Gaming Lag

I’ve held off posting on E3 for the last couple of days because I’ve been struggling with my opinion, with what I feel I “should” say as a feminist, and fatigue with the whole debate on gender in games and the gaming community. Between Anita Sarkeesian, the trolls bombarding her twitter with insulting and idiotic comments, stories and snark about “Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon,” and my own personal dislike of pushing political agendae on other people, I’m getting really, really sick of this whole thing.

And that actually is starting to worry me, so I’m forcing myself to articulate an opinion so that I don’t become complacent and apathetic out of sheer ideological exhaustion.

Here’s the recap for those of you unfamiliar with what’s going on. In the midst of hundreds of discussions about female gamers, women in the tech industry, sexism in the media, and the need for more women’s voices, Microsoft launched its Xbox One at E3 with absolutely no new games with female protagonists. Sony, despite claiming it wanted to market to women, launched the PS4 with no new games with female protagonists. There are new games – Mirror’s Edge 2 – starring women, but they’re not exclusive launch titles (it will be available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC). Nintendo, however, announced that Princess Peach would be a playable character in the new Super Mario World 3D on the Wii U. Interestingly, this appears to have been a rather last minute change.

Okay, so we have two next-gen console releases, neither with a major exclusive title featuring a female protagonist, and one already-released console that shoe-horned Peach into the game at the last minute. And all this comes in the midst of one of the largest cultural pushes from women in the industry demanding equality and increased representation as players, characters, and professionals. So what does this tell us?

I don’t think that this means that the evil Men in charge of the industry are completely oblivious to the yelling and screaming going on outside their windows. I don’t think it means that they’re unaware of the female demographic that makes up 47% of their consumer base. I think what it tells us is that the gaming industry is suffering from lag.

Most major AAA titles take about five years to make. Five years. Some can get churned out in two or three if they’re sequels reusing the same engine. But next-gen consoles aren’t going to reuse the same engine, in all likelihood, so these games are probably already three (or more) years in the making, looking forward to release in another one to two years. They haven’t been “listening” to the demand because they’ve already been in production.

I do not believe this is an excuse for not including any women as protagonists, nor do I think that it means that women should “shut up” (to quote one of the anti-Sarkeesian tweets) about women being featured in games. I especially don’t think it excuses the absence of female presenters or developers on the E3 stage, or the recognition that women do make up 47% of gamers. But I do think that it explains what we’re seeing in terms of titles.

And that brings me to another point. Many of the anti-Sarkeesianites suggest that this is because women only want to play “cleaning and cooking” games. While I’m sure that such comments are intended as exemplars of masculine wit, I would like to point out that 47% of games are not cooking and cleaning games, which leads me to the induction that women are playing shooters, RPGs, and other “manly” games, some of which – like Tomb Raider or Remember Me – feature female leads, or at least include gender choice, as in BioWare and Bethesda games.

But many anti-Sarkeesianites make a point that, while based in a sexist code, is valid, and much more reasonably articulated by the Digital Changeling. The point is that many of the lead characters we see in games are physically strong – soldiers, assassins, etc. – and rely on brute strength to mele and/or shoot their way through obstacles. While there are games that do feature women in these positions – Halo Reach, Gears of War 3 – for the most part, these are roles filled in “real life” by men. Biologically speaking, men are physically stronger than women for the most part. Women can be and are capable and physically strong, and since games are fantasies anyway, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be included in these positions.

However, I think that the anti-Sarkeesianites are missing (possibly deliberately) the point that videogame protagonists don’t have to be realistically physically strong. Especially if they’re in a puzzle-solving context, have a gun, wield magic, or… well… exist in a fictional world where they can do whatever they want. But, as the Digital Changeling suggests, strength isn’t the point. Women in real life may be at a physiological disadvantage in terms of brute strength (in extreme contexts… most women are indeed strong enough for daily activities), but that doesn’t make them any less capable or resilient, or intelligent. Female characters don’t have to be hulking brutes like Marcus Fenix or Master Chief.

In fact, males don’t either, so I’m not really sure what the point of saying that women aren’t “strong” has to do with being a protagonist. Mario and Luigi are not “strong,” although I’d bet anything Samus Aran is. Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be a physically superior specimen, and I’d put my money on Lara Croft being able to take him out in the combat department. But there’s no need for female characters to be any more or less strong than most of the male characters we see – and no reason they can’t be.

