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

 
Bookmark and Share
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.


Bookmark and Share
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 18, 2009
Trials HD is a brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.

Last week I wrote that the perceived difficulty of a game is less affected by the individual challenges that make up said game than it is the ramp-up in difficulty and other elements surrounding those individual challenges. Essentially, punishing games can be fun. For all the negative connotations of the word, it more describes a very demanding style of gameplay than a level of difficulty. Punishing the player while keeping him entertained is a tough balancing act, but Trials HD strikes that balance: A brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.


Trials HD is part puzzler and part racer. Set on a 2D plane, the player rides a motorcycle through an obstacle course, racing against the clock. The earlier courses focus more on speed and timing, while the later courses present the player with insane obstacles that require some creative thinking in order to pass. Every course demands practice and patience. For example: A beginner’s course is just filled with ramps, but simply holding down the gas will not get you a gold metal. Counter to many arcade-style racers, which Trials HD seems to be at first, you must learn when to slow down in order to gain momentum.


Forgiving Checkpoints


There are many, many, checkpoints in each course, nearly one after every obstacle. If you go off a ramp, you can bet there’s a checkpoint on the other side. This ensures that the only challenge players are ever concerned with is the one directly in front of them. It’s always frustrating, in any game, when we fail a challenge and must then replay the build-up to that challenge; having to slog through that same build-up over and over again turns playing the game into actual punishment, as in an unwanted consequence for failure. Trails HD realizes this and never forces the player to replay large sections of a level. Once an obstacle is overcome, it can be forgotten, and the player can focus all his attention on what’s next.


Retrying Is Easy


There’s also a “quick-load” feature that allows players to reload from the last checkpoint with the press of a button. If you miss a jump or go off at the wrong angle, you don’t have to wait to crash before you get the option to retry. You can just press a button to get back on the bike immediately. Having to watch the same death/failure scene over and over is annoying, especially when the death/failure scene lasts longer than the actual time spent playing. Trials HD makes it as easy as possible to retry after failing.


Variety


Variety is important in warding off potential frustration, and Trials HD has a surprising amount of variety considering how everything in the game revolves around motorcycles and obstacles. The main game is split into five levels of difficulty ranging from Beginner to Extreme. Naturally, as the player completes the courses in one difficulty level, they unlock the next, but players don’t have to finish every course in order to advance, just a majority of them. So if one level proves to be too hard, we can skip it and still be able to advance. There’s never a single obstacle preventing the player from progressing.


Then there are the Skill Games, a collection of seemingly random mini-games that offer the player a break from the main mode. They range from seeing how long you can stay balanced on top of or inside a ball, to how far you can ride up an ever-steepening slope. Some of the skill games (like the one in which you try to break as many bones as possible in a single fall, or the one where you try to fling the rider as far as possible) provide a cathartic release of any anger garnered in the main game. But for all their fun, they also teach the player valuable skills necessary to pass some of the later courses, such as balance, keeping momentum, and (especially) climbing. So even as we take a break from the main courses, the game is helping and preparing us for more.


Trials HD panders to the player in every way except lowing the difficulty. While playing other punishing games, it can sometimes feel like the game is giving itself an unfair advantage in order to up the difficulty, which can anger players and convince them to quit. But in Trials HD, it feels like the game is helping us, urging us on despite its merciless courses. We’re not actually competing against the game; the courses serve as an arena in which we compete against ourselves and our friends for the best time. The game does urge us on by offering medals, but sometimes it’s satisfying enough just to be at the top of you Friends List, even if you only have a silver medal. Competing in such passive, inanimate courses means that any mistake is clearly our fault. If we can’t get up a steep ramp, it’s not because the game is steadily increasing the incline, it’s because we’re not hitting the gas at the right time. The only person we can ever fault is ourselves. That’s what makes Trails HD punishing in all the right ways.


Tagged as: trials hd
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Sep 17, 2009
An indie project to help raise awareness of the history and background of the Iran Riots.
From www.gamesetwatch.com

From www.gamesetwatch.com


As the difficult economic times and profit margins continue to force AAA to appeal to the broadest audience possible, it is becoming increasingly likely that the indie scene will be the place where games will address contemporary issues. Unfortunately, funding these ventures is still going to be difficult. Jonathon Blow received help from various sources to help get Braid off the ground, with much of the game’s expense coming from paying for the art assets. Jason Rohrer was able to create his work thanks to similar aid. The more eccentric a game wants to be, the less money people are potentially going to be willing to spend on it and thus the less likely investors will back it. Fortunately, art patronage in games is now more possible than ever thanks to websites like Kickstarter. Rather than try to have one group of investors bear the risk of a large investment, a game can be funded by numerous small donors who are promised copies of the game and other perks.


