Thursday, March 12, 2009

Required Playing: Eternal Darkness

Silicon Knights. 2002. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Nintendo GameCube. Nintendo.

Reading a description of the plot of Eternal Darkness might not give you the greatest confidence about the game's innovation; the plot reads more or less like a cheap Lovecraft ripoff. When I played it the first time, I was looking specifically at its "fourth wall"-breaking elements. I was not expecting to be completely blown away by the narrative structure. Since I played it, it has become my opinion that this game should be required playing for anyone discussing narrative in video games - its narrative structure is one of the most unique and well-designed that I have ever seen in a video game.

Eternal Darkness goes like this: a young girl named Alexandra is told that her grandfather has been murdered, and goes to his house to find out what happened. There she discovers a mysterious book - the Tome of Eternal Darkness - containing a legend about the Elder Gods, each of whom is trying to come into our world and take it over. The legend also tells of one of the God's undead servants, a former Roman soldier called Pious Augustus. While reading, Alex notices that most of the book is missing - it seems to have been removed. She inspects the house to find the other chapters.

The first chapter features a young woman in an ancient temple, bearing the very same book. At this point, however, the legend is all the book contains. As the young woman progresses through her journey, she writes down her experiences within the book. At the end of her life, she finds herself trapped within the temple.

As she has finished reading, we return to Alex in her grandfather's study. We now have all the information that the young woman in the chapter learned, including any spells she discovered. Alex can use these spells to uncover the next chapter of the book in the house. This chapter features a new character, and his autobiographical segment. Because he has inherited the book after the young woman of the first chapter, he too has access to all her information and spells. He adds his own as he discovers them, thus giving these same powers to Alex.

This goes on for 10 characters, each giving the next piece of the story of the Elder Gods, and providing further clues about what happened to Alex's grandfather. Each character has his or her own strengths and weakness, different items, and different fighting style. The controls, however, are similar enough across characters that the player can easily adjust to a new character within moments. By the time she has completely reconstructed the book, Alex has all the information she needs to defeat Pious Augustus and his Elder God.

The structuring here is brilliant. The multiple flashback system allows for a fascinating nonlinear narrative, while at the same time the inheritance feature of the book allows for completely plausible linear character ascension - the player continues to gain more and more powers, never losing ones she had previously, but without any sort of artificial feeling of "leveling up." Each character is entirely unique, and gives a refreshing change to gameplay (younger characters might have more strength, religious characters have greater sanity, older characters tire more easily, etc.), without being so different as to require the player to learn a new control scheme every time.

The flashbacks are even played with in the narrative in other ways; certain levels will take place in the same maps as previous levels, but with gaps of often hundreds of years. Therefore, things the player does in previous levels, as previous characters, can affect what the player can and cannot do in subsequent levels. (For instance, if you retrieve the longsword the first time you are in the monks' abbey, you can find it again on that character's corpse when your new character returns there years later.) All the stories interweave effortlessly with each other and with Alex's frame story.

As if this astoundingly well-crafted narrative wasn't enough, the game also provides some really interesting breaking of the fourth wall. The game features a "sanity meter" (it is not the only game to do so, but as far as I know, it's the only game to handle it quite like this), where the character you are currently playing has a limited amount of sanity, measured by a green vial on the screen. Witnessing strange and unbelievable horrors will drain your sanity meter, as will falling under the gaze of the game's monsters.

As your sanity drops, you begin to experience some strange effects. Blood might drip from the walls, the floor turns to quicksand, statues turn to watch you as you go past, etc. This is all your standard horror-genre sort of fare, but the game doesn't stop there. It also tries to mess with the player directly. When sanity gets low, the game might throw up a message that the controller has been disconnected, just as you enter a room with a huge crowd of enemies. It might tell you that the TV has been muted, or that the console has been restarted. All these effects are completely outside the context of the game, and aimed specifically at you the player, meant to make you doubt your own sanity. I will admit to being caught in at least one or two of them, and I knew they were coming! This clever little gimmick might be worth checking out on its own, even if the game wasn't a must-play for narrative structure.

