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September 2007

August 2007

Video games and aggression: more opinions

Sam2 The most recent issue of Developmental Psychology reports on a study that suggests a possible cause and effect relationship between aggressive behavior in boys and the degree to which boys identify with violent characters in video games. However, as Brandon Erickson notes in an essay at

I found a couple much more fascinating results buried in the article's discussion section. These are:

              1. There was no significant correlation between the perceived realism of the game and the player's feeling of immersion.
              2. Realism and immersion did not influence the players' aggression levels.

Both of these results seem to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom about videogames. The first statement confirms something that I have actually been trying to articulate for a long time, but have often felt unequipped to do so. The second statement also goes against the idea that the (supposed) negative effects of videogames are heightened by increased realism. These conclusions are worth pondering, and I'm surprised that the authors didn't highlight them more in the article.

The complete text of Erickson's essay can be found here.

I am Samus and I'm not lonely

Samus I bought a t-shirt for my wife last year (I know, big spender) with a small outline of Samus on the front. Underneath the image are the words: "I am Samus." She loves the shirt, even though she has never played any of the Metroid games. Watching me play them, evidently, has been enough to form at least some kind of association. Now that she's six months pregnant (my wife, not Samus), the image on that shirt has become a bit stretched and distorted, but you can still easily recognize our dear Samus.

I report this bit of personal trivia because I caught a glimpse of another slightly distorted image of Samus today...while playing Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Don't get me wrong, I'm thoroughly enjoying the experience, and the new control scheme suits me just fine. But one of the signature aspects of every Metroid game since the original is the pervasive sense of solitude you feel as you navigate the barren worlds presented. Sure, you're  bound to meet any number of creatures bent on eliminating you, but your status as a human bounty hunter exploring Zebes, the Phendrana Drifts, or virtually every other desolate locale in the previous games meant coping with a powerful sense that you are alone in the universe.

Samus is alone no more. Apparently, in between Metroids Echoes and Corruption, she has corralled a gallery of chatty admirers. Making your way around the Federation fleet's capital ship, you run into one soldier after another who recognizes you and expresses his admiration. All very professional. No come-ons or catcalls. This is Nintendo, after all, and besides, Samus is packing heat, which tends to quell chauvinist behavior.

The distorted moment arrives in the first extended cut-scene (another Metroid series first) when we discover Samus lined up with a small collection of three other hunters, one of which has temporarily morphed into a duplicate of Samus herself, apparently as a joke. In this group of exotic characters, our dear Samus looks positively ordinary. Fortunately, she's not there for long and the action gets furious pretty fast. I left off the game at the point where Samus is about to land on another planet for her first mission...which she will apparently execute alone, old-school Metroid style.

The game looks to be a real gem, but that opening is a real departure. Retro Studios' decision to keep Samus silent was a wise one indeed. A talking Samus would be too much distortion for me.

Horror: you have a choice

Psycho In my Art and History of Video Games course, students typically bring a vast amount of gaming experience with them, but relatively little experience reflecting on games in a formal or systematic way. When asked to consider a game's narrative structure, for example, they often rely on skills they have applied to analyzing literature or film. Inevitably, they observe that video games, unlike literature or film, offer the player/reader choice and control unavailable to them in books or movies. When we look at this closely, we usually agree that the best term for this important distinction is agency.

Two recent blog posts got my attention in this regard today, and they're both worth your time. Alice on her blog Wonderland - yes, she's clever - mentions a post on Wired that got her thinking about agency as it relates to horror games:

So you may or may not know that horror games make up my absolute favourite genre. Just love them. It's why Quake appealed so much, over say, Counter-Strike. I love them because of the agency: instead of watching dumb screamy people walk around dark houses without turning the lights on, I get to sit in my living room and stand at the entrance of a room, and not go in. It's so satisfying.

I go in eventually, of course. Resident Evil (the crows!) is a breeze compared to something like Project Zero, the first of which had me screeching at the telly (and throwing the rumblepak across the room) while my flatmate shook with laughter from the sofa.

The essay that inspired Alice is Clive Thompson's "Gore is Less: Videogames Make Better Horror Than Hollywood.":

Indeed, the endless potential for ass-handing is why games may actually be a superior medium to films for scaring the bejesus out of you...In a game, of course, the fourth wall is obliterated, and you actually do have the choice about whether to go into The Bad Room or to run screaming. If you're a total coward (like me) this ability to control your fate induces considerably more suspense, because I head-game myself into a frenzy. I'll start down a corridor, hear something freaky up ahead, then freeze in panic. Maybe if I stay quiet the monster will go away? Shit, maybe it's already headed this way, and I should move! But if I move the monster will hear me ... so maybe I should stay quiet ... gaaaaah!