One such game that has begun to garner attention is Borut Pfeifer’s The Unconcerned. He writes, “The game is set in Tehran, Iran, during the post-election riots that took place this summer. You play a father and mother looking for their lost daughter, amidst crowds of protesters and police. It’s a puzzle/action game, set from a 3/4 overhead perspective in 2D.” You play as both the mother and father, interacting with Iranians, and discovering details about the event as you progress through the game. Playing as a woman will force the player to navigate the repression women experience in Iran while playing as the father comes with its own complications. Pfeifer explains, “I have over 9 years experience making games, and have an extensive network of friends and colleagues that can help me find the other resources I need to finish the game with the funding provided through Kickstarter.”


Games can and should provide players with a way to engage with modern issues in a manner that lets them learn about these issues through play. As a growing medium with a thriving indie movement, efforts like these can make the strengths of the medium shine. 10 dollars buys you a pre-copy of the game, 25 gets a signed copy, and so on until 1,000 earns you a spot as an Executive Producer. The game could potentially end up on PC/Xbox Arcade/PSN and other gaming networks.


You can find the donation site here.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009
I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.

Some of us old gaming fogeys sometimes like to gripe and groan about the current state of the game manual.  Video games for the most part now come with these flimsy little pamphlets that they call a “manual” that might contain a schematic of your controller that indicates what the buttons do and not much else.  Of course, “back in our day”, floppy disks came packed in a mammoth sized box with a bunch of nifty extras like maps of the game world alongside a 300-page manual that described not only how to play your game from load screen to the penultimate moments of gameplay but probably the entire history of the Roman Empire that would serve as a little flavor for the game that you were about to undertake.


As unwieldy as these tomes were, they often did add that bit of flavor to the proceedings, and they were ultimately necessary components to gaming since most games really provided no in-game tutorial of any sort to guide the player in learning the game.  Consider the horrifying implications in 1985 of Hacker‘s claim that a screen reading “‘LOGON PLEASE’: is all you get to start with.”  A game that gave you nothing to read to get started with?  That might ask you to learn the game by playing around with it?


Of course, “playing around with it” is largely the pedagogy of contemporary games albeit in a guided manner as opposed to the pure “sink or swim” approach of Hacker.  Rather than having to guess at how to control a game character or mash some buttons to see what they might be capable of doing, most games have some sort of tutorial, usually built right into the opening segments of the storyline, that instructs you on how to move around, open a door, or throw a punch.  In addition to telling you how to do it, the game also asks you to “play around” with these controls.  Not only do you learn that you need to “Press A to jump,” but you are instructed to do so yourself after reading or hearing that instruction, a good example of active learning. As Wikipedia notes, this pedagogy popularized by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison in their 1991 book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom can be basically boiled down to the concept that “practice after initial learning” is a good way to reinforce a new skill.  The dominant notion in this pedagogy is that pure exposition is generally an insufficient way to acquire new knowledge and that active reinforcements of knowledge benefit those trying to learn new information or how to do something new.


I was reminded of the more traditional expository method of conveying information that game manuals used to provide gamers a few weeks ago when I tried booting up a copy of the World War II simulation, Hearts of Iron 3.  Not only is Hearts of Iron 3 a game that is built in a retro style with pared down visuals of maps and charts rather than fancy battlefield graphics, but it depends on a retro style of tutorial.  While an in-game tutorial exists for this political and military sim, the tutorial is presented as a series of lengthy texts overlaid over the user interface that explain how to build troops, a national economy, participate in diplomatic efforts, etc.  Because of the World War II setting and the fact that you are going to take on the role of a singular authority over a nation, the text is “spiced up” with a kind of narrative component that suggests that Hitler himself is narrating these instructions to the player who will soon be taking on the role of dictator.  While the game attempts to inject humor into what is otherwise a fairly didactic description of gameplay, the “humor” is more groan inducing than funny and also serves to distract from what is a labyrinthine set of rules, guidelines, and symbols that make up the game. 


