All out of witty/interesting titles

Fact:  I was a reader of Nick Yee's Daedalus project for several years before it went into hibernation, and I even responded to a couple of his surveys [/geek moment]

Yee's article on the relationship between work and play had a couple of very good points, in particular this one:

"But this in fact is the purpose of all video games—to train a player to
work harder while still enjoying it.  And most games, including MMORPGs, employ
elaborate designs that derive from principles in behavioral conditioning (Skinner,
1938).  The timing and layering of reward mechanisms in video games train players to
derive pleasure from the work that is being done."

This idea isn't just applicable, to MMOs, as Yee points out.  (By the way, I always use the abbreviation MMO to refer to massive multiplayer online games, even though it doesn't actually make any sense.  Language is weird, especially on the Internet).  Anyone who who's ever played a Mario level a few times over will start to develop a rhythm of jumps to enemies to power ups that they use to either finish the level in the least possible time or with the greatest possible number of coins.  The player leans exactly when to hit the proper button to land on moving platforms and stick other tricky jumps, because if they don't, they die and have to start over.  Yee's theory holds true: the combined threat of death and promise of reward (mostly promise of reward, however insubstantial it may be--why do we care about high scores anyway?) leads the player to develop the most efficient method possible for completing the level.  The same is true for MMOs, which are often very math based--spells do a certain amount of damage per second and recharge at a certian rate, as do special attacks and abilities--and thus lend themselves well to statistical analysis by shrewd players.  Even if you don't bother to break down the math side of your strategies, however, you still develop an idea of which tactics work and which don't (because of the death/reward structure).  In games like WoW that require a lot of teamwork, the process is all the more complex, because you have to coordinate your efforts with a group to complete tasks that are impossible for any one player.  Serious WoW players often create very complex plans for dealing with difficult areas (if you're not aware of that meme, the video was staged BTW).  Role Playing Games also often have optimal skill progressions, which the player will probably figure out after two or three play throughs, to the point where their characters can be made nearly invincible.  A similar situation can occur in shooters, when the player becomes familiar enough with levels to know exactly where enemies will spawn and how to kill them with maximum efficiency.

So, clearly, video games do help us learn to work more effectively.  The question is, how can we turn that learning process into something that is actually productive?  (Gold farming doesn't count). Imagine if all the effort you put into learning the ins and outs of Halo's multiplayer maps was put into your real job.  Imagine if efficiency with which you pick apart Mega Man bosses was put into working for your actual boss.  Perhaps, if the game structure is so addicting, we should try to apply a similar structure to the workplace?  Now, how you would do this I have no idea--I'm a liberal arts student, not an actual useful contributor to society.  The problem is that Real Life (tm) doesn't have coins to collect and levels to beat.  We've created a game structure that represents the world we'd like to live it, but every so often we have to remember that we don't actually live there. 

This brings me to Julian Dibbell's article, in which he discusses one area where gaming becomes very important to real life issues: gold farming.  The whole concept of using money to purchase items that don't actually exist outside of their own game worlds is weird, both to non-gamers (to whom the action seems utterly illogical) and to many gamers (who consider the action to be the basest form of cheating).  Personally I would think that buying gold or experience points would take most of the sense of satisfactions out of a game, but there are obviously others who disagree.  I also found the description of the workers getting together a raid team was very interesting because they were essentially doing what thousands of people do every day--figuring out how to beat dungeons as effectively as possible in a social setting.  Of course they thought it was fun--the game is designed to make the player feel that way.  I guess that's why I wasn't suprised that the farmers also played WoW for their own entertainment.  The game is simply built to be addictive, and when you're good at something and have a group to play with (as the farmers did), it only increases the fun factor.

Really, it's unsurprising that companies have tried to make a profit out of selling items in WoW--the game had 11.5 million players a year ago, and that many people have a lot of cash to spend between them.  And, in a way, farming gold in WoW is no different from any other menial, repetitive job (Dibbell compares it to China's textile industry).  A good is mass produced through a series of mechanical actions, and then sold cheap to Western consumers.  The fact that this particular good is purely digital is...different, certainly.  But as we've seen, virtual worlds can seem almost as real as the physical kind to those who live there. 

 

 

Proof that I would rather work on this blog two days early than do homework that's due tomorrow

(A couple notes: this was started before class on Thursday, so it doesn't actually include the blog assignment yet. I'll try to add that later. Also, since I realize this post is long and many of you won't want to read it to the end, I'll quickly mention something form the end up here. It's a browser based game called Small Worlds, and I'd highly recommend that you check it out—the controls are very simple, you can beat it in about twenty minutes, and it's a lovely, thoughtful meditation on the role of exploration in games. Again, I'd highly recommend that you check this out—it's very cool and very relevant to what we've been talking about in class).


 

I decided to do some more research on video game criticism through the incredibly sophisticated method of typing "video game criticism" into Google.  This is what I found

Chuck Klosterman's article is very interesting and also pretty short, so really, you have no reason not to read it.  The issue he's exploring is why there are no real video game critics--at least, none who attempt to evaluate games based on their artistic merits.  There are a few possible reasons for this that he comes up with, including this one from Steven Johnson, author of the wonderfully titled book Everything Bad is Good For You.  I'd never heard of the book before two minutes ago but it looks like a very interesting read.  Johnson's theory seems to be that the combination of exploration and a rewards based structure featured in video games releases high levels of opioids ("the brain's pure pleasure drugs") in the brain, making games the only form of entertainment that can do.  Thus, he takes the stance of ludology, and believes that games must be evaluated based on their structure:

"Gamers don't play because they're drawn into the story line; they play because there's something intoxicating about the mix of exploring an environment and solving problems. The stories are an afterthought."

I've talked at length on this blog about why I think stories in games are important, so obviously I disagree at least a little with this point.  But consider the evolution of games for a second: early titles had virtually no story, and were purely about trying to achieve certain goals through gameplay.  Mario, the best selling video game franchise of all time (the latest installment has been getting a lot of play time in Dunham basement lately), still feature a potline that doesn't evolve much beyond "Rescue Princess Peach (again)!"  One of Nintendo's other flagship franchises, Zelda, features pretty much the same story.  So it's clear that in Mario at least, the story is indeed merely a vehicle for allowing the player to participate in gameplay and puzzle solving.  Of course, you could also argue that the context of Mario is one of the elements of its lasting appeal, and that the Mario world and characters represent a key part of the modern pop-culture mythology; but that's a subject for another day.  Basically, if we accept things like Mario and Tetris as representative of early game design, we can see that complex narratives in games only began to evolve quite a bit later.  The question of why they began to evolve is an interesting one, and I'd like to offer a couple of possibilities, both of which I just made up: first, people simply like stories.  We like to read/watch them, and we like to be a part of them as well, so the addition of a narrative to Johnson's cocktail of exploration and rewards adds another layer of satisfaction to the gaming experience--the satisfaction of seeing a conflict move through to it's resolution (and in the case of gaming, of helping to bring that resolution about).  A story lends a sense of purpose and personality to puzzles that might otherwise seem merely bland and analytical (would Mario be as much fun if the characters were polygons and there was no reason given for your journeys?  Maybe.  But it certainly wouldn't have gained the cult following that it currently enjoys).  Stories also provide a convenient beginning/middle/end structure for games, giving them convenient in and out points.  Finally, it's possible that as technology made the depiction of more realistic situations possible in game, developers felt obligated to include more developed stories as well, in order to justify the action.  Your motives for stomping Goombas need no real explanation--it's just something you do.  But actions like shooting people in the face carry much more weight, and as such need a more weighty explanation.

