Author Archives: ijohnson

Terminology Fail?

A problem that I saw in Tuesday’s discussion that I didn’t get a chance to mention has to do with our choice of the word “casual” to describe “casual games”. I think some people took issue with this because they saw people playing games that seem to fit this category that is separate from “hardcore” games in a decidedly “non-casual” way. Some followup questions to this then might be “are there hardcore games and casual games, or are there hardcore players and casual players?” and “if casual is a problematic term, what would be better?”

To the first question I think it is probably a combination. There are definitely hardcore games played by hardcore players and casual games played by casual players. There are probably hardcore games that are played in a somewhat casual way, if not necessarily by casual gamers in general. I know for example of World of Warcraft players that can play in fairly short bursts here and there and don’t really take it all that seriously; to them, it’s pretty much just a nice chat room where you can do stuff when nothing is going on in chat. (I will say, however, that the game really is not conducive to staying this way forever in my opinion; at advanced levels you’re pretty much trapped either starting a new character, playing in a more hardcore way, or else pretty much not playing. WoW is by no means a casual game across the board.) Similarly there are definitely casual games that are played in a hardcore fashion. Guitar Hero/Rock Band was discussed extensively in this way in class; I won’t bore anyone by rehashing that discussion.

To the second question I think the best first answer is to throw out absolute terms, as someone suggested in class on Tuesday, and go to a spectrum sort of approach. However, this alone is limited as well, since we only have labels for the absolute extreme ends of the spectrum, and since we don’t have an immediate consideration of deeper details of casual play (for example, playing MMOs primarily for the social scene). To extend this well I think we need a good label for this middle ground, which is neither casual nor hardcore, and I also think we need to turn the spectrum into a multidimensional spectrum, considering why people play the games the way they do and how this reflects on the games themselves, etc.

Final Project

My current idea for my final project is to build a prototype of a text-based life simulator. The main difference from something like The Sims is that this game would be focused not on minutiae of daily life like eating dinner and going to the bathroom but rather on the handful of decisions that we make day-to-day that are actually somewhat significant, such as choosing to study vs. hanging out with friends and so forth. Similarly instead of hunger, bladder, etc. the parameters would probably have more to do with the person’s overall mental state. The version that I would be actually making would be, because of time constraints, much simpler than the actual vision that I have in my head for a final product; in particular there would probably not be a parser, but instead you would just choose one of several options at each stage.

The main problems/questions that I have with this (that I can come up with at the moment; I know there are a few more that I’ve forgotten) are:

1. I have a feeling that this will be considerably more clouded by my own fairly recent experiences than I would like it to be. The eventual resolution of this would be by having others contribute their experiences, adding new extra events, adding a parser for increased flexibility, and in general making the code object-oriented (this first version will probably be simple enough to not warrant object-oriented programming).

2. I’m not sure where to go with this in terms of sources, really, but then I haven’t yet gone very far in that regard so that’s part of the issue.

3. I don’t really know about how this alternate project works exactly. Is there some kind of stage where they allow the class to play our game? If not, how exactly does the game aspect itself work–is the game and its driving focus what’s mainly interesting or is our analysis what’s mainly interesting?

And just to make this easy to identify in the vast swath of posts in the last and subsequent few minutes:

Ian Johnson

The Simulator

I found a game called The Simulator which is essentially a highly negative life simulator. I didn’t play past day 1, so I don’t know if there are any impacts to your actions (as there are in The Sims), but, well, it’s painfully realistic. Wake up, get ready, go to work (at McDonald’s, no less), actually do the work (only one choice once you get to work, as opposed to elsewhere), come home, eat dinner, go to sleep. If my assumption is correct, you do the same the next day too, with no changes (in contrast to the somewhat similar Everyday The Same Dream). Its almost complete lack of gameplay and its general character make it seem somewhat like an anti-game and somewhat like a conscious simulator. It also seems like the kind of thing that could be more easily modified than more complicated games and so might serve well as a forum game.

Improving games, and reality with them

The central question that stuck out for me in these readings is “how can games, as a media form, be improved?” To me, many of the more specific questions that were raised reduce back down to this basic question. What strikes me is that if you try to just answer this question, you immediately run into problems. You’re forced to ask questions like “what would girls and women be drawn to in games?” or “how do we describe the medium in which the game and the story blur together?” just to be able to get started with, much less finishing, the process of answering this question. To me this is then an almost perfect question: it’s very easy to understand what it’s asking and why we should care, but very difficult to actually answer it.

One idea that I had about attacking this question involves an idea from a TED talk I saw recently. The idea essentially inverts this question, in that it asks “how can reality be improved using games?” While this may sound a little silly at first, the speaker makes a good case for why we should make reality more like games. She has a sizable argument, but her central point is that people of this generation are spending a tremendous amount of time playing games, and in the process are getting very good at…something. She makes an effort to pinpoint what that “something” is, and asserts that we should try to find some way of harnessing it to solve real world problems. This can of course be done on both sides: games can be made to be more like real world problem solving and vice versa. I think doing this would be a great way to improve upon games, both because of the potential to achieve more goals in the real world and because games like that might just be more fun, if done correctly. I also think that this mode of thinking matches the ideas of the “girl games” in the Heeter et al. reading nicely, in that the goal of these sorts of things would probably not be to win but to succeed.

