to us. Invite everyone in, exclude nobody. Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters declares exactly this ideal, with its call for a demotic revolution in game production and its pixel art cover with 192 different faces given equal prominence in a hue mosaic. Posters sold at launch twinned a blow-up of that cover with the word: ‘EVERYONE’. And if the status quo should at some point co-opt that beautiful ideal as a fig leaf for ongoing exclusion, as has arguably happened in sport and blatantly happened with democracy, that just means that it is up to everyone to take back that system and, like the rebelling Haitian slaves who stood against Napoleonic soldiers by singing the French revolutionary anthem back at them, reclaim and unleash its unfinished potential.

Because I believe in the school of games, just like I believe in the education I got – but I also that it should be open and deliberately welcoming to everyone, just like I believe that everyone should have the chance to spend three years in a library learning how to look at things which are blossoming and bursting and exploding into life at this very moment, and put them all into an article as long, and ponderous, and irrelevant as this one.

Hey! Sit down! The bell doesn’t ring for another fi –

]]> 29 24290
Let's talk about how Assassin's Creed 3 depicts the American Revolution Mon, 10 Dec 2012 01:57:02 +0000 Ed: We thought it might be interesting to compare how the American Revolution was taught to an American vs a Canadian in light of Assassin’s Creed 3 (made by a Canadian studio!) So we got two NM contributors to examine what the game depicts. We’d love to hear your thoughts on what the game depicts as well–sound off in the comments!

REID MCCARTER: The first topic I want to get into is a pretty simple one. The American Revolution is a massively important event in how Americans — and, in many ways, Canadians — understand the nations we live in. In Canada, we aren’t taught that the Revolution was necessarily a heroic struggle against tyranny. I was told that the revolution was probably an inevitability. I wonder how much of this you can see in Assassin Creed III, what with it being a Canadian developed game.

Many moments in the game appear extremely critical of the American Revolution. The game stresses just how muddy the lead-up to the Boston Massacre actually was (a protest gone wrong rather than the massacre the American naming suggests), its subsequent distortion by “heroic” Americans like Paul Revere as a propaganda tool. On the other hand, Ubisoft Montreal doesn’t shy away from pointing the finger at the British either. Late in the game, Connor explores a British prison ship docked in New York. The pop-up historical notes (which are great if not as funny as they think they are) paints a picture of British brutality when describing these makeshift prisons and the mass graves the Patriots were buried in.

To me, the game ends up depicting the American Revolution in the same way that I ended up coming to view it through studying history in university and in the years since graduating: a struggle where both sides had valid reasons for their actions, but where both sides were equally monstrous in their treatment of the enemy. Like most wars! This might not be a surprising way of looking at the Revolution for a Canadian (as we’re pretty much a weird mixture of British tradition and American culture), but I wonder what you, as an American, thought of these same points?

Were any of Assassin’s Creed III’s portrayals of history surprising to you, as an American? Was it evident that the bulk of the development team is Canadian?

JORDAN RIVAS: I didn’t find it apparent at all the game was developed by a Canadian studio. I think the highest compliment I can pay Ubisoft in terms of their neutrality is that I wouldn’t describe the game as being American, British, Canadian or any other nationality.
The problem with American history today, and when I was in school, is that it’s inherently nationalist. That might seem like an obvious statement, but my objections aren’t so much with the portrayal of the British as oppressors, as much as the justification of everything done by the colonists leading up to, during, and after the war.

The problem with idealizing the revolution as a fight for freedom, is that so many men in America wanted to establish a British style of government and do many of the things they criticized the British for.  Men like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton proved after the war that they didn’t really have a problem with a controlling government, they had a problem with a controlling government not controlled by them. So the blood spilled, and lives lost would end up being all for an exchange of power from Great Britain to a select few in America. That idea was fought against by liberty minded revolutionaries, of course, but over the course of time, nationalism won out in America.

Haytham challenges Connor on this in sequence nine of the game. These revolutionaries were mostly privileged, white, landowners. They were acting in self interest. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not altruistic. Trying to establish a government you can control (and thereby control your fellow man) is no more valid than any other government that doesn’t respect individual liberty.

A thought on the Boston Massacre: as many people probably learned in school (hopefully), only a few people died. Tragic, but hardly a massacre. The name itself absolutely reeks of propaganda. John Adams actually served as attorney for some of the British soldiers who were eventually charged in the matter. If anything, I think the depiction in the game could have gone a bit further. Early American colonists were rowdy bunches. That’s not to dismiss their grievances, but I’m sure I’m some point before the shooting, they stopped protesting and started rioting.

Well the portrayal of the villain in Assassin’s Creed games always strays the most from actual history (see: Borgia in AC2). So Charles Lee in the game surprised me a little. Charles Lee was not a popular figure, and he had certain character deficiencies, but what’s telling is that his unpopularity and his legacy are mostly colored by his opposition to Washington.

