Montageman: A dude who writes

March 28, 2007

Some thoughts on Affect Theory

Filed under: affect — montageman @ 2:50 am

Silvan Tomkins’s affect theory is centered around the idea that the nine primary affects are the chief motivators for all experience. In “The Quest for Primary Motives” Tomkins outlines the nine primary affective responses:

1.Interest
2.Enjoyment
3.Surprise
4.Fear
5.Anger
6.Distress
7.Shame
8.Contempt
9.Disgust

He continues, “These are discriminable distinct sets of facial, vocal, respiratory, skin, and muscle responses,” (58). For Tomkins, all experience is filtered through at least one of the nine affects. Tomkins’s affect theory provides a more comprehensive account of human experience and motivation than either drive theory or cognitive theories of affect (Demos 19). The primary affects are broken down further into positive (interest, enjoyment, surprise) and negative (surprise, fear, anger, distress, shame, contempt, disgust) affects. Tomkins believes that affect is Darwinian in nature, functioning more as a survival tool. “The human being is equipped with innate affective responses which bias him to want to remain alive and to resist death, to resist boredom, and to resist the experience of head and face lowered in shame,” (67) Tomkins states at the end of his “Evolution of the affect system,” essay, whose title is also Darwinian in scope. It is these responses that are elicited from playing videogames, especially the desire to remain alive instead of dying.

The binary of life versus death can be easily confused with the drive to remain alive – it should be made clear that affect and drive are two totally separate ideas. Affect must have freedom in order to flourish, Sedgwick and Frank define affect’s freedom as the capacity to of the individual to feel strongly or weakly, for a moment, or for all his life, about anything under the sun and to govern himself by such motives constitutes his essential freedom (46). Tomkins categorizes freedom in a number of ways including: freedom of intensity, freedom of density, freedom of investment, freedom of affects to combine with, modulate, and suppress other affects, and freedom of consummatory site (Sedgwick and Frank 55-7). Comparatively, drives have a greater sense of urgency attached to them and less options in terms of satiating the urge – be it hunger or breathing, there is a small amount of freedom in terms of time to attend to the drive. Where drives are easily discernible, the affect system of man operates within a much more uncertain and variable environment (Sedgwick 47). There is an interiority with affect that should not be confused with observable behavior. Observable behavior may or may not be connected to affect, although as Tomkins believes, affect is always most observable through facial expressions. For example, in “What and where are the primary affects?” Tomkins gives the following key (this is only part of the key): Interest-Excitement: eyebrows down, eyes track, look, listen; Surprise-Startle: eyebrows up, eyes blink; Contempt-Disgust: sneer, upper lip up (218-19).

The observable nature of affect, while important, is not central to the argument of this paper. The variable and interior dimension is key when talking about videogames. Games have a multitude of devices to affectively effect players in a memorable fashion. As game theorist Diane Carr points out, games seek to generate different affect, and they effectively exploit alternate models to achieve that end (62).

March 19, 2007

Gauntlet

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 12:28 am

My family has owned a delicatessen for about 35 years. During the mid to late eighties, one (or sometime 2) of the most important items in the store was the arcade game(s). My dad knew one of the arcade distributors in the area, so he would rent the games as a favor both to his distributor friend and to us (his sons). Games would change about every month. I only remember a couple – The Main Event (an excellent tag team wrestling game with a number of fictitious characters), Rampage (a beat ’em up game where players would control one of three monsters and rampage through cities destroying buildings, eating people, and fighting of the armed forces), and Gauntlet (the first dungeon crawl game & could also be characterized as a run and gun; players had a choice between an elf, wizard, warrior, or Valkyrie). Each of these games were designed to be played by at least 1 player, but were the most fun when played with 3 (Rampage) or 4 (The Main Event and Gauntlet). This turned the store into a community meeting place for the neighborhood kids – a place where kids could play games, eat candy, and drink soda, so basically it was an arcade with an incredibly small amount of choice between games.

