frog blast the vent core
  Origin stories

I just returned from the American Library Association's Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium, and I have a long list of topics to address over the next few weeks (in between writing papers for Postmodern Cinema...). Keynote speakers included luminaries like Henry Jenkins and Jim Gee, and the setting afforded three days of conversation about both analog and digital gaming - not just its place in libraries, but the role of gaming in culture.

On the other hand, I still found myself, as an actual gamer, very clearly in the minority at this conference on gaming. About five people of 300 admitted to playing World of Warcraft, and it was greeted as an exotic novelty that the closing speaker, Liz Lawley, ran a level 70 Priest. (I may have the good taste to not play WoW, but I recognize its ubiquity among us digital post-moderns.)

I recalled, from last week, a distinct moment while bicycling to work along Lake Michigan: some coincidence of sound and motion conjured, like Proust's madeleine, a bustling street scene in the city of Athkatla. Those of you steeped in geekery may recognize Athkatla as the capital city of Amn, a prosperous trading nation in the Forgotten Realms. More to the point, exploration of Athkatla occupies much of Baldur's Gate 2. What struck me as extraordinary is that my memory reconstructed not merely this street in north Athkatla, but the embodied experience of negotiating that space. I reassembled all at once the game's isometric perspective, the finely-detailed artwork, the music accompanying that game area, and even the game's character animations - and all was reconstructed as immediate and indigenous experience, unmediated by mouse, keyboard, and screen.

I recalled this moment because librarians like to talk about formative, originary encounters with books. When it came to books, I was a precocious kid. I'd read both Les Miserables and Moby-Dick by about 7th grade, and I would happily recount the conclusion of the latter; Ishmael's last narrated lines sent me scrambling to the encyclopedia for "Ixion". Raised on stories of my grandfather memorizing Gray's "Elegy" and Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", however, and despite a highly literate childhood, I was long troubled - looking back from adulthood - by the paucity of formative literary memories rattling around in my brain. Only recently, looking to electronic gaming as a legitimate object of academic inquiry, have I recognized games as a primary constitutive experience.

For each distinct memory of Melville, I can narrate a handful from Sir-Tech's Wizardry or Silicon Beach Software's Dark Castle. I remember Prince of Persia and Fallout more completely than most of my college coursework. As early as elementary school, I invested long hours authoring my own gameworlds in World Builder and Apple's HyperCard - and I can still navigate, entirely in my head, the 3D spaces of pioneering games like Marathon and Unreal.

Partly through being limited to my parents' Mac Plus and never owning an Atari or Nintendo system, my childhood gaming was minimal compared to my literary and musical adventures. I've no doubt that Dvorak and Conrad were far more fundamental in the development of my capacities and ideals. Yet what emerges most clearly from my memory is the radical spatiality of games, recollected in the same concrete terms so often used to characterize originary literary encounters.

I recalled all of this as we conference-goers discussed gaming in libraries. The lesson of librarians' traditional focus on such literary experiences isn't that books have a uniquely privileged relationship with our interiority; the point, rather, is that we see the relationship between interiority and cultural artifacts in general as constitutive of our identity. Games, no less than books, generate what we regard as constitutive experience. As it turns out, then, one of the most compelling reasons for librarians to support gaming wasn't even mentioned this weekend: librarians may be ideally equipped to understand the personal and cultural impact of games - by analogy with one of the most venerable cultural artifacts of all, the printed word.

Labels: , ,

  Valley girls

My current diet of gaming podcasts is sporadic, but I semi-regularly catch the AngryGamer podcast and the GamersHell Podcast (from the "Eat My Bomb" squad). I recommend both, but I'd like to comment specifically on one of GH's recent topics.

(Well, "recent" may be a stretch. The cast dates from mid-March, when I first drafted the outline of this response.)

The episode in question features Ruckus ruminating on his dislike of Oblivion's in-game characters, which turns out to be a good excuse for discussing Masahiro Mori's concept of the Uncanny Valley. It's worth pointing out the controversy over this theory's validity and the general lack of supporting research; it's also worth speculating whether it even applies to videogames, with which our engagement is always metaphorical as well as physical. Never mind such philosophical meanderings, however: I was struck by Ruckus' focus on the possibility that Oblivion characters are unsettling because they're a little too human (versus the stylized characters in, say, Psychonauts or World of Warcraft). He entirely neglected the possibility that they're simply bad.

