Wreck-it Ralph

For this last blog post, I thought it might be relevant to talk about a movie I saw this weekend for my last blog post. Wreck-It Ralph is about a video game villain who doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. This is a movie about the negative effects of procedural rhetoric. Because Ralph has to knock down the building, its residents hate him. He doesn’t want to be hated, but the procedure forces him to continue knocking down the building every time. In the end, he doesn’t find a way to break the procedure; instead he makes peace with the fact that he has a role (albeit an unpleasant one) in his community.

Shift to another game in the movie: a rebel video game character from a defunct game succeeds in changing the procedure in game that doesn’t belong to him. In changing the procedure, he makes himself the leader of the game and relegates the true leader to the status of “glitch.” He defies the procedure, but doing so makes him wretched. He constantly struggles to prevent others from realizing what he’s done, and the deception marginalizes the true leader. He incites the other game characters to discriminate against her, and he prevents her from participating in the game.
Since she is unable to participate in the game, she is miserable. Ralph figures out the big secret, and helps to restore the girl to her rightful place, while eliminating the rogue character. All is right with the world again. And the amazing thing to me in all this is how protective the movie is of the procedural rhetoric. Any deviation from the procedure causes chaos, unhappiness, and possibly death. Why can’t the characters in the games/movie break the procedures? Because that’s how they were written. The procedures know better than the characters, and more importantly, the creator of the game is using the procedure to make an argument.
I view media very differently now. My kids were upset because Ralph isn’t allowed to be good. I was pleased that Ralph realized the important role he has to play in the game creator’s rhetoric.

This is How You Will Die

Jason Nelson, a familair name in this class, produced a pretty hilarious slot death game called This is How You Will Die. According to Nelson, the game takes a pared-down version of a regular online slot machine game’s code and replaces the images with 5 short descriptions that get mixed and matched to tell you how you end up dying. Not being a fan of Nelson’s work in general (I find it to be generally…well, annoying) I actually really enjoyed reading/playing this game.

One of the first things that really tickled me was just loading the game and seeing three boxes, one with your “demise credits,” one to spin the wheel, and the last to “explain death.” Only a html based slot machine game would claim to be able to explain death, though from the content given you’re provided more of an explaination of death being a “final move” rather than what death means. However, even thinking of death as a final move is ironic for this game because as long as you have enough demise credits to continue playing, death is not a final move but a continuous one, made over and over with different results. Perhaps I did not play enough to produce a “winning” result, i.e. a spin that increases your demise credits afterwards instead of simply depleting them, but in order to keep playing after 3 spins I had to keep refreshing the game page. I figured after dying a million spins worth of deaths I would at least vaguley figure out how one would score points (perhaps it was my own bias that I sensed an insinutation in the line “you need at least 10 credits to continue forecasting your death” that gaining credits was even possible), but to no avail. 28 credits, 19 credits, 10 credits, 1 credit; over and over.

Other than the outline of the game, the disjointed, yet syntactically fitting, phrases were good fun. Especially interesting is the fifth and final part of the sequence where you seemingly get a look in the world after your death. While some of these post-death prophecies have only to do with people outside of yourself (the dead one), some (like, “You are glad you are dead” seem to contradict Nelson’s very precise phrasing in the “explain death” section that “your last [motion/move/doorway/etc.] is your death.”

“Life’s a journey, not a destination…”

Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart’s article made me think of a discussion with a friend about watching movies with sad endings. He seemed to believe that movies should always make the viewer feel good in the end and that a sad ending would leave the viewer sad. He could simply not fathom why someone would purposely subject themselves to feeling sad. I tried to explain that it is not simply that people enjoy feeling sad. It is that people like to have their normal, daily way of thinking challenged. This facilitates engagement with the world around them. If we are always getting what we want out of everything we interact with, where is the challenge in that? And anyway, it is not reflective of the realities of life and viewers want to feel they are being treated as intelligent, thinking creatures who can handle a little bit of sadness.

I think this is what Wilson and Sicart are getting at in their “academic manifesto” (7). We all already know this as English majors, but to think of it in the context of gaming seems unexpected. But like any maturing genre, gaming is exploring its relationship with its players and game designers and these questions are inevitable and important.

