One of game studies' fundamental gaps is the lack of a solid theory of meaning. That is, how games can mean, represent, signify, etc., anything at all. This problem is immediately apparent in Jane McGonigal's new book, "Reality is Broken." Early in the book McGonigal adopts Bernard Suits' definition of a game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." While I am only through the second chapter, so far the book has relied heavily on this definition. However, as this post aims to demonstrate, this definition of "game" is both fundamentally flawed and illustrates the kinds of problems that arise because we do not understand how games can mean.
McGonigal cites several examples of games that fit this definition, notably golf (which is one of Suits' examples). Indeed, sports seem to fit Suits' definition extremely well, as every sport I can think of is about adhering to arbitrary rules in order to accomplish some ordinary feat. In golf the unnecessary obstacles are the various rules that prevent us from merely walking to the green and dropping the ball into the hole. Similarly, ice hockey would be much easier if players could pick up the puck and throw it into the net. Everyone would be an expert player of darts if they were allowed to walk up to the board and simply push their darts into the sixty-point segment. In these cases it is true that players are choosing to try and overcome obstacles that seem quite unnecessary, if your goal really is to arrange particular objects in a particular state.
However, this definition does not make much sense when we apply it outside of sports. While McGonigal makes an effective argument for its application to Scrabble, I would like to apply Suits' definition to Monopoly. In Monopoly the goal is to be the last player in the game, which happens when you have money and your opponents do not. The necessary question that arises here is: what does it mean to "have money?" How does a Monopoly player have money, and what distinguishes her from the other players that do not have money? One answer might be location: players typically signify their possession of game money by placing paper slips in front of themselves. Seen through the lens of Suits' definition, one might argue that the goal of Monopoly is to place the paper money in front of yourself, while preventing others from doing so; the "unnecessary obstacle" in this case is the game itself, the processes one must undertake before being "allowed" to put the money in front of oneself.
I hope I am not alone in finding this phrasing deeply unsatisfying. When explaining Monopoly to a new player, would you ever tell them that the goal is to put the money in front of yourself? Rather, the goal is a particular configuration of the game state. The physical aspects of Monopoly--the board, pieces, money--are mnemonic devices that allow players to keep track of the state. To "have money" in Monopoly is not to position it in a certain way (like positioning a golf ball), but rather to perform a series of processes that then give meaning to the money and define its state. These processes create the meaning of the money. Without them, Monopoly money really is just slips of paper; its physical location is meaningless. Thus the game is the opposite of "unnecessary:" it is entirely necessary in creating the meaning required to satisfy the goal. Without the game the money has no meaning.
I would argue, then, that in this sense games are not obstacles at all. The OED defines an obstacle as "something that stands in the way or that obstructs progress; a hindrance, impediment, or obstruction." If your goal is to "have money," then the game is the opposite of an obstacle: it is the enabler of that progress, that goal. Without the game that goal does not exist and cannot be fulfilled. As an analogy, games can be thought of as modern, highly technical modes of transportation, such as a car. Cars, like games, are complex to operate and handle. They require some degree of learning before they can be used effectively. However, they are often necessary to reach our destination (goal). It makes little sense to refer to a car as an obstacle when we so often depend on it to reach an end state. The car, like the game, is needed to reach the goal.
If we think in terms of the goal, as both Suits and McGonigal do, then the game is the opposite of an unnecessary obstacle.
A few years ago I wrote blog post comparing the graphic novel Persepolis to the video game Just Cause, lamenting that while a revolution would be a great setting for an open world-style AAA game we would likely never see it, because AAA developers seem to have neither the interest for nor the balls to treat the subject as anything other than a GTA-style violence-fest. Persepolis, a touching and complicated personal account of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, is closer to what I wanted to see in a game that dealt with such potent concepts. Just Cause, while fun, was - like GTA - a joke when it came to addressing the topics it raised.
