Ex Lax

ALthough nobody I've met believes it, in high school I wasn't in the band. I played lacrosse instead (there were basically those two options). One weekend I went to a camp hosted by someone who played in one of the professional leagues back east, and during the opening monologue he gave us before we broke apart into passing, shooting and dodging drills he told us through a thick stoner accent and even thicker shades that "the Iroquah, man, used this game to simulate WAR. I want you to, like, think about that when you're out there today. WAR." Thankfully he didn't have us perform some ritual but it was almost to that point.

There's an old fable about a hypothetical wargame being conducted in the last days of the Battle of the Bulge among German staff officers in France. During the game, the Americans attack the village the game is being played in, and their movements and the positions of the German forces wind up appearing remarkably similar to the movements and positions of the different forces in the wargame being conducted. So, instead of stopping the game, the officer in charge orders it continued, with the 'moves' of the players being translated into orders to the real units outside. This is one example of how simulation passes semalessly into reality under the right conditions, and lacrosse, which as it was practiced by natives is even less of an abstraction from real war, has an even better seamless transition that isn't a fable at all: during Pontiac's rebellion a group of Ojibwas played a game of lacrosse in front of a fort they wished to take, and while the British soldiers were outside watching the game as they had before someone 'accidentally' knocked the ball inside the fort. Since there were no out-of-bounds areas in lacrosse at the time, everyone naturally ran inside the fort, where they pulled out their weapons and killed half the garrison.

I'm making the connection between wargames and sports because someone who read my article on skill in games disagreed with it entirely and said that people choose games as if they were sports, and so games should be judged in the same way sports should. Does the game provide me with a good challenge, does it engage me? If yes, then I'll play it, if no then I don't. He said that my entire analogy comparing understanding of games to understanding of literature is completely baseless, even though he did agree with my conclusion that the only meaningful criterion of understanding of games is skill in them. Most people agreed with my argument and didn't agree with the conclusion, which is more or less what I expeceted. I didn't expect the opposite.

On the surface of it this opinion of games seems to get rid of the possibility of a 'message' or a 'meaning,' reducing games to their sets of rules and closing off the rest of the world- nothing in the game (a ball and a stick, or an asteroid and a spaceship) having any meaning beyond the playing field of the game and its irrelevant outcome. Most people criticized my conclusion along these lines. But what happens when you take the same ball you were playing with and turn it into a gambit to bypass your opponent's defenses, and you take the stick you were using to hit the ball and instead hit someone over the head with it? What do your game rules, which got you into a position to change the world outside of the game, mean then? Can you combine my conclusion, that games are better understood by those that can play them well, with the argument that games are sports and the only legitimate criteria is the complexity of the rules they posess, with games having an artistic purpose, like literature, that cannot be reduced to the sum of the different rules? Let's ask the stoner from my lacrosse camp.

Obviously most games can not lead directly to something as drastic as storming a fort or directing the course of a battle. Tetris can not fold into something real that easily (unless you work a job where you stack boxes of different sizes from the floor to the ceiling) and some games, bad games, pretend to correspond directly to real life via forced 'meaning' while actually preventing the kind of seamless transition that lacrosse offers, which, I think, is the only way in which games as artistic expression can ever refer back to reality in a coherent way.

I still think a game, like a sport that is actually more than a sport (lacrosse was, under normal circumstances, used to prepare young men for war and was conceived of partially as collective worship), can make an argument or provoke a response or affirm something that is connected to the rules while doing something that cannot be traced back piece by piece to the rules. It's just that lacrosse, and not a bad novel, should be the model for games that are supposed to mean something.


The Kickstarter Mode of Production

Which is a more degrading way of making a living?


I want to see what people think. I also want to provide some of my own thoughts.

Kickstarter presents developers with what appears to be a fair challenge: come up with a cool idea, demonstrate to others that your idea is cool and that you can complete it, and capital shall be allocated to you. We can imagine almost immediately some problems with this model- Kickstarter isn't a really 'free' market, certain products are banned or can be banned, Kickstarter does take a non-trivial amount of money from each successful campaign, it's limited to the United States presently, and, the biggest one: there's no effective legal recourse for people who donate to a campaign and then don't get what they paid for. Kickstarter very carefully avoids calling itself an investment company or framing campaigns as anything other than hobbyist donation solicitations with a possible future payoff equal to or less than the value of ones donation. Which means that nobody will ever be building steel mills or floating muni bonds over the service. Which is probably a good thing.

The most crippling disadvantage of the Kickstarter mode is that it actually gives people (who have money) the terrible things that they really seem to want. It's difficult to properly describe the phenomenon... a reprint of a book based on a webcomic about sticks got over one million dollars, Penny Arcade got fully one half of a million dollars to remove some, not all, ads from its front page, half the most-funded page in the games category has the word 'zombie' somewhere, and people forked over ten million dollars of money that was apparently 'earned' in some sense at some time to a dorky watch. I wish I could describe this stuff better than I could, but the wretchedness of the entire thing kind of chokes off any description of it. It really is the unfettered operation of the nerd mind over the freest yet conceived marketplace of ideas, and the results are stick webcomics, rape card games, and insulting statues.

The demands of the Kickstarter marketplace just replace the demands of the boardroom or the investor or venture capitalist, they don't eliminate them. Kickstarter requires a different kind of self-selling, and different form of prostitution and exerts a different kind of discipline. Even though no one is technically required to deliver the goods, in order to get the money to develop the goods in the first place, every developer using Kickstarter has to carefully manage their product and make it appear to be within acceptable bounds. You must be courteous and respectful when you deal with the people who fund you, of course, but you must also respect their ideas about design and theme and everything else. That means only projects that tickle the right fantasies or present themselves in the appropriate way get funded. If your game has a buzzword in it, like zombie, or if it has a graphical style including visible pixels or blocks, there is a minimum funding floor you will not be able to go beneath no matter how amateur you look or how weak your ideas are. Here's an actual screen grab from recently triple-over-funded zombie project "The Dead Linger" (tagline: "The Dead Linger is an FPS that embodies the gaming community's hunger for a true, open-world, zombie apocalypse survival sandbox.")

