Thursday, July 30, 2015

[OE005] The Story: Pandora

Previous: [OE004] What We Could Do: Beyond Straw Good and Evil

Seductive Gifts: Damned When You Do

When you set the table,
When you chose the scale,
Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when we fell
-David Bazan, When We Fell

                One of the most common criticisms of God in the Genesis account is that of course Adam and Eve were going to eat the fruit. If God is all knowing, He knew that Adam and Eve would sin, and so putting the tree in the garden was essentially entrapment. To paraphrase Mr. Bazan, we were pushed and so we fell.

                Since this is not a theology article, we will skip the issue of whether or not the Judeo-Christian God was being disingenuous. Instead, let’s examine a similar story in which the gods were most absolutely being dicks: the story of Pandora.

"Screw you, Zeus."
The Story

                The story of Pandora is also a familiar one, but let’s take a minute to review it.

                After Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to men, Zeus was a bit angry. Chaining Prometheus to a rock and having birds peck out his liver every day wasn’t enough. Zeus also wanted to punish the men (and at this point, all humans were men) who accepted the fire.

                So the gods and goddesses created the first woman, Pandora, and sent her down to men with a jar (mistranslated as "box") that contained all of the evils in the world. These evils are similar to the ones released by Adam and Eve: toilsome work, sickness, death, disease, and so on.

                Naturally, Pandora opened the jar because of course she opened the jar and now there is evil in the world.

                Unlike Yahweh, who at least maintains plausible deniability, Zeus does not hide his desire to see Pandora fail. He creates her specifically so that she will open the jar containing all the world’s evils. Pandora, “the all-gifted,” is nothing more than a mechanism for forcing humans to inflict Zeus’ revenge onto themselves. It is the theological equivalent of “stop hitting yourself.”

                So we still have a clear choice – open the jar or don’t open the jar – but this time the judging authority is pushing for an unavoidable fall.
Next: [OE006] The Game Mechanic: Choiceless Choices

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Playing Politics, Losing Sight

                Have you heard this one? "A PhD candidate walks into a conference - Ouch!"
                So an article about a presentation/paper by Victoria Cooper has been making the rounds lately. The short version: Skyrim is racist because players of Northern European descent sympathize with the cultural values of the Nords, a fictional faux-medieval faux-Northern European people. Coming so quickly on the heels of the "Is The Witcher III Racist or Polish?" controversy, I feel this deserves comment.

                However I hesitate to throw my hat into this ring, both because I am recovering from a fever and because I cannot find a copy of Victoria Cooper's paper online. Right now, the only first-hand account on the presentation I can find is the article. Everything else is either Tweet-wars or opinion pieces or opinion pieces about opinion pieces.

                So here we all are, arguing about whether or not Skyrim is racist because Northern Europeans and people of that descent feel validated by the fantisized version of Northern European culture in the game's setting.

                I'm going to throw in my two cents, but please bear in mind the above caveats about not being able to find the original paper, fever. etc.

                Victoria Cooper's base data may indeed be completely valid and correct. White players in general and Northern European players in particular may be drawn to Skyrim because it portrays "their" culture. Given that I have no reason to doubt this data, I will accept it as given.

                However, this does not mean that Victoria Cooper's interpretation of this data is correct. Northern European players being drawn to a game that represents them gives weight to something much more important than the idea that Skyrim is racist. It is one more piece of data indicating that people like to see themselves represented in games.

                Attacking Skyrim and The Witcher 3 as racist doesn't really gain us anything other than smugness points. That's fine for tweet-wars and blog-brawling, but are we trying to score some cheap points or build a case for just how important representation is? Let's not lose sight of the true goal - that is, assuming that your true goal isn't attacking every positive portrayal of whites in media as racist.

                Haven't we been arguing that representation is important? Looking at how important these rich and complex cultural representations are to Northern Europeans or Slavs gives this argument weight. Haven't we been arguing that giving visibility to different cultures/lifestyles/fill in the blank draws people in and helps the bottom line? Here's an example of how skillful representation did just that.