Four years later it seems like someone is trying to make my dream come true... at least in theory. To my amazement this person is former Rockstar writer/designer Navid Khonsari, an Iranian-American who is apparently putting his full weight behind a commercial video game based on the 1979 revolution, called simply 1979: The Game.
I'd never heard of him before, but Khonsari was apparently one of the driving creative forces behind the PS2-era GTA games - GTAIII, Vice City, and San Andreas. So not only was he at Rockstar, hewas specifically involved in the initial birth, evolution, and maturation of GTA as a mass-cultural phenomenon, setting the tone for all Rockstar's subsequent creative output as well as their public image as the badboys of the industry.
Given my sour stance on Rockstar (I find their use of irony more evasive than genuine, rendering their supposed "social commentary" insincere in most cases.) I admit that I didn't want to believe Khonsari might be making my dream game: a sophisticated political statement, occupying a space outside America's dominant narratives, with a AAA budget behind it, and made by an articulate visionary who is also a good game designer. Yet I have to admit... this interview comes close to creating such an impression.
It's interesting what he says about fiction versus non-fiction. This, I guess, explains how the same mind that (partially) produced GTA: Vice City can also produce 1979: The Game. I don't agree with what he says. The mercurial relationship between fact and fiction is not so simple. Myth shapes reality and reality shapes myth. I don't believe that labeling something 'fiction' is a free ticket out of treating social, political, or whatever content with subtlety or complexity.
Khonsari seems to be arguing that GTA's pseudo-ironic vapidity was justified by the fact that it was "in the crime genre", which is how he distances 1979: The Game from it in terms of social outlook. Yet if we look at the crime genre outside games we see a massive swath of approaches and styles, from shallow and cartoony to mature and serious. GTA didn't have to be Scarface. It could have been The Wire, and the fact that Khonsari glosses over this fact seems calculated.
That said, his over-simplified construction that non-fiction demands social responsibility seems to serve him well as a mass-cultural stance. It's certainly an easy way to justify both GTA and 1979: The Game at once. A more complicated stance would certainly be harder to explain to his rather skeptical interviewer, which makes me wonder whether Khonsari himself believes it or whether it's something he just tells journalists. Either way, if it helps him get such a game made and distributed I can't fault him too much for it... though it could be a problem if such rhetoric became commonplace.
There are virtually no gameplay details, so who know if this game will ever even see the light of day. It is significant though, I feel, that a former Rockstar designer is taking a vocal stance on such a game, chatting it up to the international press and making an impassioned argument about the value and place in the AAA market for such games. It really makes me reconsider my take on Rockstar, considering that perhaps not everyone there is satisfied by the company's approach to controversy. If so we'll hopefully see more Khonsaris in the future.
"Blood, Sex, and Politics in Video Games: How Censorship Is Done (or Not): "'Die!' Censoring Game Violence"
What are the real differences between the US and European rating systems? Why are game ratings more content than context related? After a short intro we will look at examples that illustrate such questions, and how they seem to fail certain kinds of violent games. How can an age rating system reflect context, not just content? What makes violence truly horrible, as opposed to comical? Die!" - Censoring Game Violence is part of a running a discussion series on censorship in video games. Konstantin Mitgutsch, one of our post doctoral researchers, is a Scientific Board Member of PEGI, the European games rating board.. He wants people from local Boston industry, academia, and journalism to come and discuss various topics of game censorship - namely violence, sex, and politics - for a report he is currently compiling for PEGI. The goal of the report is to suggest changes to the current rating system. The discussion will take place in GAMBIT between 4 and 7 pm (coming late is okay) over three Friday's in a row beginning on 2/4. They will begin with Konstantin giving a little context for his report, how game rating systems currently work, etc. Then we will play a series of games and discuss them while we play. The goal is to capture the conversation. While it is happening, a small camera crew will be filming. The video will later go up on the GAMBIT website as part of our normal video series, but there video will also be used for reference for Konstantin's report.
