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

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