Gauntlet (Atari 1985) is, in terms of my personal history, the first arcade game that I would say I was addicted. The cabinet itself demanded respect – it was larger than regular cabinets simply because it housed 4 joysticks instead of 2 allowing for co-operational play between 4 players at once. The point of view is top-down, which was later mimicked by games like The Legend of Zelda and Grand Theft Auto 1 & 2. The game takes place in a dungeon that is being taken over by a multitude of different enemies (ghosts, goblins, ogres, etc.) which must be killed or avoided by one, two, three or all four of the games protagonists. The game’s main objective is essentially the same as many other games in this genre: to restore the order and rid the castle of the enemies. Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation talk about the status quo as objective, “Players are ultimately the security guards whose task is to shoot (or kill) anything that appears threatening because the ultimate threat is that the enemy will destroy the equilibrium of the system and eventually halt the game by killing the player. In essence, the player is constantly asked to defend or reestablish the status quo,” (93). Restoration of order has been a fundamental objective in a number of games both before and after Gauntlet. What made Gauntlet most interesting to me was the cooperative nature of the objective and the need for four completely different characters to work together. A warrior, an elf, a wizard, & a Valkyrie – each with strengths and weaknesses, the warrior was powerful so he could take damage at a slower pace, the elf was quick, the wizard was good with magic, and the Valkyrie was decent in all categories.

Gauntlet had its controls set up in the following fashion: a joystick, a fire button, & a magic button. The magic button could be used once a player had potion in his possession. The potion would clear the visible area of enemies. One of the fundamental differences when a game is translated from arcade to console is the control scheme – there is no longer a magic and shoot button, rather the magic is the A button while shoot is the B button. This may not seem like a big deal for a game like Gauntlet, but as controls become more complicated, some gamers will lose interest in a game quickly because of convoluted control schemes.

March 17, 2007

Demonstration mode

Filed under: games — montageman @ 4:42 pm

Raph Koster is fairly adamant that any good game must present a clearly defined goal and, in turn, offer the tools for the gamer to reach that goal.  This thought becomes cloudy when dealing with games like Tetris & Pac-Man where the goal is less defined then say Super Mario Bros. where it is explicitly pointed out that your fundamental duty is to save the princess.  Rather than giving an objective like this, the only objective Pac-Man needs is the high score tally at the top of the screen and the “hall of fame” that flashes on the screen while the game is in “demonstration (demo) mode.” Back to the high score in a moment, I would like to spend a moment on demo mode.  All arcade games (& most console games post-Atari) have a feature where the game is being played by the console without any player input.  For arcade games, it offers potential players, or consumers who want to spend money to buy time with the machine, a chance to see what the game looks like and sometimes how the game is played.  Much in the same way we are shown trailers for other movies before the feature film presentation, demonstration mode is a trailer of sorts.  A totally passive experience that, when interrupted, segues into the feature presentation i.e. the game world.   

March 14, 2007

A bit on Pac-man

Filed under: games — montageman @ 1:48 am

I’d like to revisit Pac-man for a moment.  The movement of Pac-man is restricted to north, south, east, & west.  Pac-man is prisoner inside of his maze.  He cannot break through the walls that enclose him.  For the player, the outcome is inevitable – the ghosts will eventually catch up to you.  There is no end to Pac-man.  Like a really terrible nightmare, the player knows that the ending will be less than favorable.  Boredom will eventually take hold and the player will lose the desire to play.  The lack of space to explore leads to a feeling of claustrophobia, a feeling that can only be remedied by forcing Pac-man to be eaten by his enemies.   Prolonged playing of Pac-man might lead to feelings of anxiety.  The thought that if Pac-man can’t escape, how can anyone else?

March 13, 2007

Games: Beauty, Accessibility, & Affect

Filed under: affect, games — montageman @ 3:29 am

On his weekly National Public Radio commentaries, sports writer Frank Defour will often speak about the ballet-like movement of basketball players or the impressive fluidity of motion in tennis players.  He finds art in motion, more specifically bodies in motion.  There is constant opposition in sports – offense versus defense, server versus receiver – and it through the interplay of these antagonists that art is born.  Kobe Bryant driving to the basketball hoop against Yao Ming can be a thing of beauty if not for Kobe’s offense then Yao’s defense.  One needs the other to succeed artistically because if Kobe drives to the basket undefended or Yao goes up for a block against no one, no longer is the game being played, rather the men would be practicing.  Defense is the reaction to offense and offense will react to defense.

Marshall McLuhan on games, “Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture.  Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism.”  McLuhan continues on by noting that games are reactions to workday stress, a coming together of action and reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image (208).  For something to be “popular art,” there has to be a certain level of accessibility.  More directly, I am referring to affective accessibility.  While the inherent beauty of a basketball game may not be self evident, there is a definite affective accessibility maintained by the overall structure of the game.  Any professional sport (and videogame for that matter) is structured around rivalry.  A rivalry that, as McLuhan eludes to, mirrors the rivalry of the workplace – the constant hierarchical tugging between the employee and employer, or the underdog against the favorite.