This week's Friday Games will be a history of Tetris! We will play many versions of the world famous game, charting its tangled history from its inception at the Soviet Academy of Science in 1984, through its contested 80s variants, to its polished Nintendo incarnations, concluding with its endless fan-made, parody, and/or art piece proliferations that can be found all over the Internet today.
Be in the GAMBIT lounge at 4pm. We will actually be starting with a short documentary about the copyright war over Tetris before jumping right into the games.
There will be cookies (but they will be round, sorry).
Registration for the 2011 Complete Game Completion Marathon is now open! The marathon will take place from April 15 - 17th.
MIT Community Members
What is the marathon you ask? It is a charity event run by the GAMBIT game lab in which participants play mini-marathons of games to various degrees of "completion". The event is streamed on the internet and donors are encouraged to contribute to causes as they spectate and witness the madness!
This year we have added a new donor partner in ACCION International. They are a great organization, and we will be working closely with local partners to make this a great event. Supporters will also still be able to donate to Partners in Health for the event.
So you want to participate eh? Well here are some details about the event:
- We are looking for groups of players for the Main Stage! This year we are building a Main Stage schedule, where for 48 hours we will have scheduled mini-marathons that will be streamed online complete with color commentary
- Requirements for Main Stage Submission
- A wacky or innovative play session that will last 4+ hours
- Must be local to GAMBIT Cambridge Offices
- A group of people willing to participate in the play session as players and color commentators
- Access to the game disk/cart/software you are interested in playing
- Flexible schedule the weekend of April 15th-17th
- We are looking for general participants! We will also be having events that will not be explicitly broadcast on the main stage.
- Requirements for General Submission
- A play session you would like to participate in
- Must be local to GAMBIT Cambridge Offices
- Flexible schedule the weekend of April 15th-17th
- Access to the game and hardware that can output to our projectors (VGA, Component Video, Composite Video)
- WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PROVIDE TECHNICAL TROUBLESHOOTING DURING THE EVENT, IT IS A REQUIREMENT THAT YOU HAVE A WORKING GAME/SYSTEM THAT CAN PLUG INTO OUR PROJECTORS ON SITE!
Examples of WACKY Ideas
Finishing a game with your feet
Playing a game you hate
Playing a game in a foreign language you don't understand
Playing a game with an unorthodox configuration of characters
Playing a very "bad" game
Role Playing while you Role Play (Pretend you are somebody while playing a video game)
Playing consecutive versions of a game
If you are interested in participating please fill out the CGCM 2011 Application form, save it with a unique name, and email your submission to email@example.com. Submissions due April 1st!
We will have space available in GAMBIT for you to play. There will be a live stream of your game!
Not part of MIT?
Not part of MIT, but still interested in participating? You still can! We are encouraging remote participation: setup a live a/v stream of your game via ustream, and send us a link to the stream! We will aggregate all CGCM streams on our website during the event. To participate, fill out the CGCM 2011 Application form and make a note that you wish to participate remotely. Then when the time comes email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to your stream and we will add you in!
The Complete Game-Completion Marathon is back! This year we are running it to coincide with the Boston Marathon, April 15-17th.
This year we have added a new donor partner, ACCION International. They are a great organization, and we will be working closely with local partners to make this a great event. Supporters can still donate to Partners in Health if they so choose, and all donations will be put towards furthering Haiti's reconstruction efforts.
The Complete Game Completion Marathon is a 48 hour event where participants come to GAMBIT to play games for charity! Players will come in teams to play games in weird, strange, or interesting ways! Play Mario with your toes! Complete the original Final Fantasy using a party of four white mages! Play the Starcraft 2 campaign only using SCVs!
Games being played will be streamed live, complete with (mostly) expert commentary!
If you have any questions please email us at email@example.com
Watch this space and our website for more updates!
Looking Glass Studios Interview Series - Audio Podcast 2 - Dan Schmidt
Part 2 of a continuing series, where I interview members of the now-defunct but highly influential Looking Glass Studios (1990-2000), which wrote the book on 3D first-person narrative game design throughout the 90s, in such games as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief.
