Category Archives: CS4067

Work for the module CS4067, Writing Games Analysis, that could not strictly be categorised under that title.

Achievement Unlocked: Ethical Game Design

As game designers, is it our responsibility when someone spends more time than they want to on a videogame?

It’s a common enough occurrence in this world of social game systems like Raptr and TrueAchievements. Someone buys a game, and straightaway fills their Twitter and Facebook feeds with their journey towards completing every single little challenge in that game.

Achievements, for the uninitiated, are meta-medals that are associated with a player’s profile across multiple games. They are earned by completing small or large challenges in the game – or at least, that is how they were designed. The best achievements record things that players might do just for fun – to see if they can. Today, the effort required to get an achievement is approaching rather silly extremes. From the ‘turn-on-the-console’ achievements, which reward you for starting the first mission or shooting your first enemy, to the achievements which require literally hundreds or thousands of hours of play. An example of the latter is the now-infamous ‘Seriously…’ achievement from the Gears of War series. Here you can see the Seriously 2.0 achievement from Gears of War 2. This achievement requires you to kill a hundred thousand enemies.

Anybody who is of an obsessive frame of mind – and some gamers certainly are – might waste incredible amounts of time trying to reach this goal, way beyond the amount of time they would spend on the game if there were no achievements. I realise that designers want to encourage players to spend more time (and sometimes more money) on their games, but achievements like this are simply gratuitous.

I play games for fun. Achievements are fun in general, and some of them can be entertaining to strive for, but the pressure of earning every single one in every single game would drive me mad. And yet some people feel that pressure. As game designers, I think we have a ethical responsibility not to enable this kind of anti-fun idea. Not that I think achievements are bad, just that there will always be players obsessive enough to spend the time earning the silly ones like Seriously…, and that we should think carefully before adding such achievements to our games.

Space Jump

When we discuss game spaces, it is usually in the context of Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’ – a space, virtual or otherwise, that we enter to give “meaning” to our play. Without the magic circle of a marked-out playing pitch, twenty-three men would look rather silly frolicking all over the grass with an oval-shaped ball.

To my mind, though, game spaces are designed to encourage particular modes of play in their occupants. The fact that they may do this by giving meaning to the play takes a back seat to this actual goal.

Grand Theft Auto (the original) placed the player in a sprawling city, with cars and guns everywhere. The game offered missions at various phone booths if the player ever felt like gaining ground in the game’s narrative, but equally these missions could be ignored. No great restrictions were placed on the player’s movements within the city, so there was plenty of exploration to be done if the player was so inclined. The game space incentivised this by placing better cars, various shops, and secret powerups in specific locations. Because the locations of most of these exploration rewards never changed, the player was encouraged to learn the layout of the city. If the player did learn the layout, they would find the missions much easier, becasuse they usually involved driving in some way.

On the other hand, if the player focused hard on the missions (an explicit ‘meaning’ to the play), and did well, they would inevitably end up finding some of the secrets themselves, as well as getting a good idea of the layout of the city. So in the end, the game manages to inspire roughly the same modes of play in players who play the game in ways which seem very different indeed.

The theme of exploration continues in my other example, the genre known as ‘Metroidvania’. Named for the two most famous examples, Metroid and Castlevania (which both started on the Nintendo Entertainment System), these games place the player in a large, sprawling area, with lots of passages and hidden doors, etc. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, though, these games do not let the player roam wherever they please. Usually, all but one or two paths are blocked by locked doors or other obstacles. These can only be bypassed by proceeding along the open paths, and backtracking later when a new power or key is obtained. Again, learning the layout of the map is encouraged, but in a less organic way – if you get a new power/key but forget the place where it is needed to progress, you can be stuck hunting in every single room for it. So you are strongly incentivised to somehow record or remember each blocked path, and why that path is blocked.

The conclusion I’m drawing is that game spaces can encourage modes of play that the developer wants to see or thinks will benefit the players.

(Incidentally, if you are a fan of Metroid, there is a chance you will enjoy this video.)

Is a game a game? Or is it a story? No etymological bias here.

