Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009
The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.

Yeah, I know.  Sex sells.


Indeed, when I teach advertising analysis as an exercise in practicing interpretation and evaluating rhetorical techniques in my freshmen composition classes, I often have students that astutely point out this phenomenon.  I do like to point out that selling a product via sex, though, can be a relatively more complex process than that two word phrase might otherwise imply.  Once we begin comparing advertisements targeted at different types of audiences (heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women), it generally becomes apparent that this sales technique depends on some interestingly different expectations of how those audiences want their sex served up that may reveal some differences between expectations along gender lines or that might reveal some stereotypes that we have about sexuality and gender.


Evony: The very definition of subtlety

Which brings me to the weirdly sexed up and, what appears to me to be, the overly simplistic and badly marketed Evony campaign.  I should note that a number of other folks have spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the topic of Evony and its marketing.  I suppose that the fact that Evony has generated as much conversation about its ads as it has does indicate that at least the ads themselves have been successful in getting the game some attention and that it is probably largely related to its extremely straightforward and audacious “sex sells” mentality.  That the game has had much less virtual ink spilled about the game itself, however, may indicate the campaign’s relative lack of success at getting folks to actually play the game.  The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.


I should mention, though, too, that a lot of this attention has drawn some charges against Evony that go beyond mere marketing issues.  In one of the rare reviews about the gameplay itself over at the Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming news site, Ark’s Ark, a columnist called Arkenor has observed that Evonycontains in game text that bears a suspicious similarity to the text of games from the Civilization series.  Additionally, Arkenor notes that a piece of software called iEvony that is downloadable from the Evony web site “just wants all your instant messenger login details so it can send messages to people on your behalf.”  He suggests that this is part of Evony‘s additional layers of less overt viral marketing.  Nic, a writer for The Big Critique web site, makes similar claims that “this game ripped off its graphics and descriptions from other games [and] includes new software that raises privacy issues.”


With that bit of warning concerning the potentially less obvious aspects of the possible shadiness of Evony aside, though, I am frankly still just baffled by the way that Evony has been sold to gamers.  As the information that Arkenor’s article suggests, Evony is a simulation game in the tradition of Civilization, a fairly hardcore economic management and combat simulation that has no clear connection beyond a medieval theme (and that theme does not even emerge in all of its ads anyway) to the game itself.


Evony is a little less sexy in person

What I am trying to get at here is that while a lot of games try to sell themselves on sexual content, those games usually also contain some element of sexual content.  I just published a piece last week about “The Bodies of Lara Croft and Rubi Malone” that in part defended the representations of these female protagonists of the Tomb Raider series and Wet.  However, I would not ever claim that either Lara or Rubi are not highly sexualized characters in games that in part are selling themselves on that sexuality.  Indeed, as I observed in my recent review of Wet, the game is in part interested in sexuality as it emerges in the exploitation cinema stylistics that it apes. If Wet contains some sexy images, well, it is game that is in part about the topic of sex.  However, unlike Tomb Raider or Wet, Evony is a less than sexy game.  It is a sim.  And it is certainly not some sexy sim.


In that regard, I really don’t understand how the PR minds that are pushing Evony expect to maintain a player base for this game when it simply isn’t offering what it’s advertising.  Sure, it will garner attention and some hardcore sim players like sex, too (hard to believe I know), but those looking for sexual content are going to look away pretty quickly from this game, which ostensibly intends to make money on in game purchases made to enhance this otherwise freeware style of game.  When the money gets made through the play of the game, you better hope that the user is actually there for the game.


This might sort of be what the game is about

Now, the marketing of the game initially was considerably less sexually fixated.  Instead, early ads seemed to play up the medieval themes of the game with an image of a knight brandishing a sword and the like.  Frankly, if that wasn’t doing the trick for luring in players either, I can understand why.  The image is not especially eye catching (it’s a fairly generic bit of art), but this early iteration of the ad campaign shows the same slightly off target marketing of the current one.  The single image of the knight might imply an action-oriented game moreso than a simulation or strategy game to a gamer, so any player that might click on the ad might similarly be disappointed with the game that they are actually getting and might not hang on long enough to drop some virtual coin on it.  It isn’t the clearest representation of the product.  It touches on theme, but theme isn’t the only selling point for a game.


