Monday, August 31, 2009

Lessons from District 9

This post contains minor spoilers for District 9.

I am not one to belittle the videogame medium by demanding it become more like film. The two arts have their own limitations and possibilities that make them unique in their own right. That being said, artists in both mediums should learn from each other - it would be a waste to do otherwise.

With that in mind, all game makers should pay attention to the recently released District 9. The first feature length film directed by Neil Blomkamp, District 9 follows the exploits of Wikus van de Merwe, a meek employee of a military contractor tasked with moving a destitute population of refugee aliens. The entire affair plays out very much like a videogame, as some have already pointed out. As such, its accomplishments reveal important lessons the game industry should contemplate.

The videogame elements of District 9 are startlingly apparent; which is no surprise considering Blomenkamp was slated to direct the Halo movie. The protagonist is a lowly peon, gaining abilities as the film progresses, alien technology makes for unique and upgradeable weapons, and a mech sequence tops it off. These videogame tropes join thematic elements that would feel as much at home on your console as on the big screen.

District 9, particularly the first twenty minutes, is an excellent display of storytelling in what is ostensibly an action film. The film incorporates the viewer into a world, avoiding the heavy-handed exposition common in story driven games. Initially filmed as a documentary, Blomenkamp quickly and efficiently establishes an engaging alternate reality. The film style changes smoothly, following Wikus for the majority of the film, while occasionally reverting back to the documentary style.
As a gamer, I stand amazed at Blomenkamp's ability to move between scenes with such fluidity. The lesson is simple, epic stories need not bog themselves down with unmanageable proportions of exposition and historical texts. It can actually be relatively easy to create an expansive world by hinting at possibilities. Horror games, with their tendency to leave the origin of their environments frighteningly vague, already succeed in this regard.

The stylistic changes occurring in District 9, including the transitions between character perspectives, is impressive. Blomenkamp accomplishes these stylistic shifts without losing the frantic pacing of an action film, an approach potentially transferable to games: character driven games need not focus solely on the protagonist. The belief that our avatars should always be the center of attention has become dogmatic. Players and film viewers alike can empathize with more than one individual. Call of Duty 4 accomplishes this feat with tact, including a powerful scene devoid of avatars.

Film elements aside, District 9's accomplishment economically is worthy of attention. Peter Atencio touches on this subject in his excellent blog article, District 9's Effect On the Film Industry. As Atencio points out, District 9 cost only $30 million dollars, a trifle amount compared to its summer release brethren. As a comparison, Funny People cost $75 million despite its all human cast. G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, a more CGI loaded action film, cost roughly $175 million. According to the Los Angeles Times, despite its relatively low budget, District 9 earned roughly $73.5 million its first two weekends. All of which is impressive considering it is a brand new intellectual property with an unknown director.
By many peoples' standards, the games industry is flooded with sequels and game cliches. Just today Leigh Alexander of Kotaku elucidated this point with clarity: "Derivative games sell, sequels are the watchword for the holidays, and the audience's appetite for war campaigns and space marines seems never to wane." The film industry is far too similar in this regard. So although District 9 is still generally about a human male killing people with alien technology, the lesson is still applicable to the games industry. With relatively little money, "word-of-mouth marketing," and maybe a little backing of a well known figure, new ideas can make a big splash. Perhaps game developers should take similar creative risks.

Understandably, making a film is a very different endeavor than making a game. For one, Blomenkamp cut costs by filming in South Africa without well known actors; game developers can't really take advantage of this opportunity. Whether smaller independent games can achieve success with the backing of games industry elites like District 9 did with Peter Jackson, or whether some of these stylistic elements can be implemented with ease in videogames remains to be seen. Regardless, when a videogame-like film succeeds so resoundingly, we should all pay attention.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The History of the World of Warcraft

For better or for worse, I have never played World of Warcraft. Well, I guess a more accurate way to put it is that I never installed WoW on any computer I own. Sure, I have played it, but it was at a college...and everyone was doing it...and I didn't inhale, etc.

Although I am not a player, I still take interest in the World of Warcraft. For me, WoW's most fascinating aspect is its dynamic nature. With every patch, the World of Warcraft drifts further away from its initial incarnation. WoW is one of the most popular examples of games that never truly end and games that are never truly finished. As long as people keep playing and as long as Blizzard keeps patching it, the game is constantly in flux.

WoW's forthcoming expansion, Cataclysm, epitomizes this philosophy. The Cataclysm will effect both new and old players alike by fundamentally altering the in-game world. New players starting after the Cataclysm will be unable to experience the game as their predecessors did; unless they introduce time-traveling mounts, that Azeroth as we know it will soon be history. This is a bold, inventive move on the part of Blizzard, one that should spur us to examine the way we construct the history within and around the games we play.

Although things like ROM hacks and mods have been around for years, most video games have a definitive version. For the most part, a game bought and played in 1989 will be identical to the same one bought and played in 1999. When a game's content is basically immutable, we are free to analyze it in relation to other games, as well as its relationship with the broader society into which it was released.