But really, what we (as feminists and gamers) are asking for isn’t women who defy the laws of biology and physics (although their breasts often do both). What we’re asking for is that protagonists who are complex, interesting, and capable sometimes be female. We’re asking that the industry not auto-default to male protagonists just because “that’s how it’s always been” with the lame excuse that “women won’t sell,” because both Tomb Raider and Metroid say otherwise, as does the popularity of the femShep option in Mass Effect. We’re asking that the women in games be just as complex as the men – not that they receive special privilege, but that they simply be treated as humans, just like the men.

I do think that this is inevitable, that as more and more women enter the industry as gamers, as professionals, as critics and journalists, that we will see more female protagonists, better female NPCs, and more complex narratives that don’t revolve around (almost exclusively) female victims. But I also think that it will cease to be inevitable if we don’t keep pushing, even though we’re tired of hearing about it, even though I’m sure Sarkeesian is getting as tired of saying it as I am (and she says it a lot more often), and even though it feels like a dead horse that we’re still beating.

The point is that E3 shows us that the battle isn’t over, that we’re still fighting not for supremacy, but for basic equality… and, really, not just for women. For gamers of color, for transpersons, for all marginalized populations. So what we want to see, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, is for you to look at the world around you and replicate it in your games. Include women with brains. Include all cultures and races and sexual orientations and people with disabilities. Make games more real by making them reflect reality.

TLF: Digital Damsels in Distress

After the debacle the other day in which the second installment in Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames was taken down off YouTube due to flagrant abuse of the flagging system, I was quite pleased to note that YouTube got it back up quickly (which of course confirms the erroneous nature of the flagging… *sigh*).

Now that YouTube has restored Damsels in Distress Part 2, I do actually have something to say about it over at The Learned Fangirl. There are other voices out there, as well, including Destructoid, which labels the video “about as inoffensive as that last one,” which, while not a ringing endorsement, isn’t condemnatory, either. Jason Thibeault refers to it as “nonexistent” over on FreeThoughtBlogs, and then spends most of his post talking about its removal from YouTube (edit: To be fair to Jason, this term was used as a reference to continuous comments he received from trolls back when the Kickstarter got going that Sarkeesian was going to “take the money and run,” and isn’t a slur against the series in any way). In a slightly more positive (rather than apathetically neutral) spin, Andrew on GeekNative says that “it’s an intelligent commentary on the role of women in video games…from a feminist point of view,” and then pretty much leaves it at that.

And it should be telling that these are about the only things I found that weren’t simply reposts of the video saying “Here it is!” So while this post was really only going to link to my thoughts and those of others, when I tried to find others who had something interesting to say, I discovered that I had more to say about that.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to what Sarkeesian has to say than we are to the fact that her video was “down” for several hours? Why is it being termed “inoffensive” and “nonexistent”? And why are these the most negative terms appearing in media when there are clearly hordes of slathering trolls flagging the video to get it pulled?

Honestly, I find the lack of conversation almost more disappointing than I would if the trolls were setting fire to the internet, because if there are trolls bearing torches, then that means that the villagers have revolted, and in this context, that can’t be a bad thing. I want people to have things to say – positive, negative, whatever. What I don’t want to see is apathy, because apathy leads us to complacency, and that’s exactly where we were and why Sarkeesian started this whole thing.

So I’m going to do my little bloggy part to start a flame war, set fire to a few pairs of misogynist pants, and hope to set off a few sparks that will breed something bigger.

Why I’m Not Reviewing The Most Recent TvW…

Well, I was going to post a review on Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Tropes vs. Women in Videogames in a followup to the last one, but I guess it’s going to have to wait. Possibly up to ten days.

Why? Because YouTube took it down. Sarkeesian posted on Facebook:

Looks like my harassers may have abused YouTube’s flag function to get my new Tropes vs Women video removed. Not the first time it’s happened. We are looking into the issue now and will update you all as soon as we know the full story and can get the video restored.

Official YouTube protocol requires some paperwork and up to 10 days’ wait to get a video restored that was flagged repeatedly (even if fraudulently), so it may end up taking that long before this one comes back, although hopefully the YouTube powers-that-be are aware that this was likely and are willing to move a little more quickly.

So why was it flagged? Possibly legitimately, as Sarkeesian’s original post stated that some of the content might be upsetting due to violence against women. It might be that the gaming companies whose products were featured wanted it removed for rights infringement (I don’t know which companies that might be). Or it might be what everyone seems to be assuming – that anti-Sarkeesianites have struck again with malicious intent.

