Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Bludgeoning Effect

So apparently some new game recently came out, the very name of which, when uttered, summons forth champagne supernovas in the trousers of otherwise impassive adult male subjects.

That game, of course, is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

You think I’m exaggerating. It’s actually a well-documented fact, however, that beginning in the early 1990s a small software development company by the name of Bethesda Game Studios—in conjunction with Planned Parenthood and startup funding through DARPA—began development on a series of fantasy role-playing computer games called The Elder Scrolls. T.E.S. is really a double acronym for an ongoing government program called Tactical Eugenics Systems, which basically tests and implements various methods of population reduction, primarily involving mass subjugation of the male sex drive.

In these games the player creates a custom character based on a selection of species/races, skill sets and other considerations. The game then sets the player loose in a huge fantasy environment where they wander around, explore dungeons, perform quests and basically kill things for hours and hours … and hours, to the point where the urge to eat and/or woo members of the opposite sex is nullified by the need to just keep playing more.

(To be fair, I’m sure the actual history of The Elder Scrolls development is quite fascinating. In fact, for the low price of only $149.99 you can buy the limited collectors edition of Skyrim and learn all about it! How can you not afford that?)

Back in the early part of the last decade, for my twenty-second or some odd birthday, my friend bought me a copy of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I don’t even know how many hours I ended up sinking into that game. My character was a dark elf with a ponytail on the top of his head that I named Nigh Crowder … the elf, not the ponytail. Anyway, awesome, I know.

It seems most of my time was spent running all around this huge island half-heartedly trying to complete missions but usually getting sidetracked by some cave or ancient ruins to explore. I also spent a lot of time trying to find creative new places to stash the heaps of loot I was collecting during my travels (I admit. I’m a virtual hoarder).

Well, that was then. Bethesda released Oblivion, the fourth game in the series, in 2006. I haven’t played it. And now … Skyrim. Unfortunately, I haven’t played this new adventure yet either.


A couple days ago I did watch a little bit of some live streaming footage from the game. For the most part, it looked pretty familiar to Morrowind, but a lot prettier. The game can be played in the first- or third-person perspective. The former, I think, is the preferred playing mode for immersing one’s self into the game’s setting and getting that sense of stepping into the player character’s skin, so to speak. It’s like a first-person shooter, except the shooting of guns gets replaced by the swinging of melee weapons or the casting of magic snowballs and stuff.

While watching this footage, I think it suddenly occurred to me how incredibly violent this game was. Let me clarify that. The ideas represented in the game are violent—the act of going around and cutting people and creatures down with swords, scorching them in flames. That’s violent stuff.

If you’re reading this and saying something aloud like, “Well, duh,” I agree with you. Almost all of the games I play are violent! But as someone who has played games for just about the entirety of my life, I think I can speak with some authority that most of us who do play these games tend to be pretty desensitized. We aren’t actually going around and slaughtering everything. We’re just … pretending. Now, I don’t want to go too far in this direction, because I think to do so properly would require greater eloquence than I feel capable of expressing at the moment.

I will say that when I started playing video games as a young child, although we may have been participating in roughly the same ideas of violence in those games, the graphical capabilities of the available technology were woefully inadequate for achieving what we now refer to in some games as photorealism. Sure, the premise of the original Contra may largely have involved the idea of shooting people to death, but it sure didn’t look like actually shooting people to death.

Although these graphical capabilities gradually improved over time with new generations of hardware, each step in getting to where we are today has been just that … one step at a time. It’s made the evolution toward photorealism somewhat less shocking, to the point that we can look at a game like Call of Duty and not necessarily be all that disturbed by the fact that its graphical representation of shooting people is starting to look quite a bit more like actually shooting people. As a side note, it’s important to emphasize that all games are not going in the direction of photorealism. Far from it.

But getting back to Skyrim … I’m sorry, what was I talking about? Oh yeah. I was watching the live footage and the player character in the game was dual wielding two maces. They looked like black, spiky maracas of death. It appeared as if the player had just stumbled upon some kind of bandit camp, because he suddenly found himself being attacked by a bunch of elves or other humanoid creatures. In retrospect, I don’t think the video quality of the live feed was very good. Nevertheless, when the player character first started swinging one of those burly maces at one of the female enemies, I admit I was slightly taken aback. As relatively realistic as everything appeared, it seemed only logical there was about to be a pulpy, bloody mess of an elf woman’s face on the screen. I mean, these were some serious-looking maces!

