Cow Clicker

As I mentioned in my presentation last week, the facebook game, “Cow Clicker,” was developed by Ian Bogost as commentary on facebook games.  You are allowed to click on your cow every six hours, and each time you click, you earn more clicks.  You can also encourage your friends to play, and then you can click their cows, too.  You can read more about Bogost’s thoughts on the game here.  He talks about four dangerous factors associated with social games: enframing, the idea that people are just there to accomplish tasks for one another; compulsion, the irresistible urge to go back and click the cow again; optionalism, which I take to mean the idea that nothing bad would happen if you didn’t click the cow; and destroyed time.  Destroyed time is a big one for me.  Why do people allow themselves to be sucked in?  Not just to these social games, like Farmville and Mafia Wars, but to Pinterest, or even facebook itself?  What are we getting from these experiences?  Some of these are easier to justify than others, but the Cow Clicker game is so purposefully ridiculous that it draws attention to the fact that although some of the other time sucks in which we engage may be wizzier, they are equally stupid.  I think it’s valuable to be mindful of how we’re spending our time and ask ourselves whether it’s spent well.  The digital nature of these things makes them portable.  We never just stare out the window at the doctor’s office, we play these games, update our facebook statuses, and check Pinterest for recipes.  It’s not inherently bad, but it’s also not inherently valuable.  I love the way Cow Clicker brings this issue out in such an amusing way.  Bravo to Ian Bogost, and I hope that the revolution he speaks to in his article comes about soon.

Countergaming … What?

If we can reduce the definition of a countergame as merely defying expectation, what is ultimately the point of it? Similar to something like a “YouTube Poop,” where a user splices various segments of a television show or movie, often with other shows/movies, and molding them into something else entirely, countergaming sounds like nothing but an exercise of contradiction camouflaged with a “Dude … So meta!” self-reflexive existence.

That sounds harsh, though I don’t mean to be (entirely).

Aesthetically, Galloway’s framing of the countergame is digestible.  Commercial gaming often seeks to sell a believable experience. Often named “AAA” titles, they work best on high-end computers and console platforms, and are often lauded for their closeness to realism. In a way, commercial gaming is all about creating that sense of “transparency” – a suspension of disbelief modeled closely to reality that it then masks the scaffolding layers of code. You do not feel like you’re playing a “game” as explosions sound off and you struggle to the next objective. That is, until your character clips through a gap between the sandy beach textures and a large rock you were trying to hide behind – where your character falls infinitely into white, grey, or black space until you return to the previous checkpoint.

It is this unmasking of code—foregrounding—and the celebration of such glitches—visual artifacts—that frames the existence of a countergame. In a regular, commercially-produced title, things are supposed to move as we expect them to. When I pull left on the stick, my character should look or strafe left. Both the control scheme and the physics of a game should feel “natural,” even if not modeled by reality.

To the countergame, attention to realism is not the goal. Unlike commercial games, where narrative and form are interlocked in a working manner, a countergame has no interest in cohesion. Similar to the YouTube Poop, aesthetic becomes central. Game physics are invented and molded to the artist’s desire,  and interactivity is all but entirely eliminated.

But if interactivity, if the very elements of a “game” are removed from the countergame, how exactly is it still a “game?”  Galloway unfortunately doesn’t answer this, and leaves the door open to interpretation.  I think he’s on the right track by dropping machinima (like the very web-famous Red Versus Blue) and other methods of intersecting gaming as some type of mixed-media pursuit, but perhaps the problem is that countergaming-while-gaming just is not possible.

deconstructing game play

I should probably start by saying I am a terrible video game player. Despite three obsessed brothers who coached me through countless hours spent trying to play everything from Super Mario Bros. to Final Fantasy (I think the furthest I ever got in a game was about halfway through Oddworld), I am a miserable gamer. To me, even winnable games are unwinnable. In searching for pieces for creative responses earlier in the semester, I found one of Jason Nelson’s pieces:  evidence of everything exploding. After spending a solid half hour trying to get beyond the first screen, I gave up on the game and went about looking for another piece. It did not occur to me that a designer or artist might make a game with the intention of frustrating the player. However difficult, I assumed the failure was mine–not an element of the design.