A great quote is “an abusive game designer is like a virus – one which avoids killing the host in order to better propagate throughout the population” (7). The propagating of the population infers that by challenging the player, the player will be inspired to grow and mature in their way of thinking. To think outside of the box, if you will. To be innovative. New ideas do not come from safe thinking. Creativity is often born out of adversity. In life things do not always go our way and they are not easy and sometimes life is as boring as driving a bus for eight straight hours. In being challenged, the player could come to understand that winning is not the be-all-end-all. Aerosmith said it best “Life’s a journey, not a destination…”

Abusive Game Design

Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design by Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart (2010) just did not work for me. I guess overall, I saw their point in waiting to create games in which the designer was still thought about and considered post-production (much like the author and his intentions are often labored over by English majors and their professors), but more so than that I was just left with pointed questions and a “so what” kind of feeling.

Firstly, creating a game that may not be commercially successful seems to clash with Craig Mod’s ideal earlier in the semester that his digital work could not be quantified (and should be). Isn’t [a designer’s] income a way to quantify success? Do these designers require that kind of validation, and even more importantly, do these designers not require making money off the project they spend so much time on (as abusive games have been shown to be generally unmarketable to large audiences)? Are these what we would call “pet projects,” or side projects built more for the entertainment of the designer than for the commercial success of the game? If traditional video games are built for the lusory attitude of the player, these abusive games could just be seen as “feedback systems that reward” designers for there cattiness and cleverness.

Also, isn’t the idea that the designer is laughing at the player monologic in a different way? The authors purport that a designer designing for the whims and desires of the player is too one-way, but isn’t the designer who designs for his own pleasure (lying and hurting the player) also creating a situation where no “dialogue” is being had? Just because this monologue does not “efface” the designer (as the designer can sometimes be “effaced” by player-centric modes of design) this does not mean that the these abusive games are actually creating any dialogue, and especially not a productive dialogue. The desire to see more abusively designed games seems more a product of designers who have felt shunned and not “noticed” (and then we go back to my original question about a successful game that produces income actually being a quantifier of the designer’s importance and work), or academics who have become bored with the current mode of analyzing games.

And finally, how does the abusive game designer factor into the conversation post-production? The player may be tuned to the designers desires, but then how does the designer respond back? How is the conversation moved forward after this 1-to-1?

Documentary Games and Gameplay

Back in 2007-2008, when I was still a young’un in high school, it was difficult to be a deeply interested video game fan without hearing about controversy. That was the period when many of the video games Ian Bogost mentions in his essay about documentary ‘newsgames’ were released. Games like Kumawar, Six Days in Fallujah, and Super Columbine RPG were regularly featured in gaming websites and blogs. An inevitable media rampage soon followed. I dabbled in playing a lot of these types of games (except Six Days, which never saw the light of day), and they all had something in common.

They weren’t very entertaining.

The Kumawar episodic games were critically lambasted for being simplistic, sloppily made first-person shooters. Super Columbine RPG was made with the RPG Maker tool, inherently limiting its gameplay to that of a generic, 90’s-era turn-based roleplaying game. The subject matter they reference is definitely compelling, but it’s hard to be engaged in a game when the actual ‘game’ part of it is flawed and boring. Some of the flash games are better in this aspect, such as the McDonald’s game I blogged about earlier in the year, but they’re also just that: very simplistic flash games.

Bogost speaks of the spatial, operational, and procedural aspects that can shape these documentary games and help them properly replicate and emulate historical events. But should these games be critically discussed without mentioning the playability and game design aspect? Obviously, the coding and design of the game itself is distinctly separate from the more scholarly and political ideas behind it, but shouldn’t these games be enjoyed and analyzed holistically? Considering how new this entire genre of media is, I didn’t exactly expect a masterpiece out of any of these games, but Bogost does convince me that the potential is there for video games to be serious documentary works.

We don’t have a video game equivalent to ‘Planet Earth’, a documentary series that demonstrates deep technical achievement and accessibility, but we might just see something like it emerge.


I thought that the different perspectives on all the different games was very interesting. If you look at PhoneStory, most of the actions you take as a player are as the villain. You are the one controlling the soldiers who enslave children, you are the one throwing phones as people, and you are the one catching people as they attempt to commit suicide. The perspective is incredibly important for the game’s procedural rhetoric. Because we are the consumers of these phones, the game is forcing us to take the positions of those who are helping us get those phones, and it creates an uneasy dissonance inside me as a consumer and as a player. Part of the procedure is making me do something horrible, similar to the torture version of Tetris. The perspective makes me the bad guy.