That didn’t quite happen. The elf woman did get banged around a bit and fell over dead. I’m sure there were the obligatory spurts of digital blood but—as far as I could see—no bits of shredded flesh on the player’s mace, no mangled, unrecognizable face lying in the snow. If we want to get into a discussion about the mathematical systems behind the proverbial curtain of these animations—I’m talking about things like hit points and computerized dice rolls—then this probably makes a lot more sense. Still, more than it typically happens, that footage triggered a mental connection between the game’s abstract representation of violence and real violence. It made me rethink what I had been doing all those hours in the previous Elder Scrolls game, and by extension other games in general. I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve never pondered and considered the violence in video games. Believe me, I have. But I don’t think I’ve thought too much about the idea of photorealistic violence.

Imagine if the next generation of game engines achieved the ability to render the level of gory detail my mind was anticipating. Would I want to play a game where I’m watching the realistic-looking effect of a medieval mace bludgeoning the face of another human being? From the first-person, no less? I'm sure there are plenty of people who would probably answer with an unhesitating yes!

Video games are by no means the first expressive medium to face these questions of represented violence and how far is too far. I think film provides a good point of comparison.

Have you ever noticed how most films, even modern violent films, often do not actually show things like blades penetrating human flesh? If they do, then the film sequence is usually edited in such a way that there are only quick flashes of it, or maybe just the immediate after effects. It was probably Psycho that made this technique famous. But think of just about any modern epic like Gladiator or Braveheart. This type of editing makes the violence a little more palatable. It softens or at least scrambles the mental impact.

I can think of a few counter examples, film scenes in which the camera does not cut away. These are usually the images that haunt me well after the film—not in a good way. A scene of the killer in David Fincher’s Zodiac stabbing a random victim at a roadside park comes to mind.

Has anyone ever seen the 1970 film The Honeymoon Killers? In that film there is a famous scene where the titular couple rubs out one of their old lady victims. The overweight nurse Martha, pretending to be her ex-con husband’s sister, comes up behind the poor frightened Janet and knocks her over the head with a hammer. Twice. There’s no exaggerated sound effect. It isn’t shot in close-up or any sort of deliberate framing. It isn’t stylized. And it isn’t funny—quite the opposite. Just a poor frightened woman getting pounded on the skull with a regular old hammer.

Most video games don’t have the easy option of being able to just cut away from the violence. The player is providing the input, and the game responds with a digital swinging limb or a firing weapon. Even when violent games have been at their bloodiest, still what has saved them from being taken very seriously by most gamers is probably some combination of repetition and limited graphical capability.

I would guess that, as with film, the video game industry will continue to find its own methods of sterilizing and softening the implied violence. The interesting thing to consider, however, is the idea that, more and more, this might be a deliberate choice on the part of game developers as opposed to a technological necessity.

I suppose I can’t end this diatribe without mentioning one other game in particular, and that is 2007’s BioShock. If you haven’t played the game and don’t want it spoiled, I’ll try not to actually spoil anything … but you might just as well want to avoid reading this further regardless.

As far as bludgeoning goes, this game has a pretty intense moment of it (if you’ve played the game already you can refer to this YouTube video for a quick refresher). It involves an otherwise harmless sporting instrument as a killing device, and maybe it was my shallowly buried memory of this particular moment in this particular game that caused me to expect a more brutal outcome from the fighting I saw in Skyrim. It’s interesting to notice, however, how this scene plays out without character input, basically as a first-person cutscene. As with the hammer scene from The Honeymoon Killers, this moment can be a bit unsettling to watch. There is not just blood but bruising. The victim responds in dramatic agony.

For a game where pretty much all the player does—besides playing a Pipe Dreams clone of a hacking minigame—is run around killing people (sometimes with a wrench, no less), it’s interesting the developers decided and managed to imbue this one isolated killing with so much emotional weight. I have no idea what the authorial intentions were behind this moment or the game itself, for that matter. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I really get BioShock. But I see the potential of using photorealistic violence as a real gut check for the player. Sadly, I also see the possibility that this also will be just another small step in our continually devolving progress toward total desensitization.

But enough rambling, back to more not playing Skyrim.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Downward Mobility

It seems that just about anywhere you travel there exists an unwritten rule of order, situating wealth over poverty. The rich live in their mansions on the hill, the working class folks on the valley floor. Corporate executives rake in fortunes from the tops of skyscrapers while street musicians in the subway tunnels underneath scrape by on other people’s spare change. This spatial dichotomy apparently manifests itself also in times of social upheaval and unrest, as the amused elite—sipping their champagne—look down from their balconies at the malcontent masses marching the streets below.

