Category Archives: Games Analysis
Analysis of any aspect of games, in any context.
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.
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.)
First, can we define anything as art? Art is an increasingly difficult thing to pin down. Once upon a time, art was simply folly: something made without a real purpose. As humanity has advanced, luxuries have become more and more prevalent, until now. Only a very small subset of things we own are strictly necessary for life.
Art has grown in parallel with this trend. Where once owning a Piece Of Art was a sign of status, now we all of us own hundreds or perhaps more things that could be called art. Every music album, every photograph, every film…and, perhaps, every videogame.
I’ll be talking about games as art with reference to Gaut’s “properties of a work of art” (Gaut, 2000: 28).
(1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant (properties which ground a capacity to give sensuous pleasure)
There are many games with impressive graphics out there. As a student of games development, I often look at such games and marvel at the number of polygons and the detailed textures. But some games are beautiful, graceful, and elegant. They make me forget what I know about their inner workings. Wind Waker is the example that immediately springs to mind. A game so lovingly put together that I found myself deliberately bumping into walls just to see the pretty effects, hear the ‘dsh’ sound and watch the protagonist get up and dust himself off.
(2) being expressive of emotion
Some games certainly do express emotion. Characters and their stories, if done right, can communicate a feeling just as a film or book would. But what about the emotions that games inspire? Not explicitly engineering them (’emotioneering’ – what a great word) but inciting rage in the player who can’t quite catch an enemy, bursts of excitement in the player who dodges a fast-moving lorry, and pangs of glee in the player who emerges from a cave and sees the huge open world for the first time. That is one of the great things that games bring to the table of art.
(3) being intellectually challenging (i.e., questioning received views and modes of thought)
I think this can be a negative as well as a positive feature of games, but it’s definitely there. Negative examples would be when a player thinks a trigger-shaped button fires their in-game gun, but in fact a regular button is mapped to that function. The player has to ignore their instinct – to pull the trigger – and use the button to fire. That’s a simplistic example, but it exists. Positively, many games grant players powers they do not have in real life. In Minecraft, most of the mechanics at least try to approximate the real world, but the first time I realised I could double-tap Space to fly, I was reminded that games truly can do whatever we can imagine.
(4) being formally complex and coherent
I would go so far as to say that games are more formally complex and coherent than several other kinds of art. Even the most basic game must have a degree of underlying complexity – what the player sees is always much simpler than what the developer wrote. As for being coherent, if a game is to be played it must have a certain level of coherence – for example, when the player picks up a particular item it should always do the same thing, unless there is a good reason.
(5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings
Games are often allegorical – they give the player one experience, in order to show the player the essence of another. A while ago my friend Gerry wrote about a game called Dys4ia, a simple Flash game with a very complex message. Dys4ia is a small suite of minigames, similar to WarioWorld, that give the player a sense of the experiences the game developer had in her transition from man to woman. Simple things like trying to manipulate a shape into a gap that won’t accommodate it represent this woman’s adjustment to her new situation.
(6) exhibiting an individual point of view
Although some games present a story (or multiple stories) from different points of view, the majority of games I have played are based around one character or a tightly-knit group, presenting everything from their point of view throughout the game. I think games do this more than other story-telling media, because the player must identify on some level with the characters they are playing.
(7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original)
It’s often said that no game is completely original, but this is also true of art in general. Originality is not easy to come by, with such a rich history behind us. Is it original to draw a landscape of rolling hills and dales? Not particularly, but people still make valid art doing so. I think it’s more important that games can be original in execution than concept. There have been countless shoot-’em-up games over the forty years of gaming, but titles like Geometry Wars and Ikaruga bring something new and that can be appreciated independently of their genre. Genres themselves detract from originality – ‘just another <genre> game’ – but at the same time, it helps people to have a frame of reference for the game, and allow people to easily find the original, interesting elements.
(8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill
Making games isn’t easy. Making bad games is possible, of course, but even a game that nobody likes can be the product of considerable time for talented people. Modern ‘triple-A’ titles like Halo and Legend of Zelda occupy large numbers of designers, developers, and artists for a couple of years before emerging to the market.
(9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.)