If you have an unconventional design or you don't care about zombies or cartoon pornography, you're going to have a rough time.

Kickstarter isn't that far from the ideal funding form. If it were project-agnostic (somehow) and just gave everyone capable of producing something interesting a modest stipend and money for development expenses it would be a more effecient replacement for state funding of the arts and not a grotesque fanservice festival. But nobody currently contributing to Kickstarter would put their money in that kind of pot. It's the control fantasy, more than any specific zombie-apocalypse or high-school-rape fantasy, that makes Kickstarter work the way it does, the idea that the individual can have his effect on the world by making sure the latest epic zombie boardgame gets the three hundred thousand dollars it needs to be printed and shipped.
Update 9 Sept 2012: never mind about that muni bond shit I mentioned earlier...


The Mystifying Hex

I was putting together a game reviewer résumé (laugh out loud) a while ago and in the process I went back and looked at a bunch of my old reviews, including this one. Because I have nothing better to do I also decided to look Elven Legacy up on Metacritic to see which side of the bell curve I was on. Here is the link to that.

A fuctional community is made up of diverse individuals and any abstract 'community opinion' is a summary of diverse opinions. The addition or subtraction of any one member changes the abstract. So conforming to a community opinion means that either the individual is dysfunctional because he doesn't understand what a community is about or it means that the community is dysfunctional because it doesn't allow diversity. Doug Henwood's book on Wall Street partially characterizes Wall Street as this kind of dysfunctional community, where everyone is desperately in search of everyone else's opinion so that they can base their investment decisions on it and profit. If market research, advanced stochastic simulations and MSNBC all point to 'the Street' saying that the Facebook IPO will go crazy, then everyone on 'the Street' will bet against Facebook. But the point is that the community opinion is made up of people guessing what the community opinion is and maneuvering to profit from it. Nobody actually takes stands of their own or reveals their hand.

Metacritic is the same way. They really do 'deal with criticism' in that they reduce it to the same kind of pointless guessing game you see on Wall Street. A score in the seventies, for instance, almost certainly indicates a niche game. A couple people (me, Pelit and Absolute Games, in this case) review it positively, most people don't understand what is going on and don't care and so give it an average score since going either way out of the doldrums would put them at risk, and someone people come right out and admit they don't get it, but, since it's a niche game, think that it's safe to bash without consequence. The average opinion is created (Metacritic averages publications' scores based on an arbitrary and opaque system) by people trying very hard not to stray from the average opinion. By anxious bullshitters' consensus the precise quantification of 'average' has come to rest at somewhere around the mid seventies, and Metacritic obliges by putting these reviews in the middle of the list and giving them a nice neutral color- either green, as if the game were good after all, or yellow, as if it were just kind of alright. For some games this is appropriate, for a game like Elven Legacy it's not appropriate at all.

What I really want to get to is the reviews at the bottom of the list, specifically the very bottom. Here's the money quote:
The whole notion of a scored review seems a little arbitrary in the face of the niche and dedicated fanbase this game will attract, and its attempts at populist window-dressing are virtually pointless because for the rest of us, the whole entity is at its most lenient completely mystifying, and at its most uncompromising utterly impenetrable.
The whole notion of a scored review is actually way more than a little arbitrary when the person doing the reviewing admits in the next sentence that he found the game 'utterly impenetrable.' The bottom side of any mid-seventies game is always a fun place to be because it's the actual object that casts the long shadow of the I-don't-care mid-seventies reviews: people on the bottom just say what everyone else above them was thinking but didn't even have the cojones to put in print. There's no functional difference between a mid-seventies review that says 'it will please fans of the genre' (as in, 'not me') and a mid-forties review that says 'fuck the genre.' The guy on the bottom just has fewer advertising dollars at stake.

Reviewing a game that has not been designated as niche below the mid-seventies Happy Zone is a totally different thing, however. I did that a few times, because I'm a rough-n-ready maverik who plays fast and loose with the rules and isn't afraid to shake things up, and also because I wasn't being paid. My most infamous moment was with Sins of a Solar Empire. I played for about twenty hours, which I'm almost positive was a longer period of time than half of the rest of the reviews invested, and decided that it wasn't worth it to continue and went back to Company of Heroes.

The most common accusation that people made in the emails they sent me and in the forums thread about my review on the official Sins forum was that I was only reviewing it poorly for the advertising revenue that it would generate for my site. Even when I was getting paid to review (I wasn't at the time and wouldn't be for another couple years) I was making a flat rate of thirty whole dollars per article. Not enough to tempt me to sell out. I would do that for maybe 400 dollars.

But people should have known, from looking at the site I was reviewing for, that I was either not getting paid or that it was so little that trolling for views wasn't really going to make a difference. But because of the Metacritic infection the only way people could justify my behavior was by comparing me to everyone else- to the people who reviewed the game in the Happy Zone for a designated non-niche game, which is in the mid eighties to the high nineties. And if you compare me to people who are reviewing for ad revenue after guessing what the consensus will be, then of course I have to be doing the same thing as they are, just taking a different tack: reviewing outside of the consensus for ad revenue. Some people did criticize me for not playing the game that much, and some people did question my knowledge of RTS 4X games (which is nil, because RTS 4X is a marketing term and not an actual genre). Of course the same scrutiny was not applied to, say, the Cheat Code Central review for the same game, which gave it an absurd 96 out of 100 and didn't say anything concrete about it. The crucial difference in each case is where the Street thinks the Street is going to put the game- in the niche pile or in the non-niche pile. A lot of the calculation has to do with who is making the game (as in, a large developer or an indie studio with a lot of profile) and which switches it flicks (puzzle platformer, visible pixels, story, no difficulty). In no case does the quality of the game enter into the decision. And it goes without saying that after the initial decision has been made, deviation is even more ill-advised.


