Friday, August 29

Belay that!

I was off questing for the Holy Grail again and discovered that there was a whole body of work out there that could offer me greater insight. I've also meant to update my understanding of blogging and all that as well. Thus I feel I need a little time to broaden my blogging horizons, expanding my catalogue of regular source material and my understanding of the technical aspects of blogging.

Take the weekend off, have some fun and I'll see you back here again on Monday. This place probably won't have changed much but I suspect there'll be a few changes under the hood.

Thursday, August 28

Why blog?

Little Minstrel - with his ghastly, horrifying avatar that makes me want to dual wield a nail gun and chainsaw to correct this aberration - and I were politely discussing blogging as a means for personal expression like civilised, mature adults. He asked me why and I offered some of my reasons. I didn't mention the one gaming link so I'll put it here.

I've also really wanted to pimp GameCareerGuide.com for such a long, long time. In particular I love to pretend I'm a student at a game design school and vicariously participate in the Game Design Challenge. I sent an entry in for the first one and then James Portnow detailed how many hours he spent going through the entries and I stopped sending them in. I still do them though. Fun!

One of the articles there chastised a student who wanted to pimp herself to games developers for not pimping herself in other media. In particular the somebody who handled this piece googled her name and could find nothing. It was a moment that made me stop and think. I had tried LiveJournal and I had tried blogging my life (and what a boring load of shit it is too!). Instead I took Jill Duffy's advice and focussed on what might be something I'd show other people. Something I might show to a prospective employer, an academic acquaintance, a stranger who shared similar interests. Strangely I'd thought that this would never, ever happen. I've even deliberately chosen a name for this blog that reflects how irrelevant I am in the grand scheme of things. Yet, since I started this blog I've done all three. Go figure!

We are family! Bringing it all together.

Shakespeare liked to play with gender roles and he lived long before video games. You can probably guess that I like Shakespeare's plays too. Sex and gender plays a part in nearly every decision we make, even four hundred years later. It's the human condition.

Studies are being conducted that analyse who plays games and why, such as this one. This is so that marketers can build a strategy to appeal to those kinds of gamers by tailoring the advertising campaign to that demographic of gamer. Yet when games sell they experience an initial boom period followed by a bust period as detailed by Leigh Alexander. I am no expert. There is no data supporting any claims I'm about to make. I suspect that the reasons for this is that games and gamers aren't always very compatible. GTA IV was touted as the game to end all games in the press, a lure I resisted for one month. I love games, you see, and I had to know! GTA and I were not a good fit, not at all. I knew it but the gaming industry didn't care and succeeded in selling me something I did not want.

Never again!

Understanding what it is I like about games empowers me. The gender stereotypes I explore in my previous posts and the reasons for my interest are one of the ways I derive satisfaction from games. Knowing this I can test whether a game like GTA fits my profile. Not surprisingly, it doesn't. I don't regret buying it, playing it or trading it. I don't regret buying and keeping Lair either! By looking at the games that I like and exploring what it is that I like about them I can subvert the machinations of the marketing executives and their PR machine. As more AAA titles fail to satisfy our individual tastes we will become more sophisticated as consumers and seek both deeper and broader information about games.

Developers and publishers owe a responsibility to the public as well. If they ever wish to be taken "seriously" then they need to understand their role in this. Japanese developers appear to be very aware that their players are very diverse, very fickle and very capable of discarding them in preference for something that is a better fit. Their industry is more mature. Their games cater to many more tastes. Other nations that develop games (North America, Canada, and Europe) must become aware that gamers have many different tastes and start accomodating those tastes. So far it seems the developers think that they know best, but that is starting to change. Read the comments though, because it's going to take a while.

Wednesday, August 27

Gender issues, gaming and me.

Issues of gender interest me and the reasons are highly personal. I can't really draw any definitive conclusions from this discussion because I don't have definitive data beyond the odd anecdotal reference. I do believe that such an understanding would be worthwhile perhaps offering insight into console sales. After all the Xbox 360 is male, the Playstation 3 is female and the Wii is genderless.

This next part is highly personal, turn away now and come back tomorrow if you're squeamish about such things. I grew up in a violent household. Largely the responsibility of my father. He has a violent temper that he is yet to master. He neither drinks nor does drugs. He is also very much the victim of his circumstances - his father was by all accounts much more brutal. I don't hate him now, but at the time, my youth, I despised him.

From the moment I started to retain memories (roughly 3 years old) until I was 16 I experienced dad's outbursts. My mother bore the brunt of it. Their on / off marriage a whirlwind of violence, apologies, counseling and arguments. When mum wasn't around my brother and I became targets. When my brother went to boarding school and my mother went to stay with friends as she couldn't bear any more, I retreated into my imagination. Ironically, perhaps, dad was insecure about his masculinity, he frequently boasted of engaging bigger, stronger men in fisticuffs and beating them. He exercised regularly and maintained a string of mistresses who I knew as "nanny". He wasn't compensating for his penis either!

My mother dealt with his outbursts in her own way. She manipulated. If there was a way she could cause dad to lose it in public (he would feel great shame at public displays of his "weakness") she would find it. She used any and every form of emotional blackmail to attain leverage in household negotiations. A new car? Then she'd threaten to his latest affair to his heavily Christian boss. Dad would eventually consent to this, then he would get angry and the cycle would repeat, escalating steadily over time. Mum has history too. Her father was an alcoholic and she was the only child - whose mother had died young - raising a manipulative, lying drunk. I pitied and despised her too, at that time.

