Category Archives: V Scripting the Interactor

An example of gamification that isn’t bullshit

With his customary understatement, my Georgia Tech colleague Ian Bogost has famously pointed out that Gamification is Bullshit,  or more precisely “marketing bullshit” whose purpose is “to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business.”  I know what he means and I am also often skeptical of the more benevolent arguments for “gamification,” such Jane McGonigal’s heartfelt argument that games are the best way to ensure human survival in the next century.   What McGonigal ignores is that human culture is already completely gamified – how else to explain the deep pleasure in synchronizing our behavior with one another, in finding symbolic meaning in arbitrary symbols like vocalized sound and scratches in stone? We are hard-wired to enjoy all the things that make up games and we have already used all of those pleasure-producing and obsession-engendering mechanics to shape everything from language to tax codes to  traffic lights to war strategies. For good or bad, the world is already profoundly gamified — so we had better pay attention to the hands we have already been dealt. Continue reading

Is cat poop the same kind of medium as videogames?

There has been a lot of twitter chatter this week about an endearing rant by Darius Kazemi with the arresting title of Fuck Videogames aimed at encouraging frustrated game designers to embrace other forms of creative expression.
fkvideogames

Clearly this is a timely message, and probably a mark of the success that this active community of practice has  had in encouraging creative expression in videogames.

I don’t quarrel with Kazemi’s main point — and in fact I’ve often said that there is no hierarchy of media. No individual book, for example, is more valuable than any individual game (or film or TV show) just because it is expressed in lengthy text passages instead of interactive bits or moving images.   But Kazemi isn’t talking about books or films. He is talking gelato and cat poop — which I do indeed have a problem with.

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Games and the pleasure of synchronized behavior

Synchronizing your behavior with a single mysterious multi-player companion is a new convention of interaction in thatgamecompany’s Journey (2012)

Thatgamecompany’ award-winning Playstation game  Journey (2012)provides a poetic and evocative experience that makes players feel as if they have lived through the classic stages of life from joyous exploratory childhood through challenging and dangerous adulthood, successful and golden middle life, and the impotence and paralysis of old age, ending with an ecstatic sequence that many have found suggestive of an ascent into heaven. It communicates this lifetime of experiences without language, wholly through movement, gestures, landscape changes, and orchestral music.

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Where Are Gaming’s Role Models?

Warren Spector is a game designer and critic who has been advocating for more expressive games for over a decade. He has just started a new column with a familiar lament: Where Are Gaming’s Role Models?  Warren, who began his career expecting to be a film critic, points to a column by  NY Times critic Brooks Barnes about Hollywood stars  like Ben Affleck and George Clooney who persuade studios to let them make movies with serious social content. What would it take, he asks, to get the same kind of role models in the game industry?

It is not surprising that a question about games is framed as a deficit of heroes — role models of exemplary individuals. It is also not surprising that Spector should turn to an older narrative medium (and the most awarded Hollywood films of 2012) for evidence of more mature story lines:

Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? How about two old people struggling with the pain of love and aging? Or the story behind a raid to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist? Okay, we could probably do an okay job of that last one, though probably not the events leading up to it – do you water board that guy or not? Seriously? But you get my point.

It is funny to imagine how the pitches for such imaginary games would be received by the big game companies. But we should also remember that  Ben Affleck (Argo) and Katherine Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) had a long tradition of serious war films to point to, including classic hits like Casablanca or Bridge on the River Kwai, in which disgust for war and admiration of  heroic self-sacrifice are interwoven in complex moral patterns.   Ang Lee’s highly original Life of Pi  exists in a number of similarly long  traditions including  human/beast moral fables like King Kong and ET and  journey/survival films like Lifeboat or Cast Away.  And of course there is no lack of French movies about Amour  — including many about the  amour of aging lovers  — for Michael Haneke to reference.