Ritual, Magic and Gaminess

So a design I'm working on (thinking about while I toss boxes) was giving me some trouble. It's about the American Southwest during the Spanish colonial period and the relationships between the New Mexican settlers, Spanish colonial administrators and the heads of different bands of Indians. It's going to be super small-scale and turn based, and it will involve war but mainly things like slavery, trade, agriculture, seasonal migration and so on. Most of my ideas for historical games come from specific monographs, and this one in particular came from Ned Blackhawk's Violence Over the Land which is a good book as long as you have a stomach for digesting typical academic history. Which I do.

Part of the challenge of a historical setting for a computer game is getting people to behave in hisorical ways. The behavior is measured in a weird way. Wargamers want two things out of a historical game: fidelity to history measured in terms of the result, and fidelity to history measured in terms of the process. Normally they emphasize the first (see this) and ignore the second. Developers like those behind the Magna Mundi atrocity for Europa Universalis III try to game the process by plugging all orifices with arbitrary values, to the point where anti-semitism is quantified as a plus five percent modifier to revolt risk once the Jewish population of a province passes a certain threshold.

At least that's better than the event-driven approach of other mods for other Paradox games, like the Vicky Improvement Project for Victoria, which 'simulated' the rush for Africa not by diminishing the expansionary capacity of Europe but by outright forbidding colonization before a divinely ordained date, as if everyone was really just holding back and toeing the starting line for fifty years before 1880 out of a sense of sportsmanship.

Of course both of these mods and the games they were designed for are on a much higher level than a specific event or a specific intra-province dynamic. Its really not that bad, in the great scheme of things, if anti-Semitism is modeled in an anti-Semitic way in a few provinces if the whole thing kind of holds together on a macro level and produces believable results. Wether or not the Vicky Improvement Project or Magna Mundi (which is now spiraling completely out of control in the form of a stand-alone game) actually do produce believable outcomes or if they do it in a believable way is another question.

But it is important to think about these small things, especially if your game is going to be tiny and built around nuances that grander strategic games would abstract out of existence. Making people think and act like people did in the past doesn't demand that you place restraints on them in a system that should logically not have that restraint (for example: Vicky is built around conquest and colonization, why restrict it?). It demands that you make the conception that people had of their time and their role in the world real by designing your game around it. Wargames can learn from RPGs in this instance. One example that comes to mind is Darklands.

The designers of Darklands said that the starting point for the game was asking the question "what if the world was actually what the average German peasant thought it was?" From this premise adding monsters and magic was entirely logical. And players in the game accept the premise unthinkingly and adapt to rituals (praying to saints, for instance) that would be arbitrary and ridiculous if the game were modeled on real life but required the player to pray anyway because that's what people did back then. Making a game requires giving the average citizen of your imagined world some credit. You have to treat the things he thinks as real as if they were real. It makes for a better game and maybe designing and playing it gives you some insight into the absurd rituals in your own time and place.

Anyway, this led me back to my design. Modeling things like seasonal migration and slavery is easy enough- put resources in different areas of the map, vary their peak availability times and let players figure out when the best time to hunt small game is and when to visit the piñon groves. But modeling something like the relationship between the settlers and the Indians is tougher. Why, for instance, did the Spanish bother baptizing Indians, and why did Indians not immediately kill any settler they came across? From the perspective of the 21st century the existential danger that European colonialism posed to native peoples is blindingly ovbious. But it wasn't back then (Utes initially invited the Mormons to settle near them, for instance), otherwise violence against settlers whould have been the first resort of native peoples and not the absolute dead last (after long periods of hospitality, accomodation, friendly trade, credulous treaty-negotiation, and tolerating increasingly hostile impositions). To natives at the time settlers appeared as a far more neutral force. They occupied some land and deprived natives of access to some resources, but they had trade goods like metal pots, horses and rifles that natives found immensely useful, and in some cases the paternalism of an imperial power was preferable to slave-raiding by your neighbors: when the Escalante expedition passed through Utah, for instance, they promised to establish missions and settle among the Indians they encountered (which is a promise they never kept) and many bands of Indians, who by that time had endured decades of raids from more powerful tribes to the east, were very happy to hear it. That's why the design emphasizes trade and co-habitation and overall adopts the viewpoint of a group of people who did not (and could not) see with perfect vision several hundred years into the future.


Alienated Fun

Back In The Day I worked on mods in my spare time with some internet pals. We never actually released anything, the best thing you could say about the experience is that it provided exposure to the process of making a game and a few specific skills (C++ and Unrealscript for me, modeling and texturing and level design for the rest of the crew).

Another positive aspect of the experience was that it introduced us to design. Maybe everyone else wanted to actually get something done, but for me talking about designing a game was more fun than actually figuring out how to make one (on top of Source, with a strong OO background, losing my mind when I found the zoom-in code for the crossbow in a place other than where I expected it to be). We kicked around a ton of ideas while we were supposed to be working, one of the most promising was one that was codenamed "Super SpaceShip Repair Team." In the game you would travel through a series of derelict ships trying to get them running again, presumably for a salvage company or for yourself. The main draw for me was the levels, how they would have to be somewhat coherent so that the 'puzzle' of getting the ship to move could be solved. You couldn't do the regular serpentine set-piece sequence design if you were supposed to be on a real spaceship that you could float around and enter into and exit from at any point. It would have to be somewhat real, like a warehouse level from Deus Ex: they actually look like people punch in and move pallets around in them. That was the appeal for me. My partner was attracted to the ability to transfer his real-life job, as a welder, into a game. He wanted to model consumables and power sources and beads and everything. The game would have been cool if it had ever been made.

I was thinking about Super Spaceship Repair Team recently, and because I'm lazy and think backwards I was imagining the proper soundtrack and what the player models would look like. My partner's designs from our other projects were pretty gritty and cool (see above), and I was thinking that if we had actually gone through with the game it would have had a blue-collar-in-the-23rd-century vibe, with blue space-overalls and helmets with stickers on them like "Spaceshipbreakers Local 112."

But I realized that that would not really be accurate, at least in the sense that a working-class vibe wouldn't really communicate what the game was about. The player in the game would be off on his own (theoretically working for a company but on the levels by himself) gathering and prudently employing resources, not conforming to assembly-line discipline but making the kinds of decisions that someone running a small business would make. And I realized that, as appealing as space overalls are, more proper would be space collared shirts and slacks.