I’m glad the game points out that Washington lost more battles than he won. He also didn’t think riflemen or muskets were effective for war (Washington pretty much thought guns were a warfare fad), and many people considered Lee to be a better military mind. Washington was really good at retreating. He believed in conscription, and thought anyone who didn’t volunteer to do longer tours of duty than they had originally agreed to should be treated as deserters (i.e: hung). He is shown to have flaws in AC3, but he’s still portrayed as a pretty large figure, and I think part of that is trying to appease that American market that only knows Washington as larger than life.

What are the reasons typically taught in Canada about what made the revolution “inevitable”? I’m curious what Canadians are taught about the colonial reasons for revolution.

RM: What you say about Washington is interesting. I thought the fact that AC3 even touched on his slave ownership, often poor military judgement and responsibility for the Sullivan Expedition — an awful atrocity that I’m glad the game incorporated in some form — was pretty bold. I wasn’t (and I suspect many Canadians weren’t) taught that Washington was anything like infallible: he was just an extremely important historical figure. This was also an aspect that, I think, was telling of AC3’s Canadian development. Would an American developer creating such a big-budget game have been as quick to criticize Washington like that?

I felt like the way Ubisoft Montreal portrayed Washington was reflective of the way I (and likely other Canadians) learned about why the Revolution was, maybe not inevitable, but at least warranted. We learn our history in the context of British colonialism (since that’s the basis of the founding of our own nation) and I think that imparts a perspective that makes it difficult to blame American revolutionaries for rebelling against excessive taxation, unfair representation, etc..

When we look at our own history as a clash of British and French colonial interests, many Canadians are able to see our ancestry as a land of émigrés, all hoping to find a living in a new continent while being affected by the whims of far removed powers. When you have to view your own history as a (less bloody) struggle for independence in the New World — colonial “settlers” just wanting to make their own way apart from the nations they left behind — I think it creates sympathy for the course of American history. That isn’t to say that Canadians endorse all aspects of American history of the period (the War of 1812 is a pretty striking example to the contrary), but I think that helps explain why we’re taught the Revolution in a non-negative light.

It’s also interesting that you say that the way you were taught American history was inherently nationalist because I think that’s probably true in any nation. Canadians, as much as we enjoy a reputation for being modest, are the biggest internal braggarts of all. We’re told to be proud of our achievements in the arts and sciences and even our military’s history (it may be surprising due to the fact that Americans make the most popular war films, but Canadians did play an enormous role in both World Wars — something we learn a lot about in high school). We wave our flag just as loudly (maybe not as publicly, though) as Americans while glossing over the darker aspects of our history.

That brings me to (probably) the last topic I want to get into: North American Native history as it’s shown in AC3. Canadians have just as shameful a history in our treatment of Native Canadians as Americans, but I think there are probably great differences in how we perceive/are taught about our pasts. AC3 does a fairly good job of illustrating many of the horrible acts committed against Native Americans (I also liked the line where American liberty is said to be great for “white, landed colonials” while not being so for Black and Native peoples) when they could easily have been ignored by a less ambitious developer.

I think that’s great, but would it be as effective if I hadn’t been given a good foundation to care about Native history through the Canadian school system? Would an American who hadn’t independently studied history pick up on the historical injustice illustrated in the game? A lot of it is buried in the historical notes (which I read, but I’m sure a lot of people ignore since they badly break the flow of many sequences) so, aside from the fate of Connor’s village, it could all be pretty easily ignored by an ill-informed player. Canadians, I think, are decently informed of Native Canadian history through school, even if we’re still disgustingly lax about actually confronting this dark past head on. Are Americans the same way?

Were you surprised by some of the portrayals of American treaty breaking and atrocity in AC3 or were you already familiar with these events through junior high/high school history?

JR: I think American entertainment companies in general tend to have a poor understanding of international audiences not just culturally, but commercially. The idea in Hollywood is that domestic matters, and international (while important) is secondary. I think the game industry elements based in America fall prey to this mentality to a degree. I think an American developer would have idealized Washington more, not out of a sense of patriotism, but based on the presumption such a depiction would appeal more to the domestic audience, and garner more sales. I give credit to Ubisoft not only based on their education in history, but the business sense to understand their multinational audience.

As far as reasons the revolution, I think mostly romanticized ideas about freedom are taught here. It’s a deceptively selective way of portraying the birth of the country. The Jeffersonian thinkers, and the liberty mindset were what sparked the revolution in people. Those ideas culminated and the result was inevitably declaring independence, and fighting a war in response. The reason why I call it deceptive is because what caused the revolution was not a desire for different government, it was a desire for less government.

