Guest Article: Die for Me

I’m normally a very cautious player.  Beyond cautious, really; I can usually be found flitting nervously between neurotic and obsessive, with occasional forays into outright paralysis.  In FPS games I always keep my health and ammo topped off as much as humanly possible, and I quickload so frequently I may as well be playing Prince of Persia.

It’s not limited to any one genre, either.  Any RTS match against the computer will end with hundreds of enemy units dead, no more than a dozen casualties on my own side, and well over three hours of game time passed; I never attack until I’ve amassed an absolutely overwhelming force.  I don’t even touch the multiplayer most of the time, because I know I might lose.  Any RPG I play will quickly accumulate a massive archive of save files, one placed just before every decision I have to make—just in case I decide, after thirty or so hours of world-saving, that I would have been better off buying the Amulet of Herpes Resistance over the +3 Death Spork back when I was level 2.

Just in case.

Totally worth the herpes.

I might have been this way forever, but there was one game that finally showed me the joy of carelessness.

Half-Life 2 has these annoying critters called antlions, which spend a good portion of the game trying to kill you.  Then, once your hatred of them has had ample time to fester, the game flips them over to your side and gives you the ability to control them.  So it was that I found myself outside the front entrance of a Combine prison fortress with four of them following me around, ready to die at my command.  I may have hated them, but they were still a necessary resource, and I resolved to keep the four of them alive as long as possible—so I was a little distraught when I made a stupid mistake and got one killed before I’d even begun the full assault.

But within seconds, another one burrowed up from the ground to take the place of its comrade.  My hand froze over the quickload button.  Overtaken by curiosity, I took a hesitant step toward this newcomer and prodded it with my crowbar.  It squealed, but did not fight back.  I hit it again, more confidently this time, and it exploded in a shower of giblets.

The other antlions didn’t even react; as bits of their slaughtered companion rolled away out of sight, yet another one rose up out of the ground almost immediately to replenish their ranks.  It scurried over to me and waited expectantly, looking for all the world like an obedient puppy.  Realization finally dawning, I felt a grin creep slowly over my face.

I had minions.

Up ahead of me was a heavily defended beach swarming with Combine, overlooked by sheer cliffs with fortified gun emplacements.  No way in hell was I going to go in by myself; this was WWII-era Normandy all over again.  Anyone attempting a frontal assault would be immediately shredded by automatic gunfire from six directions.

I know this, because I counted.  As I watched my antlions being shredded by automatic gunfire.

Go, my super bug Pokémon!

As wave after wave of my stupidly obedient companions was cut down by the merciless cliff guns, I quietly snuck up a path off to one side and lobbed a grenade into one of the gun emplacements.  Now they were only being shredded from five directions.  A few antlions were starting to push through; the enemy lines faltered for a moment, and then broke.  Silence descended on the beach as I took a moment to observe the many, many corpses of my fallen allies around me.

“That was totally awesome,” I declared, in somber recognition of the slain.  “I wanna do it again!”  Truly, my eyes had been opened to the unbridled delights of getting people killed.  Now wouldn’t it be great if I could do this sort of thing in other games?

Enter Starcraft.

No, not the sequel.  The original Starcraft, which I have been proudly sucking at since I was a kid.  And the reason I sucked, as I mentioned above, is that I took such good care of my units.  I would never send somebody to the front lines if they were likely to die, so I never even bothered with the weaker units like marines or zealots.  But after my antlion epiphany I made a point of revisiting the bottom of each race’s tech tree, and it was then that I discovered the lowly zergling.

You already know what a zergling is.  Anyone who has ever played Starcraft, talked about real-time strategy, or visited South Korea knows what a zergling is, but I want to take a second to put them in perspective for you: The weakest Terran unit—a marine—has genetically enhanced everything, swings around a high-powered machine gun like it’s a toy, and wears more body armor than the Master Chief.  These are the guys that often get brutally chewed up by larger units, most of which are described with such terms as “mountainous,” “biblical,” and “oh shit.”

Everybody got that mental picture?  Steroid-munching cyborg supersoldiers getting torn apart by gigantic alien doomsday machines?  Good.  Now the zergling, by contrast, is roughly the size of a small goat.  And where other units have plasma swords and fully automatic gauss rifles, they have itty bitty claws and teeth.

The food chain.

Send any one of these little guys into a typical Starcraft battle and it will die almost immediately; the only upside is that you can build an awful lot of them at very little cost.

And if you send a lot of them into battle?  Well, they still die.  But so does everyone else.

Suddenly my games took on a whole new tone.  I was no longer carefully shepherding my expensive units into perfectly orchestrated battles; I’d just bang out a quick army of two dozen zerglings and send them blindly into an enemy formation, then cackle with mad glee as both sides shredded each other mercilessly.  Thirty seconds later, another swarm of zerglings would already be on its way to massacre the traumatized survivors.  Suddenly, I was almost good at this game.

As I wrap up here, I feel like I should offer a moral; something to properly honor the humble zerglings and antlions of our world.  But which to choose?  ”Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is already a cliché, while “zerg rush owns all” can be difficult to apply in situations outside of Starcraft.  Perhaps I should borrow a dry witticism, such as “never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

No, I got it: “Life’s easier when you get some other sap to do your dirty work.”

Anyway, many thanks to Laura and Kent for letting me do a…guest…article…

Waaait a minute…

Peter Riggs is a gamer and a crowbar-wielding murder machine who occasionally writes about games and crowbar-related murders. Most of his writing can be found on his blog, Intelligent Design, where he uses the pseudonym “Veret” to avoid detection. Don’t tell anybody.