This week in class, we’ve been talking about the reasons people play games. Broadly. More accurately, we’ve been talking about the reasons people say they play games. It wouldn’t be the first time people claimed to enjoy something to fit in with a crowd, right? There are two main groups in the academic view: ludologists and narratologists. (Incidentally, I have yet to see these two words in print listed the other way around.)

Ludologists are the people who play games for the- Hrm. I want to write ‘gameplay’, I want to write ‘game’, but either of those could be contested. I think it’s most accurate to say they play games to perform actions. They like performing actions, they see the interaction going from them to the game as the most important element of it. Taking a more extreme view, some of them declare that interaction to be the only important element. And all extremism has counter-extremism.

Narratologists are this foil.  They are most concerned with the story, or if there is no explicit story, with the emergent story that occurs as events unfold (i.e., the narrative). They maintain that a game is simply a new way of telling a story, so it should be judged and studied as such.

There is an oft-cited article discussing this debate on the now-defunct ludology.org, by Gonzalo Frasca. In it, he pulls together a lot of the previous academic literature on games and how they should be regarded. It is in this paper that the term ‘ludology’ is actually proposed (‘narratology’ having existed, as a study of stories, for some time).  He also covers the parallel contrast between ‘ludus’-based games, which all have a clear goal, and ‘paidea’-based games, which are better known outside academia as ‘sandbox’ games.

Ian Bogost, in a transcription of his speech at the 2009 DiGRA conference, posits that the debate is not really a debate. Narratology  was just “egging on the frail and underdeveloped hero that was game studies”, rather than trying to emerge a victor. He also says that Frasca misconstrued the origins of narratology, that it was a “structuralist approach to the study of narrative”, i.e., how stories can be separated from their telling. If you read and appreciated Gonzalo Frasca’s article referenced above, this one is a great counter-point on a lot of topics.

Bogost pointed me to another article, by Espen Aarseth, which, among other things, offers a concise summary of the topic: “One side argues that computer games are media for telling stories, while the opposig side claims that stories and games are different structures that are in effect doing opposite things.”

My own thoughts on ludology and narratology rather line up with my thoughts on that whole ‘games as art’ topic that was knocking around a while back. I’ll write a post about that soon. In brief, I don’t like it when there are only two sides to an argument. It’s not that I prefer to sit on the fence, necessarily. I often take one of those two obvious sides. But I don’t like the notion that only they exist.

I love games. Most of the people I know do. But after some serious thought on the matter, I think I lean a lot more towards ludology than narratology. I have played some games with incredible stories, and really enjoyed them, so I don’t think I could be called an extreme ludologist. On the other hand, I think a narratologist would be put off by games that don’t have good stories, and I never have been. I can get extremely lost in the flashing lights and explosive noise of a bullet-hell shoot-’em-up, or the long periods of wariness with moments of intense action that mark first-person-shooters like Call of Duty* and Halo. I play League of Legends a lot, too, and the only storytelling in that game requires the player to go looking for boxes of text in the menus. Without going into detail on game mechanics, it’s a game completely built around retaining silly amounts of information, and performing tiny actions over and over again with even tinier changes, based on context. The only stimulation comes from the feedback players’ actions have on each other. The play arena is the same every time. Specific events happen at scheduled points. And yet I am confident I have never put more hours into a game. The players bring something to it that I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. I suppose it’s enough to say that they bring themselves. Just by their presence in the game world, they make playing more fun than any AI ever has for me. I don’t know if this identifies me as a slightly different type of player, or not. Perhaps I’ll go into detail in a later post.

A friend, who identified himself as ‘A Mass Effect Player’, had this to say: “Story is what makes you continue the level…the gameplay mechanics are just there to aid the story.” I offered the parallel comparison to books – what keeps you reading the book is the plot, not turning the pages. But games are not books. If I’m not enjoying myself on my journey through this story, I’m probably going to stop playing. If the ‘page-turning’, to continue with that metaphor, doesn’t interest me in and of itself, I usually don’t stick around for the story.
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* I think the fact that I genuinely enjoy this game is pretty good evidence for my identifying more with ludology. It does get quite the bashing online, for many reasons. I just get into multiplayer and have a blast, as it were.

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