Gamic Discussion, Four (+1) Moments

One of our first readings this semester was Alexander Galloway’s “Gamic Action, Four Moments,” which offers a framework for categorizing videogame actions by their source – “machine” (the game itself) or “operator (the player him/herself) – and their scope – “diegetic” (within the game’s world) or “non-diegetic” (beyond the game’s world). For this synthesis of the … Continue reading Gamic Discussion, Four (+1) Moments

One of our first readings this semester was Alexander Galloway’s “Gamic Action, Four Moments,” which offers a framework for categorizing videogame actions by their source – “machine” (the game itself) or “operator (the player him/herself) – and their scope – “diegetic” (within the game’s world) or “non-diegetic” (beyond the game’s world). For this synthesis of the class’ game logs, I tried to tweak Galloway’s categories to accommodate the topics in gaming that my peers addressed. I then went on a scavenger hunt for posts that fit into each of the four categories, plus a wildcard post that didn’t quite fit into any quadrant:

  1. Diegetic machine topic Machine-to-machine communication. A post primarily about the processes and mechanics within a game (e.g. narrative, algorithms, controls, gameplay).

In his post on mobile city-sim game Citalis, Chris makes a great argument for why we should bother dissecting videogame algorithms. Videogames are unique among other kinds of software in that they have to expose at least part of their algorithm to an observing player. This means that game algorithms have to oversimplify (you can’t tell a player to keep track of 10,000 variables like you could a machine), and the resulting assumptions mark points where we can step in and, as Chris writes, “render [them] false and ineffective.”

  1. Non-diegetic machine topic Machine-to-player communication. A post about a game’s effect on its players or the “message” a game touts.

In one of his entries on the team-based shooter title Overwatch, Patrick writes about developer Blizzard’s choice to abstain from tackling hot-button issues in their game. He admits that he’s pleased with and disappointed by Blizzard not making full use of their podium. Personally, I find Overwatch’s diverse cast to be an overdue but nonetheless significant feat for a mainstream videogame – but I absolutely agree that we should hold the companies with the loudest megaphones to the highest standards when it comes to generating discussion and tackling tough topics.

  1. Diegetic operator topic Player-to-machine communication. A post about the way players talk to and affect games, or the assumptions that we “bring to the table” when playing or making games.

Why is it so hard to make a decent movie based on a videogame? Ryan tackles this very question in his post on the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie (“based on the game based on history”). I especially enjoyed his suggestion that there is an intrinsic incompatibility at play: “videogame narratives depend on player interaction [while] movies depend on spectator compliance.” It seems like until Hollywood producers accept this fact, they’ll keep shoving a twelve-hour shaped peg into a two-hour shaped hole, and we’ll keep getting god-awful game movies.

  1. Non-diegetic operator act Player-to-player communication. A post primarily about the cultural environment that surrounds and influences videogames (e.g. game development, the gamer identity, #gamergate).

In his post about community toxicity in League of Legends and Overwatch, Matt extends Huizinga’s “magic circle” to envelop online teams of players. Matt’s post encouraged me to consider how games with live voice chat complicate drawing the magic circle and its permeability. Does losing a match actually disintegrate the magic circle, or is the resulting trash talk so embedded in the game’s culture that it remains within the circle’s boundary? It’s a tough question to answer, and one that I think points to the age of Huizinga’s metaphor, and moreover to a need for a new vocabulary for talking about online games.

  1. Wildcard

I was hoping to find a post that stumped easy qualification into any of the above categories, and Samantha’s entry on where gameplay begins and ends in Britney Spears American Dream did just that. Like Matt, Samantha questions the integrity of the magic circle in her observation that American Dream muddles the line between fact and fiction, between the game world and the real world such that players “participate in both at the same time.”

 

Putting these posts into different corners of Galloway’s chart was fun, but it’s a messy classification. The fact that my selections bump into and bridge across each other’s borders highlights the complex networks of communication that videogames trace and construct. In other words, magic circles and four-square tables to talk about play and gamic actions start to feel a bit restrictive when the games we play are rarely so well-defined.

