Author Archives: Jamie Miller

Final Project

I have decided that my presentation will concern the many aspects of Starcraft: Broodwar, one of the only games about which I have a vast knowledge pool.  It is one of the most extensively played and analyzed games of the last twenty years, and has thus blossomed into a thriving metagame which has only met its demise at the release of the Starcraft II beta.  In designing my presentation, however, I have a few concerns.

1) Are we attempting to cover ALL relevant facets of a game?  Or can we pick a few and expand on them?

2) Is Starcraft too complicated for such a project?  I feel there is far more than 400 seconds’ worth of information to share if I want to analyze it in any acceptable way…

“It’s a legitimate strategy!” ~Rocket Camper (Red vs. Blue)

“Exploiting loopholes” and “cheating” in games have come up more than once in our class discussions, and merit revisiting.   Koster separates the two by whether or not the action is contained within the game’s “magic circle.”  Unlike cheating, which I shall define as rigging a game in a way that disturbs a level (or otherwise agreed upon) playing field, exploiting a loophole can be understood as abusing mistakes left by the developer, and thus playing in a way which the designers did not intend.  Whiny cries are often heard from both courts, but I believe that it in picking sides we are falling prey to an irrelevant dichotomy.

We all agree that cheating is bad.  It is bad because it destroys the competitive nature of any game.  But exploiting loopholes is not so simply characterized.   One may claim that it is bad because the designer did not intend for you to be able to glitch your way onto a particular ledge or rooftop, but at risk of oversimplifying the matter, the answer is “so what?”  What the designer intended is irrelevant from the standpoint of whether or not a competitive game is well-constructed.  What is truly important is contained in two questions:

(1) Does the loophole hurt a game’s competitiveness in anyway?  Does it tilt the playing field?  Does it remove skill?  Does it make it boring?

(2) Is the loophole accessible by everyone?

If the answer to (1) is no, then the loophole is irrelevant.  If the glitch allows you to carry an otherwise non-interactive flowerpot on your head in Call of Duty, for example, then no one should worry.  If the answer is yes, then (2) becomes important.  If the answer to (2) is no, then it is a problem.  But loopholes are almost always accessible by everyone by the nature of game code.  If only player can do it, it is likely because they cheated, which is clearly a problem.  (It should also be noted that cheating does not necessarily require “hacking” or changing a game’s fundamentals.  Players can easily subvert a game’s fun/competiveness entirely within the game.)

There have been plenty of “unintended” aspects of games which have vastly improved gameplay rather than ruined it, surely to the delight of the developers.  Starcraft, for example, is full of these.  Many of the staple techniques used by competent players, such as peon-stacking, muta-stacking, spell-splitting, etc., arose from the game’s physics in ways completely unforeseen by Blizzard.  They have not only added flavor to the game and expanded the role of dexterity, but have actually allowed the game to be balanced and therefore competitive.

(Oops!  In going back to add more thoughts, I allowed midnight to slip right by…)

Simon Penny Applied: The MW2 Controversy

Below is a link to a very contemporary, very relevant, and very controversial piece of “interactive entertainment” which may or may not support Penny’s argument.  If you are familiar with Modern Warfare 2 you might know it as the “No Russian” level.  Unfortunately, I cannot provide the level itself, so here is a clip:

For those of you who don’t know, here’s the 2-second rundown: in the level “No Russian” you play as a terrorist leisurely strolling through an airport as your cohorts slaughter people left and right with huge machine guns.  Your participation is optional, but no instruction is given either way.  You cannot save the innocents or kill terrorists.

As you may imagine, the level was highly controversial and was removed from many countries’ versions of the game before release.  Even in the US version, likely the biggest  of all cesspools of decadence and gore warns the player beforehand that it may be disturbing and gives the option to skip the level entirely.  Naturally, different players have different reactions to such content.  Many were too disgusted to watch; others could care less; I for one laughed maniacally as soon as I realized what was happening and immediately took part in the slaughter.  To quote the controversy’s Wiki, “every [official] playtester chose to shoot into the crowd of civilians having received no instruction to do so, calling it “human nature”. Several players on IGN and Kotaku had stated doing the complete opposite when addressed with the level while having no prior knowledge of its existence.*”

Common objections to the level were that there was no recourse for the violence and no in-game expression of remorse or condemnation of the violence.  These complaints possibly imply that people need to be told that something isn’t okay and can’t rely on their own moral compasses, but they raise interesting questions nonetheless.  Having read Penny’s article, it’s unclear to me whether or not satisfying these complaints would solve the problem.  Penny makes it clear that these “training” devices instill reflexive responses that can be “different, even diametrically opposed” to the moral beliefs of the trainee.  Would including a condemnation in the game script eliminate (or at least reduce) the ability of such devices to train their operators?  Ponder away; your guess is as good as mine.


