Sunday, January 25, 2009

I was surprised and mawkishly heartbroken

I've relaxed these last few days by playing Rock Band 2 with my wife, in preparation for a Rock Band Party next weekend. This is a portentous occasion, and must be treated with deadly seriousness. Far be it from me to let the beat.. umm.. drop?

(Though it's perfectly acceptable to turn the beat around. Go figure.)

In the face of such crippling responsibility, only one thing will do: I have to get my groove back.

And in the middle of brushing up on my drums, with Colleen rocking vox, I was struck by a THOUGHT of striking resonance and clarity. After a moment, I realized it wasn't one of mine - that, in fact, it was a QUOTE. From a BOOK.

The book is Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, and the quote is thus:

"Dr. Breed was interrupted by whispers in his outer office, whispers loud and portentous. They were the sounds of the Girl Pool.

The girls were preparing to sing in the outer office.

And they did sing, as Dr. Breed and I appeared in the doorway. Each of about a hundred girls had made herself into a choirgirl by putting on a collar of white bond paper, secured by a paper clip. They sang beautifully.

I was surprised and mawkishly heartbroken. I am always moved by that seldom-used treasure, the sweetness with which most girls can sing."

- Rook

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Three: Turtles in Time

In my last two posts, I looked at two factors that affect performances of violence in game-space: mediation and signification. In terms of the latter, I looked at the degree in which acts could be signified as violent or otherwise, and how these significations affected play experience. In case of the former, I looked at how the degree to which play was controlled, in terms of what a player could and could not do.

So now we have two major forces at work, shaping how violence is portrayed in video games. I think we all know what I have to do now.


This graph is funner than a skin graph, but less delicious than a pie graph.

I made this graph using the most cutting-edge software available to me: The paint program that comes with every computer. You might want to click on it to make it big, instead of "undersized the point of Clown Car hilarity."

Here are twenty games, plotted in relation to the degree in which their acts of violence are signified, and the degree in which these spaces are mediated. In placing these games along these two variables, a number of considerations were made regarding what constitutes highly signified violence, and how mediation should be understood in this context. After placing these games, a number of things stuck out:

1) The games that exhibited the highest signification of violence did so through very different means.

Fallout scans so highly because, in terms of representation and play factor, pains were taken to represent a space in which violent acts are real, and have consequences on a game-world. If you breeze into town and blow everyone away, it'll be a ghost town for the remainder of the game. There's no respawn, and no 'reset switch'.

State of Emergency, as a riot simulator, places graphic violence as chief thematic element and central play element: It makes even Grand Theft Auto seem restrained in comparison.

Finally, Super Columbine incorporates footage of actual event to distinguish their game as tied to the actual fact of violence, rather than something divorced from reality.

2) Though genres tensed to shake out along the horizontal axis, with puzzle and free-roam games tending left and more mediated play experiences like platformers and role-playing games tending right, a number of influences could cause a game to shift both in terms of mediation and signification.

When the Final Fantasy series, a highly mediated play experiences that contains moderately signified acts of violence (other figures are 'killed', within context, but this killing is not graphic or thematized') produced a "Tactics" spin-off, it significantly introduced a feature in which injured party members could 'die' permanently if not tended to on the battlefield. The result is a game where the constant RPG 'killing' is given consideration and resonance, bolstered as well by a darker, Machiavellian narrative of court intrigue.

Once in a public washroom I saw written "Machiavelli was naive."
Underneath it, someone else wrote "SO WAS YOUR MOM."

We can see a game like World of Warcraft make a similar shift in both mediation and signification when play moves from a player-versus-player to a player-versus-environment game setting. With the former allowing players greater opportunity to attack and hinder unwilling players in the vast no-man's land of contested territory, gameplay is both less mediated, and has a stronger signification of violence. Implementing one change, albeit a major one, can shift a game along both axes.

3) In most cases, the games that graphed lowest in terms of signified violence avoid such signification through abstraction, instruction of non-violent game mechanics. In the case of Puzzle Pirates, the ostensibly violent acts of attacking and plundering another shop on the high seas are reflected through simple and cheery mini-games. Abstraction plays a major part in the innocuousness of a game like SimCity, one in which you can level entire metropolises through fire, wind, earth and water.

In this scenario, the final element of 'heart' is replaced by 'monster'.

In a strictly denotative sense, these are acts of massacre, to rival the bombings of Hiroshima or Dresden. But because these acts are abstracted to the point of inoffensiveness, because you can 'hit a button' and restore your shattered burgs, because it is fundamentally a game thematically concerned with building, rather than destroying, these acts carry all of the freight of a someone knocking over a pile of blocks.

