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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
The techniques and issues in politically motivated video games.

A while back I posted an essay on how a video game placed in a relevant setting would be able to raise awareness of important issues. Since then, a little digging has revealed that there are already several games covering that ground. Although there is nothing quite on the scale of an FPS set in a real world conflict, there are now many groups on the internet that are trying to raise awareness by using the medium of video games. The results are often mixed depending on how much they actually utilize the strengths of the medium. As Ian Bogost explains thoroughly in his work with Persuasive Games, a properly designed setting and appropriate means of interaction is able to induce a mental response in the player. If you’re able to create a game design where the player needs to collect information to win, they are going to pick up on whatever that information is presenting while they pursue the goal of winning. If the player must participate in an unpleasant activity to win, they are going to maintain serious doubts about the merits of such an activity in the real world. And if you give the player the choice of trying to win in an inherently corrupt system, you might actually communicate something in a way that only video games can. Here are a couple of examples of hits and misses with these goals.


First up is the controversial PETA parody of the Cooking Mama series, Mama Kills Animals. As with PETA’s other protest games, the production values are really impressive while the actual game design revolves more around parody than actual communication. It relies on the conventions of the Cooking Mama series to coerce the player into participating in disgusting activities. To prepare Thanksgiving dinner the player must pluck feathers, remove vital organs, and stuff the Turkey while blood and squishing noises make the entire experience thoroughly uncomfortable. Intermixed with these sessions are videos depicting the horrible treatment of turkeys in farms. It’s an interesting protest game because it makes the decision to aim low in terms of getting a message across to the player. Given that PETA’s goal is to promote the ethical treatment of animals, they may have missed the mark somewhat by making the turkey so disgusting that they don’t really generate empathy for the creature.  It just makes me want to not eat turkey, which is certainly a much simpler goal that still accomplishes PETA’s agenda. This is a flash game, and the designers are presuming that you’re only going to be playing for about five minutes. Generating the kinds of emotions that would involve the player questioning society’s treatment of animals would involve a playtime that’s probably unreasonable. They grab your attention with the outrageous parody, they get you to play long enough to absorb their point, and you walk away with the unshakable knowledge that the turkey industry is not exactly a wholesome affair.


The website Global Conflicts has a flash game about the harsh conditions of the maquiladoras along the Mexican-American border. The game that I played was just a demo of the full version but the setup was interesting. You have a finite amount of time to interview people in the area before the main interview with the manager of the factory. The majority of the game then involves manipulating a resource management dialogue tree with each question taking 5 minutes of your time while the clock ticks. Specific angles must be explored, questions must be left unanswered, and the resounding chime of discovering an incriminating fact hard codes information into your memory. The player ticks through lists of info like a scavenger hunt: factories often pollute without any concern for environmental laws, they abandon native workers for those in countries that pay lower wages, or they have no interest in the community. You learn all of this because you have to click through all of it, study the information, and decide whether or not it is strategically relevant. The only flaw of the game is the excessive amounts of text it throws at you. You don’t have to make everything about shooting evil aliens, but it helps to remember that there’s more than one way to communicate your message than just blocks of text. Images, game design, mission variety, and countless other options allow the player to collect information in different ways. Telling me that the maquiladoras are bad for the community is one thing, letting me see it or even better, letting me suffer consequences because of it is far more effective.


The best protest game to this day is still the McDonald’s Video Game and its success comes on several levels. The game creates a satirical business simulation because in order to succeed you must eventually compromise your own morals. It’s perfectly possible for you to run your franchise in a legitimate manner that helps the employees and doesn’t damage the third world countries that you rely on for food. But, you don’t make any money when you play this way. In order to succeed at the game, you have to turn a profit and keep the shareholders happy, which means maybe paying a bribe to government officials so you can cut corners on the meat production or slashing the salary of employees so that you can get a few points ahead. Of all the protest games that I played, this one was by far the most effective because it didn’t just communicate something as simple as PETA’s “Turkey farms are bad” or Global Conflicts’ countless rattling off of facts. It made me comprehend the dilemma on a very personal and empathetic level. Playing this game makes you realize that the people who run McDonalds aren’t evil, instead the entire system encourages corruption as the only viable way to run a corporation. It’s subversive in a way that none of the other games even bother to attempt because it communicates its message through choice. What better way to make a person realize that an entire system is corrupt than by making them realize that they would do the exact same thing if they were running a company? It’s not a question of how receptive or smart your audience is. The game uses cute graphics and an easy interface to rapidly engage any unsuspecting player. As with their later game Oiligarchy, the point is not to offend the player for becoming corrupt. The point is to make them comprehend how corruption works and why it happens.