Reading Wilson and Sicart’s piece for this week (and seeing Nelson on the syllabus) I was reminded of my previous experience. We’ve previously discussed the physical book as the un-discussed element of text. The materiality of the book seems to go without saying until the author or designer forces the reader to confront its physicality either by restructuring the page (mirroring the text so its backwards or upside down) or closing it off entirely (a book enclosed on all sides so that it cannot be read without being literally broken apart.) I see abusive game design as forcing the same kind of dialogue between the player and the previously un-discussed designer. Relative to the book, the video game is still in its infancy, but we still have established modes of interacting with it: start up game, play game, win game (eventually.) This is, as the authors point out, a fairly conservative approach to play design and well-worth interrogating.

While the author remains privileged within the text, the player (in my limited experience with conventional gaming) appears foregrounded in the game.  Abusive game design flips that dichotomy. The player is still there, the structure of the design also reveals itself in order to question the conventions of traditional game design. That said, I wonder if this goes as far as a personal conversation between the designer and the player as the authors suggest. Instead, I would suggest that abusive game design uses the gamer in order to in order to de-center the conventions of game play. Another poster (Zach?) compares the way this piece privileges the designer to what Barthes advocates against in Death of the Author. I like that, but I don’t see gaming as having previously privileged the designer. If anything abusive game design kills the player.

“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…”

Tailspin (2008)

English artist Christine Wilks has put together a combination of sounds, text, and visual images (sometimes animated, sometimes static), to tell a story about a girl Karen and her relationship with her father. The father wanted to be a fighter pilot in England during World War 2 when the “Spitfire” was being used predominantly as an interceptor for home defense from enemy bombers. Unfortunately, because of deafness in one ear he never became a pilot his, “Dashed hopes crushed.” Karen’s father was an air fitter instead and witnessed firsthand the heroic work of the fighter pilots, as well as the horrific death of at least one pilot on the ground trapped in his cockpit after an explosion: “Thank God for his dud ear.”

Karen compares her father’s frustration with his deafness, and “dashed hopes” to the preemptive tactics of the Spitfire pilots. He “spits fire” at her children when they are playing too loudly and aggravating his Tinnitus. He shouts a lot in his exasperation, with muffled shouting noises recorded to play with the texts. He never listens to Karen, even when she tries to convince him to get hearing aids: “Her argument shot down in flames.”

By oscillating through the series of different situations and anecdotes, Wilks puts together an effective impression of the ongoing tension between Karen and her father. The texts shift from memories of Karen’s father as an air fitter; Karen’s childhood memories of flying kites, looking at birds with her father, or watching war movies; arguments with her father about dealing with his deafness; uncomfortable home scenes with Karen’s children and her father; and subsequent fears of Karen’s for the negative impact of her father’s outbursts and anger on her own children.

The use of disconcerting noises, such as sirens, a man screaming, bombers diving, chaotic video-game sounds, etc., contribute to the feelings of tension when viewing the screens. These alternate with a few “blue sky” backgrounds which are very calm and tranquil, contrasting starkly to the agitating sounds. Video-game-like characters move hectically and mechanically across some screens, supposedly representing Karen’s children. In addition multiple Spitfires fly or dive or crash. Diagrams of ears and hearing aids also make an appearance in many places. All of these visuals and sounds function together to build the story and create the overall atmosphere of the work.

The final words of the piece are: “Hang onto deafness for dear life.” Karen has come to the conclusion that her father is using his deafness to self-protect and “deaden the fear” of facing the painful realities of his life’s disappointments, his shame (“A fighter pilot is shame free, that’s a hero”); and at least one horrific experience of watching a pilot die. This denial is instrumental as his coping mechanism. But Karen’s father is not the only one in denial as Karen convinces herself that her father’s angry shouts will not damage her children. What surfaces in the progression of the work is the tragic sense that Karen is denying her own damage as a consequence of her father’s behavior. Like father, like daughter: “Turn a deaf ear, maybe it will go away.”

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?

