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Category Archives: News and Current Affairs

How the Gamer got their Spots: A brief history of the public perception of gaming.

This weekend I attended PAX, which was mindblowing in many ways. While there I attended several panels, one of which inspired me to write this. It’s something I’ve been aware of and thought about for some time, but never really had the space to talk about. Now I do. So here we go.

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This is something I heard at PAX a lot: ‘what will it take for gamers to get out of being a niche culture and be accepted into the mainstream socially and politically like, say, film or music are?’. It was the overarching question and theme on a panel hosted by various industry and journalist luminaries. To me it sounds odd. On one level I identify with the sentiment deeply. I love videogames, tabletop games, card games, roleplay, pretty much anything ludic. Another common comment was on how gamers made being a minority part of their identity, a way of separating themselves and putting themselves above the legions of fashionistas and sports-ball players in highschool. As such, talking about gaming was not something you did unless you were pretty sure you were amongst other members of the lodge, having traded secret handshakes, awkward grins and rare magic cards. I shared that attitude for some time. Now, though, I talk about games with everyone. Often at length. I remember talking to an old lady I walked past on the way home from work for something like two and a half hours one afternoon. Sometimes, it becomes very hard to stop me. I’ve missed planes. I’m not shy about being a gamer, because for me that no longer makes any sense. This is not really due to my maturing and understanding that my hobbies aren’t something unclean and to be stigmatised. It’s due to something a little deeper.

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I studied games at uni and during that time I read a lot of old books from the mid 20th century and earlier. I studied the history of games which, by the way, is really long. Like, seven or eight thousand years long just for ‘modern’ games. Kind of puts Pong into perspective. Another large part of my degree was media studies, which involved some indepth introductions to the history of electronic media. This, plus a poignant example brought up by one of my lecturers, made me reconsider the light in which I saw all modern gaming. Everything boils down to this: gaming is perceived as something new, an arising phenomenon that deviates from the normal pastimes of society. This is false. Historically, beyond the history of the 20th century at any rate, gaming is the norm. Not just children’s games either- card games, boardgames, party games, even single player games- solitaire is not a 20th century invention. Adults played games constantly and enthusiastically. Why then are the ‘new games’ -video, tabletop, card or other- seen as an oddity and attached to ideas of childishness and immaturity?

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The answer, strangely enough, is technology. Not of games, but of everything else. The leisure of the 20th century west has been singularly defined by what media nerds (eg. me) call the ‘one to many’ media paradigm. First it was the radio, popular music and literature. Then cinema and television. The ability to minimize distribution costs of content allowed single instances of content to be universally (or at least very widely) disseminated. As a result more could be invested in polishing each instance, leading to more centralised and tuned media production while still increasing audiences. As a society, we ate it up and consequently shifted most of our leisure time from the traditional social pursuits of playing various games with those around us to reading, listening to or watching whatever was in vogue at the time. Perhaps the most ironic element of this shift was that it resulted in the professional athlete and the acceptance of the idea that we spend more time watching a chosen few play games than playing them ourselves. Broadcast media (and mass market printing) was a revolution in that it brought pursuits previously restricted to the uppermost social classes to the everyman. Literature culture, previously the domain of the wealthy, became a universally accessible. When public radio arose it allowed the populace to be more aware of their world than ever before and experience things previously limited to those who could afford to attend limited attendance events- concerts, speeches and demonstrations. Television brought sights from places few could ever hope to dream of seeing on a worker’s wage. Games, on the other hand, were seen as commonplace. There was status to be had in the broadcast media, buying into the intellectual leveling of society, being a part of something ‘big’. Games were left by the wayside as the preferred method of diversion, at least in part.

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There was one thing that the broadcast media couldn’t do, however, right there in the word itself. Broadcast. Everyone got the same thing. Everyone read the same books, watched the same shows, listened to the same songs. That was good, in many ways, since it generated a more powerful sense of cultural identity than ever before, leading the way for reforms that ultimately led to modern social democracy and freedoms. Yet gamers will no doubt see the point I’m getting to: unlike games, you couldn’t touch the broadcasts. You couldn’t own them. They were not intimately personal in the way games gracefully and effortlessly manage to be. This was a limit of the new technologies. The same tools that allowed the mass dissemination of media meant that what was being disseminated had to be centralized. It was many decades before anything but token interactivity arose in electronic media. In that time the idea of games as a childish activity cemented itself, contrasted with the socially mature activities of imbibing the high culture composed by broadcasters, be they the latest musical phenomena, social discussions or elite sporting events. Only games with an aristocratic past continued to be acceptable pastimes, buying into the status free-for-all that permeated 20th century culture. Luckily for us gamers, it takes more than broad cultural reformation to take the gamer out of our collective soul. Everything I’ve studied supports the idea that games are fundamental to culture and, in a sense, humanity. We cannot help but create them, share them and play them. They shape our minds, our psyche and our interactions with others. It is an addiction we all share, so even when gaming was socially marginalized, in places it flourished. The sophistication and diversity of childhood games- still considered acceptable- skyrocketed. Creative types continued to innovate and sowed the seeds of the modern RPG, CCG and of course videogames. As broadcast media became less prohibitively restrictive over the years, interactivity began to seep back into our culture. The internet kicked off a new age not just for communication but for play.

