The Final Frontier

“The design and organisation of space is a concern CENTRAL not only to game designers but also to those studying player behaviour. What kinds of activities and interactions does the game space encourage or discourage?” (Zimmerman, 2006)

Huzinga’s ‘magic circle’ has often come up during class discussions.  The idea that when playing a game, the real world becomes secondary, only the game, it’s participants and the space in which the game takes place are of any concern.  Video games provide the opportunity to leave behind the limitations of reality.  They can either create entirely new worlds or simulate a slightly altered one.  Grand Theft Auto is known for having games based on real world locations.  They then fill the locations with ‘dumb’ NPCs who won’t hold grudges for acts you’ve carried out.  This lends itself to the feeling of there being no lasting consequences, you are free to explore the environment and act how you want.

“the lack of talking NPCs as a design accomplishment that avoids breaking the immersion of the experience” (Frasca)

The games space can lend itself to the narrative.  By simulating certain time periods or geographic locations games can call on a wide range of cultural history.  If you stick an avatar in fur clothing, holding an axe, in a tundra landscape, almost every player would assume you were a viking of some sort, maybe lost after a raiding party gone wrong.  Convincing game spaces help create a narrative and get the player more invested in their avatar.

Other than the obvious landscapes and cultural themes, a game space is also made up by it’s sound.  Disney are well known for using music to influence the emotions of cinema goers.  Due to a wealth of creative works created throughout history, society now associates certain sound bytes with certain emotions or expectations.   Loud, fast paced music can be used to generate excitement at action packed moments in games or slow peaceful music played when a piece of narrative is being expanded upon and requires the players attention.

The game space is a crucial aspect of games design as it can create preconceptions that a player will take into a game.  The immersive effect of a game can be ruined if these expectations are not met, as the player is reminded it is only a simulated world that doesn’t match up to their expected ‘reality’.  The game space should still lend itself to the mechanics of a game.  If a game space is trying to set you up as a blood-thirsty warlord, the effect is ruined if a player is unable to jump over a foot high wall.

“The limitations of one generation’s game spaces may become the defining feature of another.” (Zimmerman, 2006)

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Unit Operations

Ian Bogost put forward a new approach to video games analysis in his book “Unit Operations” which was to form the basis of our discussions.  Bogost put forward the idea that any piece of work, regardless of medium, can be viewed as a collection of  discrete units of meaning.  Bogost refers to these instances of procedural expression as unit operations.  A number of units make up a system, which in turn may be a unit in another system.

“The humanists who define intellectual approaches to such texts must get serious about technology. Likewise, technologists ought to understand the precedents in critical theory, philosophy, and literature that trace, accompany, and inform the development of software technology” (Bogost, Unit Operations, p.ix).  While different works are frequently compared to each other, they normally come from the same medium.  Wolfram Schulte points out that the object and relational effects that object technology creates in software are actually built into natural systems like human society.  Though units of work may come from different mediums they still conform to human created systems.

I would be skeptical of how effectively Bogost’s theory could be put into practice.  It relies on everyone having the exact same understanding of what exactly constitutes a unit operation.  It also contains the same flaw of any system that involves defining anything.  Words have no definite meaning, they are only sounds and letters to which we have attributed meaning and it is rather inevitable that two people will disagree on the exact meaning of a word.

 

The Rules

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits, 2005, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, p.55)

The role of rules in games was the topic for discussion during this weeks class.  Rules are used to create and manage the obstacles in a game which lead to it being challenging and engaging.  Chess would not be very interesting if the Pawn was able to take sixteen turns at once and move like the Queen.  By having rules that both players must follow, a challenging game is created.

Along with their explicitly stated rules, games carry unstated rules often based around the culture the game developed in.  With records of people playing games as far back as 3100 B.C, rules have had plenty of time to become so embedded in a culture that to break them has become almost unthinkable.  In soccer it is expected that the ball be kicked out of play if someone is injured and fans and fellow players can get angry if this practice is not followed, even though it is not one of the explicit rules of the game.

“The rules for playing the game are constantly being changed as they are passed from tribe to tribe and generation to generation” (McConville, The History of Board Games, p. 8)

One of the main points of games is that they should provide ‘fair’ competition.  There’s no point in having rules if they can be broken without any repercussions.  Any punishment should also be ‘fair’ which leads to even more rules regarding how such  rulings can be made.  Games that have large followings end up with governing bodies where people are employed solely to decide on the rules for the game.

Even when a game has well known explicit rules, people may choose to ignore them or add in extra ‘house rules’.  Only when a rule has the agreement of all the participants does it really exist in a game.  Even when rules have be agreed upon, the various participants can interpret them differently, which can lead to disagreements.  You then require meta-rules on how such disagreements should be dealt with.  These meta-rules would then be open to interpretation as well.

“a game played by humans cannot be a closed system and therefore cannot be fully described” (Sniderman, Unwritten Rules)

Given how rules can be interpreted in different ways and the meta-rules needed to resolve conflicts, how outside events can influence a game, how punishments for breaking the rules require  their own set of rules and how all these rules apply to any possible action within a game,  it is impossible to ever fully know all the rules of a game.

War

War is as much a part of human culture as games and play are, and it formed the basis of our discussion for the week.  The urge to recreate war seems to be a strong one with it’s presence virtually ubiquitous in our everyday life, in video games, table-top games, board games, kids playground games, film, T.V, music, books, and even when not at war, military organisations around the world play war games.

“a game is an artifice for providing the psychological experiences of conflict and danger while excluding their physical realizations, a game is a safe way to experience reality”(Crawford, 2005).  The simulated world that video games provide allows people to experience the thrill and excitement of war without any real world repercussions.   They can have all the fun they want with none of the danger.  Given the highly appealing nature of such games, it is not surprising that more and more war games are being used to further political agendas and cultural ideologies.

In the early 2000’s the United States Army released a game known as America’s Army.  This tactical first person shooter was a new recruitment and propaganda platform for the American Army.  The game contains actual training that any recruit would have to undertake in the actual American Army.  While the game has been fairly successful, it’s release has been met with much criticism.

“creates a false sense of power and invincibility among American consumer-citizens, which in turn ‘contributes to US imperial arrogance” (Hall, 2006)
“desensitizing generations of American society” (Elkus, 2006)
By using the real life practices of the American Army and transferring them to the safe simulated world of videos games it blurs the lines of reality, stripping away the negative effects of war and making it more appealing.
It appears America’s Army is more of an exception than a rule in terms of games as an educational tool.  There are many examples of games being successfully utilised  to bringing attention to very important world topics.  PeaceMaker by ImpactGames attempts to educate people on and  and highlight some of the difficulties in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) published the game Food Force in 2005.  Players would have to get food to survivors in a fictitious drought ridden country.  The game would educate players on world hunger and the WFP’s work to prevent it.

Given humans nature to play and the engaging quality provided by the medium of video games, there is no doubt that they provide an excellent learning tool.  However steps should be taken to make sure these qualities are not abused for the use of indoctrination and propaganda, particularly amongst young children who would be particularly susceptible.