 

Cited

Galloway, Alexander. “Gamic Action, Four Moments.” Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

One Must Imagine the Desert Golfer Happy

According to game critic and designer Heather Alexandra, “videogames have a pessimism problem.” Too many of today’s games are set in worlds as bad as or worse than our own, and too many of these games’ protagonists are just “everyday people … wad[ing] through a sea of corpses ” (Alexandra). In other words, have too … Continue reading One Must Imagine the Desert Golfer Happy

According to game critic and designer Heather Alexandra, “videogames have a pessimism problem.” Too many of today’s games are set in worlds as bad as or worse than our own, and too many of these games’ protagonists are just “everyday people … wad[ing] through a sea of corpses ” (Alexandra). In other words, have too many neo-Tokyos and too few Mushroom Kingdoms, plenty of Nathan Drakes and Lara Crofts but not enough Links and Marios.

Overall, I agree with Alexandra. I love titles like Batman: Arkham City and The Last of Us as much as the next gamer, but lately I have found myself gravitating toward titles that aren’t so emotionally draining. I don’t think I’m alone in this craving, either, and developers are already responding to gamer demands with cheerier takes on typically dark genres and series. Compare, for example, Skyrim Special Edition’s injection of color to the original’s grey and dark-grey palette, or GTA V’s sunny Los Santos to GTA IV’s drab Liberty City.

http://i.imgur.com/oeZKoq7.jpg

Still, I think we risk oversimplifying the problem by decrying that cheerful games are dying/dead or that games today “hate the player …, [lack] heroes and good deeds [and] a sense of hope” (Alexandra). Optimistic games with vividly colored worlds do still exist, and in spades – they’re just… different. More specifically, you have to look in different places to find them. A quick check of the current top-sellers on the App Store and the PlayStation Store confirms my intuition:

http://www.apple.com/itunes/charts/paid-apps/

 

https://store.playstation.com/#!/en-us/

 

Optimistic games are now largely coterminous with mobile or casual games, and consoles are left with bulk of the serious, cynical titles. Somewhere in the migration, hero characters were removed. Even casual games that feature protagonists delegate the in-game actions to some invisible, god-like force: who pulls the slingshot in Angry Birds? Who cuts the rope in Cut the Rope? Who takes the shot in Desert Golfing?

My answer: I do. You do. We do. In today’s optimistic mobile games, the player is the hero. We don’t play as the hero or even become one – we just step into a frame that instantly recognizes our omnipotence. Games that integrate with social networks to merge our ‘real life’ identity with your in-game one make the player-hero boundary even fainter. Conflating the player and the hero is both extremely optimistic and extremely delusional, underscoring our expectation that mobile/ games’ deliver us, however briefly, away from the stresses and struggles in our own world, which can come awfully close to resembling the apocalyptic ones depicted in “pessimistic” games.

What about Desert Golfing? There’s no hero but the player here, either, but surely a game about an infinitely looping task can’t qualify as “happy.” Well, Albert Camus would likely say it can. My knowledge of philosophy is pretty limited, but I have at least learned when to name-drop Camus’ landmark suggestion that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” It’s an apt enough metaphor when talking about Desert Golfing just for the game’s similarities to the “OG” Sisyphean task: Drag. Release. Repeat until the ball is in the hole (which sometimes does happen to sit at the crest of a hill). Repeat steps one thru three ad infinitum, or at least until the game’s procedural level generation breaks.

Hero-less mobile games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush process Camus’ imploration on their own. When they populate our phone screens between shifts and during commutes, these games envision a happy Sisyphus – namely, they envision us as the happy Sisyphus – and project back what that might look like. But as I’ve mentioned in previous logs, Desert Golfing is the rare game that refuses to speak to or for its players. Desert Golfing gives us the boulder and the hill and leaves the rest to our imagination.

 

Live to golf another day. (Source: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52ae0bf9e4b0b13c219b57f0/t/5492ea7ee4b0a01f83b38611/1418914453720/)

 

 

Cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. 1942. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1991

Heather, Alexandra. “Videogames Have a Pessimism Problem.” Paste Quarterly. Paste Media Group, 4 May 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

It Takes a Village

In their article, “Playing with Sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity” videogame scholars Shawna Kelly and Bonnie Nardi merge game studies and environmental studies to consider games that offer representations of “gradually increasing scarcity of resources, climate change, and other human-environment interactions which can be influenced by transitioning to sustainable practices.” They … Continue reading It Takes a Village

In their article, “Playing with Sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity” videogame scholars Shawna Kelly and Bonnie Nardi merge game studies and environmental studies to consider games that offer representations of “gradually increasing scarcity of resources, climate change, and other human-environment interactions which can be influenced by transitioning to sustainable practices.” They first consider games like Civilization V, that “[mirror] common thinking about success in today’s world – that the viability of a civilization should be measured through [growth]” before moving on to titles like Fortnite and DayZ that “make visible the possibility of low/no growth as a challenging and achievable goal.” (Kelly and Nardi).

In Civ 5, “more” is the name of the game. (Source: http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/civilization/images/1/13/Standard-Earth-map.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20101105112509)

Kelly and Nardi assert that just setting a game against an apocalyptic, low-resource environment doesn’t instantly make it a “global futures game.” Instead, games set in futures of scarcity should move beyond zombie-killing and toward asking players to “[think] strategically in new ways about the environment under conditions of stress” (Kelly and Nardi).

By their requirements, then, A Dark Room’s qualification as a “global futures game” stems only in part from its desolate and resource-scarce environment. A Dark Room leverages its dismal setting to justify a resource growth model that, unlike that found in most of its clicker-game brethren, isn’t linear or exponential, and which may stall or even decline without warning. Indeed, since opening a new tab and beginning to write this post, my village has suffered two fires and an attack by beasts, in total eliminating a fourth of the population.

Certainly, A Dark Room is not unique for implementing the ability to lose resources, nor does it become a global futures game for this feature alone. Where A Dark Room does innovate is through compounding its resource-decimating disasters with a system of interdependent currencies. While most clicker games feature a universal resource (be it gems, cookies, or cold, hard cash) A Dark Room forces players to juggle an assortment of supplies: wood, fur, leather, meat, bait, and torches, to name a few. The player can assign villagers to specific jobs, and each profession both produces and consumes certain resources. Thus every decision leaves behind a cookie-trail of costs – I can produce add a trapper to produce bait, but trappers need meat, and that means I need more tanners, and that means … and etc.

Disaster strikes in a Dark Room.

So, the aforementioned fires and beasts that took out a fourth of my villagers also spelled disaster for my village’s growth. I had designated two villagers as the local charcutiers, who demand ten units of meat every ten seconds – an amount far outstripping my just-reduced meat production rate of two units per second. Notably, A Dark Room does not warn the player who falls into an unbalanced economy; it just trusts that she will spot the asymmetry sooner or later, then set up and maintain an equilibrium on her own.

In my second post on A Dark Room, I reflected on how the game casts a veil over many of its mechanics in order to promote a feeling of mystery. And after this last play session, I stand by my observations on the game’s tight-lipped approach to the long-term implications of player decisions. However, as I dig deeper into the game’s nuanced approach to resource management, I am realizing that A Dark Room does ask players to form a vision for the future of the village – it just pulls in the horizon line a few hundred yards, reconfiguring the end-goal from long-term abundance to short-term maintenance.

Fully cognizant that “in a finite world … the concept of a linear pattern of ever-increasing growth is an unsustainable long-term goal,” (Kelly and Nardi) A Dark Room reminds players that managing a future of scarcity will not be an easy or mindless task, but one that demands constant recalibration, and whose realistic end goal is not an era of infinite prosperity, but a precarious equilibrium that takes a village to maintain.

 

Cited

Kelly, Shawna and Bonnie Nardi. “Playing with sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity.” First Monday, 19.5 (2014): n. pag. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

 

Images from:

A Dark Room. Browser. Developed by Doublespeak Games. Doublespeak Games, 2013.