My brother may have had it a little easier than I did. He grew up tall and strong quickly and when he was fourteen years old he fought back and won - dad never touched him again after that. Ultimately my brother is 6 feet 4 inches tall and played second row in Rugby. He is built. I was a runt, a late bloomer who did not reach my respectable height of 5 foot 10 until around 20 years of age. I escaped my father's beatings by removing myself from his presence when I turned 16. My brother is most like my father. His infrequent public outbursts of violence have threatened his career. The context of my brother's life is different to dad's, his relationship with his wife is more nurturing, less broken than that of my parent's union. I became most like mum. Watching what she went through, sharing it from time to time, I vowed never to be like my father. I steadfastly refused anything that might result in my becoming like him.

How does this relate to games? It's weird. Some time ago I was undertaking extracurricular volunteer work through my school working in a home for children whose parents were drug addicts, prostitutes, in jail for severe crimes, or society's discards (murder/suicide survivors, basket babies). There was this one girl who took to biting me. A lot! She was about 8, maybe 9 years old. She also kicked, scratched, punched and strangled. When seeking to understand this behaviour, the professionals noted that she was quite fond of me and that her behaviour was the equivalent of an expression of love (well like anyway). It was explained that she most probably felt more alive when she was being "abused" by her parent(s) and considered this to be the way of expressing those feelings - aping the behaviour modeled by her parent(s). I'm not going to explain the significance of biting. During this discussion I realised something about myself. Following my mother's example I incited my father's anger - it was part game, part self loathing and part of an attempt at recognition. My father was so busy with his work that I rarely saw him let alone was privileged enough to be beaten by him. I wanted him to love me, and if not that then to acknowledge me. You can probably guess the rest.

Once I realised this I turned it into a form of play (I was about 14 at that time). It became a game. I needed to differentiate myself from my behaviours so that I could choose from them and learn about different responses to them. I retained my hatred of rampant, bombastic, brutish masculinity and forgave my father. It took a lot longer to forgive myself.

This timeline (spanning from roughly 4 years of age and ending in a more formal way at around 18 years of age) played a significant role in shaping me as a person. I had learned to hate masculinity, I had adopted feminine approaches to problem solving. I discovered that I sought destructive results as a means to create self worth and that my head was tangled up in a cycle that duplicated my mother's. My way out was to step back and turn it into a game. Mostly the game was about gender roles to begin with, subverting them in particular. It grew into a fascination with role playing games (the tabletop variety) and gaming in general. I was able to separate myself from my experiences and examine them through play, through gaming, through my imagination. I'm still a little broken, there are missing pieces that I'll probably never repair. Yet it was through play that I was able to start the healing required to become whole.

Hermaphrodites, Transvestites and Transsexuals, oh my!

Double post today, there was a sudden two hour gap in my schedule and I got busy.

There are plenty of games that can't easily be categorised as either female or male.

Hermaphroditic games like SingStar, Lips, Guitar Hero, Rock Band and maybe even The Sims can easily switch between gender associations depending on content chosen by the "player". I wonder if their developers / publishers ever thought some nobody would describe these games as hermaphroditic. I know I often consider every day items as hermaphroditic. Doesn't everyone?

Earlier I stated that I felt Lara Croft was a man in woman's clothing. Leigh Alexander at Sexy VideoGameLand would be more qualified to answer this than me but I'm not linking to her site because the last time I did that it turned into an ironic moment. While the game retains its masculine tag (spatial puzzles, brutish violence, smug trash talking) I'm going to move Lara into the transvestite category (as a character) now that it's defined. This is a bit of a stretch but Dante and in particular his boyf... er, his replacement Nero from Devil May Cry 4 reside here too as do many many characters from Japanese games. For what it's worth I don't specifically see these characters as males dressing as women, they are males dressing effeminately with character assets that serve to neutralise their gender. I can't think of any games that I would classify as transvestitic though, I must try harder at this as I want more transvestiticness.

Daedalist mentioned several games in one of his comments that I had overlooked MGS's emphasis on avoidance of violence, or more perhaps with its emphasis on choreographed violence with minimalist themes suggesting a neutering or feminisation of this traditionally "male" arena. Some even feel that Solid / Old Snake lacks the equipment necessary to be masculine, I don't think it's particularly relevant but it's nice to know I'm not the only "special" individual posting on the interwebs!

Devil May Cry is a masculine game series as it focuses on violence. It averts the wholly masculine tag by including a somewhat effeminate hero who is rewarded for "stylish" violence. While choreography and dance are not strictly the domain of women, males who dance are seen as "sensitive" and they are often considered homosexual - a strong indicator of how deeply ingrained the stereotype is in popular consciousness. The Devil May Cry series is much more effiminate than any of its western contemporaries (Too Human, Viking: The Battle for Asgard and many other melee smash fests) in this instance it's a good thing because an otherwise predictable button mash mechanic is elevated into an exercise of precision, timing, excellence and elegance. Trés chic!

Transgender games probably don't exist and for good reason. For the purposes of this discussion I'm going to define such games a little differently to their real world inspiration. A transgender game is a game that starts as one gender and becomes another. Think something like a first person shooter heavy on brutal, hard, unyielding violence switching halfway through into a social networking game concerned with nurturing positive, welcoming relationships. Jarring! Mass Effect? Well only if one plays for paragon points, I suppose.

Finally there's the "third" gender, genderless games. Puzzle games are the dominant form of this type of game. These sorts of games are often marketed at families. There is no advantage to a player of either gender, there is no association with gender within gameplay and thus no real barrier to entry either. It's a little flippant to include this relatively large game category in such a small paragraph here, it isn't intended to be flippant it's just that these games don't lend themselves to gender play and gender subversion like the others may.