I think games like this are a must-play before anyone argues that games can't have innovative or unique narrative structures. True, most games are linear or tree-style narratives, but just because many are, doesn't mean they have to be. I have never been as pleasantly surprised with a game as I was with Eternal Darkness, and while it may not be the most popular game in a commercial sense, I do believe it should be required for all Game Studies academics.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Readings in Game Studies: Avatars of Story and Half-Real

These are my final two books for now, and I'd like to offer them side-by-side for comparison purposes. These books represent two opposed schools of thoughts in game studies: narratology and ludology.

From what I've gleaned from my reading, this particular argument has gotten muddier and muddier as time has gone on. On the surface, the question is simple: should video games be studied as narrative artifacts, or as examples of games? (Perhaps, ludological artifacts? Or ludive? Ludic?) But both arguments have had voices that tend to lend a certain extremism and, importantly, both arguments have framed the other as extremist. The extremist narratological view states that games with stories are necessarily better, and that every game has narrative. The extremist ludological view states that games cannot have narrative, and that the goals of games and storytelling are fundamentally opposed to one another.

I agree with neither school in particular - my personal feeling on the matter (which I discuss in chapter 1 of my paper) is that games should be treated as the medium in which a story takes place, and thus the study of narrative in games is nearly impossible without looking at the game elements. Similarly, games can be studied as games in themselves in the same way that language can be studied separate from its content, but a full study would not be complete without looking at the unique tools that they offer the art of storytelling.

Still, I'd like to present these two books as the quintessential viewpoint for each school of thought.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Ryan offers some rather excellent summary and analysis of how narrative has been constructed in the past, in more traditional media, and how interactive narrative is now being born in new media. Her actual reference to video games is rather small, consisting of a single chapter in the entire book. Rather than dwelling on one particular form of interactive media, Ryan explores all aspects of how storytelling can be dynamic, including such experimental forms as hypertext fiction. Her approach is largely theoretical, and includes, for instance, a very informative series of diagrams on different potential narrative structures.

My one beef with Ryan's work is that, when she discusses video games, she seems to speak from a position of complete inexperience. With most other game studies writers, it is obvious from the text that the writer is familiar with video games, has - to a greater or lesser degree - played some of them, and, while perhaps not preferring it, has the potential to adopt a "gamer" persona when necessary. Not so with Ryan. Her references to various games come across as stilted and distant, and often she goes so far as to underestimate and even denigrate the medium she is supporting.

For instance, she refers to the narrative in FPSs as an "'affective hook' that lures players into the game. [...] Once the players are absorbed in the fire of the action, they usually forget whether they are terrorists or counterterrorists, humans defending the earth from invasion by evil aliens or aliens conquering the earth. Having fulfilled its role as a lure, the story disappears from the player's mind displaced by the adrenaline rush of the competition" (197). While this may be true of multi-player shooter "death-matches," single-player FPSs often have protagonists that the player identifies with more closely than with any other genre. Only the cheapest instances of the genre have stories bland enough to allow for this kind of disregard. (Granted, this book was written in 2006, and some of the best examples of storytelling in the FPS genre have only come out within the past two or three years. But that does not mean that reasonable examples were not present before that.)

Similarly, when describing how we look at/study games, she says, "A game does not need to tell stories that would provide suitable literary material to immerse the player in the fate of its fictional world, because the thrill of being in a world, of acting in it and of controlling its history, makes up for the intellectual challenge, the subtlety of plot, and the complexity of characterization that the best of literature has to offer" (195). It may be unintentional on her part, but she seems to be implying here that video games don't or can't contain "intellectual challenge," "subtlety of plot," or "complexity of characterization." Granted, a lot of current games don't contain these things. But then, neither does most current fiction. The "best of literature" is few and far between, and I do believe that games are fully capable of this depth, and that it has already been seen in some current examples of games. (Try Portal for "subtlety of plot," given how creatively the game asks the player to construct backstory from carefully-planted clues.)