WoW represents a challenge to this way of thinking: like most games, WoW's relationship with other titles and society at large is constantly evolving. With Cataclysm, it is clear that Blizzard seeks to construct a world that acquires actual history as time passes. New players do not join a game whose time-line is tailored specifically to them, and long-time players can only experience certain aspects of the game via their personal memories.

The danger of living and playing in a world like this is that humans have a hard time remembering the past. Without consciously studying WoW as it evolves, we will lose the ability to measure its significance as a game since we will not be able to analyze important events and trends. Once the Cataclysm happens, how will we remember the world as it was? We can do this in a number of ways, but I will suggest two major ones:

1. Institutional and Corporate Archives

One of the nice thing about studying institutions like the U.S. military or the Big Four Railroad barons is that large organizations often accumulate vast amounts of archival material. While not all of it may be purposefully saved or well organized, the fact that meticulous records exist makes them invaluable for reconstructing the past. I know nothing of Blizzard's archival practices, but I hope they would have the foresight to save old builds of the game for posterity. If Blizzard is not careful with old game material, we may be facing a situation similar to that of some of the earliest known films. Discarded, forgotten, or destroyed is a sad fate for our cultural artifacts.

2. Cultural Memory

While Blizzard can archive WoW from the inside, players and analysts may preserve it from the outside. Projects like Archiving Virtual Worlds, professors like Stanford's Henry Lowood, and critics like Robert Ashley are all high profile examples of how we may go about preserving games. In WoW's case, articles like Jorge's post on cultural competition in WoW document changes in both game mechanics and player dynamics. The existence of a WoW wiki speaks to the dedication of some enthusiasts, but not every WoW player needs to be a WoW historian. Perhaps WoW would benefit from a Studs Terkel-like figure to collect the oral histories of players who lived through interesting in-game events?

Ultimately, the goal is get a handle on a game whose composition is constantly in flux. In order to describe and analyze WoW completely, we must study the changes that happen around the game as well as the ones that happen to the game itself. Studying these expands our understanding about the intersection of game, medium, and society.

Of course, if the virtuous reasons to record our history do not inspire us, the material reasons may be more appealing:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

EXP Podcast #40: Missed Connections

Remember the days when the only way to connect with your fellow gamers was to be in the same room? Whether it was showing off your custom Excitebike track or networking a group of PCs in your parents' living room, connecting with other players was decidedly local experience. Today, on-line multiplayer allows us to play simultaneously with dozens of people in as many long as the connection is stable. This week, inspired by articles from Chris Dahlen and Phill Cameron, we discuss the wonderful world of routers, ports, lag, and the culture surrounding on-line gaming. Feel free to reach through your firewall and leave a comment with your thoughts on the past, present, and future of inter-networked.

Some discussion starters:

- What responsibility do developers and publishers have in terms of connection issues and standardization? Would you pay more for increased stability?

- What role does a game's community play in alleviating or normalizing connection issues?

- Could an asynchronous multiplayer system enjoy the same kind of success that real-time multiplayer does?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 26 min 03 sec
- "Trying to Make a Connection," by Phill Cameron, via Game Set Watch
- "Will We Ever Game Against Mars?" by Chris Dahlen, via Edge
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 24, 2009

Glory to the Alliance: Cultural Competion in WoW

It is hard to criticize the undoubtedly successful World of Warcraft, whose player base numbers well over 11 million. While there are some who find fault in its leveling system or other design elements, the game clearly does something right to maintain such an active community. That being said, this piece is an exploration of cultural differences in World of Warcraft, with some healthy criticism thrown in.

Blizzcon, the yearly Blizzard Entertainment convention, is an exercise in community building. At this year's opening ceremony, Mike Morhaim, Blizzard President and Co-Founder, lavished the predominantly World of Warcraft playing crowd with praise and fan service. A casual observer might see a strange festival of mutual love between developers and players. There is a concerted effort by Blizzard to incorporate their user base, particularly WoW players, into their corporate identity.

To some extent, Blizzcon is an attempt to foster a corporate/consumer culture around Blizzard software. Interestingly, its WoW playing fan base itself may be divided along cultural lines. The difference between Horde players and Alliance players, the two competing factions in the Warcraft universe, is palpable both in game and out.

One can hear the disparity between WoW players by climbing on stage and yelling each faction's battle cry. "For the Horde!" causes the crowd to rumble with applause. "For the Alliance!" results in a noticeably quieter applause mixed with the boos and jeers from Horde members. While I saw no outward hostility between players, maybe the sheer amount of horde emblems was enough to quiet most alliance members. From all outward appearances, the Horde populace has a stronger and more passionate culture than the alliance.

Like most cases of cultural antagonism, both sides have their share of stereotypes. To many Alliance players, Horde players are hostile, angry, ganking, immature elitists. To many Horde players, the Alliance are whiny, soft, ganking, immature elitists. The stereotypes wouldn't be all that different were it not for one thing. There is a large number of people who believe the game and its makers favor the Horde.