Johnson states that players don't play games for their story.  This isn't always true; I tend to play games with strong storylines almost exclusively, with the exception of the occasional sports game here and there.  But the point he's making is that the primary reason why people turn to video games over books or movies is the aspect of play--after all, you can experience stories in every medium, but you can only experience interactivity in games.  Therefore, interactivity is the most important thing about video games, and that's what we should focus our critical analysis on. 

"This is all completely true. However, I don't think it explains why video-game criticism doesn't exist. When someone reviews Moby Dick or Kramer vs. Kramer, they don't spend most of their time explaining the details of the plot (or at least they don't if they're interesting)...'[We] need to talk about games in a way that is appropriate to the medium," says Johnson. "In some cases, they're closer to architecture.'"

Two good points here.  First, that criticism of any media often emphasizes form over content (THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE OMG!)  Film criticism, for instance, often focuses on things like camera angles, lighting,costuming, transitions, and other technical aspects of the movie; all of which help to tell the story, but none of which actually makes up the story itself.  It focuses on the unique aspects of film, just as Johnson states that game criticism should focus on the unique aspects of games.  I also find his comparison of games to architecture to be very interesting--it imply that game stories are not so much told as they are explored.

"Look at it this way: Near the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O'Hara asks Rhett Butler what she's supposed to do with the rest of her life, and he says that (frankly) he doesn't give a damn. Now, the meaning of those lines can be interpreted in many ways. However, what if that dialogue happened only sometimes? What if this scene played out differently for every person who watched Gone with the Wind? What if Rhett occasionally changed his mind, walked back into the house, and said, "Just kidding, baby"? What if Scarlett suddenly murdered Rhett for acting too cavalier? What if the conversation were sometimes interrupted by a bear attack? And what if all these alternative realities were dictated by the audience itself? If Gone with the Wind ended differently every time it was experienced, it would change the way critics viewed its message. The question would not be "What does this mean?" The question would be "What could this mean?"

Long quote here, but it gives us a lot to think about.  If the narrative of a video game changes every time, for every player, how are we supposed to analyze it?  Clearly not using the same techniques reserved for the static media of novels and film.  Rather, as Klosterman, states the things we have to analyze are the possibilities that the game presents.  If the conversation at the end of the video game version of Gone With the Wind can be interrupted by a bear attack, the critic's job is not to analyze the scene but the ways in which the scene could be altered by the bear attack.  The emphasis is placed on the ways in which the narrative could change, not on the actual narrative itself.

Now, a method of criticism which follows this method purely is, in my opinion, a bad idea, because even when a narrative can change, it's individual permutations can still be quite powerful.  Simply because each player is experiencing a different story does not invalidate the artistic merits of each separate story.  But since a critic can't possible experience and evaluate each storyline (at least not without sinking an absurd number of hours into the game), the method by which they evaluate the artistic merit of the game can't be based on one particular narrative.  Therefore, there needs to be a method of criticism to evaluate games based on the way in which the narratives are structured.  I'm having a hard time putting this coherently, probably because we don't really have words for this sort of thing yet.  This is an entirely new form of entertainment, and the language we use to evaluate it is still very much in flux. 

Klosterman's article, which ran in June 2006, inspired this response from John Scalzi, a fantastic writer and blogger.  As per usual, Scalzi make a number of excellent points about why game criticism hasn't yet come into its own.  First, he points out that gaming is still a very young medium, and that cinema had been producing works of artistic merit for fifty years before film criticism really entered the public consiousness.  He also states that games might have a difficulty building up a critical following because they mostly lack the human stories that directors bring to movies and authors bring to books.  But I think the most important point he makes is this one:

"You actually have to be able to play the video games...How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many."

I can tell anyone that Let the Right One In is one of the best movies ever made, and they will be able to watch it.  I can tell them that The Book Thief is one of the books ever written, and they will be able to read it.  But if I tell them that Bioshock is one of the best video games ever made...well, they're going to have to master the art of moving and shooting and switching plasmids and guns and so and so forth.  To someone unfamiliar with shooters, this learning process can take quite a while.  For others--I'm thinking particularly here of the elderly--it might prove impossible, due to the amount of hand eye coordination and finger gymnastics involved.  Video games require certain skills to beat, and if you lack those skills, you're never going to get to see the end of the game.  I think that gaming is becoming a lot more mainstream of late, and "gamic literacy" as Galloway might call it is becoming more prevalent in society.  But for now, gaming is limited to the consumers who are willing to take the time to learn how to do it.  

Game design is also limited by consumer expectations.  For instance, the average shooter at runs for probably around ten to fifteen hours.  (Both Modern Warfare and it's sequel clock in at about seven hours, and both were widely criticized for being too short).  That's quite a chunk of time when compared to your average movie (which probably lasts for about two hours). Although it's nothing compared to what some games can eat up: I've sunk approximately 150 hours into Oblivion and 110 hours into Fallout 3, and gamers who play online can easily rack up totals much higher than that.  The point is that gamers expect titles to be a certain length, and so if the story a developer is trying to tell is less than that , they're forced to pad it out with filler missions--usually simple task-based levels that focus much more on play than on narrative.  This obligation to conform to a certain length means that stories often get stretched, which isn't really helpful to their effectiveness at art (this is also why the indie gaming scene represents the most innovative area of the medium at the moment--bigger studios are so concerned with conforming to gamer expectations and selling copies that they've become unwilling to try anything new.  Indie games are often much more willing to experiment with various lengths and narrative flows). 

(Interestingly enough, Scalzi lists Penny-Arcade as the site he feels comes closest to real video game criticism, and invites the reader to figure out why.  I'm a big fan of Penny-Arcade--I've linked to their comics several times in my blog posts--and I think what Scalzi means here is that while most gaming sites content themselves with merely reviewing game, PA is more concerned with exploring the culture behind those games--the why of gameplay, rather than the how). 

My own view, I guess, would be this: stories are important.  We need stories to exist.  And so it's only natural that gaming should have developed increasingly complex narratives to go with its gameplay.  Certainly, interactivity is what makes games unique; but interactivity strengthens, rather than weakens game narratives, as long as it's done properly.  Watching stories unfold in response to your actions is an enormously satisfying experience, and the better those stories are, the better the game is as a whole.  Therefore, I do think if is very important to analyze the content of video games, both for the merits of the story and for the ideas it can convey through preventing the story interactively (for instance: what does the now infamous "No Russian" mission have to say about terrorism due to it's very unique viewpoint?)  But I think the form of games is equally important.  If we've developed an entire language devoted to the form of films, why shouldn't be have the same thing for video games?  Maybe one day soon, critics are going to be looking at things like where the game allows you to save or where enemies spawn as contributing factors to a game's total artistic worth.  In any event, I agree with Johnson in that the real focus of game criticism needs to be on exploration, whether of a story or a universe, because that is what really makes games unique.

I'd like to close this post with an example of a really wonderful game based solely on exploration:  Small Worlds.  It's a free to play browser game, and takes roughly twenty minutes to complete, and I'd highly, highly recommend that you try it out.  The basic premise is that you control a character (man?  woman?  Hard to say, since it's only composed of a few pixels) who explores environments that are revealed as you travel through them.  Your view zooms out as you discover more of the area, resulting in seemingly simple locations that are expanded into a truly complex environment.  There's one main area to explore, and four smaller challenge rooms, and no enemies in sight--it's impossible to die, and the only controls are to move and jump, so even if you never ever play video games you should have no problems with this.  The result is a peaceful, relaxing, and even oddly beautiful experience--I can see what Johnson meant about the rewards of exploration being good for the brain.  And, as I said, it takes less than twenty minutes to complete, so I'd very much recommend taking a look at it.  It sums up most of the ideas in this post better than my words ever could.