“Camcorder subjectivity”

It’s interesting that Galloway mentions The Blair Witch Project in this week’s reading, and I was surprised that he didn’t spend more time on it.  This notion of “camcorder subjectivity,”  albeit “not a subjective shot per se,” provides a number of very personal effects for the films in which is used.  Though I have not seen Blair Witch, two other films (which I thoroughly enjoyed and) which come to mind are Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.

Camcorder subjectivity” can play multiple roles, all of which are seen between these two films.  It is certainly capable of performing the role of subjective shots, especially when it is clear that the operator is looking through the eyepiece, such as the interviews during the party in Cloverfield or when Mica is annoying his girlfriend in Paranormal Activity (which, interestingly, includes several mirror shots); it can provide more passive shots when put down by the operator; but it maintains a definite distinction from typical cinema cameras, which are not typically supposed to be a part of the film world.  Batman, for example, could not accidentally bump into the camera and disturb its perspective as Mica does in Paranormal Activity (during one of its otherwise terrifying, passive tripod scenes).  The camcorder is clearly on the same plane as the events unfolding in front of it–it is a part of the movie, and is bound by all that this entails.

The story of Cloverfield unfolds almost entirely through a handheld camcorder, held by various characters as they endure the monster’s assault on New York (aside from the camcorder, the opening frames indicate that the footage is being accessed through a government database.  No footage of the world post-camcorder is shown).  Carried by previously-partying twenty-somethings with presumably no background in film-making, the camera’s view is terribly shaky and unreliable.  The danger and urgency of many scenes is greatly accentuated by use of the camera, both because of the disorienting shakiness as well as the limitations it provides.  The camera is often not pointing in the direction of what’s important, whether it be the danger behind them or the way out in front of them.  The audience is alerted to danger via screams and other loud noises, and is left to squirm and sweat, waiting desperately for the operator to turn and reveal what exactly is causing alarm.

Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, creates tension with the opposite approach.  The times at which the camera becomes relatively passive and sits on the tripod are generally the most terrifying.  True, this is partially because the characters are often in more vulnerable states (asleep) during these scenes, but there is more to it.  What makes this movie so terrifying to me is what it doesn’t show, and it doesn’t show us because the camera is not in a position to move.  Events and violence unfold, but the action often moves off screen, leaving the viewer helpless, either waiting for something horrible to appear or watching characters be dragged helplessly out of sight.

A similar effect is seen in the videogame Resident Evil. Zombie games are certainly fun, but I’ve never played one that scared me like that game, and it was because of the perspective.   Though not viewed through a camcorder (or in any way that interacts with the world around it), it is the same fixed view which gives each scene its terror.  As you move from room to room, the camera shifts to some awkward position, such as looking down the hall or from a corner of the ceiling.  The character is controlled from this static view, a) making the controls unintuitive and thus very stressful when quick response is needed and b) allowing things to surprise the character suddenly from off screen, or even disturbingly reveal themselves ahead of time with an approaching shadow from the corner.


The music of a computer game subculture

Though I regrettably missed Tuesday’s class, I found little difficulty in thinking of ways that music associated with my favorite game has impacted me and my tastes.  For those of you who don’t know, I love Starcraft.  I especially love professional Starcraft, which has a vibrant and lucrative circuit in South Korea.  It’s often hard for Americans to visualize a screaming crowd of thousands of people who have gathered to watch nerds play an RTS made in 1998, but trust me, it happens.  Not only does it happen, but it is televised, and as a television production professional Starcraft has its own high-budget intros and segues.  The musical accompaniments to these bits are often adoloscent pop rock with the occasional scream (Saosin, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, etc.) or various other pop songs, such as “My Life Would Suck Without You.”  Even Nightwish (God forbid) isn’t completely unheard of.  Either way they are almost always American pop songs, and always remixed to some degree.  The end result is that I inevitably develop sentimental attachments to music that ranges from “not my taste” to “straight awful.”  You know you love a game when it makes you get goosebumps every time you hear the right Kelly Clarkson song.  I dare you to watch these clips and not feel pumped for Starcraft afterward.

First, a tasteful clip of a bunch of nerds underwater set to Kelly Clarkson.

Second, a rather creative comic-book-style intro set to some lovely Red Jumpsuit Apparatus.  After the intro you’ll get a great shot of the crowds I mentioned.  If you’re REALLY bold you’ll watch the whole game in all its amazingness.

