A Semester of Play

Over the course of the last few days I have had the pleasure of re-reading many of my classmates blog posts on gaming. Player culture, game design, programming, and the societal impacts of gaming are a few of the many important gaming-related topics discussed by my classmates. My favorite blog posts were those that discussed these topics in a way that provoked a deeper and intellectually entertaining look into the game being blogged about.

In my opinion one of the posts to do this the best was Danny’s post on the The Last of Us. I had never considered facial animation as an integral aspect of any game I have ever played. His post completely changed the way I viewed this aspect of gaming and now has me analyzing how accessible games are to hearing impaired players. My question to him is, what would you recommend games do for other hearing impaired players? Would you recommend an optional setting for some noises to be visually represented (in a subtle way such as in Fortnite Mobile) or do you have another idea?

Another post I found intellectually stimulating was the post on the queerness of Rocket League. In class talking about queer gaming and queerness in games, I felt hard pressed to think of examples in games I had played or were currently playing. After reading this post on queerness in Rocket League (a game I have loved for years) I really began to understand the concept and how to spot it in other games. My question to the author is what other games have systems of self expression in them that can be defined as queer and how does Rocket League compare?

The concept of queer gaming is something I wish had been addressed by Matt’s post on FIFA 18I really enjoyed his discussion of the sports gaming community and the underlying aspects at work in the community. I also want to applaud him for completely embarrassing his opponent, 80% possession and 4 goals is not easy to accomplish. This style of playing without online sportsmanship seems to me like a queer playing of FIFA 18 and I want to ask if he would consider that to be true.

The last two posts I enjoyed both revolve around the dangers of gaming. Luke Gray’s post on the danger of VR gaming was interesting to me because of its discussion of eye sight issues and motion sickness, things I have experienced playing games as well. I would ask Luke if he thinks that certain games trigger these responses, and if so, then why? The second post on danger is Hunter’s post on how violent video games correlate to violent actions in society. I loved the thought provoking nature of the article and liked the many links present in his writing. My question to him would be if he thinks that as games become more realistic that his argument will change at all, or does he think that the current trend will continue?

Popular Piggies

One of the most important processes of mobile games is their rewards system. Most mobile games are based around quick gameplay that is easy to drop and come back to. These games have to incorporate reward systems that make their short gameplay exciting. With many of them, the rewards are achievement based with a player’s time investment correlating to an in-game item or ranking that can be saved to an online profile.

In a paper studying reward systems and their place in gameplay and gaming culture, two professors, Olli Sotamaa and Mikael Jakobsson state that achievements are an integral core component of games. They point to reward systems like Xbox gamerscores or Steam achievements as building bridges between very different games by allowing the players to monitor their achievements across platforms and games. These systems can make players more aware of how their skills rank among their peers through linking their game profiles to social networking sites like Facebook. Sotamaa and Jakobsson argue that this social networking aspect can possibly make game cultures more visible and acceptable. (Sotamaa & Jakobsson, 2011)

I feel this is especially true for mobile games that benefit from the affordances of smartphones. A good example of a mobile game using these systems is Bad Piggies by Rovio Entertainment. The angry birds spinoff features three systems for sharing achievements and game progress on social media. Players can link Facebook, Twitter, and a Rovio account to their profile and share progress updates to their respective social networks. The game even supports an in-game screen recording app that allows for players to record their various creations.

My screenshot of Social Media Menu in Bad Piggies

All of these systems helped the game achieve an astounding amount of success. Upon its release in 2012 the game reached the top of the App Store chart in a record time of only three hours. It remained a top download and paid app for over two years and many millions of players still play the 2012 app today, six years later. While the game does have great gameplay, its meteoric rise can be attributed to the social media attention it received for many years as a result of its social network based reward system.

Jakobsson, Mikael, and Olli Sotomaa. “Game Studies.” Game Studies – Special Issue – Game Reward Systems, 10 Feb. 2011, gamestudies.org/1101/articles/editorial_game_reward_systems.

 

Killing the Dead

Why do people enjoy violent games? Millions of people across the globe play games that revolve primarily around violent acts such as shooting, however many of these people are not violent in real life. So what is it that motivates these nonviolent players to pick up virtual assault rifles and headshot their online buddies? In a paper dedicated to answering this question, Tilo Hartmann, an associate professor in Communication Science at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, points towards a term he calls “moral disengagement” as allowing violent games to be enjoyed by nonviolent players.