This has been a long standing debate, admittedly between a vocal minority of WoW players. The argument stems from a perceived imbalance between the two factions in PVP combat. Those attempting to support the claim frequently cite racial traits. Blood Elves, for example, have a particularly deadly mass silence. Cataclysm, the newest expansion, allows this race to play as Warriors, who are traditionally weak against spell casters. Likewise, Cataclysm will give the Goblin race to the Horde with a set of racial talents many consider far better than the Alliance's Worgen race. There is also a common assumption that most Blizzard employees play Horde. The fact Mike Morhaim himself plays for the Horde themed metal band, Level 80 Elite Tauren Chieftain, doesn't help this perception.
Whether any of these complaints are true is up to debate. The statistics tell us this: Alliance characters actually outnumber Horde characters, making up about 53% of all players. However, sorting by realm type has different results. Alliance outnumbers Horde 61% to 39% on PVE servers, while Horde outnumbers Alliance 60% to 40% percent on PVP servers. Horde members are disproportionately likely to enjoy PVP combat. With the exception of the PVE-focused Alterac Valley, Horde players are also more likely to win Battlegrounds (PVP events for you non-players).

The likely explanation for the difference between the two factions is how they are perceived as distinct culture by players. More competitive players seem drawn to the Horde. This could be because of a history of PVP success or because the Horde's monstrous races appear more brutal and menacing than the Alliance races. Perhaps the stereotypical valor of "the good guys" attracts players who favor story telling over violence.
While I'm glad Blizzard is able to create unique and appealing histories for the two factions, I'm not so sure a cultural divide between players is a good thing. Two factions embody two different play styles. For players who are not solely attracted to the dominant play style of their faction, a cultural divide can be a big impediment to fun. Horde players may find raid progression slower than they would like, while Alliance players eager to PVP may become frustrated with frequent losses in the face of the more experienced faction.

For smaller MMOs, a poorly managed play style divide can cripple its online community. Ideally, the developer should support both play styles regardless of faction. Perhaps Blizzard should support real world cooperation between factions or foster Alliance pride by creating an Alliance themed band.

Established cultures are amazingly resilient creations. Changes to game design must be the primary method by which developers sculpt culture. Blizzard's decision to include a more ferocious looking race in the Alliance and a diminutive race into the Horde is a deliberate attempt to attract different players to each faction. Unfortunately, any dramatic changes may weaken player loyalty to their faction and to the game's lore. It appears sculpting culture and identity is no easier in videogames than in real life.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Missing in Action, part 3: Anonymity in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

This is the third post in a three part series dedicated to analyzing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Feel free to read the first part, Civilians in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and the second part, "Seeing the Elephant" in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Beware of spoilers in this post.

The question about whether games can and should have overarching messages is a contentious one. Video games, perhaps more so than any other medium, foster an environment in which both the author and audience are highly active participants in creating the meaning behind the final product. Even in the case of highly scripted games like CoD 4, individual player choices and experiences have the potential to elicit a myriad of interpretations regarding the work's themes.

My experience with CoD 4 was affected just as strongly by what was present in the game than by what was not present. Over the past two posts, I have argued that CoD 4's thematic strength comes from its omissions. The game's lack of a civilian presence highlights the ways in which non-combatants are transformed from people into abstract justifications for war. Also absent is combat's aftermath and wider ramifications: CoD 4's dramatic, chaotic battle scenes may give us a glimpse of "the elephant," but this view comes at the expense of a wider exploration of the beast's true destructive nature.

In searching for the larger message of CoD 4, I was again drawn to the gaps in its construction of reality. After the initial shock of the nuclear explosion and the death of Sgt. Paul Jackson, I began to see the broader lesson of the character's death. While spectacular from the player's view, Sgt. Jackson's death fades into obscurity against the backdrop of the larger conflict, thereby highlighting the anonymity imposed on those touched by war.

Jackson's death is jarring in terms of its suddenness and its aftermath. It is surprising enough to witness the failure of the "good guys," but even more unexpected is the sudden erasure of a character the player had grown to know. Not only is the player's relationship with the character terminated, the character's identity is stripped down to the barest details.

While the spectacle of the nuclear blast was impressive, the most shocking part of the event was how quickly Jackson faded into obscurity after his death. The early portion of the game was spent following (and controlling) Jackson and his comrades. After the blast, Jackson becomes a single name on a huge casualty list and simply fades into history.

The casualty list has no room to mention the many dangerous missions he took, nor does it state that he died trying to save a fallen soldier. In fact, unlike the Sgt. Jackson in the video below, my Sgt. Jackson immediately turned around after waking up from the blast, crawled over to one of the other soldiers in the helicopter, and tried in vain to rescue them. Only after seeing they were dead did he/I exit the chopper and begin searching for other survivors.

Regardless of the particulars of his or the player's story, Jackson is distilled into three sterile letters: "KIA."