Once again my embeds don’t seem to work, so the links will have to suffice. On an ironic note, most professional Starcraft players turn the actual game music off while playing, as many feel it hurts their concentration (though there are a few notable exceptions).

Pages 1-38 are like Crocs—surprisingly digestable.

After reading through the entire chapter once (and most of it twice) and making several excursions through the dictionary, I am fairly confident in my understanding.  There is too much material to regurgitate a simple summary, but when examining any particular section I believe I follow him correctly–any particular section, that is, except for one.  One sentence, which I shall mark in bold italics.

“And, as discussed, nondiegetic machine acts are about the various intensities of agitation between the various layers of the game itself, whether it be the agitation between two- and three-dimensionality, or between connectivity and disconnectivity, or between gameplay and the lack thereof.  Games are always about getting from here to there.  They require local differentials of space and action, not an abstract navigation through a set of anchored points of reference” (p. 36).

… … …What?  These are terms which show up nowhere else in the chapter, and go undefined and unexplained despite being words with numerous meanings, including “differentials”, “abstract”, “navigation” and “anchored points of reference.”  Perhaps I am wrong, but I feel as if he’s trying to emphasize that in videogames there are actions, which are performed in specific contexts, in contrast to navigating an abstraction.  First, navigating is an action, and thus I am confused.  Second, a “set of anchored points of reference” sounds suspiciously like my understanding of the word “context,” and thus I am further confused.  Halp.


Saving the town, slaughtering peasants on the way

Every so often I find a news article detailing a murder, assault or suicide perpetrated by some disturbed male teenager.  Almost invariably, the article prominently displays the fact that the boy had a history of playing “violent” or “war” games, and almost invariably I stop reading.  Certain parents and certain parts of the media have long been concerned with the way videogames affect the morality of children, which is understandable.  But stories like are absurd, and often for more than one reason.  First and most minor, oftentimes the game mentioned contains violence which is highly pixelated or otherwise non-offensive, is staged in a war setting (i.e. a situation in which it is generally acceptable to kill people)etc.  More importantly, as Koster explains, “Running over pedestrians, killing people, fighting terrorists, and eating dots while running from ghosts are all just stage settings, convenient metaphors for what a game is actually teaching” (p. 84).  Killing Russians in Modern Warfare 2 is not teaching you that slaughtering people is fun, Modern Warfare 2 is teaching hand-eye coordination and awareness of one’s surroundings.  Though the “dressing” does affect the appeal of any game, the underlying patterns, as Koster says, not only remain unchanged, but are largely the reason why we play them.

And besides, a normal human, even a child, is able to discern the nip from a bite, as it were, and understand the potential implications for bringing a game-situation to real life.  I have played violent games my entire life.  In fact, after posting this I will likely go down the hall and begin to slaughter enemy soldiers for several hours; I am also, at the same time, unable to watch bull-riding at rodeos out of fear I’ll see someone get hurt.  If you are someone at risk for psychotic behavior and might be influenced by violence in videogames, the games are the least of your problems.  If they don’t push you over the edge, something else will.

“HOLY FIREBALLS OF SH%T!!”: Spacewar Explained

Upon reading the section of Kline’s “Digital Play” about “Spacewars,” two things appear problematic.
First, Kline et. al. approach the creation of “Spacewar” in a fashion typical of academics, upholding an argument the factual basis of which is shaky at best.  Perhaps it is my bias as someone immersed in the economics department at George Mason, but I am always skeptical when told that any given historical event “could only have come about in exactly XYZ conditions” (usually referring to the aid of government subsidy).  There must be some appeal to glorifying events as semi-miraculous, once-in-a-millenium opportunities, but I frankly don’t see it.  The authors appear intent on emphasizing that the developments in computer technology and application behind modern videogames were indeed such miracles, and that “it was only by building on and appropriating the technological foundations of [military-space research and the “playful ‘gift economy’ of hackers”] that industrial capital could launch itself from a Fordist to a post-Fordist regime” (Kline p. 2).
There is far more to be said here, but alas, it must wait for a later post, as the second problem is far more pressing: Kline’s article does not give me nearly enough information about Spacewars.  If any of you are intrigued about the intricacies of spacewars (and the subsequent games derived from it), here is the first part of a moderately humorous YouTube series which elaborates in style.  There is far more to the gameplay of the original Spacewars than Kline lets on.
(For whatever reason, when I preview my post the embed is nowhere to be seen, so I’ll simply post the url: