Wednesday, April 16, 2014

We Shouldn’t Like Violence: How The Last of Us is Different

Violence in videogames has been controversial since nearly the very start of the medium’s history, since the 1976 arcade release Death Race allowed players to run over suspiciously human-looking creatures with a pixelated car (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, et al. 62). Brad Bushman, a violent videogame researcher, recently declared unequivocally, “The research clearly shows that playing violent videogames increases aggressive thoughts…aggressive feelings…[and] aggressive behavior.” Though Bushman certainly cites a great number of studies, his discussion—and much of the wider cultural debate on the topic—lacks some important facts and perspectives. Other research, writing, and careful study of particular games can fill much of these gaps.

Recently, other researchers have attempted to bring some of that greater perspective into the
discussion, with surprising results. Dr. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute, for instance, just published a study linking the increased aggression caused by videogames not to their violence, but to the difficulty in mastering the game’s controls. Professor Richard Ryan, a co-author on the study, said, “The study is not saying that violent content doesn't affect gamers, but our research suggests that people are not drawn to playing violent games in order to feel aggressive. Rather, the aggression stems from feeling not in control or incompetent while playing” (Lee). The aggression these videogames cause, then, is not dissimilar to that of any playground sport—players exhibit greater aggression because they are in a competitive situation of which they are attempting to gain and maintain control. As most of the violent videogames studied by Bushman and others include a competitive element requiring technical mastery, these findings call much if not all of the previous research into question. However, despite these findings, the wider cultural view of videogames remains antagonistic, including frequent calls for the banning and/or control of the sale of violent videogames altogether—the most prominent example of which being a California law that was taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where videogames were found to be protected under the First Amendment as free speech. The Supreme Court reasoned that games deserve such protection because, “video games communicate ideas—and even social messages” (Schiesel). It is these ideas and social messages that Bushman and others seem to largely ignore in their studies.


Naughty Dog’s 2013 release The Last of Us is one such game that uses violence as part of a larger social message. It is a game that is horrifically violent, but only so to question the value and power of human relationships, and to purposely push the player to question the costs of survival in a post-pandemic world. The game is set twenty years after the real-world cordyceps fungus inexplicably jumps from ants and spiders to humans, with apocalyptic effects on human civilization. In the game, players take on the role of Joel, a middle-aged former construction worker who lost his daughter shortly after the outbreak to a soldier attempting to contain the spread of the infection. In the bitterness and disillusionment that follows the loss, Joel lives outside the law of the military state the pandemic left behind, working as a smuggler and doing whatever it takes to survive. Everything changes, though, when Joel is hired to smuggle a girl, Ellie, out of the city, and the journey leads them both across the entire country as they search for the only group that might be able to produce a cure for the infection.

Every act of violence in the game, then, is an act of either survival or protection as Joel fights for his own life, but even more for the life of Ellie, the de facto second daughter he refuses to lose under any circumstances. Players take on both human and zombie-like “infected” in the game, committing terribly graphic acts of violence against both—but never is this violence gratuitous, it is purposely horrific to emphasize the terrible costs of survival in this fallen world, always challenging the player to question what he or she is fighting for and if it is worth it. This is why one writer on reddit wrote that the game, “taught me something about myself that I never knew before…that I have a very strong paternal instinct.” In this way, the game is as much about the depth of love between Joel and Ellie as it is about defeating their enemies—the title is, after all, The Last of Us, and it is in the defense of and fleshing out of that us that the whole game blooms.

The message of the game’s violence is supported by its mechanics and systems to the same degree of attention as its narrative. Videogame journalist Nathaniel Mott explains this well: “Killing someone in the Last of Us takes time. Nocking an arrow or aiming a gun isn’t an instantaneous process. Making your shots count requires patience — which means that you spend more time observing your target than you otherwise might have. You have to hear them talk, watch them walk, and recognize that they’re as alive as you are (in the game, anyway) before you’re able to change that fact.” Resources are very scarce in The Last of Us, especially in the higher difficulty levels, meaning that as the game increases in difficulty, the player actually has to find more ways to avoid confrontation altogether in order to survive. In this way, the game frames violence as less desirable—the better players find more ways to avoid it—and reemphasizes that role of the violence as only an act of defense and survival.

