Friday, 9 March 2007

Rhetoric and Violence/Controversy with Rockstar North

Videogames, like any other form of media, have a degree of persuasive power that is conveyed whenever the game is played. These rhetoric facets come in a range of forms and can even be communicated through the aesthetics of a game. The most salient videogame rhetoric, within a social context, has to be that of character behavior and in particular violence.
Since their creation, videogames have come under constant scrutiny from the press and cultural conservatives alike. Senator Joseph Lieberman in 1998 stated "these games ... are part of a toxic culture of violence that is enveloping our children, that is helping to desensitize them and blur the lines between right and wrong, and encouraging some of the most vulnerable of them to commit violence". This example of excessive media attention is rather bereft of any real evidence or actual study. Although there are a number of organizations researching into the link between aggression and violent videogames, studies show that the connection between these factors is rather limited.
I conducted a personal investigation of violent rhetoric in video games using both Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North: 2004) and Canis Canem Edit (Rockstar Vancouver: 2006). Both games have been criticized by the press for their glamorization of violence. In GTA: San Andreas, our window and guide into the game is Carl Johnson or CJ while in Canis Canem Edit our guide is Jimmy Hopkins. Through our introduction to both games, players instantly recognize these virtual worlds are dangerous and corrupt. However, the games have a certain addiction that I believe is created through both: the games size and its ability to allow the player to act out his/her darker fantasies. The rules and boundaries within both games, as well as the ideologies of the characters within the games allow people to go around killing, selling drugs, fighting in an environment or magic circle where the rules accept this behaviour. The games provide an environment where people can perform these atrocities in safety. The player understands that within this environment it is acceptable to act in such a manor however, he/she also understands that upon terminating play these actions are unacceptable.
In conclusion, I believe that playing violent games does not make you violent, players understand that when they play games such as GTA: San Andreas or Canis Canem Edit, they are entering a world where violent behaviour is acceptable. Similarly, on finishing play they understand that the rules and ideologies of the games are terminated until they resume playing the game. However, I do believe that these games should be classified as games for adults. Adults have the ability to clearly distinguish between the two environments while young children and misguided adolescents do not. This understanding of playing games is learnt through play and with practice gamers come to understand the transference between reality and the magic circle

Thursday, 8 March 2007

What are Games?

Games and gaming is a rather ambiguous term. The reason for this is because of the incredible diversity of games and gaming. There are no two games that are the same and each time we play a game the way we play and the outcomes of the play are different. Hence, the vagueness of the term games. Wittgenstein uses a rather suitable metaphor for this problematic definition. He describes the definition of games as a rope with many individual little fibres representing games. Many games often overlap one another however, with such a broad variation of games there are many completely different games, like two threads from opposing sides of the rope. Within the context of videogames, games can be defined more precisely because, in a metaphorical sense, the rope is far thinner. Chris Crawford, a computer game designer, describes games as “a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality. By “closed” I mean that the game is complete and self sufficient as a structure. The model world created by the game is internally complete; no reference need be made to agents outside of the game.” (Cited from Rules of Play: 2004 pg 77). This definition does not accurately define gaming yet describes the game as a program that is its own system.

Investigating further into video gaming we can also use another of Wittgenstein’s metaphors. His description of gaming as a family where, like family members, games often have similarities yet are not the same. To explain this further we can investigate two video games that are similar or, in a metaphorical sense, siblings. The games Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA are both games that represent the sport of football. Each game has very similar rules and objectives however, the game play and interaction with the player is far different. In PES (Pro Evolution Soccer) we see the designers have focused more on the games reflection of the sport. Its accurate representation of player movement, passing and goal scoring capabilities, I believe make the game more playable. However, FIFA designers have focused more on the graphics as well as the player’s ability and flare. The reflection of the game of football is not so accurate and instead the game represents a kind of fantasy football, full of flare and beauty. Although both games reflect the game of football the games are inherently different.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004) The Game Design Reader, A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