Tension from first person perspective

This issue that arose in class on Tuesday stuck out to me: how and why does a subjective first person perspective seem to smooth things out and perhaps relieve tension in games while it makes things more jumpy and increases tension in film? As I thought about it, what I came up with was the effect of perspective on our perception of control. If we’re in first person, we expect control, in some sort of very basic way. But on top of that, I think we also experience control more vividly from a first person perspective. We’re used to controlling our own daily lives from a first person perspective, and so I think we can get more strongly into the experience in that perspective, all else equal. So we not only feel that we are in control in a first person video game but we feel more natural and fluid in some way.

By contrast, with film we feel much less natural and out of control, in that events are going on that we are more directly involved in because of the perspective, but we have absolutely no control over them. I think this is probably part of why subjective shots get used in the places they do in: no matter what’s going on in the film, we have this expectation of control that isn’t met, and that unmet expectation brings about some anxiety in us. It would be silly to bring about anxiety in this way in something like a romantic comedy, where becoming anxious and worried is contrary to the point of the movie. On top of the anxiety that we get from our unmet expectation of control, what little control we may feel may be extremely negative. In Silence of the Lambs for example, what tiny bits of control we get in the night vision scene are all very unpleasant, because it’s as if we’re driving the actions of the killer himself.

The Lojban MOO

Link: Lojban MOO
Lojban is a constructed language. I won’t go into a bunch of details here, but some of its main tenets are removal of ambiguity and establishment of cultural neutrality, to the extent that those are possible. For various reasons, including the relative lack of speakers, a lack of a “nation” to grow around, and even just a lack of things to do with the language, Lojbanists made a MOO. Its main “hook” is that you can make it do tons of things, but that all of the “magic” must be worked out using grammatical Lojban (ordinary speech and in particular English isn’t censored or anything, it just isn’t magical). This incidentally has the advantage of being easier to code, as Lojban is probably quite a bit easier for a computer to parse than most languages. (If you’ve ever used one of those free translation sites, you get an idea of how poorly computers “understand” English.)

Getting back to the point, I haven’t played around in it yet (my Lojban is still not all that great), and I don’t think anyone in the class probably will, but as a concept I thought this was interesting. It’s admittedly not IF exactly, and yet in some ways it is; it is more like IF than it is like a “text-based RPG”, in my opinion, based on the descriptions I’ve seen.

Diegetic enabling acts?

I should say that the tangent off into linguistics was somewhat “wait, what?” for me as well, but I think people have pretty much covered it, so instead I’m going to touch on a part in the 4th moment section on page 31:

“These should be called enabling acts. … With an enabling act, the machine grants something to the operator…Thus receipt of any of the aforementioned items–power-ups, goals, the HUD (excluding input elements), and health packs–all constitute enabling acts.”

This would all be fine if it were just in the area about the machine; after all, as Galloway says, the operator’s involvement in getting these things can be thought of (perhaps artificially, but at least reasonably) as being distinct from their actually receiving them. Why, however, is this necessarily nondiegetic? In Xenogears, for example, there is a part where one of the main characters is given a sword from another character after having put aside weapons for many years. It is a pretty diegetic moment unto itself (I don’t want to spoil the details of why), but it has distinct nondiegetic implications: this character suddenly does something like 20-30% more damage than he did just beforehand. In general it seems like situations like these can easily come up.

I think I may perhaps be forgetting about something from earlier in the chapter about these sorts of things blurring together and how Galloway separates them, however.

Are Video Games Art?

This question has been popping up a bunch of times in this blog and is rather swiftly answered in the Bogost piece we read for this week, where Bogost’s answer is probably closest to mu, and is an answer that is delivered rather quickly. While he makes some good points, I think he answers the question too quickly, and so I found this article. The author’s arguments are a little shaky in places. To try to get the reader to at least consider his ideas, he makes a lot of comparisons to other things that would more intuitively (but still somewhat hesitantly) be called art, such as gymnastics, and then addresses issues that video games might run into that these don’t, such as the issue of competition and it being fundamentally opposed to art. As the article progresses the author explains how video games are also different from the things to which he compares them in different ways.

Overall I think this presents a fairly worthy perspective on an issue that Bogost seems to dismiss perhaps too quickly.

Keeping things interesting–metagame

As others have already mentioned, one of the central ideas in this reading, beyond simply introducing the relevant questions of the book, is that a game stops being fun when the brain gets a full grasp of the patterns that are relevant to it. To someone interested in game design, this clearly raises the question, “how do we keep the brain from getting that full grasp of the game?”

While this is a huge question with a lot of possible answers, one that I’ve experienced is “metagame.” A lot goes into metagame, but in simple terms and typical situations metagame is a progression of the game itself and how it is played, based on information that came from outside the game as it is being played right now.

In Starcraft for example, as people’s strategies have evolved in the 12 years since its release, ideas have had entire life cycles. Ideas go from new, confusing ideas to fairly understood ideas to mainstream ideas and finally to failed ideas, without the game itself changing at all, with people following them the whole time. There was probably a time when no one would imagine “fast expanding” (building your economy early at the cost of everything else, especially defense) but once people figured out how to micromanage very weak forces to great effect, that became a common tactic. It can be countered, but the counters can be countered, and the end result is that people don’t bother to counter most of the time. This sort of change keeps the game feeling fresh without the developers actually having to change anything, because it makes it so that the players themselves affect the gameplay. And the players themselves definitely vary and change.