This is the most problematic of the ten properties. It’s disingenuous to use art to define art. A hundred years ago, this list would not have included film, even though film was extant as a medium. Graphic novels were still looked down on snootily as recently as ten years ago – even now, some people do not consider them art. This is just another case of people resisting change and fearing the new. Soon people will be saying ‘of course games are art!’. I have every confidence in this. It’s just a matter of time.
(10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art.
I don’t really agree with this, either. Games need not have been intended to be some lofty work of art to be breathtaking, aesthetically beautiful, and technically impressive. And these very qualities mark it as art, by this cluster theory.
If I were to summarise my opinion, it is this: any definition of art (that fits all currently accepted art media) will fit games as a medium, as well. As such, you may consider and criticise a given game as art if you like. I have given this quite a bit of thought, and cannot produce any definitions of art that would exclude games. However, I reserve the right not to treat a game as art. When we cross the line of treating something as art, we open ourselves up to a lot of negative thinking. Video game criticism is already an incredibly harsh world. How much harsher would it be were it suddenly the domain of traditional art critics?
Modern ‘war games’ fall across multiple genres, from turn-based strategy to intense first-person-shooter. Here are a few examples:
– Civilization V: Build an empire and command armies in this turn-based strategy game. Each turn you can move and manage units, found new cities, and attack other civilisations to expand your area of control. Very far removed from the action of war, but most games involve a lot of battles. Turns can take as long as the player needs.
– StarCraft II: The most competitive real-time-strategy game in the world at the moment. Players start off in opposite corners of a large map, with no vision of each other. They must micromanage resources and individual units very quickly to eliminate their opponent’s units first.
– Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: The latest instalment of the wildly popular Call of Duty series
Call of Duty games are interesting in that they only and explicitly reward violence. In the other games mentioned here, war is still going on, but for example in StarCraft, you need to manage your resources well to win. In Civilization, there are rewards for various diplomatic or trading successes – you don’t have to solve every problem by attacking.
Call of Duty was originally a PC game, but later instalments have been converging heavily on the console market (with interfaces to reflect this), because the console players are a better market for this kind of game now. StarCraft and Civilization have always been PC/Mac only games. Most management/real-time-strategy games, of which there is a large subset that could be called war games, work better with the mouse/keyboard interface. First-person-shooters can work well with this, too, but they have also traditionally worked well on consoles, and that is a rich market for people who can’t be bothered installing graphics drivers.
In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the writers attempt to imagine how war will look in the next ten years. The usual hyper-violence is interspersed with scripted cutscenes telling a Tom Clancy-esque story of political terrorism and dodgy military practices. Most of the game time is spent in online multiplayer modes, as this story isn’t actually very long. The multiplayer modes range from free-for-all deathmatches to point capture. Civilization has mostly emergent stories, stemming from what you, as the commander of the civilisation, do. StarCraft’s story happens mostly in the background. Even more than Call of Duty, this game is played for the online component, which is entirely based on player-versus-player battles.
War Game Culture:
War games have a tendency to desensitise players to situations or events that would be disturbing to someone who does not play them. This can come across in the lexicon of players: ‘I killed him! Woohoo!’ or simply in the comfort and ease with which the average player can sit down to play through a mission which requires the killing of thirty or a hundred virtual people. And this is only at a micro level (first-person-shooters). At a macro level, games like Civilization can involve decimating entire armies with one click of a button, sometimes even the player’s own armies if they miscalculate the odds. It’s interesting to think that being told you have had a hand in thousands of deaths, by a game, might not be at all distressing to the player on a moral level.
America’s Army is a game developed by the American military to engage players in army-like situations through their computers, and allow them a glimpse of what army life might be like. Its site claims it offers ‘the most authentic military experience available’. On the other hand, to me it seems like advertising at best (which might be acceptable), and propaganda at worst (which of course is not). As much as I have enjoyed Call of Duty and similar games in the past, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the military publishing their own version of what war is like. It feels too easy for them to twist what they show to players, who may be as young as twelve, according to the ESRB Teen rating.
What wars are being fought in videogames?