So fun in a game where the process resembles coercion to a privatized labor process (loss of control, separation of what should be unified) is a contradiction just like alienated labor is. That doesn't mean that all player-characters in all games must be capitalists, but that the rules of fun we've set down for ourselves don't allow us to simulate or talk about what most people do their entire lives.


Is there ever a reason to roleplay?

In this video, Blufor searches for and destroys ammo caches in a city occupied by a combination of armed and unarmed civilians. Blufor is bound by an ROE that makes the mission harder for them should they break it (e.g., if they unlawfully kill an unarmed player, the mission spawns armed AI for them to deal with).

If the civilians wanted to, they could take weapons and explosives from the ammo caches and perform hit and run attacks (and most do), but Blufor also has the ability to check if a suspected combatant has fired a weapon with their limited number of gunshot residue kits. Blufor also has a helicopter circling overhead with magnified and thermal optics, which could make fleeing difficult. I am, of course, choosing to play as a non-combatant in this video (well for most of it [spoilers]).
It's almost worth it to watch the entire 22 minutes of the video.

A long time ago I was in a roleplaying guild that hopped between a bunch of MMOs. We were in Mourning for a while, we were in WoW, we were in Shadowbane before it closed down for good, we discussed going on to a UO private server but ended up disbanding. We were never that hardcore, mostly we used RP as an excuse to write lore, and picked classes in whichever game we played that allowed us to rob, steal, kill indiscriminately. Not very exciting, and certainly a far cry from the RP that Shack Tactical (the people in that video) engage in, with a strict hierarchy, radio protocol, binding Rules of Engagement, and weapon/vehicle certifications (only some people can operate helicopters, for instance).

There was one game we did RP pretty hardcore in though. It was a browser-based mainly text-driven mmo with maybe 100 people playing (pretty exciting huh?) whose name I've forgotten. The conceit of the game was that everyone was the leader of a militia company in the middle ages, and people would band their companies together, hire themselves out, fit themselves into intricate webs of vassalage and so on. All of the actual gameplay was fairly simple (move company, recruit new men, pay men, besiege, fight) but because you were playing against humans and not going on awful PvE grinds all day most of what you actually did in the game was write short messages to people, in-character, asking for their help, forming an alliance, and so forth. There was no real mechanical enforcement of things like vassalage, it all fit together, like a good pen and paper game, on the mutual agreement of everyone playing to not fuck it up. It was cool.

So, whats the deal with roleplaying? Is it completely fine or is it categorically pathetic? I'm playing Tribes: Ascend right now and one thing I've seen people do is pick a spot on the map (the tall towers on Raindance, maybe) and play 'king of the hill' with each other and ignore the rest of the game going on around them. They also seem to like yelling at each other in some kind of half-baby half-orc patois. It's kind of annoying but it does prevent people with rocket launchers from using the towers as a vantage point. So overall it's a wash. And certainly other people in the game are RP-ing in the sense that they're ignoring the ostensible purpose of the game and playing according to their own rules. Technicians in T:A frequently roleplay as if they were TF2 engineers, a lot of other people (in capture-the-flag mode) pretend as if there were no flags and the only purpose of the game was to rack up kills. A frequent boast from the people at the top of the losing team at the end of a round is "54 kills, suck on it," as if to say "you won, but we played with style" like there isn't any intrinsic style to beasting to begin with, and that 'counting coup' with flags requires less finesse than blowing everyone away with guns designed especially for that purpose. If you can't already tell from the fact that I hold my nose high in the air and sip champagne, I play pathfinder.

I guess the difference between roleplaying and not-playing is that one is done consciously and the other isn't. But the effect, and the definition, are frequently similar: playing by your own rules to enrich an experience created, by definition, with other rules. Techs playing like they're supposed to would obviously have less fun, and if my friends and I had played that unnamed browser-based militia MMO as if it were just a system to be mastered and glitched into oblivion we would have ruined everyone else's fun as well as our own.

Playing king-of-the-hill or as if you were playing a different team-based shooter obviously pits two sets of rules against each other, but what if the two rules (the RP rules, and the actual game rules) are complementary? If they are, you get the browser MMO I was talking about, or the video at the top of the post. You get a game plus roleplaying, not a game minus roleplaying. More gameplays, more cools, additional utils of fun, beasting piled on top of beasting.
Update Sept 09 2013: I finally remembered the name of the game I was talking about in this post: it was called BattleMaster. How time flies.


Funs, Contents, Utils

The early life of videogames (which for our purposes, goes Spacewar! -> Pong) mirrors, to some extent, the life arc of a boomer child, who sowed his wild oats in LSD-fueled parties during his college years, then shed the tie-dye for a suit and stock options, and settled down to a house in a quiet, white suburb where he could berate his kids, way tamer than he was at their age, for smoking a little pot or talking back to a cop. Video games, like the hippie-turned-dad, either sold out or bought in, depending on your perspective. The only differences were cosmetic- in the place of hippies, video games had computer science grad students, and in place of LSD there were long hours staring at the slide rule. Same thing.

What does it mean to 'buy in,' or, more properly, be part of a culture that is selling out at breakneck speed? What trends were revealed by the regression from Spacewar! to Pong which would eventually come to dominate the entire industry?

When someone like Greg Mankiw (a new Keynesian, Bush II economic advisor and professor at Harvard) uses the textbook language of capitalist economics to describe his family's seeing a show in New York, he's really only half joking. He actually does believe that the world, abstracted, works in the way he describes the show working for him. Mankiw, even though he sounds ridiculous talking about how his family enjoyed "consumer surplus" by engaging with a piece of art, is doing something that is not any more ridiculous than what his colleagues are doing in their scholarly papers, or what gamers and publishers do on a daily basis on questions of DLC, sequels, pricing, and design. The adoption of conspiculously capitalist economic language and its application to art, specifically in this case video games, is what happened in the twenty or so years following the release of Pong.

