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Welcome to another hefty instalment of This Week in Videogame Blogging.

First up, Daniel Floyd, he of the funny voice filter, presents part 8 of his video lecture series on games. This one is about ‘Video Games and Moral Choices’ apparently and was co-written with game designer James Portnow.

Simon Cottee played a game of Sleep is Death. That in itself is not extraordinary, but he turned it into a short film called ‘Rule’, which is rather extraordinary.

Boing Boing had a piece this week called ‘Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell’. The key point of the study being that,

Much more is at stake than just fun and games. Prejudice, bias, stereotyping, and stigma are built not only into many games, but other forms of identity representations in social networks, virtual worlds, and more. These have real world effects on how we see ourselves and each other.

Kirk Hamilton at Gamer Melodico wrote down some in-game quotes from Splinter Cell: Conviction this week and finds that quotes removed from their context can give one a very different impression of what kind of a game it is.

Tanner Higgin this week wrote about ‘Kick Ass and the Ethics of Gameplay’ for his blog Gaming the System.

Kate Simpson wrote a two-part series of posts about Dragon Age: Origins titled ‘Blood Vessels’, which she describes as ‘a look at how character origins contributed to narrative themes of blood and identity’.

Andrew at Little Bo Beep takes somewhat more of a contrarian viewpoint on the game this week, in a post entitled ‘Dragon Age is not the next Baldur’s Gate’.

Paste Magazine’s Jason Killingsworth writes about ‘The Daily Grind’ at the Start Press videogame blog.

Graduate students from the Georgia Tech Digital Media program have a new blog called ‘Rules of the Game’ and it’s an intriguing new approach to games writing. There’s some confusion about this piece by Simon Ferrari that calls itself “Analysis – Art Style Orbient” as it gives a score at the end, based on how well the writer thinks the aspect in focus is designed.” Ferrari also writes this week about the time he spent in a MUD as a kid. As a young teen without internet better than dialup until I was about 16, I was intensely jealous of one particular friend who played a MUD called Dragon’s Gate. Intensely jealous.

Speaking of MUDs, Steven O’Dell at Raptured Reality asks if we’ve ‘Got mud?’ He’s not talking about Multi User Dungeons, however, but rather about the mud made from dirt and water and the game MotorStorm. O’Dell describes it as

…an amalgamation of genres that somehow seems to meld together quite effectively, but ultimately leaves the final product with a feeling that something is missing.

The kids game ‘Tumblin Monkeys’ get more of a rise out of Chris Dahlen than God of War III. (Which could say more about Tumblin’ Monkeys than God of War, but I digress.) Dahlen sees a disconnect between the game’s slick controls and its protagonists rough and brutal demeanour.

Denis Farr writing for The Border House this week maintains a keen and sceptical eye about a story that emerged from the UK’s Daily Star, involving a woman receiving an injury falling from a Wii Balance Board and acquiring as a result “persistent sexual arousal syndrome.” Farr’s post wouldn’t be out of place in one of TWIVGB’s other favourite blogs, Gaming Watch.

Frequent contributor to TWIVGB Eric Swain has written about ‘Games as Structure’ this week, and it’s a long post discussing a host of games, concluding with the ponderous statement “the designer creates the story, but the player creates the plot. Just make sure you know which part you’re dabbling in.”

Matt West from the Australian videogame blog Armchair Diplomat wrote a piece called ‘Heavy Rain: Squeezing the magic from the mundane, a criticism of the games slow pacing.

And lastly for the week, Justin Keverne has been running a short series of imagined quotes from various games this week; Betrayal; Fear; Love; Regret; and Isolation. I like that he’s doing something different here than just writing another essay about X or Y game (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s scope in games criticism for so much more), so check it out and see if you like it too.

At the 2010 D.I.C.E. Summit, Jesse Schell gave a talk entitled ‘Design outside the Box’ that set the gaming blog world on fire.  Now that the pace of resulting conversation has slowed, we’d like to take the time to gather links to some of the resulting discussion. But, before doing so, the primary source material: The talk itself is less than half-an-hour long, and is very entertaining so I highly recommend that you take the time to go watch Schell speak.  For more detailed study, I also refer you to his slides and a transcript of the talk.

