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Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games

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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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