When violence does come in The Last of Us—and it does come often, even to those who try to avoid it at all costs—it is most often in close quarters, chaotic, and full of improvisation. Joel will use anything around to his advantage, picking up bricks, bottles, pipes, planks, and other things. Depending on the player’s environment, Joel will even use hand rails and tables to smash enemies against for killing blows to the head. The designers have even go so far as to use the word “intimate” to describe the feel they were trying to create in such moments (Reilly). At times, enemies will plead with the player to spare their lives, or negotiate for the life of a friend Joel is holding at gunpoint. The game works very hard to never let the player forget that even though they are fighting for their own survival, their enemies are in the exact same situation. This, then, serves to make the violence all the more horrifying and viscerally disgusting. Many would point to this as the heart of the problem of videogame violence, but Ian Bogost argues the exact opposite—that the more realistic and more revolting violence is the better because violence is revolting. “If anything,” he writes, “trivializing death and torture through abstraction is far more troublesome than attenuating it through ghastly representation” (140). In many ways, The Last of Us is one of the best examples of how to treat violence in a videogame—honestly, and with each act both showing a real price and drawing a real cost from the player.

Violence in videogames—and any media, for that matter—has always been controversial, as it should be. But in the end, it is more dangerous to trivialize and generalize violence than it is to realistically depict it. If videogames do depict violence, it is the responsibility of the game designers to emphasize the human cost of violence—its abhorrence and terror. The real danger is in videogames reducing violence to cheap, easy clicks and button-presses, easy to perform and easy to digest. The Last of Us asks its players to consider what justifies violence—and what the cost is even when it is supposedly justified. Violence is terrible—and when it is simulated, it ought to be terrible as well.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things With Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

Bushman, Brad. “Brad Bushman – “Is Violent Media ‘Just Entertainment?’.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 February 2014. Web. 15 April 2014.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

imawesome1124. “This game taught me something about myself that I never knew before.” reddit. reddit, inc. Web. 15 April 2014.

Lee, Dave. “Agression from videogames ‘linked to incompetence.’” BBC News. BBC, 7 April 2014. Web. 15 April 2014.

Mott, Nathaniel. “The Mechanics of Mayhem: Considering The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto 5.” Medium. Medium. 9 October 2013. Web. 15 April 2014.

Reilly, Luke. “The Last of Us: Silence and Violence.” IGN. IGN Entertainment, 17 June 2012. Web. 15 April 2014.

Schiesel, Seth. “Supreme Court Has Ruled; Now Games Have a Duty.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 June 2011. Web. 15 April 2014.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Value of $60: Motivation and Rewards in Portal 2

Okay, so a LOT has been written about Portal 2 and it's almost 3 years old now (that's 300 in videogame years), but I just got to play through it for the first time a couple months ago and I knew I just had to say something about it. So here it is. Oh, yeah, and ***MAJOR SPOILERS***!!!

Definitions of the word game elude standardization and universal acceptance, but that has not kept many a scholar from trying. Among the more prominent attempts of late come from Jesper Juul and Jane McGonigal. According to Juul, “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” McGonigal’s definition is simpler; she claims all games have “a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation” (21). Both of these definitions highlight obstacles and rewards—supposedly, the fun of a game comes from the player “exerting effort” toward the goal and receiving the feedback indicative of the higher-valued outcome. Portal 2, the first-person puzzle-platform game released by Valve Corporation in 2011, actively challenges traditional game reward and motivations systems, and openly questions what motivates not only gamers but humanity in general. Time and again, Portal 2 invites the player to consider exactly what drives him or her both in and outside of the game circle.

Friday, February 21, 2014

When Videogames Win

So I already did a list of what aspects of videogames are truly "awe"-some, but now I want to do a list of emotions that I feel videogames can evoke more or better than any other medium. Essentially, this is a list of emotions that videogames can evoke at awe-inspiring levels.

1. Loneliness
A screenshot from Dear Esther

I just played Dear Esther for the first time this week, and ended up going through it twice. Essentially (maybe--the game's kind of ambiguous), it's a game about a man dealing with the loss of his wife, and that sense of loneliness and longing is recreated by the game itself as you walk along an island totally alone, not even seeing your own reflection to reinforce the presence of humanity in the game's world. To make it worse, the game has 10 "ghosts" that only show up extremely briefly or when you're not looking directly at them, taking away any other human presence right as it's noticed--or even before it's noticed, as most players miss most of the ghosts entirely. No piece of media has ever made me feel so lonely. I actually found myself obsessively searching for the ghosts the second time I played because I didn't want to have to walk through the island all alone again. It's simply awesome to me that the game didn't just communicate that someone else was lonely, it made me lonely in a very real sense.