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Now we stand on the wheel, close to coming full circle. No longer is one-to-many media the accepted norm. It is challenged at every turn by constant interactivity, the natural state of play. The stigmas established by the mass media revolution are slowly wearing down as we acknowledge the value in many old cultural institutions and become ever more aware of the weaknesses of impersonal broadcasts. It may not be too long before the leisure norms of the 20th century are viewed as an aberration, a relic of primitive technology and social upheaval. So I have no reason to consider myself an oddity or a part of a minority. I am an average man, so long as I extend the sampling a few hundred years, rather than just the past fifty or so. The people who spend only a minority of their leisure in active play- those are the odd ones out to me. I don’t consider my gamer identity with a kind of oppressed pride, as a membership of a secret group. It does not make me special, or unhealthy. I’ve learned that all humans are gamers, openly or not. We all play. Some of us play quietly, not admitting that we need to but clinging to our little vices with fierce passion. Others accept it and embrace it even while those around them do not. The greatest number of all play and let play, sharing in that common delight of discovering patterns, enduring tension and delighting in triumph that all games create. though the methods change, we continue to play as we always have. To distinguish oneself by the fact one plays games is akin to feeling special because you are a man or a woman. Entirely natural, as it is something important to your identity, but neither particularly justified nor constructive.

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So ends the tale of how the gamers got their spots. What can we learn from it? Another comment that came up a lot at PAX was that being a gamer gave us our identity, our pride. We’re a little afraid of it becoming universally accepted because we may just lose that. When what we consider gaming becomes something everyone partakes of, do we blend silently back into the mass of humanity, our passions diluted into the commonplace? Perhaps, but here’s a thought. The idea that play and games are childish took root most strongly within the 20th century. It has always existed to a point, but the 20th marked the lowest point of the acceptance of adult play. Consequently most of our modern games come from roots in games aimed at children which have since evolved, but even more strongly carry the 20th century stigma of adults playing children’s games. These games evolved because they carried inside them qualities that were so powerful that even under the pressures of society, we could not let them go. Positive qualities that are at the root of why we identify as gamers. For me it is my ability to approach challenges, to endure failure, to imagine vividly and to sit down across a table with any other gamer and share in a common passion. Every genre has its own unique qualities, from the speculative economies of TCGs to the handicrafts involved in LARPs and the exploratory accomplishments of speedrunners and glitchers.

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It’s time, I think, to identify those qualities, the deeper things that make us love and venerate our games as meaningful and important to us. These- not the games themselves- are the root of our identity, and so long as we remain on the forefront of promoting and developing these qualities our identities will remain intact. Games are only a tool through which those values can be expressed. In doing so we can help shed the stigma of childishness that still clings to modern gaming and, more importantly, we can bring games back to their ancient position as the premiere contributors to the happiness and welfare of individuals and communities across the world. In a sense, gamers have a chance to open the eyes of society to a world it has forgotten. It’s not something to be entitled about, simply something to draw confidence from and take joy in succeeding at if you have the chance. That quest, of course, is in large part what this blog is about.

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Serving Girls- Meaningful Characters in Games.

Sometimes people say the most hilarious things. Case in point.

Citizen Kane moment? Really? REALLY? Ok, ladies, gentlemen. Let’s get down to business. This is something that’s been brewing for a while. It’s something I wanted to talk about after Bioshock, but in that specific case other people did it better. Now with TLOU, I think I have a more general case to make in this regard. Bear in mind if the whole gender/sexism debate in games pisses you off this is going to make you both annoyed and probably uncomfortable, though it’s used just to make a broader point. I also realise the above is developer hype, but it fits with many opinions I’ve read or seen online in formal journalism, informal journalism and casual opinion.

When people talk about these games and praise them as narrative art, I find myself grinding my teeth a bit. I mean, all games are art, the discussion is about quality not absolute properties. These games get held up as comparable to other works of fiction of high notoriety- in this case Citizen Kane, when that is just simply not warranted. The reason this is done is because they are comparatively good when compared against other games. When the other games are as well written as call of duty or gears of war, this is like saying twilight is high art because it isn’t my immortal. If the industry is going to get anywhere, it has to hold itself to absolute or true comparative standards, not simply ones relative to other, less well polished produce from the same field.

That means we have to look at the ‘characters’ of these supposed narrative masterpieces in the context of other literature and evaluate them as such. I hate to break it to you, but they don’t stand up that well. We can (and do) blame that on the medium with excuses like

you cannot be held responsible for the actions of a character you cannot control.”

I’m sorry, but what? Art imitates life, and in life you are constantly responsible for the actions of people you don’t control. Sure, if we’re playing wish fulfillment fantasy then we want to make things different to reality. But isn’t the point of these games that they’re something beyond slaughter-porn-and-titties? Of course that sort of thing can be incredibly frustrating, but if you wanted to achieve literary significance your goal wouldn’t be to just kind of ignore or avoid it completely, but to address it in a meaningful way. I mean, forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole subtext of TLOU about parenthood and isn’t parenthood at least a little about ‘being held responsible for the actions of a character you can’t control’. Seems like a missed opportunity, at the very least.

