Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Setting Out My Stall

Hi. My name is Rik, I'm a lecturer in philosophy, and I'm part of a project within my university to launch a course in video game studies. To that end, I'd like to ask for some feedback on our plans and their potential pitfalls.

Above all else, and the reason I'm doing this so early in the process, I want to create a course which doesn’t contribute further to the marginalisation of anyone. Since we're talking entrenched British academia on my end, that's a big ask. What I want is to teach a course that works against the gamergate mentality, the mainstream, product-oriented, privileging focus of so much of the cultural space given over to games. Here's our very tentative plan so far:

The project, for now at least, is happening within our School of the Arts, which comprises Philosophy (my department), Architecture, English, Music and Communication Studies. We hope to have collaboration from Computer Science eventually, and possibly also Psychology and Sociology, but for now this is specifically an Arts project (not necessarily a fine arts project).

Our initial offering is not intended to be a full degree in its own right – we're going to offer a minor and a 50% course. The minor will be cross-taught between the various departments, and the idea is to round it out to 50% with subject-specific modules. So, for example, the music department already has a practical 'sound design for video games' module in the works (they're a bit ahead of the curve because their head of department is our project leader).

Things are still at a very early stage with the specifics, so all of what follows is subject to change (and open to debate), but the first thing we've got to do is plan out the four modules we'll need to offer at the start of the program (which we're aiming to roll out in September 2016). Currently, those modules are:

'Histories, Cultures and Contexts' – this was my pitch, my aim being to cover both the development of 'video games' and of the study of games and gaming. Fundamentally, what I want to do with this is bring out the relationships between digital games and all the other forms of art they draw on – to challenge the exceptionalism that has motivated at least some recent commentary on the form (he said, eyes pointed firmly to one side).

'Gaming Genres' – which I'm a bit wary of, since it's a short hop from classification to prescription, but I know that a critical look at genre within film studies can be helpful, so there should be at least some use here. I don't know of much established work in this field, though, besides what's covered in this Extra Credits video, so any suggestions are welcome.

'Creative Principles in Game Design' – we don't want to create a course that is purely theoretical. I think this module is intended to take some of the theoretical material from the first two and look at how to use it in practice. I imagine this will primarily be the domain of music and architecture (who are already talking about what 3D modelling software to use), but there may be some room to cover themes like decentralising the player.

'Analysing Games' – this is to be a module in close readings. We haven't had any discussion yet of what games to look at, though it was suggested that we're looking for about 4. I'd welcome suggestions, obviously, but I'm also interested in what sort of balance of games would be appropriate – we're likely to have to look at at least a couple of AAA games, but I'd really like to push some less mainstream stuff as well.

That's what we're planning to develop, and there are specific pitfalls in at least some of those fields. There are also some general pitfalls. First and most problematically, the entire core team at the moment is white and male (though our Head of School is a woman, and we are reaching out to a couple of our female colleagues about possible contributions). Over the long term, I hope we can address this with some proactive recruiting, but we have no money for hiring at the moment (I'm not even sure if I'll be employed past June yet).

Student recruitment with diversity in mind is an equally difficult challenge. Access to higher education is contracting severely in the UK, and the institutional average is pretty terrible, but even matching the institutional average for such a male-coded field will take deliberate, careful effort.

The other big issue I worry about is how to relate what we're doing to established games academia. We have to cover that set of models and theories, and do so critically, but I know there are some sensitive egos in that part of the world and academic disputes can get pretty ugly (hence Sayre's law).

As I said above, this is all primarily concerned with teaching content rather than research. I'm aware that there's a problem of academics adopting and then claiming credit for ideas originally developed outside the academy, and I will try to oppose this, but any kind of centrally-organised research within our project is further down the line.

I hope I'm not asking you to do my work for me. As a relative newcomer, it's my responsibility to study the field of gaming scrupulously, and particularly when it comes to altgames and marginalised groups I'm aware of the problem of privileged, ignorant folks demanding to be taught. Any feedback you are willing to offer, though, is extremely welcome as a guide and check-rein. Comments are open below (I'll be moderating heavily, at least if it proves necessary), or you can poke me on Twitter for email contact.

A little bit about me, for background: my philosophical specialisms are idealism and the metaphysics of space, and I also teach logic. Besides gaming, I write occasional fantasy novels and I'm a musician (a thorough google search will probably turn up my rather lacklustre recorded efforts, but I'm not going to make it easy for you).

