Our World is a Game-World

So much to my delight, yesterday SMCRVA posted an article about the “gamification” of social media. This idea is not new to me, but I’m pleased to see people picking up on it.

A few weeks back, I posted about Tag, You’re It, RVA! as a form of happiness engineering. It, too, is gamification in its own way – it’s an augmented reality game, yes, but it’s also the gamification of acts of kindness.

What SMCRVA is talking about, however, is both more and less obvious. It involves assigning “achievements” to real-world activities, as is done by social media games like Foursquare or SCVNGR, where the user receives points or badges for “checking-in” at certain places a certain number of times. This, too, is a type of ARG. But the question asked by SMCRVA is “Should you play?”

There are any number of reasons why playing is a bad idea – thieves have been known to use people’s “check-ins” to determine whether they are home (so that the thieves can rob them), to say nothing of the fact that not everyone on your Twitter feed needs or wants to know where you’ve eaten dinner. But it can also have positive feedback: people who check in at restaurants, for instance, tend to get coupons for use on their meal; people can also use check-ins as a way to review local businesses, which can lead to increased business and more wide-spread word-of-mouth.

But what I find more interesting is the idea of positive feedback in terms of achievement points. There is dual logic behind the achievement mechanic. First, achievements are addictive (believe me). You want to get them. You want to get more of them than the person sitting next to you. You want to get the harder ones (the one for beating Halo on Legendary, and yes, I have it), the skill-based ones, the ones that other people haven’t managed to get. And you feel good about getting them. Positive feedback. Second, though, they make games addictive. You keep playing because you want those achievements. You don’t sell your game back to GameStop or Play-N-Trade because you might get that one last achievement.

But achievements are – like Tag, You’re It! – a form of happiness engineering. We feel good when we have clear goals and accomplish them, and achievements let us do that. Maybe we need more achievements in life.  And maybe we don’t – after all, what have we really done to earn that achievement for going to the cupcake store, other than promote obesity and tooth decay?

Redcoats and Petticoats

With the recent release of both the new Bioshock Infinite and Assassin’s Creed 3 trailers, coupled with the presidential campaign and debates, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about American exceptionalism (by which I mean the notion that Americans are somehow unique from and superior to other nations’ citizens). I expect that I will have more to say about this (and, indeed, I did, over at The Learned Fangirl) with relation to Bioshock Infinite‘s new trailer (and the game itself, come February), but for now I want to stick to Assassin’s Creed 3.

In part, this is spurred by Border House’s blog post yesterday. Jillian Scharr says that “my coworker and I both agreed that there was something ‘off’ about the trailer.” Which made me want to go watch it for myself.

The trailer is surprisingly… multicultural. There are Native Americans, colonists, several men who appear to be pirates (maybe Minutemen in tricorns?), in percentages that are radically unrealistic to the actual demographics of colonial America. Except for African Americans. They aren’t present (despite the fact that AC3 has already announced that the protagonist of the DLC Liberation will be both African American and female) at all, in fact, a point that Scharr notes:

while we’re on historical accuracy, maybe you thought you were dodging a bullet by apparently not including African Americans in AC3. I suppose it remains to be seen what you do with American slavery. But if the trailer’s line about playable multiplayer maps including “the blood-soaked cotton found on the Virginian plantation” is any indication, you’re going to milk that for every drop of exploitative “coolness-factor” as well.

In short, if you’re going to mention those “blood-soaked cotton” fields, you might as well make it clear whose blood soaked that cotton long before you decided to turn them into killing fields for assassins. (This, of course, doesn’t mean that the game itself won’t have African Americans in its Virginia setting… but it doesn’t show them here.)