There’s a particular issue I want to address here, and that’s the use of a particular character archetype in this kind of game. That being ‘young, pretty and somewhat assertive/hopeful woman/girl’. As a onetime writer and occasional character designer, let me tell you something about those properties in combination: they trigger the empathy instinct in about the broadest segment of mankind you can reasonably sample. It is no accident that when game companies set out to have a character you can empathise with and bond with (for a degree of bonding, we’ll get to that in a bit), we get characters like Alyx, Elizabeth and Ellie. Everyone wants to see the underdog come through, and nothing says underdog like plucky young lass in a tough ol’ world. It’s one of the deepest most earnest desires we have as a species. To see the vulnerable and meek- who are simply stand-ins for ourselves at some level- triumph. Your gender, ethnicity or age is immaterial in this regard.

The problem is, they aren’t actually characters, in the traditional literary sense. Their entire existence revolves around you. Without you they are lost. Anything they could do to even mildly offend the most touchy of players has been neatly circumcised to make them pliant, docile attendants to your every need and fantasy. This is not an idle metaphor. In Semitic cultures anyway, circumcision symbolizes submission to God’s will. Here, all that might be independent is cut away to fulfill the unwavering dedication to the validation of the player as the ultimate agent.

So, not only are these ‘characters’ forged from the most emotionally manipulative of character archetypes, but even that wasn’t enough to ensure you like them. They must constantly provide you with unconditional encouragement, succor, moral justification, material assistance (though only enough to ensure you can keep soldiering on, never so much that you truly depend on them) and, of course, beating it into your head that you’re helping poor little them in their time of trial. It’s the equivalent of having a puppy follow you around woofing and occasionally giving you candy bars made out of pure dopamine. A puppy that never, ever poops. They are tools that exist to make you happy, not to make a point. Which, I remind you, is what characters are all about. The tradition of literature is about characters you like because they are meaningful, not characters who are meaningful because you happen to like them.

The only reason you adore these characters is because they are basically the most compliant form of slave ever invented. To own another living creature’s loyalty and dependence so completely is why we buy dogs. So it is completely valid, in this case, to call these creations your bitches. I feel that stating this is not degrading towards women because none of these characters in any way resemble actual women. To portray these caricatures as wholesome, meaningful characters and your relationship with them as something positive and human, THAT is demeaning to women.

Any woman, hell any person, as intelligent and capable as they are superficially made out to be would get the fuck away from your homicidal ass as soon as possible. If you think differently… I’m sorry, but go actually meet some smart girls. They’re kind of cool, and they tend to be able to solve their own problems. Crazy, I know, but that’s the way things actually are. If they were portrayed as some kind of abused, demeaned, broken wrecks, their servility might be in character. They are not. It is not.

The point of this rant isn’t about the representation of women. I’m just stressing, as hard as possible, that these characters are neither deep nor the connection you feel with them somehow a literary achievement. They’re well crafted to achieve their goal, of course, but to be of literary significance a character needs to achieve more than that. Something like this, perhaps:

When I say literary significance, I’m speaking here about real significance, a character that connects with something widespread and primal, that makes you sit back and breathe out slowly because you’re not quite sure what to think. When you call out Citizen Kane moment, you’d better be fucking ready to defend that assertion on equal grounds. Do these deuteragonist characters match up to say, Y.T, Clare Abshire, Lyra Belaqua, Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger or Ellen Ripley? No they do not, and those are only in the ‘pretty high up there’ range for their mediums, not ‘greatest ever’. I’m happy to debate this. Please try. Please. No, really. Do. It will be so fun.

The most common response to this I hear is woah, man, back the fuck up, games aren’t books or movies, you can’t have characters like that. Well, from the same sources, apparently games are meaningful and their narratives powerful. Unless we want to cede that they are in reality simply manipulative and their narratives trite, which I sure as hell don’t, we have to take a step back and say, ok, yes, these were good. Better than normal for the medium at any rate. We achieved empathy, but we had to try SO hard. And better than normal doesn’t mean good compared to other things that have been around for a century or more longer and had time to develop themselves to the point of overcoming the problems games still have.

The next step is to achieve that level of companionship with a character archetype which isn’t quite as universally d’awww inducing. Say, an old lady or a teenaged guy. They can still be sweet and helpful, but if we can’t manage to at least avoid damsel syndrome then we’re pretty much boned.

Once that’s done, we can work on supporting characters that are… well, characters. They do stuff because they believe in it, not because it helps you. They don’t see you as the centre of the universe, and so on. When a game- specifically an 3PS/FPS- manages to have a supporting Stanislaus Katczinsky, an Ellis Redding, a Doc Daneeka, a Captain Nemo, then I think we can say we’ve hit a Citizen Kane moment. A character who is not inherently attractive, desirable, worthy of protection and adoration etc. A character who disagrees with you from time to time. A character whose respect you must win and who you come to respect as well, despite the fact they don’t always do what you want. That will be truly a moment for momentous celebration, but we’ve a long way to go yet.

And treating games like TLOU as the pinnacle of narrative potential isn’t helping us get there.

I want to stress that here I am talking about the FPS/3PS action genre. I think, by and large, RPGs and narrative centric games like Allan Wake are further along the track, though I think this is more largely due to their ability to throw loads of characters at you and hope you find one that sticks. That model has worked ever since Baldur’s Gate (I still have fond memories of Jaheira and Viconia shit-talking each other). Creating and implementing a single character who is universally meaningful- a Holden Caulfield or an Atticus Finch- without the crutches used right now, that is a real challenge.