More importantly, each of these cinematic traditions can trace its roots back to much less serious adventure stories or soap operas, which would display the pattern that Warren describes when he says that

in 30 years of making games I’ve never been anything less than awestruck at the intelligence of the people playing and making what often seem like mindless entertainments.

In fact, I would argue that you can’t get to serious, engaged, complex story-telling without a strong tradition of “mindless entertainments” that lots of people watch and lots of people are rewarded for creating. That is what is called a tradition of practice for the makers and a popular genre (hence watchable/playable mindlessly) for the consumers.  And such formulaic traditions of practice are absolutely necessary to the creation of  socially important works  that actually engage and move people .

In Hamlet on the Holodeck,  I pointed out that the soliloquy that Shakespeare uses in Hamlet to explore the isolation of the modern consciousness and depths of his tragic hero’s self-doubts, began as a stage device for letting the audience in on the evil intentions of the villains in the bloody,  formulaic genre of the revenge play —  which were pretty much the equivalent of the mind-numbing  zombie games that Warren considers the nadir of current popular entertainment. No revenge plays, no soliloquys for Hamlet; no blockbuster videogames, no mechanics for expressive serious games that actually engage and move people.

I share Warren’s impatience and I applaud his efforts to nurture a more “grown up” game practice. But it may be that  the stealth mechanics  tradition of  Deus X  or the survival choices of The Walking Dead  ipad game  will prove to be foundational  to the creation of the culturally impactful games that Warren is asking for.  I’m very glad that we also have non-violent, artistically captivating  games  like the highly successful Journey with its  poetic shout mechanics and mindful play. (Maybe Jenova Chen is the hero Warren is looking for.) But even though I may not want to play kind of games Warren is making fun of, there is something to be said for the development of the conventions of interaction in a lively practice of mindless commercial entertainment.

Design Exercise: Companionship

Based on the discussion in Chapter 11, post a screenshot and short commentary that illustrates how a particular digital artifact creates EITHER

  • a welcome and/or reliable experience of companionship to a human interactor OR
  • an intrusive and/or disappointing experience of companionship to a human interactor

Possible examples include

  • an explicitly personified information agent like Siri
  • a helpful game character
  •  a recommendation system like the ones on  amazon or Netflix
  • a customized ad system  like the ones on  Google  or Facebook
  • a contextual help system in a familiar digital tool or game.

How visible is the surveillance the companion system is exercising? How voluntary is it?  How appropriate are the suggestions? What expectations do you bring to these environments? How does the experience of the system match your expectations? What would you like such systems to do better 5, 10, or 20 years from now?

Design Exercise: Agency in an Interactive Model

Choose one of the interactive models below or another of your choosing, and play  through multiple turns. If possible, replay it with different settings. Post an illustrative image and short description of how well or badly the model creates the experience of agency.

When you approach the model do you  have specific expectations of the kinds of outcomes it can have and the kinds of decisions you will be able to make? If so, where did these come from? Does the model draw on these expectations? How does the model communicate to you what actions you can take? How does it communicate the connection between your actions and the outcomes the systems produces?  Are there other ways the same system could be modeled? How would the interaction be structured in a model that reflected a different interpretation of the same real world system?

Note that agency does not mean ease of accomplishing a particular goal within the scenario.  Making some outcomes difficult or even impossible to achieve can create the experience of agency if the obstacle represents a meaningful interpretation of the system being modelled.

Examples:

Lemonade Stand  or any other version of it or any similar  “Tycoon” game

Fatworld

Kabul Kaboom

Sim City

The Etch-a-Sketch and the Stone Tablet

Inscription in stone on Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.

Cable news is obsessed this week over inscription technologies. At issue is whether the political positions taken in primary elections are as erasable as the magnetic writing on an “Etch-a-Sketch,” as the Republican front-runner’s campaign manager imprudently suggested, or written “in stone” as the Republican challenger describes his own unchanging pronouncements.

Politicians would do well to remember that we live in the age of digital media which has disruptive inscription affordances — combining persistent memory with ease of participation by multiple voices of authority.

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