It also begs the question of where ad space is being purchased in any case for these games.  If banners for Evony are showing up on sites frequented by strategy and simulation fans, the confusion of the imagery with what kind of game is being sold might be less problematic than it is on a site with a broader gaming audience.  Gamers get signs like medieval themes and swords, they may not associate that with simulation, though.  As I understand it, Google has added features that aid advertisers (and maybe consumers) by targeting ads towards Google users’ search interests, but the Evony campaign hearkens back to the mystification of advertisers during the 1990s about how to use the web to advertise.  During that era, many advertisers seemed to think that getting any ad space on the kinds of sites with the biggest hit counts during that time period, largely sites about video games or that might feature pictures of Cindy Margolis was a good idea, even though, the 18 to 35 male, computer nerd demographic that frequented those sites might not be the best group to market your fabric softener or gardening tools to (selling Cheetos might have been a more sensible bet).  I also maintain that just because you are targeting gamers, that you might realize that there are more specific venues to target the right kinds and that if you do know that your banners will be showing up on a general gaming site that making your message about what your game is much less ambiguous helps a lot.


In other words as an advertiser, you might do well to attempt to play up the nature of your game to an audience that actually wants to play that kind of game.  I promise that there is a whole audience out there that really wants to play a good economic sim with interesting combat options and tricky decisions about resource management.  You might just want to tell them that your game contains those elements.  You could also probably throw some sex into the mix if the game contains it, but curiously enough, people feel ripped off when they don’t get what they seemed to have been promised.  In the end, the more specifically targeted audience (that doesn’t feel misled) is the most likely group to spend some money on your game and tell their friends about it.  All this might seem really obvious: be truthful about what you are advertising, sell to the right audience, etc.  But recall how “obvious” the idea that “sex sells” alone is supposed to be.


Evony: Desperate much?

Finally, what advertisers might need to learn is that gamers might best be understood by what their name implies, those who like to play games.  As the legendary flop, BMX XXX succeeded in demonstrating, just slapping some pornography on top of a game about BMX tricks is not a sure fire way to get product flying off the shelves.  Gamers interested in BMX tricks might first and foremost be more interested in playing a really well designed game in the genre.  Not that gamers don’t like sex, but maybe it should make sense to include sexuality when it is appropriate and, well, sensible (bikes and strippers, wha?).  Additionally, it might even be worth considering how the audience (be they male or female, straight or gay) might respond to sexual imagery in terms of the plot, themes, and gameplay itself and not simply assume that sex is the sole reason that anything can or will ever be sold to the public.  Quite honestly when I look at the ads for Evony, they look more like a satire on sex in advertising than anything else.  Frankly, a game that satirized advertising sounds more interesting to me and might justify an advertising campaign this absurd.


Maybe I’m wrong, though, and Evony‘s marketing campaign has led to its publishers and developers making money hand over fist.  If so, though, why do they look so desperate to me?


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009
A breakdown of Jesper Juul's classic text on rule structures and game design.

Back during the first tentative steps of video game academia there was an unpleasant clash over how important the story in a video game really is. It’s hard to really establish a definitive stance on the argument because every game has a unique relationship with its narrative elements. Sometimes there are lucrative goals and engaging plot decisions for the player, sometimes story just adds context to an otherwise purely skill based game. Jesper Juul’s book half-real is a very large discussion about rules and the kinds of games they produce. Linear rules, open rules, how these can be grouped or organized to produce certain types of behavior, and how they can be grouped to produce certain kinds of stories. Using a neat division between emergent and progressive gameplay, Juul outlines the relationship a player has with either system and how narrative is intertwined with each. Considering the nature of his work with Popcap games such as the Bejeweled series, it goes without saying that the majority of the text is discussing emergent rule systems.


From <i>You Have to Burn the Rope</i>”></div><p class=From You Have to Burn the Rope


It’s a sort of weird tradition with game academics to throw out an elaborate definition of what a game is when they’re doing a book like this. As the indie and experimental scene continues to grind apart any attempts to concretely hammer down the concept, accepting the definition in an article has more to do with the sake of argument than actually expecting it to universally work. Juul defines a game as, “A game is a rule-based 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 emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.” (36) As Juul notes in one of many large graphs, there are now dozens of things that could be broadly defined as a game, but his definition might better be termed as the definition of an ‘emergent game’. (44)


Very early in the book Juul draws the distinction between an emergent design (a number of simple rules combining to form interesting variations) and a progressive design (separate challenges presented serially). (5) He gives a simple test to tell which one you’re playing: if the gamefaq is a walkthrough, it’s a progression system. If it’s a strategy guide, it’s an emergent system. (71) Part of the reason this schism should exist is that the term ‘game’ has already changed meaning over the years. In one section of the book he shows the earliest definition of a game from years ago and shows how it has changed into modern times. (30) The reason for this is that games, unlike film or books, are uniquely trans-media. You can play a game outside with a ball, a deck of cards, a board, dice, or on a computer. (48) It is possible to make a game where you can see and observe everything there is to know about the game (such as basketball) or you can make one where your understanding is imperfect. As a consequence it keeps changing from media to media. This is the second way Juul differentiates these two design aesthetics. In Space Invaders, you know everything about the gameplay. Aliens come down, you shoot, getting hit means you lose. There are no surprises, there is no black box hiding everything from the player. In poker, you only know what’s in your hand. There are plenty of surprises in every game. (59)


This is an ongoing argument in the gaming community. Clint Hocking’s advocates designing games where the information state is perfect for the player. He freely explains how the buddy system works in Far Cry 2 because in his game there really isn’t any such thing as a spoiler. You’re supposed to know everything that’s going on because unlike a progressive design, the player must have a fuller degree of control for an emergent experience. They should understand the consequence of their actions and what the machine is thinking. As Juul explains, “For emergence, the game is the whole of the sum of its parts.” (78)


From http://www.backyardcity.com/

From http://www.backyardcity.com/


What’s interesting about these distinctions between design aesthetics is Juul’s contention that the narrative is always interchangeable for them. That is, “games that are formally equivalent can be experienced completely differently.” Or put another way, “any game can potentially be read as an allegory of something else.” (133) He uses Tic-Tac-Toe as an example by changing the game’s depiction from X’s and O’s to a number grid. (52) The numbers are re-arranged and the player is told to pick three numbers that add up to 15. It plays the exact same way as Tic-Tac-Toe because of the number arrangement; all you have to do is get three in a row. Yet the game is now experienced completely differently because of the adding element, usually resulting in people disliking it. That’s why any argument that narrative trumps design is ultimately going to fail. As Juul notes, peel off the plot and art of any game and its skeleton, its core being, is still a mathematical series of rules. If your foundation is not solid, the rest will fall apart.


Juul then broadly defines what constitutes an algorithmic process or game design rule. It must end after a certain number of steps. Each step must be precisely defined. It can have zero or more inputs, but it must have one or more outputs. It must also be effective. A cookbook, to give an example, is not an algorithm because of the imprecise measurements and moments. Unlike an abstract concept, “an algorithm can work because it requires no understanding of the domain and because it only reacts to very selected aspects of the world – the state system.” (63) A state system is just the game’s current status based on the rules, defined by having a beginning and being altered by input from the player. The location of your pieces on a board game at any given time, for example. The point is, “a rule includes a specification of what aspects of the game and game context are relevant to the rule.


The rules of relevance are a place where rules and narrative meet in that learning a game also means learning to ignore the purely decorative aspects of plot. This is part of the process of information reduction.” (63) This is also what a game designer refers to as ‘chunking’. The more a player becomes familiar with a game, the more they tune out the visuals and just focus on interacting with the rules. Juul cites Quake III as an example of this, pointing out that most hardcore players turn the detail level as low as possible to ensure the game runs quickly. They don’t care what the game looks like or is about anymore. (139)