She continues: "The pursuit of large audiences by the game industry and its reluctance to take risks explains in part why it has been sticking so far to stereotyped narrative themes and formulae, such as medieval fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, horror, and the mystery story. But through their emphasis on action, setting, and imaginary creatures of fantastic appearance, these narrative genres are much more adaptable to the interactive and fundamentally visual nature of games than "high" literature focused on existential concerns, psychological issues, and moral dilemmas. Literature seeks the gray area of the ambiguous, while games and popular genres thrive in the Manichean world ofthe "good guys" versus the "bad guys": if players had to debate the morality of their actions, the pace of the game, not to mention its strategic appeal, would seriously suffer" (195-196).

This just seems to indicate an ignorance of modern trends in gaming; morality and the player's consideration of it has become such an overused trope in modern gaming that it has in some cases been reduced to the level of gimmick. Gray areas abound in modern games - what about the US marine in Call of Duty 4 who dies slowly in the aftermath of a nuclear blast, unable to do anything to save himself? Consider the commentary this offers on warfare within a game focused on the player's participation in war. What about the scene towards the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, where the player is forced to kill the main character's mentor in order to fulfill his mission, despite the character's emotional attachment to her? Granted the game industry has often stuck to more easily implemented genres, as she says, but that doesn't mean that deeper, more meaningful games do not exist and, importantly, have the potential to exist in the future.

But I suppose one of my biggest complaints is the fact that she seems to show little regard for the games as artifacts in themselves. It may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that she gets a popular game title wrong (it's Tomb Raider, not Tomb Raiders) is almost personally offensive to me. Combine this with the fact that she does not list any of the games she mentions in her bibliography, and one begins to wonder if she actually played any of these games at all.

Still, regardless of this (and for many who might be interested in the sort of subject material she discusses, this criticism is really little more than a pet peeve on my part), she does have some truly insightful discussion of narrative, which is worth taking a look at. In particular, I found her three sets of diagrams of narrative structure (mentioned earlier) to be an excellent summary of some often very difficult concepts. She also has a very good point-by-point rebuttal to the classic arguments of the school of ludology.

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2005.

Compare this to Jesper Juul's Half-Real, which Avatars of Story references directly upon occasion. Juul is a ludologist, and believes that games should be studied as game objects, not as narrative objects. Although this book takes a more compromising stance than previous remarks on the viewpoint. (He now argues that it depends on how one defines "narrative" - a perfectly reasonable argument, although I still disagree with his conclusions.)

Juul prefers to look at the gaming experience as something that is half real - that is, half made up of a player's experience interacting with a set of concrete rules that define a game - and half fictional, referring to the virtual worlds in which these games take place, and the cues that the fictional aspect of games can lend to the rule-based system. (I know that agent X is a bad guy, because it looks like the green slimy aliens that my character is defending the world against.)

While I disagree on several of the points where Juul implies the lack of importance of game narrative, his arguments are well-formed and completely reasonable. His approach, while not the only way, is certainly one entirely valid way of studying games in general and even video games in particular. His compromising position provides more of a concession to the importance of the fictional aspect of games than do many ludological approaches, and thus helps prevent a certain loss of richness in study that one might get from an approach that completely disregards all narrative elements.

Both texts are worth a read, both on their own merits and the way they frame the ludology/narratology debate. As a conclusion here, I would like to present a short summary of the ludology vs. narratology question, as presented by either school.

Basic Idea:
Games can be studied as narrative artifacts, looking at the way they tell stories.

Extremism (as framed by own school):
All games tell stories; they are a superior story-telling medium to other media.
"[Tetris is] a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s--of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught." (Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997: 144 (quoted in Juul, 133))

Extremism (as framed by opposite school):
Games are better the closer they resemble more traditional narratives.
"In the rhetoric of narratology – or the storytelling rhetoric – we find an aesthetic understanding of video games in which researchers study how games might live up to the demands and requirements of narratives in literature and movies. Usually literary and film theorists are involved as representatives for this kind of rhetoric. Looking for narratives, the focal point of attention has explicitly been narrative-based games like adventure and role-playing games." (Aarseth 1997 (quoted in Konzack, 2007))

Basic Idea:
Video games are examples of games as a form of play, and should be studied as rule-based systems.