Perhaps shamefully, I knew more about Sgt. Jackson's exploits than most of the actual soldiers who die in today's real wars. Some get their names read on the nightly news, but it is exceedingly rare to learn about the context behind their death or the life behind the name. How many names on the Vietnam Memorial are those of people who died as anonymous heroes?

Those fortunate enough to escape death, fall victim to a similar kind of societal amnesia. In the Iraq war, some soldiers were whisked from the front only to find themselves dropped into the battle of Walter Reed, a fight in which reinforcements are sorely wanting. Although some people avoid incurring physical scars, it is hard to make it out completely unscathed.

CoD 4's ethos is a slippery one: sometimes over the top, other times poignant, the game seems to take pleasure in sampling a variety of sometimes contradictory, sometimes hypocritical philosophies. Every time the player fails, they are greeted by a quote about war. Some of these lament war's existence, others partake in militaristic pride, while several engage in gallows humor. Taken as a collection, they serve to illustrate war's existence as a set of conflicting notions mashed together to create a single ugly entity.

CoD 4 shows us how the separate pieces of this creation can become lost after they are combined. Although CoD 4 highlights the characters' and the player's specific contributions during the story's pivotal plot points, the game is ultimately about the subsumption of the individual. Civilians and soldiers alike become abstract entities, the grisly realities of battle are abandoned in search of the next fight, and heroes become marks on a casualty list.

In their absence however, these details become conspicuous. Simply because Call of Duty 4 leaves certain things out does not render it useless for understanding war's cultural importance. Things that start out as missing in action instead become points of learning and reflection.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

EXP Podcast #39: Gritty Realities

When it comes to videogame art design, is reality over-rated? In an industry constantly creating and mastering new technologies, game creators have always wanted to show off. For many developers, showing off means aiming for the bountiful land beyond the uncanny valley. For Sean "Elysium" Sands of Gamers With Jobs, the "Gritty Realism" aesthetic has lost its appeal. This week, inspired by Sean's article "Breaking the Mirror", we discuss realistic sweat, humble art design, aging graphics, and the phantom of realism. You can find the article in the show notes and, as always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Do games that show off their visual realism appeal to a wider audience?
- What is the most excellent looking game you have ever played? Did it fit with the gameplay and narrative?
- Which games age best visually?

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 25 min 19 sec
- "Breaking the Mirror" by Sean Sands, via Gamers With Jobs
- Music by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Sensationalist: The Sound of Horror

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

I have been wanting to do a Sensationalist post on horror games for some time now. This stems from a morbid fascination with the genre. I do not actually like being scared by my entertainment. I disavow horror films along with roller coasters and baby showers as too frightening. Fear is my mind telling me leave this situation immediately; I usually listen. But I occasionally turn back to horror games, as if I were checking the closet to see if the ghost I saw earlier has vanished. Nope, it's still there.

In this sensationalist, I approach only one aspect of horror games: sound effects. I have played most, but not all, of these games. There are some games I omit accidentally, others intentionally; Ghosts and Goblins and Sweet Home are early games with horror themes, but they're digital sound effects pale in comparison to later contributions. Let me know in the comments if there are terrifying sounds you remember in particular, or other auditory trends in scary videogames which you find interesting.

Fear is universal. We all have a primal instinct that causes us to tremble at the sound of large animal's roar or jolt at something unexpected popping out from under the kitchen table. We also tend to fear some similar things, regardless of cultural upbringing or geographical location. For example, you would be hard pressed to find a group of children unafraid of the dark. Be they widespread objects of fear or specific to the medium, we find trends in the sound of horror games as well.


Creaking wood is a horror genre staple, from the original Alone In The Dark to the latest iteration of the same game. It has become so expected it is no longer unsettling. Yet other auditory elements retain their creepy nature despite repetition. Some games, however, break the mold and find new ways to scare players.

An early entry to the 'make-people-piss-themselves-in-fear' category of games is Ken Levine's System Shock 2. Taking place on a isolated and monster filled space ship (itself a horror trope?), the player is treated to the same sounds that appear in numerous horror titles. A persistent electric hum permeates the ship, punctuated by monstrous groans and the calm, digitally distorted voice of SHODAN, the evil AI.
The mechanical surroundings create an eerie contrast with organic enemies while playing off a fear of powerlessness in the face of human made constructs. The mixed sounds that come with a ship or other metal environment create an excellent atmosphere for horror games. The electronic hum and sound of steam in Doom 3 and Prey make a hostile and confining environment. Similar sounds in Bioshock make rapture a frightening prison that seems alive itself. Dead Space follows suit, but blends in the popping, gurgling, sticky, meaty sounds of organic creatures and environments to contrast with the ship. In this case, contradictory sounds foment fear by revealing the fragility of a man made object in the face of animalistic horrors.


Contradictory sounds appearing in unexpected environments evokes disturbing sensations. The laughter of children, joyous on the playground, becomes petrifying in a dark abandoned warehouse. Alma, the nightmarish child of the F.E.A.R. franchise, is the most macabre addition to a not-quite-traditional shooter.