But the absence of the obvious is only one of the trailer’s problems. The voice-over is less a “narration” and more a sales-pitch, which breaks the fourth wall nature of most contemporary trailers. It’s selling a game instead of telling a story – focusing on mechanics rather than ludo-narrative (the story told by the gameplay) or narrative (just story). While that make seem to make sense on the surface, it doesn’t mesh with what we’ve come to think a “trailer” is supposed to do. It ignores the potential narrative power of the setting – revolution, national identity, etc. – in favor of describing multiplayer maps. While players are interested in those maps and the multiplayer experience they signify, the list of information does not make for a very good trailer.

Finally, there is the point that really concerns Scharr: that the proportion of violence inflicted on men is much lower than the proportion of it inflicted on women:

The trailer shows a lot of men killing men, and quite a bit of men killing women. Only twice was a female assassin shown killing a male: once, at 0:38, where the Native American female assassin shares the screen with a white male assassin; and at 2:49, the last assassination of the trailer, when a white woman nails a white man in the head with the butt of her rifle, then shoots him as he lies on the ground. The other women in the trailer are either shown non-lethally striking a man, being non-lethally struck or thrown by a man, or being killed by a man. The worst is at 1:16, when a man in an overcoat and top hat grabs a woman in a low-cut green dress who is backing away from him, and plunges a dagger in her stomach. Then, for some reason, we get an instant replay.

This is not really what bothers me the most about the trailer, but I can understand why Scharr noticed it. The ratio is really quite poor. And – especially once you’ve had it pointed out – very obvious. Certainly, there are female assassins in the game, a point in its favor. However, there is no reason why the trailer needed to emphasize violence against women over violence against men (particularly given the fact that most players are like to be men, and therefore male-on-male violence would be a more accurate representation of the actual demographics of the gameplay).

While – in this trailer specifically – I find the voice-over more off-putting than the disproportionate violence against women over men, I take Scharr’s point that it is a problem. However, it isn’t just a problem with AC3. Violence against women – specifically, sensationalized violence against women – is a symptom of the larger issues that I’ve addressed here before (and which appear to be central to Anita Sarkeesian’s interest in producing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games). I think Scharr is probably right to criticize the trailer for its imbalance, but that isn’t what struck me as “off” about the trailer.

What struck me as “off” is that it was less of a trailer about the game as art and more a focus on the game as product. And this bothers me, in part, because of Scharr’s point about violence – not because the game is violent (I happily play shooters on a fairly regular basis), but because the game commodifies that violence as the sole point of the game, which ultimately diminishes it to nothing more than a sequence of mechanics about mortality.

And a title like AC3 is about more than just its mechanics. Multiplayer is a bonus for games with deep and rich singleplayer campaigns, not the point of the game. It provides incentive to keep playing even when the campaign is over. It serves, to put it bluntly, to keep players playing long enough that they don’t immediately sell their copy back to GameStop. And I don’t really have a problem with this, when it comes down to it. But the explicit commodification of violence (especially with an emphasis on violence against women) as the ultimate raison d’etre of the game does it and its potential audience a profound disservice. Games are more than that, and gamers (most of them, at least, I would hope) are looking for more.

In short, the trailer assumes that its audience is not as sophisticated as I believe they are, in by focusing on the game as specifically commodified violence, it panders to those who disparage games as juvenile and unethical, and it reinforces its own reputation as inartistic and misogynist. I very much hope that the trailer is not a promise of a similarly shallow game that has little consideration for gender and racial politics. I hope – as I did when I first saw the announcement of Liberation – that AC3 lives up to its promise of gender and racial balance.

Tag, You’re It!

The last five years or so have seen an increase in crowd-sourcing (from places like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo) and crowd-source gaming (like Improv Anywhere or city-wide scavenger hunts, like those sponsored by SVNGR). Today I received a tweet from KindnessGirl in Richmond for Tag, You’re It!

It’s a different kind of tag, and it’s a part of crowd-source gaming that seeks not only to involve a community, but to involve a community in something good – in this case, in committing acts of kindness. The game works like this: you find a “kindness tag,” and you are IT. You then have to perform an act of kindness and then leave the tag to “tag” someone else. It then passes on.