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It’s difficult to throw down punches like this because I actually quite liked all three of the games under consideration here. I’m also aiming these blows mostly at fellow consumers and critics, not the developers themselves. It feels awkward jumping at people simply for enjoying things and expressing how much they enjoyed it. This is my justification, and you can take it or leave it.

I care about games. I think the medium is amazing and important in far more ways than are generally understood. At the very least, gaming represents a revolution in the truest sense, full circle back to when our leisure activities largely involved play and social interaction rather than passive consumption of media. That means that, if history is any indication, the capability and importance of videogames is only going to grow and the extent to which we interact with them as a society is as well. I want the industry to find its way to a point where videogames can truly match more established forms of media in terms of the scope of what they can talk about effectively. Where a public who plays more and reads less will not lose out on the insights I have derived from other literature. Where games exist that are as powerful and meaningful as they are entertaining. I want to hear from a schoolchild that a game, not a book, taught them why science is important or how to cope with depression or deal with puberty or maybe just made them feel just that little bit better about being human. I want to be able to, when my kids ask me about war or unfairness or love or the mysterious beauty of the universe, reach up to the shelf and hand them a jewel case instead of a novel, knowing that is the best choice. My imagination predates the digital storage revolution, just FYI.

That is not a goal that will simply occur in time. It must be sought. There will always be a slight pressure towards it from those people who desire to make such meaningful games, but without the stronger pressure of consumers, the market will stymie progress. If there is no serious demand for a higher standard, there need be no serious attempt at supply. When you give something a 10/10, you’re saying it could not be improved in any way. It’s a tricky thing, because improving on what’s already ahead of the game is never intuitive, unless you happen to be competing with someone. If it happens, however, the world becomes a better, or at least a more interesting, place. I think that’s worth at least talking about.

 

Introducing Wild Abyss

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I’ve had to pause the development of LoLCG for a little while so I can work out any remaining niggles with Riot (don’t worry, things are going fine there), so I’ve had a few weeks between when I hit what I felt was the most I could do safely on that project and now. In the intervening time, I’ve had a shot a whole new game, this time entirely of my own design and style. I’m using a lot of what I learned doing the LoLCG project both in terms of gameplay mechanics and technical development skills.

The result is looking pretty swell for a first prototype. Not as swell as the LoLCG, but I’m drawing all my own art here (well, the non background stuff anyway)

Wild Abyss

I’ve loved and adored civilization and epic strategy type games, ‘4x’ especially, since I played civ 1 when I was very young. Risk was the only real boardgame of that kind of scope back then, and while fun it wasn’t that great. Since then there’s been a determined attempt to bring 4x to the tabletop, from the sprawling Twilight Imperium to the sleek 7 wonders. Unfortunately, the pendulum swings one way or the other too much. From intense complexity, endless rules and hundreds of pieces, to elegant simplicity that loses much of the depth an narrative that the 4x is so good at conveying.

Wild Abyss is a space-based 4x game with an emphasis on resource allocation and combat rather than territory control, negotiations and maneuver. It’s almost entirely card based, with no star map or persistent board, meaning it doesn’t need a lot of space. Turns are largely simultaneous, so games with loads of players don’t take much longer than ones with only a few. It has a combat system that’s not much more complex than games like eclipse or TI, but offers a lot more in terms of both tactical and cinematic depth.

I’m looking forward to talking about it more in the coming weeks. I’ve kept a kind of stream of consciousness diary of the process which I’ll put up once I can edit into something that makes vague sense.

 

On toxicity

The word ‘toxic’ appears to have gone viral, at least in the competitive games community. It’s unsurprising, really, as it provides a lovely, pithy way of describing a certain kind of player or even person, to their backs at any rate.

As far as I can tell, Riot coined the term for PR purposes, as a way of defining the typical player who is not… socially considerate when talking to their community. In that role, it’s a fantastic tool, highly expressive and intuitive as to what it means. Of course, so are the words ‘fun’ and ‘game’ and don’t we all know the trouble that’s got us into, eh?

As much as I love Riot, this is one thing I can find serious issue with in their MO. It appears the company has collectively drunk the koolaid of believing that this PR jargon they made up is an actual thing, not just a neat way of describing a stupidly complex phenomenon. What’s made worse is that every definition of toxicity I’ve seen from them is different but for one fact: they all have a negative impact on consumer retention. We can fluff that up and call it damaging game experience and so on, but when it boils down to it, this is not about game design any more. It’s about audience selection and making wads of cash money. This isn’t inherently evil, of course, but it’s certainly not unambiguously good either.

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So let’s get this straight. There is no such thing as a ‘toxic player’, at least not in the sense of actual flesh and blood players. It’s alright to use the term in pure hypotheticals and label a certain kind of action group toxic and consequently a hypothetical player who embodies that group a toxic player, but that’s not how the real world works, folks.

The worst outcome of this misuse is that people, actual people, are diagnosing themselves as toxic in fits of hypochondriac glee. Unsurprising given the peculiarly western tendency to syndromise any kind of problem, but distressing none the less. Personally, I am terrified of this development. There is no kind of psychological treatment in which repressing and punishing antisocial urges has anything but a styming effect on personal development and enjoyment for the individual being targeted.

