New Game Minus

There should be a term for the first time you play a story-focused game, before you really get the hang of how to decimate all your enemies, before you know what’s going to happen in the plot, before you fiddle with the “moral choice” mechanics just to laugh at how big a jerk the protagonist can be, or before you find out that the choices you make don’t even really matter at all. This experience relies on a blend of story-oriented and mastery-oriented appeals, where the challenge of the game heightens the sense of drama and tension in the story, and vice versa.

I don’t know what the term for this type of play should be. Personally, I’d like to see it become more the norm for games with narrative pretensions, but it’s tough to pull off. Even story-oriented games seem to have a hard time pulling it off. And, notably, it’s usually absent in replaying a game. I’m not sure it has to be, though.

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Player Types, Styles, and Contexts

Over at Above 49, one of my favorite gaming blogs, game developer Nels Anderson discusses how social and environmental context are sometimes a better predictor of human behavior than underlying personality variables. This, of course, has pretty relevant implications for how we discuss game design and how we study game play. Before I start mangling this post to serve my own ends, I suggest reading it in full, as it’s pretty insightful.

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Playboy, Fanboys, and Olivia Munn

Kotaku has a post up about G4 television personality Olivia Munn’s recent Playboy shoot. Apparently Munn had agreed in advance that it would not be a nude shoot, but was pressured otherwise at the shoot itself. She did stick to her guns, though, and complete a clothed shoot as planned. Said Munn, “It ended with my publicist and the stylist screaming at each other.”

I was particularly interested in writing up a quick post about this piece because of the last few paragraphs:

Munn’s knows that part of why Playboy came calling, and was cool with her not doing nudity, is she has a fan base that’s highly coveted by advertisers. Gamers are easily separated from their dough, after all. But the positive response she’s gotten for not taking it off tells her that her fans do care. “They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, titty! Oh, that’s Olivia’s vagina, let’s go buy it!'” she said. “They’re supportive, not just because it gets them off.”

But she doesn’t worry about being typecast for the geek demographic. To the contrary, it gets her plenty of work. She’s just finished up a role in Iron Man II, and got an offer for another from producers who said they wanted someone who isn’t the kind of pedestalized-hot that Megan Fox represents.

“I love this world I am in,” Munn said. “If I could stay in this world forever, the nerd world, I’d be happy. I’ve been here for three years, and I can confidently say this is a world I feel comfortable and welcomed in.”

I thought it was really nice that she describes her fans as supportive and welcoming. Predictably, Kotaku’s comments on the article include many crude responses, though I was interested to see several people commenting that this makes them respect Munn even more. I’ll leave further commentary aside for now (must focus on more pressing writing tasks), but I thought this might be of interest to some readers here.

Where’d My Key Go? (And Other Game Design Annoyances)

I was talking to a friend the other night about how many (ostensibly) narrative games often do things that entirely defy logic and ruin a sense of immersive storytelling. The most obvious such convention may be the character’s repeated death and rebirth, but that one presents a particularly difficult question: How do you get around this convention without undermining the whole point of the game, which is to fight and escape death? That convention doesn’t have an easy answer, though, and not everyone is buying the kind of answers that have been offered to date.

Some other tropes, however, remain quite common and entirely possible to address if you’re really interested in prioritizing storytelling aspects. I thought it might be fun to point out a few such annoyances and suggest how they could be (or even have been) approached in more coherent ways. (And yes, when you’re writing a multi-hundred-page dissertation, thinking and writing about anything else in the world for a few minutes a day definitely counts as “fun.”) I invite you, too, to respond to these or come up with some more of your own in the comments.

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What Heavy Rain Might Tell Us About Choice

I have a few blog posts on deck that I’ve started but keep putting off. (Such is the nature of dissertation writing, I suppose.) I beg your forgiveness again, then, for posts few and far between, on happenings that may seem like yesterday’s news. Today’s late-to-the-game post is on Heavy Rain, one of the few games that makes me want a Playstation 3 (along with The Last Guardian, Team Ico’s upcoming game).

