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Tuesday, Oct 13, 2009
A breakdown of two books that deal with the question of what effect video games may have on young players.

It is unfair for me to write about the issue of games and violence without acknowledging that I am not inclined to believe there is a causal relationship. I have played games my entire life even Wolfenstein when I was barely old enough to understand basic DOS. I learned to read and write by playing adventure games. I also do not have children, so these thoughts are all coming from a person with no experience raising a child. So go to your kitchen and fetch a salt shaker. Now lick your wrist. Pour salt on that spot then lick that.


This post was originally meant to be a comparison between two books, one claiming games make you violent and the other claiming they do not. Unfortunately, neither selected book really made a good case for either argument. The leading book that claims there is a causal relationship is Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents. Written by Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, it summarizes three studies of varying types that test the correlation between aggressive behavior and playing video games. The book pretty much shoots itself in the foot right off the bat by establishing a problematic definition of aggressive behavior. It must be “(a) a behavior that is intended to harm another individual, (b) the behavior is expected by the perpetrator to have some chance of actually harming that individual, and (c) the perpetrator believes that the target individual is motivated to avoid the harm.” (13) The problem is that the book is a study of children and adolescents. How many small children wrestling with one another have a large enough comprehension of consequences and intent to be able to consciously register any of these things?  The book is rife with moments where what’s being claimed contradicts common sense and the definition of aggression. For example, a lengthy exposition of why studies on aggression during the 1990s are flawed due to socioeconomic upbringing is generally considered bad because kids from privileged backgrounds are already less likely to be violent. Your common sense should kick in here: if the connection between games and violence is literally that playing them makes you more aggressive, why does wealth undermine it so drastically? Some difference is to be expected, but it doesn’t help the argument that playing the games by themselves is inherently bad for a child.


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Friday, Oct 9, 2009
Summary: Early this week, our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. Leading off with some observations about considering whether or not the idea of “ganking” can be applied to single player experiences, L.B. Jeffries began a discussion that has considered what rules mean to players. G. Christopher Williams continued this discussion that has focused on the differences between playing and gaming and what limits we may want to place on ourselves as players of games. Nick Dinicola concludes our series today with some final thoughts on whether or not we can earn the right to gank the system.

Over the past week on Moving Pixels,  L.B. Jeffries and G. Christopher William have written about system gank in games, a term that describes “a situation in which a player is still operating legitimately in the confines of the game but has broken the system.” They wrote mostly about the negative consequences of “breaking the game,” but I think ganking the game can be a good thing, at least in single player games.


On a purely semantic level, I disagree that cases of system ganking in single player games is really ganking as L.B. Jeffries defined it in his post. The hyper-production in an RTS, the abundance of health in an RPG, and the speedy financial growth in The Sims all strike me as very purposeful design choices, meant to encourage the player to play a certain way. Am I still ganking the game if the game itself allows, even encourages, me to do so?


When Final Fantasy X first came out a friend of mine played the utter hell out of it. He found the secret weapon for each character, all the secret Aeons (summoned creatures), and even a few secret items that disabled the 9999 damage limit for his characters. When he finally fought the final boss of the game, he defeated it in only two hits (now I admit that this memory may have gotten exaggerated over time, but I clearly remember us both being shocked and laughing for a good while at how short the fight was). Clearly he was overpowered, so much so that even the final boss was no challenge, but did he gank the system? The game allowed him to equip those items, to find those weapons, and it was his own strategic equipment layout that enabled him to become that powerful. He earned the ability to gank the system.


This is, of course, an extreme example, but I believe that ganking is often used as a reward for following the rules. Sometime it takes a long time to earn that reward, as in Final Fantasy X, and sometimes it doesn’t, as in The Sims. Whether that’s seen as a positive or negative depends on the individual and the game that they’re playing. As Christopher mentioned at the end of his post, some gamers prefer “play,” referring to freedom and the violation of rules, and some prefer “gaming,” referring to the challenge and competition that is represented by and generated by a system of rules. If a player enjoys a game for its challenge, then obviously when that challenge is removed, so is the fun. Earning the ability to gank the game ruins the game. But if a player enjoys a game for its freedom, then when that freedom is fully embraced (thanks to our ability to gank the system), the fun remains. 


