Friday, February 08, 2008

Tow Away Zone

This may be heresy. But when it comes to games, I don't accept the principle of a level playing field.

For me, games that are truly fair aren't truly fun. And for all my time reading John Rawls in college on the original position and coming to agreement behind the veil of ignorance about observing just principles designed to give all participants equal advantage, I'm not sure that games structured accordingly would actually be any fun.

My colleague Mia Consalvo has argued that the competitive fun actually comes from cheating and that all players -- regardless of their stated moral convictions -- pursue unfair advantages in game play. For me, I like the unfairness to take a different form in which I set some constraint upon myself that other players don't have to observe. Thus, even if I lose spectacularly, playing with a handicap makes game play strategy much more interesting to me.

Which brings me to the online game that has occupied me for the past few weeks, the Parking Wars application on Facebook. As Ian Bogost has pointed out in a posting on Water Cooler Games, Parking Wars may be interesting to a relatively small subset of people who are fascinated with "mundane bureaucratic matters," while also encouraging players to participate in minor dramas of everyday transgression that involve "both trying to get away with parking illegally" and "trying to stay vigilant to find those who are."

Like Zombies, the other game that I followed for a while on Facebook, Parking Wars is an advergame, which is apparently designed to promote a television show on A&E that I have never watched. Zombies was similarly used to plug the film Resident Evil, although I would argue that it was really more a commentary on Internet memes than it was a game about traditional movie viewership, because the Zombies application involves common tropes of transmission, competition, and filiation familiar to anyone who participates in online lifeworlds.

Parking Wars is more sophisticated in that it plays on the ways that virtual experiences are much like real experiences at the level of the processes of the everyday, much as the people on this UCI panel about "Serious Play: The Practices of Everyday Life in Videogames and Virtual Worlds" argued that it is important to study the ordinary in this new field, even though the headlines are often grabbed by seemingly anti-social morality plays about digital sex and violence. In other words, this online game depends on attention to highly routinized in-game actions that eventually lead to enough insights about the "real rules" of the game to do some life hacking and then adopt a new set of routines to be meticulously followed.

In Parking Wars, each person has a street, but they can't park on it. They can, however, ticket people who do, if those players are illegally parked. Illegal parking includes having the wrong color car in a space designated for a particular hue, and the signs change constantly and unpredictably. The game benefits people who are large hubs in social networks. The more Facebook friends you have who are playing the game, the more potential streets you have to park on and spots from which to choose. Points are earned by staying on streets other than your own unticketed for up to twelve hours. Each time you level up, you acquire another car to multiply possible points accrued.

Knowing the online habits of other people can be helpful in racking up points in Parking Wars. You take advantage of time zones and venture onto people's streets illegally only when you suspect they are asleep. You also take advantage of the phenomenon of Internet abandonment and squat on streets of people who seem to have quit playing the game and no longer bother with the updating practices of ticketing.

My perverse playing style involves not ticketing people at all who park on my street, even though it is a basic premise in the game. So my street functions as a kind of sanctuary zone in the game. Of course, racing others to various levels is more tricky if you avoid exercising the police powers built into the game. I guess, having been raised Unitarian, the idea of non-reciprocal tolerance doesn't seem strange to me.

Peter Rauch has argued that it is usually possible -- although difficult -- to advance in 24-style videogames without using torture. My challenge is to reach a million points in Parking Wars without ever ticketing anyone else.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home