The Purpose of Abusive Video Games

Two questions were pointedly raised when reading Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart’s article, “Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design.” The first question elicited is as follows: what is the rhetoric or intent of the designer when creating abusive games? Wilson and Sicart propose that abusive videogames engage in a “dialogic interplay between player and designer” (Wilson and Sicart 3). While most video games segregate the player from the designer, as users interact with a system instead of a designer, abusive videogames forge a relationship between the creator and player through techniques that make the designer visible. As with authors, designers of videogames are hidden in the sense that they “’won’t be there to explain [the meaning] to each and every player’” (Wilson and Sicart 2). One theory provided regarding the intent of abusive game designers is that they want to create a relationship between the user and the designer—possibly for recognition as the creator and to more effectively communicate their message to the user.

Additionally, Wilson and Sicart claim that designers intend to invoke power over abusive game users by forcing players to submit to their manipulations, lies, tricks, and seemingly impossible challenges. Instead of using power as a means of the game to motivate users with rewards, abusive game designers use power to “[encourage] players to focus on the human designer” rather than on the game system (Wilson and Sicart 6). Such designers utilize power over players by forming a relationship with users and forcing them to recognize the design. According to Wilson and Sicart, “Power is only productive in a dialogue” when the users recognize the power a designer yields over them (Wilson and Sicart 6). Abusive video games force players to acknowledge the designer as designers make purposefully choices—such as visual discomfort, emotional discomfort, sensory discomfort, lying, manipulation, impossible challenges, etc…—that frustrate players, causing them to consider the designer’s intent and the reason they are enduring such games. By continuing to play abusive games, players recognize, acknowledge, and submit to the power abusive games designers have over them.

The interplay of power in abusive videogames yields the question of why users continue to play such abusive games that seem utterly impossible or downright tormenting. Generally, videogames are structured around the principle of “lusory attitude” where the games seek to satisfy user needs and reward players for their interaction (Wilson and Sicart 2). Conversely, abusive videogames offer limited, if any, rewards as players are challenged beyond physical capability and frustrated with manipulations, emotional distress, and visual irritations. However, it is evident that players continue to engage in such games because they offer a “’…glimmer of hope that it is possible’” to complete the game successfully (Wilson and Sicart 7). Abusive game designers purposefully give players hope that they can succeed and overcome challenges even when such challenges are impossible. Such hope drives players to continually struggle through the game, ultimately receiving nothing for their endeavors. While it is evident why abusive game designers choose to create such games—as they invoke power over users and are revealed through games in which designers are typically hidden—, it is still unclear why users continue to purchase and interact with games that serve no satisfactory purpose and do not fulfill user needs.


If the Author is Dead, so is the Designer

Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart emphasize the importance of “gamers [engaging] in a dialogue with the designer” in Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, especially in the realm of abusive gaming.  Having assumedly killed the Author with Roland Barthes just a few weeks ago, however, I find this assertion particularly bothersome; I think Barthes would happily expand his theory to the gamer/designer paradigm.

In what way do games like PainStation, Kaizo Mario, or Desert Bus call for the aforementioned dialogue to be had any more than Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden NFL?  They don’t.  These abusively designed games do not elicit a dialogue any more so than books like House of Leaves or Infinite Jest.  In either case – the abusively designed games or the unconventional novels – the author/designer is beside the point.  As readers work their way through these puzzles they are interested in responding to the work itself, responding to the platform, responding to manipulations of normative expectations (by playing/reading).  And though these things may be imbedded in the authorial intent, revelations about the author/designer and the ‘intent’ are again beside the point.  I realize that the dialogue is a metaphorical one, and that reversing normative gaming experiences for the gamer is resultant to the kind of ‘discussion’ that must exist between designer and the already established body of gaming expectations (developed and upheld by gamers).  However, the emphasis on the designer in the article is unwarranted.

The “dance” between gamer and designer is no more apparent or profound in abusive game design than it is in “conventional game design”.  In both cases, gaming expectations are taken into account as designers create their games.  When the game is played, figuring out whether the designer sought to adhere to or distance himself from said expectations seems a frivolous task.  The response of the gamer is what counts; the gamer can solve the problem of abusive game design by simply playing.  Accordingly, the line that separates abusive game design from conventional game design becomes more blurred as there are trends in abusive game design that gamers are likely to identify and respond to.  The more these trends reveal themselves, the more they become convention.