March 11, 2007

Interest in Videogames: Consoles & Synergy

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 9:41 pm

When the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt were packaged with the console. Nintendo was so radically different from its competitors that giving consumers a couple games to pique their interest made sense because interest is one of the primary affects. I remember opening the my Nintendo along with with Tag Team Wrestling (Data East, 1983) and being immediately enamored with the idea of playing these games. A similar feeling accompanied my purchase (or receipt) of the Sega Genesis, Sony Playstation, Sega Dreamcast, etc. Console gaming begins with interest in the hardware. From the beginning of home gaming, the need to upgrade has always been one of the main driving forces of the industry.

When a console is released, an immediate following is born. Regardless of whether it is big or small, all consoles have early adopters who then will either advocate the system or abandon it. Essentially, the hardware, software, and accessories come together in a sort of synergistic fashion creating a new world of gaming possibilities. In 1985 when I opened the Nintendo on Christmas, I had no idea about the ramifications of that event. Sure, we had an Atari at my house and I had played Coleco-Vision at my uncle’s, but the NES was something special.

Before we can talk about why the Nintendo Entertainment System was so special, it might be helpful to take a l0ok the historical underpinnings of videogames.  The International Arcade Museum (http://www.arcade-museum.com) includes all coin operated machines in its extensive list.  The most important part of their list for my purpose is the listing of games under the type “arcade”.  Penny Arcades, which surfaced and became popular in the 1930s (http://www.pinballhistory.com), included all types of mechanical, interactive machines like pinball as well as games like Basketball Champ (http://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?letter=B&game_id=890).  Basketball Champ has a simple premise – shoot the ball over the defender into the basket.  As simple as this may be, the game offers players a chance to master a skill that they may otherwise be unable to do (shooting a basketball through the hoop), but also there is the possibility of competition always present.  While this is theoretically a one player game, it is possible to have one player take 15 shots followed by another player thus leading to a tournament of sorts well beyond the scope of simplicity a mere picture of the game may show.   This speaks to the public nature of games in the beginning, even early fortune teller games were more fun when fortunes could be compared.

I remember going to Frankenmuth (http://www.frankenmuth.com) years ago and being excited to go into the penny arcade.  Being a young kid interested in games, it seemed crazy to me that people actually had fun playing games like Basketball Champ, especially because my historical knowledge of games lacked immensely at that point.  However, whenever I would go into the arcade I would find myself completely enmeshed in these games, or as enmeshed as someone could become in such a game.  The dichotomy presented by these mechanical “action games” versus videogames is an interesting one.  The simple instructions of early games makes them endearing, much in the same way Ms. Pac-man is endearing.  Simplicity allows for immersion, or forgetting that a game is being played.  This is not to say that the player imagines he is a yellow face chomping dots but rather that the avatar on screen is an extension of the player via the joystick.

March 8, 2007

Power-ups

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 3:37 am

While visiting my cousins tonight, they brought out their Nintendo DS hand-held systems.  Neither of them had any idea that I am interested in games, rather they wanted to show me what they could do.  This was, of course, an excellent opportunity to watch a couple young girls (aged 8 & 4) engage with a game.  They owned a bunch of games, but the older girl was playing The New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo 2006) while the younger one was playing Super Princess Peach (Nintendo 2006).

I asked the older girl how long she could play before she got bored.  She replied, “About a half hour.”  Yes, she’s young and her mind drifts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when there’s only 30 minutes to play the game had better be fun.  Watching her interact with Mario, she was more affectively interested in the game when Mario was powered-up.   At the start of level 1, Mario is small and is situated on the left side of the screen.  Mario’s fundamental goal is to move further and further to the right and eventually run into Princess Peach.  The goal is the same in nearly every Mario game, which is why it is so effective.   The power-ups are similar as well.  Every time Mario runs into a red & yellow mushroom, he gets bigger; a green and white mushroom is good for a 1up (another life); the glowing flower gives Mario the ability to shoot fire; the floating leaf gives the ability to fly.  Throughout the 20 or so years of Mario, power-ups and saving the princess have been foundational.

March 7, 2007

Kaboom!

Filed under: atari, videogames — montageman @ 4:45 am

There was always something entertaining about watching that convict migrate across the television screen; dropping bombs as he moved from left to right.  The object of the the game is simple: don’t let the bombs hit the ground.  The player controls a bucket that must catch all of the bombs.  Childly simplistic though it may be, Kaboom! is what Atari was all about – simple but addictive gameplay.  It was quite possible for anyone to pick up a controller and play most Atari games almost seamlessly. This is due to the Atari’s inviting joystick and one button controller – a very comforting piece of technology.  The idea, and many of the ads for Atari concentrate on this, was to make playing Atari a family event replacing board games and repurposing the television beyond what the VCR had done already.

