Monday, February 18, 2008

Lament of a Gamer

Via my favorite comic, Penny-Arcade, I read Wager, a bet that video games will never be a culturally relevant art form. This bothers the author greatly.

My first response is to ask, how culturally relevant do you want video games to be? They seem pretty culturally relevant to me. A lot of people don't play them, but they're still familiar with what they are. Blockbuster video games sell a huge number of copies worldwide and earn a ton of money. Maybe you're talking about lesser known artsy games? But then why did all the game critics choose Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and other extremely popular games on their end of the year lists?

Maybe you want intellectuals to respect games and discuss them along with No Country For Old Men and the new Kanye West album. Speaking as a holder of a prestigious Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, I can tell you that cultural acceptance and academic reverence doesn't always do great things for your art. A lot of the great books were written before anyone even studied English at a university. Now that everyone studies it, a lot of soulless verbiage passes as great art.

Now, there are a few points I agree with in the article. I, too, wish I could talk about my favorite games in a mixed crowd without getting odd looks from people who then shift the conversation to American Idol. I also particularly agree that, "Filling a game with explicit failure states requiring replay of level segments upon death limits accessibility." In other words, games are often too hard in a repetitive way. This can be seen as blasphemy amongst some gamers. I was recently playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and was reading about various modifications you could download that would make the game harder. I was actually looking for a way to make the game easier. Some people get a sense of accomplishment from replaying the same difficult part again and again. Others, myself included, just get a sense of tedium and quickly cheat or give up.


Little Earl said...

I haven't read the entirety of the guy's post yet, but speaking loosely of video games, I just won a game of Settlers by 20 points! I ran out of settlements, cities, AND roads! All I could do was buy development cards and build ships. It was impressive.

herr zrbo said...

First off, how did you win by 20 points?? You're only supposed to play till 10, even in the Cities and Knights expansion you only play till 12.

As for Elder Scrolls, at least in the Xbox version there's a difficutly 'slider' that you can adjust on the fly to make things easier/harder. I too found the default difficulty just a tad too hard so I tend to keep it down a few notches.

I have this article bookmarked but haven't got around to reading it yet, it concerns art-as-video game yadda yadda debate:

I don't think I care as much about the debate as I used to, I'd rather spend my time enjoying the game than debating whether I should be enjoying the game.

BTW- how do I insert hyperlinks, I can't seem to do it?

yoggoth said...

To insert hyperlinks into the comments you have to use the html code.

a href="">hi<

You need to open and close the tag with < and /a > without the space between the a and >. I can't just write it out with the 'code' tag because the comments don't support that I guess. There's probably another way to explain it but I don't know of it. I'll put it up in the official CosAmb forums as well.

"hi" is what shows up and the http:// is obviously what it will link to.


yoggoth said...

Well, to be more specific, I was looking at mods that change the way you level up in Oblivion. The default is a sort of relative leveling where everything is the same difficulty because it gets stronger as you do. Most games set absolute difficulties that don't take your character level into account.

While I like the idea of changing the progression to be absolute, I don't want it to be harder because harder to me just means more time consuming. I can already save and reload as much as I want, why save and reload 2x as much?

Why do I like absolute leveling? It's neat to see the difference in power level over the course of the game. Progression just based upon new environments is neat too and the Oblivion style does add an open ended style that some like. It is neat to see unexpected things, but you also end up seeing glitches and unintended behavior.

Little Earl said...

Do video games really "expect more out of you than film, television, the internet or a book" do? I mean physically, yes, but often when you play video games your brain sort of goes on autopilot. That's what's relaxing about them. I can play video games and listen to music at the same time. I usually can't read a book and listen to music at the same time. But of course I don't play sincerely challenging video games so maybe I shouldn't talk.

herr zrbo said...

LE - Yes, there are games that allow you to destress/go on autopilot or whatever. But there are also plenty of games that don't.

Play a first-person-shooter online recently? I can tell you that every time I play Halo online it gets intense. Speaking of which, I played a game before I left for work yesterday morning, lost 50-49, and I couldn't stop thinking about the damn game (and my dumb teammate who lost it for us) for the rest of the day. If anything I was MORE stressed than when I began.

"They don't want to face failure while trying to be entertained. They simply want to sit back and enjoy. They want media that will go on without them. They want received experience. Passiveness. They want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything."

- Not me. I've gotten to the point where I'm bored with passive media. TV just doesn't do it for me like it did when I was younger. When I'm watching TV I'm just thinking about how much more entertaining it would be if I could pick up a controller and 'do it myself'. Why would I want to sit here and watch some drama unfold when I could be causing the drama to unfold myself?

