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.