Since this is all expository, and there are a whole lot of rules to learn, the “tutorial” of Hearts of Iron 3 becomes an exercise in sophistry as the game lectures you on how to perform diplomacy, espionage, and combat in slide after slide of words that vaguely relate to the graphs and charts of the game that you are looking at.  It tells you how to play but doesn’t at this point allow you to get your hands dirty in any of it.  All in all, it takes about ten or twenty minutes to read and scratch your head about the relationship between what you are reading and the UI that you are looking at.  By the time that I was done, I had managed to forget every single thing that I had just read and felt utterly clueless about how to play the game.  I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.


While my response to Hearts of Iron 3‘s pedantic approach might imply that us old fogeys should shut the hell up and join the rest of the world in the 21st century where games teach the player through the more effective pedagogy of active learning, one might consider that the value of active learning has been challenged as well.  For example in a 2006 study, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”, Paul A. Kirschner reviewed the shortfalls of a number of efforts to put active learning to work in practical settings.  While not all of Kirschner’s criticisms of active learning may be applicable to video game tutorials, some of them are interesting in regards to the problems that some games have in providing only “minimal guidance” when actively training players.


For example, Kirschner notes that novice learners have some troubling results when trying to understand a new concept or how to perform a new activity by actively engaging with it when that activity may require more prior knowledge about it than a beginner may be reasonably expected to possess.  Pressing A to jump is a relatively simple task and then being asked to perform that task by, say, jumping up on a table in game world seems like a relatively innocuous task.  While I might never have played the game that requires me to do so, I possess enough gaming experience to know that I need to press a thumb stick towards the table as I press the button to jump.  I am not a novice when it comes to the general concept of jumping via button pressing in video games.  After all, I played Donkey Kong back in 1981.  However, despite my years of gaming experience I have never played any games in the Tony Hawk series. This is largely because I never picked up a Tony Hawk game until it was well into its bazillionith iteration.  Whichever sequel I tried picking up at some point, had an in game tutorial that I simply couldn’t fathom, asking me to do things and string together combos when I didn’t even really understand the concept of stringing together tricks at all and could barely pull off an ollie.  Like my experience with Hearts of Iron 3, I gave up before the game started with a similar feeling that the controls were a kind of untranslatable hieroglyphic created to confound rather than illuminate.  Rather than being overwhelmed by too much information, I suffered from far too little before I was asked to actually accomplish something.  Ever tried to jump into a DDR sequel having not played the first few versions of that dancing game?  That tutorial will kick your ass.


In addition to the problem of minimal guidance for active learning, there also remains a question of the repetition of learned skills.  Many tutorials ask the player to perform a new task multiple times (three seems the magic number that active learning experts advocate), like, while fighting a thug, perform the X, Y, X combo three times.  While a sensible approach to active learning—trying to remember some complicated pattern only one time while having other additional instructions tossed at you shortly thereafter isn’t conducive to conditioning a good reflexive response—sometimes even three times really isn’t enough if it isn’t an action that will be reinforced regularly.  My experience with 2007’s Conan immediately comes to mind. While I am quite sure that I was taught to block during the tutorial sequence, I spent the entire game not even considering the necessity of a defensive move at all (barbarians don’t really play defense so much do they?).  Thus, the final boss battle in the game was a pretty big shock and ultimately an aggravation to me, since the ability to block is utterly necessary in defeating that one villain.  Initially, I found the battle hopeless.  Paging through the two pages of the manual in the hopes of understanding what I was missing about Conan’s abilities didn’t help much.  A trip to the more expository world of Gamefaqs.com was my only relief as someone on the boards there explained in detail a blocking strategy, which I then had to teach myself by getting killed over and over and over again.  Repetition helps teach a lesson I guess.


Which I suppose is my point, that I am neither opposed to exposition or active learning, nor am I sold on either one as a proper pedagogy for video games.  Quite honestly, I want a good and reasonable amount of both in my game tutorials as they each have there use in learning a game.  However, don’t overwhelm me with a novel length description of play before letting me try out a few basics.  Likewise, don’t assume that I already know enough or that I have used all of the skills available in a game enough before letting me sink rather than swim into action. 


Oh, and for the love of all that is good, allow me the option to skip it altogether if I really, really want to.  Everybody knows that school sucks.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.