I find it interesting when video games take on or replicate this notion of social stratification within their fictional worlds. The first game I remember playing that noticeably emphasized this phenomenon was Final Fantasy VII. The narrative of that sprawling Japanese role-playing game starts off in the metropolis of Midgar—a round, monolithic structure of a city set up and lorded over by the Shinra Electric Power Company.

Essentially a giant power plant with a series of symmetrically placed reactors, the city cradles a divided populace. While a vibrant cityscape thrives atop a series of pillar-supported plates, an immense hive of sun-deprived slums carries on below. Residents in the slums live their lives cut off from and restricted access to the world above, by means of a high-tech security apparatus. Crime flourishes amidst the otherwise lawless underbelly and the people build their shantytown empire on the discarded scraps that trickle down from the world above.

I’ve played other games that employ similar world design. The setting of Deus Ex: Invisible War, for example, begins in a futuristic Seattle, Wash., that—following a global technological collapse and subsequent rebirth—finds itself stratified into upper and lower sections. Upper Seattle is a high-tech enclave populated with wealthy citizens and governed—quite fittingly—by the World Trade Organization (who’s having the last laugh now?). Lower Seattle is a dingy environment in which a criminal black market occupies much of the power vacuum, and travel between the two sectors is restricted along socioeconomic lines.

I bring this all up as a lengthy segue to talk about what I’m currently playing. For about the past week I’ve been slowly getting into a game called Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It’s a game that came out a long, long time ago in 2003 on the original Xbox and PC. It’s also a game that’s been in my backlog collection for quite a while, and this essentially is my first time through.

As one can probably imagine, the Star Wars franchise had already seen its fair share of video game adaptations when KOTOR (as it’s commonly acronymed) first released, some better received than others. This game immediately stood out from the crowd for being a Star Wars-themed role-playing game (RPG) developed by BioWare, a company that had a reputation for creating great RPGs.

The story in KOTOR takes place 4,000 years before the George Lucas films. There is war in the galaxy. The Republic and its noble Jedi Order face the threat of extinction at the hands of a mysterious and overpowering Sith uprising, led by the nefarious Darth Malak. And, yeah…

It pretty much opens like any Star Wars movie, meaning it pretends you already understand all the obscure references (I suppose that could be an interesting way of telling a story, making the audience learn the ins and outs of a fictional universe through sheer immersion. But I think if someone playing this game had never seen a Stars Wars movie, they would be left pretty confused).

At any rate, after a kind of tutorial-like prologue episode on board a Sith-invaded Republic starship, the player character crash lands in an escape pod onto the planet Taris. The player learns that the entire planet is an urban sprawl that has seen its better days far behind. The artificial landscape’s upward mobility has progressed to the detriment of its lower regions. Here, as with Midgar and future Seattle, the world has been roughly stratified with a relatively wealthy, authoritarian-ruled upper city and gang-ridden lower city. It apparently gets worse the lower one travels, with an exiled undercity underneath the lower city and a monster-infested sewer below that. The poor folks caught in the sub-level urban wilderness have to fend together or risk being devoured or turned by a mutagenic creature called the rakghoul.

It’s a fascinating model to consider. The idea of a civilization sort of crumbling from the bottom up. Generations of people doing whatever they can to migrate upward—clawing and climbing both physically and metaphorically—escaping to the rooftop of an otherwise dead planet, where it’s safest.

The thing is—and the same probably goes for the other games mentioned—it’s best to consider this in the abstract. All video games are, of course, nothing more than pixilated representations to which the player gives meaning, sometimes through the suspension of disbelief. The best that most games of this kind can do is provide the illusion of traversing an actual environment.

In the case of KOTOR, the game can only present the idea of traveling lower and lower through the city planet, when really the only thing separating one map from the other is a generic loading screen. Also, the graphics in KOTOR, at least from what I’ve so far played, are pretty drab. If it weren’t for the context provided through the dialogue of the characters with which the player interacts, there would be little indication that one section of the game map was supposed to be more wealthy or poverty-stricken than another.

This is in sharp contrast to Final Fantasy VII, in which the dystopian backdrop is rendered in such exquisite, hand-drawn detail. The artwork of the Midgar slums is so aesthetically alluring, and in that way it reminds me of the ironic, detached pleasure I get from looking at a stylized photograph or representation of the Brazilian favelas. The organic beauty of the environment, when seen from a distance, overlooks the suffering within.