As for Darfur is Dying and games like it (Ayiti: the Cost of Life is another), the game forces me to take the perspective of an impoverished person or family and try to figure out a way to survive. Spent is another game that accomplishes something similar. It makes you thing about things in a way you normally wouldn’t just based on how the game is build and what it makes you do as a player. What the interesting about Unmanned and September 12th is that both of those games are from the standpoint of the American military, not from the Taliban or Osama bin Laden. It’s like how in most games the bad guys are Nazi or zombies. I can’t think of a single game where you try to help Hitler exterminate the Jews or help Stalin build a better Russia. People like to be the “good” guys, the protagonists of their games, but most of these really call into question not the natural protagonists of these games, but who we as players should feel about it. Killing someone with a drone feels weird when in most games you play with a variety of weapons in the field. Being powerless without any weapons to fight with other than searching for water feels weird. One of the strengths of games in that it gives their players a feeling of agency, but the way these games are build and the perspectives of these games gives the player a feeling of alienation and immobility. I think this created dissonance is in part used to try and spur the player into real life action, which I’m not sure it does. I’m already against wars overseas and I still haven’t donated a single dollar to Darfur. While these games all have a clear perspective and motive behind them, is it truly effective? Do people’s opinions change based on video games?

The More Features, The More Users

The mapping occurring within Al Gore’s Digital Earth project in the article by Lisa Parks “Satellite and Cyber Visualities: Analyzing ‘Digital Earth”, is that of space and time. It fuses the ideas of cartography/science and Stephen Mamber’s narrative mapping. Mamber describes narrative mapping as the presentation of events as they unfolded over time.  Parks argues that the fusion of science and this idea of narrative mapping can improve Digital Earth because it would appeal to the masses. Frankly, I agree with Parks. The more features technology offers, it seems, the more people will use it. Evidence for this theory can be found in Simanowski’s article “Digital Art and Meaning: Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations”. Simanowski talks about the shift digital media has taken from qualitative data information to art. It reminds me of the PC vs. Apple favoritism. Macs have gained the reputation of being the more artistic computer because of their standard features that allow users to take photos, mix music, and cut video. In addition to all of these features that are easy to use, PC functions are possible such as Word Processing. Macs are gaining popularity, and PCs have been trying to offer similar features to keep their products desirable. Tying this example back to Parks’ argument, if Digital Earth targeted culture, as well as the science of Earth, than it will “erode the science/culture divide” (Parks 280). If Digital Earth used narrative mapping, it could become a virtual database of the Earth, fusing representations of historic cultural events and environmental science changes. It could be an interactive digital textbook for the World!

More on Interactive Fiction

I started playing an IF game called Lost Pig (http://www.grunk.org/lostpig/) because I wanted to write about it for my paper.  This lead to an interesting e-mail exchange with the game’s creator, so I thought I’d share.  My questions are in italics, and his answers follow.  I especially liked how he talked about complicity, which seems relevant based on our discussion of The Barron. 

1) I’m interested in the interactive fiction genre.  Is interactive
fiction more of a game or more of a story?  What makes the genre so
compelling, and why did you choose it as a vehicle for telling your
story?  What did the affordances of the genre allow you to do that a
traditional short story wouldn’t?  Do you think that your game could
be successful in a different genre, such as a story or a video game?

I think that whether IF is more of a game or more of a story is entirely up to each individual author. Lost Pig is definitely more of a game, but (for instance) Emily Short’s Galatea is more of a story (or rather, several stories, since the ending depends entirely on how the player chooses to interact). One of the cool things about the medium is how it can be used in multiple ways to achieve different effects.

In my opinion, the main thing that games-as-storytelling or games-as-art provide (which IF is especially good at, but which other kinds of games can do too) is complicity. Unlike a novel or a movie, a game requires the player to perform the actions that drive the story forward, and if it’s done well, the player feels responsible for the successes and failures that result. This works with humor as well: if the *player* decides to light Grunk’s pants on fire or to swallow a whistle whole, the result can be more amusing than if they were just reading a static story in which those things happened. And that effect is magnified with IF’s open-ended parser because of the illusion of choice that it provides. The player thinks it’s their idea to burn their pants, even though technically I had to think of it first.

I’m sure that one could create an entertaining videogame or prose story about Grunk. But because of those things, it wouldn’t be Lost Pig.

2) I noticed that you won the 2007 IFComp for Lost Pig.  It’s my
understanding that this competition is judged by a bunch of IF
junkies.  What made your game so interesting to this experienced group?
Do you think that IF could be a good teaching or marketing tool, or
is it strictly for fun?

 I think the thoroughness of implementation was a big factor in Lost Pig’s success. It’s very common, especially with games written by novices, to find that the author hasn’t really taken into account many of the things the player might want to try. It can be disappointing to repeatedly see a game refer to objects or situations that suggest a particular course of action, only to receive a generic refusal because the author hasn’t anticipated them. The two main ways to deal with this are to try to give interesting and appropriate responses to things the player is likely to try, and to try to steer the player toward actions that are likely to provoke interesting and appropriate responses. Lost Pig attempted both, and the reviews suggest that it was relatively successful.