The idea of freedom and the principles of liberty are inherently opposed to the dangers of government, regardless of who leads it. Jefferson, James Madison, and others recognized this well at the time. But eventually the federalists like Hamilton took charge, got the ear of Washington, and early American government just went about creating much of the problems they accused Britain of. We’re taught the nice parts about freedom that make everyone feel good and inspire people, but rarely are people taught how American government has been trampling the Principles of 1776 (as Jefferson called them) since before the revolutionary war was even over.

That’s kind of what I meant when I said the history was nationalist. Perhaps I should have said it has a pro-federalist slant. There was a point when it looked like America would become the Jeffersonian, small central government, high individual liberty nation envisioned during the revolution, but things turned towards stronger central government and history has taken that side.

I am a little surprised that Ubisoft showed some of the blatant misdeeds of Washington and the colonists in regards to Native Americans. I think most Americans have a general idea that Native Americans did not get a good deal in all the colonial expansion, that is certainly taught, but I don’t think most secondary school curriculum includes Washington’s note to Sullivan about the total destruction and devastation of Iroquois settlements. I think that kind of specificity can stun some Americans, to know that the man they view as the father of the nation was that ruthless, that he specifically said he wanted no talk of peace. I did go into it with an understanding of the history, and I was looking for how they’d portray it. I was pleasantly surprised, but you’re right, that without further context, I think some American audience members may just be confused. I think that’s why it’s vital we have discussions like this.

RM: Exactly. I hope, with time, there are more articles written about the game’s portrayal of Native history. So far, the only ones that stick out in my mind are discussions of how AC3 painted Connor as a “noble savage” or compromised too much by having him be the son of a white father (which I actually think serves the plot in interesting ways that fall outside of the purview of this dialogue). There’s probably a bit of validity to these points, but they’re maybe too condemnatory when the game is actually attempting something fairly bold. Critics are responsible for ensuring that developers are kept on their toes in regards to cultural, political and historical sensitivity/responsibility, but it’s also important that writers give credit where credit is due. Personally, I can’t think of any other game that has achieved what AC3 has in depicting Native history with proper consideration (Prey doesn’t count) and I’d applaud their work, imperfect as it may be.

I think Ubisoft has accomplished something really remarkable with the character and their willingness to tackle Native American history in a largely uncompromising manner. Connor’s Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk childhood friends are not idealized, their inevitable suffering isn’t the result of naivety, but of deception and the “use” of Indigenous soldiers by British and Patriot forces alike is fairly well represented.

When you say that most Americans are taught the general awfulness of colonial expansion, but maybe not the fine details that actually condemn its leaders it reminds me very much of what we’re taught in school. There’s likely a similarity in both of our nations: we are all taught that bad things have happened, but not the full details of who is to blame, the circumstances involved, etc.. It’s horrible because, without a few good teachers, I don’t know if my public school education would have been enough to keep me interested in learning more about Canadian Native history and current events. I imagine this is a problem that is true for any nation built on the exploitation of others. In a perfect world, someone who plays AC3 without any familiarity with American Native history would have their interest piqued and be curious to learn more. The possibility of that is great and I hope it’s happening.

So, this is becoming really lengthy and I think we could go back and forth for a long, long time without fully discussing everything there is to cover here. What I’ve taken away is how closely our formative historical backgrounds are, despite how different I imagine the American and Canadian public education systems to be. Sure, we aren’t taught to revere the Founding Fathers here, but I think there are many similarities in how Canadians and Americans view the American Revolution.

Where we’d probably end up veering off in different directions  is just down the chronological road at the War of 1812 (we’re taught that the pre-Canadian Brits “won” while I’m sure Americans are taught the opposite). 20th century history, I would think, only continues splitting the historical difference further. Just the same, aside from some key differences, we’re taught very much the same things. This was a bit surprising to me. I know we only represent one example from both countries, but I would have imagined that our backgrounds would diverge a lot more.

AC3 is the only example of a game that I can think of that would have allowed us to have a discussion like this and I think that’s great. Games are extremely influential in modern society and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As Canadian development studios continue to gain prominence it will be interesting to see how our national understanding of international history, culture and politics is explored — and how the rest of the world reacts.

Any closing thoughts of your own?

JR: It’s interesting that you mention Prey, and some criticism AC3 has taken. If I recall correctly, Prey was actually praised when it was released by quite a few people for representing Native American culture in gaming. In hindsight, I think most of us recognize Prey was being shallow in its portrayal of Natives, perhaps even exploitative. But at some point someone scrutinized those shortcomings until the community at large began to recognize them. I think we both agree AC3 has done a fine job showing an honest portrayal of Natives and Native culture, but I’m sure we’d also agree that the aim of honesty across cultures is a constantly moving goal and we can always improve.

