Monday, October 22, 2007

As one who would describe himself as a frequent player of and occasional meditator on video games, I was particularly interested to read Galloway's allegories of control. The process by which Galloway argued that games create meaning, namely that "meaning and doing transpire in the same gesture" (104) I felt was interestingly at odds with the views ostensibly held by several game designers that Galloway alludes to elsewhere. More specifically, consider Buckminster Fuller's game "World Game" in which the objective is to achieve a balanced harmony with all of humanity. Fuller seems to believe that by investing his game with his political agenda in the form of the game's objectives, he can encourage game play that fits with the game's algorithm and perhaps by extension comparable gameplay in life that reaches for the same end. If players constitute their own meaning through their gameplay interactions, can a game designer exert control through game objectives? I actually don't think so.

It has been my experience that game objectives do not necessarily line up with player objectives, and ultimately any game interaction consists of a player playing the algorithm they choose in the medium of the game world. As an illustration, take the shooter game mentioned by Galloway. When my brother and I join forces and play through the story mode of TimeSplitters 2, as good a shooter as any, only sometimes do we allow our algorithmic play to be oriented towards subverting soviet control of the zombie-infested siberian dam and erradicating the undead. Other times our algorithms consist of coming to fisticuffs with one another out behind the shed, or racing for the dynamite to see who can dynamite the other's face first. Obviously this example is somewhat imperfect as we do eventually end up infiltrating the soviet base or dying in the effort, but consider what Galloway alluded to regarding the mundane details of gameplay; Galloway notes that the gamer, "is instead learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm."

I would suggest that precisely the element of gameplay which allows much meaning and content to be created--player freedom over the details and aspects of the scenarios--is exactly what undermines attempts to integrate a specific goal and force the player's algorithms to adapt to that goal. Solitare is very mono-goal oriented, but it is not likely to reinforce many racial and cultural stereotypes (well I guess it could, but arguing about that would be slightly silly) rather it is the games that allow players to create the most personal meaning that have the most impact on a player's outlook and therefore the most control. It is really hard to get a player to do what you want given freedom. Therefore, I think it is interesting to look at games that do not try to have as direct a goal. Take world of warcraft.

WoW is a game entirely built around questing and adventuring... for quests and adventure. There are no particular constraints compared to a game like Civ, and I have seen players intent on becoming the best player-killers, and I have seen players who do nothing but dance on tables across a wide range of in-game taverns. It seems to me that it is in this kind of world where control can be the most effective, if the most subtle. Unlike civilization, this game does not force imperialist tendencies as part of its main objective, but ultimately aggression against the opposing faction (defined entirely along racial lines) is a part of the game with which most players will just happen to intersect, and the races in the game do have an unfortunate tendency of pattern-mapping right back on to good old reality. Yes, the bull-people that inhabit the planes region do have totem poles and animal-skin clothing. Yes, the culturally secluded dynastic tribe of elfin mystics does have slanted eyes. I feel as though civ and wow are, on this vector at least, subtly reinforcing the very same things, although I think that the way in which civilization does so--by forcing the player to fight the prescribed fight against the opposition--is much less subtle than wow's strategy of just happening to place your character at the end of racially-motivated hostilities.

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