By plotting franchises, rather than individual games, there is of course room for imprecision. The recently-released Fallout 3 would scan slightly to the right than previous entries, and lower down, due to the game-designers decision to omit the ability to kill children, a move that has, incredibly, earned them some criticism.

On the other hand, the top-down, splat-cartoon vantage and tone of Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2 would scan a good deal lower, in that its homicidal bent is treated both at a distance, and with a dose of irreverent humour.

Finally, user-generated content like suicide booths and grave plots in games like Second Life offer a chance to inch both higher and further left, though these additions currently are purely cosmetic propositions.

In a week, I'll conclude with an examination of games that vary wildly in terms of mediation and signification of violence, including a few that attempt to subvert the long-established tropes of violence-as-progress and the function of conflict in game-space.

And then it'll be right back to the dick jokes and oatmeal recipes, I promise.

- Rook

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


All right. I thought I could stop at one, but I have to get these out of my system.

"Anal fixation?" Up yours!

"Oedipal Complex?" Your mother!

"Phallocentric?" Dick.

I call them LOLFreuds, and they're going to be the NEXT BIG THING ON THE INTERNET.

- Rook

Signifying Violence, Part Deux: Lost in New York

Why, if we've dispatched millions of goombas and koopa troopas in our gaming lifetimes, do some symbolic acts of violence come to matter, and others come to be dismissed?

In part, there is the matter of signification. In most early video games, death and violence serve as handy referents to the act of playing and progressing, but contain none of the symbolic weight of the actual acts. The earliest model of this is found in arcades, where 'lives' referred directly to play-time and performance: In playing against the clock, and your own dime, the notion of the "free man" evolves directly from Pinball's "free play": the literal notion of a free bit of playtime.

When games moves from arcades to consoles the system of "points" quickly went from being a chief arbiter of performance to a vestigial limb of earlier media, but the notion of playtime as finite and operating within a window of opportunity remained. Death in this context is a soft reset, a do-over: Fall a thousand feet onto rows upon rows of jagged spikes? Yikes. Well, just don't do it again.

Similarly, when you "kill" a sprite, it flickers for a moment, and disappears. Not disappears in a "Your soul will be dead before your body: fear nothing further", Nietzsche-type-deal. It's a time-out: according to the rules of the game, it's gone for a little while. Die and start over, and everything's back to status quo.

It's only when the signification of death and dying are brought to the fore that this transaction comes to have any type of moral weight. To suggest that all you are doing in Mario is "killing things" isn't just disingenuous, it's downright Froot Loops.

Pictured at down-right: Froot Loops

This isn't to say that the signification of violence and death are possible in a game-space where respawns and points-for-killing are the norm, only that an environment like this functions as a kind of null-space: You get what you give: Consider a game like Stainless Games' Carmageddon, a proto-GTA sandbox racer where the way you generate points is by hitting people with your car. Here is a game boating "motorized carnage", where the very goal of the game is to slaughter people. Here, people don't flicker and disappear when killed: They explode like blood sausages in a microwave.

As a caveat, blood sausage is actually quite delicious.

Though made in 1997, and boasting the graphical wizardry of the mesozoic, we have here a game capable of inciting widspread revulsion, to the point of moral rejection: For some time, the game as ported to countries like Germany changed the 'people' sprites to zombies, thus hammering home this basic pillar of ethics: It's okay to kill everyone, so long as they're already dead.

Of course, in either case, no act of violence is actually being committed: It's a matter of whether violence is being signified, or not. And it's here that we encounter the moralistic questions raised by individual playership: Do I want to be playing a game where you can kill people? Where you must? Which has the greater capability to offend: The game that insists we do something that offends our morals, or the game that simply offers it an option within a spectrum of action? Next week I hope to look at games that are conscious of this type of signification, and attempt to put it to use in one form or another.

- Rook

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Player 2 has joined the game

So I spent the Christmas holiday playing video games. I mean the whole thing, one straight week of nonstop gaming.
I was back in my hometown with my friends of yore, we had two TVs and two Xboxs and were prepared to beat the following games or die trying: Gears of War 2 Co-Op Campaign, Gears of War 2 Horde Mode, All 4 Scenarios in Left 4 Dead, and Castle Crashers.

Needless to say we did it, we beat them all. But where did we get the energy to keep going? The resolve to believe it could be done? Let's call it 'Multiplayer Magic'

I've always found that a multiplayer game is better than a single player one, heck, the single player game can be complete shite and still the co-op is amazing, it's that sense of camraderie and the certain knowledge that someone else is having the same amount of fun as you, and they've got your back.

