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November 2008

Video Games and Human Values Initiative

1iliad Last March I was contacted by Roger Travis, who teaches Classics at the University of Connecticut, about a project he had in mind that would bring together scholars from various disciplines - as well as high school teachers, students, and the broader community of gamers - to create an online center for participatory learning about video games.

The premise was simple: video games engage us on multiple levels: culturally, rhetorically, pedagogically, and otherwise. The dynamics and the effects of these engagements are worthy of collaborative study. Roger's own work, for example, examines games' relationship to Homeric epic. From his "Living Epic" course description:

The Living Epic demonstrates that the most important aspects of video games are as old as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and just as potentially beneficial to society. Video gamers reawaken the ancient epic tradition of the Homeric bards, and learn about such essential cultural values as the nature of virtue itself, just as the ancient Greeks learned those values from their epics.

I happily accepted Roger's invitation, and we were quickly joined by Jeff Howard from the University of Texas at Austin and author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. Together, we outlined a set of goals for the project and constructed a preliminary proposal for funding. Since then, others have joined us as Fellows with expertise in literature, technology, drama, education, communication, and modern languages. Thanks mainly to Roger's tenacity and hard work, final proposals for support were submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the MacArthur Foundation.

All of this means we're now moving forward to create an online nexus for courses and scholarship to advance our understanding of how video games and their culture can constructively shape our values and enrich society. We believe a rigorous approach to considering these issues is necessary to properly account for the many ways games provoke us to consider the world and our places in it. Gamers may have a strong sense of this from first-hand experience; but our culture at large remains mostly unaware that games can possess and express this powerful dimension.

Building the infrastructure for such a center will take time, and we plan to roll it out in phases over the next two years. But to get things started, Roger will offer the Initiative's first two courses very soon: a two-week online non-credit course “Living Epic,” specifically aimed at elementary and secondary school teachers and parents (enrolling now!), and a semester-long for-credit course “Gaming Homer,” aimed at advanced undergraduates, to be offered this spring. I will offer a course on the art and history of video games (and possibly a version of my RPG course) in the summer and/or fall of '09.

As I said, we're still in the construction process, but thanks to Roger we have a dedicated Video Games and Human Values Initiative website, as well as a wiki with lots of useful background on the project. I'm delighted to be involved in this work and hope it will contribute in positive ways to the ongoing conversation about video games.

People drive me crazy


"Hell is other people." --Jean-Paul Sartre

As RPGs go, Fallout 3 and Fable II are remarkable achievements. While they differ significantly in the worlds they present, the role-playing experiences they provide, and the genres they blend, they both offer rich, satisfying experiences to the player. Tonally, they exist at near-opposite ends of the RPG spectrum, and I find myself motivated to play one or the other based purely on my mood. Sometimes gray desolation is the last place I want to go; other times, I just can't handle more twee.

Labels are always tricky, but I would classify Fable II as an adventure-RPG, while Fallout 3 feels more like a shooter-RPG. If you play both, it's likely you will prefer one over the other, as it seems these two games were designed to appeal to different sets of gamers.

Fable II is...well, a fable - a sly, fantastical tale told in a fanciful authorial Molyneux-voice with color and depth delivered via player choice. Fallout 3, on the other hand, is a gritty meditation on crafty survival in a world-in-shambles where we have become our own worst enemy. Choices impact experience here too, but in ways that lead to far less conclusive outcomes.

You might say Fable II aims for your heart, while Fallout 3 aims for your head. That's a bit too tidy, but I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of accurate.

Both games, however, share one pernicious problem that I had hoped they would overcome. All is well as I explore these worlds and determine my own courses of action. But the moment I must deal with another human being, the wheels on both games begin to wobble. Simply put, the weakest parts of these games are the stilted and awkward ways they present interactions between my avatar and the other characters in the games. In the case of Fable II, it's primarily an issue of mechanics; in Fallout 3, it's mostly about aesthetics.

Fable II is about the relationships you establish between your character and all the men, women, and children you encounter in the game. You woo, seduce, marry, divorce, trade, impress, insult - and all sorts of other interactions - with characters in every town, village, and highway. These exchanges are pivotal to the experience of Fable II because they determine what people think of you. Your status and behavior in the world affects the well-being of others and the conditions they live in. Given all this, why is my primary means of interaction with other humans a menu wheel with a set of canned expressions?

Basically, I can be rude, scary, social, fun, or flirty. I can fart, belch, and blow kisses. I can whistle, dance, and flex my muscles. In other words, I can do pretty much anything I want...except actually interact with other people. Standing in the center of a town cracking farts and showing off my trophies in an endless series of timed button presses will make me the most impressive, powerful, and sexually desirable man on the face of the earth to the crowd of swooning townspeople gathered around me. This may be somebody's idea of role-playing wish-fulfillment, but not mine. Fable II is a brilliant and even subversive RPG, but this, it seems to me, is a significant and unfortunate flaw.