I don’t know about IF being a marketing tool, but I have heard about people using it with some success as a teaching tool. In particular, I’ve read about people using it for teaching language skills: interacting with an IF game requires the player to understand what they’re reading well enough to formulate appropriate responses, or else the game can’t continue. It’s almost like every turn is a miniature pop quiz: “OK, based on what you just read, what should happen *next*?”

Hypertext in Jackson’s Wunderkrammer

Shelley Jackson’s my body – a Wunderkrammer is exactly that – an online ‘wonder-room’ of Jackson’s body.  It is a Wunderkrammer in the traditional sense of the word – it is a “collection of curiosities” (http://oxfordictionaries.com) – yet Jackson’s online version offers a synthesis of the elements of the piece that wouldn’t exist if it was not online.

My body – a Wunderkrammer is a semi-autobiographical literary work in which the reader/explorer is encouraged to ‘click’ on any segmented part of a full-body self portrait of Jackson.  Each body part then leads to an exposition of the body part (i.e. Jackson’s initial self-discovery and ongoing exploration of said feature) that often includes some anecdote or other autobiographical story relative to the body part being explored.  It seems that part of what Janet H. Murray envisions in Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace comes to fruition in Jackson’s work, because all of the expositions incorporate the use of hypertext.  This is what gives Jackson’s Wunderkrammer a ‘one-up’ on the Wunderkrammen of the 17th century, as the different body parts and relative expositions are all interconnected via hypertext.

Using hypertext to connect the different body parts allows Jackson to comment on the holistic nature of the human body.  Moreover, she is physically able to demonstrate the utility that comes with varying forms of digital media through hypertext.  Instead of offering one linear story that describes her various moments of self discovery, she allows the reader to discover and explore her body the same way she did – haphazardly.   The rhetoric among the various body parts speaks to this notion.

Bolstering her semi-autobiographical expositions with fictitious elements also adds to the overall anthropomorphic quality of the work itself.  People tell stories or remembrances from memory, so they are likely to be exaggerated or slight miscommunications are likely to pop up in their rendering.  This is evident in Jackson’s work, and she alludes to this fact when she says, of learning how to draw teeth, “realism lay slightly short of the exact copy.”

As a work of digital media, Jackson’s my body – a Wunderkrammer is interesting because it does what a normal book cannot do – it can tell stories within stories (stories that speak to one another in the text), while offering a coherent overarching anecdotal structure that can be embraced or abandoned by the reader/explorer.

Social vs. Individual

Barthes seems to think of writing almost entirely as a product rather than as an experience or as a process. He completely discounts the author’s experiences and process of writing and skills to the end result of the reader consume the product and acts as though that is the only material that has value. He seems to be taking the mistaken idea of authorial intent and going to the exact opposite extreme. While I usually agree that the author is not vital to understanding the text, I am unwilling to go to Barthes idea that the author is dead and so is the idea of the godlike authority of the author over his creation.

I think that texts can and should be understood simply as the words on the page, but as the Borges essay tried to say, the context of the author is important. It’s one thing to write a novel in the 1800’s and quite another to write one set in the 1800’s. Barthes sets up the rhetoric of an author as this oppressive king or and dictatorial entity bent on destroying the intrinsic value of a piece, but that is a false understanding, a straw man set up to justify his own extreme position. I find it hard to believe that many authors have this kind of presence in their literary lives, especially considering that it is difficult to influence how their works are perceived after they are dead, such as how Ray Bradbury disagreed with the interpretation of his famous Fahrenheit 451 as stated repeatedly that his book was not about censorship. He could not control his work’s life, which is why Barthes argument is null and void. There is no Author/Deity creation to destroy. People read books how they want to read them and they always have, regardless of what the author says.

Really, how books are taught in classrooms has more influence. Teachers who claim that authors are all conclusive about a certain work are perpetuating a false train of thought that people do not naturally have. Of cause, there are substantiated and unsubstantiated reading of books, but I think that Barthes’ understanding of the author is unsubstantiated by fact (just as my opinion that he is wrong is mainly unsubstantiated). My point is, Barthes presented a theory and then stepped back. He did nothing to conclusively prove his point, and so I remain unconvinced. There is no author to kill. Authors can have their own opinions on their books just as I do. Both are valid (meaning, based on the text), but there is no need to metaphorically kill the author. The author is just another human. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Barthes attempted to make his point far too strongly and because of his harsh rhetoric, failed to convince me of anything other than that this man is presumptive and pretentious.