Now I hear toxic being bandied around on unrelated podcasts, in design articles, interviews with devs, even potential research briefs. It’s a catchy, catchall meme. It’s also a delicious label to stick to someone you don’t like, a perfect tool to brand ‘the other’. It’s one of those inconspicuous little words that can worm its way into the consciousness of a populace and create divisions, excuses for unethical behavior and justifications for the unjustifiable. The sort of word that is one of many engraved in each paving stone on the road to hell.

Toxic, put simply, is toxic.

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I stress that I’m certainly not saying that there’s no such thing as a player whose play is detrimental to the fun of other players, nor that a developer shouldn’t talk about this or even design things to prevent or mitigate that. Riot, for the most part, is doing the right thing- implementing systems in their game which gently encourage players to play in a way that is tolerable to other players. The problem is mostly in the discussion and the misappropriation of the term.

The most dangerous result of this is the idea that a certain kind of play is inherently ‘wrong’. This is… it’s just plain disturbing. Play, at its core, is a process of experimentation and discovery. Play exists to push boundaries and explore what is normally not acceptable in ‘real life’. It also serves to train and develop, to instill contentment or joy and create wonder. Fundamentally, though, human beings, in fact all animals which play, play in order to do what would otherwise not be possible. To enforce a moral rhetoric upon this is almost always damaging to the player, because that concept is antithetical to the core purpose of play.

I’m not talking about something that’s nice and fluffy here. As much as the activity of play can be about exploring love and trust it is also about exploring betrayal and anger. It’s a careful balancing act, but one that is fundamentally necessary for human mental health and self development. In the end all those people calling you a noob faggot have a largely positive outcome on you as a human being, hard to believe as that may be at the time. What it doesn’t help is the developer’s profits, because you’ll probably drop the first few games where you’re exposed to that sort of antagonistic play. When these two collide we arrive at the problematic concept of toxicity. The utopian idea that all players can live in harmony and sing around the campfire at night. Like all utopian concepts it is enticing, dangerous and utterly wrong.

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If I hold this to be true, I also have to hold that it is reasonable to create exclusive communities of play, where entry requires certain rules to be accepted and adhered to by all players, that is after all the essence of a game. The important distinction between a ‘toxic’ player and one who infiltrates such a community and then breaks the rules is that the latter is simply a rulebreaker, and can be expelled as such. A toxic player, on the other hand, implies someone whose play, while acceptable within the rules, is filthy and unclean. There is a double standard there- you’re welcome to come and play however you like, but good players only play like this. If you don’t, you’re a bad player and everyone is allowed to judge you.

That’s a far cry from a simple, professional: These are the rules, to maintain the game as it is intended to be played, the rules must be adhered to. If you don’t, you’ll be removed from the game. No hard feelings, that’s just how it has to work. If it’s in the rules, the players are free to exploit it however they so choose. The responsible party for toxic outcomes is not the player, it is the designer.

So I simply ask that we should be careful with the word. It’s not entirely without merit, but it’s powerful and dangerous. It shouldn’t be thrown around to label everyone and their kid brother. Nor should it be used in formal discussion unless clearly and meticulously defined and justified.

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As a kind of postscript, I will say that Riot seems these days to have shifted their attention from toxic players to toxic environments. Unfortunately, the earlier discussions have created the implicit assumption that the former creates the latter, where Lyte’s recent analysis at the GDC shows that is clearly not the case. I applaud them for bringing that salient little fact to our collective notice. Notice it.

 

Design Analysis: Champion Select

 

Recently Riot has been talking a bit on their forums about their struggles with player community management. Lyte recently posted this:

There’s no easy solution to Champion Select; in fact, it might be one of the most difficult problem spaces we’ve ever had to tackle. However, it’s currently a major focus of the player behavior team, and we hope to fix the core issues with Champ Select and find a way to really build trust among strangers before the game even begins.”

That sounds like a challenge! Ok, ok, so I don’t think I can punch this issue down in half an hour, but I’m going to have a look at it from a slightly different angle to what we see from Riot’s player behaviour team.

Their methodology is a good one, highly based on statistics and, as far as I can tell, psychological best practice. Unfortunately, while they do talk a lot about what they’re doing and give the player community a lot of stuff to chew on, we also really don’t get the meat of the issue. For example, Riot talks a lot about ‘toxic players’, but as far as I can find have never really stated what a ‘toxic player’ is exactly. It’s one of those tacitly obvious things, apparently (I’m pathologically inclined to be skittish of anything to do with toxins after reading bad science). I don’t doubt that Riot’s crew have some pretty robust work going on back there, but the way they share their discoveries leaves something to be desired in terms of real, usable information.

So I’m going to have to do a lot of making do with what we have. If we shadows have offended and all that.

 

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Champion select is the drafting aspect of League of Legends, where players pick their champions for a game. It’s notoriously antagonistic as players often compete for the glamorous roles and, thanks to the structure of the metagame, get annoyed and frustrated when things don’t go their way. This being the internet, that annoyance frequently boils over into undirected rage and disruptive behaviour or at the very least half-hearted cooperation and a sub-optimal game experience.