2. Triumph

This one's obvious, perhaps, but so essential to the medium. Jane McGonigal helped popularize the term "fiero" as the specific word for the feeling of triumph after you've tried something over and over and finally perfected a skill. Essentially, she argues, videogames give this feeling stronger and more reliably than any other activity on Earth. Ultimately, she argues, this trait of videogames should be incorporated into reality as much as possible.

I felt this myself recently as I played through Guacamelee!. The game itself isn't terribly difficult if you're familiar with basic conventions of action and platformer videogames like Super Mario Bros; however, to unlock an alternate ending to the game where you actually save the girl, you have to work ten times as hard to collect five orbs that come at the end ofextremely difficult sequences. I spent the better part of a Sunday going through just one of these sequences to try and get it right, but when I did it the sense of relief, triumph, and accomplishment was so tangible it was awe-inspiring.

Yes, vidoegame accomplishments aren't "real," but they're so satisfying and passionate that no other medium even comes close to delivering the same experience.

3. Paternal Love

If you're not familiar with recent videogame history, this one will seem totally out of left field. However, if you paid any attention to the major releases of the last couple years, you see a strangely persistent pattern emerging of games where the player is stuck in a protective fatherly role: The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, just to name a few. Say what you want about the inherent sexism of overusing this trope (you're probably right) but despite that these games have brought out emotions in people they didn't even know they could feel. And I'm not just saying that, people have actually reported this to be their experience. As one redditor put it about The Last of Us:
This game taught me that I have a very strong paternal instinct. I was bawling like a baby during the prologue, even more so than my little sister who cries at almost everything even slightly emotional. I also went into "dad mode" very early with Ellie and was extremely protective. That's why the first time I saw her die (at the sniper part) was very jarring for me and I actually felt really guilty.
The fact that this game was able to bring out that instinct in me when I didn't even know I had it is amazing. It makes me feel like (at least I'd like to believe) that I'd be a good dad.
Think about your stereotypical "gamer" in your mind. Do you see them saying these things? Has any media you've ever viewed or participated in caused such a reaction? Is it not amazing that a vidoegame did that to a person? Is that not worth something to the world?

4. Fear

It's no accident that while horror films often get all but ignored by critics lately, many horror games are 
actually among the most respected ever developed. Horror in a film is hard to not reduce to simple tricks and jumps or gratuitous gore and violence. The problem is modern audiences are too familiarized with the medium and the medium itself is too passive. For horror to work right, it needs to be a very physical and active experience, such that the viewer feels in danger while knowing full well they are not. That dissonance is the kind of odd delight horror provides--being able to step into those dark and scary places without actually having to deal with the danger.

Looking at it that way, videogames seem built to be the best horror medium ever. And they've done much to become just that. The "survival horror" subgenre of vidoegames is one of the most robust and successful in the industry. Games like Silent Hill 2, BioshockAmnesia, and Alan Wake have all pushed the medium to new heights of storytelling and player interaction that have blessed all genres of games. Movies just can't give you the feeling of stepping into the danger like a game can. In a game, the horror is twice as horrible because you actually have to respond. You can't just scream--you have to run. And when you can't run, you have to try and find some way to fight. And yet intellectually you are aware the whole time that the actual danger is absolutely zero--a videogame is even safer than a haunted house, really--and so the delightful dissonance of horror is taken to its greatest extreme yet as the fear is higher than ever, but the safety remains that of your very own home.

Now, you might question the value of horror as a genre at all. Why do we care if videogames produce fear better than any other medium? Well, in many ways, videogames make horror not only better, but more useful. Rather than just scaring your pants off and then leaving you out to try, videogames actually help us learn how to deal with fear--how to react to jump scares quickly, how not to freeze in tense situations. You might laugh at that idea, butresearch says this is actually true. Any action videogame can do the trick, really. (By the way, that same article points out that 68% of American households had videogames in 2010. Today, surveys show 97% of kids play videogames. These are higher numbers than even I thought.)