Video games took a while to sell out completely, thanks to the fact that no cared about them for a very long time. This lack of respect was the sweetest blessing the industry could have asked for. During the time when no one was writing doctoral dissertations about games, when there were no large conferences, when people like Richard Garriot had to sell their games out of the back of their cars in plastic bags, innovation moved at an almost immeasurable pace. To take one example, wargames went from rudimentary board-game aids to full-bodied boardgame replacements to something that boardgames would never be able to imitate or match- in the space of a half decade. It's still the most incredible quantum leap in videogame history, and it was enabled because people at the time didn't think there was a future in video games, or any sort of profit, or any sort of respect whatsoever to be gained by making them. Nobody got into video games for any reason that did not have to do with the object itself. Taking another example: if you were going to take a degree in computer science and join Infocom, you were going to be out of a job in a maximum of three years. In that time you could have started at a much drearier job and worked your way up a few paygrades and gotten yourself a knockoff Porsche. And academically, there was even less reason to give a shit. The lady who wrote the first dissertation on video games (on Adventure, which she admitted to never finishing) did so in 1985 and then basically put the paper in a box and forgot about it. Even if there was nothing worth saying academically (i.e. nothing that could get you tenure) in the dissertation, it was still infinitely more worthy than whatever people are writing these days because it was made without the expectation of material reward or prestige. The object itself demanded to be written about, and that was it.

Now, of course, there were many experiments that fell on their face, and the overall quality of all video games was lower during the glory days. Today there are fewer completely worthless games- you can at least grimace through most of what comes out. But you also don't see the positive side of risk-taking and experimentation.

By the way, we can see echoes of this in today's indie scene, which is highly respected not on its own merits but because it pretends to negate the mainstream, and to get back to those early days when people were working out of their basements (Tim Sweeny sold ZZT from his parent's house) and just doing it for the love of the game. Obviously the indie scene is, like the conterculture of the 60's, ripe for 'buying in,' and even indie development as indie development can be wildly profitable, as it was for Notch. The fact that you have to really screw up to get people angry at you is proof not of the respect people have for the indie scene as it exists, but for the early days of game development it reminds people of. The fact that those days are conslusively dead and gone (and were never as good as we remember them), and that we have to figure shit out on our own now, is a pretty hard pill to swallow.

Anyway, what separates Spacewar! and Pong besides a few years? The purpose with which each game was conceived and made to satisfy are very different. Spacewar! was made, like the dissertation-to-no-one, for the personal gratification of the people involved in its development. It was a spectacular time-waster, a distraction from the legitimate daytime work of a bunch of computer science professors and graduate students. It was not made in a vaccum (ho ho), it was made on a machine and by people who were paid for with Defense Department dollars, and their day jobs were typically aligned with the interests of the US government and its interest in increasingly effecient warmaking, but it was made in a much purer way than Pong, which seems to have been made to provide entertainment along the way to providing money to its creator. Production for profit.

Profit dictated nothing to Spacewar! since Spacewar! was never sold, so it could develop in whatever direction its designers wanted it to develop. The game was made continually more complicated and nail-biting with each additional update, and even today its physical models are sophisticated enough that they at least can stand next to contemporary games without slouching. Compare the snail's pace and nonexistent physics of recent indie Flotilla to Spacewar! and you'll find that even games made today, with an entirely new dimension of space, still sometimes fall short.

Notice how the game is turn-based even though there's no reason for it to be. Combat Mission had to be continuous-turn-based because there were anywhere from ten to a hundred individual units on the screen who had to be accounted for in an infinite variety of possible tactical situations. Giving someone a long pause every thirty seconds in a game where you manipulate four or five units is a pretty gross amount of overkill, especially when you have less to worry about to begin with.

Now notice how both players from the start are not only worried about each other but also spend their time frantically adjusting their orbit so as to not slam into the sun. How awesome must it have been to play Spacewar! after its latest update in a sweltering computer room on hacked-together controls with a bunch of smelly students screeching all around you? Not that awesome, but it's a much better game anyway.

And compare either of those games to Pong, which is a relatively simple geometry exercise that only becomes challenging at super high speed, and doesn't demand nearly as much strategic thinking and reflexes as Spacewar!, and the dilemma becomes clear. When games are developed for something else and not for their own sake, they obviously don't do as much as they could for the artform. That's how we reached the point where a game like Flotilla, unabashedly simpler and slowed-down from its predecessors, could be made and expected to do well (I don't know anything about its actual sales figures). That's why the lengthy obscurity of the games industry was such a blessing, and why its commercial and academic popularity is such a curse.

How is commerializaiton a curse? Let's come back to Grew Mankiw and his Broadway show. He describes himself as experiencing 'consumer surplus,' which is an economic term meaning 'I would have paid more for this, its so good.' First of all, how many gamers say that precise thing about a game that's already overpriced? Secondly, and more insidiously, how many gamers place their enjoyment of a game in terms that would reduce to the kinds of economic concepts Mankiw makes a living teaching? MMO players are especially prone to this kind of thinking when they reduce their experience with the game to a division problem, with the price of the monthly subscription in the numerator position and the hours of playtime in the denominator. If the quotient passes a certain threshold (say, the price of a movie ticket divided by the length of a movie) then the gamer confidently declares himself satisfied. Similarly, gamers frequently describe DLC and expansion packs just as 'new content,' more stuff to shove down the gullet, to prolong the apparently homogenous experience of the base game, to generate more utils, more happiness as measured in hours of cover-shooting. The real question of an expansion pack- the degree to which it changes the mechanics and makes the entire experience, not just the extra hour or so, more interesting, almost never comes up. In fact, in the ideal commercial world there's no room for design at all, and all games are really reduced to their unit of plot/setpiece per hour ratio.

The massive silence on the part of commercial development on design questions points to something we already know about commodities other than videogames under capitalism: they don't have to do what they say they do, and in fact, it's better if they're completely useless relative to their advertised purpose. Head-On and bottled water are great products because they cost almost nothing to produce and high prices (relative to their use, which is zero) can be charged because people have been convinced that they do something other than what they actually do. Games, which, if distributed digitally, have only a single fixed cost and potentially infinite profit potential, are perfect, as long as they can be consumed quickly and discarded, and never returned to again. Design just gets in the way, in prolonging the life of individual games and in increasing their costs. The ideal commercial videogame would have no brain power whatsoever behind it, be of no duration, and be extremely expensive. How close are we to the ideal?