From Quake III

From Quake III


The narrative sections of the book mostly dismiss progressive games and instead focus on the growing genres that merge the two design aesthetics. The book was written in 2005 and as a consequence Juul must focus on Grand Theft Auto III and The Sims for many of these points. As noted above, both games create a broad series of rules and choices that the player can make. This creates a game world, one whose visuals, sound, and interactions are all communicating a sense of space to the player. (163) The most crucial role of fiction is to cue the player into understanding the rules. (189) In order to ensure that the game remains interesting, the space must have a wide variety of different rules that do not overlap. He refers to this as ‘orthogonal unit differentiation’ or put much, much more simply: every unit has a strength and weakness. The key is to make sure there are a number of different non-overlapping axes that the units can be placed along rather than just one axis such as “strength”. (108) Doing one activity in two different contexts should be possible and should produce different outcomes. For example, doing a plot mission in GTA III produces an outcome different from if the player was just driving around smashing things, even if they are in the same location. These emergent systems present a fictional world, one the player accepts because the rules create an abstract and changing process. (170)


This eventually leads to the portions of the book that focus extensively on narrative. The problem for Juul is that if you’re willing to accept that a game is always functionally just an expression of its rules then you are not going to be able to create certain kinds of stories. He notes, “The goal has to be one that the player would conceivably want to attain….Superficially, it would seem that the player is only attached to the outcome on the level of the rules, and as such, it would be irrelevant whether the goal of the game is to commit suicide or to save the universe.” (161) Technically, there are several hilarious games that present just such a goal today. As a consequence, Juul points out that it would be difficult to make a tragic game because that conflicts with a player’s sense of the win-state. You could make the rules focus on achieving a tragic conclusion, but who would want to play such a thing? Juul writes, “While a clear valorization (goal) and emotional attachment to the outcome afford the player an opportunity to succeed, they also mean that the player can fail miserably.” (199)


Reading half-real several years after its creation, it’s interesting to see the different ways people have tackled the problem he outlines at the end of the book on narrative. Having a game be about anything other than victory is hard because you have to get the player to actively want the goal themselves. Various attempts like Passage or The Path continue to push this notion but the results are usually mixed. You either confound the player or shorten the play-time so that the investment does not seem like such a waste. An AAA game like The Darkness is arguably the most successful game to present a tragedy but it does so by presenting a conflicted win-state. Other titles that have tried to present conflicted win-state ending like Fallout 3 have mostly been criticized for them. In the end, the issues that Juul pointed out several years ago are still being struggled with in video games today.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 25, 2009
Killzone 2 proves that even a dirty depiction of war can be fun.

I played Killzone 2 a couple weeks ago. At one point, after a tough battle, me and Rico, a squad mate, were riding an elevator to a top of a tower. As it was rising, I looked at Rico and noticed him staring at the floor, as if deep in thought. I stepped towards him, wanting to put an hand on his shoulder and as “You OK?” I didn’t really care for Rico, most of his vocabulary consisted of curse words meant to prove his bravado, and he seemed unable to say a word without shouting it; he was arrogant, impulsive, and I found him all around unlikable. But I did care about Rico: He was the guy next to me in the trenches, the guy who killed any Helghast soldier that flanked me, the guy who help keep me alive during the tough battle earlier. So, even though I didn’t like him, I stepped towards him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder and ask “You OK?” But I couldn’t. Because this was a game. So instead I just watched him, feeling bad that I couldn’t to anything. The game finished loading, the elevator doors opened, Rico shouted “Let’s go kill some Higs!” or some other generic line meant to prove his bravado, and I continued playing.


Killzone 2, more than any other game, captures that chaos, confusion, and violence of war. And that’s precisely what makes it fun


There’s a constant oppressive atmosphere in Killzone 2. At multiple points in the game, characters comment on the state of the planet Helghan, pointing out how desolate it is. During one level in a desert power plant, we’re told that the beauty of the planet was sucked dry by the constant war machine of its inhabitants (the Helghast). Whenever we leave the city we see this for ourselves. The ground is always dry, the sky is always dusty, and I can’t remember ever seeing a piece of greenery in the game. Looking at it from that perspective makes the history of Helghan rather tragic: A people fueled by war deplete the resources of their planet, and now war is all they have left. It makes sense then that this planet would be home to a race of warriors since every day is a fight for survival. This is a hellish place to live.