In this episode I talk with Dan Schmidt, who was with the company from its very early days (back when it was called Blue Sky Productions). A programmer by vocation, but filling a variety of roles from project management to design to music composition, Dan helped set the tone for the company's subsequent creative output in early projects like Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld II.
The podcast covers these projects, as well as Dan's work on Terra Nova, the ambitious squad-based robot sim, and his work in the early stages of Thief before moving on to work at Harmonix Music Systems in its early, pre-Guitar Hero days.
If you want to know what NHL '92 has to do with both Ultima Underworld and Rock Band (and who doesn't?) give it a listen.
This week's Friday Games will be a look at video game ninjas, past and present. We'll look at early games involving ninjas and show how they have evolved throughout the past 20 odd years, beginning with some truly wacky examples such as "Ninja Golf"!
As always, things start at 4... but feel free to arrive late. It's casual.
Our friends at Boston Game Jams are organizing a non-digital (that is, board game and card game) design jam at the GAMBIT labs during the weekend of April 9th and 10th.
From Darren Torpey, organizer of Boston Game Jams:
... and now for something completely different! Wait for it... wait for it... Cardboard Jam! We're gonna make non-digital games this time. With our hands! In just two days!
We'll make card games, board games, etc. -- any style of game that doesn't involve a computer.
We'll get to rapidly iterate on our concepts, playtest each others' games, and even welcome those who excel in design and/or people skills but lack (relatively speaking) in technical skills. It's gonna be grand.
Bring your friends! Especially those who've said "game jams sound cool but I can't code" or the like. No coding required -- no computer tools needed -- nothing but a desire to collaborate with others to make an experimental game from start to finish, in a weekend.
I am embarrassed to say I was unaware of Shinobido's existence until a few months ago, when the design lead of Fallout: New Vegas recommended it to me over drinks at Austin GDC. I was mildly shocked to learn it was by Acquire, the makers of the original Tenchu, and that it continued that game's more open-world approach to stealth that the later Tenchu sequels abandoned.
I had no idea Acquire had lost the Tenchu license, and that after they lost it they created Shinobido as its spiritual successor, combining its open level design with the choice-driven narrative structure they pioneered in Way of the Samurai, their other main series. Given my love of Tenchu, Way of the Samurai, and open-world experiments in general I was flabbergasted this game somehow got by me... until I discovered it had been localized for PAL regions only. Apparently it was too experimental for us yanks.
After searching for several weeks (and being shipped a Norwegian copy by mistake) I managed to procure the U.K. version of Shinobido. To me this was the "real" Tenchu 3, the game that continued to build on the design agenda of Tenchu and Tenchu 2. The latter had actually expanded on the open-world aspects of the original, added a level editor, but was marred by the fact that the PS1 hardware couldn't quite handle the size of its world.
Shinobido looks a bit like Tenchu 3 at first glance, only unlike From Software's PS2 sequel it isn't just a streamlined version of Tenchu 1 with prettier graphics. It's a crazy, ambitious experiment that feels more like a "ninja simulator" than a game. It's over-arching structure reminds me a lot of Deus Ex (though it obviously comes from Way of the Samurai) with three opposing warlords all seeking your service in their quest for political power.
Each "phase" of the game involves a series of opposing job offers, only one of which you can take. What really makes this interesting is how elegantly the high level politics connect with the low level gameplay. You can accept missions against lords who like you, and they will be none the wiser if you are clever enough not to get caught. This is, in fact, how a faction system should work: as a matter of NPC perception, not global switches.
Failing a mission does not mean death in Shinobido. I means humiliation, the loss of reputation with a lord. In fact, you can only "die" during certain boss fights, something which the game warns you about beforehand and gives you the option to opt out if you aren't confident you will survive. Although you can cheat this system with save/loading, it is extremely tedious to do so, making Shinobido a game about weighing the political consequences of every moment.