 


Each of these games succeeds at their basic objective. PETA’s Mama Kills Animals was a massive experiment for the group that relies on satire to slip their message between the cracks. The Global Conflicts game on the maquiladoras creates a game where the player must pay attention to information in order to progress. We’re reading the information because we’re looking for the clue that will let us beat the factory manager, and it is not until after the game is over that we realize we’ve just learned a great deal. Yet I think the last one may still be the most effective of the trio because it communicates its message through the player rather than just barking it at them. There’s no arguing with their critique of Fast Food Corporations because there is no argument to be made in the face of the experience provided. I played the game, destroyed third world countries, ripped off my employees, and realized that by winning I had just made myself complicit in the entire system. Whether or not the player is bothered by this conduct is irrelevant, they now know that anytime they are dealing with a fast food franchise that the business must always face the temptation to operate in the most corrupt manner possible to gain a profit. They know it because it’s the same experience that they had experienced firsthand. Choice is what makes video games powerful, not the fact that lots of people play them or that you can trick people into absorbing information while they’re playing. If your cause is so righteous and true, then let the experience of that injustice speak for itself.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Mar 16, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-03-16...

Oooo, tough week for the consoles.  Maybe the big console publishers are assuming that most of us are going to be out partying it up and pounding Guinness for St. Patricks day instead of sitting in our houses playing video games.


Or, maybe it’s March, and the publishers just don’t care that much.


Nintendo really has the reins this week, as the most interesting releases we’re going to be seeing are all coming out for the DS and the Wii.  Of course, right off the bat we see Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which has been drawing press for the Drug Wars-esque side game that it seems to contain.  This has been a huge year for Grand Theft Auto (can you believe GTA IV came out less than a year ago?), and Chinatown Wars has the potential to be one of the biggest-selling iterations of the series yet.  Initial impressions have been positive, the graphics are solid considering the system it’s playing on, and who hasn’t wanted to bring GTA with them when they’ve been locked into a particularly long session?  The only question, really, is whether Chinatown Wars can break through to the DS’s highly casual-leaning audience.  Even if it doesn’t, though, there are probably plenty of hardcore DS owners to make the game a surefire success.


Of course, the DS is competing with itself, as this week also sees the release of Pokémon Platinum—perhaps not as big a deal as a new Pokémon game typically is simply because, well, it’s not strictly “new”.  Pokémon Platinum is an update of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl, with some new junk thrown in for the sake of convincing people to buy the same thing twice.  Of course, if you haven’t bought Diamond or Pearl, Platinum might just be the version you want.


A little game for the big console is also drawing a lot of attention: BIT.TRIP BEAT, which looks a lot like one-player pong crossed with Frequency.  The player has to knock back a nearly endless parade of dots, which hit the “paddle” at a speedy, highly rhythmic rate.  This means that if you play well, you’ll create a song as you go.  It doesn’t sound like much, but the few gameplay videos that have been released before today look like a ton of fun—and the tunes aren’t bad, either.  At a mere six bucks, what do you have to lose?


But mostly, it’s the DS’s week—I haven’t even mentioned Henry Hatsworth (who I’d love to see brawl with Professor Layton) or the excellent DS port of Trackmania, both also on the way this week.  What do you think?  Are you playing anything other than DS this week?  Let us know!


The full release list and a trailer for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars are after…the jump.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Mar 12, 2009
Concentrating on the narrative that David Shippy and Mickie Phipps tell in The Race for a New Game Machine is made difficult by a conflict in perspective.

A little background: I’m a software guy.  I grew up tinkering with BASIC, learning programming on PASCAL, taking years of college courses based on C++, and now I have a job programming Java.  I’ve always thought like a software guy, I will always think like a software guy.


I mention this because David Shippy and Mickie Phipps are hardware people.  In fact, they’re the hardware people responsible for the chips that run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, which is what their book The Race for a New Game Machine is all about.  They live and breathe microcircuitry, while I don’t even know if microcircuitry is a real word.  To them, everything worth doing can be put on a silicon chip; brilliance is measured in gigahertz.