We're not that close. But the beginning of the asymptotic swing towards complete uselessnes starts with Pong, and with the idea that video games have some other reason for existence besides themselves.


Bad at What?

Two quotes and a video to start: (happy late St. Patrick's day, Up Da RA)
But I'm fascinated with the early stages in a game where its world appears to be larger than it really is, the AI seems cleverer than it really is and the developers always have some new trick to confound you. Your imagination runs wild with gameplay rules that don't exist.

Enjoy those honeymoon hours while you can, because they don't last.
It's a crazy set of number-crunching that can result in a perfect "everyone survives the suicide mission against impossible odds" to an equally epic "Hamlet in space" ending that has nearly everyone dying around Shepard. Yes, such crazy and memorable experiences can ultimately be reduced to a set of binary switches and number twiddling. But that's pretty much every game, if you want to be reductive about it. I've heard similar sentiment when a designer once commented that role-playing games and real-time-strategy games are both fundamentally about number crunching -- their difference lies in presentation.

What does it mean to be bad at a video game, and what are you actually bad at when you can't do something as simple as wack a stationary target with a melee weapon? What does it mean to be Really Good At A Videogame? What consequences does this have for criticism and design?

Here's my theory. Books and games are the same, in that it's possible to read a book and play a game, and maybe even reach the end of each, and understand less than nothing about what the book or game means or how it works. In games the problem is more clear-cut, in that there are mechanical realities coded into the thing you're working with, and there is a right and a wrong way to do it, and you generally can't reach the end of a game without figuring out some of it at least by accident. But if you want to be an authority, if you want to make a Quake video like the one I just posted, you have to do a lot more than just scan some lines and turn the page. The difference between someone who plays Tribes by walking everywhere and someone who plays Tribes by skiing everywhere is a good example of what I mean: both people are playing the game, both people are 'reading' it and can tell others 'yeah I play Tribes,' but only one of them has any sort of clue as to what they did and what it meant. Ditto for someone who read A Modest Propsal ('yeah, I've read that.') and took it at face value. They didn't get it, and this has real consequences, and it's not something we should just ignore or pretend is irrelevant, especially if the work in question is deliberately obtuse and difficult. Joyce said that it took him years to write Ulysses, so he expected people to spend years reading it. People have spent entire lifetimes reading it. We should let games fuck with us and frustrate us for at least a few hours (without necessarily enjoying it) so that we can gain some level of understanding.

But, as opposed to literature, in games it's common to either ignore or attack someone who appears to be getting 'too far into' a particular game, or to imply that raw mastery is 'impressive' in the same patronizing insider-outsider way that people talk about someone who memorized the phonebook. It isn't the same knowledge, it resembles critical understanding in literature, and nobody sneers at someone who advances a well-reasoned opinion of a piece of literature by calling them a tryhard faggot or a minmaxer.

A good example that most of you can probably use from your own experience is the phenomenon of making the transition from single to multiplayer in a strategy game (for those of you that don't start with multi to begin with). Maybe you've never made as drastic a leap in understanding as the Tribes player who walked everywhere before discovering the jetpack, but I'll bet playing online for the first time against a human was a pretty rude awakening, whatever the game was. Most strategy games (demonstrating the 'emgergence' principle discussed below) are almost two-in-one, one game being the single-player experience crafted by a developer who thought he knew his own game, and the other game being the actual game as it exists, as uncovered by the lords of the leaderboard through nonstop, merciless beasting.

This is why it's so grating to read alleged game criticism that pretends that games are for some reason different, and that the degree to which one has studied the object has no bearing on one's authority to write about it. The Mass Effect article, which, by the way, details the accomplishment of something that a lot of players did without realizing that failure was even possible (thats how easy it was), is a great example of this. Even though it pretends to be rigorous (it isnt, what the hell kind of calculus is 'sentence comprehension' and 'addition' anyway?), it's being treated as some masterwork of game-playing by everyone in the comments section and by the writer himself. Why is it exceptional that someone beat a video game? Why do we have to act like playing and enjoying a game is somehow different from figuring out what is going on and increasing ones skills? It's the Minecraft syndrome rearing its ugly head again, where the kind of people who spend all day on TF2 servers actively idling for hats and playing music for each other over Mani plugins are now defining what gaming is all about. The literary equivalent of that article is someone writing in excruciating detail about how they finally, against all odds, discovered that Jonathan Swift wasn't proposing eating the Irish but was making an argument of striking subtlety and power aimed at the black heart of the British ruling class!

The beaten-into-the-ground argument about 'emergence' is this tendency taken to the Nth, where the the inability to understand the interactions governing a complex system is perversely elevated into a virtue in a system's developer. The people who throw their hands up after reading Ulysses don't go on to write books about it. The people who throw their hands up after playing Mafia or Mass Effect or a hard wargame apparently think that they can. It's gross.

Zappa tells us that 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture.' Video games work the same way. The best way to review a game is still to either provide screens or, better yet, to tape yourself playing it. Most words about games are even more suspect than most dances about architecture are, since the entire culture has been up to its neck in corporate payoffs and grotesque academic backscratching since the very beginning, and nobody demands or cares about (or could get even if they wanted) 'objectivity' of any kind. If video game criticism has any future then its products will increasingly come to resemble the Quake youtube at the top of this post. Pure footage of someone who knows everything about Quake demonstrating their knowledge to you through the closest of hairs-width close readings. It's like a word-by-word exegesis of a key passage in the Bible covered in manuscript sigils, or really good footnotes to a great translation. It tells you what you need to know and why you need to know it from a position of casual, almost effortless mastery. It's the only position from which real criticism (not just player's intuition, or pot-boiling review production) is even possible.
Update 03 May 2012: An edited version of this piece appeared elsewhere.


Nothing to Come and See Here

This video to set the scene (I've been playing a lot of Rise of Nations because my GFX card exploded last week).