Moral disengagement refers to the change in mindset of the player that occurs while playing violent games. In these games if players feel that virtual characters have a mind of their own, they may assign a moral status to them. Due to this moral standing, enacting unjustified transgressions against virtual characters may trigger discomfort in users. However, instead of experiencing feelings of subjective discomfort these players often experience moral disengagement and begin to enjoy the games. (Hartmann, 2017)

The way games accomplish this moral disengagement is by frequently embedding cues that can frame violence enacted against the virtual characters as being “okay.” These cues stem from a dehumanization of virtual characters and a diffusion of the player’s responsibility for their actions. By dehumanizing the victims of violence, their moral status is lessened to a state where the player does not feel guilt for their actions. A similar process takes place with the diffusion of responsibility where the player’s guilt for their actions is removed because of a more abstract idea such as “for the greater good”. (Hartmann, 2017)

The virtual reality shooting game In Death relies on both of these main cues to make the violence of the game enjoyable. It is interesting to see how this is accomplished in a virtual reality setting. There are only 3 types of enemy in the game and all are clearly not human due to a few obvious characteristics. The archers are essentially faceless hovering dementors with bows, while the ground based enemies are either 8ft tall faceless knights or 4ft tall zombie-like demons. The game’s removal of faces and of many human characteristics makes enacting violence against these characters an easily guilt-free action, especially so considering In Death has no dialog.

In Death Official Trailer Screencap- Youtube

In Death is an interesting example of moral disengagement and the processes that it requires. Through the lack of faces and dialog the guilt of enacting violence on the characters is essentially removed. It will be interesting to see how the addition of those characteristics into a future virtual reality game will influence moral disengagement for its players.

 

Hartmann, Tilo. “Game Studies.” Game Studies – The “Moral Disengagement in Violent Videogames” Model, 10 Dec. 2017, gamestudies.org/1702/articles/hartmann.

Being a Superhero

People always look for ways to distract themselves from their daily routines. Throughout human history people have done this by immersing themselves in stories told through many different mediums. Books, music, movies, plays, and most recently video games, have captivated billions with their ability to project fantastic stories into the minds of the people enjoying them. From tales of love, to tragic war stories, people choose to take many different adventures. The ability to interact with these adventures allows them to be more immersive for many.

Contrary to many other forms of media which passively or actively engage their audience and are essentially self-contained, video games are completed through interaction with the player (Papale, 2014). By controlling the character in-game, many players begin to identify with their avatar and react to the game world with very real emotional reactions. This is especially evident in games featuring a human-like avatar.

In his paper on the relationship between player and avatar Luca Papale, a former EA employee and professor in game design at IUDAV, argues that while identification may indeed occur during play, it’s far from being the one and only type of psychological response that a player can have. One response, outside of identification, that he believes plays a crucial role is empathy. Players can experience emotional reactions outside of identification, by empathizing with characters that they are not be able to identify with. He uses the example of feeling empathy for somebody who loses a loved one by imagining the person’s emotions and somehow sharing them. (Papale, 2014) Sympathy works the same way in video games as players are able to imagine the feelings of characters in-game and experience them in real life to a lesser degree.

The concept of player sympathy is crucial to Infamous. The game sports a “karma meter” which is a reflection of moral choices made as the main character. In-game processes change drastically as the player makes different choices that affect the karma meter. The primary motivation to spare enemies and improve karma revolves around sympathetic responses in return to the player.

Infamous Karma Meter- InfamousWiki.com

As a reward for good karma, civilian NPC’s (non-playable characters) will join the player as he fights enemies in battle. The opposite is true with regards to bad karma. This dynamic is enhanced by the dialog enemies present you with when there is a chance to kill them. Many enemies will say, “hey I have a family man” or other responses that are meant to elicit a sympathetic response by the player. Through playing Infamous and experiencing these moral decisions the relationship between player and avatar is shown to go beyond identification.

Papale, L. (2014). Beyond identification: Defining the relationship between player and avatar.Journal of Game Criticism,1(2), 1-12. Retrieved September 11, 2017, from http://gamescriticism.org/articles/papale-1-2/

Let The Pigs Teach

The goal of most educators is to make learning fun and effective for their students. This goal can be accomplished in many different ways, with most teachers open to trying new methods of creating fun in the classroom. One such method utilizes video games as a means of education. These games are usually created by companies specifically for educational purposes and blend simple game structures with material being taught in the classroom.  Not surprisingly, these games are called “educational games” and are sold with children as the primary audience.