The Fatal Frame series is another terrifying series (See video to listen to players screaming in fear). Putting aside the fact players are only armed with a camera, the sounds of ghost laughter mixed with screams is incredibly unsettling. Familiar sounds in unfamiliar environments evoke the fear of terrible things invading the safety of day-to-day reality. If laughter is not a sign of joy and safety, then nothing is.

These unexpected sounds are often disembodied, permeating the environment. Even Max Payne, not a horror game at all, has a very disturbing nightmare scene in which the protagonist is haunted by moans, a crying baby, and the sounds of his troubled wife. Siren, a very creepy stealth-based game, scares with the disembodied sounds of enemies (or the titular siren). One enemies laughter is particularly disturbing as he hunts you down. Most of the games mentioned thus far do the same, with the sounds of enemies reaching you before you can see them.


The singular sounds of approaching enemies is most affecting in silent environments. What more iconic game imbues its world with silence than Silent Hill? The second entry to the franchise is the most frightening game I have ever played. The fogged drenched town hides unknown numbers of shambling abominations. These creatures cause the player's radio to buzz with static when near but still not visible. The knowledge that an unseen enemy approaches is more frightening than actually seeing it. Until it comes into range, the player is powerless.
Silence isolates sound, giving it weight. Like the creak of wood, the sound of footsteps in an otherwise quiet game becomes unsettling. Eternal Darkness and Parasite Eve are two relatively quiet games whose repetitive foot steps (or clanking armor) map the players solitude, which is almost as frightening as being alone with something else. The sound of Pyramid Head's blade scraping the floor as he stalks the protagonist of Silent Hill 2 is more unsettling with the quiet backdrop. Most of the aforementioned games have long moments of silence.

The most terrifying sounds in most of these games are solitary and descriptive. Silence, or the repetition of foot steps or a living environment, acts like sonar, alerting you to the sounds of other distinct noises. These solitary sounds evoke a sense of horror because they represent the intangible. With good sound design, an empty mansion can feel populated with a legion of terrible constructs. Players cannot fight against sounds, they cannot enact agency upon the incorporeal. In a medium which imbues players with power, the sound of helplessness is terrifying.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Missing in Action, part 2: "Seeing the Elephant" in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

This is the second post in a three part series dedicated to analyzing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The first part, "Civilians in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare," can be found here.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare contains very little about the characters that inhabit the game's world. The story revolves around a group of Bad Guys who like to do Bad Things and a group of Good Guys who like to do Good Things. Little time is devoted to developing the characters controlled by the player: Other than giving them stereotypically fitting accents, the player knows nothing about the soldiers they control or the enemies they kill.

While this omission may hurt the game in a narrative sense, what remains is a useful tool for examining the specific phenomenon of combat. During the American Civil War, soldiers would refer to joining the army and going into battle as "seeing the elephant." While the origins of this phrase are unclear, the meaning is both fitting and poetic: to the western world, the elephant is a beast that is simultaneously fascinating, exotic, and terrifying. CoD 4's strength lies in allowing players to "see the elephant."

The game's highly polished visual and sound effects, in combination with its first person perspective, trap the player within the terrible din of battle. Being on the ground in the middle of a larger campaign conveys a sense of being compelled forward, as though one were caught in a living tidal wave. The sound of distant mortars creates forms a back-beat accented by the high pitched whine of bullets and the anguished screams of the fallen. The game is about marveling at the spectacle of war. It challenges the player to perform calmly under tremendously hectic circumstances.

Civil War soldiers offer accounts of their comrades similar to those we use when describing the action heroes in our games. Soldiers claimed that "no tongue, or pen can express the excitement" of battle, and routinely saw their comrades and opponents "behaving like wild men."1. A soldier of the 47th Ohio regiment wrote: "I had no idea that I had such determination, such, stubborness or strength...I saw men perform prodigies, display the most unparalleled valor...One man Joseph Bedol of Co 'D' was surrounded & knocked down by the rebels, he came to, jumped up, killed and wounded three & knocked a fourth down with his fist."2[sic] Keeping in mind the possibility of embellishment, it is still clear that, while it may not provide a personal story, CoD 4 effectively captures horrible excitement of war.

CoD 4 walks a fine line between excitement and chaos. The game is a world comprised exclusively of pure battlefields. With no civilians, the world is morally binary one: people and objects are parsed by determining whether or not they can kill the player. As Krystian pointed out in the comments of part 1 of this series, the fog of war causes the ever-present problem of friendly fire. In a situation in which the only way to stay alive is to be fast on the trigger, accidents happen. Without any civilian presence, everyone with a gun is a potential threat, which instills a "shoot or be sorry" mindset while creating a world of extreme physical and mental violence.

