Montageman: A dude who writes

March 4, 2008

Rock Band

Filed under: affect, play, videogames — Tags: , , , , , — montageman @ 2:17 am

I was given an Xbox 360 as a birthday present this year.  A wonderful gift, indeed, made even better because one of my brothers has let me borrow his copy of Rock Band with all of the accompanying instruments.  Essentially, Rock Band takes the Guitar Hero model of rhythm gaming further and adds drums and vocals.   What is great about these games (along with Dance Dance Revolution and the like) is there is an endless replay factor.  Even after you’ve scored 100% on a particular song, you can jump online and compete against an unlimited and ever growing number of players.  Furthermore, the game play of Rock Band does not require learning the Xbox controller scheme rather you must learn the guitar/drum/microphone scheme, which may be easier for those not familiar with controllers.  Similar to the Wii model of using the controller as a point of action, the player is actually doing the actions on screen.   Much different from games like Grand Theft Auto or Madden NFL 2008 where the player is using buttons to stand in for actions i.e. the A button shoots a gun or throws the football, Rock Band players are banging the drums, singing into the microphone, and strumming a guitar.  Thus engagement with the gamer is taken to a new level beyond the controller as representation – the A button is no longer the trigger.  Drum sticks are necessary to play Rock Band.   The importance of physical engagement in rhythm games complicates the relationship of the player to the controller and the game.

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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 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 2, 2007

Attachment & Gaming

Filed under: affect, games — montageman @ 4:24 am

Going through Half-Real again, there is a moment that must be refuted here. Juul states,

The emotional attachment of the player to the outcome is a psychological feature of the game activity. A player may feel genuinely happy if he wins, and unhappy if he loses. Curiously, this not just related to player effort: a player may still feel happy when winning a game of pure chance. As such, attachment of the player to the outcome is a less formal category than the previous ones in that it depends on the player’s attitude toward the game. The spoilsport is one who refuses to seek enjoyment in winning, or refuses to become unhappy by losing (40).

Juul is grossly understating the importance of affect in the gaming experience. The attempt here is to define emotional attachment, but all that is defined is winning versus losing. Attachment to the outcome is but one type of attachment in videogames. However, attachment is not my concern here. Instead, my issue is with the reductionist view that enjoyment is derived strictly by winning or losing.

Videogame theory seems to always assume that players are competent at playing. Rules are quickly learned, controls are figured out, and the game is played in a seemingly fluid and effortless fashion. Hence, the notion of playing a videogame seems like a quaint & mindless way to spend leisure time. Becoming competent is work and for there to be a desire to work during free time, there must be interest. In Shame and its Sisters, Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank take on Silvan Tomkins’ affect theory and attempt work notions of affect into critical theory. Interest, they claim, is a positive affect that has a function of engaging the player in what is necessary and in what is possible for him to be interested in (76). In order for interaction to occur with an object (in this case the game), the player must be initially interested. However, the game must provide material (i.e. storyline, graphics, controls) that maintains the interest of the player.

Destroy All Humans (THQ, 2005) is interesting from the beginning – even its title is interesting. The box art (pictured right) looks different. Instead of the usual human saves the world game, the player’s objective here is to take on the role of the alien and destroy all humans. Similar to movie posters, the box art for videogames is the first affective connection (interest) the buyer – the player is at first a buyer (or renter), so the what is being purchased is the game as commodity.

Destroy All Humans offers players an opportunity to be the alien in an effort to take over the earth – a simple retooling of the invasion narrative made popular by countless popular culture like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.   This game is essentially a novelty game. Level design, controls, character mapping is no different than any other 3rd person shooter.  However, the games works with regard to pleasure, however fleeting, because it can be fun to take on the role of an other.

 

 

February 12, 2007

On GAM3R 7H3ORY (part 1)

Filed under: affect, boredom — montageman @ 6:39 pm

McKenzie Wark’s brilliant GAM3R 7H3ORY is a critique on gaming unlike anything I’ve seen.  The section on boredom is especially intriguing.  I think that there is something incredibly interesting going on here (in the boredom section).  The idea that surplus (of time, of money, of space) is essential for survival.  Moreover, conscious choices are made to fill that surplus of time with videogames, movies, books, the web, etc.  Oddly, we become bored with these escapes as well.  Prior to the boredom, however, there is genuine interest.  An interest that is always waning.  One minute we love to play, the next we despise it, but twenty minutes later we love it again.  The continuum of interest is touchy indeed.

February 4, 2007

Manhunt and Risk

Filed under: affect, play, videogames — montageman @ 6:07 am

Brian Sutton-Smith referencing J.P. Jones makes the following claim:

A rationalist theory of intrinsic motivation is the view that gambling is one of the few ways of risking something of personal value without the severely negative consequences that occur when you take real risks physically, emotionally, or socially. This is what makes it a play form, it is said, the fact that one can indeed take risks without disastrous consequences (71).

Going back to Manhunt, it could be said that satisfaction is derived from killing because we can get away with it. The risk of being killed is overshadowed by the pleasure of seeing our avatar kill his enemies. We’re willing to risk the life of our avatar – something we couldn’t do in any “real life” situation. The consequences are not worrisome because we can save our progress & start back at the last save point – totally resurrected & ready to go again.

February 3, 2007

More Manhunt

Filed under: affect, videogames — montageman @ 9:53 pm

Playing Manhunt last night, I found myself no longer concerned with the narrative progression of the story. Instead (and I don’t know what this says about me), I found myself wanting to kill people. When a character is killed, the camera moves from the avatars back to the front and shows a fetishistic view of your avatar killing. “The Director,” a disembodied voice, tells you to kill these characters, but the player is not clear who or why he is killing. The kill and the view of the kill depends on what weapon is being carried – at this point, the choices have been a glass shard or a plastic bag. A piece of glass is jutted into the jugular. The plastic bag is used as a suffocation device (below). Either way, pleasure is gained from watching the act.

The cutaway video of the kill is not the only way to see a kill in Manhunt. In order to see the cutaway video, the player must sneak up on his foe and hit the ‘X’ or square button at the right moment. If timing is off, then I must kill by striking my enemy multiple times with the chance that he can fight back. The Manhunt‘s pleasure in killing is highest when there is no chance of prey fighting back. The only time this happens is when the game cuts away, thus the most pleasurable moments of killing are not interactive. The player watches the suffocation. The affective cue then is the cut or the game’s use of editing as a formal structure.

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