I did this little experiment. I counted the games that I own (not games I have played just the ones I own) and classified each into male, female and ambiguous. Can you guess how the numbers were distributed? How about you? Do you prefer masculine, feminine or ambiguously gendered games? And if you have a preference, what is its source?

Tuesday, August 26

...and the women?

If men are from the "west" then women are from the "east". More specifically Japan. I say this because I am not well informed on games of eastern nations (China, Korea et al.) beyond those developed in Japan. I also wish to point out that Japanese game development is far more gender balanced than this piece may suggest. However, if there is a place where Yin informs in game development it is currently Japan.

Probably the best known Japanese game franchise is informed with a feminine design aesthetic. The Final Fantasy series of games, with its androgynous male heroes, its themes of identity and self discovery (7 and 10), love (8 & 9) and justice (12), and even its art direction (Yoshitaka Amano's artwork is very soft, delicate, flowery and feminine). Each game in this series has at least one token masculine role demonstrating greater empathy to its own qualities than western counterparts. These characters are usually physically strong, mentally weak, lacking both the capacity for lateral thought, often uneducated and social retards. For example, there are three in FFX, Wakka the big simpleton, Kimarhi the stubborn brute and Auron the troubled loner.

Feminine design principles inform many of their games. Soulcalibur 4 allows for free mixing of gender roles and gender appearances, even going so far to include masculine voices in the female character models and vaguely effeminate voices in the male character models. The Survival Horror genre of games - which I believe, perhaps incorrectly - originated from Japan (with games like the original Resident Evil) have a blokey fixation with violence while being informed with a Yin principle of violence against stronger, tougher and more numerous opponents (mostly). While fist fighting is a predominantly male domain, it becomes feminine if the fighters are fighting physically superior opponents. I've never really liked the survival horror genre because, for me, its visceral thrills too closely model the heartbreaking reality of spousal abuse.

Then there are games like Katamari Damarcy. While a game like this is hard to classify I believe that it is defined by feminine traits. It's social networking, community participation, community assistance themes place it directly into the social arena of the feminine stereotype. Even the act of rolling stuff up has a constructive, lateral, co-operative feel to it.

In the Persona series of games you progress more easily if you maintain social networks. For that matter, the dating simulation game was invented by the Japanese. Games about music (Parappa the Rapper, Jet Set Radio), lines (Vib Ribbon), flowers (FlOwer, PixelJunk Eden), gardens (Shiki-Tei), going on a safari to photograph animals (Afrika) all suggest a greater focus on the internally focussed self referential qualities of Yin.

This doesn't mean that Japan is devoid of masculine games. Tomunobu Itagaki and his Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series of games is aggressively male and this is reflected in the way his games play and their design aesthetic. His recent spate with Tecmo reeks of masculine principles and his bio includes a brief court case where a female co-worker alleged harassment. While Itagaki was acquitted of any wrongdoing, if I were a profiler, I would know that his personality is clearly inclined in this direction. Itagaki is also something of an aberration in the Japanese development scene. He should seek work in the "west" as that is where his design principles flourish.

I have no real idea why this is though. My inflammatory perception is that the Japanese are a small, delicate peoples who survive through a better understanding of their whole being, drawing on lateral thinking in everything they do. Alternatively it could be because of the 'boy love' comics I gather are really popular over there.

Do you see it the same way? Is game development in Japan feminine? Japan is certainly more balanced when it comes to gender roles, gender stereotyping and gender subversion. Is that because they are more civilised than the west, or less?

Monday, August 25

Where are men from again?

The ideas of masculinity and femininity fascinate me. This is a large part of my life for reasons I will explain in more detail in a subsequent post. Masculine traits exist thematically in games, their characters, online in multiplayer arenas and can be assigned to specific regions. Men aren't really from Mars they're from North America, Canada and Europe.

Development in these countries is predominantly masculine in approach, theme and implementation. GTA IV for instance is so extremely steeped in masculine traits that it's hardly surprising that the only female characters are "victims" of the game. The exploited 16 year old drug addict, the abused mafia daughter, the painfully insecure (admittedly hilarious when drunk) sister of Irish mobsters, and the evil, emotionally manipulative cow who is in a difficult situation because men hold all the power. There's the NPC hookers and strippers and they hold a lot of relevance to the game. Not one female (if my memory serves) has any actual gameplay impact on the game, not in the same way Roman, Little Jacob, Brucie, Packie and Dwayne do. The women are mechanically useless fluff. Thought provoking stuff.

In Mass Effect you get to play a boring goody-two-shoes or a bully who forces others to succumb to his whim. It doesn't matter what gender you choose for your protagonist the traits of play are clearly masculine, a self righteous paragon or a bully. Gears of War. Every first person shooter ever made. Army of Two. Battlefield Rainbow Six Clancy's Men of Killing Stuff in a Manly way because anything else might be gay! Oblivion, The Witcher and Assassin's Creed all informed by the masculine aesthetic. I'm scrolling through metacritic to find games developed in the regions I nominated above and I'm finding none. I'm not saying they don't exist, I'm saying they're rare, very rare. Even Lara Croft is a bloke. Sure she's wearing a female skin but I can't find her feminine qualities beyond the silhouette. If she was an MMO character then a man would be playing her. Shamus Young perhaps?

I can only think of a few women who are indeed feminine that exist in the world of video games. Elena Fischer from Uncharted is one example, although her propensity to play catch up to the men teeters on the brink of de-feminisation I will give her the benefit of doubt as it could just as easily represent the needs of the game's structure and their intent with her inclusion. Ultimately there is enough evidence to claim her as a feminine character.