A Black Box in A Dark Room

In his chapter on videogames as “allegories of control,” Alexander Galloway reflects on one way that videogames and film diverge: where film hides and sublimates political allegories, games “flaunt” them by pulling the player into the governing algorithms and demanding that the player “know the system” in order to succeed in the game (91). He goes … Continue reading A Black Box in A Dark Room

In his chapter on videogames as “allegories of control,” Alexander Galloway reflects on one way that videogames and film diverge: where film hides and sublimates political allegories, games “flaunt” them by pulling the player into the governing algorithms and demanding that the player “know the system” in order to succeed in the game (91). He goes on to argue that if Sid Meier’s Civilization is “about anything, it is about information society … about knowing the system and knowing the code.” (91).

Bringing Galloway’s argument into conversation with the time I’ve spent playing browser game A Dark Room, it seems that this game’s own algorithmic allegory is less about learning the intricacies of and working within a system but rather coming to terms with a scarcity of knowledge about that system. In A Dark Room, I know preciously little about the short-term or long-term consequences of any of my actions. A Dark Room takes the core clicker-game gameplay loop of “spend resources so that you can generate more resources” but fastens narrative weight to your actions with a slowly unfolding storyline, wherein you (with “you” being another unknown variable) guide and grow a struggling village in an unforgiving environment.

In most other clicker games, haphazardly spending all of my resources on random purchases is a harmless if sub-optimal strategy, since I’m bound to regain the cookies/points/$$$ I spent within minutes. In A Dark Room, I can’t afford to be so careless. Spending all of my wood on animal traps will net me plenty of meat and fur, but it won’t get me any closer to my goal of developing the village and shining more light onto the narrative.

Shallow knowledge of the algorithm, through informative tips like these, is still more useful and empowering than none at all.

 

Civilization advises the player to “fortify units… defend them against barbarians.” A Dark Room dispenses no such hints. I can spend a huge amount of my stores to build a smokehouse, but I have no clue if it’s a worthwhile purchase, or moreover, what that smokehouse even does. Similarly, when I turn down the nomad who enters my village begging for lumber (only because I had none to give!), I have no idea if my “decision” will come back to haunt me later, immediately, or at all.

I’m guessing that A Dark Room’s refusal to illuminate players with much knowledge about the its systems is more an attempt to induce an atmosphere of helplessness and desperation than to make a point about our (lack of) knowledge regarding algorithms. Still, the net effect aligns well with Galloway’s argument that Civilization and many other games are “about knowing the system,” and with a later point on how games (and modern software generally) prize “flexibility” – the ability to accept, aggregate, and process any kind of input data. (100).

Visiting virtually any website or using any piece of software today means submitting to and contributing to an algorithm whose “flexible” inner workings are largely hidden from us. When algorithmic illiteracy is the norm, a game like A Dark Room can spin its own secrecy as a plot device rather than an overt commentary on how technologies erect a wall between their processes and the user. Sure, it may be more comfortable to read A Dark Room’s algorithmic mystery as just a mood-setting tactic. But given the present scarcity of games that invite critical thought about the dangers of “flexibility” as a software paradigm or its implications for user autonomy and privacy, maybe A Dark Room can illuminate the path.

 

Cited

Galloway, Alexander. “Allegories of Control.” Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Sid Meier’s Civilization. DOS. Developed by MPS Labs. MicroPros, 1991.

No Growth in the Desert

As the conversation dwindled and bodies exited from family’s Thanksgiving dinner table, I pulled out my phone and loaded up Desert Golfing. Perhaps aided by the tryptophan and carbs I’d just imbibed, I quickly found myself slipping into the “Zen” trance  many claim claim this title induces. I found a rhythm and easily cleared a half-dozen holes in under half … Continue reading No Growth in the Desert

As the conversation dwindled and bodies exited from family’s Thanksgiving dinner table, I pulled out my phone and loaded up Desert Golfing. Perhaps aided by the tryptophan and carbs I’d just imbibed, I quickly found myself slipping into the “Zen” trance  many claim claim this title induces. I found a rhythm and easily cleared a half-dozen holes in under half a minute apiece. But then, out of nowhere, the game pulled an absurdly difficult level from its golf bag. After several failed attempts, my frustration started to increment with each missed shot and soon enough I tossed my phone onto the table in frustration and, to use online gamer parlance, ‘rage-quit.’