                If the birth rates of Northern Europeans any indication, games simply cannot keep appealing to the same cultural groups. If the game industry wants to keep selling games in an evolving demographical situation, they are going to have to make more games that target other demographics.

                Making the claim that Skyrim is some sort of insidious racist time bomb is ridiculous. Making the claim that Skyrim appeals to Northern Europeans because it presents a well thought-out pastiche of Northern European culture is reasonable. The ridiculous argument leaves us with nothing constructive to do but to shake our fists at Whitey. The reasonable argument helps us point out that representation really does matter.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

[OE004] What We Could Do: Beyond Straw Good and Evil

Previous: [OE003] The Game Mechanic: Red vs. Blue

What We Could Do

                There’s nothing wrong with Edenian moral choices per se. Sometimes you don’t want to have to think too hard about the gut-wrenching compromises of the real world. Sometimes you just want to see the forces of good triumphantly riding over the forces of evil. And that’s okay!

                The only problem with this system is that it keeps getting shoehorned into places it doesn’t belong. Is your game trying to say something about the nature of good and evil? Maybe this sort of choice mechanic is called for. Is your game pretty much the same regardless of what choices you make? Maybe leave it out.

The most frustrating aspect of this sort of system is that there is generally no incentive to mix moralities. As in Infamous, the best powers and rewards are reserved for those who do the right thing every time or the wrong thing every time. This eradicates the meaning of every choice but the first: do I want the Good ending or the Evil ending? There is no room for moral growth or change, no reason to play as anything but a caricature and no change to explore nuance. It is good or evil, Pepsi or Coke.

                That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that haven’t been done yet. Most Edenian systems assume a rough parity of power between good and evil. Each path may have unique abilities, but each path has is equally viable. Dishonored takes a good step by having moral choices substantively affect the game world, but we can take it further.

                One way to do this would be with a simple power imbalance. For example, a “Right is Might” game where taking the moral path is rewarded with more powerful upgrades than their evil equivalents. Good players can trample the wicked beneath their heels, while evil characters have to sneak around in the shadows. Evil powers are generally portrayed as the more destructive – that’s an assumption that can be subverted.

We could also subvert this in the opposite direction. Bioshock's ADAM dilemma could have been interesting if sparing the Little Sisters actually reduced the player's power. If the "good" choices required actual sacrifice, making the game more difficult to complete, the moral choices would have had more impact.

                I would also love to see a game that takes the idea of a “curse” to its extreme Genesis-esque limits. Perhaps a system where committing immoral actions gives the player permanent debuffs which cannot be removed, or releases plagues of new monstrous enemies into the world. "Cursed is the ground for your sake... Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you," to paraphrase Genesis 3:17-18.

                Dishonored does something similar, but I’m not talking about increased numbers of existing enemies, but rather more varieties of more aggressive enemies that actively lay waste to the game world. Maybe this means formerly friendly animals/NPCS become violent and antagonistic - herbivores become carnivores.

                Above all, I would like to see Edenian games that treat good and evil as something more than gutless abstractions. Far too often, good is some rootless concept of fluffy niceness. I want a good that stands for a clearly defined moral concept. I don’t want an evil that is a vague black-and-purple cloud of not-niceness, I want evil with cosmic consequences.

                The way for Edenian morality to be good again is to take it back to the Garden. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is polarizing in so many, many ways beyond the obvious good and evil bit. Is it good of God to give Adam and Eve this test? Is cursing them to die an appropriate response? Even if this story seems irrational to some, it has a memorable texture that sparks discussion and controversy. There is no Tapioca of Good and Evil in the Garden, but a fruit with bite.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

[BoRT Jul. 2015] NiGHTS, but Not NiGHTS

And Pilate did sayeth, "Dost thou even game,
bro?" And the Lord did /sigh
       Quid est ludicrum?” ask the Pilates of our day, and I do not think them insincere.
       What is fun, anyway? You can ask five gamers and get six opinions. This person thinks a game without challenge is no fun. That person says a game without a narrative is no fun. And that person over there only enjoys turn-based strategy games in which anime schoolchildren murder God.