Despite the interesting concept of the game’s setting, something I decided while playing through this first section of KOTOR was how inadequate the game is for really addressing and pondering the types of social dynamics that it aims to represent. More than just providing the context of a socially stratified environment, the player character in KOTOR is sometimes confronted with the imagined problems of strangers who need some form of help, perhaps money to get them out of a scrape or medicine to keep them from turning into monsters. Other games do this all the time, usually giving the player a choice to help, hinder or just ignore these suffering souls. In KOTOR these encounters serve little purpose other than to give the player “light side” or “dark side” points in a basic morality system.

Back in 2004 I took part in a cultural exchange program to China, where the bulk of the six-week trip took place at a university in the central Gansu Province. While there, each American student roomed with an English-studying Chinese student. My roommate was a really cool guy who I later learned came from a family in the countryside. It didn’t take too long to notice how the other Chinese students in the group interacted with him differently. I once saw him being teased by the other Chinese people for his distinct Mandarin dialect. It also became evident fairly quickly that he didn’t have a lot of disposable funds. If our group during one of its day trips had the opportunity to ride some optional attraction or do some side shopping, my roommate rarely participated.

One day after our scheduled classes I accompanied my roommate off campus to some kind of small pharmacy where he was going to buy some medicine to send to his parents back home. From what I could discern at the time, it seemed the medicine was for some kind of arthritic problem within the family. My roommate spoke with the person behind the counter and discovered he didn’t have enough money for the transaction. I was pretty certain, however, that I did have the money, probably enough to buy 30 boxes of the stuff, given the advantage of the stronger currency exchange rate for turning my American dollars into Chinese yuan.

Not knowing exactly how to respond to this situation without offending or further embarrassing him, I gave a quiet indication to my roommate that I could help, an offer he politely but decisively refused. When we got back to our dorm room I tried to broach the subject again by explaining that it would be no real sacrifice on my part to offer him some money if it meant that his parents could get a little pain relief. Or I could pay his way to ride with me on a gondolla lift at the park if it meant we could experience something new together. Needless to say, despite both of our carefully chosen words (in my native language), we remained at an impasse. Our perspectives were completely at odds, and it was no frivolous thing for him to just accept my money, regardless if the need was important. After some brief discussion and an awkward silence he acknowledged both aptly and conciliatorily that we had just hit on something very serious. Indeed we had.

I suppose what I mean to say is that the type of scenario I experienced with my roommate in that Chinese pharmacy is actually quite similar to the types of encounters some of these games try to create in a video game setting. Except the end result is usually quite different. The poor pharmacy customer rejoices and thanks the player character for his or her random kindness and runs home with the medicine that will save his ailing father. Light points gained! Story continues.

Despite the insistence by many that the medium of video games be given its clout as a legitimate mode of storytelling, it’s important and sobering to recognize the limitations of the form, as well as its unique capabilities and intentions. On the one hand, it’s preposterous to think that a video game from 2003, based on the Star Wars universe of all things, would be used as a vehicle for tackling real world social issues. And yet it’s arguable there is some attempt being made to this effort. Characters in the upper city of Taris make explicit reference to “illegal aliens” occupying tenements in the predominantly and historically human sector. Later in the game, the indigenous Sand People of Tatooine relate their struggles against the outside settlers disrupting the natural order of their home planet, a pretty obvious nod to the plight of displaced tribal cultures the world over. I actually think these types of subtle (or not) allegorical references are somewhat natural and fitting, similar and common to any literary genre.

While the mode of storytelling in games like KOTOR may not have—and might not soon—reach a level of depth and sophistication more attainable in other forms of expression, what it does offer in its still primitive form is intriguing in its own right. At one point very early on in the game I was walking through a Taris apartment complex and having another character in my party use his security skill to break into each of the locked quarters. Opening one door I entered the room to find a very agitated young family who, understandably disturbed by my unwelcome intrusion, let me know me I shouldn’t be there. Feeling some remorse I left quickly without raiding their possessions. It was a small, throwaway moment but one that made me consider whether or not I wanted to be playing as a character that randomly broke into other people’s homes.