Determining what other games fall into this “educational” subset of gaming is difficult due to the way that games can teach. In Debugging Game History, Anastasia Salter, an author and professor at UCF,  examines the differences in gameplay between games that fall into the educational games category. Salter mentions Math Blaster, an educational math game popular in the 90s, and World of Warcraft, an MMORPG that is one of the most popular games of all-time since its release 2004. Her comparison focuses primarily on the difference between games that are intentionally educational and those that are not. The difference of intent can make classifying and producing these educational games very difficult.

Bad Piggies Gameplay Screenshot

Salter notes that there are many games, such as Math Blaster, who embed educational content into their game by making educational questions or routines an integral part of their game. Games adding education in such a manner are clearly games that are intended to teach, however, there are plenty of games that follow drastically different gameplay patterns but still teach plenty of material. World of Warcraft is a great example because the gameplay is not intended to be educational, however, skills such as language acquisition and literacy are improved through playing the game. This education goes relatively unnoticed by players of the game, and is something that many educational games seek to emulate.

Bad Piggies has many elements that can make playing an educational experience.  The different qualities present in building and using the vehicles can help teach kids about physics and also about the different materials they encounter in the game.  Math skills are also improved by time challenges and other number based achievements that progress the player through the game. For this reason Bad Piggies inadvertently teaches players skills that will come in handy outside of the game world. How people choose to implement  cooperation between gaming and education going forward will surely change as technology advances and it will be exciting to see what these “educational games” look like.

Immersive Gaming in Hell

In my prior article on In Death I wrote about the immersive nature of the VR game and how many VR games can actually be dangerous due to how immersive they are.  After talking in class the last few weeks about different immersive media throughout history I thought it would be helpful to re-examine the immersive nature of In Death to see how such a young game connects to the broader history of immersive gaming. I felt this was important because these connections could give us clues into the direction VR is headed and the dangers possibly inherent in this direction.

In Death has technically not been released yet (as of writing it is in early access testing) but upon release it will become part of a rather short history of VR. The first VR goggles were actually sold in 1983 by Jaron Lanier, a man who is the supposed popularizer of the term “virtual reality”. However, the first commercially available VR headset was much later in 2014 with the Oculus Rift. Only a year after the goggles were released came William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer where the idea of a singularity between humans and computers became popularized as well. This supposed singularity would entail the merging of computer intelligence with a human consciousness to pass virtual reality and achieve a full virtual existence.

The future of a singularity has been the goal that many leaders of technology, including Google founder Sergey Brin, envision that we will reach through our developing virtual reality media. The problem with the “singularity” being the goal for heads of technology is that for technology to cross the physical hurdles that stand between us and a singularity, there will have to be many failed experiments and things that will have unforeseen consequences. In Death and other current games have been shown to cause sickness and even lead to death in players while still being relatively early iterations of commercial VR gaming. There are many risks along the road to a singularity and games like In Death provide examples of both the awesome and dangerous nature of immersion and VR.

Dying from Death

In previous classes at Davidson I have discussed different art themes, one of my most favorite being the theme of the Uncanny. I am a big fan of scary movies and games because of the rush I receive by playing them. This rush can be amplified to high levels especially through media like movies and video games. Especially Virtual Reality video games. In Death is a virtual reality game based on the premise that you have been transported to “purgatory” and you have to rid it of the creatures that live there, namely demonic archers and knights. It is one of the few games to have given me a true moment of fear by how well it can encompass the uncanny.

In Death Gameplay

The first element of the Uncanny that players will notice about the game is how the soundtrack creates an immersive and eerie sounding world. The creaks of the castles you navigate, the sounds of arrows piercing flesh, and the sounds of souls rushing past you create a world that keeps you looking behind you for something evil. These sounds are complemented by a world that upon first glance looks familiar but you soon realize is anything but, a hallmark for the Uncanny. There are seemingly endless drops and spaces so dark you cannot even see your enemy, that both evoke fear of the unknown, another Uncanny characteristic. The enemies are also quite large, appearing at around 7 ft tall for some of them.