Honestly, I hope it’s legitimate, not because I don’t want to see the video, but because at least then I can have some hope for human decency. But I highly doubt it. I’m sure it is what most people believe it to be, and that disgusts me. It disgusts me that women are still diminished, marginalized, and even attacked for speaking their minds.

Yes, in other places women have it far worse – institutionalized abuse and assault, unwanted circumcision and genital mutilation, cultural inferiority, and so on. And I think all those things should stop, too. But the fact that we are in a country that claims equality and still tacitly permits the silencing, ostracizing, and marginalizing of women should not be treated lightly (see Tudor Jones’s recent comments on women in finance or Fox news’s on-air treatment of women for non-gaming examples).

Permitting the smaller actions – like unfair flagging of Sarkeesian’s video – can produce a slippery slope: first flagging videos, then dismissing women’s voices from public forums, then excluding them from the workplace… As though all those things don’t already happen, to one degree or another. Refuse to allow them, and you (anyone) refuse to sanction the kind of actions that produce sexism and rape culture. Small steps, no matter how small, will eventually get us to where we need to be. Bigger steps move us faster, yes, but even the small ones move us forward.

Friends & Rivals

So I’ve been working on a book chapter over the last couple weeks on BioWare’s Dragon Age II, specifically examining the friendship-rivalry mechanic that the game employs. This is one of my favorite mechanics, not because it’s particularly fun (it isn’t… it isn’t un-fun, either, but it doesn’t substantively make the game more enjoyable in any measurable gameplay sense), but because it’s intellectually and academically interesting.

What I like about it is that it forecloses the idea of absolute morality. So many games – including BioWare games – place the player-character within a continuum of “good” and “evil” (“dark side” and “light side,” “paragon” and “renegade,” whatever). Now I know that this isn’t always as black and white as “good” and “evil,” per se, but it still uses a static continuum of behavioral evaluation for all the player’s actions. Did you kill this NPC outright? Yes? Dark side. No? Light side. And yes, some actions will gain more points to either direction than others, but such a system still evaluates the player-character’s actions as though there is a moral truth.

Not to start a philosophical debate about the (non)existence of Truth, but the real world doesn’t work that way. If there is a Truth (and I’m a skeptic on that), it’s very, very difficult for us to know what it is. A game continuum with clear parameters (and often an iconographic representation in the choice menu) is clear. We know, when we choose to hit the left or right trigger in Mass Effect, that we’re choosing Paragon or Renegade. But the world does not kindly provide us with flash events that are clearly color coded.

Instead, we have to decide for ourselves what we think about the issues of the day, and we are evaluated not by some omnipotent designer granting us points on a good-evil scale (at least that we’re aware of, which is a completely different philosophical debate that raises the issue of divine feedback, which I’m just not going to get into), but by the other people we live with, work with, and encounter on a daily basis.

Which is why I like this mechanic in Dragon Age. Because each of the player-character’s party companions comes fully equipped with his or her own evaluative continuum, ranging from friend to rival. And if you-as-the-player are going to maximize that slider (in either direction), then you have to consider what you say, what you do, and who you’re taking with you on your missions. Just as you wouldn’t invite a religious fundamentalist to a talk by Richard Dawkins unless you wanted them to become your rival.

This isn’t the most profound post ever, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with this game, and a lot of time thinking about the reasons a developer would choose to take away the security of a single evaluative continuum – because the choices in Dragon Age aren’t obvious, they’re not easy, and it’s sometimes deeply unsatisfying to make a choice just because Fenris or Anders or Varric will like it.

And that’s exactly why I like the mechanic. Because it’s important for us as humans to think about why we’re making choices – if we play as paragon, do we do it because the game will reward us by telling us what good people we are? Because we get presents (as in Bioshock, where Tennenbaum sends you bears full of ADAM for saving her creepy girls)? Because we think that’s the better choice, even though there’s no appreciable advantage or disadvantage for choosing it? Or because we have to choose something, even though we aren’t certain of the consequences? The last two, for me, are the most compelling, and those are the kind of decisions in Dragon Age II.