This kind of life is not sustainable in the long term. Both Union and Confederate soldiers soon tired of "the glory of war" which was comprised mainly of "seeing dead men and men's limbs torn from their bodies." John McCreery , a teenager fighting on the Union side, demonstrated hard-earned wisdom when he wrote "got to see the Elephant at last and to tell you the honest truth I dont care about seeing him very often any more, for if there was eny fun in such work I couldent see it...It is not the thing it is braged up to be."3[sic]

As I bounced from war zone to war zone in CoD 4, McCreery's thoughts became increasingly understandable. What started as a blustering romp became an exercise in self preservation. Whether I hung back and let my comrades clear a room or charged in guns blazing, my intent was the same: stay alive and kill anyone wearing a different uniform. During the moment, idealism and rationality faded away and were replaced by cold practicality. This mindset was epitomized during the game's signature AC-130 gunship scene. While initially novel, the action soon became a function of callous destruction. Glory is retroactively ascribed to battles; during the fight, there is no time nor room for such sentiment.

CoD 4 might lack compelling, character-driven narrative. The game's overall message about war is unclear, and perhaps even nonexistent (although next week, I will argue that the game carries a very specific message). What is present is the spectacle of total battlefield and the sense of immediacy fostered by being a part of that spectacle. Call of Duty 4 shows us the ways in which battle destroys the larger context of war, and offers us a peek at the elephant.

1. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 40
2. McPherson., 40
3. McPherson, 33

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

EXP Podcast #38: Gamers in Motion

Let's be honest: During our early console gaming days, how many of us would fling our controller upward in a desperate attempt to make Mario jump just a little bit higher? We learned to shed those earnest, yet useless actions, but with the rise of motion controls and quirky peripherals, it seems that those old habits have been revived. This week, inspired by an article from Bob Mackey, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of motion control as it stands today. Although we are less than three years into the mainstream adoption of motion control, the phenomenon has made an impact in game design, player accessibility, and market strategy. As always, feel free to Wii-waggle your way into the conversation with your comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Which games exemplify your favorite forms of motion control and which subject you to your least favorite?
- Are motion controls capable of the kind of complex actions found in button/key-exclusive control schemes, or does motion control necessitate simplicity?
- What will the future of motion control look like? Will motion control become a kind of genre, will it be integrated into traditional games, or is it just a fad?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 30 min 14 sec
- "Cutting the Cord," by Bob Mackey, via
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 10, 2009

Family Matters: Children's Literature and Videogames

A child at play is a lesson in imagination. On their lonesome, children can vanquish dragons, scale the walls of ancient castles, sail pirate ships across vast oceans, and march with monsters. A child's mind at play is a fascinating machine, able to disentangle itself from the burdens of reality. What child did not spend time dreaming of solitary heroics, acting out a selfish fantasy?

As adults, we are informed by and reaffirm our perceptions of childhood in artistic works. Children's literature, a - wholly unique and interesting genre - reflects adult perspectives on childhood, both affirming and establishing a child's independence. This trend of self-empowerment, often rendered by the protagonist's autonomy from familial relationships, is mirrored in videogames.

The vast majority of our videogame heroes and heroines have no relatives to speak of. Yet, many of these playable characters are of the age to have living parents and children of their own. Parenting aside, surely some of these characters should have siblings. The lack of family ties stretches across genre's. From Samus to the Prince of Persia, our games are inhabited by a disproportionate number of "only-children" whose adventures do not concern their parents or family in the slightest.
This same anomaly populates the world of children's literature as well. Alice's adventure in wonderland is family free, although her adult obligations are alluded to before her plummet down the rabbit hole. The protagonists of The Phantom Tollbooth and Young Wizards series also find a chance to leave their family at home, opting to risk life and limb without the comfortable safety net. This parental disconnect seems particularly strange considering parents often read these stories to their own children.

There is a curative property in the solitary journey of stories like Alice in Wonderland, Where The Wild Things Are, and Coraline. A fantastic experience undertaken by oneself, these works suggest, can strengthen one's ability to deal with or appreciate reality.Roald Dahl's Matilda is an interesting work specifically because her adventure culminates in complete freedom from her biological family. Her empowerment frees her from familial constraints.
Most games follow a protagonist strangely devoid of family ties. When family members are mentioned, they usually exist on the peripheries. Alex Mercer of Prototype is given information by his sister Dana, but her presence could just as easily be filled by a nameless NPC with hacker skills. The fact her brother is a murderous freak doesn't seem to faze her; their sister-brother relationship is insubstantial. Similarly, Adam Fenix, Marcus's father in Gears of War, becomes a cinematic plot twist rather than a meaningful father. As an older example, the eagerness with which Chrono leaves his mother in Chronotrigger resembles the nature of child protagonists in Children's Literature.

Just as common in the kids' books are the tragic circumstances that separate children from their families. Harry Potter, Wizard of Oz, James and the Giant Peach, Wise Child, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ann of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden all follow the exploits of orphaned children, being various popular examples among many works of this kind. There are, in addition, plenty of works whose protagonists live as though they were orphans, including The Giver (in which 'family' means very little) and The Chronicles of Narnia. Children's books display a shockingly high rate of severed families.