Extremism (as framed by own school):
Games and stories are of opposite nature and therefore incompatible.
"...story is the antithesis of game. The best way to tell a story is in linear form. The best way to create a game is to provide a structure within which the player has freedom of action. Creating a "storytelling game" (or a story with game elements) is attempting to square the circle, trying to invent a synthesis between the antitheses of game and story." (Costikyan, "Story vs. Game," 2000)

Extremism (as framed by opposite school):
Games are incapable of telling stories, and narrative can only be found in literature.
"Ludologists [...] are generally partial to the definition proposed by Gerald Prince in 1987, but since modified by its author [...]: "Narrative: the recounting ... of one more more real or fictitious events communicated by one, two or several (more or less overt) narrators to one, two or several (more or less overt) narratees. A dramatic performance representing many fascinating events does not constitute a narrative, since these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on stage." (1987, 58)." (Ryan, 184)

Having read these two texts, I think I shall have to rescind my earlier position as "probably a ludologist" and claim the title of narratologist. It's hard to determine where one fits in when so much of the argument is framed by the opposition, but the fact of the matter is that I'm looking at how games tell stories. So that makes me a student of narrative, and thus a narratologist.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Readings in Game Studies: What Video Games Have to Teach Us

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Revised and Updated Edition. New York: Palgrave and MacMillan, 2007.

This book is excellent - I highly recommend it for anyone interested not only in gaming, but in anything to do with teaching, learning, and literacy. Gee uses the medium of games and how they teach skills as an example to express the necessity of teaching (particularly in schools) in dynamic and involving ways. The writing style is engaging and his analysis is fascinating. Definitely a good read, even for the non-academic.

As for relevance to my own work, I marked so many passages in this book that I actually ran out of post-it notes halfway through and had to go out and buy more. There are so many quotes from his book that I find useful that I'm not sure I'll be able to fit them all in a single post. So, while very much of his work directly impacts my own, I'd like to focus for the purposes of this post on a single section that I felt was of the most interest - Gee's categorization of video game identity.

Because I've been studying narrative theory a lot lately, I've been getting caught up in the terms they use to describe the voices that go into the telling of a story and the reception of it. Terms like "implied narrator" and "implied reader" and so on. However, when one tries to transfer these personas to video games, the terms start to break down. The narrator is the character through which the "text" is experienced, but in a game, that same character is also the implied reader, since the player is assuming that character's role. It seems the previous literary terms must be discarded in favor of a new system of terminology. That's where Gee comes in.

Gee breaks the identity of the video game player down into three categories, each with different degrees of actual existance. His categories are the virtual identity, the real-world identity, and the projective identity. The real-world identity is the player playing the game - James Paul Gee, or Kyla Gorman. The virtual identity is the character in the game - Sora from Kingdom Hearts, or Gordon Freeman of Half-Life. The projective identity, in my opinion the most interesting of the three, sits somewhere between the two. The projective identity is the player as character. This identity represents the player's imagining of herself in the role of character - a "projection," as well as the player's wishes for the character to develop in a certain way - the player's "project."

Video games use this intermediary projective identity as a way to equate the other two identities, drawing them closer together and creating the player/character empathy I'm always harping on about. Through the projective identity the player feels involved on two levels - the level of experiencing the events of the character - the projective-virtual connection, and the level of removed interest in fulfilling an implicit game goal, controlling the character's development - the real-world-projective connection. By linking these three identities together, the real-world identity can mentally place herself in the position of the virtual identity, through the projective identity. This creates immersion and empathy, which in turn is responsible for much of the power of digital storytelling.

(If this sounds interesting to you, you really should read the book - Gee's identity formulation can be found in Chapter 3, "Learning and Identity: What Does it Mean to be a Half-Elf?")

I'd like to start by sharing the Gee quotes I've marked about identity, followed by the quotes on immersion, of which there are also quite a few. Finally, I will add the other miscellaneous relevant quotes to finish. I fully realize that there is a great deal of quotation here, but keep in mind that this is AFTER I have pruned what I marked and taken out the less-relevant remarks. As I said, Gee is a very insightful guy.