Ultimately, I think a lot of my affection for the game (and the mechanic) springs for a growing distaste for the high fantasy conventions of pure good and pure evil. Even in Dragon Age: Origins, which also had the friendship-rivalry mechanic, there was a clear good and bad (darkspawn and archdemons, anyone?), but it just isn’t that simple in Dragon Age II, and I really appreciate the recognition that there aren’t always going to be clear sides – clear goods and bads – in the real world. Because I think that’s where our games (and our movies and books and television) should be taking us – back to the real world and the complexities of ethical evaluation that we have to make on a small scale (for most of us) every day.

Games are art now!

So I was going to wait until TLF put up my two-parter commentary on Bioshock Infinite (sometime in the next week or two) to post most of this, but today Gamasutra just posted a piece that essentially forced my typing hand. Adrian Chmielarz writes about “How Bioshock Infinite Revolutionized Video Games,” but the piece should have added “…and Game Criticism” to the end of its title. Because, really, it has.

First, I have seen more complex and thoughtful reviews and criticisms of this game than I have pretty much anything else to come out in the last few years (I’m not including the explosion surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3, because, quite frankly, most of that wasn’t terribly thoughtful). Infinite has been garnering attention (and not all of it positive) even before its cover art debacle, but much of that attention has raised serious, critical questions about both the game industry and the gaming community, and has also gone a long way to decisively make the point that games are now art.

Chmielarz says that

I’ve played the game and felt the urge to write about its issues even when I was just five minutes in. Then I’ve played it to the end. The breathtaking finale helped a bit, but the game suffered from so many issues that the ending wasn’t able to wash away the bitter taste in my mouth. Let’s just say that instead of feeling like writing another blog post, I felt like writing a book.

But that’s the key here.

And he’s right. People are writing about Infinite because it is art. It’s complex, and flawed, and beautiful, and messy, and ART. Most good art garners both praise and rage. Most good art forces people to ask difficult questions and consider what it is about the piece that either makes them love it or hate it or feel (as in my case here) a mixture of awe and disappointment.

And there have been a lot of people who felt, like Chmielarz, compelled to write about the game. Patricia Hernandez wrote that “An Effin’ AI in Bioshock Infinite is More of a Human Than I Am”; Leigh Alexander wrote “‘Now is the Best Time’: A Critique of Bioshock Infinite; Kevin Wong wrote “Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on Game Narrative”; and Todd Harper, a friend of mine in industry academia, wrote “Infinite Regress,” which responds to some of these.

Chmielarz has a longer list than I do, but his focuses mostly on the problems that people see with Infinite, many of which I happen to think are on to something:

But it wasn’t a question of finding some obscure, random nerd rage posts. Critical articles and posts were popping up in all kinds of high profile places: from NeoGAF through Kotaku to to Gamasutra. Hell, it was not longer just about the gaming scene: even the infamous Hulk Critic stepped in.

It was no longer a child crying out, “But the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all!”. It was a crowd.

Thomas Grip, the lead designer behind Amnesia performed an autopsy. Brainy Gamer has realized it’s the end of an era. Daniel Goldin disagreed with the message. There are three paragraph reviews, heck, even one paragraph ones that expose the core problems with the game. There’s even a short Interactive Fiction game that can teach us more game design than many books. And no, Elizabeth is not the best sidekick ever.

Chmielarz says that “Infinite has revolutionized games” because of this response, but it’s also revolutionized the way people are willing and able to talk about games. It’s a leader in the industry, along with the entire development team at Irrational games, because it refuses to be limited by things like time, space, or expectations. And all the criticism of the game is actually more of a testament to what it has done well than what it has failed to do, since if it really were a terrible game, no one would care about its flaws.

Because, when you get down to it, Infinite has done well. It received a 95 on Metacritic. It’s visually gorgeous. People love it, and people love to hate it. And all this is happening because Infinite very quietly but very firmly has just demonstrated, beyond anyone’s ability to doubt it, that videogames are art. No one can watch or play Infinite, love it or hate it, and think that it isn’t art.

TLF: Violence, Virtual Space, and “Serious Games”

Linking over to yesterday’s The Learned Fangirl post on “Violence, Virtual Space, and ‘Serious Games.’” It’s a more positive spin on my usual rants about why we shouldn’t blame games to talk a bit more about why games are a good thing. Coming off of PAX East (which was a blast), it’s a bit of a reminder about why gaming is both popular and healthy… and why as a form of entertainment media, it not only isn’t causing us active harm, but in fact has a great capacity to do good.

