Thursday, April 21, 2011

Being "Gameful" Instead of Being "Gamified"

Loyalty at the cost of your enjoyment?
While this isn't really about video games as art per se, I like to include topics that look at how games affect our lives and can affect social change. Lately there's been one in particular; Gamification has created a growing conversation about the off-screen implementations of recent game mechanics that seems to encourage an inevitable change in marketing. At first my curiosity wanted to see gaming ideology seep into areas I thought, at first, to be alien to gaming practices that I'm used to. My research on the interactivity and immersion of games helped me see the merit in "gamifying," and as a prospective instructor, I'm constantly looking for inspiration to make courses that are commonly dreaded more enjoyable for students. However, it is easy to see how gamification can be used for personal gain at the detriment of others; credit cards already had aspects of gamification ideology with progress bars and rewards, and the main issue of economic problems in the US are people spending beyond their means and certain groups of people encouraging this behavior to profit. This worry can easily be defeated by critical thinking and exercising free will, though it seems to turn video games into something of a gimmick to be so pervasive.

I came across Jane McGonigal's talk at the Game Developer's Conference this year about a counter to gamification called being "gameful." Something being gameful encourages qualities and feelings associated with being immersed in a game, such as optimism of your abilities and an intrinsic drive to accomplish a goal. McGonigal draws upon "Positive Psychology," basically what about our psychology can be adjusted to just be a happy, more positive person, even when you're not clinically diagnosed with anything. She argues that the external motivations that gamification provide only Skinner Box-like mentalities when people look to just get rewards, not actually enjoy what they are doing.

What I took away from her talk was how we could implement how games make people feel personally invested in a goal trumps the carrot on a stick method with rewards gamification uses. Seeing how this is true isn't hard to imagine; would you be more involved in taking care of an elderly patient if you were paid or if they were a loved grandparent who still has stories to tell? I see these discussions are quite reflexive; can't being gameful and being gamified be seen in current game mechanics? World of Warcraft keeps people playing by the used of external goals, with achievements and gear, which just gives players something to do until another reward to is be earned elsewhere. However, the game also keeps gamers by providing opportunities to feel self-empowered and participate in social endeavors to accomplish something difficult. Wouldn't be games be more enjoyable if they found a way to always be gameful and provide intrinsic motivation for their players? I think being gameful further uses the unique aspect of games, interactivity, than being gamified, as gamification is an external appendage instead of an integral mechanic the entire game relies on.

Games being more gameful might be a method to foster more empathy and personal investment into games, because as McGonigal puts it, it isn't the game that accomplishes these great feats but empowers the player to step up to the challenge and succeed. With games becoming more personal and political, this idea can be powerful by encouraging players to experience, and care about, stories and goals they wouldn't have previously considered.

Check out her talk here -

I also recommend listening to her TED talk beforehand to better understand her angle -

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Video Games Aren't (Insert Art Medium Here) Debate

Heavy Rain tried to hard to be a movie?
There have been many back-and-forth discussions about if games are art, how much they are like other mediums, and what sort of standards they should be held up to. This particular post is a reaction to seeing the pilot episode of The Escapist's Jimquistion titled "Video Games Are Not Movies, Get Over It." Focusing on the argument rather than the presentation, the main topic was a push against comparing video games to movies and a specific critique against Heavy Rain and it's director David Cage.

One of the points he brings up that I find important is the different ways movies and video games engage audiences and players, which could be differentiated by just that; movies have audiences and video games have players. So looking to tell a story like a movie would be a fault of the developers as it would leave out the player. I thought Heavy Rain had a decent narrative that involved the player enough to not seem too movie-like; I would go as far as to say Heavy Rain treats its narrative elements much better than the standard game that attempts to, though I could understand someone feeling like they were being taken along for a ride instead of playing a game. What has gone on is remediation, where the aspects of one medium are present in another, and therefore the techniques of the prior medium can be adapted to the more recent one. Video games, especially ones that prioritize narrative, are naturally cinematic and employ film techniques to affectively use this aspect; in essence, we've already been telling stories like a film, and now certain developers want to emphasize this quality. However, to focus so much on the movie aspect takes away from the interaction, which I think the Xenosaga series commits moreso than Heavy Rain, would make the game suffer (though, I personally didn't mind the first Xenosaga).

While I can agree that it's unfair to criticize such a young genre of storytelling, there is a stagnation of games with well thought out characters and storylines, even with the awareness of the direction games are going. I see what Cage is talking about, even though I don't think he's the best example of such a change, I do think Indego Prophecy and Heavy Rain contribute to the effort; why else are they see as so avant-garde in comparison to most games? If video games were chugging along at the right speed and properly incorporating narrative with all of its features, Heavy Rain would get no special attention. Game writers are still an odd position and frequently narrative isn't present at the beginning of game development; most of games' characters are stereotypes and uninteresting. Of course, not all games need involved narratives and evolving characters, but to be insulted by developers who compare video games to other art mediums is ignoring the floundering that has been happening as of late, though some companies are starting to step up and produce great games with quality narratives.

Video games draw on many disciplines, which makes it unique: film, prose, visual art, musical composition, theater. Tying in interactivity with these elements along with the narrative will produce great games. Completely ignoring film's influence and standards would only be ignoring the aspect of games that are strengthened by film technique, however, idealizing  film will have the video game industry wallow in masochistic self-loathing.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Catherine: A Step Forward or a Fall Backwards?

An honest depiction about the troubles of love?
I've recently come across some previews about Catherine, a curious game that is raved about in Japan and is grabbing the attention of the North American market. I am particularly interested because of the many risks the game seems to take, as well as the effort to re-establish Japanese video games. When it comes to my preferred genres, I've found that Japanese games seem to stay with the tired and true and rarely change their methods; RPGs that have been critiqued for being too linear and disregarding the player while recycling the same tropes and storylines. The last bastion of hope of Japan securing a place in my collection rests in Atlus' hands, as it seems like Square-Enix is only looking to squeeze every last cent and yen that its prestigious name can still obtain on reputation alone. I was caught in the Shin Megami Tensei craze and found a particular love for Persona 3 and 4, and hope that the same caliber of games continue to be produced.

That aside, the screen shots, previews, and advertising for this game gives me mixed messages. At first, it seemed heavy on the fan-service with risqué shots of the title character, Catherine, which already has me groaning on the inside. Since it's dealing with a heterosexual (as far as we know, at least) male's love life, it seems in context, so I'm giving it a chance to grow on me. The advertising, however, is looking for documentation of love and marriage, which implies there is more than random cleavage shots, and the gameplay ties in the anxieties of a committed relationship with the nightmare puzzle levels and the 'social' aspect of answering text messages and interacting with patrons at a pub. The game seems to be taking a chance with having the narrative feature a crucial part of the gameplay experience (which turns some players off and I personally enjoy), evidenced by the legal threats Atlus has put out to anyone who posts videos about the game outside of the demo. If the game succeeds, ti will show that games can still be entertaining while making the narrative integral to the whole process from the beginning.

What worries me is the success of the character creation and interaction; the story so far is set up in a very stereotypical manner: Vincent begins to claustrophobic in his relationship with Katherine, both assumed to be in their early thirties, late twenties (nice for a change), and starts to have nightmares after he cheats on her with Catherine, who so far is a mystery girl. There is a set up of the virgin mother/whore dichotomy that so many games and media use, and the male is in a predicament yet gets to choose. My hope is that they all end up very complicated characters and not fitting their stereotypical roles, or else there will just be a reproduction of the same kinds of female characters in an industry that needs compelling female characters.

The Alternate Ending : A Manifesto of Sorts

Of the many choices we're allowed to take.
I believe the debate is ending on whether or not video games are a new artistic medium. Examples of video games incorporating themselves into culture, evoking emotions, and provoking discussion alongside providing entertainment are growing in number and are in demand. Games have been made with distinct ties to visual art, music, and the cinema, and further explores how its unique quality of interaction can engage the player. They are important and speak to and of culture, meaning they can be read and interpreted. My aim in this blog is to further facilitate conversation about how games can further use their functions to challenge the medium and the player experience in a way novels and movies cannot; I also hope to chronicle some of my experiences in gaming and the gaming community.

Now, not everyone's opinion is the same and it's possible all aren't created equal, so I want to be open about my background and influences as to show where there can be weak-spots and to recognize that I don't believe my perspective to be whole and complete.

Power to the Text: I have a strong Creative Writing and Literature background that has me approaching video games as "texts" to be "read." I use methods such as close readings and find importance in elements and techniques that are inherent to literature. Narrative is very important to me, and it seems like more developers are including narrative into their games, and spending more time creating compelling ones appropriate to their aim. I am specifically interested in interactive narratives and hope to figure a way to write for video games. I am, however, aware of "Video Game Studies" as a field, and will be using concepts from there to avoid turning video games 1-dimensional.

The Personal is Political: There is a focus on the player in games, because without them, the game would never complete! How games represent people, and how the player is represented, is important to me, especially when it comes to the idea of making relatable characters and fostering empathy. So topics of gender, race, sexuality, disability, and others in the same vein, will find a comfy home here, both in games and in the gaming community.

With this in mind, I hope to still encounter opinions different from mine but still provides answers (and more questions) to what this blog as a whole is getting at. Here's to a good run!