You have to be very good at being silent in order to navigate the politics effectively, and the way the game brutally punishes any form of grandstanding reinforces this. Taking on multiple opponents, martial arts movie-style, is quite impossible. A group of startled guards will simply rush you, screaming into the night for anyone in earshot to help. Soon the whole damn neighborhood is awake, your lord will be furious, and you feel like the worst ninja ever.
Though Shinibido nominally follows a Tenchu-like mission structure it's really an on-going simulation of faction politics, with the missions serving as on-the-ground reflections of the current political climate. High level goals have low level consequences, like when, having delivered a box of weapons to a lord in one mission, you find all his soldiers equipped with them in the next... making him harder to betray, should you feel so inclined.
To me this is a much cleaner, more interesting variation on the faction politics of Deus Ex 2, in which faction decisions didn't seem to effect the core gameplay as directly or as obviously. I love the idea that a faction is a living organism with persistent features that change based on your story decisions, and Shinobido deserves credit for showcasing this idea well, even if it doesn't explore the idea fully.
Other points of interest: Shinobido one of the only stealth games I've played where guards will actually pick up and carry dead comrades away, something which seems like it should be addressed a lot more but somehow never is. The game also does a brilliant job of incorporating its level editor (one of the clear hold-overs from Tenchu 2) into the fiction, presenting it as the "garden" outside your house that you "decorate" it between missions, adding straw dummies for training but also traps to ward off invaders, who appear periodically in the form of a fortress defense mini-game.
Physics are a big part of Shinobido's gameplay, which is usual for a Japanese game, and is the source of some of its flaws. In a game with consequences this steep, the unpredictability of collision at times can be very frustrating, though it does contribute to general sense that being a properly elegant ninja takes real dedication (the animation for when you trip over a dead body, for example, seems designed to humiliate).
I haven't finished Shinibido, but I like a lot of its design conceits. The way it connects its faction system to its moment-to-moment experience makes a lot of sense, at least conceptually. I think it would be more interesting of the simulation aspects were more persistent, less branchy... meaning that it would be nice if characters and events would exist in the world whether or not you accepted a mission about them. I would have liked to have been able to simply decide for myself to assassinate Sadame, attack a shipment of weapons, etc., and watched the political fallout from the shadows.
With all the beautiful sketches and concept art we show with the Game of the Week, I wanted to take a moment to show you another side of the game development process, the organization and planning done by producers and designers. Here are some shots of the product backlog for Improviso at an early stage of development. Product backlogs are how you keep track of features that you want to implement in the game, and they really help in maintaining appropriate scope for the development cycle of a project. These documents are always changing and adapting to the newest state of the game, but they help provide a roadmap for what developers can expect.
At PAX East this weekend, we will be introducing an art project led by some of our staff and students regarding their observations of hate speech in online game communities. We have put together a video that examines forum posts and in-game chats that marginalize different groups: Muslims, African Americans, gays, and women.
Some of the interactions we noted were outright hateful and confrontational, some were much more subtle and insidious, and some were positive. Our aim is not to demonize the individuals spouting examples of hate speech; none of the content reveals any personal information. Our goal is to show how commonplace it is.
It should come as no surprise that this project was motivated by the recent Dickwolves debacle in the Penny Arcade community. We felt that the vicious harassment directed at rape survivors was an example of an enduring atmosphere surrounding online interactions between game-players, where hate speech is tolerated, accepted, and barely recognized in day-to-day play. Some writers argue that the use of such language is commonplace among gamers. We agree that it is all too common.
Many of our staff and colleagues will not be presenting their work at PAX East this weekend because they feel uncomfortable attending the expo this year. However, as a research lab in a university, we felt it was also important to seize a teachable moment.
The video will be presented in our booth in the PAX East exhibit hall along with some of our latest research-based games. Because the video contains offensive material, we will provide headphones for anyone interested in viewing the 12-minute piece at the back of our booth. The GAMBIT staff who have put together our art project will be present to discuss the piece.