Possibly the only game developed in North America, Canada and Europe (UK included) that features a clearly feminine lead (that I can think of) is Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. The best part of that game in terms of gender traits thematically implemented in game design is its compare and contrast features that exist between the three main characters Jade, Peyj and H. Jade is a sensible woman, informed with strong feminine traits (mostly), Peyj is the desirable man, the fool, the mechanic, the friend, brother companion. H is the brute, albeit a well meaning brute but he is the man's man. If games can teach and inform then this game suggests ways for boys to impress girls by demonstrating that pig faced goofballs are much more endearing than penis waving (a metaphorical reference - don't buy the game hoping for penis!) machismo bullshit of the boorish H.

In spite of what individuals who will not be mentioned by name might say in the comments I am ignorant. Do you share this impression or do you believe that games developed in the "West" are balanced or even feminine in their themes, construction and character design? If possible could you provide examples either for or against. This is a four part series of posts so there's more to come… where women are from, the genderless experience and finishing with a personal exploration of why this interests me.

If this is actually true rather than a feature of my own delusions, does it mean that feminine qualities are considered undesirable by "western" developers? And if Beyond Good and Evil is an example of a game informed with more feminine sensibilities is that the reason it sold poorly?

Sunday, August 24

A visit with my Muse

I have a muse. She's an overweight, chain-smoking, cantankerous bogan who sits in front of the telly in her trackie-dacks and ugh boots channel surfing. She's a lazy old cow too, as you've probably guessed if you read this blog. From time to time she's good to me and warrants a kiss of gratitude. Now if only she'd shave, wax, or Nair® her upper lip. I'm talking about my muse for a reason...

You see on my left there's this horse, lying on the ground, still. It's tongue is hanging out, eyes staring vacantly and it's not breathing. On my right is a riding crop, or bull whip if that's your kink, and it beckons. You know what happens next. I reach for the bullwhip and get cracking.

I firmly belong to the group that believes that video games are not art. I repeat, not art. This group is actually quite large and is composed mainly of individuals who have no idea about either art or video games. Nobodies like me, I suppose. I'm the odd one out in this group as I'm a dedicated gamer who loves video games and proudly declares to all and sundry that I love me some good gaming (phrasing intended). Hence my muse's cameo. One of the questions that comes up in this sort of debate pretty much all of the time is "What is art?". It's a corker isn't it? I love when a discussion about the artistic merits of the medium boil down to semantics. Art is that stuff that hangs on the walls of capital 'G' Galleries (and the small 'g' galleries too), when it's outdoors it's either a sculpture or an "installation". People can perform art but they're not actors. Art can be comics, anime, drawings, paintings and bits of tummy fluff stuck to a wall. It can be made, found and discovered. And sometimes, very rarely, it's a science. Or is science an art? I'm confused!

And let's not forget art's poor cousin crafts!

Right, so now that that is out of the way... Art, yeah it's some pretty fancy stuff. All sorts of somebodies love it and often enough I have no idea why. Art has a special something though, a quality that transcends meaning, definitions and words. It is. Thus I suppose I should claim that video games ARE art because they is! The thing is that I have strong beliefs about what games are and what they could be. Examples of these beliefs are littered throughout the blog and if you're new here I strongly recommend going off to read it - or you could just ignore me and continue - I know what I'd do. Games contain art, but games are more science than art, more craft than art, more tools than creations. I would agree with those who claim that games can look all arty like. Okami by Capcom is an excellent example, Braid and PixelJunk Eden are others. Games can contain considerable music scores that then prompt travelling performances of these austere works. Games may one day contain writing worthy of being called okay, maybe even good, but so far the overall standard of writing in games is shit. So let's just pretend that writing is for books, movies and TV shows and move on.

The ultimate expression of the concept of a game is, in my completely irrelevant opinion, Tetris. It enjoys the status of being "Easy to learn, Hard to master". Clichés exist for a reason you know! And if my muse was half the woman I wish she was then I'd have something better. Tetris is the closest a game has ever come to being "art". The ultimate expression of what a game is, something that can reach anyone, anywhere, anyhow and within a few moments suck away years of their life. Now that's something to be proud of! Yet I don't really see Tetris as art because as you know I believe that in order for something to be meaningful to a society it must have a degree of relevance, of purpose, of bearing a message that both reflects and shapes the society in which it resides. Perhaps we really do live in a society of losers who waste time and will never reach the end. Perhaps not. I've already discussed how I see games and play and which has more meaning.

You see the problem for me is that games offer an opportunity and most developers choose to ignore that opportunity. Instead they seek to emulate other forms of entertainment. They haven't embraced the intrinsic nature of games, and for me, that nature is "tools for play". The games of our childhood are inspired by the pulp action film, that comic we read, the latest pop song, or the stories our parents read to us as we fell asleep. Ultimately though, this form of play is made using our own rules. We can play alone (no comments from the peanut gallery!) We can play with others. We can make up and change the rules of the game as we play in order to refine it. Right now, games are largely the vision of their creator (sans editor) and choose to ignore the primary participant. Me. Or you if you really must play my games. The player. It's akin to a circuit class in a children's playground where the trainer refuses my desperate pleas to have a go on the slippery dip until after I've mastered the monkey bars. I try, but my weak hands, porcine frame, and perspiration borne of excessive effort mean that I fall before reaching the end - time and again. Scuffing my hands and knees, face planting into the gravel, breaking first my collar bone, then my arm and finally my leg. Yet all the while my trainer refuses to share the slippery dip until I reach the last rung.