Early Detractors

One of the earliest responses was David Sirlin’s “External Rewards and Jesse Schell’s Amazing Lecture, and it set the tone for much of the subsequent discussion.  Sirlin said that “The unspoken premise of his DICE 2010 lecture is that people are prisoners to external reward systems” and, lest you have any doubt about his feelings on the matter, followed that with:

“External reward” is practically a curse word to me, a thing I’m ever vigilant against.

He then discussed the final segment of Schell’s talk, presenting a world pervaded with games taking the form of external motivators. Jesper Juul of The Ludologist also addressed external motivators in his post ‘Demotivation by External Rewards‘, but with a twist: he believes that external motivators may not be as effective as presented by Schell’s talk.  In fact, he claims that they may have the opposite effect:

A famous 1973 experiment (“Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward“) showed that when nursery school children consistently received external rewards for drawing, they lost interest in drawing and began drawing less.

Dan Lawrence of Robotic Shed adds yet another twist to the psychology underlying Schell’s talk, his post ‘Behaviourist Game Design‘ dives into the different forms that external motivators can take.  Variable reinforcements turn out to be particularly effective and are not at all foreign to games. They are:

…exactly how the random drops work in a roguelike such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. It’s no wonder that people will spend hours grinding for loot if their brains are conditioned to do so by the most efficient reward system that we know of.

George Korkoris of Burning North is, like Sirlin, no big fan of external motivators; his post ‘Achievement Unlocked: Read The Article Header‘ goes into this issue in further depth, both talking about how the less dystopian earlier parts of Schell’s talk aren’t as rosy as they seem and about how the picture Schell paints isn’t of the future, rather it’s in many ways the present.  He concludes by “…wondering if I’ll even have a place in the game industry five years from now” but, decides to go his own way, even if it makes him already obsolete.

Further Discussion

Ferguson of Interactive Illuminatus discussed in his post ‘Rewards: the art of incentive‘ how rewards are baked into games.  As he says, “A reward is something that the player gets as a result of completing a goal” so rewards are found throughout games. Beyond games, he distinguishes between goals internal to a game, goals that end a game, and goals that are located outside of the confines of the game.  My own post at Malvasia Bianca on ‘Jesse Schell, Games, and Extrinsic Motivation‘ similarly used Schell’s talk as a springboard to wonder about external motivators; I ended up concluding that, within reason, they have their place in games (indeed, that they in the form of rules are part of what makes a game a game), and that some mechanics that seem on the surface like external motivators (e.g. achievements) don’t always function that way in practice. Chris Breault of Post-Hype dug into Schell’s talk in quite some detail in ‘The Future Is A Grind‘, laying out many negative aspects of the world presented therein and going so far as to say:

I doubt Schell himself likes these sorts of games… I dislike Lee Sheldon’s grading system as well.

Despite that, however, he comes back to a less negative view, if only because he doesn’t see the outcome as being so inevitable: he concludes by claiming that burnout, sensors, divergence, and greed may all work to save us from the worst aspects of that future  (a bit odd to see burnout and greed as saviours, but I’ll take it). In his Gamasutra article ‘Persuasive Games: Shell Games‘, Ian Bogost dives into the moral aspects of the world that Schell presents. He cautions against the use of external motivators even for good ends. Following up on Sirlin’s post above, Bogost says, “I’ll put it more strongly: when people act because incentives compel them toward particular choices, they cannot be said to be making choices at all.” Bogost concludes with the following warning:

Instead of revealing the processes that define values, schell games tend to hide them away, compacted into the ideologies of corporations and governments. In that regard, if Jesse Schell is right and such games are on the horizon, we ought to bear in mind a warning. When we ask the question what is worth doing through games, we’d better hope the operator is not a shill.

Reflections, Worries and Optimism

Jim Rossignol’s Rock Paper Shotgun post ‘Counting For Taste‘ takes a rather sad reflective tone; he talks about the transformations that games have had on people’s lives, linking them to Schell’s talk with his claim that

Those people who were scared by Schell’s vision of the future are the ones who have, like Smith in his Texan hometown, identified something magical and transformative about games – something which is present in other places too, like comics, or movies, or even drugs.

Rossignol acknowledges that Schell presents new potential possibilities for game design, but worries that “this absurdly addictive thread within games will end up polluting them.” Raph Koster’s post ‘Gameifying everything‘, one of the earliest responses to the talk (and apparently a second-hand report) talks about various potential worries that the talk might raise: who sets up the incentive structures, privacy issues, and the psychological hacks involved.  As he says, these are valid extrapolations and concerns; he sees them, however, as concerns that apply beyond games.