Reinforcing that idea is the heavy focus on urban warfare. Fighting through the rubble of a destroyed city is always distressing, even if it’s the city of your enemy. There’s just something unsettling about the imagery. You’ll also spend a large part of the game moving through corridors or small rooms, lending an important sense of claustrophobia to the combat. We’re always trapped, confined, always fighting in the shadow of some structure. Even though the story has us invading Helghan, the level design is meant to make us feel like the oppressed victim.


The graphics were a selling point of Killzone 2, but it was criticized in many reviews for it’s rather limited color palette of browns and blacks, with nary a primary color in sight. But this art style was necessary to maintain the constant dark atmosphere. Unlike the “destroyed beauty” art style of Gears of War, there is nothing beautiful about the environments in Killzone 2.  You’re fighting in a destroyed city, and the colors used effectively portray a city under siege. This world feels dirty and grimy, the kind of place no one would voluntarily visit.


But I did visit it voluntarily. I then returned to explore every nook for collectibles. I returned again to play online, where the battles are even more chaotic than those in the single player campaign. Despite oppressive atmosphere in Killzone 2, it was still fun. What did I, and so many others, find entertaining about this chaos?


The answer, I believe, lies in another game. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, whenever the player dies, a quote about war is displayed on screen. The quote that has stuck with me the most was by Winston Churchill: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Out of the 80 possible quotes that can appear, this is the most appropriate one because it doesn’t just describe war, it describes our infatuation with it. People love danger, it’s exciting, and being shot at is certainly dangerous. But most people don’t want to put themselves in harm’s way, so they choose to live vicariously though entertainment: Books, movies, and of course, video games. War games will always be fun, no matter how grimy, dirty, violent, or chaotic they become, because we’re being shot at without result. We get that exhilarating adrenaline rush of being in danger without actually putting ourselves in danger. No matter how realistic a virtual world or its inhabitants are portrayed, the fact that they’re not real will always turn the violence into a theme park attraction, rather than something genuinely dramatic. However, perhaps when a war game involves real people, in a real battle, in a real war, then, like with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, that traditional gameplay we’ve become so used to will be given a powerful subtext and change the way we view our actions. Until then, war is fun as hell.


Tagged as: killzone 2
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 23, 2009
The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.

I deeply admire the audacity of the title of Bethesda’s Wet.  “Wet” refers to the protagonist, Rubi Malone’s, occupation as assassin (skilled at such “wetwork”) and also implies a less than subtle bit of sexual innuendo.  Given Wet‘s overt exploitation cinema influences, the ability to work that genre of film’s two dominant interests, violence and sex, into just one three letter word is pretty clever. 


Character concept art for Wet

Curiously, though, despite the come hither look of the game’s box art, nevertheless, Rubi is an only somewhat sexy female lead.  As my wife observed on seeing the character in game (rather than in the more overtly sexy box art imagery), “I kind of like her; she’s not really that pretty.”


A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote about “Miconceptions About the Female Avatar” elsewhere in Moving Pixels. Jeffries used a study, “Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?” as the basis for his discussion of how women may react positively to “hypersexualized” female avatars in games.  As defined by the study, hypersexuality is represented in games that tend to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of female characters.  Specifically, the 34D-24-35 measurements of Lara Croft were cited as the “embodiment” of this kind of hypersexual representation.


Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Anniversary

Lara is an interesting (and due to her notoriety as something like the first sex symbol of video games, of course, obvious) choice in discussing the topic of how women respond to female representations in games.  Female gamers have long expressed a variety of opinions, from appreciation to dismay, in response to the character and her appearance.  While the study, which was interested in seeing how men and women responded to a female protagonist of different body types from thin to curvy to hypersexualized, controlled for additional representational issues like clothing and the like in some way (the female models that they selected for their test subjects to respond to all wore the same clothing styles regardless of body type and were featured in the same game), Rubi Malone’s recent appearance, and Lara’s too for that matter, got me interested in considering more than the mere shape of female avatars but what other visual and aural markers might tell a player about these women.


Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

While Jessica Rabbit’s observation about the representational qualities of her own hypersexualized body suggests that exaggerated curves might provoke a negative ethical evaluation of an individual: “I’m not bad.  I’m just drawn that way.”  That Ms. Rabbit is generally “drawn” in an off the shoulder cabaret costume slit nearly up to the top of her thigh in addition to the application of her pouty make-up might also contribute to her assumption that people’s negative perceptions of her are related to the sight of her body and what it is interpreted as suggesting about her character.