We believe that the pervasive reality of exclusionary speech in online game communities stands directly against the inclusive ideals of PAX. We need to recognize this and work together to build a shared culture in which anybody who loves games can feel part of a community that plays together. We hope that our small project will encourage discussion about how we can make online game communities a more welcoming and sensitive environment for players of every stripe.
The fiction used in Improviso was important to creating an atmosphere for players to feel comfortable engaging one another. A big part of that is the "alien" character that you find in the game. Here are some alien sketches:
I also promised you a surprise yesterday. I am excited to announce that you can now go download and PLAY Improviso right from this website. Click here to get your acting on. See you tomorrow.
Improviso was unique this last summer in that it was the only game we were developing that was using full 3D art. This presented some new challenges to the art team in how to create a style that would be flexible enough to fit the fiction of improvisation and would still be engaging to the player. Check out some of the concept work done early on below:
See you tomorrow with an extra special Game of the Week post!
March 4th 2011, the last day of GDC, GAMBIT Researcher Todd Harper gives his opinion on the state of the conference. Some highlights: a rare lecture at this GDC on character design and storytelling by Matthias Worch (Visceral Games). Ron Gilbert (Double Fine Productions) speaks on his classic game, Maniac Mansion and to top it all off is the always entertaining Game Design Challenge entitled Bigger Than Jesus in which well known gaming contestants created their own religion. John Romero, Jason Rohrer and Jenova Chen battle it out to see who has created the faith that really pulls them in. Video produced by Generoso Fierro. Check out all that the GAMBIT Game Lab has to offer by clicking here.
Day Four @ GDC begins with a fascinating postmortem by Eric Chahi (Ubisoft), creator of the visionary game, "Another World" which is celebrating it's 20th anniversary. Chuck Hoover (Schell Games) lectures on the faults of human thought. GAMBIT friends, Darius Kazemi and Karl Parakenings play a round of the new IGDA created META GAME. And the sightly deranged but lovabe creator of "Deadly Premonition", Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro talks about how his coffee is the guiding force in his creativity. Video produced by Generoso Fierro
GOTW: Seer and Yet One Word First Playtest Screenshots
Hey everyone! Halfway through the development of Seer and Yet One Word the artists decided to change the art style of the game to the paper cutout theme you see in the final version of the games. Here are some screenshots from early builds that we showed at a large open playtest halfway through the summer program:
Day three of GAMBIT @ GDC features a variety of interesting lectures including our good friends Matt and Dean of Harmonix presenting their creative process on their hit game, "Dance Central". Frank Lantz (Area/Code) speaks passionately about his two favorite pastimes, the ancient game of "go" and poker. We end with a heartfelt lecture by Laura Fryer (WB Games Seattle) on the true nature of leadership. Video produced by Generoso Fierro
March 1, 2011, day two of GAMBITs invasion of GDC 2011, everything is coming up GAMIFICATION! GAMBIT Lead Game Designer Matt Weise weighs in on this year's hot GDC word. Jane McGonigal (Social Chocolate) speaks out on "gamification" during three separate events! Video produced by Generoso Fierro
One slightly different thing about The Sophocles Project games was that there were three artists on the team. This was done to ensure there were no jams in the art pipeline since the team was going to be making two games in one summer.
What is really great is that I think you can see the styles and ideas of all three artists in the final games. Check out a few pieces of concept art below, and see if you can find traces of ideas that made it into the final game!
From February 28th to March 4th 2011 the GAMBIT Staff will be attending GDC (Game Developers Conference) 2011 in San Francisco. In this episode, Clara Fernandez-Vara leads a panel on "Building and Growing a Game Lab", Doris Rusch talks about her summer 2010 game "Elude" and Matthew Weise talks about GAMBIT's collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design. Video Produced by Generoso Fierro
It is always useful to look back at early screenshots of first prototypes of games. I think looking at these screens you can see that even in the first digital prototypes of the games some of the core mechanics of the games are being worked out. Check them out: