October 3, 2003

Rhody's Response to Bernstein's Bait

The question is fair enough, I suppose, if in the proper context (fine for a role-playing or other style of "narrative-driven" game, less so for a puzzle game like "Tetris"). In the midst of arguments over how much money the game industry makes (more than box office, less than additional DVD sales and rentals?) or whether or not narratology (film studies, post/Marxism, or [enter your theory of choice here]) is an appropriate methodology for studying games, we still have yet to engage in substantial ways with a very basic question (paraphrased by andrew at GTA):

in the twenty-plus years that games have been around, what do they teach us about ourselves, e.g., about personal relationships, sexuality, the human condition?

Now, here is MB's original question (you can read the full context here here and his more recent addition here):

Take the last twenty years of computer games -- the whole kit and kaboodle. Put them on a shelf. (Yeah, it's a big shelf) Now look over the shelf, and tell me everything we learn about, say, sexuality.

I happen to think that Andrew's revision is both more fair and a tad more approachable. If we adopt all of MB's rules, which involve some fairly substantial restrictions on critical reading skills, sexuality as a topic becomes particularly difficult to engage in the context of games. Sure, we can point to scholarship as early as Turkle and as late as, well, more recent resources dealing with gender and play (my library isn't handy right now), but the restrictions limit such discussion, as MB notes:

I'm looking for what's in the game, not what the audience brings to the table, and yes, I see the theoretical shortcomings of the previous clause.

So let's tackle this on the broader scale, if for no other reason than that game companies are most likely to pander to the sexual codes that are so evident in games while simultaneously avoiding overt sexual themes that are likely to get them in trouble (unless, as in the case of something like Grand Theft Auto, you deliberately offend, resulting in an odd sort of reverse subversive social criticism).

The "human condition," brought up via Andrew's revision, is, as we all know, an equally unwieldy term - one we frequently use to tell our undergraduates why we study literature, but generally vague and problematic, always surrounded by quotation marks as if we must shrug our shoulders when we say it. The human condition, according to who? With all of these caveats, restrictions, concerns, and complications in mind, the question remains - what do games tell us about the human condition? What do they teach us about ourselves?

Andrew and others (see his post for a list of great links) say, "very little," and while I'm not inclined to disagree for the most part, I'm also not sure that I have thought and written enough to really decide that. I do know that I have on rare occasion found myself sitting in awe, as both gamer and scholar, at something that occurred on the screen in front of me. This is one of those stories.

It was Leafcull, Portal Year 11. For the past several months, the towns across Dereth had been tormented by the floating Shadow Spires - and the shadow minions that protected them - until a final battle, and aid from unexpected sources, drove the Spires back into the ground. But not until after the towns of Arwic and Tufa had been destroyed, leaving huge craters in the ground.

The game? Asheron's Call, a MMORPG (the unpronounceable acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) that provides free monthly and (usually) story-driven updates to the game, marking it as a serial-narrative style game. Portal Year 11 was October 2000, and the game was beginning to wind up to the final stages of their first story-arc that spanned a year's time. Shadows - creatures made of little substance and decedents of a rebellious nation - had become a prominent force throughout Dereth, attacking towns and terrorizing the landscape with their floating Spires. Their leader, once a Dericost man named Ilservian Palacost, was the dread Bael'Zharon. Unknown to the Isparians - the people (the players) who had settled Dereth many years later - Bael'Zharon's rebellion was thrown down and his power captured within a series of crystals hidden throughout the land. Several months' of recent explorations had uncovered those crystals and adventurers destroyed them, for not only did their power threaten Dereth, but they also wielded great riches to those who broke them.

Turbine - the developer of Asheron's Call (which is published by Microsoft) - wove an amazing story over the course of several months. They counted on gamers' desire to conquer, and to gain unique riches, because that desire in turn slowly released an evil upon the land. It was an ambitious and thoughtful design that played upon the persistent nature of the world to prevent recalling a decision. Once a crystal was destroyed, there was no reverting to a saved game to preserve it. For many months, destroying the crystals was seen as an act of preservation - the very first crystal, found in the frigid reaches of Frore, had cast an enduring winter upon all of the land (the first "Live Event" in December 1999).

The battle of the Shadow Spires, where Asheron reportedly appeared for the first time in years to help defend the town of Cragstone, "occurred" in the dead space between September and October 2000 patch. In other words, the worlds came down for the patch early one morning and when they came back online, players logged in to find the events already played out. After such effort to drive the plot this far, players felt somewhat cheated. Why did the "big event," they asked, exclude them? The title for that month's patch - "Hollow Victory" - resonated more strongly than perhaps intended.

So the developers set an elaborate stage for the next (and grand finale) event - "Should the Stars Fall" -- Leafcull, PY 11 (November, 2000). A series of adventures (the details of which are too lengthy to explore in detail right now) led to the location of the final crystal - The Shard of the Herald - but with a catch. Those who entered must be marked as player killers (PKs), something that a player can complete a short quest to accomplish (a similarly short quest can turn the player back into a non-player killer). By now, enough had been revealed that players knew that destroying the crystal would release Bael'Zharon.

In his monthly "The Spin From Turbine: A Tale of Six Crystals (or, "It was the best of events, it was the worst of events..."), released after the event on December 8, 2000, AC Producer Nik "Azeraphel" Davidson discussed the rationale behind the event:

A lot of what we did in November came from reaction to player feedback. In prior months, especially regarding the Nexus, players complained that there was no way to intervene in the plotline. People wanted the chance to defend the crystal, to keep BZ imprisoned. We thought that this would make for fantastic role-playing, and tried to come up with a system that would allow people to take a more active part in the event. Thus the PK-only dungeon for the final Shard was created. We wanted to give the players a choice -- to defend the Shard, or to destroy it.

Asheron's Call is played on several worlds (servers) in order to accommodate the number of players. Each world is distinct, although also synchronized in terms of story and events. No one world could diverge substantially from another, because that would radically increase the amount of work for the AC Live Team.

In other words, the crystal, no matter what, had to fall. Now, this wasn't really a problem or a concern. In fact, the crystals on all worlds fell within a matter of hours. Gamers like to break things in hopes of finding something inside of them (a point reinforced to me when my brother-in-law drove his car from GTA3 straight through a window ... discovering a better sports car hidden behind it). Except on one server - Thistledown's players mounted a defense of the Shard of the Herald (affectionately dubbed "Harry") and proceeded to defend the crystal for the entire month (more details are in the article I listed above).

The struggle and consistency of the defense was really quite impressive. Those of us who were on other servers kept track through message boards; we kept each other up to date in games. No one believed that the defenders would hold. But they did, until the very end. All of this is impressive in itself, but one final surprise - and this one was key. A bug in the programming allowed NPK characters to enter the battleroom. Since NPK characters cannot be harmed (and thus stopped) by PK characters, they had nothing to prevent them from simply destroying the crystal. Surprisingly, no one did.

As the letter details, the developers enlisted the help of some players, got behind the controls of some powerful "toons" (avatars), and engaged in a major battle, tipping the scales so that "Harry" could be destroyed. The developers gave them the nod to acknowledge their feat, and instead of pulling the plug in the downtime, gave them an amazing final battle. Nik Davidson reiterated this fact in his article:

In closing there's one thing that I want to make abundantly clear: We did not do this to "make the defenders lose." We did this because the defenders had won.

Humanity is, in part, captured, if not defined, by decisions; the substantial difference between, say, a novel and a game is that in 'traditional' literature, the decisions are made prior to the act of reading (agency during the act of reading is something I'll get into another time). Some of the most amazing (and frustrating) literature involves choices that remain undecided, uncertain, or unknowable - the end of James' Portrait of a Lady is a novel that drives me into fits every time I read it; I spend hours wondering what Isabel is really up to when she runs to Rome. For the most part, however, the decisions in novels arrive to our eyes and ears mostly already made. Tragedy and comedy - humanity - comes from those decisions, decisions that we can only read about but cannot change.

Role-playing games, however, are often about making decisions - enacting the process rather than reading the results. So part of the problem with MB's question is that it eliminates the process of creating outside narratives - notations, descriptions, quotations, and other history-making exercises - that in turn help create the sociology of these types of games outside of the program itself. We have methods for critical approach to novels, for example; we can neatly summarize relevant plot details, define characters, point to passages in the text. How can we accomplish this same level of detail in persistent worlds? Virtual tours only take you to the setting ("Here lie the fragments of the Shard of the Herald; next on our tour, the monument dedicated to the defenders of Thistledown."). Until we have a way of re-creating exact experience in games, we are, much like the "real world," left with artifacts, recollections, first-person accounts (and many of these, as I've discovered in a recent bout of research and writing, are quickly disappearing). Part of our job as scholars must involve an accounting - and criticism - of such game events, because it is in such accounts - the decisions and consequences that amaze us and confound us - that we can begin to tackle the question of their lessons of, and for, humanity.

[Note: Andrew's comment and concern about "well formed experiences" is a really well-stated notion of what I was trying to work through regarding "accounts" of games in the paragraphs above]

[Double note: I hit 'draft' instead of 'publish.' Damn. Corrected now (obviously). Lots of interesting discussion in the meantime over at GTA that makes me want to rethink some of this, but I'm not rewriting this thing right now.]

[Final note: some more AC history, for reference: A Brief History For Travelers]

[On a yet another side note, I found this article particularly interesting.]

Posted by Jason at October 3, 2003 9:18 AM | TrackBack

Lots of good stuff here, Jason. I don't know that I have a full response to your argument, but I really like the observation that RPGs are more about participation in the event than reading the results. I think this distinction is precisely what makes it difficult to "study" games or game-playing.

Much of the early material on hypertext writing (Bolter, Landow, Joyce, and Coover) seems to be about this problem: the fact that readers will experience "the text" in different ways, or even the idea that to speak of a text becomes a slippery proposition.

This is probably well-covered territory, but I think the decisions that games "produce" (and I think that all games produce certain kinds of decisions) speak very effectively about what we accept as natural, logical, and rational even if the world of the game itself doesn't completely obey the logic of RL. Does this make sense?

Posted by: chuck at October 8, 2003 2:46 PM | Permalink to Comment

I think so ... to clarify - do you mean to say that decisions in games reflect RL cultural assumptions in the players?

You're completely right about early hypertext - the even trickier aspect of persistent worlds is that it adds another time dimension in a way. You are not only 'reader/player' in 2003; you are also character in PY 13 (the date of the game). While most quests of Asheron's Call can be "replayed," after a fashion, the initial playing through represents one moment of 'discovery' that is lost after the functional time of the world moves beyond the initial play.

In other words, revisiting dungeons becomes akin to visiting a monument, or going through a Disney ride, complete with tour guides.

In a stand-alone game - or an e-text like afternoon: a story - the path may be different, but in a sense the time is the same (i'm talking story time rather than discourse time, in narrative terms). In Asheron's Call, both story time *and* discourse time have changed.

Hmm. Lots to think about in all of this ...

Posted by: Jason at October 9, 2003 9:43 AM | Permalink to Comment

I *think* that's what I was implying, but when you restate it in those terms, I'm suddenly uncofortable with that assertion. I've played first-person shooters, but in RL, I'd never use a gun. I've never even used a gun with more power than a bb gun.

Maybe what I meant is that we are offered only a small number of choices in a game (due to bandwidth, the logic of "winning" the game, what have you). I'm having trouble now recapturing what I originally intended with that observation.

I like the time distinction you're making between hypertext and games. I think that's why I haven't been particularly drawn to certain types of games. Once I've reached the end, going back through feels artificial....

Posted by: chuck at October 9, 2003 12:01 PM | Permalink to Comment
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