Nope. (Source: https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s–HWqWv8XQ–/c_fit,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/qc9ecukd3q8jboms0twp.gif)

Throughout the whole session, I performed the same exact action – dragging and releasing on an on-screen golfball. But an unexpected spike in difficulty level transformed my “Zen” state into pure irritation. How did this happen? When does repetitive gameplay traverse the line from relaxing to enraging?

Ian Bogost’s essay on how video games “do” Relaxation provided some helpful insight for answering this question. Paging through the chapter again, I was struck by Bogost’s citation of the Harvest Moon series as an example of relaxing games, and his accompanying claim that the farm-sim series boasts the “most Zen gardening in a video game by far,” better even than Animal Crossing (93). If he was able to find inner peace in a series that I would personally describe as “Running Errands: The Videogame,” then I harbor nothing but jealousy of and admiration for his own mental placidity. I was especially surprised by Bogost’s claim that “Harvest Moon emphasizes the repetition of simple tasks as much as, if not more than, their outcomes,” (93). When I play Harvest Moon, I have the exact opposite mentality: after every action, I nervously glance at the in-game clock and calendar to check how much time I have left in the day/week/month/season to achieve a particular goal. Quite contrary to Bogost’s own experience, for me Harvest Moon is almost exclusively about the outcomes of my in-game actions.

In Harvest Moon many events, like NPC birthdays and town festivals, happen just once per in-game calendar year. Miss a deadline or target and you’ll be waiting a while before you get another shot. (Source: http://i806.photobucket.com/albums/yy341/KuroiFaith/HarvestMoonBirthdayCalendar_zps1575cf68.jpg)

Stress from Harvest Moon is a product of worrying too much about the long-term outcomes of in-game events. Desert Golfing has no end-game nor long-term punishments to speak of – so how can it induce stress? Well, I mentioned in my first entry on Desert Golfing that the game’s extreme commitment to minimalism bears the side effect of amplifying whatever messages it does transmit. The game’s “silent treatment” feeds either the player’s frustration or relaxation  – whichever happens to be active at a given moment. If I’m hitting my stride with a series of hole-in-ones, I’ll view the persistent stroke/”score” counter at the top of the screen with a shrugging acceptance. But give me an impossible level and the counter suddenly reads like a passive-agressive sneer at my ineptitude. Depending on how I feel, Desert Golfing‘s sole informative message reads like notches on my belt or tallies on my cell wall. Desert Golfing is the ultimate Zen game for its unwavering commitment to neutraility, and for its resulting propensity to deflect and reflect the player’s emotions back upon him/herself.

Cited

Bogost, Ian. “Relaxation.” How to Do Things with Videogames. U of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Tending the Fire: How “A Dark Room” Rekindles the Idle-Clicker Genre

If you want to make a quick buck in game development today, your best bet might be to make what Wikipedia calls a “clicker” or “incremental” or “idle” game. Really, a better name for this genre would be something like “idle-clicker,” since that term captures both of the genre’s defining traits: first, a growth process running “idle” without … Continue reading Tending the Fire: How “A Dark Room” Rekindles the Idle-Clicker Genre

If you want to make a quick buck in game development today, your best bet might be to make what Wikipedia calls a “clicker” or “incremental” or “idle” game. Really, a better name for this genre would be something like “idle-clicker,” since that term captures both of the genre’s defining traits: first, a growth process running “idle” without prompting from the player, and second, a player-performed action – usually clicking or tapping on buttons or objects – that speeds up and/or automates said process.

If that description doesn’t click (pun absolutely intended), I invite you to check out a forefather of the genre, Cookie Clicker. Report back when you’ve crossed that boundary from feeling proud of your absurdly high CPS (cookies-per-second) to wondering where the last ten hours of your life have gone, and whether or not you actually had any fun wasting them. A monitor screen shiny enough to reflect your hopeless expression helps to elicit this effect (or so I’ve heard).