Games are vehicles for play. The best games are those games that promote play. The best way to promote play is to give the players control over the game. Offering a toolset that is constrained by rules, sure, yet complete enough to allow the player to play. It is when games give the players the tools to create art of their own that games will become what they were always meant to be. And that's not art, but a brush, a canvas, a roll of film, a script and billions of wannabe actors and writers, nobodies. Just. Like. Me.

Saturday, August 23

Intermission

I must confess to having far too much fun playing SoulCalibur 4 and collecting all the trophies in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and trying out the demo for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

I've finished Uncharted, gaining my platinum trophy yesterday, my first. If you've read my other posts you'll know that I don't really place much value in achievements or trophies. Why then did I go all the way to get the platinum in Uncharted? (Note that the platinum trophy is only awarded once ALL the other trophies are earned). I needed a new excuse to play the game. I enjoyed it immensely and lacked reasons to play it again. I needed the trophies to remind me of why I enjoyed the game so much. Though I'm far too skilled in it now for even Crushing difficulty to provide much of a challenge, it was much, much easier than I remembered and was over much, much sooner than I expected.

SoulCalibur, as you now know, is a game that really appeals to me. I've yet to truly plumb its depths and lack any "decent" skills with this game. I don't mind so much as part of the appeal is practice and improvement. The Taki style realises the spirit magic weilding, demon hunting ninja in SC4 much better than ever before and forcing myself to master the tricky button combinations of an 11 hit combo that includes a roll, a leap and throw and an unblockable move are sheer heaven for me. Online is another matter. The patch did help, a little, but it appears that it's only worthwhile playing against locals as the lag on "international" matches is appalling by comparison. The ranked matches don't allow for region control or for some way to even the playing field against those who have greater technology or belong to more dominant regions than I do. Never mind finding the right skills, the right outfit, the right style.

The demo for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was everything I was worried it might be. I won't comment further because it's a demo and thus not complete. One thing that did stand out was the similarity the telekinetic force power has to the telekinetic power in Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (even the names are similar). Psi-Ops was a PS2, Xbox game published by Midway that was overlooked by the unwashed masses (well mostly - I looked and I'm unwashed, mostly). A 3rd person shooter with psychic powers that were incredibly well implemented, with intriguing puzzles and a totally hokey plot that was laughable. I have the feeling that The Apprentice® can't surf on the objects he lifts like you could with the protagonist of Psi-Ops (if only briefly). I wonder if the similarities will end there?

Thus this post is something of a break. Berkeley (commenting here) and I have chatted at length about Art and Games, the cultural significance of games and of his experiences in MMOs (it was quite extensive and very personal). Our discussions made me think, I don't want to post some mangled paraphrasing of his thoughts and experiences because it would be mangled paraphrasing. That said, I have plans to discuss writing in games, whether games are ART, gender roles in games, passive versus active gameplay (with a nod toward emergent gameplay ideas), game design and much much more. As always I make no pretentions to actual knowledge, these are opinion pieces born of experience not wisdom.

Oh and what a prat I was at the start of the last post. Clearly no-one's reading this because I would have done something with it, something nasty and funny. Still, ask BRK and she'll tell you that I'm good at being a Prat. That's something then.

Thursday, August 21

Video games as therapy.

Do you see what I'm doing? It's called hypothesis testing, I suggest a hypothesis such as "Games are green" and then go looking for games of differing colour. On a personal level I dislike the falsification method but this blog is about games and gaming so I won't digress any further.

Several local hospitals use video game consoles as therapeutic tools. Of particular note is the Wii with its waggle and its balance board. The Playstation console gets a look in as well, mainly on price point though. Healing times for the users of these devices is improved and significance of pain is reduced (players often produce pain reducing effects while playing saving the hospital on pain medications, but costing more in electricity). Physiotherapy can be oriented through the medium of gaming making it more appealing and less about the cause of the problem (such as the accident that caused the loss of limb utility). Complaints about poor patient behaviour are reduced and depression resulting from serious illness is less frequent. I suppose it can be argued that some patients become less agreeable as they cannot enjoy their gaming in their own time, only according to the hospital's schedule.

What's interesting to me in this arena of the discussion is that the games don't really matter. Sure, there's a degree of consideration toward personal taste. What matters is that the gaming device is "easy to use". Games that fully support the ease of use are more "relevant" to the experience than those that highlight the user's inability so there is some degree of relevance in game design. The Wii excels here. When individuals are disabled temporarily they miss what they cannot ordinarily do and gaming devices such as the Wii and its Wii-mote offer many options to the player that help them feel capable across a broad range of disabling circumstances. Adding the balance board, Playstation Eye and experimental devices like this, this and this to the mix further increases this potential.

The medical profession as a whole has explored this further. There was a recent news item that showed a modified version of the Wii-mote being used as a surgery practice tool. Now this is significant, this is meaningful. Again, though, it's about the tools used and not the material written for those tools. It's easy to extend this idea into many other areas. Particularly those areas where injuries are frequent such as found in the manufacturing sectors. Skill acquisition through play (an inherently risk minimising activity) could become the way of the future. Imagine the headlines, "Wii wakes world!", or some such.

This relates to games how? Well here's the thing, I proposing that "play" is a meaningful activity with cultural relevance. And we "play" games, right? Right. Except that most video games (and tabletop games for that matter) don't really give us the tools we need to engage in meaningful play. This is where the language in games fails me. Most games are "passive" experiences, I get to play in somebody else's sandbox, the rules are set, restrictive and unyielding. Anything I do to break those rules is considered a "cheat". GTA 4 specifically declares them as such - even going so far as to provide a few so that players who wish to explore that world can skip some of the more repetitive tasks through the cheats. Games that give the tools to the players, on the other hand, are all about "play". Meaningful play. I provided some examples of that type of game in my earlier post. I genuinely believe that those games that focus on "play" and provision of tools to the "player" will offer the greatest chance at realising a meaningful contribution to the collective consciousness of the world.

