Saturday, October 11, 2008

Meaningful Play, Day Three: Not So Light Reading

Great literature shaped the content of several of the talks about game design on the final day of the Meaningful Play conference, perhaps in some of the same ways that analogies to great art informed the opening of the conference.

Former high school teacher Nick Fortugno began his talk by situating it in his pedagogical practices as a professor of game designs at Parsons. He discussed a recent argument that he had had with his class about whether or not games needed to be "fun" or if rules, goals, players, constraints, and challenge were sufficient to produce a good game. He described a twenty-minute argument in which a third of his class said that games don't have to be fun, which surprised him, given that fun is the traditional "barometer for designers." Fortugno characterized his students as dismissively equating fun and entertainment and expressing negative feelings against entertainments vapidity and frivolousness. Instead of "fun," they wanted to use words like "compelling" and "engaging" to describe the characteristics of a good game.

Of course, as Fortugno observed, games are not the first medium to try to convince people to take particular stands on policy issues. He argued, however, that game designers should learn a lesson from the conventionality of persuasive media of the past. He pointed to two examples from popular culture to prove his point: 1) Uncle Tom's Cabin, a sentimentalist novel that exploited the popularity of its genre to persuade readers, which "did not innovate at the level of writing" because it had similar plots to other tear-jerkers of the time, such as Susan Rowson's Charlotte Temple and Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World and 2) Telenovelas, particularly those produced in consultation with Miguel Sabido, which served as a form of political theater by publicizing issues about parenting, birth control, abortion, AIDS, literacy, and women's rights while still delivering the satisfaction of familiar story lines.

Like others at the conference, Fortugno praised Shadow of the Colossus and argued that the game was engaged with the "space of tragedy," since it was about "character and hubris," although he argued that its success also could be credited to the fact that game play was "coupled with a traditional boss mechanic," so this "game about killing bosses" used familiar tropes of navigation, explanation, and puzzle solving.

Against somewhat more opposition from the audience, he used Peacemaker as his second exemplary game, where the goal is to play through the Israeli conflict and to make peace while maximizing the approval meters of various sides. He argued that this kind of "plate balancing" game in which the player keeps "eating the message over and over" could be effective despite the simplicity of the game mechanic, much as his own casual game Diner Dash had found commercial success.

Finally, he addressed the issue of "propaganda games," like other speakers at the conference. He asserted the value of such games when done well, such as the McDonald's game, which he described as an "alert state genre" composed of four minigames. He also said that this kind of "management sim game" had been effective in the ReDistricting Game.

In closing he made a strong argument for the "fun" position, given the fact that political art often follows popular media and that entertainment is needed to attract players. For Fortugno, serious games can and should be fun as well, but he cautioned against not thinking critically about how games push play behaviors, because in some games there can be a slow loss of content from the perspective of player awareness, and "casual gamers don't care about content at all." He joked about how game content is often tied to an inapropriate game mechanics and speculated about the success of "gay marriage, the first-person shooter." He also cautioned about the risks of propaganda creation, since it is possible to create both an Uncle Tom's Cabin and a Triumph of the Will. As to what "fun" precisely is, Fortugno hesitated to give a definition, since he pointed out that the feelings one is actually having while playing chess, poker, Halo, and tag were very different, so he had "no idea what the word fun means."

After Fortugno's talk, there was discussion with him in the hallway about the game he had also considered discussing, the controversial Operation Pedopriest. In his talk, he had emphasized the persuasive power of tragedy and melodrama, but there were also defenses of comedic satire made by participants. When thinking about engaging games in the genre of comedy, the group shared experiences playing Miss Management and Amateur Surgeon.

Later in the ballroom was game columnist James Portnow who showed slides of a series of what he described as propaganda games from the eco-friendly Harpooned to the anti-Semitic Zog's Nightmare. He argued that too many serious games were governed by models not much more sophisticated than Pavlov's dog and that a medium about choice was far too often treated as a medium of indoctrination. Given the importance of decision-making in game play, Portnow complained that too often problems were masked as choices and that game designers weren't willing to show more realistic scenarios in which the same action could have different consequences. Worst of all, he claimed, is the way that large, commercial entertainment conglomerates were making games that "indoctrinate by accident" as in the case of BMX XXX or Blood on the Sand.

The final keynote from Tracy Fullerton, "The Great White Whale of Meaningful Play," opened with an allusion to the work of Jesse Schell and another work of great literature, Moby Dick, and the idea that "you must choose a mighty theme." As Fullerton asked, "What would Moby Dick be without themes?"

Although she foregrounded her "formalist identification," like Ian Bogost she praised Jonathan Blow's Braid, which she described as "about love, loss, regret, and the inescapable constraints of time," and lauded the work of Jason Rohrer. But Fullerton chose Gravitation as her example, which Rohrer characterizes as "a video game about mania, melancholia, and the creative process" in which the player inevitably stops playing with a child to travel away to capture stars, but -- while getting farther from home in the pursuit -- grows to understand that it is really a game about balance rather than capturing stars. In these two cases, she insisted that "the theme is also reflected in the core mechanic." (She also looked to sports for explanatory theories, including Dave Hickey's "The Heresy of Zone Defense.")

As Fullerton noted, game theorist Alex Galloway had emphasized the importance of "expressive acts" in games, such as "select," "get," "unlock," "open," etc., and that Warren Robinett had called for game designers to realize that "every verb in the dictionary" could be used, if the full potential of games were to be realized.

She also detailed aspects of her collaboration with acclaimed video artist Bill Viola on The Night Journey, which included how they had done paper prototyping and play testing and had actually built a board game for this videogame about spiritual enlightenment based on a long tradition of meditative writing first. Fullerton gave some important details about the game, for those who may not have had much time to play it when it was on display at SIGGRAPH last year: the player levels up without realizing it, the "dreams" in the game are procedurally created, and there is a "win condition," although it attempts to model real loss as the player tries "not to die, just like an arcade game." She described the video processing necessary to fit the "grainy, surveillance-cam style video" of some of Viola's early oeuvre, which she referred to as the "Furmanski effect," which involved degrading 3-D images with faked interlacing and a kind of video raster effect.

In closing, she showed some of her own new project Walden, which is based on Thoreau's work of the same name, and explained how it was intended to foster "short refreshing game play" rather than reward lengthy periods of obsessive engagement with the screen. Apparently she incorporated actual data from Concord, Massachusetts to represent the natural cycles of Walden, including the blooming of wild plants. Rather than just stay "true" to Thoreau's Walden, however, Fullerton emphasized that the game was about the player's own experiment with living at virtual Walden. To make this point, Fullerton quoted Melville again by saying, "It is not down in any map; true places never are." As she noted in closing, her own experiences of nature didn't draw clear distinctions between the real and the virtual. To illustrate this point she described ascending a mountain in a hike and reflecting that it was "just like World of Warcraft." She explained that in this story it was not a matter of one being better than the other, since each informed the other, and the experiences resonated mutually.

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