Some games also encourage one play style over the other. I see nothing wrong with the get-rich-quick nature of The Sims, but then again, the last time that I played it I used a money cheat to build myself a mansion. I felt that the game was more fun when I embraced the freedom of experimentation that it offered. On the other hand, I wouldn’t approve of any cheat that makes it easier to earn gold medals in Trials HD. I feel that game is more fun when I embrace the challenge of the system of rules. Ganking one game makes it fun for me, ganking the other ruins it for me. It all depends on the specific experience that we want to have as players and that the game offers.


However, all that said, I agree with Christopher that better rules would fix most (perceived) ganking problems in single player games. To return to the Fallout 3 example, while having lots of health promotes exploration, it’s also in direct contrast to the game’s heavy themes of survivalism. Throughout the game, we see people struggling to survive and even the main story revolves around making life easier for humanity in the Capital Wasteland. Yet for the middle to high level player, walking through the wastes is like a walk in a park. Sure, the ants may be bigger, but they’re no more dangerous. A system that limits the number of stimpacks that we can carry would fix this discrepancy between the story and the experience. It could discourage exploration by making it harder, but I actually believe that such a fix would have the opposite effect. Exploration isn’t just about the discovery of something new; it’s about facing the dangers of the unknown, pushing ourselves beyond what we feel is safe, entering that dark cave even knowing that we’re ill equipped to handle what may be inside. Danger is exciting, and exploration is Fallout 3 is anything but dangerous. A better system of rules would change this for the better.


When dealing with ganking and its consequences in an MMO, the situation becomes far more complicated since one player’s desired experience might conflict with another player’s desired experience as in the Twixt situation that L.B. Brought up in his first post. But still, ganking is not always a negative thing; it can also be used as a makeshift workaround for a poor system of rules, like being forced to piggyback experience off higher level players in order to play with high-level friends in City of Heroes. In an MMO, since you’re now dealing with many players instead of one, it seems to me that me that the best that the developer can do is try and make the game’s experience as pleasant as possible for as many gamers as possible. Therefore, popular opinion rules. Popular opinion ruled that Twixt exploited the teleport power, that he ganked the game in a bad way, so the developers “broke” the teleport power. Popular opinion ruled it was too hard to level up in City of Heroes, and as a result, players ganked the game in a good way.  Thus, the developers changed the rules to better fit the needs of the people.


As L.B. said, need precedes game design.


This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and continues in Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 2: “Ganking” Broken Systems in Video Games before concluding here.


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Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009
This week our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. Leading off with some observations about considering whether or not the idea of “ganking” can be applied to single player experiences, L.B. Jeffries began a discussion that has considered what rules mean to players. G. Christopher Williams is now continuing this discussion by considering the differences between what we mean by playing and gaming and how those ideas relate to rules and the freedom of violating them. Nick Dinicola will conclude our series on Friday, so please do stop by for the discussion's conclusion.

In yesterday’s Moving Pixels Column, L.B. Jeffries considered the concept of “ganking”, a term commonly applied to multiplayer gaming experiences and how the problematic concept of players finding loopholes to circumvent rules in a game might additionally apply to single player experiences.  Jeffries began his essay with a kind of real life example of how a system might be “ganked”, which I guess is a good enough place as any to respond to some of his intriguing thoughts on the issue of how rules and the violation of rules might boil down to a desire on the part of players to simply have the freedom to merely “play”.


Jeffries’s initial real life example considered the decision to enact a law to ban highway signs along certain stretches of roadway in order to beautify them. When the owners of the billboards brought suit against the government for essentially seizing their property, courts upheld the law but required that the owners pay the billboard owners in order to cover their losses.  Since the government couldn’t pay, the owners maintained their billboards.  The intended rules still exist in this scenario, but they have also have been effectively circumvented.  Thus, the system allows for violating the rules despite the rules continued existence—something akin to ganking.


Jeffries goes on to offer some quite compelling examples of how players then might want or need to be able to violate some rules in order to better enjoy the “system” within a game.  While I hesitate to propose a counter argument to this in a political sense (I consider myself a staunch libertarian and thus desire to align myself against rules on general principle and promote freedom) nevertheless, as I have considered Jeffries ideas, it occurred to me that one problem that I have with this notion of encouraging player “freedom” might be an idea that I was troubled by that is embedded in his real life scenario.  Sometimes laws and rules aren’t good to begin with.  It may not be that we need to abolish law but that we need better law.  The “ganking” that occurred as a result of these rules becoming problematic in practice may indicate that the weakness of the design of a rules system (indicated by the potential collapse or lack of necessity for a rule altogether) may indicate that the rules themselves are weak ones and needed to be reconsidered altogether.