Cookie Clicker: Your gateway drug into idle-clicker games
Cookie Clicker: Your gateway drug into idle-clicker games

I recently started playing an idle-clicker game called “A Dark Room” for my final trilogy of game logs. “A Dark Room” eschews the polished artwork and juicy UX of many of its brethren in favor of a text-heavy presentation that resembles a Twine creation. The narrative (so far) is that of a struggling village in a harsh and desolate environment, and your clicks are spent building new structures and gathering materials for the community.

“A Dark Room”

After my first play session, I don’t feel disillusioned or cynical, as I did when I finally tore myself away from Cookie Clicker last year, but I am very confused, mildly frustrated, and absolutely hooked. Most clicker games hook new players with early exponential growth, boosting the player from lowly villager to almighty deity in ten minutes/clicks/taps or fewer. With thirty minutes sunk into “A Dark Room,” I think I may actually be in a worse place than where I started. I’ve attracted dozens of travelers to my hearth, but I’ve also (inadvertently) killed nearly as many. Just before I suspended my game, a forest fire decimated my village huts and took out every last resident. “A Dark Room’s” clever blending of text-adventure storytelling with clicker game mechanics is no doubt worthy of praise and attention, but I especially appreciate that it introduces loss – and accordingly, gameplay decisions that minimize and avert said loss – to a genre typically obsessed with mindless increase.

This info feed sits at the left side of the screen in "A Dark Room"
This info feed sits at the left side of the screen in “A Dark Room”

Furthermore, the game’s constantly updating ‘feed’ of information (shown above) has helped me to realize into how idle-clicker games, despite their apparent simplicity and pointlessness – can transfix players for hours on end. In an age where an incoming text, Facebook like, or email notification marks a “+1” to our internalized scores of self-worth, idle-clicker games scratch our itch for a constant influx of positive information. But “A Dark Room” dispenses bad news as often as good news, and thus complicates the masturbatory feedback loop that most idle-clicker games lean upon. I want to keep playing “A Dark Room” not to see my WGPS (wood-gathered-per-second, a totally made-up term) skyrocket, but to see if I can keep twelve villagers alive for more than a few minutes at a time, and what might happen if I do.

The Hero with One Face

This summer, I played a bit of Dragon’s Dogma, an action role-playing game. The bulk of my time with the game was spent not slaying monsters or progressing through the storyline but fine-tuning the dozens of sliders and switches that govern my character’s appearance. I know many players clamor for games with such meticulous character creation systems, but I personally find them overwhelming. … Continue reading The Hero with One Face

This summer, I played a bit of Dragon’s Dogma, an action role-playing game. The bulk of my time with the game was spent not slaying monsters or progressing through the storyline but fine-tuning the dozens of sliders and switches that govern my character’s appearance.

Dragon's Dogma's character creation screen.
Dragon’s Dogma’s character creation screen.

I know many players clamor for games with such meticulous character creation systems, but I personally find them overwhelming. Needless to say it was a relief when Dragon Quest V‘s own opening sequence asked that I enter a name for the main character…

Dragon Quest V's "character creation" screen
Dragon Quest V’s “character creation” screen

… and that’s it. From this point on, NPCs and in-game menus will address the Hero by the name I chose, but all other facets of his identity (including the requirement that it be his and not her identity) are pre-written and locked by the developers.

Without its name-entry screen, Dragon Quest V would be no more customizable than a novel or film. With it, starting the game is somewhat akin to stepping into a role in a play or movie. Like a character from a script is activated and actualized by an actor’s performance, DQV’s own Hero is complete but for one variable (namely, the name) to be supplied by the player. Of course, this analogy is not perfect, since the actor necessarily imbues a performance with his/her own mannerisms and personal interpretation of the role. Meanwhile, DQV (and most videogames) lack both gameplay intricate enough to distinguish one player’s performance from another as well as an audience to divine that difference.

Perhaps DQV’s approach maps a route to a different kind of immersion into a game world: that is, encase the player in a suit of armor so thick that the wearer cannot channel her own identity beyond its confines. Given the worship of individualism and self-expression in American culture, this articulation of “immersion” – a videogame buzzword that has been overloaded to mean many things, including a game’s capacity for self-expression – may at first sound depressing or confining.