As a student of play, I’m fascinated by Champion Select. It’s a kind of distilled example of the differences in psychology between intrinsic and extrinsic rules and how that affects the way people play. Lyte’s comments on building trust strike me particularly strongly, because trust is one of the things that play interfaces with most curiously of all. I also think that as a guy with a heavy focus on play, I’m coming from a different angle to the Riot crew. From his wording I get the feeling the scientists Lyte’s been talking to are the game theory / rational behaviour kind and everything I’ve learned about play says you can’t use those models successfully when play behaviour is involved.

The staple example to demonstrate this is bears and huskies playing in the snow. That sort of animal interaction has been a subject of some research, and formal play rituals have been cataloged among a variety of animals, particularly dogs. The interesting thing here is that there’s a kind of language that establishes trust. You may have introduced yourself to a dog or cat by curling up small or offering them the back of your hand to sniff. To another human, you might show them your open palms or similar. This is referred to by ethologists as a physical lexicon of trust.

Amongst both humans and animals (particularly mammals), there is another level of this sort of interaction, one which establishes an even atmosphere of tolerance and curiosity which occurs before the intimate trust necessary for play. Laughter, teasing, gallivanting, poking and (once you get far enough) play-biting, gumming or nipping someone are all examples of this language. Funnily enough, it’s not so different to the way the dogs and bears show they’re playing- toothless bites and funny walks seem to be a standard across species, while dogs have a particularly well studied signpost called the play-bow.

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Online, we can’t interact physically, which is partly why gamer culture is so rife with braggadocio, trash talking and hyperbolic communication- yelling, exclaiming how amazing something is, pithily dismissing an achievement as nothing, etc. It seems to stem from an attempt to convey the physical lexicon of play. Certainly, phenomena like emoticons and avatar emotes are mostly used for this purpose when the players cannot see or interact with each other in a more tangible way.

When you look at champion select you clearly see why establishing trust is difficult. Your team are essentially faceless and the only method of interaction they have is a chatbox, a chatbox that is deprived even of the ersatz tools like emoticons. In the race to get the Champion you want, there’s hardly time to type a word, let alone write some complex text in order to get your team in a playful mood.

So, first things first, Lyte is absolutely correct when he says there is no easy solution. I don’t think you can tweak a variable and get a big improvement here. The problem is a fundamental one. The current structure of the Champion select environment is simply not capable of establishing trust and playfulness in a meaningful way. That is to say, while it is technically possible, it’s not very likely given a random sampling of players.

 

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The first thing, it seems, is to give people the space to communicate with each other. To me that suggests taking away all those pictures of champions and what other people are choosing and putting it somewhere else. Out of sight. Where you can’t touch it. For, say, ten seconds, no choosing your champion, runes, masteries, anything.

(The main reason I want this, of course, is that I’m Australian and constantly, CONSTANTLY get into champ selects where I call a role, am apparently first yet everyone else’s logs say I ain’t. My suffering is eternal. >.>)

Seriously, though. Give someone nothing else to do but communicate and guess what? They’ll communicate. If this seems a little harsh and ham-handed, well, that’s true. But consider that communication doesn’t just have to be typing how your cock is supernaturally large in a chat box. We can have passive communication (someone’s avatar or profile customization for example communicates stuff about them to anyone who has the time to look). We can have non-verbal communication assuming our environment has something manipulable that other players can see- for example if you had a map with a system that let players put virtual pins on it or freeform draw over it, they could communicate through messing around with that. People can turn pretty much anything they can interact with which can be seen by others into a medium for communication, so it’s not so much how to enable communication as to what sort of communication to enable.

In my experience as a League player, a lot of the frustration in champ select is not being able to really tell the temperament of your teammates. I can deal with having an aggressive player or a very passive player, the difficulty is in not knowing in advance. So I have to usually blindly pick a champion suited to a kind of play that there’s only an average chance my teammates will be inclined towards. I can talk through this in chat, but more often than not I get no response or it’s too late anyway.

It’s just one manifestation of a more typical problem with online match-made play: systematic anonymity. Outside of RPGs where players build persistent, unique characters, there’s rarely much attempt to allow a player to communicate their own identity in a matchmade game. The same tools used to communicate identity are often used to communicate playfulness, through dressup, deliberate sub-optimisation (I suppose a good example of this in League is ‘troll’-builds, though of course this is sometimes not the sort of play that Riot likes to see).

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I think this might be a partial key to unlocking the problem. If players can at a glance see the disposition of their teammates, I think they’ll be far more comfortable communicating and establishing consensus.

Just as a rough concept, imagine if you drop into champ select and you see something like this

mockup

 

Each player here has previously entered

  • Their three preferred champions
  • Their interest in roles (by gameplay-archetype rather than meta archetype, so assassin/mage/fighter/ad carry/ tank/support)
  • A tick if they’re prepared to jungle
  • A meter which shows how their play preference- aggressive or passive.

Instantly, at a glance you can see where the potential conflicts and synergies in your team are- there’s an aggressive Draven player and an aggressive Leona player? Great! Two people prefer mid, but one hates to jungle and the other doesn’t mind it? Easy… Only one guy who can jungle? well, that sucks but it feels a bit better when the dice are rolled so visibly.

As part of this mockup I also added the minimap pinboard, and there’s still plenty of space for hacking together some additional stuff as testing dictates. I think this process would add no more than maybe 15 seconds to the champion select process, and there’s always the potential you can add an option skip it in custom games or team games.