(Interestingly, one of the things that the review of Small Worlds that I read emphasized was nostalgia brought about by the 8-bit graphics.  Perhaps this is one of the things limiting game criticism: as new systems render old games unplayable, much of gaming history is lost to the current generation--a far different situation than the one facing books and movies, which feature rich traditions and classic works that haven't become outdated due to their graphics.  By placing so much emphasis on technological progress, gaming is cutting itself off from it's own hisotry).

(One final note: I just stumbled upon this review for a game called Solium Infernum, and it's quite interesting.  I'll let you read the details if you want; but there are two quote that I feel are especially relevant.  The first is:  "Game journalists go on about games as art so often that we forget that they are also a science. Good game design is like astrophysics."  And the second is: "This is a game for people who see games as systems. It is for people who swear by Meier's Maxim that a game is a series of interesting decisions. It is for people who find science and math two of the most beautiful things in the world."  Perhaps the most wonderful thing about gaming is that it caters to all possible tastes: those who see games as systems, and those who see them as stories.  Perhapses the ludologists and narratologists are both right after all). 

 

It's Been a While

Games and story--two things I like to go on about, as you probably know if you've ever read this blog.  It's my opinion that games are the most potent storytelling medium ever devised.  We haven't realized their full potential yet, not by a long shot, but some of the stuff we do have is so good that it makes me very eager to see what the coming decades are going to bring. 

Not everyone feels this way; certainly all gamers don't.  There is a large group that believes that story doesn't really have a place in games--that games are, you know, things that you play.  One of the better known adherents this this view is film critic Roger Ebert, who elaborates on some of his views on games here.  It's a pretty interesting read, and one that I disagree with almost entirely.  Ebert's main point is that since the user has control over how the action of the game unfolds, they are able to manipulate the progression of the story, which prevents the story from reaching the same artistic levels as those told with more traditional media (book or films).  In other words, Ebert believes that an author must have complete control over the story they're telling for it to have artistic merit.  (I'm reminded of Ayn Rand, and the scene in The Fountainhead when Roark blows up the Cortland housing project.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you should definitely check out The Fountainhead sometime--despite it's length and melodrama, it's a really wonderful philosophical text, and even if you disagree with Rand's principles, you'll probably find yourself agreeing with her on many of the details.  Why am I even talking about this?  This is not on topic at all).  

"I believe that art is created by an artist," Ebert tells us; and then he adds this line:  " If you change it, you become the artist."  Now, the truth of this statement is debatable, and I'll look at it from a couple of different angles.  If it's true that the player becomes the artist through gameplay (a concept that's cropped up again and again throughout this semester), isn't that the greatest strength of video games as story telling medium?  Doesn't the fact that the player is handed the reigns of the story strengthen the potential of the game to create compelling situations?

The answer is: maybe.  I think so; but there are undoubtedly challenges involved with the creation of stories within video games.  I'll get to that in a bit.  For now, I'm not sure I buy Ebert's statement that interacting with with the game makes the player the "artist"--there certainly is a unique relationship going on between the player and the narrative they're experiencing, but in most cases the user is simply exploring parameters layed out by the designers--they're not really creating anything new.  As such, I think it's also possible to look at video games as complete narratives--but ones that the player is able to explore at their own pace, and with their own emphasis.

This is where video games excel--they can create the appearance of infinite options for the player.  Books, while they're pretty much unrivaled as far as the stimulation of the imagination goes, are limited to the domain of words on paper.  Movies and comics can show visuals, but there's only so much that they can cram into a single frame.  Video games, however, give the player the ability to explore environments as they see fit.  Story information can be conveyed through the environment, through interactions with other characters, through audio diaries or written messages or any number of other mediums within this newest medium.  Sure, every player is going to experience all of this information in different ways.  Some players are inevitably going to miss some of it.  But that's the beauty of the video game story.  As Ebert says, there is never going to be a video game that is the equivalent of War and Peace, because no two players are ever going to get to experience exactly the same storyline.  But there's never going to be a book where you can talk about how it's scenarios played out when you read it, or about the secrets you found while reading that none of your friends did.  That's the territory of video games, and it's a territory that's rich with story potential.

Another (rather lengthier) argument that story doesn't really have a place in games can be found here (it's written by some guy named Greg Costikyan, who I had never heard of but who apparently has his own WIkipedia page, which means that in my eyes he has enough credibility to be taken seriously.  Interesting how we can judge someone by the state of their Wikipedia article). He makes a number of points that I disagree with intensely very eloquently, notably this one:

"A story is linear. The events of a story occur in the same order, and in the same way, each time you read (or watch or listen to) it. A story is a controlled experience; the author consciously crafts it, choosing precisely these events, in this order, to create a story with maximum impact. If the events occurred in some other fashion, the impact of the story would be diminished --or if that isn't true, the author isn't doing a good job."

He then goes on to state that games are non-linear, giving the player "at least the illusion of control," and that games and story must therefore always be at odds with one another:

"Divergence from a story's path is likely to make for a less satisfying story; restricting a player's freedom of action is likely to make for a less satisfying game. To the degree that you make a game more like a story--a controlled, pre-determined experience, with events occurring as the author wishes--you make it a less effective game. To the degree that you make a story more like a game--with alternative paths and outcomes--you make it a less effective story. It's not merely that games aren't stories, and vice versa; rather, they are, in a sense, opposites."

This is, in one sense, absolutely true.  As mentioned in Gamic Action, the sections of a game that convey much of the story are often the non-interactive cutscenes ("There is a certain amount of repurposing and remediation going on here, brought on by a nostalgia for previous media and a fear of the pure uniqueness of video games.")  One common criticism leveled at the game industry is that as blockbuster titles strive to become ever more cinematic, they actually leave behind the things that give them their greatest strengths as video games.  Yet the best moments of gaming storytelling I've encountered haven't been the fancy cutscenes (well...there are admittedly a few exceptions, but my points still stands).  They've been the moments of discovery, whether that discovery be the missing fragment of a diary or a surprising dialog option during a conversation.  Games don't need to rely on cutscenes--they just need to create narratives interesting enough so that the player wants to pay attention to what's going on.  There's no need to break the interactivity at all. 

Since I brought up Gamic Action in that last paragraph, I suppose now would be a good time to talk about it.  I enjoyed this reading quite a bit, particularly the discussion about various HUDs and meta-narratives of Metal Gear Solid and Max Payne.  With regards to the HUDs of shooter and strategy games, they're mostly just things that gamers take for granted--why, of course there's an ammo counter floating in mid-air at the edge of my vision!  That just makes sense!  Lately, though, there's been a trend towards greater realism in shooters, with ammo counters often moved to the guns themselves, and health bars replaced by blood appearing on the screen if the player is hurt (in Dead Space, for instance, information that would be traditionally shown through the HUD is integrated into the design of the main character's weapons and space suit). 