Think Like a Gamer

I was talking to a game designer I know the other day, and he said something interesting about violence in gaming: “The reason that we shoot people in games is because it’s the ultimate one-ups-man-ship….Ending someone’s life is the ultimate definition of power.” He went on to talk about how it would be really interesting to have a game where you as the player were incapable of killing your opponents, not because of ethical or mechanical considerations, but because – for instance – you were playing a race of beings (like angels, say) that simply couldn’t be killed.

What would our games be like if we were to face such constraints? What would the ultimate expression of our power, our victory, be like in the situation where we became incapable of permanently removing the (living) impediment to achieving our goal?

Our discussion seems to indicate that such a game would become more about stealth, about puzzle-solving, and about “traps” than it would about defeating enemies. It would – in many ways – become like the non-lethal tactics in Dishonored, Deus Ex, or the Thief series. More about brains and skill than brawn and hair-trigger reflexes.

But, more importantly, our conversation revealed that gamers see games much differently than non-gamers. Non-gamers see the plot, the narrative, the characters, the “dressing,” to use this particular designer’s term. Gamers see through the “dressing” and play with the mechanics of the game. In that situation, the virtual “people” become like the little dots in Pac-Man, points to chew through in pursuit of leveling up or reaching an achievement goal. The game is about understanding the mechanics, the tactics, rather than character and narrative immersion.

This is not to say that narrative and “dressing” aren’t important. They are. There’s a reason that there are gamers who won’t play games with graphic cutscenes. Sure, some gamers ignore the graphic violence or even like watching it (after all, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are enormously popular), but others won’t. Nevertheless, there is still a difference between the way gamers play games and non-gamers perceive games. A non-gamer – like my mom, for instance – sees Bioshock as a game that asks us to decide whether we kill or don’t kill a little girl. Gamers see that theoretically ethical question as a mechanical choice – “Do I want this immediate reward now, or do I want to see what Tennenbaum means when she says she’ll ‘make it worth your while’?” – about resource management (one that ultimately rewards the player for making the “right” choice).

And there’s no faulting either side. I don’t understand a lot of what’s happening in ballet, for instance, because I don’t understand the level of technical skill it takes to execute certain moves that to me appear rather simple but could be incredibly difficult. On the other hand, I don’t try to tell ballet dancers what they should and should not do in their performances. And that’s what this whole debate on the validity of games comes down to.

As an outsider, a non-gamer, you don’t understand how the game is working on a gamer’s psychology. You only see the player shooting other “people” and assume that such a scene must be enabling or at least anesthetizing the player to violence. But the player does not perceive the game the same way you do. They see what Ian Bogost calls the “procedural rhetoric” of the game: the structure that underlies not only the gameplay, but even the narrative, leading the player along the trajectory that will culminate in “winning” the game.

And this is why it bothers me so much that people who aren’t gamers are trying to legislate gaming. Why I find it disheartening that people who have never played a game are getting louder voices than those who play or build those games. Why I really hope that the people who will study the influence of gaming as a science – psychologists, etc. – will be (or at least will include on their teams) gamers. Because they understand how gamers think, and understanding how gamers think is vital to understanding how they are being influenced by the games they play.

Settlers of Critical Thinking

So today my class actually sat down and played Settlers of Catan to explore issues of resource management and game theory. At the end of class, one student actually borrowed the game from me to play with his roommates. They had a great time. They got into it. They worked in teams. They competed. They did all the things that they were supposed to do in terms of theory – sometimes they made the irrational choice to “robber” someone who had stolen from them rather than use strategy. Sometimes they made “nicer” trades to get on a team’s good side.

The down side? They didn’t seem to recognize that they were actually doing this. From time to time I would point it out to the table as I watched and helped, but for the most part, this exercise was largely for my – rather than their – benefit. I was the one who really had the distance from the intensity of the game to notice the significant differences in teams who had to carefully manage resources and those who had a shortage and did a lot more verbal manipulation.

I got to see the teams who had a clear leader, the teams that worked out strategy together, and the fact that the only solo player (in either class) won… certainly, one instance isn’t nearly enough to know that solo play is an advantage, but it was interesting to note. He didn’t have to fight with anyone, or compromise his strategy to make room for someone else’s suggestions.