Videogames share this trend - the games that mention family members often refer to the deceased. Similar to literature, a family member's death frequently punctuates the beginning of a game protagonist's adventure. Nearly every Final Fantasy lead is an orphan of some kind, with RPGs like Legend of Dragoon and Dragon Quest V following suit. It's not just an RPG or fantasy trope however. Kratos of God of War loses his entire family and Sam Fisher of Splinter Cell loses his daughter. Harry Mason of Silent Hill and Fallout 3's protagonist both lose one family member while another goes missing, driving their journey forward.
While there are some interesting counter examples in Children's Literature, such as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Peter Pan (in some regards), there are few examples of meaningful family relationships in videogames. The explanation is reasonable enough: independence empowers protagonists in both mediums by freeing them of familial burdens. Nurturing self-empowerment and self-identity is important for children, and the same can be said for videogame players in regards to game mechanics. Family obligations, like visiting your mother, do not make for entertaining gameplay.

The prominent lack of family relationships is lamentable and the trend far more concerning than the lack of family members in any one game. Perhaps a partial explanation for the lack of families is because videogames are, by and large, childish. That is to say they are created to appeal to a wide audience that includes children and young teens. Publishers are well aware children and young-adults regularly consume M rated games. The result is a medium that shares thematic trends with children and young-adult fiction. This isn't a bad thing. I hope my adoration for Children's Literature is apparent by now.

Perhaps the cultural approach provides a better explanation. Western culture has deep individualist traits, with the meaning of family and obligation changing dramatically over the past century. Whether this trends appearance in Japanese games is the result of Western influence or something else entirely I am not sure. It could be natural that a young medium, with a desire to empower players, imbuing their avatars with great powers, would apply tropes commonly found in kids' books. They have, after all, accomplished so much in this regard.

Orphan stories are classic, appearing in some of the earliest written and oral tales. Again, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the exploits of family-free adventurer. The lack of diversity, however, breeds stagnation. Family relationships inform the lives of millions of gamers, why shouldn't they inform the lives of playable characters as well?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Missing in Action, part 1: Civilians in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

This is the first of a three part series dedicated to analyzing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an exceedingly entertaining game, which makes it a bit problematic for folks who like to think of video games as meaningful art. At first blush, the game seems vacuous: while playing, I was never inspired to ruminate on any philosophies, I never made any particularly heavy ethical decisions, and the plot had all the nuance of an episode of 24.

The game's outstanding production values can give off the sense that the game is "war porn." Players are quickly funneled through the game, jumping from one explosion to the next, very rarely reflecting on the human toll or existential meaning behind the battles they fight. Despite a large cast of characters, the game seems to lack humanity.

Duncan Fyfe gives aptly describes the morally unambiguous world of CoD 4:

"There is never any question about who's hostile and who's not; everyone is, and they'll confirm it by firing first. The rules of engagement, in part, exist to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties. In these games, the civilians are never there to begin with. These are entertainment wars."

Clearly, the game has blind spots, but that does not mean it has nothing to say about war. Instead of dismissing the game as mindless entertainment, we can use utilize its omissions to explore our understanding of war in both our video games and our larger world.

To revisit Duncan's point, it should be noted that although the civilians "are never there to begin with," it is implied that they are "somewhere" and that they must be helped. Their implied presence is used as a tool to justify the game's violence, and by extension, the violence of war. During the opening scene, the player's ability to act is stifled as they witness a brutal military coup. An attentive player watches while civilians are beaten and executed. Although the player is powerless to help at this point, they have been provided with the justification for action. By removing a large portion of player control, the game links the player to the theoretical civilians via a feeling of shared helplessness. When the player is finally given a gun, they are justified in using it.

As is the case with many justifications, this one's utility overrides its logic. Real civilians serve as a representation of humanity in the opening scene, but are quickly transformed into a mantra to justify combat. At one point, the player's squad learns that the enemy is massacring civilians in a nearby village. Upon arrival, there are few signs of a massacre, let alone previous habitation. In effect, the player's true mission was never to rescue civilians, but rather to kill enemies. "They're killing civilians" becomes a stand in for "They're the bad guys," which is in turn a stand in for "Shoot 'em." But how is this helping the civilians? Who are these people? How many of them have been killed? Somewhere along the line, these questions stopped mattering.

Of the many spurious reasons behind the United States' invasion of Iraq, the goal of "helping the civilians" was one of the more noble ones. However, as in CoD 4, the cry of "Saddam's killing civilians" was quickly translated into "Stop the the bad guy," which was a stand in for "Shoot 'em." Never mind trying to parse out the intricacies of military force, the aftermath of battle, or war's unintended consequences, let alone anything regarding the needs and culture of those who needed help.