Videogames used to be quite removed from reality. Even if the wars depicted were ‘realistic’, the limitations of hardware and (sometimes) censorship kept the game mechanics simple enough to be far removed from anything that really happened. For example, in Chopper Command for the Atari 2600, the helicopter you control engages fighter jets at its own altitude, which I don’t think is realistic. It can blow up other helicopters and these jets in one shot, and it seems to be firing laser beams, even though it was a modern setting in the desert.
Now, though, games like ARMA II are making war as realistic as can be reasonably imagined. Large-scale battles happen around the player, instead of the player being the only one having an effect on the scenario. Food, drink, fatigue, and many other things are factors. If you get hit by a bullet, you will probably die. No gun is guaranteed to hit.
Future war games:
I think we will see a split soon between war games that are realistic to a fault, like ARMA, and more arcadey first-person-shooters coming from the current Call of Duty games. Similar to the way all racing games used to be billed as simulations, but now there are simulation games and arcadey games, I think the next few years will see serious ‘war simulation’ games that are played by serious people who want to do everything correctly and know exactly how it works.
One of the big questions on the topic of games and learning is this: why do we find it more difficult to engage with a deliberately educational game than with a regular game? Theoretically, they should be very similar. I consider the main difference to be that educational games try to impart knowledge useful outside of the game, and regular games do not.
First, let’s look at the assumption: that we find it more difficult to engage with (i.e., enjoy and learn from) an educational game than a regular game. I’m afraid my evidence is going to be mostly anecdotal here. I played quite a few educational games in my younger days. I put good time into some of them, too. But I don’t think they made me any smarter. On the contrary, I resented the learning/teaching parts, because no matter how small and streamlined they were, the fact was they were preventing me from playing the game I wanted.
Most educational games I’ve come across have middling gameplay structured around the idea of making the player more familiar with a concept, or more skilled at a particular thing (like simple arithmetic). Most of the time, they involve sections of play similar to a regular game, with progress dependent on showing some knowledge or competence with the subject matter. This can be integrated with the gameplay, or in the form of a ‘gate’, where the player must perform an action at the end of the level/section to get to the next. Both ways have their problems. If the learning is integrated with the gameplay, it can make the gameplay seem insincere – as though it’s not about fun at all. If done well, though, this is the better option. Examples would be the Professor Layton games on Nintendo DS.
Learning only enforced at certain points – ‘gates’ – in order to progress, can be very annoying. The player completes the section’s actual gameplay, and then must come down from this high of achievement to do a mathematical equation or similar. It breaks the flow of the game considerably, and is more likely to make the player stop playing, or even give up on educational games. I had such an experience, with a submarine game that attempted to make me better at simple maths. I can’t find it now, but it was a lot of fun – apart from the doors between levels, which, you guessed it, required an equation to open. I would go back and play it now, knowing that the maths would not be a problem, but when I was much younger it was a real discouragement.
As a counter-point to all this, I’d like to ask the reader how much you know about your favourite game, or even any game you’ve played regularly for the last month. How much information have you retained about that game? The mechanics, any itemisation or customisation options? Can you easily evaluate the best way to tackle a given situation? I play League of Legends, as I have mentioned before, and the amount I know about that game is staggering. Ridiculous even. I know roughly how to play every champion (there are more than a hundred), and could give you a general idea of what items (there are plenty) to buy when playing them. Countless other useless facts fill my brain about this game. And yet I couldn’t learn off fifty or so definitions for my Leaving Certificate Chemistry exam.
I have friends who play Magic: the Gathering, which is a trading card game with absolutely massive scope. Over fifteen thousand different cards exist, although I think only a fraction of that are ‘legal’ at any one time. These people can hear a card name, and instantly visualise the card, when it would be useful, and various other related facts. I used to be able to do this, but I don’t play any more.
It’s safe enough to say that I would not be at all as competent at League of Legends, or my friends at Magic: the Gathering, if we did not retain this information. But that seems to imply knowledge is a barrier to success, and I have already said I think that is a bad idea. Perhaps it’s that the games don’t force the knowledge upon the players to progress, more the players want to accrue it in order to become better. Games that are playable with just knowledge of mechanics, but require knowledge of specific content to achieve mastery, seem to be a good model for educational games.
Now all we need is somebody to make an educational game like this. If only I wasn’t so busy…
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.
* 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.