Jim Werbaneth, of Line of Departure, wrote this on the subject of the Eastern Front for the 20th anniversary edition of his magazine:
As much as anyone, I enjoy games on the Eastern Front. At the same time, I find it impossible not to see what was at stake. Along the way, I grew a certain abhorrence of the Nazi glorification that has arisen in some quarters, an implicit agreement that it was ultimately a conflict of civilized Europe against the semi-Asiatic hordes of the East. More accurately, it was a war of genocide and aggression against other civilized peoples, who happened to suffer under the yoke of their own monsters. Even the monstrous nature of the Soviet system, and the great Stalin himself, does not change this, let alone excuse it. Even so, one might hear a kind of wistfulness in some conversations about the war, regretting that the good guys did not win, as though there were any good guys on the Axis side.

So while we can all enjoy games on Russo-German war, it is doubly important to remember the history. It is never value neutral, like some eighteenth-century contest between absolute monarchs.
With all due respect to Mr. Werbaneth, whenever there's a disturbing undertone in a particular group- like Nazi-worship in the wargaming community- it's always a bad idea to just blandly denounce it. Presumably, wargame designers and academic historians both have a similar interest in 'remembering history,' historians for one set of reasons (tenure, $$) and wargame designers for another (fans, $$). But why is it that in wargames there can be either active or passive Nazi sympathies (people 'respecting their bravery' or whatever), and in academia there basically can't be? What is it about wargamers that allows the selective memory Werbaneth is talking about?

It could be the political makeup of the two groups. Or it could be a problem with wargames themselves.

What do 'politics' mean in a game anyway? The Rise of Nations video I posted has a lot of political meaning, but none with reference to the actual game it's set in. A real game of Rise of Nations involves two sides starting on widely separate areas of the same map with similar capibilities and resources, and similar opportunities for expansion. The interplay of resource, borders, units, trade routes, alliances etc. is the reason people play the game. If all Rise of Nations scenarios were as overtly political and limited as the one in the Youtube, nobody would play the game (more on the intersection of grating messages and mini-games in another post). Still, since we've been given the context ('this is a Holocaust joke') and since we see a few of the trademarks of the Holocaust- a ring of towers, defenseless civilians being attacked, fire, the scene has meaning on some level. What do we do with the fact that scenes which are by definition meaningless or absurd (with reference to the games they are in) can be made to have meaning and some sort of logic? Here's what one developer did with it:
In our game, you'll interact with an object that, when pushing the context button, causes you to blow up a mall full of civilians. You cannot progress in the game until you do so, and after you do, you get to walk through the mall and see the corpses and people with half their flesh seared off screaming for a merciful death, and you can't progress the game either until you've walked through the mall. In this way we hope to evoke similar emotions to movies where characters do things because of who they are and how they've lived their lives up to the point where they have to make an awful choice.
I said earlier that the RoN Holocaust scenario had meaning. I meant by that that it appears to us more logical and relevant than it would to a hypothetical human in the Rise of Nations universe (where the Holocaust never happened). I did not mean to suggest that we should be struck emotionally by what we see, since it is a ridiculous scenario to begin with. I agree with the parody that 'characters do things beecause of who they are and how they've lived their lives,' and I agree with the historian who argues that the Holocaust, or any other genocide, was the natural consequence of the 'life' the 'character' of post-Weimar German politics had led. But if the point is to demonstrate to someone that the past effects the present, then why make a scenario where the past has been completely erased and the only option we have is to do something horrible but completely disconnected to any sort of context and without any sort of personal consequence? After all, if the only way to win the scenario is to destroy the enemy and all we have are flamethrowers and all the enemy has are civilians, then the outcome is foreordained and, most importantly, it wasn't our fault. In the same way, the parody button-atrocity sequence simultaneously forces the player to do something horrible, and, because the player was forced, removes any responsibility from him altogether. The reality is that the only way to really get a point across in an interactive medium is to make the player demonstrate the point naturally to himself, via your game.

How to do this? Incidentally, Rise of Nations is already kind of a Holocaust-simulator, in that you invade and occupy enemy cities and are required to murder their civilians and military units before you can repopulate the productive areas (farms, mines) with people of your own color (this is literal, each player on the map has their own color). It's not exactly the same thing as Lebensraum but it's close enough, and it makes a specfic Holocaust scenario even more absurd. And, much more importantly, its something the player is gradually taught the importance of throughout the game. In RoN you either expand and extinguish your enemies or you lose. It's one thing or the other. It's a stark choice (ultimately it was the designer's decision to shove that choice down your throat) but it isnt presented in that way. That's one of the reasons why Rise of Nations is a good game. And why that parody is such a hoot.

All of this is coming back to Jim Werbaneth. If we 'remember the history' of the Eastern Front then we have to say that most wargames that deal with the subject do a poor job of rmembering it. There are abstract spaces where armies are already fighting, with a fully realized and highly detailed supply model, morale, reinforcement, victory points, general skill values, turn resolutions etc. But as far as the player is concerned, none of what goes on is really his fault, at least in the macro sense of 'why are we fighting to begin with.' The two sides are already at war when the game begins, and everything is downhill from there. That Germany started the war and had clear political objectives which included the eradication of most of the people in the areas it planned to conquer is not reflected except in giving the Germans, in turn-based games, the opportunity to go first.

So if we want to satisfy Werbaneth's demand then we have to deal with politics and why wars begin in the first place. It's no wonder that the Nazis get off easy in some quarters of the wargaming community. None of the games that feature Nazis really put them in their proper political context. They're either deranged or neutral, not cunning and highly aware of the full consequences of their program, or the game puts political questions completely out of bounds and focuses autistically on 'fighting the war.' If we want a wargaming community that doesn't have any space for Nazi apologism then we need wargames that make the player demonstrate to himself exactly why the Nazis did what they did- which means we need to include a new level of abstraction and put politics in command.


Whose Tester?