On Identity

"Each of these traits [that the player can customize] will affect how your character--that is, you--carries out dialogue and action in the world of Arcanum and how other characters in the world respond to you." (46)

"First, there is a virtual identity: one's identity as a virtual character in the virtual world of Arcanum--in my case the half-elf Bead Bead. I will represent this identity as "James Paul Gee as Bead Bead," where Bead Bead is italicized to indicate that, in this identity, the stress is on the virtual character Bead bead acting in the virtual world of Arcanum (though I am "playing/developing" her)." (49)

"The successes and failures of the virtual being Bead Bead (me in my virtual identity) are a delicious blend of my doing and not my doing. After all, I made Bead bead and developed her, so i deserve--partly, at least--praise for her successes and blame for her failures." (49)

"A second identity that is at stake in playing a game like Arcanum is a real-world identity: namely, my own identity as "James Paul Gee," a nonvirtual person playing a computer game. I will represent this identity as "James Paul Gee as Bead Bead," where James Paul Gee is italicized to indivate that, in this identity, the stress is on the real-world character James Paul Gee playing Arcanum as a game in real time (though Bead Bead is the tool through which I operate the game)." (49-50)

"A third identity that is at stake in playing a game like Arcanum is what I will call a projective identity, playing on two senses of the word "project," meaning both "to project one's values and desires on to the virtual character" (Bead Bead, in this case) and "seeing the virtual character as one's own project in the making, a creature whom I imbue with a certain trajectory through time defined by my aspirations for what I want that character to be and become (within the limitations of her cpacities, of course, and within the resources the game designer has given me)." This is the hardest identity to describe but the most important one for understanding the power of games like Arcanum. I will represent this identity as "James Paul Gee as Bead Bead," where the word "as" is italicized to indicate that, in this identity, the stress is on the interface between--the interactions between--the real-world person and the virtual character." (50)

"The kind of person I want Bead Bead to be, the kind of history I want her to have, the kind of person and history I am trying to build in and through her iss what I mean by a projective identity. Since these aspirations are my desires for Bead Bead, the projective identity is both mine and hers, and it is a space in which I can transcend both her limitations and my own." (51)

[In discussing the difference between the three identities as exposed by the way failure is represented differently by each.] "The projective identity of Bead Bead as a project (mine) in the making can fail because I (the real-world James Paul Gee) have caused Bead Bead (the virtual me) to do something in the game that the character I want Bea Bead to be would not or should not do." (52)

"It is not uncommon, even when young people are playing first-person shooter games featuring a superhuman hero (like Master Chief in Halo)--a character that, unlike Bead Bead, they usually cannot choose or develop but must take as is--that they will redo a given fight scene because they feel they have "let their character down." They want to pull off the victory more spectacularly, as befits a superhero. They feel responsible to and for the character. They are projecting an identity as to who the character ought to be and what the trajectory of his or her acts in the virtual world ought, at the end of the day, to look like." (53)

"As a player, I was proud of Bead Bead at the end of the game in a way in which I have never been proud of a character in a novel or movie, however much I had identified with him or her. [...] my satisfaction with Bead Bead is thinged with pride (it could have been regret had things turned out differently), at various levels, in and with myself. This feeling is not (just) selfish. In a sense, it is also selfless, since it is pride at things that have transcended--taken me outside of--my real-world self (selves), if I am playing the game reflexively." (54)

[on students in science classrooms, projecting their identity as scientists] "They want their scientist to become this sort of person, whether or not they are themselves anything like this in their "everyday" lives. In good science learning, learners are not just role-playing being a scientist of a certain sort (their virtual identity). They are also proactively building that virtual person as a certain kind of person with a certain kind of history. They are projecting their own hopes and desires onto that person." (62)

"The learner, in this case, gets to customize the identity the game offers him to a certain extent--this, in fact, is an important feature of good video games." (37)

"Thus, Von Croy's remark [about which buttons the player should push] perfectly melds and integrates talk to Lara and talk to the player. This melding is part of what marries the player's real-world indentity as a player and his or her virtual identity as Lara. This type of talk is very common in video games." (118)

"Such language is one among many devices in a good video game that encourages the player to relate, juxtapose, and meld his or her real-world identity (actually, multiple real-world identities) and the virtual identity of the character he or she is playing in the virtual world of the game. Such a process also encourages the player to adopt [...] a projective identity." (121)

