Heavy Expectations

It’s spring break, which means it is time to catch up on research—and, being a video game researcher, that means justifying the purchase of a PlayStation 3. The first game I played on the new system got me thinking of Overqualified, a series of humorous cover letters for real job openings posted to the web. Generally, the letters make writer Joey Comeau sound out of touch with reality at best, and dangerously psychotic in many cases. In particular, I’m reminded of his letter to Nintendo:

We need a new Mario game, where you rescue the princess in the first ten minutes, and for the rest of the game you try and push down that sick feeling in your stomach that she’s “damaged goods”, a concept detailed again and again in the profoundly sex negative instruction booklet, and when Luigi makes a crack about her and Bowser, you break his nose and immediately regret it. When Peach asks you, in the quiet of her mushroom castle bedroom “do you still love me?” you pretend to be asleep. You press the A button rhythmically, to control your breath, keep it even.

We need an airport simulator, where the planes carry your whole family from A to B, job to job, and dad still drinks in the shower and your older sister still has casual sex that she confides might bring back a feeling she’s certain she didn’t imagine. Where the plane touches down and you all lean forward in your seats because of inertia, and again and again someone says “I hate to fly”.

The author writes this because he thinks he will sound deranged. It might have actually gotten him a job at Quantic Dream, however, the developer of Heavy Rain.

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Geek Studies in Philadelphia & St. Louis

No, I won’t be returning to my old stomping grounds in Philly this semester, but I’m there in spirit: Over at Technically Philly, Brian James Kirk offers a Q&A with me about my dissertation research. Thanks to Brian for making me sound significantly more coherent than I remember being on our phone call.

Later this month, however, I will be in St. Louis at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. I’ll be presenting a paper that originated as a loosely-connected series of posts here about “The Multiple Appeals of Gaming.” Let me know if you expect to be at the conference and feel like discussing geeky things, as I have a tendency to do that when given the chance.

Being Realistic About Virtual Loot

Awhile back, my friend Kai—the web developer and DigiPen grad I mentioned in my previous post—emailed me a link. The Escapist article, “The Broken Economy Is Your Fault,” rightly points out that the economics of video game RPGs are broken. The author suggests that, unfortunately, they probably can’t be fixed. As Kai wrote, “I see his point, but I think don’t buy that you can’t have a game that’s more economically interesting without making it full of tedium.”

I’m with Kai on this one. I’ve been sitting on this post for months while I took care of some other things, but now that Mass Effect 2 has gotten me thinking more about inventory management, I figured it might be time to revisit this.

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The Very Definition of an RPG

There’s something very funny about pledging to do more blogging right before finals start at your new job as an assistant professor. Something had to take a back seat, though—and you didn’t think it would be video games, did you? Of course not. Fortunately, video games are what bring me back to blogging: I’ve just completed Mass Effect 2, and I must emerge from my cave to ramble on about it.

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The Failings of “Forced Failure”

By forcing a player to do unpleasant things, a video game can encourage a player to reflect critically on those actions. As I’ve written about on Geek Studies and elsewhere—and as others have put quite well too—”forced failure” scenarios in games allow for new avenues of meaning, new emotional responses from media that pure spectatorship can’t easily provide. In my paper “Seeking Truth in Video Game Ratings,” I offered this technique as evidence that the mere presence of violence in a game isn’t enough to qualify the content as inherently immoral (or even amoral). I stand by that perspective.

As this technique becomes more commonly understood as part of the vocabulary of game design, however, it’s worth noting that recent games appear to be showing how heavy handed and poorly conceived the application of “violent gameplay to discourage violence” can potentially be.

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Encouragement vs. Reward

Over the last several posts on storytelling in gaming I’ve written (1, 2, <a href="3, 4), I’ve discussed some ways that players might find narrative meaning in games. Sometimes this is only possible when we go looking for it; sometimes it’s possible because of the way the game was designed; and sometimes we can see how narrative engagement might be possible, but might work better if the game were designed more for it.