In Oblivion, Bethesda implemented a disappointingly sparse range of facial expressiveness. This may have been by design; perhaps they decided to code only "iconic" expressions, a small number of highly discrete expressions immediately recognizable by the player. Whether intentional or not, however, the end result is unsettling, as Ruckus notes. Bethesda's characters seem strikingly crude when compared to the high-water mark set by Valve, despite Oblivion post-dating Half-Life 2 by 1.5 years. There are no meaningful transitions between distinct facial states, and the dearth of distinct expressions creates a lack of ambiguity - there's nothing for the player to interpret in Cyrodiil's inhabitants, no hint of deeper meaning or emotional content discoverable beneath the broadly-iconic expressions on their faces. There is, in short, no chance of verisimilitude or credibility, even granting Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief". This might seem a remarkably subjective claim to make, but I challenge you to compare an extended conversation in Oblivion with one in Half-Life 2 and then disagree.

Bethesda also chose, bafflingly, to decouple facial expressions from characters' actual in-game attitude - or, more precisely, to track character attitude on two discrete and frequently conflicting axes. First is the character's minute-to-minute disposition, apparently dictated by initial reaction and by your handling of the "Speechcraft" minigame; second is what we might term the character's narrative attitude, the attitude they're compelled to adopt by the game's unfolding story. For example, you can lower the disposition of the Blades' leader so that he'll consistently frown or scowl at you (based on your abuse of Speechcraft), while he simultaneously extends patient guidance and support for your mission to save the world (based on his narrative role). A more ridiculous case, repeatable with any number of characters, can be arranged with the head of the guard in Kvatch: raise his disposition through Speechcraft and then attack him, and he'll defend himself with deadly intent even as he maintains an insipid cheek-to-cheek grin. Such bizarre disjunctures of character affect are not merely laughable; they're alienating.

A third unsettling aspect of Oblivion's characters can be attributed to Bethesda's use of FaceGen technology throughout the game. Because character faces are randomized to some degree, some of the FaceGen-erated faces throughout the game are "uncanny" - literally unheimlich, with subtly unnatural facial geometries. Such faces are the exception in Cyrodiil, but they're uncomfortable to encounter and contribute to the overall failure of character affect in the game.

None of these deficiencies is strictly attributable to the "Uncanny Valley", and it's notable that Half-Life 2 presents far fewer problems despite being more realistic (yet still far from "reality"). Despite controversy about whether Mori's theory is accurate in robotics, however, it may still be relevant to current priorities in game design. The "Uncanny Valley" offers a vocabulary for the phenomenon that, as games approach realism more closely, their flaws also become more glaring and alienating, and the level of polish required for an effective suspension of disbelief (or immersion within a consistent gameworld) is jacked through the ceiling. One of Oblivion's chief faults may be that it simply lacks that polish.

In Tuesday's post, I mentioned Henry Jenkins' recent Convergence Culture. For those interested, here's my capsule review on Amazon:
Henry Jenkins is one of the least dogmatic, most pragmatic voices on contemporary media culture. Unlike many other critics of electronic games and culture, he doesn't slavishly follow any particular school of thought; Jenkins consistently charts his own path, based primarily on research rather than preconceived notions. Like Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins is always worth reading.

That said, this is not a book for specialists. It's most effective as an introduction to "convergence culture"; experienced participants in digital community will find much of the book to be familiar ground. I hoped to see Jenkins extend his arguments, with more detailed exploration of each case and more thorough contextualization of the academic theory he references (e.g. the work of Pierre Levy).

In presenting his perspectives, Jenkins also neglects significant details of some of his supporting examples - e.g. the execrable state of code for Enter the Matrix, or LucasArts' infamously counterproductive community management for Star Wars: Galaxies. Such omissions are particularly surprising because they would deepen his case rather than compromising it. His point, after all, isn't to draw a clear path to the future, but rather to map the multivalent dependencies and challenges which must be negotiated along the way.