The average person knows almost as much about Iraqi citizens as they do about the practically non-existent people that supposedly inhabit the world of CoD 4. None of these victims have names, families, or history; they are ultimately used as a collective entity to justify action. While it may be absurd that the player never interacts with those they are tasked to protect, is it any less absurd than the fact that no one can decide how many Iraqis have died since the invasion?

The resemblance between the confirmed death count in our real war and the confirmed death count in our video game war demonstrates that CoD 4's world may not be as detached from reality as it appears. This is in no way an apology for the game; this is claim that the game simply succeeds in mirroring the world it aspires to emulate, albeit in unintended ways. CoD 4 creates a world absent of fully-realized humans, a world in which civilians are plot devices used to advance the narrative of war.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare introduces us to theoretical civilians. Unfortunately, it is not the first time we have been presented with such a concept.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

EXP Podcast #37: Guns & Wizard Hats

Peanut-Butter & Jelly, Chicken & Waffles, both ingenious combinations! So why not Guns & Wizard Hats? Well I might have a few reasons. This week, Scott and I gnaw on an interesting article by Wired's Chris Kohler regarding Ray Muzyka's and Cliff Bleszinski's RPG/Shooter portents. We touch on such topics as big-ass swords, stat tracking, and the troublesome word that is "genre." As always, you'll find the original article in the show notes. Also, your thought are always fascinating; you should leave them in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- What risks do developers running adding genre elements from RPGs into Shooters?
- Are their some genre elements that are incompatible?
- What RPG elements would you add to existing genres, if any?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 29 min 57 sec
- "BioWare's Muzyka: Line RPGs, Shooters Blurring" by Chris Kohler, via Wired
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Voyeurism of Majora's Mask

For the past few weeks, I've been playing through Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask with the Vintage Game Club. I do not have the deep history of Zelda games others have, so this whole endeavor is new to me. Which means Majora's Mask has been one of the more frustrating gaming experiences I've had in a long while. I have been pushing my way this game with stubborn determination, playing off and on (mostly off). Despite my tendency to shout expletives at the screen, I've come to appreciate Link for what he is: an amazingly skilled voyeur.

I am using the term voyeur in the more child appropriate sense of the word; Link is no sexual deviant after all. He is, however, an agent who easily slips into the lives of others, navigating his way through various cultures. By donning various masks, some allowing Link to change into an entirely different species, Link has the uncanny ability to immerse himself (and by extension the player) into the lives of others.

On his excellent GameSetWatch column Lingua Franca, Daniel Johnson discusses "cultural pedagogy of the Goron tribe in the Legend Of Zelda series." In this piece, Johnson touches upon Link's ability to change into a Goron hero:

"What this mechanic does is allow Link to switch on the fly between ingroup and outgroup membership of the respective cultures, changing his interplay with each. This gives players the opportunity to observe first-hand how it feels to be treated as either one of the races within the game. Termina's residents don't have four sets of speech for the respective races, but rather, the speech is tied to the gameplay and narrative."
The Goron tribe's interaction with Link is based on thinking he is actually the hero Darmani. For a brief section of the game, Link is someone else entirely. Like the Deku, Darmani has his own unique way of moving and fighting. This makes Majora's Mask "a playground for cultural experimentation," as Johnson puts it, and a sort of multiple-game hybrid, allowing the player to take on the role of an entirely a unique protagonist. Of course the game requires all of Link's faculties, but the feel of combining several experiences into one cohesive package resonates strongly. Link is far more than a boy in green.

To some extent, Link has no real story of his own. The individual stories of the townspeople, even their mundane concerns, eclipse the larger goal of stopping the coming apocalypse. Link's lack of speech (a characteristic I find increasingly strange as the franchise matures) compounds the sense Link is a disembodied agent acting out the will of the player, completely independent from a preexisting "Link."

Being able to interact with NPCs numerous times with different results is incredibly rare. It breathes realism into Majora's Mask that other stagnant games should envy. The player easily becomes intimate with the townspeople, learning of their burdens and helping where he can. But this help isn't necesarily permanent. Link's assistance can be easily brushed away with time reversal. After aging one man's chicks into chickens and raising his spirits,a time reversal will return Link to day one to find the same man morose once again. Link is only temporarily responsible for the immediate fate of Termina's population. It's a voyeuristic social experiment at its best.
Another interesting quest has Link reuniting Kafei and Anju, two lovers in a dire situation. This quest involves secret meetings, romance, letter delivery, and heroism. This story in particular has all the contraptions of a television drama suitable for the whole family. Link has more in common with Dr. Sam Beckett of Quantum Leap than his adventuring genre companions.

None of this is to say Majora's Mask is immature or pointlessly complicated. On the contrary, I think Link's social interaction is by far the most interesting and innovative aspect of Majora's Mask. Few people are eager to admit voyeuristic tendencies, although the desire to gossip, interact with strangers, and play the role of insider is very human. Videogames are partly interesting because we can become someone else for awhile, with their own relationships and history. Majora's Mask feeds this desire by creating Link as not one character, but an amalgamation of many.