I think I'm one of those members of the TV watching audience who the execs fear they are losing to video games. Besides a few specific shows (I'm looking at you Lost) I'd much rather spend my time with a controller in my hands, and that's coming from someone who spent their entire teenage years glued to the TV.

yoggoth said...

One thing to note is that Little Earl consumes music and movies in a peculiar way and invests a lot of energy while watching them and afterwards while thinking about them. Most people do not do this.

I would say that reading takes the most effort. Video games probably come next because I tend to think about strategy outside of playing. I invest a good amount of myself into a movie but almost nothing into music. In fact, I get bored quickly if all I'm doing is listening to music. TV depends. While watching Fox News or CNN I spend a lot of time arguing with the talking heads, sometimes out load. I guess that takes some effort but I don't find it all that pleasant. The Wire goes in its own category - that show is as complex and engaging as any movie.

Many games require you to construct something, whether it is a character or a civilization. This requires more thought and creativity than most people put into the consumption of any art form outside books.

herr zrbo said...

I pretty much agree with everything you just said there Yoggoth, especially your second paragraph. I think this is a first.

On the subject of Fox News, after what I saw yesterday on the channel, I have decided to never, ever watch it again. The news anchor (Cavuto) and his guest were wondering what was "going on with the bad weather lately" and basically ended up attributing it to, I'm not joking, that "the end times are coming soon and that God is beginning to show his wrath."

????? Uuuuh, that completely crosses the line for me, that is NOT an analysis of news or weather or whatever. What next? "The dow dropped 12 points today because not enough people are praying for it to go up"

Seriously Fox News, seriously.

yoggoth said...

The first time? Us gamers have to stick together Zrbo.

I prefer Fox News when they are being completely outrageous like that. When they try to be half serious the dishonesty just bugs me.

Little Earl said...

I don't mean to take the highbrow road again, but even if it's true that it takes more effort to play a video game than it does to listen to music, I still have yet to be convinced that there are video games out there that are worth the investment I put into music because I haven't heard people talk about video games as a serious form of personal expression. When people start discussing their favorite game makers (I mean people, not companies) the same way they'd discuss their favorite directors or bands, maybe then I'd be more interested. As it is it just seems like you guys are being too charitable. If there's a game that simply flirts with a philosophical idea, you say it's amazing. But I'd want a game that flat-out expresses a philosophical idea, and demonstrates that the idea means a lot to the maker(s) of the game on a personal level. Otherwise it's just a tease.

yoggoth said...

Okay, I'll take your dare. Sid Meir, the designer of Civilization, puts much more thought into creating his games than almost any rock star. Many game makers do not express a particular philosophical point of view, they endeavor to give the player interesting philosophical choices. Many rock stars - Oasis being a good example - would laugh in your face if you told them that there was anything philosophical about their music.

What you really like is music that you can use to express your own philosophical points of view. There isn't anything wrong with this but when you use it to set up dichotomies I call shenanigans.

I think that you simply haven't put in the requisite effort into games to argue this point one way or another.

herr zrbo said...

What intrigues me about video games isn't so much the idea of personal expression but of the idea of virtual space. I'm not sure LE if you're familiar with the term 'machinima', basically it involves using game engines to tell a story different than what the designers intended. Recently I've gotten into this series using the Halo engine called 'This Spartan Life.'

If you go to and watch episode 1 there's an interesting interview with Bob Stein, who happened to produce a Residents album (of all things!), and i'm really intrigued by his idea of the 'virtual book' and interacting in virtual spaces.

For all that I do appreciate personal expression- don't think I don't appreciate music/film/etc - currently I'm more interested in personal control. I can totally see Gaynor's point when he thinks video games will never aspire to anything more. At the same time the ideas in the Stein interview suggest that maybe there is a possibility somewhere down the road for these virtual worlds to add another level of personal expression, just how music/books/cinema/tv have done in the past.

Little Earl said...

"Sid Meir, the designer of Civilization, puts much more thought into creating his games than almost any rock star."

OK, see, so you named an actual person. That's what I'm talking about.

"Many game makers do not express a particular philosophical point of view, they endeavor to give the player interesting philosophical choices."

Hell, if video games reach certain people and help "raise their consciousness" a little and help them see the world in such way that improves their lives, then video games are a force for good in this world and people should play them even if I'm not that interested in them myself. I just want to be sure that that's really the effect they have.