Ultimately, Convergence Culture is only an introduction, a brief safari into lands still marked (on mass-cultural maps) as "frontiers undefined". Readers already exploring those frontiers will encounter few surprises. Newcomers to "convergence culture", however, will find no better place to start.
  Jane's (and Dick's) addiction

Word on the street is that the American Medical Association is rethinking an internal proposal to recognize "videogame addiction" in the next DSM. The internal report is relatively nuanced, but its controversial recommendation to offer diagnosis criteria in the next DSM has occasioned the most current debate. The AMA's approach is cautious, far from the hysterical treatment we've been conditioned to fear from non-gaming culture, and it's worth a read.

Videogames are undeniably a means through which some people cause serious harm to their lives, regardless of whether "videogame addiction" is recognized as a clinical addiction. This designation would clearly be significant for sufferers, whose treatment would consequently earn at least a modicum of support from insurance providers. I don't have the technical expertise to evaluate claims of genuine "addictiveness", however, and I don't have a horse in this race; the AMA's deliberations and subsequent media coverage merely point up the general crudeness of public discourse on this subject. I'm interested in how videogames are typically addressed in public conversation - as a unitary medium with inescapable dangers and few (if any) benefits, rather than a broadly eclectic field of cultural products and practices.

I just finished Henry Jenkins' most recent book, Convergence Culture, so this is at the forefront of my thinking. There are important questions to be asked about games like World of Warcraft, which (critics have argued) correlate in-game rewards with time played rather than with skill. Indeed, the privileging of (real-life) time played has long been a defining characteristic of game design for grind-based MMORPGs - WoW, Everquest, Lineage, et al. - so it's unsurprising that "addiction" is most frequently associated with such titles. Jenkins, however, focuses much of his book on the other side of the coin, elaborating the considerable benefits of online participation. He demonstrates that active participation in online "knowledge communities" can develop social, leadership, and even writing skills beyond the standards of traditional schooling or job training.

In Convergence Culture, Jenkins focuses primarily on communities such as Survivor and Harry Potter fans, but he could just as easily have written about guild leadership in World of Warcraft. There's a growing body of research documenting significant benefits of gaming, and the MMORPG is the genre most often discussed in terms of social and organizational benefits. The community-based nature of this genre (and others such as competitive multiplayer FPS titles like Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament) requires team-building, skills training, dispute resolution, and other leadership skills prized by the corporate world - yet these are the same games most often called "addictive" and characterized with (no doubt very real) anecdotes of ruined lives.

Even specific titles like WoW, in other words, present a range of both positive and destructive impacts - a range typically ignored in public discourse on gaming. And this is quite beside the problematic question of genre definitions in rhetoric on gaming, which I'll take up in the near future.

What strikes me in this discussion isn't the medical controversy over whether videogames are addictive, but rather the fact that few people stop to ask what videogames are. Are all videogames alike enough to be considered as one group? Is each potentially addictive? Is there something in the technology itself which leads to addiction, or are we actually discussing only a narrow subset of electronic games? What game mechanisms, specifically, contribute to "addiciton" - and are they accurately associated only with videogames, or can they be discovered in other media or activities as well? Most important: how do we build a culture celebrating the many benefits of electronic gaming, while promoting praxes or behaviors that minimize potential concerns?

The AMA's brief is with medical fact, and its approach to "videogame addiction" appears to be measured and open. One of its greatest contributions, in fact, may be to illuminate how little we still know about the drawbacks (and the benefits) of videogaming. But it's not the AMA's job to engage larger questions of gaming culture and its future - that's up to the rest of us.



I've had a mess of ideas percolating on the back-burner (is that technically a mixed metaphor?), but the past two months or so have been chaotic, with little opportunity to write. This too will pass.

In the meantime, swing by the New York Times Magazine for a brief photo essay pairing real-life players with their online avatars. The photos themselves aren't surprising to me; I've used visual or textual avatars for about 20 years, starting with local Bulletin Board Systems in the late '80s, and I recognize the broad range of goals and strategies with which people negotiate avatar space. More striking to me is the essay's normalization of in-world construction of identity. Avatar space is here contextualized as a generic human activity, performed by players from varied nationalities and backgrounds. The essay even takes care to balance hardcore with more casual gamers, those devoting only a few hours each week to their in-world experience.