But as therapist George Enfield argues in his reflection on using RPGs as a treatment tool in counseling, “through engagement in the role-playing activity, clients may express conscious issues … or they may symbolically express and play out unconscious struggles.” (228). Enfield further stresses that by playing as a powerful hero or heroine, “clients are able experiment [sic] with and master elements of an alternate identity – the person they would like to become.” (230). When the player’s identity is so cleanly divided from the hero’s, each in-game action solicits reflection on the distance between the player’s and the Hero’s abilities and morals, as well as perhaps an aspiration to close that divide.

Where some RPGs, like Dragon’s Dogma, produce heroes that bear the marks of their player-creator, others, like Dragon Quest V and Marvel Hero Clicks (one of the games that Enfield prescribes to his clients), minimize or prevent that very influence through their pre-written protagonists. In other words, where the former encourages the player to see his/her own influence in the hero, the latter wants the player to imagine himself/herself as (or in contrast to) the Hero.

 

Cited

Enfield, George. “Becoming the Hero: The Use of Role-Playing Games in Psychotherapy.” Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2006. Proquest ebrary. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

In the Desert, No One Can Hear You Yell, “FORE!”

Level 1 of the mobile game Desert Golfing looks like this: The gameplay consists of dragging on, then releasing the ball to send it flying toward the flag-marked hole. Completing Level 1 takes you to Level 2, which looks like this: Level 2 plays exactly like Level 1. Now, I haven’t reached Level 3,365 myself, but online … Continue reading In the Desert, No One Can Hear You Yell, “FORE!”

Level 1 of the mobile game Desert Golfing looks like this:

Desert Golfing: Level 1
Desert Golfing: Level 1

The gameplay consists of dragging on, then releasing the ball to send it flying toward the flag-marked hole.

Completing Level 1 takes you to Level 2, which looks like this:

capture_2016-11-20-15-59-56
Desert Golfing: Level 2

Level 2 plays exactly like Level 1.

Now, I haven’t reached Level 3,365 myself, but online screenshots from those who have suggest that it looks like this…

Desert Golfing: Level 3,365

… and plays exactly like the previous 3,364 levels.

Much like the single fly that hits the windshield at hour five of Penn & Teller’s infamous real-time road trip simulator, Desert Golfing introduces visual change rarely and stingily. Actually, this game is definitely more generous than Desert Bus, as it eventually swaps out the initial brown-and-darker-brown dunes for more vibrant palettes.

Desert Golfing: Level 2078

An easy reading of Desert Golfing might be to buy into its nihilist presentation and conclude, along with many others who have written on the topic, that the game has no meaning. But to my mind, a complete analysis of this game requires consideration of its fanbase and, for lack of a better term, “meme status.” I’ll certainly continue pondering the meaning of this game’s existence (and my own) as I steadily add to my stroke count during my next two play sessions. For the moment, though, I’m more interested in the extant online discussion and media attention surrounding Desert Golfing.

Desert Golfing has been branded as many things online, from the “best game in the world” to a “transcendent beauty” to a parody of casual gaming. In isolation, I’m not sure if it’s any of these. I can easily imagine someone stumbling across the game without any awareness of its online following. Such a player would likely perceive Desert Golfing as shovelware – that breed of low-budget, imitative games that fill bargain bins at gas stations and WalMarts – not a “meta-” or “counter-” game, not parody, not funny, and probably not even “good”. They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, either.

Desert Golfing‘s absolute commitment to minimalism means that it cannot (or rather, chooses not) speak for itself as anything more than a game about putting a golfball into a hole again and again and again until the game’s randomization engine produces an impossible level.  Perhaps is why the game seems to frustrate and confound so many players: we expect and crave games that fit neatly into existing genres or else boldly proclaim themselves as trailblazers into a new category. Acting as the gamic equivalent of the magic circle’s spoilsport, Desert Golfing neither resists nor submits to genre classification – it just doesn’t care. In its silence, Desert Golfing‘s meaning is best derived from the voices of its players.