The concept of of "nondiegetic machine acts"--or actions by the video game that essentially break the fourth wall--is fascinating to me, as is pretty much anything that involves breaking the fourth wall.  As a narrative device, it's unrivaled for sheer weirdness.  In addition to the examples given in the text, I'd like to point out Eternal Darkness, a game which simulates your character's insanity by, among other thing, apparently lowering the volume on your television and displaying a number of fake error messages.  There's also a hallucination sequence in Batman: Arkham Asylum during which the game apparently crashes, and it's opening cutscene is replayed--albeit with Batman replaced by the Joker.  While not every game can get away with stuff like this, the ones that can are able to use it with great affect, in part thanks to gamer expectations that the game their playing will try to draw them in as much as possible, and not remind them that it is, in fact, a video game.

From Game-Story to Cyberdrama was pretty basic stuff, but there was one statement that jumped out at me: "In a postmodern world, however, everyday experience has come to seem increasingly gamelike, and we are aware of the constructed nature of all our narratives."  The idea that everything is a game is a slightly disturbing one, although perhaps not that unreasonable: the corporate structure looks suspiciously game-like at times, as do the social maneuvers we perform among various groups of friends.  I'm not sure exactly what Murray's point is here--that living in a game-like world gives us the desire to play games?  That games can help us understand our society?--but it's an interesting concept none the less.

And now, having reached the end of this post, I realize that there's one other thing I wanted to talk about: the difficulties of creating believable characters in video games. 

Returning to Costikyan's argument about storytelling and interactivity, I'd suggest that as games become increasingly interactive, it is in fact harder to include believable characters in them.  What I mean by this is that as the depth of your interaction with non-player characters increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to make those characters feel real.  For instance, consider the problem of having a conversation with a virtual character.  In most video games, you select conversation options from menus that appear while talking to an NPC; generally there are four or five choices, and in many games they are organized on a continuum ranging from polite to rude and touching on a variety of other emotions along the way.  Mass Effect, which probably does conversation as well as any game currently in existence, uses a system where the user specifies the tone that they want their character to adopt, and the character responds with a more detailed phrase.  It's a pretty slick engine, and the conversation flows much more quickly and naturally than in most games; but it still doesn't get things quite right.  Conversations often still feel like infodumps, and your relationships with other characters--even the ones you have the option to sleep with--don't feel natural.  How to get around this is problematic at best.  A few weeks ago I suggested an engine which would randomly assign a backstory to characters, and then provide you with conversations options based on shared backstories and experiences, similar interests (again randomly assigned to each character, in a system not unlike The Sims) and some generic topics like the food you're eating or the weather.  As your characters talk, more personal topics could eventually be brought up, ranging from hopes and fears to traumatic memories.  And there would have to be vocal hesitations--and interruptions--and awkward pauses--and all the other things that are missing from video games in which characters take turns speaking at one another.

Way back in 2005, I was lurking at the Elder Scrolls forums when I saw a post discussing the then unreleased Oblivion.  The poster was discussing how in the previous title in the series, "We were like, Hey, remember when we found out this bit of information?  I'm hoping that in the next one, we'll be like, Hey, remember when so-and-so did this?"  This shift of focus to characters hasn't been perfected yet, but we're getting there.  Maybe someday soon, a video game will actually pull off a convincing love story that involves more than rescuing a princess from a castle. 

"It's the meat talking."

As I interpreted it, the central point of A Rape in Cyberspace is that the distinction between what is real and what is virtual becomes difficult to define as we live more and more of our lives in online spaces.  So this post is going to be an exploration of what exactly our online lives mean to us; lives that can be lived out over Facebook, or massive-miltiplayer games, or even on blogs. 

The idea of a life lived in cyberspace isn't really a new one.  It's featured heavily in Neuromancer, William Gibson's 1984 novel in which he basically foretold the existence of the Internet.  (Interestingly, that article points out that the cyberspace Gibson's characters jack into shares certain similarities with Second Life).  Neuromancer is a fantastic book, if you haven't read it yet--it both introduced the world to the word "cyberspace" and popularized the cyberpunk genre (which in turn, has lead to all kinds of wonderful spin-offs: cybergoth, biopunk, and my personal favorite, steampunk.  I'd love to devote an entire post to steampunk, but really, it has nothing to do what we're talking about, so that's out.  Hit up that link or check out the Wikipedia article if you're interested). 

Anyway, Neuromancer is highly relevant to what we've been talking about lately.  For one, it offers a very literal example of "identity tourism," as the protagonist (a rogue hacker named Case) is able to piggyback on the consciousness of his partner at several points.  For another, Case is openly contemptuous of his body, preferring the freedom of the net.  Here's a quote for you: “In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh."  Case despises the urges and weaknesses of his body.  When a rival deprives him of the ability to jack into the network, he becomes a hopeless drug addict, trying to find a fix that can replace the sensation of surfing cyberspace.  He fails.  There is nothing that can match the experience of the net.  There is nothing that can match the feeling of limitless realms of information, rolling away to infinity...

Ever have that feeling?

A Rape In Cyberspace also talks about the attraction of leaving the body behind.  I'm thinking specifically of the paragraph of cybersex, which ends with this intriguing line regarding sex via MUD: "And...who knows?  The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh."  This idea that love may not be dependent on physical contact--or even on any sort of real-world connection at all--may be an uncomfortable notion for some people, but it does raise an interesting question about what the people we know online can mean to us. 

In a post a while ago I mentioned Terrouge, the Redwall fan-site I was an active member of for a couple of years (eighth and ninth grade, I believe).  I was at least as involved in Terrouge as Julian Dibbell was in the world of Lambda MOO--it may not have been a virtual world, but it was most definetly a society, with it's own customs and relationships and participants.  Maylin, Randag, Ashen Fox, Lord TBT, Silver Rain, Bracken...those user names bring back a lot of memories, even now.  I had more than eleven hundred posts at Terrouge, and as you can imagine, that's a lot of discussions and games and debates with a lot of different people.  I can still remember the arguments that would crop up from time to time, down to the specific people who participated and the positions they took.  I can remember nominating Evil and Vile (yeah, that's a user name) for the "most likely to go on a chainsaw rampage" forum award as a joke, and being surprised when she actually won (probably because no one could resist voting for her; she was one of the nicest people on the forum).  I remember people's avatars (Lady Tara Starblade had that dancing cat for a long time; Maylin had various drawings of a blue mouse in profile; Triton had a really creepy one that would display the name of the last person to load the page). 

I drifted away from the 'Rouge around the same time as a number of other people.  The forum had been down for a solid month, after getting hit by a virus, and when it came back up it was hosted by a different group, with a different layout and color scheme.  Some people simply didn't come back at all; and for those of us who did, things seemed different.  There was very much a sense that things had changed for the worse; and although there was a brief Renaissance of people looking to "save" Terrouge, people began to just stop posting.  Eventually, without most of the people who had made the forums such a cool place back in the day, there didn't seem to be much point in staying.  I stopped visiting the sight every day.  Eventually, some time in tenth grade, I stopped going at all.  I havne't been back since. 

Now, I don't know if I can compare my own experiences to A Rape In Cyberspace.  There was never any eroticism on the 'Rouge, and I certainly never became romantically attached to anyone there, beyond perhaps the most basic of infatuations (talking to college girls as an eight grader and having them treat you as an equal?  It's a heady experience).  But I do know that I cared as deeply for the community of Terrouge as I did for most of the friends I had in real life.  This was in the pre-Facebook era, of course, so in a way it was easier for me to connect to strangers than to friends online (the only virtual space in which I hung out with classmates at that point in my life was Runescape...but that's a different story).  But, really, they weren't strangers to me.  Although I had never met them in the physical world, knew next to nothing about their personal lives, and saw only the personalities they chose to project through their user accounts (often named after Redwall characters, for the purpose of role playing), I fully considered them to be friends.  It was the most deeply I've ever invested myself in a virtual space, and as I think this post proves, at least a part of that investment has stayed with me.