"...when you are playing as a virtual character in a video game, that character, (you) is the hero (center) of the story and in that sense the "good guy" no matter how bad he or she might be from another perspective." (147)

"Good video games offer players strong identites. [...] In video games, players learn to view the virtual world thorugh the eyes and values of a distintive identity [...] or one they themselves have built from the ground up." (216)

On Empathy

"Players can choose strategies that fit with their style of learning, thinking, and acting. This, of course, is highly motivating both for learning and for playing the game and a rich source for reflecting on one's own styles of learning and problem solving (and, perhaps, experimenting with new ones)." (78)

"When the character you are playing dies in a video game (and it is always, of course, a main character), you can get sad and upset, but you also usually get "pissed" that you (the player) have failed. Perhaps you even feel that you have failed yoru character. And then you start again, usually from a saved game, motivated to do better. The emotional investments you have in a video-game story are different from the emotional investments you have in a book or movie." (80)

"Players are placed, by the very design of the game, in the same psychological space as Lara--learning from Von Croy but not subordinating themselves entirely to his old-fashioned professorial need for dominance. The game's design encourages the player to take on a certain sort of attitude and relationship with Von Croy--and, more generally, a certain sort of personality--that represents, in fact, just the sort of person that Lara is." (117)

"As we said earlier, the player is encouraged by the very design of the game to be more Lara-like--playful and willful--leaving behind fears and hesitations about authority and the risks of exploration." (122)

"But, alas, Heinrich got me in the end. I went down with more pride and dignity (remember, in my projective identity, I care about such things), but I went down nonetheless." (127)

The movie Saving Private Ryan [put the audience in the middle of a full-scale battle] as well, but the game puts the player right in the midst of the action, pinned to the ground, surrounded by deafening noise and woundedm, wometimes shell-shocked soldiers, and facing the near certainty of a quick death if he or she makes one wrong move." (145)

"Video games have an unmet potential to create complexity by letting people experience the world from different perspectives. Part of this potential is that in a video game, you yourself have to act as a given character. As you act quickly, and not just think leisurely, and as you (while playing) celebrate the character's victories and bemoan his or her defeats, you must live in a virtual world and make sense of it." (159)

"[...] players feel a real sense of agency, ownership and control. It's their game." (217)


"The experience brought home to me, forcefully, that learning should be both frustrating and life enhancing, what I will later call "pleasantly frustrating." The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don't fall back on learning only what is simple and easy." (3)

"Rather, [people] think best when they reason on the basis of patterns they have picked up through their actual experiences in the world, patterns that, over time, can become generalized but that are still rooted in specific areas of embodied experience." (9)

"Finally, despite some claims to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that the effect size of video-game play on aggression is smaller than the effect size for television, thereby rendering the claim that there is something special about the interactivity of games as a source of aggression suspect." (11)

"The game [Pikmin] encourages him to think of himself as an active problem solver, one who persists in trying to solve problems even after making mistakes, one who, in fact, does not see mistakes as errors but as opportunities for reflection and learning. It encourages him to be the sort of problem solver who, rather than ritualizing the solutions to problems, leaves himself open to undoing former mastery and finding new ways to solve new problems in new situations." (36)

"The story line ina video game is a mixture of four things:

1. The game designers' ("authors'") choices.
2. How you, the player, have caused these choices to unfold in your specific case by the order in which you have found things.
3. The actions you as one of the central characters in the story carry out (since in good video games there is a choice as to what to do, when to do it, and in what order to do it).
4. Your own imaginative projection about the characters, plot, and world of the story.

The first and fourth of these itmes are true of books and movies, as well, but items two and three are true of video games only.