This post explores the last of these scenarios. I believe games can be designed in such a way that they preserve a player’s feeling of agency—allowing for emotional reactions other than what we could get purely as spectators—but also allow preserve engagement with a story by recognizing the distinction (suggested in my last post) between what games encourage players to do for narrative purposes and what games reward players for doing in the form of distinct assets or benefits in gameplay terms. Designers can and should sometimes make players want to do things for story-based reasons, not just for gameplay-based reasons.

Why make this distinction? Quite simply, the tension between these elements can lead to some fascinating and meaningful scenarios when handled well, and can completely break our sense of immersion and engagement when handled poorly. Let me give some examples.

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Encouraging Ourselves to Death

This post continues a loosely-linked series of posts (including this, this, and this) on how we can find narrative meaning in replayed games. You can re-watch a favorite DVD again and again, but it’s tricky to replay an old game and still enjoy it for the story because the enjoyment of story is so linked with the experience of being challenged and excited by the game. This leads some gamers to force artificial limitations onto ourselves just to maintain a sense of challenge in ways that preserve the story, something most games are not designed to do. In this post, I’ll discuss one such artificial limitation—”permadeath” experiments with Far Cry 2—and what allowing characters to stay dead can do for the narrative experience of a game.

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A Game of “Find the Story”

As I discussed in my previous post, games can be played with attention to appeals offered by immersion in story and appeals offered by a sense of mastery, but we tend to see more attention to the latter when in the way games are designed to be played and replayed. Once you’ve mastered the skills required to excel in a game, it can sometimes feel too boring or easy, and so we crank up the Difficulty when we want to replay it. Making enemies stronger and protagonists weaker solves the issue of maintaining the appeal of mastery, but it does nothing to address the appeal of story. The sense of your own agency in producing the story is replaced by a sense of struggling to avoid repetition, whether boring (if it’s too easy) or frustrating (if it’s too hard).

Why not make up our own difficulty adjustments and imagine our own stories, then? Why not play “hardcore” or “permadeath” style, deciding that when our protagonist dies, it stays dead? Why not reject using the best weapons and skills available to our hero? Or, if a certain degree of variation is actually built into the game—such as the ability to play in a way that disagrees with our initial inclinations, perhaps as a villain rather than a hero—why not replay that way?

In fact, many gamers do just these things—and sometimes, I’m one of them. I had originally planned just one more post in this series on blending story and mastery appeals in games, but I’m going to have to spread it out over a couple more. In this post, I’ll discuss some ways I’ve tried to spice up replays by limiting my actions according to things that might make sense in the context of a story. I’ll discuss another recently blogged experiment in the post that follows this one, focusing on the narrative potential of irreversible actions. (And I’ll probably write another post after that, too, as I actually wrote this post on the next one months ago, and have new thoughts on these matters developed since then.)

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The Rumors of My Defense Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

It’s more than a little embarrassing to note that my most recent post before this one was the second part of a three-part series begun in early August. There is a reason, of course: I started the series in the window of time between turning in my dissertation to my committee and going to defend it in Philadelphia.

On August 12th, I defended my dissertation, Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age, and passed with only a few minor requests for revisions. I’m currently looking into options for publication, but in the meantime, feel free to email me directly (jason @ this domain) if you’d like a copy.

So, finishing the dissertation probably means I’ve had plenty of time to blog, right? Well, not so much, but I aim to remedy that now. Shortly after the defense, I started my new job as an assistant professor in the Communication department at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts (not too far from where I grew up, in Newton Upper Falls).

It turns out that designing and teaching three entirely new classes (plus committees and advising) is something of a handful, though certainly an improvement on the Morlock lifestyle that dissertation writing encourages. Now, in November, I’m finally getting to know the ins and outs of the new campus, figuring out what motivates and interests my students best, and carving out some time to do things other than course prep.

My new (academic) year’s resolution, then, is to get back to blogging. I’ll soon finish that three-part series, and I’m going to try to get back into the blogging routine at least once a week. I may not be doing new research on geekdom itself for the time being, but I suspect I’ll still have things to share for a while. Plus, I think you’ll find that my other research interests are plenty geeky in their own right. After all, someone has to babble on about the theories and usage of video games, web design, and science-fiction. I wouldn’t want there to be a shortage of voices opining on these topics in the blogosphere, so I now solemnly return to perform my duties.

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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