There are a couple of key items that stand out for me, after playing the game and after our conversation.

First is that the game itself is a good tool to spread the message of liberty. As we were both able to attest to, nationalist societies are prevalent and so much of the programming we receive from a young age is meant to align us with our country’s government, even skewing around parts of history when our country’s government didn’t live up to the country’s ideals. It’s remarkably refreshing to see a piece of media, especially a video game, make a clear statement about the dangers of statism without bias against any particular nation.

Ubisoft wasn’t overt about that message, but I do think we see the agents able to operate independent of national allegiance are most effective. Connor obviously has strong allegiance to the Kanien’kehá:ka tribe, but there is a sequence in the game which I wrote about on my blog recently where Connor has to fight with members of his own tribe. You can choose to neutralize them non-lethally, but that Connor is able to face even his own people when he feels they’re starting down a wrong path shows at least some measure of personal conviction that supersedes group identity for Connor (even if he was still trying to save their lives by stopping them).

Second, is that we’ve had a relevant and insightful conversation about Native Americans, without any Native American input. That’s not good or bad of itself, but I do think it’s telling. I can applaud Ubisoft for having a multinational developer team, but I don’t know how many members of their team have Native North American heritage. It’s great that Americans, Canadians and others can have this kind of discussion, but I wonder what someone of Native American descent would say.

I think it’s fantastic and necessary that we have these discussions to hopefully shed some light on history for people (and for that reason why I applaud AC3, for bringing that about through gaming), but I also want to encourage Americans and Canadians to learn about how those of Native descent are being treated now. Within the past decade or so both Republicans and Democrats in America have introduced legislation meant to stop recognizing tribal governments. And those tribal governments that are recognized are still limited by a federal government in the US that has no right to preside over their affairs anyway.

We can’t try and talk about all these things at once, but while we have people’s attention, I definitely encourage readers in the US and Canada to learn about this situation in the present, with the history that we’ve touched on in mind.

Reid, lastly I’d just like to thank you for including me; this was a fine discussion that I enjoyed, learned from, and hopefully will give people something to think on.

]]> 12 24281
A Note On The Site Sun, 09 Dec 2012 20:57:10 +0000 I’ve been having a discussion with Porpentine about the site and what we publish and why. I’ve also been reading reactions on Twitter, etc. I would like to make it clear:

  • Someone once said that you are only as good as your worst [insert thing here,] that these things define you. I agree inasmuch as people will remember these things the most, I don’t, however, think that overall (arguably) Good Work is erased because of a stumble;
  • Stumbles–I own to them. I also recognize them for what they are, which is to say, not indicative of an overall “site philosophy.” The site largely functions on my judgements, and these will not always be sound. I’ve tried gathering the help of other editors with mixed success, I’ve tried reaching out to people who I think have better judgement than me, but people do not have the time and inclination–a site is a lot of work. The best I can do is to listen and learn;
  • I am always open to talking about things, provided that the conversation actually tries to make me understand why you have an issue with something–not simply that you have an issue.  I can’t make decisions based on the fact you have an issue–not ones that I can learn from so as to make sure I don’t make the mistake again in the future. I need reasons: not because I don’t think you have a point, but because if I made the mistake, then it follows I don’t understand, right? Okay, help me understand. I’m listening.

Anyway, that’s all based on Adam Ruch’s latest article. Do I think there were problematic bits in there? Yes–much in the same way I think there are problematic bits in just about anything I publish (which is to say, that alone doesn’t disqualify something from appearing on the site BUT, again–my judgement will fall short.) I also think there are some worthwhile things in there which admittedly have gotten muddled amidst tone, gatekeeping, and so on.

I know there are things that are invisible to me that may not be to other people. I wish I was better at recognizing them, and, hopefully with your help, I can. I hope I’m not overstating my blindness to issues (or even that this is a big constant, because overall I think the site errs on the side of being a good one!)–I’d just like to make it clear that no, I don’t always catch them. There’s a reason so many issues persist even when they affect the people who uphold them: they’re insidious.

I know people realize this, but when you come with the pitchforks, everyone gets thrown under the bus: someone was silenced, a person becomes not just responsible for it but victim, tensions rise between those affected as if they’re on different sides…I don’t want that to happen.

The easiest thing, were it possible, would be to nip these issues in the bud–but in situations like these, where that’s not an option, the next best thing I can do is listen and learn and do better next time. I’m sorry that perhaps in my adjusting to making the site better someone else might be a casualty, but it’s not done on purpose, nor do I want that to happen.

I’d like to apologize to anyone I’ve made feel unsafe, unwanted, antagonized, and so on. Intentions don’t matter, so I’ll save telling you I didn’t mean it, and will simply close with the reiteration that I hope you understand I am willing to listen.