J. V. Toups of Dorophone begins his post ‘Farmville and the Face of Transdehumanism‘ with Orwellian comparisons, and says that, “It is no exaggeration to say that we have entire industries devoted to rational subversion of the human will.” (Incidentally, in his GDC microtalk, Schell addressed these Orwellian comparisons, his response was that the proper comparison was not George Orwell but Aldous Huxley, hardly a comforting thought!)  Toups continues with these comparisons, moving on to omnipresent surveillance and ending his description of futures hinted at by Schell’s talk with a statement that

such advancements are an assault on our ability to exercise our wills and and we should react accordingly. The alternative is to imagine a future where a cloud of media suffocates a human face, forever.

Jay Bachhuber of Wise Gaming begins by talking up some of the more positive aspects of the vision presented in the first part of Schell’s talk. As his title ‘More Ludic Century Nonsense‘ suggests, however, he is dubious about an overly revolutionary view of these developments. Like many other respondents, he ends with a warning of the dangers of external motivators, describing them as “games to make a monkey push a button to get a food pellet.” In contrast, “Games for learning induce reflection, metacognition, and a real understanding of systems and rule sets.” Bryan of The Pretentious Gamer talks in ‘Convergence; Social Media Games (Part 1)‘ about the different compulsion cycles in various gameplay models (Sims, MMO, RPGs), and the engagement / reward loops that occur in social media games.

Mitu Khandaker of Girl Gamers Suck is one of the few responders to use Schell’s talk as a springboard for a more positive vision of the future: in her post ‘Scanning the Enlarged Horizon: the Future of Games‘, she writes that “the premise of blending real-life and game mechanics is potentially very exciting”, detouring through controller technology innovations to design and expressive innovations, ending with the statement that:

We’re currently at the estuary; what awaits us is an exciting sea of possibilities.

And finally, my favorite response to Schell’s talk was Annie Wright and Kirk Hamilton’s discussion ‘Regarding Jesse Schell’s DICE Presentation‘ for Gamer Melodico.  It’s wonderfully far-ranging, dancing between the concrete and the abstract, working with Schell’s ideas while challenging him and seeing his talk as impetus for future speculations.  Their final paragraph is as good a summary as I’ve found of the challenges that Schell’s talk leaves us with, so I’ll close by quoting it:

And therein lies the incredible potential, entwined, as incredible potential so frequently is, with some equally incredible challenges.  To me, something about the gee-whiz blitheness with which Schell blasted this stuff out was disconcerting. Sure, the dreamers and the big-picture guys are the ones who can sell us the vision, and we’ve got the tech and the engineers to make that vision a reality. But it’s up to ALL of us to figure how to master it.

Today’s This Week in Videogame Blogging contains slightly less than the usual crop of links to the best videogame criticism and writing of the week. I think it’s partly because we’ve reached the first real lull of the year in terms of releases. We’ve met and written about the onslaught of Bayonetta/Bad Company 2/ Bioshock 2/Darksiders/Just Cause 2/Sleep is Death plus a host of others, and it now seems like we’ve collectively taken a bit of a week off.

Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw hasn’t been sleeping, however, as he writes about why he likes Kratos so much, primarily because he’s a character and not a blank slate:

The “relatable hero” thing is an idea that a lot of people in mainstream media seem to have gotten hold of, and which seems to infect a lot of games. That an audience needs to be able to project, and so the central figure should therefore be this blank, predictable everyman. The bog-standard “protagonist.” And I find it a little offensive that story writers think I would relate to most of the bland, personality-deficient bubble-people that take this role so often.

At The Border House this week Alex Raymond quite rightly points out just how worrisome a picture has been painted so far of Gears of War 3’s treatment and representation of women, essentially, relegating them to them the role of human ‘incubators’.

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer is pretty keen on Sleep is Death this week, offering some tips from his experience with theatre direction that may help both players and controllers. Nels Anderson writing for his blog Above49 also has some good advice for Sleep is death players taken from the book ‘Truth in Comedy: A manual of improvisation’.

Kyle Orland at his new website The Game Beat has a short piece about the reader/writer value proposition (with thanks to Mitch Krpata for passing word of the new site).