It also makes it clearer when a player is genuinely being unpleasant- if you don’t say a word for 15 seconds before champions are even available and then instalock, ignoring the discussion, you’re ripe for judgement. When the culture is instalock or bust, you can’t surely judge someone for the practice.

In short, it adds a massive amount of both passive and active communication that’s easy to absorb and easy to use in a format that’s hard to abuse. It gives players a larger unique footprint, making it harder to see them as just a nameplate and fighting the problems that systematic anonymity creates.

From my perspective, this also adds the opportunity for players to, well, play. There’s a space added there to show willing, barred from the antagonist environment of Champion select. It’s structured around the free sharing of information and cooperative activity, fostering a more playful, trusting environment. The sort of environment that doesn’t conform to the expectations of those game theory scientists in a really good way, a way that expresses the best of gamer culture, not the worst.

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 I don’t contend something like this would fix all the problems with the Champion Select process. But it would add a lot to the game, both in creating a less antagonistic environment and at the same time providing teams with fantastic tools to improve their game and demonstrate their teamwork and creative skills.

I get the feeling this would be a tricky proposition for Riot with the way they’ve had to keep patching together the air client, but there’s always Season 4, eh?

 

Transistor Fanart & Discussion

transistor

So Transistor was announced recently, and I can’t be more hyped. Bastion was perhaps one of the most important games of the last few years, demonstrating a mix of both novel and highly polished aesthetics and novel and highly polished mechanics. Even more stunningly, it managed to combine these in a few particularly beautiful moments. Most of all, the scene where you carry Zulf to safety, if you choose that path, is one of the best combinations of aesthetics and mechanics to create a powerful narrative I’ve ever seen.

Transistor looks like it will live up to the same standards and I’m particularly happy to see the choice of a female protagonist. I’m a sucker for good female protagonists, since my preferred genres of fantasy and sci-fi literature rarely feature them and, when they do, rarely feature good ones. This is even more extreme in games.

Just from the initial designs of Red, the main character of Transistor, I think we can safely add this game to the list. Red’s design is a clinic in how to tread that narrow line between pandering to a minority for the sake of it and just going with what ‘works’. IE, boobs and vacant badass attitudes.

Red’s core design is unashamedly sexualised, but in a very interesting way. Her background is as a performer, specifically a singer, and her design reflects her being dropped from the stage into battle. So her outfit is the sleek, elegant dress, hair and makeup of a 1950’s styled diva. I’m not sure whether the decision was deliberate, but picking an era which represented the first great push for women’s liberation in the west is powerfully symbolic.

This outfit is then messed up a bit, the full length dress is quickly shredded to a more practical thigh length skirt and a leather bomber jacket is added to the ensemble. Both the ripped clothes and the leather are a call to punk fashion, another movement with strong connections to egalitarianism and women’s rights. Two periods- one where women claimed ownership of their own appearance and one when they chose to rebel against the appearance that the typical male of the time would like/expect from them, combined in one outfit. Again, I imagine this probably wasn’t entirely deliberate, but it’s undeniably an effective melange. An acknowledgement of both sexuality and control over it, attention to appearance and practical spirit mashed together in one form the reader can interpret in whichever way they identify with most.

Red’s narrative background is a self-made woman, an important voice and a powerful figure in the setting’s society, which is why she is being targeted in such a way that we have a story to follow. Her style of combat, once that begins, is calculating and despite the brutal styling of her buster-sword weapon, she uses it more as a lever or energy projector than a club. The choice to include such a weapon and then subvert its exaggerated symbolism is again interesting, deliberate or not.

In short, everything about Red’s design is about calling attention to the fact she is creative, powerful, attractive (in such a way that there is an ever circling yin-yang of attractive because powerful and powerful because attractive, not just a simple position of the unrealistic former or misogynistic latter), important character.

It’s this last that is most significant. Red is important. She’s not just some farmgirl or orphan or vapid princess. Almost all female protagonists, even good ones, are coming from a position of weakness and earning their stripes through the male-mythos of fighting for power. Red is already a powerful figure, a celebrity by virtue of her own talents and capabilities and a respected voice. There is no subtle assumption, as there is in so many well intentioned but misguided narratives around women, that as a female she must inevitably begin in a position of weakness and oppression. Her story is instead about defending what power she has earned for herself which is, I think at least, a far more resonant kind of narrative for describing the sorts of trials real women go through every day. Her character design supports this in creative and elegant ways, rather than bludgeoning you in the face with ‘hey look at how un-sexist we are thanks to this shallow gesture to equality’.

So I’m a fan. I can’t wait to see what Supergiant come up with, I can only hope the narrative ties into my initial impression of it.

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The artwork is my first attempt at using Mangastudio 5. I’m a photoshop guy, have been for years and years, but I’ve been wanting to branch out into proper illustration software. I’m going through the process of learning to use MS having picked up a Nostromo, which will help my workflow a lot (I really need more hotkeys than the 8 an old cintiq offers you). I’m still pretty rough, but there’s a lot of promise in the software I’m looking to get to know and frankly, compared costwise to photoshop, it’s a nobrainer.