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dimensions Unwinding

(note: since I started work on this essay, a new version of Unwind has come out, which complicates my point. Explanation at the bottom)

Unwind is the reason I haven't got past the front page of in the last couple of weeks. The game is brilliantly simple; a path winds and twists ahead of you. You move left and right to avoid the walls. The 'forward' movement gets steadily faster, and the difficulty rises with it. Striking, hypnotic visuals and a solid electronica soundtrack complete the experience.

Being reductive, this is literally a one-dimensional game (though that sounds like a criticism, which isn't my intent). Player-controlled motion happens only in a single dimension; left, or right. It's tempting to say instead that the player spins the game world, since there's no visible motion of the player-token, a dull gray square spinning slowly at the middle-bottom of the screen. The only evidence I can offer to disambiguate this is that the left and right arrow keys map to implied left/right 'motion' of the token, rather than the counterclockwise/clockwise rotation of the graphics.

The game space is certainly two-dimensional, of course. You could make a game similar to this which displayed only in a single dimension, I think, but it would be a different game. Unwind definitely takes place in a 2D plane, and relies on a specific 2D arrangement of colours and shapes for its power.

Then you unlock 'nightmare' mode (by surviving for a minute on 'classic'). As far as I can tell, the motion works exactly the same way between classic and nightmare – nightmare may start off a little faster, or possibly accelerate a little quicker, but there are no radical changes here. Instead, Unwind relies on three visual distortions to boost the difficulty and shake up the experience.

The first is simple contrast variation, muting the distinction between the black of the path and the bright colours of the walls, sometimes with the unfortunate effect of turning most of the game window an unsightly off-mustard. The second is to move the player-token around the edges of the screen, an effect that can be exhilarating when subtle and wickedly confusing when stark.

Most interesting of the effects, though, is that the 2D plane of the gamespace can curve. When this happens, suddenly you find yourself on the surface of a sphere, which may loom from the top of the screen, peek in at the side or fall away along the bottom. It's a striking, powerful transition.

We tend to take 'two-dimensional' to mean 'flat', particularly when it comes to game spaces. But the flat (uncurved) two-dimensional plane is only one special case of a two-dimensional space. Curved spaces are well-understood maths, though, and indeed an important part of physics; we live in a curved three-dimensional space.

Games have been using two-dimensional spaces – mostly screens – to encode three-dimensional worlds for decades, of course. Even before games that allowed for three dimensions of simulated movement, scrolling backgrounds created trick impressions of depth. But Unwind does something more.

When the game surface curves away from you in Unwind, the rest of the window doesn't vanish; black space is revealed. This space is outside, suggestively containing, the 2D gamespace. And a space that contains a curved 2D space is most naturally three-dimensional.

One-dimensional play is occurring in a two-dimensional gamespace, which itself is embedded in a three-dimensional virtual space.

And that last embedding draws the eye out to consider how, or if, the game's virtual space is embedded in our space. Certainly it takes place on my monitor, a couple of feet in front of my face, and tricks my eyes into seeing its window as a window into a space beyond it, but you can't measure the distance from me to points of that space.

I've uncritically used the expression 'virtual space' a couple of times already. But it's not clear that the space of Unwind, or any other game, is virtual in any substantial way. Yes, the space of Unwind is not our space – it is distinct from the space we inhabit – but what does it mean to say that it is unreal?

This is a question I recently posed to students in my metaphysics seminars, using the example of game spaces (I didn't quite manage to get games into my PhD thesis when a similar issue came up there, though now I wish I had). There are things for which we can determine reality or unreality – but are spaces such things?

Unwind does a good job of raising this question, by explicitly nesting its space within another. I'm not sure it's the game to answer it, though; that seems a more challenging task. At least, if I want to keep my job as a lecturer in the metaphysics of space, it had better be.

(update: in the latest version of Unwind, there's a fourth effect in nightmare mode, where the outer part of the game plane starts to disintegrate. In some ways this emphasises the spatial embedding - you can see the broken pieces spinning off through 3D space - but because it breaks up the plane I think it dilutes somewhat the effect I've been talking about. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I'm not saying the game is any worse for the change)

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Survive, Mola Mola! No, wait, don't-!

In its little retro-blue text box, my mola mola screams about how scary the sea turtle is. The screen fades white, my gut slowly turning with it as I wait to see whether this will be the adventure that kills my largest-yet pet. Before the clunky software delivers its verdict, though, I'm already twisting in another direction. If this fish dies, I'll probably have enough game points to buy the last new food from the shop...