In that regard, I find that both Lara and Rubi, who have each provoked both positive and negative responses regarding what they look like, are interesting, since what they wear marks them and might alter perceptions concerning how they should be interpreted in addition to interpretations that might arise from their exaggerated silhouettes. 


To begin by examining the appearance of the first lady of video games, Lara’s most essential representational marker in addition to her body is probably her voice, and even more specifically, her accent.  For Americans in particular, I think that the British accent evokes an irrational correlation with sophistication and culture.  Lara “sounds” elegant to the American ear, since she speaks the King’s English in what is perceived to be a traditionally aristocratic way (of course, Lady Lara Croft is also quite literally aristocratic).  This element of Lara extends from aural cues to her own visual representation.  Hair pulled back in a pony tail or braids might signal casualness or even childishness, but when severely drawn back (as Lara’s most often is), it also signals sophistication and elegance.  Up-dos suggest formality and seriousness of purpose.  Such elegance does also extend to her wardrobe.


Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Anniversary

While most often garbed in short shorts and a skin tight sleeveless shirt, such attire is often not seen as formal attire so such a notion might seem counter to this claim.  Nevertheless, simplicity is a synonym for elegance in both science and fashion.  Lady Croft is certainly not planning to attend a dinner party in her outfit, but then again, she is raiding tombs not garden parties and casual but elegant (or simple and basic) attire does exist.  Affluent New York casual fashions are often dominated by single toned tank tops and crisp jeans.  Lara is also not wearing spandex booty shorts and generally not sporting cleavage in her most iconic attire.  Her shorts are shorts, and they look expensive, not hoochy.


In other words, Lara might be understood as sexy as a result of her possessing hypersexual curves, but she really doesn’t look like someone that you would pick up at a dive bar.  Her clothing marks her otherwise and adds an additional layer that communicates a message beyond her availability (indeed, it may suggest a lack thereof).  She looks expensive, not cheap.


Bayonetta concept art

Compare Lara’s simple, sexy, but fashionable outfit to that of the clothing options of the protagonist of the forthcoming Bayonetta or any one of the female combatants of the Dead or Alive series, and you will see that Lara’s hypersexuality is tempered by an effort to mark her body with something other than mere sexual presence.  Bayonetta‘s glasses might mark her as “smart” but naughty librarian seems a more accurate interpretation considering the other elements of her costuming and how they relate to that one seemingly “intellectual” representational quality of the character.


Wet‘s Rubi Malone also has additional messages layered onto (or possibly over) her possibly hypersexualized body as well (I am unaware of whether Rubi’s measurements have been publicized, but she appears to be slightly less busty than Lara).  Despite being a protagonist who is modeled on female characters from a cinematic style oriented towards fairly overt sexual representation (in addition to probably Lara Croft whose stance in game is quite similar as are many of her jumping animations), Rubi’s foul (foul, not sexy, unless you consider lines like, “Hey, fucktard” and “Fuck you, door” to be sexy) mouth and rock and roll clothing style suggest a degree of toughness that again speaks more a message of a lack of availability than of a woman of questionable moral character (you know, the whole “I’m not bad” business that Ms. Rabbit is complaining about). 


Rubi is not elegant like Lara.  As noted, her mouth suggests otherwise.  So too, do her tattoos, a marker most traditionally associated with the lower or working classes or counter cultures, not high culture.  Her tattoos are interesting, though, like the economic and social classes that they have historically been associated with (sailors, criminals, and the like), they mark her as “tough.” Contemporarily, tattoos have become a fashionable accessory, however, sometimes (especially for women) they additionally suggest a sexual quality as the lower back tattoo’s description in the vernacular, the “tramp stamp”, attests to.  While Rubi shows a slight amount of midriff and lower back, her tattoos remain in less sexualized locations on her body.  Her arm is tatted; she is not, however, “tramp stamped” as these markings do not appear in the vicinity of more sexualized areas of the body, like the bare lower back. 