       But if we pinned these people down, I think they would admit that the presence of these elements in and of themselves is not enough. The Cult of Challenge may decry “casual” games, but each acolyte draws the line between challenge and impossibility at a different point. The Narrative Collective may denigrate a narrative-less FTP game like Farmville while loathing the narrative mess which is Final Fantasy XIII. And I’m sure our anime strategist can name a few entries into that genre which failed to meet expectations.

       It is not the presence or absence of our favored bits of gaming that makes games fun. No one loves abstract mechanics divorced from context. Fun comes from the interaction of subject (the player)and object (the game), an interaction which gives birth to an experience.

       There is only one game which I could describe as “pure fun” – 1996’s NiGHTS into dreams... I don’t think that there’s a single thing about that game that I did not enjoy the ever-loving crap out of. The game was pure music – the flying, the item collecting, the twitch reflexes required to pull off combos. The story was simple, but elegantly told. I played the crap out of that game.
Awww yiss.
       And yet, I have no particular interest in flying games as such. Item collecting and twitch reflexes do very little for me in isolation. You could make a game that has all of the discrete elements of NiGHTS which I would entirely disdain – such as 2007’s NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, a game which was as highly anticipated as it was crushingly disappointing. 
       I do not want more NiGHTS games or even more games like NiGHTS. I want games that deliver experiences that are as tightly designed and impactful as that mid-90’s masterpiece. What matters is not what elements are present, but how they come together.

       Fun is not a single element, but a quality of a total experience. There are any number of other mediums that can tell stories (books, films, theater), but none that can deliver the same experience of being an active participant in the story. For all of the improper graphics fetishizing in the game industry, there is something unique about the art of games – living paintings and sculptures that cannot exist in any other medium.

       What matters about games is not narrative, graphics, or game mechanics, but the experiences that these elements create in combination with each other and with a player. There is no objective good or bad in the elements of games, only the creation of experiences enjoyed or not enjoyed.

       What is fun? It is something like truth - something that can only be achieved by an interaction between subject and object. The author's intended meaning and the designer's intended fun may not always get through, but there is no fun, no experience, without an audience.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

[OE003] The Game Mechanic: Red vs. Blue

Previous: [OE002] The Story: Adam & Eve

The Game Mechanic

                In most games that present moral choices, the player is almost never uncertain about what choices lead to good and what choices lead to evil. One choice glows with a holy blue and white aura and the other choice glows in a menacing black and red. The player chooses freely between good and evil without a serpent to deceive them.

                There are any number of games that provide an example of this system, and I’m sure you can think of a few yourself. Let's look at a few.

                One example is Infamous, a game which represents the more rigid end of the spectrum. Moral choices in Infamous (referred to in-game as "Karmic Moments") affect the details of the story, but also what powers your character receives. More importantly, it makes no attempts to disguise which choice leads to which end. Each choice is explicitly outlined in blue (good) or red (evil). This binary is driven home by the portrayal of "good" powers as blue energy and "evil" powers as red energy.

Subtlety, thy name is InFamous
Unlike the Garden of Eden, these choices have little impact on overall gameplay. Choosing evil does not mean that “you will surely die,” only that you will surely get a different triumphant ending. If anything, it means that more NPCs will surely die, since the evil powers are more aggressive and destructive.

                We can also look at Bioshock’s Little Sister choices as an example. The player can either choose to kill the Little Sisters to harvest all of their ADAM or save them and receive less. This in turn affects the ending the player receives. Of course, since the player can also receive ADAM from other, less child-murdery sources, these choices have little impact on the game experience. You know which choice is good and which is evil, but it hardly matters (for you will surely level up).

These two options are morally equivalent.
                While this Edenian moral choice system provides the basis for most video games, there are three main variations that appear frequently enough to warrant discussion:

                The Law V. Chaos Variation

                This variation presents moral choices as different methods or ideologies instead of good and evil.