Abusive game design is forged with just as much intent and with just as much of a direct response to gaming expectations as conventional game design; falling further away from normative expectations (and likely popularity) doesn’t mean abusive game design offers more rhetorical insight than conventional game design.  It is just different.

“Superstitious Applicances” and Abusive Game Design

“Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design” by Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart discusses the meaning of abusive game design and the rhetoric behind this design approach. Abusive game design focuses on creating a dialogue between the game designer and the player to force the player to experience something out of the ordinary and beyond his/her expectations. As the player experiences the game, he/she can begin to understand the designer behind the system.

Abusive game design differs from conventional, or contemporary, game design theory in that abusive game design seeks to establish a dialogue between player and designer through games that push the player outside the normal expectations, whereas conventional game design seeks to satisfy players’ desires so that they are challenged just enough and will feel satisfied with their actions. Conventional game design is a one-sided arrangement in which the game design adapts to the ideal and potential performances of the players so that the game always satisfies the user—the game designer is catering to the audience’s needs and wants. For instance, the game Frogger could be seen as having a conventional game design. As the player moves onto more challenging levels, the game is not impossible to beat and it is challenging enough to make the player feel accomplished when he/she beats a tough level or receives a high score. In addition, the designers of Frogger release expansion packs and numerous sequels to meet the players’ needs and some of these versions enable the players to access extra-hard modes or secret levels to showcase their skills and expertise. There are certain expectations that come with the game as well, for instance the themed levels, number of lives, and the intuitive way to play.

In contrast, games classified as having abusive game design force the player to think outside of how he/she would normally play a game and to have uncomfortable and unexpected experiences. Jason Nelson’s “Superstitious Applicances” demonstrates Aesthetic Abuse, specifically attacking the player’s sense of hearing. The homepage of the game emits overlapping voices that repeat the same sentences over and over, one of which sounds guttural and robotic. As the player clicks on certain areas of the homepage, he/she experiences various sounds consisting of high pitched tones, bombing/exploding sounds, and one piece with uncomfortable silence. In terms of the player’s visual perception, the pictures are hard to decipher with flickering images and hard to read/overlapping text that does not stay still long enough for the player to read.

This “user-unfriendliness” is what brings about an interaction between the player and the designer. The designer pushes the player right up to the breaking point, but still keeps the player intrigued, and the player feels as if he/she is fighting with the designer to make some sense of the game. In addition, the design of “Superstitious Applicances” supports continuous surprises and new insights over the course of encounters between different players through eccentric, unexpected, and confrontational experiences.


Procedural Rhetoric

In the first chapter of his book, Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost coins the term “procedural rhetoric.” First he goes on at length about procedure; then he goes on at length about rhetoric. Finally he pulls them together to make the argument that procedures themselves can make arguments. Since I’ll be discussing this in class tonight, I’m going to use this blog post to go over some of what won’t make it into my presentation.
I’m a technical writer, so I document procedures for a living. I also audit procedures, which means that I read written procedures and look for evidence that they are being followed. Both of these tasks are soul-suckers because life isn’t about procedures, it’s about goals. I want, for example, to feed my kids. There’s a procedure for that, and it goes a little something like this: 1) plan menu; 2) go to grocery store; 3) cook food. Yes, it’s a grand oversimplification, but even at that macro level, there are flaws. What if I didn’t plan the menu and go to the store, and it’s already dinner time? What if I did plan the menu and go to the store, but the lettuce is starting to turn brown, so I decide to throw it out? What if I planned the menu and went to the store, but the power went out, so I can’t cook? I can still feed my kids under any of these circumstances, but the procedural rhetoric tells me that I’m doing it wrong.
The procedure, which may be helpful in many circumstances, makes an argument for the right way to do something. So now if I order a pizza, I’m doing something wrong. If we eat cereal for dinner, I’m doing something wrong. If we go over to my mom’s house for dinner, I’ve failed. This is why people hate procedures. They don’t account for our human ability to reason and inject logic and creativity into our lives.
The computer can’t deviate from its established procedures. It is programmed to do one thing, and it can’t reason its way into a creative solution if it hasn’t been programmed to do so. That’s why procedural rhetoric is a topic worthy of exploration: it can weasel its way into your psyche with its intractability. It makes limits your creativity and your autonomy.