But what's the point?  What have I been trying to prove with this long and boring reflection?

I guess the issue I'm trying to address is whether we can have relationships with people online that are as real or as "deep," if you prefer, as the relationships we have with people IRL.  And I'd say that the answer is most definitely yes.  But that idea creates all sorts of problems--for one thing, how do you know what the person you've met online is "really" like?  Many people act differently online than they do in everyday life; I tend to be more outgoing (and, as this blog proves, much more wordy).  I think at least part of the reason why Terrouge appealed to me so much was that it's structure as a forum offered a freedom from the akward pause, and the opportunity to marshal my thoughts into the most coherent possible form before posting them.  Maybe that's why I really enjoy posting on this blog, but don't talk nearly this much in class. 

If the Internet provides us with the opportunity to subtly change our personalities, however, does this mean that I can ever really be friends with the person I meet online?  If we've both adopted different personas, isn't our virtual relationship going to be vastly different (and, potentially, more satisfying) than any we could develop in real life? And if, as A Rape in Cyberspace claims, it is indeed possible to fall in love with someone on the Internet--if, for instance, I fall in love with someone I meet on a message board--what am I really in love with?  The idea of a person, as projected through the filter of options that the medium in which we've conversing provides (in the case of a forum, our avatars and signatures and posts)?  If I'm only in love with an idea, can it be called love at all?  But then again, if I'm in love with someone in real life, aren't I still just in love with the idea of themself that they project through a different set of output devices (touch, expression, clothing, the spoken word)?  Are the Internet and our bodies simply two different ways of expressing our personalities?  And if so, who are we to decide which expression is the more "true" one?

I just ended every sentence in that last paragraph with a question mark.  It must be 4:49 AM or something. 

Before I end this post, I'd also like to mention Facebook, which I'm sure most of us are familiar with.  Most of our Facebook friends are people we know in real life (at least, most of mine are).  And when we interact with them in real life, our view of them as a person comes from the signals we get from them via our five senses (well...maybe not taste.  At least not in the majority of social interactions).  But when we interact with those same people on Facebook, the view we get of them as a person comes from wall posts, and form comments on other peoples' statuses, and from things that they've "liked," and from groups that they've joined, and from results to quizzes that they've taken, and from the quizzes that they chose to take...In other words, our sense of their identity is built up by an entirely different set of inputs.  My question is: do they then become a differnet person?  Is their Facebook indentity seperate from their real world identity? 

I don't know the answer.  If I had to invent one, I guess I'd say that the two identities are separate--they function in different worlds, with different values and social customs (besides which, if I can get my hands on your password, I can manipulate your Facebook identity in any way I choose.  As A Rape in Cyberspace shows us, online identities aren't nearly as absolute or as under our control as we would like them to be).

If the identities are separate, however, do they ever begin to intrude on one another?  When do the different worlds begin to blur? 

Clearly, there is a point at which what happens to us online can affect us very strongly in real life.  The reactions to the rape in Lambda MOO clearly demonstrates this.  So can we not separate our identities after all?  Are the projections of ourselves we use to navigate the Internet still part of "us" to the extent that we take what happens to them personality?  I think that the answer depends a lot on how comfortable we become in our virtual worlds.  In the case of the Bungle affair, the residents of Lambda MOO had come to see the living room as home--a place where they could feel safe, confident that they were safe from concerns.  In this respect, Mr. Bungle exhibits the classic griefer psychology we saw in the other readings for this week: attacking people where they feel the most safe, in order to shake up their assumptions about the nature of the Internet.  Ultimately, there is nowhere on the Internet that we should think of as home, or as safe.  All of the Internet, however convincing and attractive a facade it may present, is no more than lines of code; and no Second Life, or Terrouge, or Lambda MOO, is free from the threat of digital attack.  It's when we forget this--when we start to see the Internet not as a collection of linked information, but as a collection of places--that what happens there begins to be very important to us.  It's when we accept the illusion of the Internet as real that the emotional interactions that take place there become real to us as well.

(All that said, I absolutely would not agree that freedom of speech should be restricted to prevent things like virtual rape.  If we start to censor some types of the written word (or, in the case of environments like Second Life, some types of what is essentially interactive art), what's to stop us from censoring more?  What's to stop us from censoring anything that we find distasteful?  And who gets to decide what's distasteful?)

Finally, at the end of this very long post, I remind you to make sure you actually know who you're talking to while online.  It can be important :-)


 

(Hells yeah 2100+ words!) (Apologies for the inevitable spelling/grammar errors. This was written in the middle of the night and I can't be bothered to proofread it that thoroughly. Hope you enjoyed it if you read this far).


 

 

"Bloggers are filth." -- Weeve

(Just to be clear: that last post was two days late.  This one is a day early). 

I liked all of the readings this week, but for the sake of not losing my mind I'm going to focus mainly on just one of them for this post: Malwebolence

Most trolls are just annoying: the ones who post racist content or repetitive links to porn in YouTube comments.  Some can be genuinely amusing, such as those who have mastered the art of the RickRoll.  And the ones who get serious, like Weeve and Jason Fortuny, can be genuinely terrifying.  There are malicious people out there who can get access to your address, and social security number, and any other personal information they want at will.  Is that not a somewhat scary thought?

Of course, the potential for someone to commit a random act of griefing has existed long before the Internet  (for instance, the IRL equivalent of trolling a message board would be mimicking somone, or telling them that "I'm not touching you").  But the Internet adds anonymity to the equation, meaning that the the usual inhibitions that prevent people form harassing one another in public are erased.  On the Internet, a "frontier town on the brink of anarchy," [1] the only law enforcement consists of moderators and admins, and even their ability to control trolls is severely limited.  One has to wonder: what could organizations like Anonymous really do, if you put their collective will to it?  How far could they push the system? 

Anonymous fascinates me.  There's something about the concept of an invisible group of hackers that appeals to the cyberpunk I wish I was, something that seems far too strange and mysterious to exist in the real world.  But Anonymous is very real, and their actions have very real consequence.  The most famous is probably Project Chanology, the anti-Scientology campaign that began with this video.  Originally limited to attacks on the official Scientology website, the protest has escalated into actual protests involving thousands of participant, most clad in Anonymous' trademark Guy Fawkes masks (which most of us know from V From Vendetta.  Which, despite being a great movie, is an even better comic, BTW). 

Project Chanology is only one small offshoot of Anonymous, however.  Some others are not nearly so civil in their disobedience.  We read in Malwebolence about the attacks on the epilepsy forums, and there have also been malicious attacks on various other websites (you can read about them on the Anonymous Wikipedia article, so I won't so over them again here).  There have been incidences of hate campaigns escalating to thousands of death threats directed at individuals.  Of course, whether Anonymous was actually involved in these actions is debatable, as it whether Anonymous can even be defined as a group at all.  Anyone without an identity (read: anyone with a least a bit of knowledge about online privacy) can claim to be Anonymous.  There is no central leadership, no hierarchy other than that which develops around online infamy.  The superconsiousness that is Anonymous is not really as unified as the media might have us believe.

