Montageman: A dude who writes

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 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 26, 2007

Wark on Boredom

Filed under: boredom, games — montageman @ 1:49 pm

Boredom is the ambivalent gift of the surplus. Boredom arises out of
the absence of necessity, of a yes, a no, a straight line. Boredom
demands new necessities, and if not granted them – produces its own (Wark 155).

The very action of overcoming boredom reproduces it, when gamer and game reach some impasse (Wark 166).

Just as the military industrial complex once forced the free rhythms of
labor into the measured beat of work, so now its successors oblige the
free rhythms of play to become productive (Wark 172).


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February 19, 2007

A Theory of Fun

Filed under: controllers, games, koster — montageman @ 4:02 am

A Theory of Fun is an excellent analysis of the current (& possible future) of videogames. Koster uses the book as opportunity to not only view games through the lens of a designer, but also through the lens of a player and lover of games. In the final chapter, Koster lays down the following the claim, “Games have the capability to sit on the shelf next to all other communications media. They are capable of art. They are capable of portraying the human condition. They are teaching tools. They carry socially redeeming content. They elicit emotion,” (184). Koster yearns for a moment when games are no longer viewed as violent & mindless. Videogames should be used as teaching devices, Koster says games need to illuminate aspects of ourselves that we do not understand fully (186). This is the intention of art. Currently, videogames are stuck in a rut, however. As Koster sees it, there is very little in the way of gray thinking – too much is based on decisions that are either right or wrong. We are all familiar with games that punish us for making the wrong choice. For example, running into a goomba in Super Mario Bros. will cause Mario to die & start the level over, but jumping on the goomba will allow Mario to progress further & continue his quest to save the Princess. Punishment, then, is short lived, but it is the punishment that leads to feelings of inadequacy which in turn lead to the feeling of boredom. If a player cannot figure out in a relatively easy fashion how to progress, then frustration ensues. Conversely, if a game is too easy, boredom will rear its ugly head again.

The problems Koster deals with here are fundamentally cognitive in nature. He talks mostly puzzles and their subsequent effects on the gamer. He also speaks, in an overarching fashion, about the current state of games and how a change is needed. Two things he never mentions explicitly, however, are the controller and affect. He talks about fun & control, but never the underlying affective implications of either. Current videogame theory (for the most part) fails in its discussion of the controller. It appears that this physical aspect of the gaming experience is taken as a given. However, without the controller there is no physical and emotional connector from the player to the game.

I recently played a flight simulator game at an arcade. Before I describe the gaming experience, it should be noted that the arcade has changed. Essentially, arcades have fallen to the wayside in favor of entertainment complexes – huge places that have a multitude of activities to take part in, full service restaurants, and sports on big screen televisions. The experience is not unlike walking into a casino, the feeling of having your senses bombarded from all directions.  While this is a very public space, the majority of games are of a solo nature.  Even competitive games require the players to look at separate screens or take separate turns.

Arcade games are unique in that they have to offer players something that home consoles cannot.  Console games have better graphics & are mocap boxingusually played in a less public space – a basement, bedroom, computer lab, really spaces that are still public, but within the confines of a home.  Many of the games use motion capture technology to bring players a full body experience.  For example, Mocap Boxing (pictured left) situates the player as an up and coming boxer who must work his way through the ranks to win the championship.  The game is essentially a 1st person fighter with boxing gloves (Koster claims that most games are fundamentally the same in terms of mechanics only the dressing is different).  Before the Nintendo Wii was released, these games that required the player’s entire body were a reason to go to an arcade.  The Wii has repurposed motion capture for at home use, so now games like Mocap Boxing seem dated.

However, some games still maintain a level of novelty.  18 Wheeler (pictured right) requires players to man a big rig and make a delivery within a certain amount of time.  The logic of the arcade is that of the drift.  Barthes tells us that the drift refers to not respecting the whole.  In an arcade setting, it becomes nearly impossible to finish a game (i.e. “beat the game,” or play to the game’s end).  Instead, it is assumed players will drift from game to game finding pleasure in the novelty rather that the overall substance of the game.  This is precisely the reason I sat down to play the flight simulator.  I had no intention of completing the 3 missions, but I was drawn in by the desire to fly a jet fighter, if only in the context of a videogame.

February 17, 2007

Some Koster

Filed under: games, koster — montageman @ 9:53 pm

Since games are generally about power, control, and those other primitive things, the stories tend to be so as well. This means they tend to be power fantasies. That’s generally considered to be a pretty juvenile sort of story (86).

Aesthetics are about recognizing patterns, not learning new ones. Delight strikes when we recognize patterns but are surprised by them. Delight doesn’t last – it’s fleeting. Recognition is not an extended process (94).

Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter (98).

Games do not permit progress. Games do not permit innovation. They present a pattern. Innovating out of pattern is by definition outside of the magic circle [Huizinga]. You don’t get to change the physics of a game (116).

The destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun (118).

A given gender presentation is a solution choice – a tool the player is using to solve problems presented by the online setting (132).

All media exert influence on their audiences.  But it is almost always the core of the medium that exerts the most influence because the rest is dressing (170).

January 31, 2007

Fun & Games

Filed under: affect, games, play, videogames — montageman @ 4:58 am

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga stakes the claim children and animals play because they enjoy playing, and therein lies their freedom (8). Children become bored with videogames quickly because of the rules of the game. Videogames cannot offer the illusion of freedom because their very nature is hinged upon the rules set in place by its creator/designer. Jesper Juul sees rules as specifying limitations and affordances. They prohibit players from performing actions such as making jewelry out of dice, but they also add meaning to the allowed actions and this affords players meaningful actions that were not otherwise available; rules give games structure (58). In order for a game to function as a game, the ludic foundations must be in place, but the game must be played by willing participants. Huizinga: play is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty (8).

In order to play a videogame then, there must be some interest. This brings us back to Tomkins. As one of the primary affects, interest needs to be activated but not become overly aroused and be capable of sustaining until the activity ends. For videogames, interest begins at this point:

We play the games because they look fun. There is some preconceived notion of what fun is and how a videogame will help in having fun. Juul’s book does not ever explain why people want to be subjected to the relatively closed system of videogames. The rules are restrictive, even in the most open-ended of games. D.B. Weiss imagines a videogame world where players are wandering, picking up items, but never having any true objective. Once Stage III is reached, the player can stay as long as he would like but with no purpose beyond being there (Lucky Wander Boy, 204). The idea of reaching a stage in a game with no real purpose is absurd because the game needs to be a finite system, at least until the sequel is released. And herein lies the quandry, if play is freedom, but games necessitate rules – how are games fun?

January 19, 2007

McLuhan on Games

Filed under: games, mcluhan, play — montageman @ 5:01 am

A few lines from Understanding Media (2nd Edition) that I will return to in the next couple of nights.

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 (208).

Games are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions (209).

What disqualifies war from being a true game is the rules are not fully known nor accepted by all the players (212).

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