                In Mass Effect, players choose between the “Paragon” and “Renegade” paths. These two moralities are not presented as good or evil, but rather as different means towards the end of saving the universe. It is not a distinction of hero and villain, but hero and anti-hero. It is clear what choices are considered Paragon and which are considered Renegade, but true baby-eating evil is not an option.

Paragon vs. Renegade
                We might call this the “separate but equal” system, since both choices are presented as equally moral in the big picture sense. The binary distinction is maintained but the question of ultimate right and wrong is passed over. The Shin Megami Tensei games also frequently fall into this category, as they present Good and Evil as warring ideologies instead of absolute truths.

                The Actually Change Gameplay Variation

                This variation presents moral choices that substantially change gameplay beyond endings and powers.

                In Dishonored, the morality system revolves around the choice to kill or not to kill. Killing enemy soldiers makes missions easier to complete, but it also causes more zombie-like plague victims to spawn – which makes missions harder. Both options have a concrete effect on the game world beyond NPCs yelling “Yay!” or “Boo!” as you walk past (Fable, I'm looking at you).

                Both choices involve their own complications to gameplay. Killing guards makes missions easier, but having more plague victims around makes missions harder. The moral choice is still clear, but the choices have a substantial effect on gameplay beyond visual window dressing.

                Dishonored is interesting in that it also provides an example of the Law vs. Chaos variation – the choice to kill is not presented as an ultimate evil, but as a chaotic action that naturally increases the chaos level of the game world. So we see that what is essential to an Edenian moral system is not how morality is defined, but that it is defined explicitly.

                The Third Way Variation

                One common way of complicating the moral picture is to offer a third, neutral option which lies somewhere between good and evil, law and chaos. This is perhaps most commonly referred to as the “Neutral” path, though individual games may apply different terms.

                Atlus loves this variation and is shows up in many of their games. Catherine presents the Middle Way between Law and Chaos as “True Freedom.” The previously mentioned Shin Megami Tensei series and its many, many spin offs generally give the player at least three options: side with the Lawful Angels, the Chaotic Demons, or overcome both in the name of Neutral Humanity.

Catherine's morality meter

                There are also games where neutrality is presented as the lack of good or evil rather than as a path of its own. Variations on variations could be multiplied infinitely – the point is, good, evil, and neutrality are all explicitly defined and clearly labeled.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

[OE002] The Story: Adam & Eve

Previous: [OE001] Introduction: Morality Systems and Games

In the Garden: Explicit Choice, Conscious Fall
The Story

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17
"Wait, so this fruit is bad for our health?"
                This story starts at the beginning of history, when God created the entirety of the physical universe and decided it was pretty neat.

                God then makes the first human and gives him a commandment: eat from whatever tree you want as long as it is not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is a simple, binary moral choice. Eat any other fruit and live. Eat this one fruit and die. One choice is presented as good, one choice is presented as evil.

                Adam and Eve (with a little prompting from a talking serpent) chose to ignore God’s command and eat the fruit. Because of this one choice, evil enters the world and humans are doomed to die.

                This is perhaps the most famous story about moral choices ever told. There’s a good chance you’ve heard it before, and a good chance that any given game designer heard it a few times growing up. It’s no surprise that the majority of video games take their cues from the system of morality it represents.
              It’s also a story that has been politicized heavily in our times, but let’s step back from the controversies surrounding it and instead take a look about what sort of moral choice this story presents us with.     

                 Adam and Eve are given two options from which they can choose freely. One choice is morally good (obey God and don’t eat the specified fruit), one choice is morally evil (disobey God and eat the specified fruit).