The Pleasure of Gaming

We play games for a number of reasons; we mainly play for the purposes of enjoyment, however, often when we play we also feel pain. We enjoy videogames like other forms of media because of their visual imagery, their music and sound, their literature etc. However, we also enjoy videogames for their level of interactivity. Unlike other forms of media where the user must watch, read or listen, videogames we must play. Because we must interact with the game we must become far more involved with the game. We determine where the game will go and how far we will reach, i.e. what level we get to within the game. However, what makes play so fun? There are three main theories on why gaming is fun. They are: Reward, Flow and Iteration. Reward derives from our intrinsic nature to reward ourselves for doing something. An example of this would be after writing this essay I will reward myself with a few tasty beverages. Videogames play on this by making us work for our rewards. Each game we must complete a task and then reward ourselves. Flow is the players ability to become almost part of the game. This term is rather difficult to describe however, occurs when the player becomes ultimately immersed in the game and loses track of reality and sense of self. For this to occur in a game there are certain component that must be addressed. There must be a chance of failure, their must be a goal and the player must be actively involved in the game, concentrated and unaware of realities time and space boundaries. Iteration is the games ability to be different upon repetition. For example, whenever you must repeat the level their must be a certain amount of variation in you path to completion.

I investigated this theory further while playing Pharaoh, a game where the objective is to build an Egyptian city that will stand the test of time. Pharaoh is a highly rewarding game, through building your Egyptian city you are constantly rewarded with different tools, buildings, workers etc. This keeps the player interested because he is being constantly rewarded. Pharaoh has a limited amount of flow because of the nature of the game play. Generally flow is far more apparent in reaction games such as shoot’em ups. However, players can find themselves highly immersed within the game and can often loose track of time and reality and therefore be in the flow. Finally, Pharaoh has a high level of iteration. Each time the game is played you can totally change the structure of the city and with each new city different problems are bound to arise.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004) The Game Design Reader, A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Homo Ludens - Imaginary versus Virtual Magic Circles

Johan Huizinga believed that “play” was a fundamental building block in the construction of social identity and culture. He states “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them playing.” (Huizinga, J: 1950, pg 1). If we accept this theory then we understand that through play we evolve. However, play is also far more serious than we intend to believe. Huizinga believes that within all games there are logical objectives and set boundaries, a method in playing madness. He states: “play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. {…} It is a significant function-that is to say, there is some sense to it.” (Huizinga, J: 1950, pg 1).

Whenever we play a game we create a new environment where new rules and objectives are strictly followed. This environment that is created upon starting play is known as the “magic circle”. In the most elementary description, the magic circle is merely where the game takes place. This could be physical: a chess board or football pitch, virtual: within any computer game, or imaginary: any game that is improvised. Within these imaginary games, both time and space are at once limitless and limited. Katie Salen et al states: “The magic circle inscribes a space that is repeatable, a space both limited and limitless. In short a finite space with infinite possibility” (Salen K et al: 2004, pg 95).

Within the very basic but highly addictive game Snake, the player upon starting the game must enter this magic circle. Once started the player becomes highly immersed within the game. Although the game has a very basic level of interaction, with simple rules and objectives, its ability to engross the player is astounding. This immersion into the game requires a certain mental state or focus that is referred to by Huizinga as a lusory attitude. This lusory attitude is becomes more apparent as you progress further into the game and the objectives become more difficult. The harder the game becomes, the more focused the player.

However, I believe the concept of the magic circle within games applies more accurately with video games than other games. The player’s entry to the magic circle becomes far more apparent within video games and with developments in graphic technology our immersion within the magic circle becomes far more real. Similarly there are more boundaries, rules and objectives in many modern video games. This has two opposing effects on the magic circle. Firstly, with the increase in rules and conventions videogames loose the ability to provide the player with infinite possibilities. Video games are constructed by a game designer and for that reason the game has boundaries. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of game play within videogames is constantly developing allowing players to become far more immersed within the game.

Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Temple Smith

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004) The Game Design Reader, A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

PLaying the Game: An introduction

For the Module: Playing the Game: The Culture of Digital Games, I have been given the opportunity to analyse a number of video games in relation to theories that I have studied. This blog will contain 4 different posts each looking at a range of the games I have played and their accurate application to the theory work I have investigated.