As a software guy reading a book by hardware people, then, I’m willing to acknowledge that maybe Shippy and Phipps are at a disadvantage when I’m the one evaluating their book.  After all, there are passages like this:


When a kid drops $59.95 at Circuit City on Microsoft’s Halo 3 interactive shoot-em-up and launches the game on Xbox 360, more is demanded from this game console than has ever been demanded from any other game machine.  When the player swings a joystick and levels a weapon at a charging alien beast, then presses the button and showers it with lead, splattering it straight back to hell, the quality of the experience depends less on the code written by the people at Microsoft than on the processor brains in the chip inside the box.


That’s from the very first page of the prologue.  For a software guy to read that, it’s an awful way to start.  One, he (and when I say “he” from here on out, I speak of David Shippy, given that the entire book is written in his voice, from his point of view) speaks of the code written by the people at Microsoft, when Halo 3 was developed by Bungie; he actually slights the people who built the game, giving credit instead to those who sold the game.  While it’s an honest mistake—Microsoft’s name is the one splashed on the Halo 3 box, after all—that’s just the kind of thing that can make the hairs on the back of a developer’s neck stand on end.


The other problem with that passage: he actually puts the role of the chip designer above that of the developer.  In that one simple statement, he makes it known just how much stock he puts in what software people do.  Whether that was his intention or not, or whether he even believes it or not is irrelevant.  He just told us that the chip is more important.  As a software guy, I would counter: I’ve seen too many awful games running on these amazing machines to believe that the quality of the experience has more to do with the hardware than the software.


That’s not the only nit I have to pick, either.


So…this never happened, then?

So…this never happened, then?


In a chapter called “Do Your Homework”, Shippy recounts the research he did to get acquainted with the gaming industry, and he does a quick recap of gaming history up to the release of the PlayStation 2.  The problem?  He does all right up to 1984, where he details the doldrums that gaming was finding itself in…and then he skips right to the PlayStation.  As far as he’s concerned, the ten years of the NES, the SNES, the Sega Genesis, the rise of portable gaming in the form of the Game Boy…they never happened.  1984-1994 was a black hole for the industry as far as he was concerned.  While I don’t expect a full, detailed recount of every system that was ever released, the NES, at least, seems to be a bit of an omission, yes?  Shippy actually seems to have a decided aversion to Nintendo in general—the only reference to Nintendo that I recall is a passing mention of the GameCube, and only because a colleague worked on its chip.


Again, I’m being unfair, because none of this has much to do with the story that Shippy and Phipps are trying to tell.  The point, however, is that there is an interesting story to be found in The Race for a New Game Machine, but much of the audience who would be interested in that story is going to be alienated by the assumptions that are made and the history that is overlooked.


That’s why I’m putting this here.  I want to be able to talk about the story told in this book without the bias of a “software guy”.  As such, I had to lay out all my “software guy” problems before I talk about the good stuff—because there is good stuff, and it’s worth talking about without getting sidetracked.  For that writeup…well, you’ll have to come back next week.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 10, 2009
A closer look at the Jungian elements of Psychonauts. Spoilers abound.


The hindsight-driven popularity of Psychonauts has grown in leaps and bounds as a cult classic thanks to support from popular critics like Yahtzee and others. The game is a clever combination of adventure gaming with platform elements. Although both Yahtzee and Wikipedia point out that the idea of the game started out as being a peyote hallucination, creative director Tim Schafer’s appearance on the 1Up Podcast explains the final product a bit more clearly. The peyote idea was the start but it eventually evolved into attending a summer camp of psychics and visiting people’s internal dreamscapes. Citing a course in psychology he took at Berkeley, Schafer explains that he found it fascinating that otherwise unpoetic people could develop these elaborate metaphors and modes of expression about their problems. Carl Jung, one of the founders of dream analysis, explains in


Memories, Dreams, Reflections

, “Paranoid ideas and hallucinations contain a germ of meaning. A personality, a life history, a pattern of hopes and desires lie behind the psychosis…At bottom we discover nothing new and unknown in the mentally ill; rather, we encounter the substratum of our own natures.” It is this concept that Shafer turned into a game—a game that, if you can get past some gameplay issues, manages to explore subjects far outside the norm.