And yet...scroll down a bit more on that Wikipeia article.  Anonymous has been responsible for tracking down a pedophile, and for ending a case of animal abuse.  They've established a protest site relating to election fraud in Iran.  Internet Vigilantism can be a bit shady, definitely, too often turning into mere trolling.  Yet it can also have positive effects, as in the case of this anti-pedophile activism.  We've created a brave new virtual world, and it should come as no surprise that it has spawned it's own heroes and villains. 

(Next time on LAJPITOARKANFTBO: what living in this world mean for us as a generation, and as a society). 

For more on Anonymous and Project Chanology, check out this article

@ Professor Anable: I loved the fact that you refer to the Internet as "a perpetual Burning Man."  :-)


 

[1] "Malwebolence"  Schwartz, Mattahias

 

Strange Mirrors

Is it significant, I wonder, that when I play the Elder Scrolls games, I always choose to be a cat or a lizard instead of a human?  Is there some weird Freudian explanation for why I prefer the beast races?  (Actually, if there is, I'm probably just as happy not knowing it.  But anyway...)

The concept of racism in fantasy worlds is tricky.  Dungeons and Dragons is one that will spark an internet debate every once and a while, partly because most of the protagonists are assumed to be white.  As this essay points out: "In 4 editions [of D&D], published over 30 years with 325 illustrations and 1,691 pages, I found exactly 1 non-white male and 1 none-white female."  Maybe this tendency to whiteness shouldn't be surprising, as D&D was created by a white guy from the American Midwest, and it's traditional target audience is white males.  This article (which is in part a rebuttal of the previous one I linked to) also points out that D&D is heavily inspired by British and Arthurian history and legends, further biasing the game towards white characters (it also mentions that Tolkien, who's been the main influence for just about every fantasy game that came after him, drew heavily on Nordic legends--more whiteness!)  So while the racism of D&D is probably not malicious or even intentional, it can still definitely affect players (one of the comments I read was from a black woman who talked about how the Dungeon Master and other players in her game both assumed that her character was also black and suggested that she be a thief instead of a paladin).  There's also the issue with some people claiming that the Orcs and other inherently evil races of D&D are meant to stand in for blacks or other minorities (or that the depiction of Orcs as a race that can be killed without question is an outlet for racist fantasies...not saying that I agree at all, just saying that the argument has been made).

Getting back to the Elder Scrolls for a minute:  There are ten total races that the player can choose to be in the game.  Two consisting of white humans (Nords, Imperials), one of black humans (Redguards), three of white elves, one of "dark elves," and three beast races (Orcs, and the aforementioned Khajiit and Argonians).  Are their any racial implications to be found here?  Well, possibly: the Redguards are described as being fiercely proud and independent, as well as being the most naturally athletic race in the game.  They make "the best warriors in Tamriel," and are "more suitable as scouts or skirmishers, or as free-ranging heroes and adventurers, than as rank-and-file soldiers."  Conversely, the Imperials are said to be "well-educated and well-spoken," and are described as follows: "Though physically less imposing than the other races, the Imperials have proved to be shrewd diplomats and traders, and these traits, along with their remarkable skill and training as light infantry, have enabled them to subdue all the other nations and races, and to have erected the monument to peace and prosperity that comprises the Glorious Empire."  If you want to interpret these facts as being racist, you could point out that it is the whites who are the rulers, and who rely on their training and education to rise above the black (who simply rely on superior natural ability).  This isn't how I've ever interpreted the games; but it may be an indicator of certain underlying assumptions that have infected this particular type of fantasy.

Of course, games that force you to play as one particular character are a different story entirely from those that allow you to create a character of your own.  This isn't really the topic for this week, but if there are any gamers out there, I'm just wondering: when was the last time you played a character who wasn't a badass white guy?  (Metroid and Tomb Raider are probably the most famous exceptions to this rule gender wise; GTA San Andreas might be the best known exception race wise). 

But the actual topic this week was racism on the Internet, as described in Lisa Nakamura's "Cybertyping" article.  There were a couple of points that jumped out at me: first, that the Internet encourages the creation of new racial stereotypes, and second, that it leads to a homogeneously white monoculture.  With regards to the former, I think part of the issue might be the fact that we literally know nothing about the people we meet on the Internet.  In trying to figure out at least a little bit of information about these strangers, we often use the appearance of their avatars; and that can mean relying at least a little bit on stereotypes.  It is possible, as Nakamura suggests, that there is an unspoken language of stereotypes that we use to profile the people we meet online.

I have more of an issue with the claim that the Internet is making us a monoculture, however.  Yes, we can all share the same memes now, and we all have access to the same information if we want it.  But I would argue that what the Internet does best is actually aid in the creation of microcultures: corners of cyberspace where unique communities based on shared interests can develop.  Nakamura claims that the Internet leads to uniform whiteness, but if there can be sites that cater to groups like furries, why can't there be sites that acknowledge various races as well? 

Of course, it is true that if I meet someone online, someone who doesn't do anything to indicate their race to me, I'll probably assume that they're white.  Is this necessarily wrong, though?  I'm not sure.  The only really weird revelation I had with relation to gender online was when I found out that a forum member whose fan-fiction I admired was an eleven year old girl (and that was because of her age, not her gender.  Although the character she was role-playing did happen to be male).  Maybe age is another thing that becomes blurred by the Internet?  Generally the young and old don't frequent it too much, so we forget that they exist. 

Oh, yeah: when I'm not busy being cats and lizards, I guess I'm this guy:

 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


Yeah...no. 


 

 

Guy In Real Life

Just finished up the Lara Croft reading for this week, and as is my custom, I have a whole bunch of links to throw at you. 

One of the questions that the article posed was why male players would want to use female avatars in games.  There were a couple of answers suggested: that males simply enjoy looking at (often very sexualized) female characters, or that males in question are looking for some sort of transgender experience that only games can provide, or that Lara Croft and other similar characters are symbols of romantic fixation.  Some more ideas on the subject can be found here, including the fact that female avatars in online games are likely to be treated more chivalrously by male avatars.  That article also brings up the attractiveness of female game characters, which seems to be pretty pervasive.  There has never been an ugly female video game protagonist.  Then again, there's probably never been an ugly male protagonist either, although can get away with being badass rather than sexy.  The women usually can't.  Much like in Hollywood, the world of gaming has no place for the unattractive, although RPGs may have the potential to change that--games such as the latest Elder Scrolls title and Fallout 3 do feature characters who break the mold of youthful, physical perfection.  Interestingly, they also let you customize the facial structure of the player character in minute detail, allowing for some hilariously ugly permutations.  Most players will make their avatar at least presentable, of course; and unfortunately, your appearance has very little to do with how other characters react to you (you're also unable to alter the physical proportions of your body, meaning that everyone has pretty much the same body mass index). 

Speaking of which--and this is ridiculously tangential and I'll try to keep it brief--the dialog in most RPGs leaves a lot to be desired.  I love Fallout 3, and I think that it does have some exceptionally good writing, but the basic dialog system exists mostly so that you can get information from other characters.  You can't really build up relationships with them through conversation (well...there are some exceptions.  But even in the "Wow!" moments, when it really seems like that collection of pixels you're talking to has a personality of it's own, you know that eventually you're just going to get sent back to the same menu system, with it's limiting choices, and the character is going to react to you pretty much the same way every time you speak to them).  These aren't people; they're vending machines, whether what you're buying is information or items.  If designers want to create characters who actually feel real, there needs to be a dramatic rethinking in the way virtual conversation is approached.