Thus, in video games like Deus Ex, stories are embodied in the player's own choices and actions in a way they cannot be in books and movies." (79)

"The intertextual principle is concerned with the fact that after players have dealt a good bit with certain types or genres of video games and the texts associated with them, they can begin to see these texts themselves as a gmaily or genre of related texts." (106)

"...the episode is also meant as a training module where the player is explicitly coached on how to play the game." (116)

[on a character referencing the control scheme for instructional purposes] "Now this is, if you think about it, a strange thing to say. However, it does not seem the least bit strange when one is actually playing the episode. Von Croy is tlaking to the virtual character Lara, a character who walks and jumps in the virtual world but has no computer whose keys she can press, push, or hold." (118)

"In a good game, the player leanrs to play the game by playing in a "subdomain" of the real game. This is an important learning principle and, again, one regularly ignored in school. [...] Furthermore, this episode usually offers a concetrated sample of the most basic and important actions, artifacts, and interactions that the player will need to deal with throughout the game." (122-123)

"This and other games have brought home to me that I hold cultural models about learning like: "The final goal is important, defines the learning, and good learners move toward it without being distracted by other things" and "Good learners move quickly and efficiently toward their goal." I also hold other models: "There is one right way to get to the goal that the good learners discover (and the rest of us usually don't)" and "Learning is a matter of some people being better or worse than others, and this is important." These models all get entrenched in school repeatedly." (173)

"In playing video games, hard is not bad and easy is not good. The six-year-old mentioned earlier was once asked whether easy or hard was better in a video game. Without a pause, he said hard is always good, easy is not. Would that children said such things about learning in school." (175)

Readings in Game Studies: Unit Operations

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2006.

While I did manage to pull several relevant quotes from Bogost's book, I have to admit that I found it largely unhelpful. Bogost's book outlines a critical framework wherein a "text" is looked at as a larger structure built up of individual base units. He relates this critical approach to object-oriented programming.

While I got very little out of this book myself, I thought I should perhaps outline his approach here anyway, in case it will be useful to anyone else. (And so I have some place to keep track of the quotes I do intend to use.)

One of the central tenants of programming is the idea of breaking up large chunks of code into smaller, easier-to-manage pieces. I may have a difficult time writing a single program that simulates a queue at an airport counter, but it will be much easier if I write, for instance, a single function that models a person entering a queue, another function that models someone leaving a queue, a function that models the process of the first person in the queue being served by the counter attendant, and so on. Each individual piece is easy to write, and by combining them all together, I can make my larger program with far greater ease. There are two ways I break up code into smaller chunks: I can create sub-routines that do pieces of the work, or I can create "objects" - units that describe smaller pieces of the simulated "world," and can be interacted with in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

Bogost proposes looking at criticism in this way - having single, simple concepts that can be built up to create larger, more complex wholes. This approach in relation to criticism leaves me with many questions. How are we to determine what these base units are, precisely? How far is it acceptable to go downward into taking pieces apart? (In one chapter, he presents the base unit for a particular set of critical analyses as the "chance encounter." It seems to me that this unit is still made up of smaller units such as "character," "location," etc.) What impact does this form of structuring have on our greater conclusions? (I did not see much of one, personally, but perhaps I missed something.) What is to distinguish these units from tropes, or from standard story elements?

On the whole, I think this sort of rigidly functional approach does not lend itself as well to literary (and thus, the narrative aspect of video games, although it certainly relates to the software, computer-science-related side) criticism as Bogost argues that it does. Formal systems, like computer software, are built on rules - rules that define and, importantly, create the system they describe. On the other hand, creative works such as literature, while they may be described by rules, are created in an absence of them (even sometimes of the fundamental spelling and grammatical rules of the language containing them, especially in the case of more modern poetry), and often specialize in breaking these rules, or finding ways around them. You can't find "a way around" a programming syntax without invalidating any program written in that language. However, you can strategically break rules of, say, the detective novel genre and generate a new and innovate work that nevertheless still belongs to the genre.

I've always thought of the central difference between the sciences (in particular, computer science) and humanities as the difference between a binary relation and a gradient. In computer science, there is a Wrong answer. Your program either works or it doesn't. Sure, one working program might work more efficiently than another, or the coding style might be more readable, but if the program doesn't compile, or gives faulty output, then it is Wrong.