One of the great strengths of a point and click game is that you have to fill the world with a lot of details. Since the player is going to be looking at and fidgeting with everything, it means that all manner of things have a purpose and story behind them. Doing this makes your environment seem richer and more fulfilling, particularly if the player is able to engage with those details in some meaningful way. Psychonauts’ main hub, the campground, is filled with campers who can all be directly spoken to and be seen interacting in dozens of random conversations. Since these sequences are usually initiated by the player or are only starting when we’re walking around a passive environment they don’t feel as intrusive as cutscenes sometimes during active combat can. Combine this with the outlandish coloring and cartoonish appearance of each person, and the campers are easily distinguishable both visually and by their personality. For example, Chloe is marked by her space helmet and desire to contact aliens, Mikhail has a weird obsession with wrestling bears and Elka is easily recognized because of her constant ramblings about her boyfriend. A game with 25 active characters that are all recognizable and easily differentiated is no small task. These characters are then scattered about the camp and have their own story threads that can be ignored or followed. The game is basically creating an emergent camp drama for its first half. Until you complete a certain mission and night time falls, all of these details and events can be missed or seen by the player. The game itself does not suffer should the player choose to skip them, but the world becomes richer and fuller if they observe them.


On many levels, this peaceful camp setting forms a stark contrast to the chaotic minds that the player must enter psychically. Outside of the occasional wild animal, the camp is a safe place. Once we enter the dreamscapes of the various characters, however, we encounter a world that is no longer orderly or rational. The opening training level is an amalgamation of the battles of Coach Oleander’s past. In a nod to Jung, his primal memories are bizarrely tame and only show his victories and happy memories. We aren’t made aware of the oddness of this normality until we enter subsequent minds and begin to realize that, unlike Oleander, everyone has issues. Every mind has emotional baggage scattered about, which is reflected in the game design by being another item that can be collected by the player. This point is emphasized because the baggage is often loudly crying. Each person’s mindscape will even contrast with the loud sobbing coming from this baggage, such as the party world of Milla Vodello whose internal world makes her into a superstar. Another example would be the orderly mind of Sasha Nein which is mostly grey and dark. The baggage contrasts this color scheme and sticks out aesthetically just as much as it does with the sound. The game design encourages us to notice this because it is collectable and unlocks content, but its emphasis lies in realizing that everyone has issues.  Jung comments on the extreme problems of meeting people someone who claim to have no problems and are normal, pointing out that normality is often a shield people put over greater issues that are hidden deep in their psyche. Later on, Oleander’s deceptively “normal” mind will eventually reveal its true nature in the last level when we reach the true mindscape that Oleander was hiding.


 


The symbolism of the game is equally strong. The opening screen of the game depicts Raz standing on a brain, which represents the player’s mind, so that the game world itself is our own personal dream being played out. When Raz enters his internal dreamscape, he enters the carriage he was born in and emerges from an egg, the symbolic representation of his own life beginning. When we enter the mind of a lungfish who has been mutated to far beyond its original size, we are reminded that it still perceives us as larger than itself. In that dreamscape we are a giant creature despite the boss battle we have just had with this creature. In the game’s most hilarious and clever level, we enter a deranged Milkman’s mind who is obsessed with conspiracy theories. Using the clairvoyance ability, the people in this dreamscape perceive us as 2-D and defined by the items we carry. It shows the simplified worldview and lack of real perception the man’s mind utilizes. The actress whose level consists of people acting out her childhood traumas requires you to defeat the evil critic who is constantly dragging her down. His weapon is a pen. The wrestler whose rage at being dumped in high school manifests into a complex interplay between his rage (which is a bull) that knocks over the tower of cards he is building to his neglected lover. Once the main plot is put into action and the campers have been kidnapped, it becomes night time in the game world. This is a nod to Jung’s dream analysis as well, where night time is the symbolic element of danger and confusion for dreams involving darkness. True to form, the camp will be filled with monsters and devoid of the immersive narrative that we enjoyed during the daytime there.


Marring this excellent game are a few complaints about gameplay and technical issues. When researching this article I could never find much consent about what anyone means by this. Both Yahtzee, the 1Up crew and various forums typically agree that the game’s wonky camera and clunky but easy combat certainly exist but also aren’t deal breakers. What does stick is the difficulty curve of the last level. It isn’t that the camera is causing this problem because by this point you’re used to actively swiveling the thing. And you didn’t get to the last level (The Meat Circus) without already being able to negotiate the game’s flaws anyways. Personally, throughout the game whenever I got stuck with a platforming problem I was always reminded of Insecticide (which you should play if you liked Psychonauts) and a trait that games which meld adventure elements with action always have. They tend to think of the platforming section as a puzzle rather than an act of skill. The developers want you to do one specific thing or use a power in one way to get through the obstacle. In most cases, this is the only thing that will work. The problem is that this goes against the failure feedback of a platforming game: the reaction to failure when jumping is to try to do it better, not try something new. To give an example, the worst moment in the Meat Circus is a circular series of nets you have to jump around while water is filling the tent. The only way to beat it is to use the float ability. The problem is that most people’s impulse is to just double jump since the net is right next to them. Rather than try something new the player thinks they’re not skillful enough and they keep trying again, resulting in a broken feedback loop where the player is failing more than they should.