As simplistic as its systems of morality and social interactions may be, it’s that ability to role-play as the most saintly or wretched of human beings that I believe is the real experiment of the game. In other words, although KOTOR and its peers may offer little more than a surface-level reflection of human sociology, I do see the potential for these games to hold themselves up as a mirror to the player’s own psychology and behavior. Perhaps those are the depths worth traversing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Let me tell you about a problem I have. It’s been an issue for about as long as I can remember. I enjoy playing video games. I enjoy the challenge, the distraction that games provide. But this enjoyment comes with a price.


Call it an addiction. I don’t mind. It’s not a drug. Playing video games I don’t believe counts as a sin. I still manage to bathe and go to work, spend time with my wife. I still try to read and write, but … well, now we’re getting to the problem.

A little more than a year ago I stumbled upon this article over at David Wong did a more-than-effective job commenting about 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. It depressed the heck out of me. The background and examples he cited were convincing and convicting.

He talks early on about the work of B.F. Skinner, a 20th century behaviorist who discovered a means of controlling the behavior of small animals by placing them in a small box with a lever that, when pressed, would reward the animal with a food pellet. The article continues on but maintains this “Skinner Box” idea as a model for videogame addiction, an illustration of the instant gratification of game playing that traps its subjects in a metaphorical box.

Wong concludes:

“The terrible truth is that a whole lot of us begged for a Skinner Box we could crawl into, because the real world's system of rewards is so much more slow and cruel than we expected it to be. In that, gaming is no different from other forms of mental escape, from sports fandom to moonshine.

“The danger lies in the fact that these games have become so incredibly efficient at delivering the sense of accomplishment that people used to get from their education or career. We're not saying gaming will ruin the world, or that gaming addiction will be a scourge on youth the way crack ruined the inner cities in the 90s. But we may wind up with a generation of dudes working at Starbucks when they had the brains and talent for so much more. They're dissatisfied with their lives because they wasted their 20s playing video games, and will escape their dissatisfaction by playing more video games. Rinse, repeat.”

The problem I encounter with my predilection for video games is the time and dedication they displace from other pursuits, namely writing. Good writing requires strong focus and practice. It’s a frustrating and taxing affair, and there are no guarantees of success. Some games—in their own way—require similar practice, but the end result is essentially programmed for me. All I have to do is press the buttons.

Here’s the plain and simple. When talking about writing versus playing video games, games simply demand less effort. Which is why, after a long day at work—or even on a day off, for that matter—I have often chosen games over writing. Pure conflict avoidance.

I’m interested in the idea of conflict. Some people, like myself, try very hard to avoid most forms of it. Billions of marketing dollars get spent each year advertising products and services that promise to alleviate the conflict in our lives. Most conflict, in fact, probably should be avoided. And yet, the great irony is that great things are born of conflict. It’s the essential element of any memorable story. Conflict, if managed correctly, can be the crucible of accomplishment.

Prescribers of the Christian faith may point to the seemingly backwards but encouraging letters of the apostle Paul—at the time a prisoner of Rome—when he says, “And not only this, we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.”

Let it be said, as I sloppily meander toward my hopeful conclusion, that this blog is an experiment born of conflict. Perhaps it’s an attempt at compromise. I don’t really see myself giving up on games, at least I’m not convinced that I should. I’ve been encouraged in recent weeks and months to discover some great sources of games discussion and critique.

Like other forms of creative expression, video games have things to tell us. They are artifacts that have, for better or worse, dug their claws into our collective, cultural psyche. The past four decades of developing this amorphous construct we currently call video games—which itself has its roots, clearly, in the ancient construct of games sans video—has laid the bedrock foundation for the innovations yet to come. Now seems as good a time as any to begin drilling back into these first layers, so to speak. What simply got buried? What has flourished?

I think also there is ample room for the intellectual and thoughtful discourse of video games to expand. Yes, we can still wax on about the fluid mechanics and jaw-dropping graphics of the latest and greatest commercial release. After all, these can be vital elements in shaping our experience playing games. But I think we can go deeper than that. What themes and ideas are being expressed in the proverbial subtext? What messages are these games reinforcing? What stories are games trying to tell? How are they succeeding and, perhaps more importantly, how are they failing? My personal hope is to devote some of my time and effort to these questions. If I’m going to continue playing games, I might as well push myself to try thinking and writing about this personal interest as well.

What follows from here may relate to the games I’m currently playing. I may provide some brief retrospective accounts of past games I’ve enjoyed. But lest this inaugural post portend a future of dry, pretentious essays, I should at least say I hope this blog will be fun to read. If video game writing can’t be playful, what’s the point?

Welcome to the Knee Deep in the Game blog. Let’s just see what happens.