Thus I'll conclude that the pinnacles of gaming achievement as crowned by the gaming media have not yet reached cultural significance in status. Sure many people love these games, myself among them, but their lives are not changed by the game content, by the playing of the game itself. I might not post to this blog as often as I plan because games distract me, but it is not their content that is changing my life, it is their function. Now if only the content could do for me what the content of other forms of media does, inspire me to greatness.

What is 'play', exactly?

I am a very naughty individual, wasting too much time playing games. The lure of SC4 and Drake's trophies draws my attention from other time wasters such as this blog.

When dabbling in the psychological arena I encountered some explanations for the meaning of play. The psychosocial component where a child apes adult behaviour in an effort to understand and learn about it. The physical component where a child explores their changing bodies through games like tag, tree climbing and the formalised versions of sports. At this stage of our lives, psychologists tell us, play is very important, regardless of whether we are dynamic or reflective thinkers we engage in play and through this non-threatening means of exploration we come to understand the world and our place in it. I say non-threatening because although injuries and possibly even death may arise from play it is far safer to pretend to hunt a tiger than to hunt a tiger for real. Thus play is a form of education.

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer would know better than me but I fear seeking his attentions as they will highlight my ignorance and he is far too busy being somebody to devote attention to a nobody like me. I am okay with this and it is part of my humour through the nobody self referencing. I had heard that educators who have studied children who engage in regular play activities are more adaptable, have more fully developed imaginations and are capable of more varied problem solving methodologies - lateral thinking, data collection, exploration and just trying weird shit that their less playful peers would not consider as relevant in any form of thought. If only I did not spend so much time sitting on my porcine arse playing games and put my problem solving skills to good use! How about you?

So this then leads to my quest, video games more often than not give the illusion of play, but fail to deliver. Sim City™, The Sims™, Spore™ and LittleBigPlanet™ are probably the best examples of games where the rules are more about engaging with the game in playful ways. They're less task oriented focussed toward fostering the player's whims, fueling their imagination and allowing them to explore the nature of the real world through a fictional one. It's also interesting to note that Sim City™ and The Sims™ don't really have an "end game".

I have encountered several "life stories" online where the poster uses The Sims™ as a vehicle for self discovery. Learning about themselves through play, discovering that the game did (or did not) scratch an itch of a highly personal nature and resolving to explore the newly discovered itch either in the fictional world of The Sims™ or more frequently The Real World™.

Sim City™ gave me a healthy respect for the difficulties of politics, an experience I would never had otherwise. I learned that in order to make one subset of the population happy I would have to displease another, it was a delicate balancing game and everything cost money. It even helped me make some decisions about careers I would be willing to explore, or more specifically ignore in my quest to contribute meaningfully to society.

Spore™ and LittleBigPlanet™ are not yet known quantities. Spore™ shows enormous promise, offering biology, anthropology and more as its means of exploration. It looks more like Sim City™ than The Sims™ and in that case it will probably focus on the "big picture" of society rather than the smaller, more personal picture of The Sims™. Countering this is the Spore Creature Creator that suggests it might be possible to create unique individuals within this world, individuals who will become the heroes, the mythical figures of lore who are used as role models. LittleBigPlanet™ is harder to explicate, it suggests explorations in physics (the physical world), economics and marketing.

Thus I elevate these games as potentially significant from a cultural perspective. And posit that they have not yet realised this potential. A few lives may have changed from those who have interacted with these games, many more will not (from those who have interacted) and the culture(s) at large would enjoy no impact from this form of play. It is when games such as these can shape many lives in The Real World™ in the same manner as other forms of 'entertainment' media that they will start to be favourably compared to those others.

What of your experiences? Has GTA 4 taught you that crimes pays or how to steal a car or that having sex with hookers and then killing them afterwards for a refund is a cheap way of experiencing sexually transmitted diseases? Has Mass Effect turned you into a sex-addict? Does Ivy's massive breasts make you want an implant, NOW!? Do you feel undervalued as a person when your own personal minority is not represented in the heroic mold?

I can only claim to be a thoughtful ignorant, you can enlighten me.

Sunday, August 17

But what about play…?

Games have a stigma as time wasters. A stigma I have done nothing to change.

Yet they are potentially meaningful in that play is a vital part of the human condition. I wonder whether we, as a species, understand how play can contribute to an individual's wellbeing, to their inherent usefulness, their meaningful participation in the game we call life.

Last week I ran a playtest of a convention style roleplaying game the tabletop variety. It was structured exactly as I quest for in my video games. It lacked a tangible plot, but had plenty of cues for players to interact with. The premise was that the players would declare something as fact and the scenario would support that declaration. To that end there were all sorts of "mysteries" that could be solved - the very thing required to solve the mystery was the desire to explore it and guess at its possible conclusion. As long as a player guessed aloud then the "plot" would take form. I learned a lot during that session. About my friends (who were playing), about those new recruits (who were there for the first time), about myself (and my assumptions) and about the interplay these elements have with each other. In the real world it's personal, but in a fictional world shared by the creative minds of the participants it is genuine, honest, carefree play.