 

Coyote Stories: Esports Rhetoric and the Legend of the Gamer

alexgrin

I’ve been an Esports follower for years. Not quite as hardcore as some, the old Quake and broodwar hardcases, but I organised barcraft style events before barcraft was even a word, before Starcraft 2 even came out in fact. Before all that, I’ve been a gamer since I was old enough to be allowed, heart and soul. So I know that being a gamer isn’t just about playing videogames, it’s much much more.

Being a gamer has always meant being a part of a community of similar people and, like all communities, that means sharing certain properties. Perhaps not universally, but there are tendencies that gamers share. We are clever, or at least think we are. We are passionate, passionate enough to love what we love even if the whole world thinks we’re strange and frankly not worth dating. We are loyal to other gamers and fiercely critical of those who would exploit or oppress our little communities for what we love. We think the best rights are the ones we earn ourselves. We value creativity, cunning and flair. We respect honesty and honour, we delight in the success of our fellows, we prosecute those who lack integrity without mercy. We love Coyote stories.


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Now Esports, Esports is a thing. Too often I hear it called ‘competitive gaming by professionals’, that is not Esports. That is competitive gaming by professionals. Esports is videogames made spectacle, just as body sports have for millennia ritualised and rarefied the values of societies the world over- courage, determination, skill and strength- so does Esports ritualise and rarefy the values of the gamer into a spectacle that both determines those of greatest standing among us and celebrates what makes us who we are in a way we can show to others to say- you see, this is why we love what we love and we are who we are.

crowdshot

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In that light, I watch the development of western Esports with trepidation. In the last couple of years it has exploded across many games, but none so much as League of Legends. The beginning of the LCS has been a time of contrasts. On the one hand I am delighted to see such a league established, but I am disappointed in the rhetoric that is being employed. What the hell am I talking about? Coyote stories.

In folklore the world over, two figures duel, the Trickster and the Prince. Raven and Eagle, Waa and Bunjil, Anansi and Tiger, Coyote and… well, everyone who ain’t Coyote. The Prince represents upfront masculine values- physical power, endurance, dominating will and courage. The Trickster represents all the things we gamers respect. Cunning, flair, getting one’s just desserts, the little man who dances around like a fool and still somehow wins the day. So in that context, let’s look at the first LCS trailer

Hmmm… Coyote story or not? Nope. This is clearly based off body sports promotions, whose rhetoric aligns with straightlaced values of strength. If this was an american football competition, or athletics or soccer, sure, but no, this is Esports. If this seems pedantic to you, let me assure you that rhetoric is important, particularly here. Riot is in a powerful position, where it can shape what it wants the ‘theme’ of their competition to be. If it wants the LCS to be a story about manly men sweatily pounding each other into the dust, it can subtly direct things that way without even realising it is just by brainlessly copying the promotion style of competitions that do, rightly, use that rhetoric. Or it can celebrate and emphasise that Esports has its own unique community, heritage and values. If it chooses the former, I have no doubt that it will lose a lot of what we love the scene for. Maybe it will be worth it to try and sell it to the world, but I don’t think so. The best chance Esports has of making it truly big is to show off the best of us as who we are, and we are the children of Coyote.

That rhetoric is not served by photos of teams standing with manly scowls and crossed arms, or by speaking about jokes, pranks and moments of the Wiley Coyote variety as if they were a little embarrassing to mention on air. Coyote stories are full of braggadocio, individual personality and resistance to the idea that you have to beat a problem by scowling at it and talking down to it. It’s embarrassing when some bit of media gets played where one of the players talks shit with a serious face on and then the commentators have to be like ‘ok guys, like, they’re best friends, just so you know, it was just shit-talk’ because the media crew haven’t imbued that rhetoric into the overall narrative of the tournament. The commentators should be free to be going “OH SNAP IT’S ON NOW” and fistbumping, not trying to re-align the tone of the show to what they, as gamers themselves, know it should be. There is dissonance there that does not serve the best interests of the LCS, League of Legends or Esports in general.

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So why this, why now? This week we had perhaps the most perfect, crystallised demonstration of what makes Esports great I have yet seen. It wasn’t in a game, because for rhetoric it’s not what happens in game that is most important. Befores and Afters are where most of the tone is set. And boy did we have some Afters this week

group

After an intense, down to the wire game between two teams, immediately upon losing the game, EG, to whom the defeat was crushing in terms of their chances overall, immediately pile over to their victorious opponents. They hug, they grin, they chat excitedly. In what body sport, in competition at the most prestigious level with significant results on the line, would you see this after a tight game?

huddle Huddle2

Then later, after the end of a day of matches coming towards the critical end of a season, in the dying moments of the tournament we see the players mingled on stage, lines of team affiliation and ‘professionalism’ forgotten. Three of the team captains vying for first place in the competition hang out together. One gives another a piggyback. Jokes, laughs, pranks. Again. Any other sport?

Piggyback

The captain of the team who lost all their matches prances about the stage carrying a stuffed pig’s head and then body-surfs on a huge and rambunctious crowd with the world’s biggest grin on his face, a rockstar in defeat. Again. Where else but Esports?

unboarable surf

It is very important this is recognised. This is our strength, this is the powerful rhetoric we possess. We don’t need to compete with the combative, sweat and tears, glory or death rhetorics of football, athletics or boxing. This can be the message to the world: You want to understand what it means to be a gamer? All you need to do is remember this:

The trickster falls with a grin on his face and his last words are ‘well played’

someonetoldajoke