Tag, You’re It! is a game that’s participating in what Jane McGonigal calls “happiness engineering” – a way to make ourselves and our society happier. Performing acts of kindness and receiving them make us feel happier – therefore, Tag, You’re It! is helping us to “engineer” a little more happiness into our community… both short term and, hopefully, long term.

This kind of game is a form of guerrilla leadership (I’m not sure if that’s actually a leadership term, but I’m going to use it as one) in which leadership is being enacted (in this case, by the mechanics of the game) on individuals mostly without their awareness. They’re playing a game, but in the process of interacting with its mechanics – performing an act of kindness, in this case – they’re transmitting a transformative ideology (of kindness).

The aim of these games is dual: first, to cause people to “engineer happiness,” and, second, to cause people to transform their lives long-term to be a little (or a lot) kinder to the people around them. The ultimate aim of a game like Tag, You’re It! is to make people want to continue the mechanic (a random act of kindness) even outside of the scope of gameplay. By making it a part of a game, that mechanic (the act of kindness) becomes autotelic – fun for its own sake. And once the mechanic becomes fun, then it no longer needs the framework of the game (or such is the hope) in order to remain a positive influence on the life of the player.

What Does a Heroine Look Like?

So in the furor over Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames, the content of what she’s producing has been largely overlooked. But The Mary Sue‘s Becky Chambers has a suggestion:

I want a character who makes me feel emboldened on sight. If I’m a soldier, I want to look like the rest of my squad. If I’m escaping a zombie apocalypse, I want shoes I can run in and clothes that minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. If I’m a warrior of song and legend, I want a set of plate mail that will silence a room when I walk in. None of these things require a trade-off of my sexuality or femininity. I want my character to be beautiful, but I also want her to wear what I would want to wear in her circumstances. And if I’m given a pre-designed character, I’m fine with makeup or flowing hair or a lower-cut top, so long as it feels in character. It’s a costume, after all. Creative liberties are to be expected.

I have to say, I agree. I have said before that Shepard is my favorite female protagonist. Her costume is armor (I put her in the ridiculous black dress only for the mission where I have no choice) or a uniform that is appropriate to her context (as Chambers says), and she behaves and speaks like a soldier, which she is. She looks like the others in her position, male and female (this is also true of the women in Gears of War 3 and Halo Reach, for which both games should receive credit).

But what is more important is that she doesn’t “act like a girl.” Like Chambers, I am less concerned about what a female protagonist is wearing (within reason… she does need to be wearing actual clothing that is more or less what someone in her position would be wearing) and more with what she does and says. Shepard is a great protagonist because she was written to be a male protagonist (with a few adjustments for the female version).

Chambers presents a list of things that can “break” an otherwise-positive female protagonist:

    • Women in combat roles who lament their loss of femininity or express a desire to be a “normal girl.”
    • Women who cannot act without a man to instruct and/or save them (cough, Metroid: Other M, cough).
    • The sense that the protagonist is the only woman in the game world who has ever become a hero.

That last point is perhaps the most important. If I’m playing a female protagonist, I’m keenly aware of how the other characters treat her and who the other female characters are. If my character is the only woman on the battlefield, or the only one deemed worthy of full armor, that’s a problem. The warm fuzzy feeling I get from playing a strong female protagonist dies quickly if the only other women I see are damsels or love interests (I say that as someone wholeheartedly in favor of getting laid in-game).

Shepard fits all these criteria, too. While she may be the only woman who somehow manages to do all the things she can do, the same would be true if she were a male Shepard… and those who accompany her (both companions and non-companion NPCs) are both men and women who are capable of doing the jobs that the story requires of them… not to mention the fact that the villains of the Mass Effect universe are both male and female.