Maybe I'm being unfair here.  Maybe technology simply doesn't have the capabilities to simulate the kinds of things I'm imagining.  But I think otherwise.  For instance, what if you had a dialog engine that could randomly generate possible conversation topics with characters based on the experiences that you and that character had shared within the game?  (With a few generic topics--the weather lately, the food you're eating if you're sitting at a table--thrown in for good measure).  What if characters could then continue the conversation using anecdotes of past lives randomly selected for them by the engine?  Conversation topics would have tags (much like YouTube videos do today), allowing conversations to flow smoothly.  And, BTW, there needs to be a game that can simulate the Awkward Silence.  There needs to be a game that embraced awkwardness in general , in fact.  There needs to be a game that gives it's characters emotions based on the things you say to them, rather than the binary friend/enemy system most games use to day.  I'm no game designer, and what I'm trying to describe would doubtless take an obscene amount of writing and recording and time, and probably prove deeply impossible when you were done creating it.  But I can dream.

Okay, back to the readings: speaking of the ways we relate to our avatars in video games, there's another fantastic Escapist article on the subject, which discusses why both the very young and old--but especially little girls--never really appear as protagonists in video games.  The author makes some very interesting points about what the implications of a very young girl as the player character might be (though I think any game told from the point of view of a child could potentially be fascinating: how do you deal with the child's irrational fears, and their blossoming imagination?  How do you show that within the world of the game?)  Also pointed out by the article, and examined more in depth in this one, is the fact that the elderly are very seldom seen as video game protagonists.  Part of this no doubt has to do with marketability--most gamers, male ones at least, would probably prefer to play as Lara Croft than as some old lady.  (This is also why there are so few decent roles written for older women in Hollywood, but older men--Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford--have no trouble finding parts).  Part of this may be due to the fact that the elderly aren't really the target audience for video games (although there are exceptions to the rule).  As our generation, the one that's been raised on video games, grows older, will be see an increased demand for older protagonists?  Maybe.  Will game designers one day grow up enough to realize that they can tell compelling stories about characters who aren't strong and silent men or women who apparently don't have the ability to dress themselves in a logical faction?  Certainly.  Will anyone buy the games they make?  I really don't know.  At present, most high profile games are so heavily targeted at the stereotypical teenage boy that publishers don't want to take the risk of catering to other audiences.  But hopefully, as gaming moves ever farther into the mainstream, we'll start to see titles that focus on those who've traditionally been left out of the medium.

That would have been a great place for me to segue into talking about how minorities are underrepresented in video games, wouldn't it have?  But I'm not done!  I haven't posted this link yet, which talks about how female gamers are often perceived by the fratriarchy of gaming society (yeah, that's an actual word.  Google told me so).  I haven't posted the most bizarre type of sexualization of female avatars I've ever seen yet either.  Seriously, is that weird or what?  (Admittedly, I found this video quite amusing--but, seriously?  Is this the most innovative thing we can do with motion controls?  Is this the best way we can think of to portray women in video games?  Is this even healthy--creating virtual representations of women that 1) are wildly unrealistic, 2) have no personality beyond their physical appearance, and 3) exist solely to act as eye candy for the male player?  Probably not).  Finally, I'd like to direct to to one final article; and if you never click on any of my links, at least check out this one, because it really is one of the more thoughtful examinations of women and video game I've ever read.  (It also features one of the all time great quotes ever:  "Pants. I just like my heroines to be wearing pants."  :-)

And now I'm going to go talk about race in video games; but first I'm going to go read High Tech Blackface, so I have some slight idea what I'm talking about.  

Back now with more links.  The reading talked a lot about how sports video games are really the only genre in which we see black characters in staring roles.  This article points out much the same thing, noting that Hispanics tend to receive similar underrepresentation in games.  Part of the problem here is said to be the fact that the vast majority of game designers--about 83 percent--are white, and therefore bring a primarily white perspective to the virtual worlds that they're helping to create.  For an example of what this can lead to, check out the topic of discussion at the beginning of the article: characters whose skin tone may be dark, but whose body language and mannerisms mark them as white.  This is the same idea behind the over-muscled black athletes that David J. Leonard points out in NFL Street--white images of a perceived black culture, designed not to be an accurate representation of a race, but a characterization created for the purposes of white fantasies. 

Similar themes can be found here--character creation limits black avatars to stereotypical features, and black characters are usually portrayed as being angry and violent.  Society was supposed to have gotten over this stuff a while ago, wasn't it?  Not in video games! But again, a medium that's being produced primarily by whites is going to have a different take on race than one that isn't

A specific example that popped up recently was the controversy surrounding this trailer for the survival/horror game Resident Evil 5.  If you don't feel like watching, it basically consists of the game's white protagonist fighting zombies in Africa--not something to get too worked up about, right?  Wrong, if you're journalist N'Gai Croal, or one of hundreds of others who accused the trailer of using racist imagery.  You can read Croal's opinion here, and it's very interesting: he points out how the Africans are demonized even before they transform into zombies, and how the trailer uses classic racist imagery to set up the Africans as the bad guys.  There's also the fact that the designers decided to make the protagonists of a game set in Africa white, which goes along with the lack of black protagonists seen throughout the medium.  Whether you find the trailer offensive or not is up to you--the debate surrounding it got pretty heated--but this last fact is surely significant regardless.  Why do the protagonists have to be white?  And when will the trend finally start to reverse? 

(I wish I could take credit for the acronym that the title of this posts creates, but it was in fact plundered from a now deleted Uncyclopedia article which attempted to prove in humourous fashion that there are no real girls on the Internet).


 

And Another Thing

Since finishing that other post, I've watched Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (twice) and figured it would be good to talk about here.  You can get all the background from Wikipedia, but basically, Dr. Horrible's is an internet-distributed musical created independently by Joss Whedon (the guy behind Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a way to get around the creative deadlock imposed by the 2008 Writer's Guild strike.  Posted for for free on Hulu in three installments (which are still available today), the musical was then released over iTunes and in DVD format (at which point cast and crew, who had been working for nothing up to that point, were finally actually paid).  Anyway, I thought it was a really interesting look at an alternative method from producing a series and making a profit off of it.  Go watch it if you have the time.  And then go read my other posts :-)

Back on Topic

Since I've already posted twice this week, I'll probably keep this one brief  (one the other hand, since only one of my posts was on topic, I feel obligated to write this one).  So, a few thoughts on transmedia:

One of the mediums that has been fostered by the Internet is webcomics, which we haven't talked about in class yet.  I follow a number of them.  They're a very unique medium--for one thing, most feature a punch-line/dramatic moment at the end of each episode; and most are updated a few times a week, leading to a very interesting pacing of the storyline. That wasn't what I was going to talk about though.  What I was going to talk about was Megatokyo, and the way it incorporates multiple mediums into the story it tells.  First of all, the series has been collected into print volumes, and reading them gives a much different pace to the story than experiencing it as it is released, one page at a time, online (especially since the pace up updates is often glacially slow).  More interestingly, though, the story works in both it's characters' adventures in a surreal version of Tokyo and their adventures within various gameworlds.  The writer/artist of the comic, Fred Gallagher, has stated that he feels the relationships we have in online games can be as important as those developed in real life; and he uses the in-comic gameworlds to explore a number of issues (including gender identity, since a number of the characters play as avatars of the opposite gender).  I'm not sure if this incorporation of a representation of one medium into another is exactly an example of transmedia or not, but it is interesting.