Rubi Malone in Wet

In this regard, what Rubi is not wearing becomes most significant when contrasting what is typically associated with “sexiness” to what she is actually wearing.  Again, she does bare her midriff, though, only maybe an inch and a half or so.  She is not wearing a low ride cut to further emphasize skin or anything else one might expect a female avatar that is showing skin like the midriff to normally wear.  Instead, Rubi wears more clothing that marks her as “tough” rather than sexy: a leather jacket (again, a very counter culture or even criminal marker, evoking rock and roll, punk, or a Mafia vibe), military fatigues, and combat boots that are not (as they so often are for video game characters) stretching all the way up the calf but more like an actual soldier’s combat boots (an occupation associated with toughness and rigor) that end about mid-calf.


I am not attempting to suggest that Lara and Rubi are not representations of women that are not sexualized or not in part subject to the gaze of their viewers (though the question of whether avatars are watched becomes complicated in a medium in which what you watch is something that you are also “being”—that is a subject for another lengthier discussion, though) and likely in part intended to be objects of desire for their viewers.  But what I am suggesting is that the sexualized body is complicated by clothing and other markers that may alter and refine the message being sent in such representations.  Lara is both sexy and elegant (or expensive) and Rubi is both sexy and tough.  Both characters have at least two layers (and, okay, it might only be two, but I think that that is one more than many avatars both male and female often get in their visual representations) and that those layers may modify one another in significant ways that alter how players (both male and female) might respond to them either positively or negatively.  Fundamentally, I don’t think either character’s appearance reduces them to a woman who can be seen as “merely sexy.”


My wife says she likes Rubi because (not in spite of) the fact that she isn’t exactly pretty.  What makes her “not exactly” pretty might be that other element that can be read on her body.  Rubi’s clothing might be communicating a message more loudly than her body.  She might be sexy, but on first glance, she looked pretty damned tough to me.  The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009
A breakdown of the multiplayer elements of Left 4 Dead.

The mark of a good competitive multiplayer game is one that can be enjoyed by a variety of players. For me, this equates to a game that I can play when I’m unwinding from work or when I come home from the bars on a Friday night. A game like Call of Duty 4 is fun when I’ve got my act together and I can focus, but otherwise, I’m going to get my ass kicked. There’s no secondary way to play the game, it’s just get in the trenches and brawl. One of the reasons I still consider Halo 3 the best multiplayer FPS on a console is because it finds a way to give the inept player some action. Between chucking a plasma grenade at someone or breaking out the shotgun, you can usually get in a few kills against a superior player (assuming we’re not talking about the shotty/sniper elites). The one problem with this is that whenever I log onto Social Slayer after needing a cab to get home, I’m not exactly a good teammate. Finding a way for a group of total strangers to coordinate is difficult enough without factoring in that everyone is at a different skill level. Most of the time everyone on a team will just scatter in a Halo 3 match usually with the result that the organized group always dominates. Valve’s procedural multiplayer game Left 4 Dead manages to create a game whose design promotes team work. It does so by imposing certain moments where a player will need assistance from others and creating a mutual aid dynamic. Where the excitement begins is in seeing how the various skill levels of the players pans out.


The game’s levels are set up a bit like a race track. At the start and at certain key points, you can pick up guns and ammo. Whichever gun you pick at the start is your primary weapon, with the secondary being a weaker pistol with infinite ammo. One health kit at the start and various pills and bombs are scattered randomly on the course. The higher the difficulty, the less time you’ll have to look around because you’ll be running non-stop. A player can be incapacitated from a variety of situations that will require someone’s help. Three types of zombies can knock you to the ground and continually attack, meaning someone has to come shoot them off you. Falling off a ledge or running out of health also means someone has to come help before you die permanently for that round. The way that you keep an expert player from ever dominating this system through memorization and skill is by procedurally generating the monsters. The game uses an AI director to study how the team is playing and match their performance to zombies. Gabe Newell in an interview for EDGE explains, “In terms of the signal that you’re giving the player, a difficulty level is like a flat line response as opposed to a wave. We tend to think of it almost in terms of signal processing. A difficulty level just says ‘go up to this level and remain constant’ in terms of the experience that it’s giving to people. That isn’t really the most entertaining experience that you can give people. They want peaks and valleys and really big reactions to the choices that they make.” Each level has its own unique ebb and flow that’s created based on the people around you rather than any set formula. As Simon Ferrari points out on his post on L4D, the game’s strength is its similarity to rhythm games.