But Chambers makes a final point that even Shepard can’t answer. She says that while gender-variable protagonists (like Shepard) are great and work in games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, or Fable, it is also important to have games with female-only protagonists (and male-only protagonists). It’s important for developers to be able to construct a story that requires (or limits, if you prefer) the gender of their player-character. And when it’s important for a protagonist to be female, it’s also important for her to be a female who is realistic (as much as she can be) and practical, and not only for the women who might play her, but for the men who will come to associate her with positive femininity.

The Cost of Play

Today, Kotaku linked to a New York Times article by one of its own, or, rather, a debate between Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo and Yahoo‘s Chris Suellentrop on the fiscal future of gaming. A part of this discussion was the assertion that “it was possible that 2012 would be the worst year for retail video game software and hardware sales since 2005.”

This financial hit is brought to us in part because of the general economic downturn, and in part because of the popularity of handheld phone games, which are free or astonishingly cheap (Angry Birds, for instance). I would argue that part of it is the lack of a next-generation console for the last several years. The Xbox 360 is the oldest, followed by the Wii, then the PS3, and even the PS3 is several years old at this point. People aren’t buying new hardware because they already have the hardware. Software purchases have decreased in retail stores because many of the games are available for download online through Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, or Steam, and they’re sometimes cheaper to buy without the box. Games are also getting more longevity out of the added replay value of multiplayer modes and downloadable content.

Totilo also points out that many industry games and hardware releases in 2012 – with a few notable exceptions – have been uninspiring. The Kinect, for instance, is interesting, but amounts to, he says, “a watered-down repeat of the Wii phenomenon.” Similar problems have faced Blizzard’s Diablo III: “How very 2012 it was for the vaunted hit-maker Blizzard to release a game, Diablo III, that was 11 years in the making and then have to repeatedly apologize for its shortcomings.” Games haven’t done well because they haven’t been well-crafted. D3 in particular was buggy, poorly written, and demanded almost as much time downloading patches as it did playtime (at least for me, and I admittedly gave up in disgust partway through chapter two).

Suellentrop points out that gaming is an expensive hobby – consoles cost in excess of $250, new-release games cost $60, and DLC tacks on $5 and $10 at every available opportunity. And if you want to play with friends, everyone needs a copy, meaning a layout of quite a bit of capital – especially if you compare it to the equipment needed to play Risk or soccer. But one $60 game can keep a player entertained for 40 hours… the first playthrough (unless it’s Skyrim, in which case I’m at about 50 hours and nowhere near halfway through the main plot). I have friends who have logged more than 100 hours in a single game – which ultimately makes that game (hour-by-hour) cheaper than most movies, and more stimulating. [Note: I do have to love him for suggesting that a book costs less than $25, new, and can provide many hours of entertainment and reread value.]

What I find more interesting is Suellentrop’s argument that this isn’t a problem exclusive to the gaming industry: “The nation is facing nothing less than a fiction crisis.” In short, while some indie developers have done some interesting things in 2012, the nation as a whole is producing crap for fictional media – videogames included. Totilo says – with a caveat to BioWare game players (like me) – that “few people play video games for the story,” arguing that a failure in fiction doesn’t account for the widespread failure of the gaming industry.

But I find myself agreeing with Suellentrop. Sure, people don’t, as Totilo says, play Angry Birds “for the story,” but we’re not talking about Angry Birds. Yes, that game will occupy tens of thousands of people on the subway, but that’s just it. They’re bored and confined and will do whatever it takes to keep themselves from punching the person next to them on a subway car. I’ve been there. You’ll play solitaire to keep from going mad on a subway, and it has even less of a story than Angry Birds.

But if you had a good book, a game with a good story, you’d rather be playing that. What you do when you get home from that hellish subway trip is not play more Angry Birds – you want to watch something, read something, or play something with a story that has intrinsic meaning and value. And here is where we need leadership in the entertainment industry: literary, cinema, television, and gaming. We need innovators not only in mechanics and technology, but in story development. Twilight should not be the closest thing to popular quality literature produced in this decade. Please.