For now, I hope we can recognize this as what it is: growing pains.


]]> 22 24251
Romancing the silicon wafer Sun, 09 Dec 2012 17:22:16 +0000 Kim Moss recently penned an article here at Nightmare Mode entitled “You Know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” In it, she makes a brief comparison between the capitalist lens through which “NiceGuys” view real-life relationships and the way BioWare romance arcs work. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be struck by the superficiality of the examination. To me, the entire article could have been summarised into a couple sentences, which would have served as a an introduction to a much more involved exploration of why the relationships are depicted in this way, and what alternatives might exist.

I do not disagree with the comparison Moss is drawing between these so-called NiceGuys who feel that kindness is a kind of investment in future sex, and the way BioWare depicts romantic relationships. However, I feel the article ignores significant factors that are, in the end, much more interesting to the study of games. I have written before about very closely related issues, but it was in an academic conference paper in which I use words like ‘agon’ and ‘autotellic’ so is probably not something many people have actually read, so I will probably have to go back to basics here.

Firstly, games are patterns built out of rules. This is the framework that players learn to manipulate to their advantage, whether the goal is a dead enemy, a higher level, or a sex scene. There is no difference, in that sense, between rendering a sexual relationship and the process of learning a skill. Both are mathematical approximations of experiences inspired by real-world process, and neither are entirely representative. That is, in the real world, we don’t gain “levels” of skill which unlock discreet abilities: I don’t practice making pancakes until I suddenly have the ability to make a perfectly-formed souffle. Instead, I make a bunch of souffles badly and they gradually get better.

This fact is underappreciated by Moss in her piece, and leads her to advocate for solutions to the NiceGuy problem that would, in the end, lead to a very similar outcome. Moss suggests that a potential romantic interest could be influenced by the character creation process, “Sorry… you look too much like my dad.” Or a female character could turn down any male player-character regardless of appearance or behaviour, for hopefully obvious reasons. Alternately, the NPC could have concerns about the player’s behaviour during a mission, which leads to misgivings and a failed romance.

All of these are fine suggestions, but seem to miss the point that they can all be strategized towards just as effectively as the BioWare conversation trees can be currently. This is simply a longer list of “If, then” case statements than BioWare currently employ.

What I can say about Moss’ recommendations, and perhaps this was her intention, is that these key variables seem to encompass a wider tract of the player-character’s “life.” That is, the player’s behaviour throughout gameplay is important to the romance algorithm, not only during a conversation with the potential love-interest. If this was Moss’ aim, then it is a good one, even if it only addresses the problem up to a certain point.

Turning now to Moss’ address of relationships more generally, she says: “Relationships, especially romantic ones, are weird and complicated.”  “The reasons for a relationship to not work out are limitless,” and “Sometimes people aren’t interested in others. Sometimes small differences make people incompatible. Sometimes people aren’t ready for a relationship.”

Obviously this is all true. But Mass Effect isn’t about “relationships” or “people.” It is about Shepard, Ashley, Kaiden, Jack, Liara, and the rest of the crew. Them, not everyone. Their relationships, not all relationships.

Focusing on Ashley as an example, consider her as a character for a moment. Compare her to Juliet, who will, no matter how many times one reads the play, will always fall in love with Romeo, will always be tragically, romantically, dead by the end. By comparison, Ashley is a far more powerful entity. Ashley will say yes to Shepard, indeed, but she can also say no. The confrontation between Shepard, Liara, and whoever the third angle of the triangle is a remarkable experience. The player is put on the spot, forced to choose. While not an outright rejection, the player must concede–he is not all-powerful. Ashley has a decision-making capability that literally no other medium can offer her. So, as a character, she is more powerful than every strong woman ever written in the most progressive novel.*

Videogames create the potential for rejection just as much as the opportunity to get laid. What Moss, and others I’m sure, overlook is the disciplining effect of videogames. One can view their playable nature as empowering, but simultaneously, the game is forcing the player to behave in a certain way. There is literally no other way to achieve that particular goal–the player must abide by Ashley (or Jack’s, or Miranda’s or whoever…) terms. One is reminded of the flows of power, Foucault’s approach to power and discipline which are at once empowering and oppressive. The same structures which restrict the player’s behaviour are responsible for allowing action in the first place.

The single biggest hurdle to this entire area of game design and game playing is player prescience. That is, foreknowledge of how the game works. On one hand, players of games of all kinds really need to know how things work in order to advance. You need to know that you can’t pick up the ball in soccer, you need to know the difference between a sniper rifle and a shotgun, etc. You need to know that you’re trying to “win hands” in poker, or put a ball in a hoop in basketball, or hold territory in king of the hill. There are single-player games where some pleasure arises in discovering a new skill (or unlocking one) but those are then utilised, as a known quantity to perform tasks later on. The pleasure in games is, at least partly, in mastering skills which are increasingly known quantities, in order to advance towards goals which are similarly unambiguous.

In dramatic media, however, much of the pleasure arises from unknown quantities. The story progresses to gradually reveal “what happens.” We may make predictions, and either be affirmed in our knowledge or pleasantly surprised. We may fear a possible outcome, and hope for another, and eventually we find out. Sometimes this isn’t true, there are dramas which end ambiguously, and the pleasure in those is in deciding for oneself what has happened, or in simply weighing up the possibilities.

When we combine these two pleasures in cases like a BioWare romance arc, there are difficulties. I’ve mentioned several times the notion that a player can strategize towards the sex scene–something Moss and I are both critical of. The only way that can happen, though, is if the player knows that the sex scene can happen. If a genuinely naive player were to work through Mass Effect for the first time, how can he be said to be strategizing towards a goal he doesn’t know is there?
In comparing real life romance to a BioWare arc, the flaw is not that BioWare’s arcs are based on rules, but that those rules are eminently knowable. It stands to reason that real life relationships can be explained through “If, then” type statements as well, a great many of them for sure, but the important part is that they aren’t all known ahead of time (probably not even to the person to whom they belong).  The offensive part of the NiceGuy treatment is not so much in the “if I do X then Y will be the result,” but that any given rule can be generalised and thought to apply to all women, in all cases, and are equally true for all men, regardless of other factors (rules…) about things other than their behaviour during courtship rituals.

Returning to my earlier point: Moss recommends a number of interesting alternatives or addendums, but these are still rules that can be known. An experienced player could still post an unambiguous walkthrough on the internet, saying “Hey guys if you wanna score with Lady Hotness, this is what you have to do. The sex scene is totally rad!”
To address this issue, developers would have to actively frustrate this kind of collective strategising. That is, they will have to make their characters less predictable. I can envision semi-random, procedural assemblies of those If, then case statements being reorganised on each player’s launch of a new game, so that in one playthrough of Mass Effect, Jack likes one thing, but in another, she likes something totally different.

However, the huge problem with that solution is characterisation–it flies out the window. Videogames aren’t the only media that relies on rules, as much as theorists like to claim. Indeed, ‘characterisation’ is really a fancy, qualitative way of talking about the rules of a given character’s personality. What ‘would’ Hamlet do in this situation? That is simply another way of saying “if, then.”

The difficulty in BioWare games is that because the player-character is a variable quantity, it damages the sense of characterisation in the NPCs as well, even without the above-mentioned randomisation. The notion of “Shepsexual” is an apt term to describe the uncomfortable way that, regardless of who Shepard is in any given instance, the NPCs will always find him attractive. I’ve suggested in my academic work that the only way to interpret this situation in dramatic terms is that for each playthrough, not only is Shepard a different character, but so are the NPCs. That is, one cannot use knowledge from a previous playthrough to interpret events in the current one. The fact that Liara romanced a male Shepard last week has no bearing on the fact that she is interested in a female Shepard this week. But this is easier in theory than in practice.

Eventually, though, I assign responsibility for this to the player, and not to the game. There is no force we can apply that will coerce every player into appreciating all the nuances of a romance plot if all they want to do is watch a sex scene. Likewise, there is nothing that stops film viewers from copying down timecodes and fast-forwarding a genuinely romantic film to the point where the characters get their gear off. The fact that audiences can focus on what they want to, and ignore the rest, is not the fault of the medium. If Moss, or other players of Mass Effect interpret the experience of listening to Ashley talk about her family and daddy issues as nothing more than a necessary grind in order to access the sex scene, that is their prerogative. Others, however, can interpret that experience differently, and enjoy the role-play of someone who actually does care about what she has to say.

For some further reading, two conference papers on this subject: Canon and Contingency in Mass Effect ( and Beyond Game-Fun (  get a little deeper into the theory behind this post.

*Ed: I asked Adam about this, in that it ignores that Ashley could be an awfully written character and her ‘choice’ doesn’t erase that. He responds: I still have to argue that at an ontological level, she’s a more powerful entity. Yes, exactly power as the ability to choose. And if her programmed nature makes her weak, then how weak are all fictional characters who are all written? If this isn’t powerful, then there is no such thing. (She could be better sure, but I’m talking ontologically here)

]]> 137 24235
Dot Matrix Story: Final Fantasy Legend Sat, 08 Dec 2012 18:59:16 +0000

Let me tell you about some dumb kid:

Imagine it’s 1993 and it’s summer and it’s time for this kid to go to California. So the kid’s parents buy him a new game for his Gameboy, to waste away the time spent in cars and airplanes.