HardCasual’s Filipe Salgado reports on a domestic dispute that erupted over a N64.

Jorge Albor at the Experience Points blog writes about ‘Salarian Dilemmas’ in the second part of his series on the politics of the Mass Effect universe.

Jun Chen wrote to me to say that he thinks “Square Enix is laughing at us, [and] that Just Cause 2 is actually a smart game posing as a dumb one”, see what you think. And on the subject of Just Cause 2 – Tom Cross writes about the game also, suggesting that, “Just Cause 2 is what I thought everyone in this industry had been waiting for”, i.e. a big, dumb, explosive videogame.

Adam Ruch at his Flickering Colours blog talks about the relative lack of difficulty in both Assassin Creed games and proposes a couple of ways to increase the sense of desperation. Coincidentally I had a conversation with a friend about this very subject this week.

Have you heard of the Vintage Game Club? It’s been around for a while, since 2008 no less, but it’s recently had a significant facelift and a re-jigged approach to playing through classic, ‘vintage’ games. Go have a look and see if it takes your fancy. (Full disclosure: Critical Distance and the VGC enjoy a close working relationship and we have an interest in seeing the VGC flourish.)

Extra! Extra! Read the late edition of eminently readable links known as TWIVGB.

This week Michael Abbott reveals the secret of Pokémon’s success – and you’ll never guess – it’s chocolate ice cream. That’s what he’s saying here, right? The latest Pokémon comes with chocolate ice cream. Misanthropic Gamer also wrote about ‘Pokey Men’ but he seemed to miss the chocolate ice cream. Misanthropic Gamer also wrote a manifesto this week, fingering the topic of the male nude figure and its troubled relationship with heterosexual men.

At Kotaku this week we have a pair of interesting essays, first Owen Good writes around ‘Religion in Games: Less a Leap of Faith, More a Suspension of Belief’, and then Brian Crecente looks at the modern movement away from undead zombies to fast, violent infected humans in ‘Infection vs. resurrection: the new science of the zombie’.

Jorge Albor writes about ‘Quarian Exiles’ and their place in the politics of the Mass Effect universe.

Greg Kasavin writing on his personal blog looks at some of videogaming’s proper villains.

At Pioneer Project, Michelle Baldwin writes about ‘Memories lost: the fear of saving’, saying

All of my most horrible gaming experiences have involved losing or almost losing save files, because anything that puts this fail-safe in doubt means the loss of my most precious commodity; time.

A long time fan of the semi-similar Indie Game Bingo, I was delighted this week to see Brinstar bringing her readers word of ‘Rapelay Bingo’ and the weirdly resurgent media coverage of a notorious game from several years ago.

One of the best pieces from this week’s aggregation is Tom Francis ‘On Screwing Around’:

So I’m in the playpen. On the up side: woo! Playing! On the down: I kinda want to fuck with the grown up stuff after a while. Because I’m not just a child, a scientist, and a brat. I’m a tempest of genuine malice, a power-thirsty psychopath with a crowbar of dysfunction. I want to tinker, but not just with the Meccano set. I want to break the car.

It sounds obtuse, but it does make sense, and he’s got an important bigger point in here about the future of the open world game.

Chris Breault at Post-Hype looks at Sound in Starcraft II and how certain sounds add an extra layer of potential enemy intelligence to observe. Sound in games is area of gaming I’m always keen to see more treatment of.

Andrew at the Little Bo Beep blog notes in ‘The Loneliness of Multiplayer’ that, “sometimes multiplayer can exacerbate a game’s feeling of loneliness”.

Pre-empting Ellie Gibson’s much linked and talked about ‘Farmville Diaries’, Brian Longtin of the Under Culture blog wrote about ‘Being and Nothingness and Farmville’.

Clint Hocking was interviewed by GamesTM in their March 2010 issue of the print magazine, (a magazine that I was incidentally also interviewed in) and it’s made its way onto the newly launched GamesTM’s blog.

Annie Wright at GamerMelodico find ‘5 Real-World “oddities” that could be games’ – my favourite is the ‘Haken Continuum Fingerboard’ and the suggestion of a fingerboard-hero game.

At Rock Paper Shotgun this week Kieron Gillen got tired of an old argument and stepped up to defend the honour of the Computer RPG.