Avatar space involves a highly specific subset of games, affording a doubling of identity not found in online poker or a frat-house match of Halo 2 (nor, for that matter, in real-world sources like board games). That's not to say the idea is outre, of course: avatar space has been cyberpunk canon for decades, and The Matrix was a smash pop-cultural success. Nintendo's Mii channel and Sony's upcoming Playstation Home even amount to "next-gen" normalization (through mass-commercialization) of avatar space, but as a context for all console gaming rather than a technique of engagement with specific titles. Nevertheless, it's refreshing to see the Times Magazine represent avatar construction and inhabitation as a perfectly normal - and surprisingly diverse - human activity.

Labels: ,

  Cinematic gaming (Part 1 of 58)

I ended my commentary on Mass Effect's dialog system with this statement: designers too often forget that gaming is inherently abstracted, and there's no shame in this. If designers truly wish to offer "cinematic" experiences, why not take a cue from cinema and develop games which celebrate, rather than hide, the constraints on immediacy and interactivity inherent in our medium?
That sounded pretty grandiose and crazily vague all at once, and it isn't even quite what I meant. It's worth considering the intersection of cinema with gaming, but that's a major project with plenty of antecedents in the world of academic game studies. Let's start small.

"You keep using that word"
What I meant, above, is that a century of cinema has developed an extensive visual vocabulary (camera angles, choice of actor gazes, editing tricks) that accepts the inherent limitations of the medium (flat two-dimensional screen, division between picture and audience, lack of interactivity) and works artfully within them, even against them. By manipulating these constraints, cinema evokes both subject and object, often in juxtaposition or superimposition. For example, cinema can invite us to identify with an on-screen character through one camera angle approximately behind her gaze, sharing her perspective almost physically, then cut to another view in which we objectify the same character, looking upon her beauty or anger or steely determination as an external object of our independent gaze. Such techniques can both abridge and intensify the mechanical distance between audience and non-interactive cinematic image.

I see few mainstream games approached in that fashion - by first examining and accepting the limitations of the medium, then figuring out how to build upon those limitations rather than pretend they don't exist. Such mindful design is a challenge in itself, obviously, but it's also the necessary foundation of a long-term cultural vocabulary for gaming such as we've inherited for cinema.

Part of the challenge is perhaps that digital games are so young a medium, designers are concerned more with extending boundaries than working within them. That may be an unproductive choice. Designers need to learn to walk before flying; there's limited value in aggressively pushing boundaries without first evolving more sophisticated techniques and cultures of game design. And the design boundaries of games have expanded much less than most people seem to think, anyway. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the funding market's risk-aversion to designers' philosophical inflexibility, games are often created, marketed, and consumed as metaphorized films or novels - not as a distinct cultural medium with extraordinary untapped potential even under current technological restraints. The sorry fact is that many computer game genres have evolved very little in the past 5-10 years, at least as far as the mass market is concerned.

Mass spectacle
Following up on my comments regarding Mass Effect and the limitations of the medium, I'm thinking particularly of interactivity, one of the strengths of digital entertainment, and interface latency, one of its weaknesses. (By "interface latency", I mean the "lag time" between a player processing game information, deciding how to act, and then being able to implement that decision through the game's interface.) At first glance, Mass Effect's dialog system may appear to optimally negotiate these two poles: it enables greater flexibility of player interaction than previous dialog systems, and it also encourages direct "real-time" engagement by the player. As we've seen, however, things can be more complicated than that.

(This is as good a time as any for me to acknowledge that more recent press coverage of Mass Effect, especially at this week's Game Developers Conference, has shown some of my preliminary criticism to be misplaced. Specifically, responses won't actually require as much translation as I assumed, because they'll be more predetermined than I understood. Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka explained to GameSpy that positions on the dialog wheel will be consistently associated with attitudes, somewhat mitigating the challenge of translating abbreviated dialog options into fully elaborated responses: "upper-right tends to be kinder, straight-left tends to be inquisitive/investigatory, and lower-right tends to make you unfriendly". This doesn't change the point I'm about to make, however.)