Games already seem like dream states. You're wandering around a strange new world, where you simultaneously are and aren't yourself. This is already an inherently uncanny experience. That's why a well-made horror game feels so claustrophobically like being locked inside a really bad -- by which I mean a really good -- nightmare.

Notice how I never mentioned the game that inspired Thompson's piece? I promised no more Bioshock posts, and I keep my promises!

Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece...right?

Shadow4 I thoroughly enjoyed Fumito Ueda's stark and evocative Shadow of the Colossus, and I admire his Ico even more, but my enthusiasm for the games wasn't shared by any of my friends. A couple of years ago I had the temerity to assign Ico to a group of students for a narrative analysis assignment. They nearly killed me. They hated it. Slow, boring, bad graphics...and why do you have to drag that girl around with you everywhere?!

Maybe they were right, at least according to this essay by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh on GameCareerGuide:

Judging from his two major brain dumps, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, game designer Fumito Ueda is a complicated guy to put in charge of a video game. He's an ivory tower idealist with only a passive understanding of practical architecture.

As a dreamer, his ideas are too organic, too personal to fit the clichés that most of us consider the building blocks of game design. Ueda sidesteps convention where it gets in his way, yet not necessarily where it might get in the player's way. Thus we get deliberate and cleverly designed games, meaningful and painfully gorgeous games, that are nevertheless a nuisance to actually play, leaving Ueda's statements, in all their profundity, accessible only to the most devoted.

I'm not convinced, but he makes an interesting argument. I would counter that Ueda's grasp of form and function, his aesthetic union of narrative and environment, make his signature approach to these games not only unique (alienating to some) but integral to how this game plays and, more importantly, what it all means. Play them and decide for yourself. Just like my students did.

I probably scarred them for life.

Why should a game be hard to play?

Zelda_1 The trustworthy souls over at Gamasutra have offered up a list of 20 difficult games and the important design lessons to be derived from each.

The impulse to make video games easier can be traced to a fundamental change in perception over what a game should be. The older school of thought, which dates back and beyond the days of Space Invaders to the era of pinball, is that a game should measure the player's skill. Arcade games, in fact, must make it difficult for a player to last for any great length of time in order to keep money coming into the coin box. The newer concept is that a game should provide an experience to the player.

So, old-school gamer, the next time you're ready to throw that controller or pound that keyboard remember...maybe the designer really loves you after all.

You can read the full article here.

Suffer the little children

Littlesister0 Yeah, yeah, I promised my last Bioshock post would be the last, but I lied. How could I pass up a chance to tell you about this insightful essay by Leigh Alexander, editor of Worlds in Motion and writer for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland:

One of the things that makes BioShock so compelling, ironically, is its humanity, a funny thing to think of when it’s so immediately evident just how far from humanity Rapture’s citizens have strayed. But it’s the objectivity of that distance that really gives one pause; though they’ve long since made fatal strides from the path of sanity, we can see behind each blood-smudged mask and spliced body, can hear in each broken moan and tortured whisper, the ghosts of who they used to be – ghosts that look quite a lot like us. full article here

Lots of games are disturbing, but few come as close as Bioshock in making the mirror to ourselves so unavoidably familiar and befitting to the world we live in now. Rapture is a place where good intentions have gone terribly wrong, and the victims are the very people who were supposed to benefit from an ideologically driven but fatally flawed plan. Hmm.

The theater guy in me can't resist: "Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, and the electrocutor; of the sword and gun; above all, of justice, duty, patriotism and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers." -- George Bernard Shaw, from The Devil's Disciple.

Why don't women play games?

Controllers Margaret Robertson is the former editor of my favorite (by far) gaming magazine, Edge. She now writes a terrific blog called Downtime that she hopes "won't be tedious or lame." Trust me, it is neither. You should definitely check it out.

In her most recent post she reexamines the question of why so few women play games and calls for a closer examination of basic gameplay issues as a likely culprit.

In asking why more women don't play games, we worried a lot, initially, about surface things - boy-games were too violent, too lasers-and-robots. What we needed was girl-games about shopping, horses and make-up! Now, thankfully, we've moved a little past that (despite the fact that games about shopping, horses and make-up do seem to be proving particularly successful with young female consumers, particularly on the DS), and are looking at important external factors. So we've noted that for games to be attractive to women they need to be available on hardware they feel comfortable with, and offer play-patterns that are compatible with busy, often fragmented lives.

My experience observing male gamers in my classes suggests that most of them have developed an easy familiarity with the gamepad, to the extent that they can elucidate in specific detail why the current Xbox 360 controller is superior to the Dualshock controller for the PS2...or vice versa. Their relative discomfort with computer games, on the other hand, has less to do with the quality of the games themselves than with the WASD keyboard and mouse control scheme, which they find awkward and cumbersome...the very thing many many of us computer gamers felt the first time we were handed a gamepad.

Obviously, game content matters. But as Robinson points out, feeling comfortable with the hardware is less a gender difference issue than an ease of use issue. If you missed the original Atari 1-button joystick bus when it left the station, it's hard to jump on the 7-button, 4-trigger, 2-joystick, 4-way directional pad bus currently barreling down the road.

One more Bioshock post

Sysshock Given all the frenzy surrounding Bioshock, the last thing you need is another frothy "This game rocks!" blog post (but, seriously, this game ROCKS!) With Metroid Prime 3 coming next week, it's great to be alive, isn't it?

Aside from publisher Take Two shares jumping 10% yesterday on strong sales of the title, serious gamers may be interested in connecting the dots between game designer Ken Levine's Bioshock and its groundbreaking spiritual predecessors  System Shock and System Shock 2 (Levine designed the second but not the first). Having not looked at the game for at least ten years, playing through the first hour of SS1 again last night revealed some compelling design choices that are clearly reflected in Bioshock and, surprisingly, still work well. I'll discuss these a bit more fully in the podcast coming this weekend, but a couple of quick notes:

  1. A visually stylized dystopia reflecting the consequences of technology/industry/ideology with no ethical restraints. System Shock looks forward to a cyberpunk depiction of 2072, while Bioshock looks backward to a retro art deco 1960.
  2. Both games place the protagonist in a world where his only link to humanity is a communicator that connects to a distant person who is trying to help him...but also needs his help.
  3. Logs, email, voice recordings serve as means to figuring out what has happened. The protagonist can listen to these while continuing to explore the environment. These artifacts slowly unravel what happened to the people in this world, which puts the protagonist in the role of anthropologist/detective.
  4. To survive, the hero must significantly alter his neurological makeup (plasmids in Bioshock; a surgical implant in SS1).
  5. Both games feature a thrillingly malevolent and complex antagonist free of ethical constraints and motivated by rational intentions...sort of.

If you plan to play Bioshock, you owe it to yourself to check out System Shock. Some clever fellows in Germany have figured out how to run the original under Windows from a USB thumbdrive. I tried it last night, and it works. You can get what you need here.

World of Warcraft as disease prevention model

Warcraft385_200161a Despite many claims to the contrary, World of Warcraft isn't a disease, though many of us have been inflicted by a feverish desire to hunt Murlocs. The story here, as reported by the Times of London, is that researchers are studying the recent "Corrupted Blood" incident in the game as a model for analyzing the outbreak of infectious diseases in the non-virtual multiplayer world known as real life. For a detailed background on the in-game plague and its consequences, click here.

From the Times article:

The discovery, revealed in next month’s issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, has been hailed as a significant step forward in understanding how a deadly virus could break out.

“By using these games as an untapped experimental framework, we may be able to gain deeper insight into the incredible complexity of infectious disease epidemiology in social groups,” wrote the authors, Eric Lofgren, of Rutgers University, New Jersey, and Nina Fefferman, of Tufts University, Boston.

In March of this year a similar study of the WOW outbreak appeared in the journal Epidemiology paralleling the Corrupted Blood incident with the recent SARS and avian influenza outbreaks. Laura Sydell from National Public Radio also reported in 2005 on scientific interest in the outbreak in her story 'Virtual" Virus Sheds Light on Real-World Behavior.

Bioshock mania

Bioshock_art_02_2 A little game by the name of Bioshock comes out tomorrow. Having played through the demo twice, I have to say it's pretty extraordinary. Yes, it's another Xbox 360 shooter, but it's quite more than that. The overall visual design is stunning, the vintage music and sound effects are by turns creepy and lovely, and it appears to tell a genuinely engaging and smart story (we'll see how well the full version makes good on this potential).

The reviews are pouring in now and it's clearly the critics' darling, currently averaging a score of 97. The PC demo was released a few hours ago, so you may want to check that out before deciding which version to buy.

Watch out for those Little Sisters.