Video games don't come close to this kind of play. MMOs drift in this direction but undermine the suggestion by focusing the attentions of the players on the mechanics of the game, functional task oriented mechanics that simulate a fictional reality, one that by necessity does not duplicate our own. Linear games typically consume the identity of the player by overwriting their ability to contribute to the game in original ways. So many players seek other outlets for creative interaction with the medium by poking and prodding at the boundaries of the game. Uncovering cheats, glitches and design flaws in the process. Humans are inherently curious and creative. It always amazes me when people are amazed by the strange things people choose to explore within the context of their game.

Modding is the way of the future, should it be accessible to the masses. It needs to be a form of play in and of itself. If it can enable Joe and Joan Average (nobodies like me) to create their own whacked out vision of an interactive world then maybe games can become relevant culturally. My reality is quite different to yours, imagine if you could see the world through my eyes, through the lens of my experience and then imagine what it could be used for.

I have never believed that "play" is a waste of time.

Saturday, August 16

What is the cultural relevance of games?

Games have always been a little controversial. After all they're a time waster with no productive output nor any meaningful relevance to the real world. Demonised by those who don't play and don't understand them, games fulfil a niche of irrelevance in our society. However, more recently, those who know something of games have examined them more closely and it looks as though things are changing.

Before I continue I need to mention that I don't consider games to be either art or to be culturally significant. Not yet. With perhaps the exception of cosplay I see no extension of games into popular culture - no projection of gaming consciousness beyond viral marketing and other tricks or techniques directed by marketing companies designed to sell games to those who would probably buy them anyway. While characters in film and books resonate with individuals in highly personal ways, even becoming role models, I have never met nor read about anyone who cites Mario as their personal role model. The idea is preposterous. Yet if games are going to reach a state of maturity that elevates them beyond time wasters then they need to find some meaningful way to engage with their audience that relates to their lives. Their REAL lives. Meaningfully.

The signposts of possible change are all over the interwebs. Resident Evil 5 attracted controversy because of its possible racial connotations, not from just the ignorant demonisers, but from industry professionals. The controversy was warranted because the images portrayed in the promotional material lacked context beyond the "video game" label. The context now exists and the controversy surrounding this title has evaporated. When somebodies and nobodies alike start to take notice of something then it's possible that it's becoming culturally significant.

Resident evil 5 is not the only example. Leigh Alexander, formerly of GameSetWatch, then Kotaku and now back at GSW, explores issues with Fat Princess and SoulCalibur IV. She's an industry somebody, an online journalist with credentials and "fame". She has a personal blog called SexyVideogameland and it's one of those blogs I've wanted to reference for quite a while. Lots of thoughtful, provocative and arousing material there. I have a problem with Ms Alexander's rhetoric though. She frequently requests that those who comment not use the "it's just a video game" defense. My understanding of this request is that she seeks meaningful discourse on her discussion topic that is too easily dismissed by the IJaVG defense. Assuming that my understanding is vaguely close then this would require video games to be meaningful, to be have a cultural consciousness that is both significant and relevant. I just don't believe that they do. I honestly don't believe that anyone sees the Fat Princess as real, as an example of someone to be feared or pitied. I honestly don't believe anyone considers Ivy's endowment to be anything more than fan service, nor would anyone be inspired to have a breast enlargement to compete with this fictional character. Leigh's very own article on Cosplay (cited earlier) demonstrates my understanding of how relevant a video game character is to real life. Is the person playing such a character even real, as many an observer does not treat the real person as such when in costume.

Games are at a crossroads. Their financial weight is generating interest in economic circles. They are reaching more people than ever before. How many of us are proud of our status as gamers? Is it something we declare to others? And if we do, perhaps citing how important Mario is to our life ethic, what sort of response do we get from others? I don't declare my status as a gamer to others, a nerd maybe, someone who loves technology perhaps, but a gamer? - one of the most poisonous social claims I can make (and I do so from time to time to just see the response). I cannot expound the virtues of games to others, they are still time wasters. Sure Folding at Home contributes to "society" in a meaningful way, but I'm not "playing" it. Even fashion holds more significance, more meaning and more relevance to today's society than video games. WiiFit demonstrates that games can be productive in some way and still be popular (if perhaps a little lacking in the artistic department) and perhaps this is where games will find relevance.

The Citizen Cane of video games is still a long way off.

Thursday, August 14

SoulCalibur IV - A Review

I realise that I went away but I had a good reason.

I find it funny writing this, but SoulCalibur IV is a fairly significant game - for me. This is because it ticks many of the boxes in my quest for the Holy Grail with character customisation and several different play modes it's a good example of what sorts of things I like to see in my games.

This, then, is my review of that game. First some context: I'm a brand loyalist to this franchise. When Soul Edge came out at the arcades I was snared. Soul Blade on the PS1 kept me fighting for many hours - my completionist wouldn't let me quit until I had every damn weapon. I missed Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast, but enjoyed it immensely in the arcades. I was a little disappointed with SC2 as it had a weak single player component. And I enjoyed SC3 because it had a strong single player component. Of the beat-em-up genre this is my preferred game, only Tekken and Samurai Showdown offered any real competition and I enjoyed my brief visit with Marvel vs Capcom (and variations) and Darkstalkers.

So…

SoulCalibur IV is a good game. In gameplay terms it straddles 2 and 3. For those who may not have experienced these games it falls between tight, crisp controls and wacky, concept themed powerz. There's a degree of balance tweaking in this game, many move sets have changed with most changes being actual re-designs like with Cassandra or increased functional consistency (from a heuristic design point, at least) such as with Tira or Ivy. Although not all the balance tweaks created balance. Astaroth, for instance, received a fairly hefty speed boost making him a much more powerful character than he was before. Rock (upon whom Astaroth is based) did not receive the boost and is now easily the weakest character in the roster.