Mass Effect may turn out to be a more "cinematic" experience than any preceding RPG - in that the game invites us to not merely interact with the main character and control his manipulation of the gameworld, but also to regard and admire that character and his actions with an external, objectifying gaze. The game's antecedents in film and television are repeatedly cited by Bioware. Muzyka promises "HBO-style" production values, for example, and has called the game's main character "Jack Bauer in space" (a quotation which, cited in most mainstream previews of the game, clings to Mass Effect like second-hand smoke). The camera in dialog employs depth-of-field blurring, a mechanical trick inherited from photography and cinematography and designed to mimic human vision - to appropriately focus attention on individual screen elements and also to "naturalize" the camera as the spectator's (player's) gaze. And it's hard to miss the cinematic camera angles in the two screenshots I previously quoted, moving from over Shepard's shoulder to a more objectifying neutral shot of Shepard's physical aggression against Garrus.

Mass Effect's unusual dramatization of dialog is a further nod toward filmic sources like 24:
[Demonstrating the game, BioWare co-founder Greg] Zeschuk has Shepard ask about why Manuel is acting so weird, and Manuel's doctor explains that he's a bit cuckoo... In a move that blends surprise, humor, and brutal directness, Zeschuk has Shepard say something along the lines of, "I can shut him up" and without warning, Shepard simply quips, "Good night Manuel," before decking him in the face for an instant KO. Manuel's stunned handler could only stammer, "...I guess that's a faster way to put him to sleep." This humorous method of getting results via harsh means is the heart of Muzyka's famous "Jack Bauer in space" quote. (GameSpy)
The abbreviated dialog is not merely elaborated into longer speeches, but is also automatically expanded into action sequences presented as spectacle rather than interactivity - action which Bioware, in promoting the game, characterizes in terms of a popular TV hero.

Gaming transmedia
To suggest that Mass Effect may be the most "cinematic" RPG to date is not an overly ambitious claim. Only in recent years has gaming evolved the technology for mechanical techniques as basic as depth-of-field (not available in hardware until 2000); cinematic techniques are buzzwords but still not widely employed. Bioware's previous game, Jade Empire, is notably less sophisticated in its camera views and manipulation of subjectivity - and the dialog screens and cutscenes of Neverwinter Nights 2, a much more recent genre leader developed by Obsidian, are downright primitive. As a genre, RPGs seem to lag behind first-person shooters and adventure games in their cinematic influences.

On the other hand, the cinematic ambitions of Mass Effect make perfect sense as a culmination of Bioware's recent history. Their 2003 title Knights of the Old Republic channeled the archetypal filmic setting of Star Wars, right down to the iconic Jedi and lightsabers ("an elegant weapon for a more civilized age"). Many of Jade Empire's best moments borrow the visual language of 1970s kung fu cinema, combined with the polish of the later Hong Kong revival and of contemporary Hollywood. In this context, Mass Effect is situated not merely within the RPG genre, but also at the forefront of a "cinematic" direction in game development.

More to the point, Bioware's titles since 2003 signal a clear agenda of developing games within what Henry Jenkins calls a transmedia environment - games which derive context and meaning not merely from antecedents within their own medium, but particularly from other media such as television and film. Mass Effect clearly aims to extend the cinematic hallmarks of its recent predecessors. In so doing, Bioware has also embraced a corollary project: through the broadly-shared vocabulary of cinema and broadly-drawn nods to popular TV, players will be deeply invested into enacting the character of Commander Shepard.

Or at least that seems to be the idea.

Raiding cinema
It's the same idea at the heart of 1996's Tomb Raider. Mike Ward's canny article "Being Lara Croft", from 2000, explores the ways in which Lara is both subject and object - identified with the player, the virtual tool of the player's subjective power to configure the gameworld, but also an object of the player's independent gaze. Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky's more recent Lara Croft: Cyber Heroine explores the mechanisms of this subject-object dynamic, more explicitly addressing the obvious pop-cinematic antecedent (Indiana Jones) and Eidos' explicit goal, with the first Tomb Raider, of creating an "interactive movie".

As it turns out, Lara is becoming less and less unique in this regard. EA's American McGee's Alice (2000) presents a much darker vision of the same formula, this time with both literary and visual influences. The swashbuckling protagonist of Ubisoft's recent Prince of Persia revivals has equally filmic and literary roots - and is presented, through the same mechanisms used with Lara, as both an acrobatic tool of the player's subjectivity and an objectified spectacle of graceful ferocity.