Docked at the Pirate Bay

My first experience with Dragon Quest V was a little embarrassing. In high school, I tried my hand at the game for over an hour but couldn’t even make it past the first area. After talking to every NPC, searching every bookshelf and chest – all to no avail – I finally resorted to an online guide (purists … Continue reading Docked at the Pirate Bay

My first experience with Dragon Quest V was a little embarrassing. In high school, I tried my hand at the game for over an hour but couldn’t even make it past the first area. After talking to every NPC, searching every bookshelf and chest – all to no avail – I finally resorted to an online guide (purists forgive me).

Pirate players of DQV don't get to see or explore anything beyond this initial area.
Pirate players of DQV don’t get to see or explore anything beyond this initial area.

Considering the notorious difficulty of “old-school” JRPGs, my troubles would have actually been par for the course for games of this genre. DQV and many titles like it extend their already epic playtimes by refusing to guide the player any more than necessary. And when these games do offer direction, it’s often in the form of a cryptic or easy-to-miss piece of advice: a villager hints that a ghost only appears at night, or an in-game tome reveals the secret weak point of a boss enemy.

Alas, my inability to progress past the first scene had nothing to do with my Dragon Quest V’s difficulty nor my own inability to hurdle it. This was, though, still a case of JRPG developers withholding information from a clueless player.

I learned from the online walkthrough that when dev team ArtePiazza ported DQV from its home on the SNES to the Nintendo DS handheld, they inserted an intentional glitch to impede the progress of players who pirated the game. Essentially, DQV‘s code contains a series of authenticity tests, and if the game fails these, the game blocks the player from moving beyond the first area. In legitimate copies, the first chapter closes via a cutscene where the boat docks and the player ventures forth; in illicit copies like my own, that event simply isn’t triggered, so us pirates are fittingly stuck at sea for the duration of our playtime.

This time-travel animation loops endlessly in pirated copies of Chrono Trigger DS
This time-travel animation loops endlessly in pirated copies of Chrono Trigger DS

Anti-piracy measures in video games like DQV’s endless boat ride are not uncommon. In pirated copies of Chrono Trigger DS – another SNES-to-DS port of a classic JRPG – a typically 5-second long animation of a wormhole instead loops forever. Some games punish pirates by ratcheting up the difficulty (see: Earthbound), while others opt for a more whimsical approach (see: Alan Wake, which slaps a fun pirate patch on the main character’s face). Game-publishing simulator Game Dev Tycoon goes meta by blocking thieving players from turning an in-game profit.

Anti-piracy patch (pun intended) in Alan Wake
Anti-piracy patch (pun intended) in Alan Wake

These mechanisms are, in my opinion, a purer example of video games pulling pranks than the ones Ian Bogost describes in his chapter on the same topic. Here, Bogost cites Easter eggs and parody games as the videogame equivalent of pranks (38-39). I agree that these mechanisms do replicate the joking or mocking attitude found in most real-world pranks, but they ultimately fail to capture something that I consider an essential element: the uneven power dynamic between the prankster and the victim.

In most pranks, the prankster enjoys a moment – however brief – of complete control and total knowledge over the situation. Meanwhile, the victim of the prank is helpless and clueless, stuck pondering why the doorknobs are so slippery, why the mouse won’t work, or why this damned game can’t seem to load. The victim is saved only by a sudden “a-ha!” understanding of the situation, or by the prankster revealing his/her work – whichever comes first. I certainly had that shameful epiphany when I learned about DQV’s infinite boat ride glitch, and while I couldn’t spin around to find the game’s developers giggling at my struggle (or just grinning vindictively, more likely), I’d like to imagine they had a similar, preemptive satisfaction when they added the glitch to the game’s code.

This time around, I’m playing DQV on a legitimate DS cartridge, not a downloaded ROM file. I can’t honestly claim that the developers’ prank swayed me from my pirating ways entirely, but their effort did alert me to the human developers behind the game, and to the human pranksters chuckling in the next cubicle over. For consumers like myself, who try to justify ‘casual’ piracy by claiming that an already wealthy company/record label/developer surely won’t miss a few extra bucks, that reminder is sometimes enough.

 

Cited

Bogost, Ian. “Pranks.” How to Do Things with Videogames. U of Minnesota P, 2011, 37-44. Print.