Fallout 3 has no such problems. It offers me a seemingly endless series of interactions with a wide range of NPCs. Branching conversations, quests and story lines take me from one character to the next, and I feel genuinely motivated to encounter these people and get to know them. And that's where things break down for me.

The people of Fallout 3 are stiffs. They're like robots meandering from one place to the next with an illusion of purpose. Engaging one is like hitting his PLAY button. He stops and looks at you, the "camera" centers him in the frame in the exact same way every time, and his animatronic rubber-faced self begins emoting. The voice acting is markedly improved (with more variety, thank goodness) from Oblivion, but the facial animations remain primitive and mask-like. Rarely do the person I'm looking at and the voice I'm hearing seem to belong together.

Add to this the conundrum of text. I need text to respond to the characters, but I don't need text while I'm hearing them speak. Playing Bethesda games at their default settings often feels like I've inadvertently turned on subtitling in a movie that's already in English. So I turn it off. But when I do, I'm stuck watching  lifeless faces with mummified bodies delivering lively (sometimes a bit forced-lively) speech. Ironically, I prefer the subtitles. They distract me from the disconnect.

Am I nitpicking? I don't think so, especially when both games rely on frequent exchanges with other characters to carry so much of their role-playing and narrative loads. If the social mechanic in a game about social interactions is weak, as it is in Fable II, this is a problem. If first-person encounters are a primary means of delivering quests and storytelling (in highly realistic visual environments), Fallout 3's stilted character models and animations are a problem.

So I obviously hate these two games, right? Wrong. I love them both, and I look forward to explaining why in my forthcoming reviews of each over at PopMatters. None of the issues I've raised are showstoppers by any means, but they do suggest that neither game quite delivers on every promise, nor do they completely overcome the problems of their predecessors (the original Fable and Oblivion). You should, nevertheless, play these games, and I suggest playing them slowly. Just don't let their people drive you crazy. ;-)

Hoosier miracle

Indiana_state_flag I don't make a habit of writing political posts here. In fact, this is my first one. So I hope you'll indulge me for one day while I share a few personal thoughts on what happened yesterday here in my home state.

Barack Obama won the state of Indiana. I'm going to type that again just because it feels so good. Barack Obama won the state of Indiana.

I know that's not the big story. Barack Obama is President-elect of the United States of America. That's the big story, and no local victory can match the impact of this momentous event. But if you had grown up where I grew up; if you had seen the things I've seen living in my home state; and if you understood how utterly impossible this victory seemed even a mere six months ago - you would perhaps feel what I feel today. You would grasp the magnitude of this event.

I am a liberal. Not a moderate. Not a centrist. Not a "social liberal." I'm what my neighbors call a "Kennedy liberal." This means that here in Indiana, I am a perpetual loser. With the exception of my grad school years living in New York and a few years teaching in Wisconsin (both places where my politics were considered acceptable, if not universally embraced), every Presidential election cycle in my lifetime has meant defeat. Even in the Clinton years, we failed to deliver the state of Indiana. We never even came close. Indiana always votes Republican.

On my local election ballot yesterday, I could choose from a total of three Democrats: Obama for President, and two candidates running for state office. Every other candidate on my ballot was a Republican running unopposed.

Indiana is the home of the Church of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Indiana's Klansmen came from all walks of life. They were not disproportionately rural, or less educated or even predominantly fundamentalist. Several of the most powerful Grand Wizards of the Klan hailed from Indiana. I have never bothered to trace it, but I am certain some of my ancestors were active members of the KKK.

Indiana is a deeply conservative state with a long history of intolerance. Racial epithets remain commonplace (Mexican immigrants have replaced African Americans as the favorite target), and being gay is still a dangerous thing to be in the wrong bar on a Saturday night. My neighbor three doors down has a Confederate flag in his window.

And Barack Obama won the state of Indiana yesterday. Do you see the miracle of this? I'm too old and too cynical to think we've erased all our problems or found sudden enlightenment. But maybe we've begun to turn the corner in my tiny spot on the globe. Maybe this is the beginning of real change.

I knocked on doors and made phone calls for Barack Obama, and so did many of my friends. It was to be another hopeless cause. It was to be just another heartbreaking election night in Indiana. But it wasn't. He won. We won. For the first time in my political life, I feel proud to call myself a Hoosier. And for the first time in so very many years, I feel proud to call myself an American.

The Oddysee begins

Abe The Vintage Game Club begins its collective play-through of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee today. All are welcome to join us as we dive into one of the most distinctive and beautiful 2-D side-scrollers ever made.      

As usual, we'll be taking our time with this game, so feel free to jump in and join the conversation at any point. If you're interested in synchronizing your play with other members of the VGC, you'll find separate threads for each area of the game. I hope you can join us.

Click here for more information about the club and our plans for Abe's Oddysee.

The world according to Molyneux

"Albion rose from where he labour'd at the Mill with Slaves.
Giving himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death."
--William Blake, The Dance of Albion

"Oh Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again."
--Led Zeppelin, Achilles Last Stand


In Fable 2, Peter Molyneux's Albion is a lush snow-globe vision of Great Britain that weaves together an eccentric melange of storybook tales and fantasy adventure - with plenty of sexual escapades and political intrigue to spice things up. Set in a wildly anachronistic blend of medieval, renaissance, and 18th century England, it's a greatest-hits mix of English culture ala popular literature and film, with a healthy blend of subversive Swift and scatological Monty Python.

The wonder of Fable 2 is that it all works. Unlike its predecessor, which offered the promise of a meaningful experience it couldn't deliver, Fable 2's towns, countrysides and highways are full of landmarks, characters and situations worth stopping for.

It's a testament to the richness of the game's environments that no matter how intently I try to stick to the main storyline, something always draws me away. In other games (e.g. Fallout 3) it's usually an interesting side-mission or character-request that pulls me away; but in Fable 2 it's nearly always the world itself that diverts me: a mysterious path leading away from the golden trail, a curious object on the horizon, the voice of a gargoyle insulting me.

I'll save the role-playing elements of Fable 2 for another post - and I highly recommend Corvus Elrod's recent posts on his experiences with the game - but an undeniably defining feature of great RPGs is the vivid worlds they present to the player. I've been thinking about how this works (when it works), and it seems to me we can identify certain key features that tend to distinguish successful RPGs when it comes to creating and delivering a coherent and satisfying world to the player.

So here's a stab at a feature list of features, so to speak, and how they tend to work in Fable 2. If I've forgotten something (as I'm sure I have), please feel free to jump in and fill the gaps.

  1. A world that stimulates my imagination
    Molyneux's Albion is a sumptuous and stylized visual feast that somehow manages to make sense of all its parts. It makes no effort to logically explain why traveling bards, rifles, and magical energy swords all belong in this world, but they do. Albion is a fun (and often funny) place to be, but it also contains a dark side that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. I've had two dreams set in Albion since I started playing Fable 2, so I guess I can safely say: imagination stimulated.

  2. A world that rewards exploration
    Much has been made of the dog who functions as your sidekick throughout the game. He is a terrific addition to be sure, only partly because he sniffs out treasures. But Albion offers a tremendous wealth of content - side-quests, off-the-beaten-path locations, mini-games, and assorted nutty characters - all of which feel like valuable, worthwhile in-game events. You explore Albion not simply to extend your play-time. Navigating this world delivers experiences that deepen and contextualize your character's journey through the story. Taking on the game's many challenges nearly always results in something more interesting than an EXP boost.

  3. A world populated by distinctive characters
    Fable 2 has extraordinarily high production values (thanks Microsoft!), and nowhere is this more obvious than in the broad range of singular characterizations voiced by a talented cast of English actors, including Stephen Fry, Oliver Cotton, and Zoë Wanamaker. I can't think of another video game with quite the gallery of fully-voiced miscreants, sad-sacks, hucksters, and self-deluded suitors. Clever and genuinely funny writing permeates the game from beginning to end, and you will never forget a particular heroine nicknamed Hammer who simply will not or cannot stop talking.

  4. A world that responds to my actions and decisions
    I won't say much about this here because to do so would involve much spoilage. Suffice it to say that Fable 2 significantly revises the binary Good/Evil formula that so limited the original Fable. Your choices really do matter in Fable 2, but not always in the ways you might expect. To me, one sure sign of successful game design is my desire, upon completion, to immediately play the game again in a different way. If only Fallout 3 and Little Big Planet weren't staring at me so forlornly...

  5. A world that provokes me to ask "What if...?"
    Gamers love exploring the margins of games, testing the limits of design, and generally trying to figure out what they can get away with. Fable 2 responds to this kind of gameplay reasonably well. While it's no Fallout 3 (more on that soon), the game leaves room for plenty of "what if" choices (without the multi-game save function crutch of Fallout 3). Fable 2 defaults to a "safety on" setting that prevents you from killing innocent people by mistake. But you can turn this off, and when you do all sorts of "what if" possibilities emerge.

  6. A world that makes me reflect on my own
    Fable 2 was assigned an "M" (Mature) rating by the ESRB, a rating I consider appropriate. I mention this only to point out an interesting fact. In nearly every conversation I've had with gamers considering purchasing the game, not a single person was aware of this. On a hunch, I spoke with the manager of my near-local EB Games store, and he told me, "You have no idea how many underage people we've turned away on Fable 2. I'd say at least a hundred, including phone calls."

    Molyneux and company seem to have understood that Fable 2 must open up a world of gameplay choices, characters, and situations that speak to modern gamers in ways that go beyond the typical RPG tropes and good vs evil formulas. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage are perceived no differently than heterosexual or "traditional" marriage in Fable 2. Prostitution, casual sex, and other so-called taboo subjects are all just another day in Albion. The result, in my view, is a world that stands a much better chance of serving - however stylized - as a mirror on our own.

For another take on Molyneux's world-making achievement, I highly recommend "Fable 2: An open letter to Peter Molyneux" at PixelVixen 707.