On the other hand, creative works such as writing tend to operate more on a gradient. We can tell, for the most part, when a work is Good and when a work is Bad. But there is almost never a single error or failure that we can point at and say, "look, if this was fixed, then the story would be Good." It might be better, but there's no clearly-drawn line to cross between success and failure. There is wiggle room. Furthermore, an author's particular technique might be successful in one way, but fail in another, which requires a subjective "was that sacrifice worth it" judgement on the part of the critical audience. You can't argue that one program is better than another because it sacrifices the successful completion of its goals for a neater, more readable coding style. Your program no longer works - therefore it is objectively not as successful as a program that does work.

I realize that there is much creative thinking that must go into the sciences, especially when you get to higher levels of thinking. Just as I realize that there are certain things in literature which are generally considered good and bad according to formalized rules. But no matter what, I can always say that a faster program, all other things being equal (including the program's end goals), is better than a slower program that performs the same task. Whereas in literature, a technique that may have seemed highly evocative and creative years ago could seem stilted or foolish to a modern audience. Some readers may subjectively think that one story is better at evoking sadness, while other readers disagree and point to another.

I think Bogost's "units," while certainly an interesting new way of looking at criticism, and an interesting parallel to point out between vastly different systems, imposes just a bit too much of this discrete, objective framework on an inherently subjective and gradient-based discipline. But that is merely my opinion; others who read Bogost may disagree.

Below are quotes that I found useful from Bogost. They are, unfortunately, incidental to Bogost's subject material rather than integral to his approach, and therefore probably won't give readers a very accurate idea of Bogost's overall philosophy. Still, they were useful to me, and may be so to others as well.

"Ludology is one way to address this need to explain what games are and how they work. From the Latin ludus, meaning game or sport, ludology addresses "games in general, and videogames in particular."" (xi)

"...DiGRA [Digital Game Research Association] president Frans Mayra offers an especially unambiguous vision of "three theses" for game studies:

'Thesis one: There needs to be a dedicated academic discipline for the study of games.
Thesis two: This new discipline needs to have an active dialogue with, and be building on of existing ones, as well as having its own identity.
Thesis three: Both the educational and research practices applied in game studies need to remain true to the core playful or ludic qualities of its subject matter.' " (52-53)

"The field of "hard core" game studies is thus revealed to be essentialist and doctrinaire, its theorists hoping to reinvent a different kind of isolationist techno-textual criticism that privileges the ludic over the literary, culturing the virulent oppositions of a future whose media ecology we cannot foresee." (53)

"Game engines are no more transcendental than genres, in the sense that one cannot play a game engine but only a game that encompasses and integrates that engine to create a work. However, game engines do enjoy a different status with respect to authorship and criticism. The first-person shooter is clearly a genre of videogame and, for better or worse, perhaps the medium's most common genre. But first-person shooter game engines construe entire gameplay behaviors, facilitating functional interactions divorced from individual games. Genres structure a creative approach to narrative; they describe a kind of story. While one can imagine a conceptual description of any of the film genres just mentioned, it is much more difficult to imagine the unit-operational underpinnings of such a genre. [...] Game engines differ from genres in that they abstract such material requirements as their primary--perhaps their only--formal constituent." (57)

"Especially right now with current technology, there are a lot of limitations in terms of what we can do with character simulation. So, to me that seemed like a really good use of the abstraction because there are certain things we just cannot simulate on a computer, but on the other hand that people are very good at simulation in their heads. So we just take that part of the simulation and offload it from the computer into the player's head." (Will Wright in Bogost, 85)

"Because The Sims is a game, players have an opportunity to explore the conditions, assumptions, and outcomes of the simulation through interaction, something impossible in the poems of Baudelaire and Bukowski." (85-86)

"What the game allows that the literary medium cannot is interactivity, the direct manipulation of the "narrator" in the simuated world. Because the sim waits for the player's input by default, the game affords a unique perspective on chance encounters in the simulated and real world. On the one hand, the player is forced to register the event not only from the perspective of the character (does that sim look like someone I'd like to meet?), but also from the perspective of the simulation (what are the social rules to which my sim conforms?). Otherwise said, the simulation exposes the various strategies the player can choose in approaching his sim's situation." (87)

"...the gaps in the simulation that the player fills in "in his head" function equally well no matter how the player directs his sim." (87)