He’s made this flight once a year since he was born, so he knows what the boredom is, and it’s not the airplane ride so much as all the baggage around it: getting up at 7AM, riding the taxicab to the airport, checking bags, waiting to board, waiting for takeoff, disembarking, finding the rental car, and then the hours and hours on the highway until grandma’s house.

This kid’s Midwestern home is nested by an airport too modest to take them farther than Chicago. So the kid and his family fill the back of a taxi full of suitcases and all three of them pile in the back. He’s a grumpy kid; their flight is early and he had to wake up before the sun and help lift the luggage in the car. He’s too sleepy to play his Gameboy. But once they check their bags there’s still an hour left to takeoff, and the wait bores him awake. So he turns the dim liquid crystal green screen on.

This is a special game. This kid’s wanted it for a long time. His best friend told him about it. His best friend is four years older than him and has taught him about all the coolest things in life.

This game takes place in a tower. The game tells the kid that at the top of the tower is paradise. The tower is full of doors, and each door is full of worlds and people. He gets to be four of those people.

This kid got his Gameboy for his eleventh birthday. It’s big and clunky but he’s super proud of the translucent plastic shell. He can see right through to its naked circuits and diode guts. Gameboys ran on AA batteries. Before this trip, he forgot about the Gameboy for a few months. Then his friend lent him Metroid 2 and once he switched it on to play, the Gameboy’s screen went out with a hiss and a pop. He turned it over and liquid was foaming from the batteries. He threw them out and put in new ones and it sputtered back to life. He didn’t tell his parents. They would have been skeptical of stories of exploding batteries.

It takes almost as much time for them to fly from their modest airport to Chicago as it does to get on and off the plane, and airlines don’t permit portable electronic devices for the first and last fifteen minutes of flight. He barely has time to name the characters.

When he starts the game, it asks him to make up four people. The first is him, and the rest are his friends. They can be boys or girls, but their names can’t be more than four letters long. Four letters is too short. He doesn’t know of anyone with a four letter name. He cuts his own name in half: And, it fits. But then he stops, looking at the pixilated little figures. He has a choice in this game. Boy or Girl. M or F. Four letters, four characters. It’s hard to decide; there are so many combinations, and though he can have them all, only one gets his name. Which one will be And? Boy? Girl?  When he gets older someone will point out to him that it’s a weird thing to do, to think about it before you choose, but whatever. His best friend, Luke, who’s like his older brother, also has four letters. He gets to be a boy.

It’s time to go, so he saves and shuts it off. His parents are always afraid of being late, and he just wants to sit down and get back to the lightless green world in the Gameboy.

At O’Hare neon lights stream out as far as the eye can see under the ground, above the moving walkways. The moving walkway is now in service, the voices repeat. The sounds and lights that go with the voice are pleasant, but insistent. They take walking very seriously there.

While he’s on the moving walkway he tries to take out his Gameboy. He has enough time to pull it out and turn it on and see the dot matrix flood with crystal before it’s time to hurry hurry run don’t walk to the next terminal. He shuts it off but can’t put it away. Is it too much to ask to rest for a minute? He should be patient; they’ll be plenty of time for that on the plane.

Up on that plane, the sun is so naked, so unbearable, that the kid cannot look away. You can’t render a sky like this in dot matrix. The pixels are too big, and what passes for color are varying shades of an ugly yellow-green. What comes out of dot matrix is more like a cave painting. What’s supposed to be a river is a crude parade of moving dots. But this kid isn’t stupid. He’s seen rivers before. He can see them out of the airplane window now. He can put two and two together. The dot matrix river is more real than the ones below, and if his game could show him a picture of the sun, it’d have that same unbearable light too.

The kid reaches a world where people live on clouds. The monster king of this world, the white lion, rules from a floating castle and no one is safe from him. There are a pair of twins who are resisting him. But one betrays the other and the monster king kills her. The sisters hold each other while the wounded one dies. The living one is sorry, and she cries. She gives her tear to the kid and his friends.

The game lets him kill the white lion but, as if to remind him he’s not the one in charge, won’t let him save the girl.


California’s landscape, unlike the Midwest’s,  goes up and down, twists around and around. In California, the roads grip the landscape where they can. California is beautiful year round, green in the winter and gold in the summer, so to the kid this place is a bit like paradise. He imagines, from the dot matrix green, that the place he’s looking for at the top of the tower must look a bit like California.

Most of his family lives in California, and those who do not have died here. His mother’s mother died in Sebastopol, up north. His father’s father died in England, but they buried him in California.

His mother’s mother died when he was much younger, and his dad told him this when he was playing in a sandbox in his uncle’s backyard in California. His dad broke the news gently, as if setting down a great weight.