March 6, 2007

Arcades & the Drift

Filed under: barthes, videogames — montageman @ 4:44 am

Going to the arcade as a kid was always a reward – all A’s on the report card, got all of my chores done on time, or mom was out for the night so dad would go for pizza and videogames as a night out.

Galaxy Family Fun Center

The logic of the arcade is not unlike that of the casino – loud noise and flashing lights emanate from the machines, which functions to give a feeling of discomfort. It is impossible to ignore the lights and sound, so rather than being bombarded by this sensual onslaught all night, you play a game. Arcades are, for the most part, public spaces. A place where people come together to compete in the arena of gaming prowess, Galaxy would always have the latest fighting game – back then it was Street Fighter 2. People would crowd around the game hoping to get a shot at the winner. Fifty cent buy in, but unlike a casino, there is no money at stake. Street Fighter supremacy is strictly a bragging right. There is a lack of pressure when playing videogames – playing a videogame is much different than playing Blackjack at a casino. Players can have fun learning to play Street Fighter, but learning to play Blackjack in a casino is a high stress job that inevitably will involve making others angry. Raph Koster: Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter (98).  While there is decidedly more pressure in a public space like an arcade, the economics of the arcade are far less stressful than those of the casino.

Additionally, if a player is not happy with his gaming experience at a particular machine, then he can move on to the next machine virtually seamlessly.  The arcade encourages the drift.  Roland Barthes defines the drift as the moment when we do not respect the whole (18).

March 5, 2007

Memories lead to Pac-Man

Filed under: memory, videogames — montageman @ 4:01 am

I’ve been trying to write for my master’s essay, but have been blocked.  My project, as it currently stands, is attempting to get at the fun aspect of gaming, which videogame theory fails to get at outside of Raph Koster’s excellent A Theory of Fun.  Even Koster’s book, though, is concerned too much with the cognitive and not enough with affect and pleasure.

I’ve been playing videogames for most of my life.  We had an Atari 2600 in the early 80s; a Nintendo in the mid 80s; a Genesis in the early 90s; a Playstation/Saturn/Nintendo 64/Dreamcast in the mid 90s; Xbox/Playstation 2/Gamecube in the late 90s; and now the Wii.  I would also frequent arcades to supplement my home console gaming.  Games have been an important part of my life, so why is it so difficult for me to step back and figure out what makes these games fun?

My first memories of games revolve around the Atari.  My dad playing Football with his cousins; playing Pac-Man with my mom; attempting to master Bomberman;  Atari games seem primitive now, but back in 1984, there was nothing better (at least for a kid with no other knowledge).  Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man was and is still a fun and addictive game.  Playing a game first requires the player to learn the game’s language and control scheme.  Early games had a simple language – the Atari controller was a joystick and a button.  Very simple, but a near replica of an arcade cabinet.     Pac Man is fun because there is no learning curve.  The game’s objective becomes clear after playing for a few moments.    Feeding Pac-Man is of the utmost importance and is the object of the game.  He is hungry, always hungry – the Pac-Man must chomp its way through 240  dots and four power pills that line his symmetrical maze while dodging (or eating, while under the influence of the power pill) his antagonists, the 4 ghosts – Pinky, Blinky, Inky, & Clyde (Weiss, 6).  The game is never ending.  There are cut scenes between levels 2 & 3 and 5 & 6, but after that the sky is the limit.  Actually, according to Twingalaxies.com: five people have achieved a “perfect score” of 3,333,360.  From Geek.com: Billy Mitchell, 33, of Fort Lauderdale scored a perfect 3,333,360 points on a Pac-Man machine in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. The perfect score is achieved by playing for six hours, through 256 levels of PacMan, eating every dot, energizer, blue ghost, and piece of fruit on every single level, without dying once. After the 256th level, the game freezes. The moment of Pac-Man freezing is, in essence, the defeat of the machine.  Instead of an ending like Mario saving Princess Toadstool, the game itself gives up.

Yet, this is not a satisfactory explanation.  Pac-Man‘s designers either consciously made 3,333,360 the perfect score or the game’s design does not go beyond level 256.  The simplicity of the game is both its genius and the source of its boredom.  Pac-Man was not made to be played for 6 hours straight.  At the height of its popularity, it would have been impolite to play for 6 hours straight.  Most of the Pac-Man machines were in arcades, which are public spaces.  The player chooses his game and pays for his time with the machine – usually anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. The player must respect others and their desire to play the same machine.  The fun of an arcade game is made to be fleeting, or conducive to drifting.

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