The most predominant element of theory I saw at work, though, was definitely the competitive drive acting as a rational-behavior-reducing utility. Once the robber got used the first time (by rolling a seven, rather than drawing a soldier), then it became a weapon. When I play, my friends and I try to avoid penalizing each other most of the time (by putting the robber on an empty tile). That was definitely not the case in my classes. Once that first seven was rolled, they went out of their way to buy soldiers to get “back” at each other, or – in some cases – to steal particular resources. Without more specific research, it’s hard to say whether the teams more prone to using the robber were actually hurting themselves, but my guess would be that they spent far more resources on development cards than they needed to for revenge, instead of building up cities or settlements for the victory points. That said, my solo player won by buying a development card that gave him a victory point.

But for me the most interesting part was seeing how the layout of the board impacted the strategies of the teams. One table had a huge shortage of wood (and a plenitude of sheep to the point where they ran out of sheep cards), so they didn’t expand outward, but built cities and development cards almost from the start. Another table had so much hostility that they rarely traded with each other. And another had mostly wood and brick, so they spent most of the game on roads and settlements because they didn’t have as much ore or sheep.

And the dice – the randomness – also had a huge impact on these numbers. Random chance, as we know from game theory, helps to mitigate strategy and equalize the players, but it also emulates the seeming randomness of resource management in the environment. If there’s a drought, you won’t have as much wheat. Foot and mouth disease can cause a dearth of sheep. And when you need those resources, you face Tragedy of the Commons. These are real-world issues that manifest in the distribution of tiles and numbers, and in the rolls of the dice. In this idea, the robber acts as a Free Rider whose theft of the blocked resource keeps that resource out of the hands of those who have legitimately paid for it.

The biggest issue was time – we didn’t have the time to get all the way to 10 victory points, and we didn’t have the time to really sit down and talk about what the game was teaching us about game theory, cooperation and competition, or resource management. It’s something I want to come back to with them, to work on in relation to the larger problems of systems theory and leadership… to talk about the ways in which their decisions as individuals interacted with the elements of the game beyond their control as a team and as a whole.

The Academic Game(r)

This week, Gamasutra ran a blog post about gaming and academia by Rami Ismail. In it, Ismail talks about an encounter he had with an academic at IndieCade East:

Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency….

After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions – which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’

Ismail says that “this rubbed me the wrong way,” because he had spent a lot of time trying to distill the term “player agency” for his audience and the academic in question had not recognized that clearly he understood the concept. While I would humbly suggest that this particular question could have been solved by Ismail beginning with the phrase, “Developers like to use the term ‘player agency,’ which is a really complex idea that I’m going to attempt to describe as we go,” that’s not really the point of his piece. (Although I’m a big fan of both using and explaining terms like “player agency.”)

The point is that there are two essential schools of thought, Ismail says, about education and game development. One of them – held by Ismail – is that you don’t need formal education to design games. The other – obviously held by the academic – is that education is essential. I’m going to say that educationis vital, but that the means of acquiring that education can be either academic or practical. Ismail gained his education practically – as he says, by creating games and struggling in the industry:

I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.

This is a completely valid education, as far as I’m concerned. There’s absolutely no reason why Ismail’s education is any less valid than someone who has a degree in game design. However, I think that practically educated designers like Ismail are going to become less and less common, just as practically educated filmmakers, novelists, and playwrights are far less common than they used to be – now, they are all expected to have college degrees, where decades ago, they weren’t.So while a degree in game design might now be more rare than not, and while developers might in fact still sneer a bit at someone with such a degree, within ten or twenty years, developers will be expected to hold them. (Side note – I’m not saying this is the way it should be, but that this is the way it almost certainly will be.)

But one thing about Ismail’s point doesn’t account for is that not all participants in the industry are developers, and that there is validity to academic training for those of us who aren’t creators or publishers or programmers. Those of us who are academic gamers – the theorists, the critics, the analysts. And that leads me to the flip side of Ismail’s argument – which is to say that academics shouldn’t be discounted from contributing to the evolution of the industry, either. Ismail focuses only on academics who are developers – those who make “serious games,” social games, and experimental games.