But his son was serene, continuing to move his toy truck back and forth in the sand. He nodded. He understood. He asked if his cousin would come out and play. She wouldn’t; a few years older than him, so she knows what to feel, which this kid now understands. He pushed the truck again. He has to master the simple things in life before the simple facts of death.

Well, years later, that day comes, and the kid is scared of the big nothing, the void, the zero, the off switch, the out-of-batteries. He doesn’t still doesn’t understand church, but he knows what it means. He knows he doesn’t want to die. He stops thinking about it by chanting prayers every minute of the day. He stops it by not stepping on cracks, adding up numbers whenever he sees them, and trying not to worry. He stops it by playing video games. It works.

It’s almost five hours of driving from the airport to his grandmother. The heat in the back of the car suffocates him. The new car smell stews in the heat. It’s dizzying. Sometimes he’s too sick to play Gameboy. Sometimes he’s too sick to do anything but play Gameboy.

Here are the buttons: On switch. Volume. Contrast (he can make the green as pale or dark as he wants). A. B. Start. Select (Select what? Mysterious things).

It’s hard for him to leave the game alone. Trips are restless things. He turns it off, puts it down. Looks at it. Reaches for it, picks it up. After a few minutes he sets it down again.

If he walks around enough, monsters are sure to find him. He can’t see them, but when the screen flashes white-green he knows they’ve come. They all line up in a row and he and his friends take turns fighting. When he’s walking around, the monsters look small and kind of cute. But when he fights them they menace from the screen; bugs, fishes, robots, dragons, and big floating eyes.


This kid wanders through the tower and stumbles on a door to hell. The background tiles look like burning stars. Every step burns him and his friends. There are devils there. They won’t talk to him. The screen flashes after every step. He suffers.

Why is there a hell? It bugs him. It itches. He likes forgiveness. Hell feels like revenge. Why punish someone who’s already dead? How is this supposed to make anything right again? He’s heard there’s a hell outside of this game, but he prefers not to believe in that. But the thought of it is still there, and it won’t go away.

There are people in the game’s hell. When he asks them why, they tell him. It’s not because of anything they did. They’re here because they want to be. They think the stars will burn their sins away and lead them into paradise, whenever that will be. He can come back whenever he wants and they’ll still be there. He can’t get them to leave. They’ll never leave. They’re trapped forever. The door is a few steps away. But only he can go in and out.

He only ever saves the world by accident. The tower is full of worlds of foolish, suffering people. He’s climbing away from them, to somewhere happy.


Death lies lazily in the California sun. This kids thinks about it from time to time. He doesn’t want to, but he can’t forget. Midwest: the four seasons of sex, life, harvest and death. California would be a thoughtless paradise, eternal life and eternal summer, except his family keeps dying here and inconveniently reminding him.

The tower ends for the kid at grandmother’s house, surrounded by eucalyptus groves. This kid helps his family unpack, but he’s too tired for anything else. Together, tomorrow, they’ll all go down to see his cousins. But crowds of adults, even small crowds, are no fun. So he goes to the kid’s bedroom to finish his game.

At the end, there’s another monster, the six armed devil of war. He offers the kid and his friends a piece of the world, guarding the gate to paradise. When the devil of war dies, the kid takes a step forward. And he falls, down, down, down, to the foot of the tower. The door to paradise disappears, and he hears a voice asking, “Can you climb back up?”

He’s back at the beginning, but it’s different now. All his friends are here. And the tower’s different too. No more twisting passages, no more halls full of doors, just stairs leading up, moving faster than he can breathe.

When he gets to the end, again, there’s just an empty field. At the end, there’s a little bridge, and on the other side of the bridge is a table. At the table is a man, and he offers the kid a cup of tea, and tells the kid he created everything. He wants to let the kid know how happy he is that you survived the game. He’s proud of the kid.

The game calls this man Creator. He tells the kid the world got too boring, and so he made up every evil thing so someone would come to remind people what courage and determination meant. The kid’s done a good job, so now he wants to give the kid a wish. But the kid doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want to just be a toy. Creator doesn’t understand what his problem is. He created everything, after all. But he thinks it’s funny, that the kid wants to challenge him. The screen turns white, and there he is, the Creator, covered in flowing robes, radiant even in dot matrix green, looking like the sun, looking like God. And the kid is afraid.

The kids saves the game and turns it off. He’s not sure he can go through with it. He wanders to living room and sits around with his parents and grandma. He wanders around the backyard. It has an apple tree, and wooden ducks his grandfather carved. Their legs spin around in the wind. This place is close to the ocean. If it was earlier in the day, there might be fog, but it’s sunny now. A small lizard suns itself. The kid crouches next to it. He reaches down to touch it, and it scurries away.

]]> 16 24164