To return for the moment to questions of system ganking that apply to multi-player games for instance, I am reminded of the problem that exists for many co-operative MMORPGs concerning power leveling.  Since characters in a role playing game gain power by gaining experience (usually through combat) in a role playing system, the obvious temptation to circumvent the standard rules of gaining experience at a controlled rate by killing monsters exists.  Often players do so by piggybacking on the greater powers and leach additional experience from other higher level characters by teaming with them in order to kill monsters that lower level players should be unable to kill.  Since much of the challenge of the game is predicated on a rules system that suggests how quickly a character may be developed, nevertheless, players do not often want to go through this “grind” and often for good reason.  If your pals play City of Heroes every night for 4-6 hours at a time, and you would like to join them but you are burdened with real life responsibilities like a spouse and a job, taking the time to level up alongside them might become difficult for you.  Since you can’t stay up until 3AM every night, you are going to quickly fall behind your friends and find that you can’t play at their level: the “rules” are prohibitive when it comes to low level characters challenging mid to high level content.


This indicates a conflict of the needs of the player and the designer in generating rules for playing. Perhaps, then, a compromise or reconsideration of the rules might resolve this problem.  Interestingly, City of Heroes implemented rules to deal with power leveling and to address the needs of the casual gamer.  A “sidekick” system was put into place that allowed a lower level player to become a sidekick to an upper level player, effectively increasing the low level player to the level of the high level player (thus, allowing low level players to participate temporarily in higher level content areas with their friends).  However, experience gains were adjusted so that the low level character did not gain access to high level experience.  An inverted version of this system (the name of which escapes me) was also implemented allowing high level characters to essentially “sidekick down” to low level content and again adjustments were made for experience point gains.  While these rules still contained some problems, they were a better “law” than the one currently in place as they allowed for what players wanted to do without violating the intentions of the system.  Additionally, such solutions indicate that the answer to resolving system ganking might not always be met by “nerfing” or by simply letting rules become purposeless (as in Jeffries’s example).  Sometimes adjustments can be made to make a law better and suit the needs of the player’s interests and the designer’s intentions, a balancing of needs.


One type of single player “ganking” of the system that has always bugged me is the exponential growth of economies in simulation and other types of games.  While in games like The Sims the player usually begins the game with scarce funds, eventually (and generally quite early in my experience) an efficient player will find that his own personal income will rise as a result of taking good jobs and managing resources well at a rate that far outstrips the cost of items that that cash is intended to buy.  Once you have a couple million simoleons buying whatever is necessary for your sim home becomes an invisible expense as you generally can simply buy at leisure, reducing the challenge of managing resources in a game whose rules partly (if not wholly) depend on keeping a handle on an economy.  While we could just chalk these moments up to a kind of lovely sense of freedom that this experience creates for the player (getting to experiment without effort with every item in the game), that the system can be ganked economically may just indicate that the rules of economy are badly implemented and that, for the next iteration of the game (or games like it), that better rules might be put into place that maintain the intended challenges of the game.


One such solution to the economics issue is a recognition that stop gaps need to be created on progressive economies and assigning ways of encouraging the player to starategize about managing resources better.  For instance, things like time limits might be helpful.  Generally, more traditional economic board board games like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Agricola have recognized such problems and attempted to resolve them in this way.  All three games concern creating mechanisms to generate resources in the most efficient ways possible in order to score the most points to win the game.  Since building an economic machine that is efficient and that is unencumbered by random acts of God that might interfere with a real life economy means that eventually profits will boom wildly out of control, designers like Uwe Rosenberg and Andreas Seyfarth have placed limits like a certain amount of turns to play or game ending conditions that halt production before it becomes absurd.  As my recent review of Majesty 2 observes, such limiting factors can be put in place in the scenarios of an RTS in order to control for the hyper-production that ruins the challenge of struggling with resources rather than finding this essential element of the challenge of playing such game to be only burdensome at the game’s start.  Again, this isn’t an example of abolishing or ignoring the rules of a system but adjusting them to balance the competing needs of player and designer.