5. Moral anxiety

I struggled with how to phrase this one, but I think you'll understand what I mean. All mediums of art and expression have grappled with tough choices before, and they always will. Movies like Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List deal quite obviously with such choices, and anyone familiar with books and film could easily and quickly produce a sizable list of other examples. I myself have seen and read plenty about tough moral decisions and watched on as characters had to figure out where their moral compasses really pointed and what of all the possible options really worked best. I've felt the power of such struggles, and easily jumped to wondering what I could ever do in such situations. But then I started playing videogames where the choices literally were in my hands and everything changed.

In the action/adventure game Batman: Arkham City you play as both Batman and Catwoman, alternating as the story goes on. At the end of one of the Catwoman sequences, one that comes after maybe 15-20 hours of playing this game and fighting countless thugs, swinging from countless buildings, and foiling who knows how many baddies' plots, she sees Batman trapped by the Joker right as she walks successfully out of a vault with a ton of cash and valuables ready to make a clean break. She looks left and right, knowing left is toward the trapped Batman, and right is toward her clean break with the goods and freedom. The scene then stops and you are put back in control. Which way does Catwoman go? Which way do you go?

This is a depressingly obvious moral choice. Of course you go save Batman. But the point is you actually have to make the choice. You actually could just go right and walk out and let the hero die and evil win. In fact, that's what I did the first time I played this sequence, because I couldn't believe they would let me. Well, they did. I took Catwoman out the door to the right and off she went. Then the credits started rolling and I listened as voiceovers told me how Batman died, Wayne Manor was burned to the ground, and the bad guys won and the good guys all died. The end.

I instantly regretted my choice. I couldn't believe how dumb I was--not only did I make a terrible moral choice, I also denied myself several hours of the game by mercilessly cutting our hero's story short. I instantly went to try and load my last save or something, but I couldn't. I just had to watch the credits roll and feel my guilt. I was in awe that I had actually been given such a choice, and that I actually chose the wrong one.

Then this happened (skip to about 2:00 if you just want to see what happens after the credits):

What a relief! I resolved right then to never make a stupid choice in a videogame again. At least in the fantasy of videogames, I would always be the perfect hero.

But then I played The Walking Dead, and I found out that sometimes in vidoegames, like life, the right and wrong of a situation aren't always as clear as Catwoman's dilemma.

Choices in The Walking Dead videogame series by TellTale Games are never black and white. The series is set up like a TV series in "seasons" of five episodes, and in every episode there's at least one significant decision that will actually alter the course of the rest of the season (and even into the next season). Often, these decisions involve saving one person over another. To make things even worse, the game only gives you so much time to make these decisions, forcing you to think on your feet and go with your gut. Every choice has very clear consequences, and you are forced to deal with these consequences for the rest of the game. One of the most poignant for me was in Season 1, Episode 2 when you have to decide who gets food and who goes without for the day. Watching a character make these decisions in a TV show or movie is one thing, but actually having to pick yourself is a whole other experience, and one that often left me struggling more than a little internally, wondering how I could ever deal with these things in real life.

No matter how good a movie or book is, it can never put tough moral choices actually into your hands. Videogames can, and do, and every year they seem to do it in even tougher and smarter ways. The power of that emotional struggle is awesome, and its something only videogames can give you.

6. Relationship

A romantic scene from Mass Effect 3 where the
player has chosen romance with Tali.
Fans of any media often express feelings of a kind of relationship with their favorite characters, but videogames take this to a whole new level. We already talked about this a bit above with The Last of Us, but consider the Mass Effect trilogy, where the player literally develops relationships with characters in the game, and can go as far as picking a romantic partner inside the game. One writer on a forum for the game said the following:
I finally got around to playing the masterpiece that is Mass Effect 2, and I noticed something about myself. I cared about each and every crew member in their own way(Especially Miranda and Garrus). Cared so much, in fact, that I was extremely nervous about the "suicide" mission, and I practically cheered when everyone in my crew survived. I know that this was Bioware's intention, but I was treating my shipmates like they were my best friends, and I had known them all my life.

This felt odd to me, as I had never experienced this in a film before, or any other media. I suppose that in games, YOU are interacting with them, not watching some braindead hero save the galaxy...again. Tell me...have you experienced this emotional attachment? Not just in Mass Effect, mind you.
This writer sums it up nicely. The idea of interactivity definitely increases attachment. However, another aspect is game length. Games are typically much longer than movies, allowing deeper and fuller character development--in the right hands, of course. And once again, this is an aspect of videogames that's only improving with time.

Videogames don't spur relationships just with computer code, however. There are several accounts of multiplayer videogames causing strong relationships between former strangers, including the strongest of all: marriage.

7.  Discovery

The city of Shambala (Shangri La) in Uncharted 2
We've all seen Indiana Jones or National Treasure and sat back in wonder as the great treasure room opens up in front of the action hero. But would that wonder be deeper if you found the treasure yourself?

That's the promise of videogames like the Uncharted and Assassin's Creed series. And in my experience, the wonder truly is deeper. Games today actually use exploration and discovery as main selling points, knowing that this is one of the most enjoyable and pleasurable parts of the games. The wonder of discovery and exploration is exactly what keeps players in these worlds for hundreds of hours.

8. Loss

Every gamer knows the sting of defeat, but some games really make you feel the loss of favorite characters or difficult levels of missions. One rising trend in videogames lately that particularly emphasizes this emotion is permadeath. Permadeath is the idea that when a character dies, they die. No extra lives. No respawn. No second chances.

The memorial wall in XCOM: Enemy Unknown

One game that does this particularly well is XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Already a notoriously difficult turn-based strategy game, stopping the alien invasion in XCOM is only made worse by the fact that if you let any individual soldier die on a mission, not only do you have to deal with the guilt of allowing his or her death, you lose all the time, effort, and resources you poured into levelling up and outfitting that soldier. The game even has a "memorial" that lists the individual names of all the characters you've lost in battle, including candles, photos, and military "Taps" playing in the background to honor the dead.

9. Hope

Jane McGonigal, the same writer that popularized "fiero," also has repeatedly emphasized how videogames teach players to hope for success. The difference between life and videogames, she says, is that you always know any challenge presented to you in a videogame isalways possible. This paradigm shift from "real life" is huge, pushing gamers to believe in themselves despite enormous difficulty levels.

And it's that hope that makes difficulty levels like the upcomingThief's "Ultimate Thief Mods," including playing the entire 10+ hour game without even being seen or heard once, marketable. If you're even noticed, you have to restart the whole game over again. And the craziest part about it is you can expect someone will actually do it, and probably within the first couple weeks of release. All because videogames inject awe-inspiring levels of hope in your own abilities to achieve the seemingly impossible.

10. Anger

Perhaps this is a bad one to end on, but it is true that maybe nothing else on the planet makes people more mad than videogames. Don't take my word for it, though, have a gander at this video:

So, there it is. Ten emotions that videogames bring out in us stronger than any other medium, often with awe-inspiring results. No, they're not all positive all the time, but they all have positive uses, and if harnessed correctly, might even change the world.

This is the second in a series of posts written for a Literature of Awe class I'm in this semester.

Awesome Attributes of Videogames

I'm taking a Literature of Awe class this semester, and so I've been looking a lot at how videogames can inspire awe. This is the first of a series of posts I've done for that class.

Looking toward my wunderkammer and coming out of my tutorial interview with Dr. Burton, I've come up with my own preliminary list of what aspects of videogames most often inspire awe. I'm following in the footsteps of +Amber Z here with her great similar post on the elements of awe.

1. Technology
The most obvious source of awe from videogames is the advanced technology. Believe it or not, "realistic graphics!" has been a marketing buzz phrase in videogames since at least the 80s, when games looked like this:

In every phase of videogames' development and (short) history, they've been specifically designed to wow people with what new "magic" computers can do. In fact, the impetus for the creation of what many call the first videogame, Spacewar!, was an attempt to find a way to get people to appreciate the giant computer systems in the basement of MIT. People didn't really understand what computer were for, but videogames helped them realize they were at least useful for something.

And so, every step of computer advancement has been quickly met with a new videogame to show it off. That's how we get this:

2. Art
The art and design of videogames is often meant to inspire awe. The new medium to work with has pushed artists to new limits apart from the graphical capabilities. This is easy to see in videogame concept art (art done before work on the game begins to help solidify a look and feel for the team). Check out these examples:
Batman: Arkham City

Bioshock Infinite
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
3. Skill
If you didn't know, videogames are a sport now. By law. Videogames have bred their own kind of unbelievable skill that--IF you understand what's going on--can totally blow you away. Here's an easy one to understand: beating Super Mario 3 in 11 minutes:

Speed runs are actually a huge and growing eSport in and of themselves, being one of the most popular genres on, a super rapidly growing videogame live-streaming service where people go to watch other people play videogames (didn't think that was a thing? It's a thing.)

Here's one that's harder to understand, but is a good example to show you just how technical these skills get, and how amazing talented these guys really are. This clip is from Starcraft IIand all you need to know is these guys are controlling every single little blue marine at once:

4. Scope
Games today are mind-blowing because they are huge and hugely detailed. In Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, cars make the cool down tink-tink sound when you turn them off, women get creeped out if you walk too closely behind them for too long as a male character, your shoes make squeak and slosh if they're wet, you can set the settings on your in-game cell phone such as vibrate or ring, others characters will tell you off for calling you back so quickly if you call immediately after finishing a conversation, and one of the main characters Michael will say things you actually just did in the game when he goes to talk to his shrink. Plus, It's an entirely explorable and interactive recreation of not just Los Angeles, but the entire county of San Andreas where you can buy property and stocks, play tennis, go skydiving, go scuba diving, and much, much more.

On top of that, the world of Minecraft, the hugely popular block-building game, is over 9 million times the size of Earth, meaning its practically infinite and may never be completely filled (though if anyone would do it, its Minecraft players.)

5. Participation
Perhaps the most mind-boggling part of vidoegames of all is just how much people play them. It is impossible to get your head around just how much videogame playing is going on in the world.
  • Check out this infographic on League of Legends, the most popular computer game in the world right now with well over 70 million registered users. 
  • Consider that players have spent a collective 6 million years of man-hours playing World of Warcraft, and its wiki is 10% the size of all of the real Wikipedia combined.
  • Just look at this, the entire world of Games of Thrones remade brick by brick inMinecraft, with hundreds of people helping and contractors, subcontractors, and quality controllers organizing the whole thing:
Full article on Wired

These are just my preliminary categories in which videogames inspire the most awe, or aspects that are most often leveraged to try and inspire awe over videogames.

Can you think of any others?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Dominion's "Solitaire Problem" and 21st Century Competition

The card game Dominion, designed by Donald X. Vaccarino and released originally in 2008, has risen to stand alongside games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride as a mainstream Eurogame classic both in Europe and the US. The game has received multiple prestigious awards, released nine separate expansions, and sold well over a million copies worldwide. Despite all this praise and popularity, however, the game has received criticism for its supposed “solitaire problem.” Specifically, the solitaire problem points to the game’s lack of not only direct player competition, but any kind of significant player interaction at all. The solitaire problem has failed to impede Dominion’s popularity, however, perhaps because the game remains highly competitive despite the lack of interaction. In many ways, the indirect conflict exhibited in Dominion captures the ways in which the Western view and practice of competition in general has changed in recent decades.

To better understand this claim, one must be a little more familiar with the rules of Dominion. Dominion helped widely popularize the genre of card game known as deck-building, meaning one of the game’s primary mechanics involves the players building a personal deck of cards from a communal pool. Essentially, these games remove some of the problems of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering by allowing all players access to all the cards in a given game, while also integrating the personal deck-building into the actual gameplay. To build their decks, players must buy cards from a “Kingdom” of ten different action cards to add to their decks. Players may also purchase higher denominations of coin cards, which becomes essential to succeed as player hands consist of only five cards per turn and any unused cards on a given turn are discarded only to be reused when their deck runs out and is reshuffled. However, players must balance the purchase of coin and action cards with purchases of the third kind of card, known as victory cards. Victory cards represent parcels of land and are the only cards that provide points to the player, and only these points matter for victory in the end. However, victory cards provide no other benefit to the player during play, and so purchasing too many victory cards too early will weaken the player’s deck and slow their progress significantly. The challenge to the players, then, is balancing coin, action, and victory card purchases to optimize their personal decks such that they end up with the most victory points in their deck by the end of the game, which comes when the pile of “Province” cards (the highest denomination of victory card) is gone, or any other three piles of cards are gone.
With a basic understanding of the rules, one can see the logic behind the solitaire problem. The game has no combat, no auctioning, no trading, no negotiation—indeed, no direct conflict or interaction at all. The only agonistic element of the game is the race for points before the cards run out, and the only time other players’ actions matter to you is when they buy a card you wanted to buy or buy the last card in a pile that will end the game. Indeed, it is possible to play an entire round of the game in complete silence, without the players speaking to or acknowledging each other at all. Limiting competition and player conflict is a common trait of Eurogames, the tradition of game design from which Dominion springs, but some view that this game takes that principle too far. This would at first seem quite the flaw in game design, especially with Stewart Woods claiming in his book Eurogames: The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Board Games that social interaction is by far the element most players derive the most pleasure from in playing games, and “while the design of eurogames tends towards indirect or asynchronous interaction, the fact remains that the intellectual challenge to which players attribute so much of their enjoyment       is focused specifically upon engaging in competition with others” (172). However, while the competition in Dominion is anything but direct, it reflects well on contemporary attitudes toward competition in general in the Western world.
Competition in Western civilization has changed significantly in recent decades; everywhere, conflict is less direct and more about the subtle and persistent positioning of resources in relation to others with the same interests. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker proves this to some extent in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he outlines how the course of human history has actually tended toward less violence, not more. While Pinker deals specifically with violence and not competition, this large-scale decline in violence necessitates other avenues for conflict resolution on both macro and micro scales, and civilization has adapted accordingly. In politics, this shift is evidenced by the Cold War. In business, this results in the odd dances that have grown up around product launches, perhaps most visibly in the technology sector. Take, for example, the recent release of new gaming consoles by Microsoft and Sony, both very calculated affairs to try and woo consumers while never directly attacking the competitor. The two companies even tweeted each other congratulations on their console launches as if the success of each did not at least in some measure depend upon the other’s failure (PlayStation, Xbox). This is the kind of polite competition Western culture has grown used to, causing increasing discomfort with direct attacks of any kind. Dominion has proven that this sensibility spills over even into spaces of play, and this kind of indirect competition is still competition enough to make for an exciting game.
Ironically, then, perhaps the game’s true flaw is its medieval theming. The game attempts to simulate competing monarchs racing to grab up land, but history proved several times over that such competition was seldom so polite as a game of Dominion. A medieval land-acquisition game would be a much more accurate mimesis of the period if it included some system to simulate violent conflict over disputed land; however, such conflict might overcomplicate the relatively simple rules of Dominion that arguably have helped make the game so popular, and one can easily understand why Vaccarino skipped over such a system for this particular game. On the other hand, as Dominion already reflects the sort of polite competition common in both business and diplomacy of the twenty-first century, perhaps the game could benefit from a theme that reflects that. Instead of monarchs competing for the land, the exact same mechanics could be used to simulate technology companies snatching up patents, for instance. The lack of direct conflict would not be an arbitrary limitation, then, but a reflection of the situation executives find themselves in daily—competing for limited resources but never able to directly fight for them, only strategize for superior positioning in the market. Perhaps part of the fun for players of Dominion is the possible role-playing a time period far removed from their own, but with Wood’s conclusion that the theme of a eurogame is “considered less important than the production quality” (163), why not make the shift to a more appropriate theme for the mechanics?

Yes, Dominion has a solitaire problem—but only as far as Western civilization today has a solitaire problem. If games really are as reflection of their times and culture as Marshall McLuhan suggests, then perhaps the lack of direct player conflict is one of Dominion’s most admirable traits, not its most glaring flaw. Perhaps Dominion helps teach a better way to compete, the more civil way human history has taken thousands of years to develop.

Works Cited
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
PlayStation. “Congrats, @Xbox @Microsoft! #NextGeneration #GreatnessAwaits.” 22 Nov 2013, 6:00 a.m. Tweet.
Wood, Stewart. Eurogames: The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Board Games. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2012. Print.
Xbox. “Congrats @Playstation. From, #Xbox.” 15 Nov 2013, 7:00 a.m. Tweet.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Published on First Person Scholar!

As promised, here is the link to my piece published at First Person Scholar entitled "Unified Games." It's about how the ancient idea of the classical unities in drama strangely affects open-world game design.

They're great people over there at FPS and I would highly recommend anyone trying to get into games criticism to give them a shot.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Mechanic is the Message: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons can easily be read as one long setup for a single mechanical trick that takes videogames into a whole new realm of meaning and communication. It's a beautiful game visually and emotionally throughout, but its point--its prestige, if you will--comes all in a single moment at the end of the game. That moment is a kind of mini-manifesto in itself about what videogames can do, and I'd like to take a second here and unpack it.