The question that my patchy background in critical theory teaches me to ask about reality television is pretty basic: whose reality is it supposed to be? Whatever MTV is trying to do (provide a quality thirty-minutes-hate or stealthily promote GTL at the behest of Maytag and 24 Hour Fitness) with Jersey Shore, it clearly has nothing to do with providing unvarnished 'reality' in any remotely acceptable sense of the term. There's a clear agenda. So what is Sony's objective with The Tester?

Let's run down the list of preliminary horrors of the show, which you can pick up from one of the episode remix youtubes floating around. First there's the blatant advertising for bad games or bad products ("your last challenge involves being driven in a 2011 Ford Focus to finish the new Killzone, only for Playstation Three. no jumping at any time"), second there's the wicked sick pad/playland/womb with crazy colors, corrugated metal, bright lights and a prepetually open bar, third there's the contrived competition, fourth there's the actual prize itself, and finally there's the shameless fanservice.

The bigger horrors, the ones you can't pick up from the remix youtubes, involve the world Sony is implicitly working towards establishing. Everyone is referred to firstly by their gamertag and secondly by their actual Christian name. The attributes of a person- their kindness, the fact that they take responsibility for themselves, their coolness under pressure, are mentioned in the same breath as their attributes as a gamer- people are always talking about how many trophies they have, and how impressed they are by their co-contestants for having "twice as many as I do!" For those of us who choose gamertags arbitrarily or with an eye towards something other than complete congruence this is really frightening. Would anyone with an intentionally offensive gamertag and a documented history of anonymous teamkilling and shameless teabagging be eligible for this show? What would that look like, if someone with a horrendous gamertag personality and a relatively normal real personality appeared on the show? It would break the spell Sony is trying to cast: your gamertag literally is you, you are completed by and immersed in Sony's virtual world and your existence is somehow truncated or impossible without it. The Tester is that one episode of Black Mirror, except serious. In fact, the whole show is a bit like someone else'e nightmare done straight and with a positive spin. It's like someone on Sony's Tester production team read Baudrillard hyperventilating about capital actualizing itself and transcending into astrality or whatever and said 'sounds cool. let's do it.'

Of course implying that 'you are incomplete without our products' is the first principle of marketing and in no way new. Sony is breaking new ground with The Tester by getting that message across in a much more pervasive and complete way than has been done previously. During the first episode of each season everyone is issued a special card which they are solmenly told is the one thing allowing them to stay in the competition- and in Sony's dreamwomb. During the final reckoning at the end of each show, when one or two cast members are sent home, there is a hook at the back of the room with the cards of previous failures hanging on it, like some kind of weird gallows! And whenever something positive is introduced- the reward for completing a competition, or the initial introduction to the show- the robotlike host is always careful to reinforce that 'all of this could end, at any time, if you fail, if we take your badge.' The cast does a lot of vocalizing- cheering when something cool happens, shreiking and fainting when a commodity prize is dangled in front of them, booing and crying when they are sent home- and it's not hard to see them as Sony treats them, as children held in bondage and gradually losing their minds.

The show's handling of diversity is even more interesting. The composition of the cast- unlike Jersey Shore- is carefully heterogenous. There are always one or two outrageous (or stoic, honorable) black men, women are half or close to half of every cohort, and in the second season there was a gay man, who went on to actually win the entire season and presumably secure a worthless bottomfeeder job at one of the worst studios in the business. Stonewall wasn't for nothing! The cast looks like a company brochure with pictures of fake 'employees' smiling. Always women, minorities, inventive combos of women and minorities (Indian, yes, but... dot and feather!?), sometimes a woman with super short hair, never any of the people who either run or benefit from the running of the company, straight old white men.

Of course The Tester's diversity, even on the surface level, has clear limits. White people are not really allowed to be racist (one girl is sent home for, in part, complaining that her compadre shouted at her in Spanish during a particularly hairy sequence in one challenge) but the cast is still overwhelmingly white, and nonwhite characters are (typically) eliminated early or appear to have been selected on the merits of the one-liners they can color the scenes with. Everyone is middle class and above, and there are audible gasps when one contestant admits to not owning a Playstation 3. One contestant gains instant cred by claiming to own all systems ever produced, and it's only when he reveals that he doesn't know anything about games that his facade evaporates.

But the significant diversity- diversity of experience and of ideas- is something The Tester doesn't have. The idea that you could be playing other games or having other experiences with them is not discussed, mentioned, implied, or allowed. For a show that's supposed to be about getting a a job making games, the contestants have very little to actually say about the process. Precisely one challenge (that I've noticed) in the entire three season series has to do with coming up with an idea for a game. And even then, the competition consists of marketing the idea to a focus group, not examining the idea itself. During one 'unscripted' sequence in the pad, someone says "I want a game where you're a guy and you lose everything and like, you get it all back over the course of the game and at the end of the game you're like, wow, I did all this, and that story is yours." Everyone is in awe of how smart of a comment this is. And it's the longest discussion of something approximating game design I've seen so far (I have not watched every episode...).

The kicker is that the message, and Sony's ideal world, is neocolonial. Everyone is acceptable, black, white, straight, gay, nerd, whatever, as long as you stay on message. The actual experiences of real women, who are universally mistreated in video games, and of minorities, who exist only selectively and at the pleasure of an overwhelmingly white development establishment, are nowhere. There is some lip service to getting 'more women in games' but it doesn't seem that the intention is to change the way games are made. It's just to apply a patina of respectability- producing the same trash, but with different faces attached to the credits screen at the end. The gay character I mentioned earlier makes a key slip during the last episode of the second season, when the remaining three contestants have brunch with the judges and a higher-up at Sony, who happens to be black and also happens to be seated across from the gay dude (how's that blocking). They get to talking, and the gay character says it was so great to hear encouragement from "a fellow minority." That's music to Sony's ears. What possible significant information could you gather about someone from hearing that they were a "minority?" What could you say about two people who were both "minorities?" Almost anything, and nothing significant or personally identifying. This is what Sony wants, an undifferentiated and amnesiac bunch of vague "minorities" to put a contemporary stamp on an old white-supremacist/mysoginist/transphobic etc. product.

This is already too long of a post. Let's finish it: The sufis said that the world is the introspection of God. The small, shitty world of The Tester is the introspection of Sony.