I am assuming in some sense that most players, ironically, are interested less in “play” (a term that I associate with freedom and the violation of rules), perhaps, than they are in “gaming” (a term that I associate with challenge, competition, and learning how to function well within a system of rules).  I, also, do think some questions might also be raised about the desirability of gaming (the pleasure derived from knowing that you have won a game because you played within the rules well) and the desirability of experimentation, or more simply put, “cheating” (the desire to see if you can gank the system by breaking the rules well).  But, perhaps, those are issues that Nick Dinicola will address on Friday.


This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and concludes with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.


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Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009
Throughout this week, our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. L.B. Jeffries will be leading off our discussions with some thoughts on “system gank”. G. Christopher Williams will be continuing this discussion on Tuesday, and Nick Dinicola will conclude our series on Friday. So, please do stop by throughout the week as our discussion evolves.

One of the curious tenets of a rule or law is that people have to want it to exist. If nobody thinks a law should be obeyed or has an interest in its sustained enforcement, then it ceases to function. Need precedes Rule. Unfortunately, while this sounds nice in theory, in real life it rarely works out so neatly. Politicians will often posture and gain attention by creating poorly designed laws or without really thinking about the full ramifications of a principle, making life difficult for everyone. A modern example would be a recent state law intent on beautifying highways by banning all billboards along certain stretches. The owners of these billboards protested the government taking control of their property and took the case into Federal Court. The Feds decided that although the law was Constitutionally legitimate, they had to pay the owners of the billboards for their value. The State cannot not afford to do this, therefore it cannot enforce its own law. The billboards are still standing. The law is now effectively “ganked.”


I borrow the term gank from multiplayer games because it effectively describes a situation where a player is still operating legitimately in the confines of the game but has broken the system. In World of Warcraft it refers to a Rogue getting a stealth kill or when a high-level player kills a weaker one. The situation can legitimately occur within the game design, but it has just rendered the game unplayable for someone. The need for such conduct to be reigned in is usually gauged by the game’s developer and new rules are applied to make the majority happy. An example would be the account of the Twixt situation that occurred in City of Heroes, in which a player found a legitimate way to beat most of the opposition using a teleport attack. The essay details how Twixt was violating social norms and was often insulted for doing so, which subsequently led to the developers introducing rules that broke the teleport attack that Twixt used so effectively. You can see this idea in action in countless multiplayer games. A Halo 3 map that lets you throw grenades up an elevator to what was supposed to be a sniper nest had crates blocking the passage in a subsequent update. A weapon that gives a minority of players an effective edge will be “nerfed” so that the majority can keep playing. Game design decisions and intentions enforce player expectation.


While this concept certainly works in multiplayer, it gets a little bit curious when you apply the idea to a single-player game. Is it possible to gank a system in which I’m not actually being unfair to anyone else? To even apply the concept to a single player game, you would have to introduce a need that is at odds with the player. In this case, it seems that the “need” would have to be represented by the intention of the actual designer themselves and their desire for the player to play the game the designer’s way. The most likely category would be a min/max scenario where the player has way more of something than they should during a sequence. A good example would be in an RPG in which you’ve got 200 potions (or stimpacks), experience no penalty for lugging all that around, and can use them effectively during combat at any time. Combat ceases to be a struggle since you can heal yourself so much, and all the enormous complexity and design that went into the game design is now ignored as a result of that lack of challenge. The problem is that you now have what game designer Mike Darga refers to as a diminishing return game design. He writes that diminishing returns can be defined as “any efficiency, [in which] the tendency of increasing costs [tends] to be less effective at increasing rewards. Diminishing returns may only apply above a certain cost level, or they may scale over the entire range of possible costs.” The more easily and effectively a player does something, the less it should give back. Darga’s post is concerned with multiple examples of diminishing returns (like making the same game too often), but his final observations can be applied to game design.


The reason that this is an issue is that the game will usually become boring for a player that can easily gank it. Presenting a tense combat situation that the player is meant to struggle with becomes trite if they find some loophole that allows them to easily kill off their enemies. The player wants the experience to be exciting, so they accept the rule that makes combat difficult and will even impose stricter rules to enhance this experience. I don’t think anyone would contest that there is a large body of players who want these sorts of rules and designers who are very talented at making them. But can the concept go beyond that? A column over at Gamasutra by Lew Pulsipher makes an argument for Nintendo’s Demo Play feature. A player can click a button and have the game play through a difficult level for you. I’m tweaking his language, but you basically are appealing to a bunch of people who don’t have a need for strict rules over how they play a game. The entire game is effectively system ganked. What does that leave for the player to do?