                The critical point is not simply the binary opposition of good and evil, but rather that the choices are clearly defined. Regardless of what Adam and Eve eventually chose, God has given a choice for them to make, a law for them to obey or break. Even before they eat the fruit, they have information on good and evil.
Next: [OE003] The Game Mechanic: Red vs. Blue

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Battle Flag Battles

Let me lay out some ground rules for this article: 
1). Acknowledging what is true and logically consistent on both sides of an argument is not the same as the Fallacy of the Middle. 
2). The Civil War was about both States’ Rights and Slavery – specifically, whether States could secede in order to protect the right to own slaves. 
3). The Confederate flag is contentious because it is symbolic of both Southern history and culture, and of the slavery and discrimination that exists in Southern history and culture. 
Northerner: This cannon is racist!
Southerner: This cannon violates State's Rights! 
These ground rules established, I would like to talk about the preservation of game history, the preservation of history through games, and Apple’s ban on apps and games that use the Confederate flag in the wake of a series of racially motivated terrorist attacks. 
The ban was initially put into place without explanation, but Apple later gave the following criteria for which apps did and did not get removed: 
“We have removed apps from the App Store that use the Confederate flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways, which is in violation of our guidelines. We are not removing apps that display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses.” 
 I find this horse's unrealistic proportions offensive.
So far, so good. The “Southern Pride (Rebel Flag) Wallpaper” app got the ax, presumably because a Dixie-themed wallpaper is inherently offensive and/or mean spirited. But many games were also removed, such as Ultimate General: Gettysburg and other games that were clearly using the flag in a historical context. 
While Apple is working with game developers to reinstate these games and Apple may have pursued a “remove first and ask questions later” policy for logistical reasons, it does appear as though games were singled out. Apple has not treated books or albums that use the Confederate flag on their covers or in their contents in the same manner as video games.  
Civil War: 1862 is no more inherently racist than Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Legend, and Civil War: 1862 at least has the excuse of using the Confederate battle flag in a historical context. Whether or not you agree with Apple’s ban, it does illustrate how video games are of less perceived artistic value than Truck Drivin’ Man. 
White cups and coffee, Lord yea
It's all that he needs
And he's all right by me
Truck drivin' man 
The conservation of game history is a hot-button topic right now, with companies actively fighting efforts to preserve online games whose servers have been shut down. And while Civil War strategy games are not my cup of tea, it is a bit disturbing that Apple feels that it is free to erase video games from the record while taking the time to assess the actual contents of books and music.  
The issue is not that potentially offensive items were pulled in the wake of a national tragedy. The issue is not even the stated criteria for which items would be pulled. The issue is that these criteria were not evenly applied. 
Apple is of course not the only company to pull Confederate-themed merchandize lately – Wal-Mart and Amazon have also made similar decisions. And while I applaud these retailers for passing on a chance to capitalize on Controversy Bucks, one must wonder how much actual good this is doing. 
After all, I can get on Amazon right now and have copies of White Supremacist literature such as The Turner Diaries, White Girls Bleed a Lot, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Victoria delivered to my Kindle instantly. What is more offensive, books that actively support the overthrow of the United States government and the organized extermination of all non-whites or Confederate boxer shorts? A book that contains detailed instructions on carrying out racially-motivated terrorist attacks or a "Southern Girl" t-shirt decorated with the stars and bars? 
"As the mulatto looked up with surprise and annoyance at the large White man suddenly blocking his path, Oscar raised his pistol and shot his victim between the eyes. The mulatto fell back heavily against the vehicle without uttering a sound, then sprawled into the gutter." - Hunter
Let me be clear: this is not a Freedom of Speech issue. Apple, Wal-Mart, and Amazon are free to decide whether or not to sell Civil War-themed products. I can still go out and hang a Confederate flag on my personal property any time I want (not that I will). There are still any number of merchants willing to sell me any number of products to celebrate Southern Culture. Heck, there are even a few that will sell me products that actively support slavery. 
You can buy this on Amazon right now. 
But while I can appreciate companies deciding not to profit off of a national tragedy, there is also something to be said for not erasing history. State capitols are not an appropriate place for Confederate flags to fly, but Civil War video games are. The only reason to exclude the Rebel flag is if we're going to replace it with, say, the more historically accurate battle flags used by particular Confederate regiments. 
Which yeah, actually, that sounds pretty good.