Another not-exactly-an-example-of-transmedia is Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, which I played the demo for several times while I was sick.  The game is a western themed first person shooter, and while it isn't based on any movie in particular, in does incorporate the conventions and cliches of many classic westerns (the shootout, the stagecoach battle, breaking people out of prison...it's a very nicely atmospheric game, though it does have some flaws).  The transmedia relation here is that the traditions of one well established genre (which has fallen out of favor at the box office in recent years) have been adapted to an entirely new medium, bringing them to an entirely new target audience. 

But neither of these are real examples of the kind we've been looking at in class, so lets move on to something that used to play a very big role in my life, even if it's been years since I paid it any attention at all.

Anybody remember Bionicle?  It began as a series of toys from Lego, which still exists today (generally, a new set of heroes and villains is released every year.  I'm not sure what the latest sets are, but I knew that several different types had been introduced at the time I stopped following the series).  I wasn't introduced to the characters through the sets, however; I had my introduction to the world of Bionicle through the comics which came free with my Lego Magazine subscription.  Having actually become a fan of comics since then, I can't really say how good those first issues actually were; but at the time (summer 2001 I believe—just before fifth grade), they seemed absolutely amazing.  I actually didn't buy any of the Lego sets for years, but I was a huge fan of the storyline, which was extended both through the comics and the official website (which featured a basic adventure game expanding on various aspects of the world.  I'd post a link but unfortunately it's no longer available online, though I think there is a downloadable version in existence).  It wasn't until the first movie was released that I started asking for the characters for birthdays and Christmas (wanting to reenact my favorite scenes, naturally).  Later, I started buying the books as well (I owned fourteen or fifteen of them at one point, and they were actually surprisingly good for tie-ins to a childrens toy). And the list of media went on and on: I, and may of my classmates, were obsessed with the Bionicle trading cards that McDonald's released with their Mighty Kids Meals for a while.  There were several video games, although I never played them.  There was (and is) and fansite that I checked daily.  There were numerous online flash games and animations, and I made a point (for a few years at least) of playing them all.

Looking back, it's really amazing the amount of time and money the Bionicle franchise was able squeeze out of me.  Yet I had a blast at the time, partly, I think, because of the ways in which all of the various media connected together (the comics reinforced the stories of the books, the movies told new stories of their own, and the sets let you bring the stories to life).  Bionicle succeeded in becoming Lego's most popular franchise precisely because it was able to transcend it's origins as a series of plastic action figures, and became a really epic transmedia story in it's own right.  That's new media marketing at it's absolute finest.

 

 

Like You've Never Seen Before

Okay, so, this has nothing to do with the readings for this week, but I think it is very important to pay attention to if you're interested in the way new media can be used to tell stories. 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is easily one of the most widely anticipated video games to be released this year.  Like it's predecessor, the game will place the player in the shoes of American and British special forces as they battle insurgents around the globe.  Unlike it's predecessor, however, Modern Warfare 2 will apparently let you play as the terrorists as well. 

Leaked footage of the game's first level (which is evidently real, since the publisher has pulled it from YouTube, citing copyright infringement) depicts a terrorist attack on an airport, in which several characters, including the player, gun down dozens of helpless civilians.  You can get a breakdown of what happens here, if you like, but basically what occurs is this: the player and several other terrorists move through several areas of the airport, firing into crowds with assault weapons.  At multiple points, the player is shown killing injured  civilians who are trying to crawl away, and in one instance they also shoot someone who is dragging one of the wounded to safety.  Security forces then arrive, and are dispatched by the player, who joins the other gunmen in getting into a van that is waiting for them.  At the last moment, however, someone in the van stands up and shoots the player in the face.  They fall to the ground, and the screen fades to black as more security forces arrive.

The sequence is quite horrifying, even by jaded gamer standards, and the controversy it's sparked has been considerable (scroll down to the comments on this page for some good viewpoints).  Judging by the CIA marker at the beginning, and the fact that you die at the end, it seems likely that this mission places you in the shoes of a CIA agent who is trying to infiltrate a terrorist ring; but the ability to massacre innocents in this fashion is till pretty shocking.  Of course, as some commentators have pointed out, games like Grand Theft Auto basically allow the player to do the same thing; but there's always been a certain level of parody inherent in the GTA games, while Modern Warfare takes it's story very seriously.  Additionally, the mayhem you cause in GTA is far from the events depicted here, which is not only similar to real life events but also disturbingly realistic: crowds scream and run in panic, and the injured writhe on the ground as they make vain attempts to escape the carnage.  This is probably the first time a player has been given control of such a sequence in a heavily advertised, mainstream game; and needless to say, the popular press is probably going to have a field day with it. 

For all that, though, I think that the inclusion of this sequence is a positive thing, and I will tell you why:

Infinity Ward, the developer of Modern Warfare 2, knows what they're doing from a storytelling perspective, and they've never been afraid to try unique things (the first modern warfare had sections in which you played as a dictator who is executed, and as an American soldier who dies of critical injuries following a nuclear explosion). The latest Modern Warfare 2 trailer seems to depict a civil war in the United States.  So what we have here is not merely a shock tactic, but a level created by writers and artists who have a history of doing good (and controversial) work.  Secondly, it should be noted that the player in this sequence is never required to fire their gun until the security forces show up--it is the player's choice whether or not to shoot the civilians.  The element of choice is vital to all video game, but particularly so in cases like these, because it forces the player to ask themself: what are you really willing to do, even in a virtual setting?  Become a terrorist?  Finish off those crawling wounded?  Does what's happening--what you're participating in--make you want to look away?

Most video games don't ask those questions.  Most games (including some of my absolute favorites) glorify violence, in one form or another.  And it could be argued that this level will do the same, but worse, since it's glorifying violence against people who can't fight back.  Doubtless there are some who will chose to play the game as a murder simulator.  In one of the comments on the trailer I read, the writer argues that "...they [Infinity Ward] know the majority of their consumer-base is adrenaline-fueled 13-year-olds and frat guys. Their key audience will spray bullets at the civs like they're staring at a field of Nazis because they've been trained to shoot anything that moves in these games." (Source--scroll down slightly to see the full comment)  But I'd disagree.  While I'm sure the publisher would be happy to take the money of 13 year olds wanting to buy the game, the developer is not making the game with young adolescents in mind.  This title is aimed at a mature audience, one that is going to feel uncomfortable with some of the ideas it presents.  And therein lies it's power, because art is not supposed to make us feel comfortable.

I feel like this is becoming more of an essay than a blog post, but I think I have to pull in this quote by Franz Kafka (taken from GoodReads, a favorite website of mine): "Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?"  The same principle can be applied to video games.  Blowing away aliens and zombies may be fun, but it doesn't really make you think about your actions.  Blowing away random people in an airport may be more disturbing than fun, but it certainly does make you think about just how horrifying such actions are.  Shooters have been content to let players get away with mindless violence for a long time.  With Modern Warfare 2, we might--just maybe--get a vision of violence that acknowledges it's true nature (and, by the way, gives us extra motivation to take down the terrorists in the rest of the campaign).  It's a risky type of storytelling I honestly didn't expect to see in a mainstream title, and I don't think anyone else expected it either, which is why the forums of various gaming sites are aflame with debate.  Hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend of shooters starting to take themselves seriously. even if it does make gamers uncomfortable in the process. 

(I had planned to segue this back into a discussion about television on the Internet...looks like that's not going to happen.  Maybe later). 

 

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