Warning: REAL SPOILER ALERT. Despite what I have said before about how spoilers can't actually ruin anything, I would highly, highly suggest in this case playing the game for yourself before reading on if you want to get the full experience. The power of Brothers comes not in plot revelation, but in mechanic revelation, and that's a totally different experience. (Incidentally, for those of you on Playstation Plus, this game is free for you at the time of this writing, so definitely go take a look at the game first.)

Last chance.

Okay, for those of you still reading, the moment I was talking about was of course the final river crossing, when the little brother walks up to the water and both he and you realize in a whole new way the pain of the older brother's loss, and have to figure out how to go on without him. The little brother has never been able to swim on his own thanks to his fear of water after their mother drowned, and he had relied on the older brother to carry him through the water every time before. But now older brother is gone and this river is standing between little brother and their father's life--a life made all the more precious now with the loss of both mother and brother. My experience with this scene I'm sure was exactly what the designers wanted. I went forward, pushed the little brother's interaction button, and realized after a couple seconds that that wasn't going to work. I moved around a little bit, tried it again, then stopped and stared at the water for a second while I thought what to do. As an experiment, I tried pushing the older brother's interaction button even though he was dead. Instantly, I was rewarded with the controller rumbling, ghostly whispers, and the little brother bravely diving into the water. I felt instantly the rush of love for what now felt like my own dead brother, and the game expertly lays an ambiguity between simply calling on this older brother through memory and actually receiving help from the brother's deceased spirit. Whether meant to be read metaphorically or literally, I instantly understood that even though older brother was gone, he still mattered in the world of Brothers, and he still influenced the life of his living brother and father. In that one button press, Brothers made me reflect on love, family, death, and life in an entirely new way. In this one moment, Brothers achieved something truly great.

To let you enjoy the sensation, the game lets you use the trick a couple more times in your final push toward the ailing father and the game's conclusion as the little brother draws on the strength of his deceased sibling to pull the lever he could never pull and reach the ladder he could never reach, finally stumbling with exhaustion into the doctor's home to deliver the life-saving liquid to his father.

This one mechanical turn is exactly the kind of moment that proves the unique power videogames have to communicate. It's the exact kind of moment I've been looking for and advocating for. It doesn't give you profound prose or deep dialogue or Oscar-worthy acting, but it does exactly the same thing that makes those things praise-worthy: it successfully transfers a human experience in such a way that it's felt as if it were real, so powerful and piercing that it can never be forgotten. Game writers often make the claim that such-and-such thing that such-and-such game does cannot be done in any other medium, but that claim is often made when a game simply does more than other mediums--like The Last of Us making more connection with its characters than could be possible in film or Bioshock Infinite creating more atmosphere than could be possible a novel. All games are inherently different than other mediums because of the interactive element, and I'm not saying that The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and other games don't use interactivity to communicate, but what Brothers accomplishes with the dead brother mechanic just feels so totally different from anything else, with no analogue in any other medium. It's not that it's just more or better, it's truly different. Yes, other mediums have done ghosts and help from beyond the grave and all that, but I'm not talking about what the story of the game does, I'm talking about what the game itself does in that moment of frustration and that rush of revelation as the player finally pushes the older brother's button. It's a moment where the player must use what they've learned about the systems of the game to advance the story of the game, where suddenly oil and water mix and the game system tells a more powerful story than any of its cut-scenes ever could. It's a moment where gameplay communicates rather than just functions. It's a feat that takes what The Marriage promised to a whole new level. It's one of the best cases yet to show the world that videogames truly can do something different, beautiful, and great.

I've talked a lot about videogames receiving a sense of cultural legitimacy in our society. Many make their case by showing they can do the same things that other mediums do, improved through interactivity. I think that's a good case. But the case Brothers makes is a different case, one that shows the world that with a new medium comes an entirely new way to communicate meaning, and videogame players and designers alike are only just beginning to tap into this new language of expression. This is the case that will ultimately solidify videogames' place in the cultural canon of "great art." More importantly, this is the case that just may wake the world up from its ill-formed and deep-rooted prejudices against this medium as a legitimate medium of real human expression.  This is the best case for the future of videogames, and the one I hope designers the world over continue to pursue.