The Uncanny characteristics of In Death render the world an immersive and intense place, perfect for loosing yourself in a game. I wanted to hit on the danger of this, however. TASS a Russian news agency recently reported a case of a man dying while playing virtual reality games alone. According to the report the man tripped into a glass table and after cutting himself on the resulting broken glass, ended up bleeding out. According to PCGamer.com this is the first case of someone dying while playing VR. There are possibly many other dangerous situations regarding virtual reality gaming. The immersive nature of games such as In Death are spectacular sights to behold but need to be approached with caution.

Bad Piggies or Great Piggies?

Bad Piggies is one of my favorite leisure games. The wildly popular game lives in the world of Angry Birds. However, you are actually helping the pigs build vehicles to navigate small levels where they collect boxes and other items, instead of shooting birds at them. The game starts off with very simple tutorial-like levels but gradually builds up to larger levels with more complex designs needed.

Bad Piggies – Easy Level

I chose to write about this game because of how well it exemplifies many of the different aspects of play, specifically casual play, that we have discussed in class. It was almost a no-brainer for me. The contrast between the ease of the first set of levels and the difficulty of the later sets brings to mind the concept of difficulty outlined by Jesper Juul in Casual Revolution. One of the common problems associated with casual games is how the game’s difficulty promotes sustained gameplay. To me Bad Piggies absolutely nails this concept. The ease of the first levels encourages the player to keep advancing and promotes confidence in their ability to play and understand the game almost immediately, regardless of their experience in any video game. As the game advances new aspects are slowly introduced that gradually increase the difficulty of the game to higher levels. For example, the ability for gliding is added before the full ability to fly. These gradual steps ensure that players get to win and win often, while also experiencing a feeling of improvement in their skills that is perfectly supplemented by increasingly challenging gameplay.

Bad Piggies – Hard Level

The game also excels at another aspect of casual gameplay discussed by Juul, the concept of interruptibility. Part of the gameplay for Bad Piggies is focused on time. Many of the levels have time based achievements represented by stars that also become increasingly challenging in a similar way to the levels. These time limits are always reasonably obtainable however, and I consider them to be a good marker of how long the average level would take the average player. Most of these time limits are below 10 seconds meaning that the actual gameplay is very brief, making the game one that is very interruptible. The game also saves whatever you are crafting within each level, meaning that if you are in the middle of building a craft and receive a call your work will not vanish. This is extremely helpful as it allows players to pick up where they left off very easily. I think that by observing the way Bad Piggies and similar games handle difficulty and interruptibility, other developers can learn how to address these issues in their own games to make them more user friendly.

Hero or Villain?

The PlayStation 3 game Infamous is the first of a very successful series of games under the Infamous moniker. The world of Infamous is set in a post-apocalyptic American city named Empire City, where the protagonist, Cole MacGrath, and a few other people have just been endowed with super powers from a radioactive blast that Cole was at ground zero for. The gameplay begins immediately after the blast as the player guides Cole through learning his powers and using them to face the many problems he faces as a result of the blast.

Empire City – Infamous (ps3)

The way the game handles this is where Infamous differs from many games. Instead of forcing the player to play through a chronological arrangement of levels with a set narrative, Infamous allows the player some freedom to choose the order of tasks as well as determine the narrative surrounding them. It accomplishes this by adding a “karma meter” which is a reflection of the players moral choices throughout the game. The meter is moved from a starting neutral position towards “hero” and “infamous” by different choices the player makes in game. This meter has real implications for the player by affecting the game dialog, Cole’s abilities, and in many ways the appearance of the game itself.

Karma – Infamous (ps3)

The heavily game-altering aspect of the “karma meter” highlights the difference between plot and story by allowing the player to essentially choose the story they wish the game to have. Through altering the karma meter a few of the missions will change and the ending will be slightly different, however the majority of events and dialog will remain unchanged, rendering the plot more or less the same. This is seen when Cole must choose between saving the love of his life, Trish, or allowing bombs to detonate and kill thousands. Regardless of the moral choice made, or the Karma meter, Cole will not be able to save Trish. However, the story is actually quite different from the plot depending on the karma meter. If played with good karma, Cole gets a touching moment with Trish where she tells him she is proud of who he has become. This difference between plot and story becomes more evident as the game progresses. The citizens of Empire City will actually help you fight in battles if your karma is good and will attack you if it is not. This aspect of the game inspired me to choose this game because by playing the game differently and observing the different aesthetic changes through the lens of spacial storytelling narrative clues are easier to spot in other games.