From IGN.com

From IGN.com


What’s interesting about the system is the way that it encourages players of a variety of skill types. Justin Keverne uses Richard Bartlett’s essay on player types in online RPGs and applies it to the game. Each character in L4D represents a personality type, Bill is the grizzled veteran or Achiever. Zoey is the player who likes to organize people and sustain the group. Francis is the more narcissistic type of player who is interested in winning while Louis represents the explorer who wants to just experiment and see what happens in the game. As Keverne explains, the Francis character is liable to abandon you for the safe room so that they survive while the Louis character is liable to accidentally shoot you. Like an MMORPG, you can’t just cut out and go lone wolf in the game, so you begin to categorize players and adjust your style accordingly. Usually it is in the middle of a giant mob of zombies that you realize that you’re playing with a trigger happy nut. The sadly departed PixelVixen707 wrote that, “The game feels like a moshpit, and the kicking and flailing happen capriciously. In fact, I suspect many people will get sick of it almost immediately, and jump back to some metalhead shit like Gears of War 2.” That game, like Call of Duty 4, is just about winning. The only people who are getting much out of the experience are the Bill and Francis types of players.


That’s an idea Graffiti Gamer harps on in his excellent NGJ Post about multiplayer session. After playing the game with both friends and random strangers, he found that the random players generated the more interesting experience. When he played with people he knew, they quickly organized themselves into a solid team. You didn’t abandon someone or hog your medkit because you knew this person, you trusted them. With random strangers, the group dynamic is far more interesting. After playing a series of levels with one group, he explains that they grew to trust each other despite the flaws in the other players. One player quickly showed themselves to be the Achiever while another was decent but tended to jump in front of friendly fire. Louis, true to Keverne’s categories, ended up being a bit unpredictable and hard to work with. By falling behind and forcing everyone to come rescue him or by choosing to shoot wildly, the player was a constant liability. But by the end of the game, they managed to coach him into sticking with the group and working with them. At the end of each group of levels is a final test for the team, a timed last stand where hordes of zombies attack until help arrives. Do you run for the helicopter or boat even if your teammate is trapped? Louis, in this particular session, abandoned everyone to their death. Infuriated along with the rest of the team, Graffiti Gamer writes, “I’ve yet to experience such impassioned feelings, a sensation of knowledge sharing, such an exceptionally interesting narrative when playing with friends as I have with randoms.”


Considering how remarkable the procedural zombies are, it’s still unsurprising that Valve resorted to a massive overhaul of the design by releasing a sequel. Although the overall experience is initially novel, it’s limited by a lack of real variety in weapons or zombies. The zombie horde needs a massive infusion of variety, and since the guns basically boil down to shotgun or assault rifle, some additional options are also needed. This becomes the most apparent when you play the game in Versus Mode, in which you can be a zombie yourself. There isn’t really any means of attacking the survivors except to wait until one or two fall behind the rest of the group or you hit them at a key choke point. Everything else you can do boils down to just distracting them or causing more of the AI zombies to swarm. On the first map of “No Mercy” for example, there’s a pit to the lower floor of the apartment building that you can’t climb back up. If you wait for just the right moment, you can catch a straggling player who is still up top while his teammates are trapped down below. The problem is that over time everyone learns these points and compensates for them. Everyone just ends up striving to play a certain way, and since there are only five kinds of zombies, there is a definitive peak method of doing this. You’re still just using the same tactics over and over again.


A fresh infusion of new weapons, zombies, and maps would help keep things vibrant. More ways to fight, betray, and aid one another would help to heighten the stakes. The ability to procedurally generate maps at random might be a bit difficult one, but Valve might also consider the Far Cry 2 solution. Just include a map editor that’s ridiculously easy to use and have users submit the maps to the network and vote on quality. Since you tend to only play a map once, lack of sophisticated planning is compensated for by the experience of exploring a new space. Left 4 Dead is able to make playing with a group of people of varying skills possible for everyone. Thanks to the internet, it can constantly shuffle the deck of who you have to work with. But like any good card game, you need a variety of cards to keep that interesting.


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