This direction in gaming isn't inevitable, however. An obvious countervailing example is Valve's immensely successful Half-Life 2 and its groundbreaking predecessor, both of which emphasize first-person interaction and refuse to interrupt the player's subjectivity. Protagonist Gordon Freeman is the player's alter ego - the agent of player interaction, a context for the reactions of other characters, and an expression of narrative continuity within the gameworld - but he never speaks or appears as an object for the player's gaze. Valve's commitment to the player as pure subject is so consistent that they don't even include mirrors in the gameworld, as so many other FPS games have done. Gordon Freeman amounts to nothing more than a name for the player's power of subjective interactivity.

Among RPGs, the classic Fallout exhibits the same commitment to subjective interaction, presenting dialogs with important characters through a first-person interface that broke new technological ground in 1997. The Vault Dweller, the game's protagonist and the player's character, is cinematically objectified only in the game's brilliant final cutscene, and in a manner that overwrites none of the player's configuration of that character. More recently, Bethesda's Oblivion maintains first-person interaction from beginning to end, adopting a philosophy similar to Valve's. The player's sense of interactivity is diminished through many other flaws in the game's design, but notably not through objectification of the protagonist as spectacle.

Cinematic role-playing
Of these two fundamental approaches to character in games, Mass Effect seems most aligned with the first: Bioware wants players to experience Shepard not as themselves, but as an externalized and highly specific force within the gameworld. The problem is that Shepard isn't a unitary character; Mass Effect is positioned as a role-playing game, which means players will be able to exercise (at least) a minimum of configurative control over who Shepard becomes in their experience of the game. Muzyka even takes care to point out the range of distinct attitudes available within the dialog wheel - possibilities in addition to those enacting "Jack Bauer in space".

What does it mean, then, that the game is bent on encouraging identification with - and even flexible configuration of - a protagonist who's simultaneously objectified through cinematic technique and transmedia references? Bioware promises superior interactivity through Mass Effect's dialog; is this compatible with its approach to interface latency and character definition, elaborating player-selected attitudes into (literally) spectacular, objectified action?

For that matter, is it even possible to engage sophisticated cinematic techniques and craft characters for objectification while still providing the subjective configurability associated with good role-playing games?

It's not my intention to judge Mass Effect a failure before it's even released, especially when Bioware's cinematic ambitions are common among developers. Throughout the hype leading up to the game's delivery, however, games journalists and commentators have exhibited considerable ignorance of the implications of "cinematic gaming". It seems accepted as axiomatic that convergence between film and electronic entertainment is both desirable and inevitable.

Regarding this widely-shared agenda to play upon cinema's cultural legitimacy and accumulated power, I see nobody asking the obvious question: is it worth it? Is it a wise long-term project to (even partly) barter away the extraordinary potential of digital games - including a radically subjective interactivity of which film directors could only dream - simply to borrow the authority of another medium? The answer isn't necessarily no, but it should never be an unconditional yes.

Labels: , ,

  That new car smell

Apropos my earlier post on world-creation and the lack of innovation, take a look at GameShadow's "Innovation in Games" Awards. The results are a great overview of the vanguard of contemporary game design, and many are available for free (and others, like Psychonauts and Phoenix Wright, belong in every gamer's library regardless of cost). Some games received honors simply for pushing technological boundaries, but most of the winners balance narrative and interactivity to create engagingly new experiences.

This list is a good antidote to my dour "nothing new under the sun" lament. As it turns out, there's plenty new under the sun - but you won't find most of it in your local Gamestop or Best Buy.


Re. digital life: game reviews; design esoterica; abstruse and cockeyed musings on the downfall of digital entertainment, the betrayal of its liberatory potential, and our collective passage into a twilight of undifferentiated mass-market muck.

Sign up for fbtvc's Atom feed
Add fbtvc to your Technorati Favorites

My Photo
Location: Chicago, United States
Currently playing: UT 2004 (PC), Indigo Prophecy (PC), Dragon Quest VIII (PS2), God of War (PS2), Resident Evil 4 (Wii)

RPG Watch
RPG Codex
The Escapist
Confessions of an Aca/Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins

Reviews How I review / Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

Site archives What's in a name? / 10.06 / 11.06 / 01.07 / 02.07 / 03.07 / 06.07 / 07.07 /

Powered by Blogger