I’ve been seeing some fascinating interviews lately with David Cage, director of Heavy Rain and head of the development studio behind that game and its predecessor Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a. Fahrenheit). As you might have been hearing, one of the big points of buzz around Heavy Rain is that when characters die, they stay dead, so as to tell a more seamless and less frustrating story—a mechanic discussed elsewhere on this blog and in one of my articles. I’ve been fascinated to see that some gamers reacted with skepticism (or even hostility) to this idea when I first published on the topic, but it looks like some might be warming up to it—albeit with some reservations—now that it’s actually being implemented in a promising fashion.

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Arcadian Rhythms

I’ve recently received word that Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, an open-access journal, will be publishing a paper of mine in a 2009 issue. The paper, “Arcadian rhythms: Gaming and interaction in social space,” is a revised and updated version of the paper I described in my post on ICA 2007. The paper describes a participant-observation study spanning several months, which saw me visiting a few different arcades to get a sense of how people play and socialize around games in a semi-public space. (UPDATE: The paper is now online.)

Part of what fascinated me about this subject was how many journalists and even some other academics described video arcades as havens of racial harmony and class equality—a development, I think, partially resulting from the fact that arcades are much more socially stratified around gaming skills and interests than any more normally recognized index of cultural belonging. The distinction between “hardcore” and “casual” players made by many in the gaming press may be an incomplete and problematic construction of who plays games, but arcade-goers appear to make similar sorts of divisions between themselves, both in terms of social organization and formal differences in the games they choose to play. (Some of this now reads like a retrospective of how the Wii has been capable of reaching new gaming audiences, but this research was first conducted before the Wii’s control scheme was even announced. Ah well—so goes the pace of academic research and publication.)

The first version I wrote of this (even before presenting it at a conference) was actually quite a bit longer because a good portion was devoted to discussion of the much-lamented “death of arcades,” which ultimately seemed better addressed in some other paper. I focused on this direction because I’m more interested in connections between gameplay and culture than in developments in the industry, but we’re probably overdue to see a paper comparing and contrasting the American and Japanese arcade scenes. In fact, it was somewhat challenging to find enough sites for this paper, as some of those I planned to visit had closed not long before I started the research. Two more of my four sites have been effectively closed since submitting the paper for publication.

“Arcadian rhythms” goes online in the fall of 2009, but please feel free to email me now (jason @ this domain) if you’d like a copy to look at in advance.

“You are dead. Continue?”

Apparently I’ve placed myself in the center of a divisive issue with the publication of my new article, “‘You are dead. Continue?’: Conflicts and complements in game rules and fiction.” [Note: There are some spoilers in here, including for the ending of Shadow of the Colossus.]

The paper might look somewhat familiar to regular readers of Geek Studies, as it weaves together some strands I’ve been playing with here for awhile. I discuss how the trial-and-error approach to death and failure can be a frustrating narrative interruption in games where the characters, story, and emotional involvement are treated as comparably important to the gameplay mechanics. Some games in recent years, however, have offered different—and sometimes quite emotionally engaging—ways of thinking about death and failure.

So, what’s this divisive issue I speak of? Well, game studies scholars might call it “ludology” versus “narratology” (even if I see it as a bridge between these). Among gamers, though, it seems to boil down to “the way games have traditionally been” versus “the direction (some) games are headed.”

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The Challenge to Meaningful Games

One of the things I have written about around here (and elsewhere) is how games have great narrative potential in the blending of story and gameplay. In games like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus, players must confront the morality of actions they have been forced to do in the process of regular gameplay. And it’s now becoming a common convention, if not a cliche, to offer players choices between a limited set of actions that direct the plot to some degree, offering the chance to see how the player’s own choices have ethical and practical ramifications, such as in Bioware games (Mass Effect being the most recent example), Kane & Lynch, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and even the recent Grand Theft Auto IV. All of this may feel for naught, however, when the rest of the game’s design completely undercuts whatever message the narrative dimension of the game sought to communicate.

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Seeking Truth in Video Game Ratings

I have a new open-access, peer-reviewed article up at the International Journal of Communication, titled “Seeking Truth in Video Game Ratings: Content Considerations for Media Regulation.” This study presents a detailed look at the processes and reform proposals for video game content rating and regulation in the U.S. It’s a follow-up to a paper I presented at the National Communication Association 2007 conference, which I described here some months ago.

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