Lastly, The Border House has ‘A few more characters done right in FFXIII’.

PAX was the big thing to be at and be seen at this week, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed the critical game blogosphere. Neither has the onset of April and its attendant silly April fool’s day posts which we seem to have avoided – we present you with only the best pieces of serious games criticism of the week.

First, a couple of follow-ups and responses, with Chris Green adding to points he raised in a previous post by citing examples of how some games give death meaning, Karl Parakenings at Design Robot responds to Michael Abbott’s McDonald’s Happy Meal toy experiment of last week, and Dan Apczynski at GamerMelodico has a few things to add to Tom Bissell’s excellent Observer piece from last week.

Raph Koster writes on his blog a tidy list of thing that ‘Core gamers should know about social games’, and he plays the apologist well.

Next up is an excellent pair of posts that do well to be read together; the first is Matthew Burns at Magical Wasteland writing about three treatments of apocalyptic Washington DC. Burns reminds us that,

…it’s worth considering how the worst decisions in the world can be made by agreeable people on a clear day in an airy building made of gleaming stone. Perhaps landmarks can be useful for more than the fantasy of seeing them maimed.

Then, in a similar vein, Jonathan McCalmont has an essay about ‘The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse’ that I highly recommend reading. McCalmont touches on a fascinating subject by looking at the why the Modern Warfare and Bad Company series of games can lay claim a realistic experience and still include plot devices like nuclear war and a Russian invasion. He wonders,

What is it that makes an invasion of the continental US by ultranationalist Russians seem ‘realistic’ enough to form a viable plot-line for not one but two series of games that trade upon their robust commitment to realism? The answer is rooted in the character of American politics and the realities of academic life.

The prolific Scott Juster of the Experience Points blog doesn’t usually feel compelled to play most character driven narrative games and this week considers why it is that those games that employ prop-like peripherals tend to engage him more. I wonder if Juster would enjoy Tony Hawk: Ride in the same way?

Dan Bruno at Cruise Elroy explains to the non-attendees of PAX how the games that were playable while waiting in line worked, and where they succeeded and failed.

From IGN’s PS3 site, Levi Buchanan writes about “Accidental Edutainment” – suggesting that “God of War III is the new Oregon Trail”. Never having attended a US school means I have no first hand experience with the Oregon Trail, and yet it crosses cultural boundaries having entered the collective unconscious in a way that I’m reluctant to believe God of War III has. Still, the piece comes recommended by Eric Swain, so that counts for something.

The Game Locker continues his series of ‘Games Worth Remembering’ with the first half of a multi-part video essay on Ico & Shadow of the Colossus. If you liked his video essay on Flower we linked to a few weeks ago, you’ll love the latest instalment.

Fraser Allison at a visually revamped Red Kings Dream writes this week about the Xbox and how it might not be the unanimously declared “winner” of the console wars, and yet, “The word “Xbox” has been chosen to represent all videogames – or at least the videogames predominantly played by young men” and so has captured significant ‘mindshare’ in the marketplace. An interesting phenomenon and one I would not have consciously noticed otherwise.

Georgia Tech doctoral candidate Simon Ferrari wrote a lengthy analysis of Final Fantasy XIII this week, and while I’ve yet to make my way through it all, Kirk Hamilton attests to its excellence.

Daniel Weissenberger at Game Critics has a mulit-parter on Heavy Rain, with the first postulating that ‘In many way’s [it’s] not well written’. Part two shows no signs of improvement for Weissenberger.

The Border House solicits responses from a number of game developers on the important subject of “Why there are no playable male characters in video games”. Wait, did an April Fools piece just sneak in here?

Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer elucidates on the subject of why Cave Story deserves its critical acclaim. I’ve long seen the game held up as an exemplary indie title, but until now I’d yet to come across any convincing explanations as to why.

David Carlton belatedly looks at Jesse Schell’s DICE talk, weaving in a plethora of sources and a discussion of the Japanese board game Go.

Ferguson at Interactive Illuminatus wants to make a case for expression, placing it within a discussion of games and art.

Last but not least, I usually refrain from linking to other link-dump style posts in TWIVGB but this week Mitch Krpata doesn’t put a foot wrong with his excellently curated list of ‘Friday Afternoon Tidbits’ – too many good things to mention them all, but I recommend every single one.