The last level is a fitting end for a game dealing with psychology and dreams. Raz, while helping the villain confront his father issues, must in turn deal with his own. Throughout the game Raz’s father has been a looming specter, he is coming to take Raz away from the camp and drag him back to the life he is trying to break free from. When confronting the psychological manifestation of Raz’s father in the Meat Circus, the player must jump through various obstacles in an impossible attempt to impress their father. At the end of the level, Raz’s mental impression of his father accuses him of cheating and ignores this accomplishment. It is impossible to win the approval of this awful persona. When the real father arrives using his mental powers he sees firsthand this terrible depiction of himself. He asks Raz, “Is that…really what I look like inside your mind?” The father explains that he was only looking out for our best interests and that he only wanted us safe. The psychological delusion has been undone, the father issues that have been so prevalent in Raz’s mind are resolved and Raz is now liberated from his own personal issues. Jung, while discussing a “normal” patient he encountered, had to discourage the man from pursuing a career in psychoanalysis. Jung comments, “Do you know what it means to be an analyst? It means that you must first learn to know yourself. You yourself are the instrument. If you are not right, how can the patient be made right? You yourself must be the real stuff.” True to Jung’s standards, our reward for conquering Raz’s own issues is to become an official Psychonaut. In this way Psychonauts excels at not just being a wacky game to explore, but also a psychologically hilarious one.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Mar 8, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-03-09

When Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Glaser and their friends got together to make The Running Man back in 1987, there’s a good chance that none of them had any idea how prescient it would seem 20 years later.  Is there anyone, at this point, that doubts that killing in the name of sport hasn’t crossed the mind in a very real way of at least one major television executive at this point?  The Running Man, with the benefit of hindsight, is now more of a satirical statement on the direction of television than it is a gruesome sci-fi fantasy; while both elements certainly existed when the movie was released, the balance in emphasis between the two has shifted.


Of course, nobody could have predicted that the runner and the biggest, baddest stalker in the movie would go on to be governors less than 20 years later either, but perhaps I’m getting off topic.


Madworld, coming out for the Wii (of all consoles) this week, is for all intents and purposes a 21st-century update of The Running Man—that is, it centers around a sadistic gameshow on which mayhem and death are leveraged for entertainment purposes.  Of course, it’s a little different this time around, as the “game show” is put on by terrorists, and most of the participants are simply the unwitting inhabitants of a fictional city, but it’s the same idea, more or less.  It’s The Running Man as drawn by Frank Miller, with a little bit of Gears of War thrown in for chainsaw-related purposes.  I’m almost ashamed to say it also looks fun as hell, even if you’re not into violence for its own sake.


Will the satirical elements be as strong as those in The Running Man? Probably not, given that it’s more of a “save the city” narrative than a “save your ass” narrative (with a subtext of “look what entertainment has come to!”).  Regardless, I can’t wait to find out.


Also releasing this week is, of course, Resident Evil 5, which I haven’t wanted to talk about at all, quite frankly, but I suppose I can’t ignore it any more.  It looks like Resident Evil, except that it’s in Africa, and it’s all shiny and smooth, thanks to the current generation of hardware it’s been developed for.  You still can’t move while you’re shooting, but people are bound to love it anyway.  As for the elephant in the room, I just want to say that racist intent is not a prerequisite to racist product.  I haven’t seen the game (or even the demo for that matter), so I can’t make a judgment on it, but the single most ridiculous argument I’ve seen as to why parts of Resident Evil 5 can’t possibly be racist is because its developers didn’t intend for them to be.


You see? This is why I never want to talk about it.


Elsewhere, we get a boardgame (Trivial Pursuit), some rehashes (Nintendo’s New Play Control! series), high-powered dirtbikes (SBK), and a whole pile of DS shovelware.  Hooray!


Tell us what you’re playing this week, or try and bait me into a Resident Evil 5 conversation.  Your pick.


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