For those who've missed it, Survive! Mola Mola is an iOS/Android idle game from Select Button. It mainly concerns the wondrous ocean sunfish (in case you can't guess from my header, I've added the ridiculous, oversized fish-head to my list of favourite animals). Ostensibly, it's a Tamagotchi – feed your digital pet, and occasionally it dies. The longer it lives, the larger it grows, achieving new ranks including Mola King, possibly the best piece of visual design I've ever seen.

Seriously, look at this guy.
But there's another side to this, because it's also a cookie-clicker phone game and so has to have some stuff in it that you can unlock. So it does; you can unlock new foods, new 'food levels' that make food spawn faster, and new adventures (once-hourly set-pieces with a cute graphic and some text, like the 'greet a sea turtle' one described above). These are bought with an in-game currency that you can also pay for.

Thing is, the quickest way to earn currency is to die. There are small rewards for completing missions and reaching ranks, but the bulk of the points come from your rank at death. High-scoring death is worth as much as ten times any other points dividend in the game. To cap that off, most of the game's obvious entertainment value (discounting my inability to keep a straight face when looking at mola king) comes from the quirky explanations of each death.

If you've seen but not played Mola Mola, this is what you'll have seen. The 'Sudden Death! Cause: Sea Turtle Was Too Scary' tweets. The scary turtle is perhaps the most infamously strange, but exemplifies the tone. They're quirky, cute and fun, well-matched to the game's retro feel, and enticing to collect.

I know, I know, it's starting to sound like I might be talking about (whisper it) ludonarrative dissonance. Putting aside the well-established criticisms of that term, though, it's not clear that it applies here. After all, what's the narrative? It's true that there's a vague sequence of discovery moving through the game but it's not much of a story per se.

I think a better term is Heather Alexandra's idea of 'ludic pressure' (see also), defined as "the application of a force by the game on the player, as expressed through the mechanics, intended to elicit an emotional response." Mola Mola's tamagotchi mechanics push me to want the fish to survive; the currency and humorously morbid death-collecting push me in the opposite direction. The net effect is the hanging sensation just below my diaphragm, the swallow half-caught in my throat as I wait for the randomiser to deliver.

This gets closer to the essence of the sensation, at least. But let's look a bit closer at these pressures. On the one hand, the pressure to have your mola mola die clearly fits the bill – arbitrary and abstract as the currency mechanic is, it's a clear and immanent component of the game. But what mechanics power the pressure in the other direction?

I'm not sure they're mechanics in Mola Mola at all. And while the art and text are cute, I don't think they explain the gut response of wanting my fish to survive. That pressure, I think, comes from other games, other mechanics. It comes from my first tamagotchi, probably 15+ years ago, and the numerous other tamagotchis I've had since, and every other virtual pets game I've played/seen/heard of in that time. It's an expectation grounded in a much broader experience of the genre.

The best piece of evidence I can offer is that this second force, call it an interludic (as opposed to an intraludic) pressure, has faded as I've grown more familiar with this specific game. I don't get that pulled-in-two-directions lurch anymore when the screen whites out. It's just 'dammit, fish, die so I can buy that giant clam!'

Maybe this sounds like a specious concept. I think it's quite important, though, to recognise that mechanics have at least as much intertextual significance as any other element of a game. Our earliest experiences of a given game are coloured by our familiarity with its mechanic set and interface. These things can shape our whole understanding of the context we're inserting ourselves into.

Remember Test Chamber 16, the first level with the turrets in Portal? How disorienting it was to face a combat situation in a first-person shooter where your gun wasn't a weapon? I found it utterly panic-striking, but the level itself isn't that hazardous. One of Portal's greatest strengths is its smooth tutorial arc, and Test Chamber 16 is a perfect example of that, carefully feeding you just enough difficulty at each encounter to keep you at the edge of safety but never over it.

Right near the end of the level, you open a door – that you're more or less forced to stand in front of – to reveal a turret pointed right at you. In a standard fps, this would be a simple reflex test. Even replaying it for this article, I almost tried to shoot the turret... with my portal gun.

That twitch reflex, and the gut lurch that followed it as I realised no, I have to dodge, are the product of a force exerted on me by the mechanics of a game – just not the one I was playing. Many shooters have conspired to train my reaction. Someone who didn't know the genre would still, doubtless, feel a stab of anxiety at that moment, but without any frustrated expectation of empowerment through reflex.

If (intra)ludic pressure is a force exerted on the player by the mechanics (ludic elements) of a game, then interludic pressure may be useful as a way to analyse influences on the player derived from their experience of other titles. We could distinguish further, between specific and generic interludic pressures or between those deployed deliberately for subversion and those that designers subconsciously rely on, but these are questions for another time.