"Many rock stars - Oasis being a good example - would laugh in your face if you told them that there was anything philosophical about their music."

Liam would, Noel wouldn't.

Herr Zrbo said...

Hey LE,
You still haven't answered my question about your 20 point Settlers game.

Little Earl said...

Well, first of all, I won with a score of 20 points, not by 20 points. So really I won by 10 points, if you want to be technical like that. Yoggoth has hooked me up with a free site has an imitation Settlers game which they call "Xplorers" but...wink wink, nudge's exactly like Settlers in all but name. If you think you can take me on I'll give you the link and we'll see who's got the goods! At any rate, the way the site's designed, you can keep playing even if you've passed 10 points, just to see how much you can win by, I suppose.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

So in Xplorer you know how much the other player(s) have scored as well? This is a confusing new edge to Settlers.
Talking about video gaming and consciousness-raising, you can't avoid a mention of Will Wright. He has been pre-eminent in the 'toy' side of game design, versus the 'game' side. His games often have no end conditions (see SimCity, SimAnt, Spore) and in the case of Spore, his latest non-SimCity game, this lack of end conditions is particularly instructive. It is based on the guided-evolution of a species, all the way into inter-stellar exploration. You can find videos of game play with Wright's narration on YouTube (there is also one with Brian Eno commentary as well. I don't know why). And in SimCity, the design, which is based around the cellular level of city blocks, instructs the user on deep issues of town planning - see Jane Jacobs for an obvious influence on this way of viewing cities.
Does the 'Lament of a gamer' extend to board games? Because I am very excited about Twilight Struggle, which I just ordered!

yoggoth said...

The score you see displayed by Xplorers does not take your unrevealed cards into account. You have to click a "Declare Victory" button to end the game once you have >9 points, but you don't have to click this button.

I usually leave out board games in discussions like this because it allows the "actual human interaction" excuse to justify treating those games differently. It's a rhetorical choice rather than a substantive one.

Will Wright's contributions to gaming seem very similar to Sid Meir's in my opinion. It was just personal bias that I chose one over the other.

Twilight Struggle does look neat.

herr zrbo said...

Will Wright is definitely a name worth mentioning. My only problem with his games is precisely what makes them so interesting - no end conditions. I played the Sims for a couple weeks when I first got it and then I realized how dreadfully boring and dull it was because nothing ever happened. I just acquired more stuff. Though I appreciate this style of gameplay, at the end of the day I'd rather play something with an end-goal.

If we're still throwing around names, the other obvious one that comes to mind is Shigeru Miyamoto for creating creating all the Nintendo franchises.

yoggoth said...

The only Nintendo franchise that I enjoy is Mario Bros. And the only one of those that I really played a lot is Super Mario World.

The no end conditions thing doesn't bug me, but you do reach a point in most Will Wright games where you can basically never fail because you have so much money. Then you switch to trying to destroy your little world.

One game designer I can't stand is Peter Molyneaux. Style without substance.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

Yeah The Sims is definitely not one of my favourites. Boring and repetitive and there is only so many 'accidents' you want to clean up. But that game doesn't have the cellular design, and therefore the potential for emergence which is so exciting about the other Wright games. In SimCity you end up designing your own end conditions (usually "I'll start the disasters when I get the Space Base").

In terms of video-games-as-art, the interpretation required by the gamer in the Wright games is probably one requisite.

herr zrbo said...

I was thinking again of the video games-as-art debate the other night. I realized that maybe the reason why VGs are difficult to justify as art is because video games are a mix of two different forms of expression.

On one hand you've got these beautifully thought out worlds, with amazing visuals. Basically this is the 'art' aspect of video games. Everything from the level design (which is an art unto itself) to the actual visuals/graphics. You could even throw in the story here, though video games stories are usually fairly cliched I would still describe the narrative aspect as 'art'. Cliched art is still art(?)

On the other hand you have the game side. You're given a set of rules to follow, usually with some progression, until you 'win'. This makes video games more like a sport. Sports can still be a form of expression, say figure skating, but at the same time are not usually what we'd call art.

So in the end you've got this sort of bizarre hybridization of art and sports. It's not really one or the other. I mean, it's nearly impossible to take out either the sport element or the art element and still have an easily recognizable video game. Does this melding of two completely different forms of expression disqualify video games from ever being a full art form? I don't know. Those are just my thoughts.

yoggoth said...

To add to the confusion I'll tell you that the gameplay aspect of video games is the one I find the most artistic. The visuals and narratives are entirely derivative of other genres.

herr zrbo said...

I second that.