Of all the fighting games I've ever played it's still the most accessible. It takes itself seriously enough to be robust, but has enough of a sense of humour to be fun. The Street Fighter series is too hardcore for me. DoA and Mortal Kombat too um…do people actually take these games seriously? Tekken is okay but its gameplay (juggle emphasis for instance) is too cheeky, and its character customisation options (with 5) are bland or silly (silly is okay but bland is not). Thus SC4 has a broader base appeal. It's also easy to get into although mastering is something else entirely.

If you've never played fighting games before and you're curious then this would be a fair introduction. It pays lip service to story, has barely any artwork (when compared to SC3) and few distractions from the core gameplay experience. There are four basic modes on offer. Arcade or Arcade Plus (labeled as Story Mode), Survival (descend mode in Tower of Lost Souls), Puzzle Fight (ascend mode in Tower of Lost Souls) and Versus or Multiplayer.

Of the four basic modes only two allow for true whimsy. Arcade and some Versus/Multiplayer modes allow the player to create their own visual avatar that fights with a style of their choosing (as long as it isn't lightsaber based). All other modes require the use of character "skills" which are more akin to buffs and debuffs for your character and that are linked to skill points. Skill points are linked, in turn, to your clothing and weapons. Thus for most of the game modes you're required to think about what skills you need to progress and then configure your gear around those points. Female characters have a huge advantage over male characters because they have many more options (of greater power). While I quite like this aspect of the game it's fiddly, nitpicky and requires an investment of time that has nothing to do with "fighting". I wish, at times, that as I ascend the Tower of Lost Souls, I didn't have to reconfigure (or create anew) a character designed to thwart the particular set of parameters set as obstacles in my path. For example one "floor" has opponents that are resistant to most types of damage except one. You have to find out which one. It's not as easy as horizontal strike, vertical strike and kick (the basics) either. Meaning that some characters who have a large repetoire of easily accessible guard breaks become more desirable should this be one of the techniques required. If you don't have one of those characters in your roster at the time the fight begins then it's possible you'll be spending some time in character generation mode making a character that takes advantage of this special circumstance (or acquires the guard break skill or both for maximum carnage). Problem is with about 25 levels (they call it 60) each with their own conditions - unless you're an elite player - you'll be spending a lot of time in chargen picking outfits for their skill point bonuses.

Online multiplayer is ghastly. I'm a complete noob when it comes to online play so my expectations are probably very off. I've read that SC4 has a robust online game, but have yet to experience it (30 battles at this stage, stuggling to find motivation for more). The lag is terrible, often buttons I press don't even register and my character's actions feel entirely random. The online game messed with my offline game too. I found myself pressing buttons long before they were needed (in a kind of slo-mo) when online and this was brutally fatal offline. Still, a new patch recently arrived that might address this a little…I so very much wanted this to be a good online experience, I need to be able to fight other people to increase my skill level, the AI isn't encouraging lateral thinking or demanding I step up. I've nearly completed everything in single player though, so those online 'honors' beckon.

The clothing "breaks" if hit enough and this is reminiscent of Soul Blade (aka Soul Edge) where the weapon broke if it was used to guard too much. I really like the idea behind this and while the execution isn't yet perfect it comes close to realising a workable means for encouraging activity (read attacking versus defending). The Soul Gauge represents how psyched you are in the combat, attack lots (and have those attacks do damage) and your soul gauge increases. Defend lots (guard) and it decreases. Lose enough of your soul gauge and your opponent will initiate what the game calls a soul crush - a brief moment of vulnerability where your opponent can…maybe…execute a critical finish. The soul crush state is very delicate, any further hits will restore some of their soul gauge, it's also a temporary state lasting a few seconds. The soul crush is a fairly rare event in play - opponents attack enough, die too quickly or fall out of the ring too often for the exact conditions to create the state to come to pass. When it does happen two things typically take place. Either you press L1 in time, or you never get the chance because the soul crush happens at the start of a combo and the subsequent hits negate your chance at a critical finish. I've also managed a third version where I hit both the L2 and L1 buttons at about the same time. L2 got read first so I switched in another character BEFORE executing the critical finish and was confused as to why my support character was doing it - well for a moment or two anyway. All in all this feature is fun if a little goofy. If online is "fixed" then I intend to create a male Cassandra style character just in the hopes I can inflict the most hilariously humiliating critical finish in the game on some poor unfortunate out there in the interwebs.

You can switch characters in the character building modes (a limited form of team battle) but NOT in the versus mode. An oversight, as allowing such a capability would have enhanced the versus mode considerably (offline and online). By switch I mean you can be fighting with one character and switch them to the bench to rest and fight with another character, alternating fairly freely - there's a gauge that restricts abuse of this but it fills quickly and there's a skill…

Sc4 is a robust fighting game with something missing. It's a strange thing to say when it is the most flexible fighting game available. But it is its very flexibility that highlights the flaw that irritates me the most. I don't get to play the game my way, the designers have crafted an experience that is deceptively rigid. I am given the illusion of creativity but then am forced to find the specific weakness or quirk required to progress through the game. I'm phrasing this poorly as it's only true of one game mode, but…there's this nagging sensation that lingers as I try to build my ideal fighter, as I try to build a character that visually represents my ideal, as I try to find a "style" that represents my preferences, as I try to build the perfect set of skills. I can never quite realise a complete character because the game won't let me use one or more of its features or turns them off completely as it pushes me toward what it wants me to do, not what I want to do within it.

Thus, for fighting games, the quest for the Holy Grail continues…