Of course there's always versus multiplayer, but sometimes that can be the most fun of all. Every night of that game-a-thon week, after the dust settled on whatever epic game we had been playing and it was time to shut the system off and catch some Z's we would look at each other and nod and one of us would say "call Nick"

Shortly after Nick would be downstairs, controller in hand at 2 in the morning and Bomberman HD would be on the screen with bombs and expletives flying everywhere until 6 or 7 in the morning. By the way, have you ever played multiplayer Pac-Man, where 3 players control ghosts with limited vision on gameboys? DO IT.

It comes down to complexity I think. All games have a certain level of complexity and you move through the games environment interacting with whatever complexities those may be. Once you figure it out it's all the same. Toss another living breathing thinking human into the mix and suddenly things become interesting.

It's like that quintessential movie scene where the hero and his sidekick are suddenly ambushed by enemies and separated, running in opposite directions from the explosions the hero looks back to see his sidekick overwhelmed by the bad guys before continuing his mission. He disarms the bomb and turns to leave only to find himself staring down the barrel of the enemy commanders gun. BANG! moments pass and the bad guy slumps down to reveal the sidekick, who made it after all, just saved you. That's co-op gaming.

So, why is multiplayer more fun? When you consider that just about every non-video game is a social activity and that people have been playing games for thousands of years then you start to realize that maybe the social aspect, the shared experience, is the heart of gaming and it's soul.

As technology and understanding of video games, which is a relatively new thing, advances we've begun to see more and more refined gaming but his isn't new. Looking to board games as an example, would you rather play 'Monopoly' or 'Settlers of Catan'? 'Sorry' or 'Munchkin'? 'Hungry, Hungry Hippos' or...well the Triple H stands alone. Yet, my point remains, video games are only going to get better and, therefore, so shall our enjoyment of them.

What about Artifical Intelligence you ask?. Besides being the subject of many an Aasimov tale, A.I. is what makes single player games work. But it's based on a series of controls and responses. Chess is a pretty basic game and so, at it's most basic level you can compare just about any other game to it 'The way pieces move' is the function of the game, you ultimately don't play against your opponents pieces, you play against the opponent. The gameplay is simply the other persons input, and everyone will generally play it differently. When you switch out another person for a chess A.I. things change dramatically, as the A.I. is only capable of working in terms of pre-programmed move sets, probabilities and basic reactions.

I wanted to talk about how MMO's and "four dudes on a couch" compare but I think I bounced around topics enough this week, so you'll get that on Tuesday maybe.

Until next time, remember that not all A.I. is evil.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part 1: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomberman

In Zork, one of the original text based games, many short commands would produce numerous replies - a type of conversational easter egg that acknowledged how frustrating navigating this type of space could be.

If, in a fit of pique, the player typed "Kill Self" they game would reply: "It is forbidden to commit seppuku." At once acknowledging the action and dismissing it, it framed the question of action in games as a matter of mediation. What one could or couldn't do isnot 'forbidden' by social customs, but by the game itself. The game space may be malleable, but the player is indestructible.

Other games of the time were also toying with the boundaries of what you could and couldn't kill. At the end of Taito's Double Dragon, after all the enemies have been vanquished, both players must fight each other to determine who ends up saving the captured ladyfriend. In a final twist, co-op becomes versus, and the player you've been playing beside for hours suddenly becomes one more thug to smack down.

Another early game where it is definitely not "forbidden to commit seppuku" is Hudson Soft's Bomberman, a game wherein one plays a bomberman, whose job it is to bomb other mans with bombs. Much of the game is spent ducking around corners to hide from bombs you've laid, as nothing distinguishes your enemies' bombs from your own. By the time you're in the thick of things, there exists no real boundary between you or your opponents actions: The only question you ask yourself is whether any given nook will, or won't be blown to smithereerns.

In these cases, the general rule that these games will protect you from yourselves is broken, whether by allowing counterproductive play choices, changing the rules of how players interact, or not differentiating a player's attacks from an opponent's. Ultimately the "video" part of video games relates to mediation: How much, or how little, one can do within the parameters of a program.

But the moment that interactivity is expanded to a point that includes changing the way that one negotiates a game-space (through bad decisions, or altered rules) suddenly you enter into an ambivalent realm, where a host of questions apply: What happens when it's not men, but children and prostitutes, than you can kill? At what point is it a moral decision, and upon whose behalf is good behavior enforced?

On Thursday I'll be looking at some later games in which interactivity (in terms of what you can, or cannot do) applies directly to the gaming experience, and tackle some of the questions that are raised.

- Rook