But just as theory and criticism have come to shape the way films and literature are made, so, too, will they influence and shape even triple-A game titles… and some of them already are. Bioware was founded by academics whose primary field was not gaming. Academia has a lot to offer the games industry, if the industry can stop thinking in dichotomous terms of “us” the developers who make the games and innovate, and “them” the academics who tell us that we’re uneducated. But the academics also need to stop acting with the sense that their extensive years of higher education somehow make them better than “uneducated” developers who have similar years of practical experience in the industry. In short, we need to learn from and with each other instead of each side assuming that the other doesn’t “understand” and is therefore inferior.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same core problem that the gaming community is finding in the gender divide: us versus them. Perhaps this is more of a tendency in the gaming community because games are by their nature competitive, and an us-versus-them mentality is a part of that competition. Perhaps it is because the industry has long been dominated by a homogeneous population of young, white males. Whatever the reason, though, the industry as a whole will benefit (as in genetics) from heterogeneity, and all sides need to learn to play nicely with one another.

Rescue Me!

Today’s classroom game brought to you by my Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry class, with whom I will be conducting more trials of games in the classroom. Last week we played a disaster-simulation game with two decks of cards as a means of discussing how human error can impact the success or failure of a system. I found it on a classroom game wiki here.

The game plays as follows. One group – the larger group – plays the role of the victims, the other, the rescuers. With some experimentation, we learned that two or three rescuers out of twenty is about the right ratio for a good, high-stress game situation. The victim group is each dealt a card. They can keep the card or just remember it. They then go stand in the middle of the room. Every 30 seconds or so, I flip over a different card from the victim deck and call out the suit on the card. Victims matching that suit have to sit (if standing) or “die” (if sitting). Victims can be rescued while sitting or standing.

The rescuers have their own deck of cards. They have to match the number (but not the suit) of the victims. They can carry three cards at a time. They can ask about those numbers only. The victims can only answer “yes” or “no.” Once a rescuer has used a card, it is discarded. They may also choose to discard cards. Discarded cards cannot be brought back into play.

The goal, of course, is to rescue all the victims. You can put a time limit on it, if you wish. If you have more than one group, the goal can be altered so that each group’s goal is to rescue more victims than the others. We went through the game two or three times per class.

The first time, the rescuers are not given the opportunity to consult about their strategy. The second (or third) time, they can.

Interestingly, we discovered that the rescuers who didn’t consult were actually overall more successful than their thoughtful friends. Why? Systems theory. People make mistakes. They don’t think of potential consequences. They forget rules. For instance, one of our rescuer groups flipped through their deck until they each had different numbers, then rushed about trying to save victims. The problem with this strategy is that they were discarding duplicate numbers… but some of the victims had duplicates (because there are four of each number in the deck). This meant that the rescuers actually cycled through their deck before they successfully managed to rescue all the victims.

We did learn, though, that a triage-style approach seemed to work best – aim for the people sitting on the floor first, then go to those who are standing. But it was also important that the rescuers not focus only on the sitters… because of the chance that I would seat and then kill the other victims (or that they would miss those numbers, like the over-planning rescuers) before they got there.

We also discovered that chance plays a huge role in success or failure. One group lost because the first two cards I flipped were clubs, so all the victims with clubs “died” almost instantly. No matter how quickly the rescuers had worked, they would not have been able to save those victims. Success and failure don’t always rely on the human factor – or on leadership. In a couple of instances, the rescuers had a clear leader. In one of them (the one with the most thought-out plan), this was actually a bad thing. In the other, the rescuers were successful because their leader was making good snap decisions instead of adhering to a flawed plan.

There was very little that was terribly shocking about the process, although I was a little surprised to note that – in this case, anyway – instinct proved better than forethought. Since we only played through five times, though, I imagine that might be a bit misleading.

But the part my students liked the best was tweaking the game itself. They wanted to try it with more frequent “kill” cards, with less time, with fewer rescuers. In fact, every modification they made was to make the game harder, not easier. And that told me something very important about games… and about learning. Students – and, I think, most people – actually want to be challenged. We might not say so, we might not even think so, but ultimately we thrive under challenging conditions. We do our best work when it matters, not when we have all the time in the world and no consequences.

This isn’t a new revelation. Jane McGonigal makes the same argument in Reality is Broken. Our lives, as they exist day-to-day, are often mundane and monotonous. They aren’t interesting, they don’t challenge us, and the work we do doesn’t matter in a real, tangible, visible way. In games, choices matter, and we can see our progress clearly in the advancement of the game – or we can see why we aren’t progressing, make the necessary corrections, and then succeed. It’s one of the reasons that gamification has become increasingly popular – because it shows us that we aren’t just beating our heads against the proverbial walls, that what we do matters (even if only in achievement points), and it makes us feel good about overcoming a challenge, however small. Because the little things matter.