Such questions have already been answered by various genres that allow system ganking to occur. In Fallout 3 the stimpack stockpile is possible because stimpacks do not weigh anything. A barter system combined with a steady supply of medics with piles of stimpacks means I’ll be carrying gallons of the stuff in no time. What does Fallout 3 offer instead? A vast world to explore, numerous items to play with, and a huge emergent plot are all given to the player. Yet none of these features are ever enforced by any specific rule. Exploration can be obviated once you visit a location through insta-travel. There are plenty of items to play with, but you can bet that you’re going to be using a combat shotgun for most of the game. The plot features thousands of spiraling lines of dialogue, but I can easily load my game if things don’t go my way. Even the difficulty is optional; it can be adjusted at any time (along with the reward for kills). Which might be the most interesting design element of the game: it does not operate with any presumptions about what the player needs from its game. It does not impose any rules, instead letting the player impose them on their own. Need precedes game design.


This discussion continues in Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 2: “Ganking” Broken Systems in Video Games and Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.


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Friday, Oct 2, 2009
How can games be preserved over time?

I’ve never played an MMORPG. I’ve always been fascinated with the genre, but have never felt a desire to enter one of those massive worlds and explore it myself. Until recently. When I heard what the latest expansion for World of Warcraft would do to the game world (that it would completely change it by turning deserts into forests and so on), I felt a sudden urge to play it and see these parts of the world for myself before they were gone. Unlike other games when an MMO changes, it’s changed forever. My experience starting World of Warcraft now would be very different than if I had started it years ago. This past year has seen two MMOs shut down for good, Tabula Rasa and The Matrix Online. It’s strange to think that these games are now completely lost in the past, and it begs the question: how can games be preserved over time?


This issue isn’t unique to games. There were several VHS movies that never got transferred to DVD, and there are several DVD movies that will never get transferred to Blu-Ray. The blockbusters are always preserved, so it’s usually the niche gems that suffer. Re-releasing older games is a popular trend right now what with Games On Demand, PSN, and Virtual Console, but there are inherent flaws in that process. Every game can’t be re-released, so only the chosen few that are deemed important enough will be remembered as time passes. The end result is an incomplete and arbitrary archive. 


Even when an old game is re-released, the traditional console cycle moves so fast that even that update quickly becomes outdated. Square Enix re-released Final Fantasy VI as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology for the original PlayStation, which is now unplayable on PlayStation 3. The highly consumerist attitude within gamer culture only furthers this problem; today’s “day-one-purchase” is tomorrow’s used game sale. It seems painfully inevitable that many great games will be forgotten.


But I believe that the situation is not as doomy and gloomy as it first appears. Games usually become unplayable when a new console is released, and a new console is usually released when increased computing power enables better graphics (of course, there are other factors that go into the creation and launch of a new console, but better graphics are always the biggest selling point because the difference can be seen immediately). But the industry’s quest for better graphics has hit a wall with the latest generation of consoles: Graphics simply can’t get much better. No matter how powerful the PS4 will be, it won’t be able to make the same graphical leap that the PS3 did from the PS2.


Currently, characters in video games are a lot like characters in cartoons. They’re obviously not real, but we can look past their stylized reality and feel for them. Better graphics allow for more emotive characters, and more emotive characters are easier to get attached to. But we’re standing at the precipice of the “uncanny valley,” go any further and we’ll no longer feel empathetic towards these characters, since we’ll only notice how inhuman they are. The computing power and programmer effort required to jump the valley are not worth the investment. As a result, the push for a new console cycle has slowed. Without that push, this generation of games will last longer than previous ones and give any interested parties more time to re-release games for the current crop of consoles. It’s my hope that by now the industry has matured to a point where it doesn’t have to keep reinventing itself every five years.


Sony is actually doing a commendable job releasing original PlayStation games on PSN. I was surprised to see Intelligent Qube, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and Ape Escape for sale along with games that are now sold as new for absurd prices considering their age like Xenogears, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics.


Of course this does nothing to save Tabula Rasa or The Matrix Online. MMOs and other multiplayer-centric games are unique in that once they lose their audience (or when their audience becomes too small to finance the upkeep of the game) the game is gone for good. A while ago, L.B. Jeffries posted a couple  MMO stories from EVE Online and Ultima Online. Reading about other people’s experiences in these worlds is fascinating, and I think recording these experiences for others is one way to keep these social games alive. Even when they’re gone, they won’t be forgotten.


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