Garrysmod anthropologically

Our podcast on griefing and countergaming, and the response to the shownotes, got me thinking about in-game communities and how we police them. What’s the best kind of game community—the one where the players make the rules and ‘police’ themselves, or one where empowered community watchmen—GMs, forum moderators, and the like—control, censor, and organize interaction? What are the tradeoffs? Is there really a difference?

Here’s an elaborate case study. Er. Anecdote. It’s not a direct response to anything. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about.

I spoke in the podcast about my crazy experience on a Garrysmod server last spring. While joining a server I hadn’t been on before, I was identified as a newcomer/trespasser, so a moderator seized me, ragdolled my character, and called upon all the ten other players on the server to construct an elaborate machine around my frozen, puppetlike body. They used WireMod to construct a CCTV circuit so I could see what they were doing to me. They welded a bunch of stuff to my arms and legs and exploded it. They did some rather obscene things to my character model. This all went on for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before I was released: I subverted the whole endeavor by calling the server denizens “good sirs” and complimenting their WireMod skills with overly-polite, sarcastic quasi-Victorian-speak. They found it hilarious enough to let me go.

Anthropologically speaking, I’d just experienced a ‘rite of passage.’ Something like a baptism or spirit quest. Psychologically and socially, raping ragdolled server-newcomers with a giant contraption built out of Half Life 2 props fulfills the same purpose as a circumcision ceremony: the victim has to undergo symbolic change in order to transition between two social states. My experience wasn’t official, but it fulfilled the same purpose and transformed me into a community member. When I was between those two social states, I was in a crazy position where I had no social identity at all, and that’s when all the nutcase shit happened. Hazing in sports teams or college fraternities performs the same purpose. To use technical athropology-style terms, I was ‘liminal’ when this stuff happened: I was on a threshold between two ways of being. It was like a spirit quest or some shit, man!

Despite the hilarious extravagance of my spirit-quest hazing ritual, it seemed to me like a more realistic approximation of community dynamics than anything I’d ever seen in multiplayer gaming before. The sheer number of options Garrysmod players have—the number of props, modes, tools, contraptions, mods, and so on—gives them a peculiar freedom unavailable to players in other, more-gamelike environments. In TF2 or Counterstrike, there’s no easy way to stage a transition ceremony: why stop shooting each other in the face? Our real lives are filled with transition ceremonies, so there’s a good reason to keep them out of games. Transition ceremonies aren’t necessarily fun. The’re complicated and cruel and maybe a waste of time. We play games at least partially to escape these kinds of social rules.

But these ceremonies cement communities. Though their participants get to transcend social rules for a short time, these ceremonies make the normal, ordinary, everyday social rules stronger. My hazing reinforced that server moderator’s power and leadership. It also highlighted the players’ sense of community by allowing them to demonstrate that I could only enter it on their terms.

I’m arguing that the lack of gameplay ‘rules’ in Garrysmod made it easier for these players to invent ways to demonstrate their community’s power. The lack of structure also made it easier for the players to construct elaborate community conventions—unwritten rules. Garrysmod is a haphazard collection of strange communities with baroque regulations: on some servers, destroying another player’s constructions gets you punished, while on others, people build only to destroy. Some servers are all about car-racing. Others are for ‘serious builders only,’ and demonstrating noobiness will get you kicked. Other servers are aggressively noobified. Some servers exist purely to stroke their teenage moderators’ egos. Some are elaborate roleplay worlds. Garrysmod throws away the structure inherent in most Source games, then leaves communities with ability to create their own structure. So this is what happens. An endlessly diverging community, a zone where anyone can build their own perfect little world and rule it like an absolute despot. Freer, in its Source-Engine chains, than Second Life.

If you’ll allow me to wax poetic for a moment: the unique lawlessness of this terrain makes it a surprising mirror for the human soul, even more acutely than a standard MMO like WOW or COH. Instead of relying on game mechanics for rules, Garrysmod communities have to create their own, cooperatively or despotically. There aren’t any standards: each server is radically different. Each game mode changes community interactions dramatically. I couldn’t predict anything about each server’s rules of social interaction until I’d figured out what game mode they were running. Even then, I could rarely guess anything until I’d been dunked in headfirst.

So, to return to the top of my post: Garrysmod is an example of a community-policed, low-rule-density environment. WOW is an example of a company-policed, high-rule-density environment. Garrysmod has no standardized ‘gameplay,’ no reward structure, no subscription fee. It’s creative and lawless, and despite its exterior wackiness,  it produces creative and ‘realistic’ social situations, in both good and cruel ways. It mirrors the dark and sweaty interior of our psyches. Where else could I have experienced such a vivid, human form of hazing? Not that the hazing was a positive thing—it wasn’t. It was merely very human.

But you say: high-structure game communities can invent their own ceremonies of transition, too, can’t they?

I’m going to argue that there’s something fundamentally different about that kind of experience: it’s not terribly expressive. Or even interesting! User creativity is at an all-time low there, compared to the effusive nuttiness of Garrysmod. These WOW players are working solely with what they’ve been given because they have no other choice. I think this shackling of creative expression limits the height of community affirmation and the depth of community cruelty possible in standard, company-policed MMOs.

Real-world social ceremonies, cruel or kind, are where we really let our human creativity loose.

It makes sense to me, then, that a creative game would mirror the dark side of social interaction more closely than a stricter, limited game.

I’m sorry this stuff gets thick and academicish. That wasn’t the point of this blog– I wanted to write things about games without getting too deep in the academic shit. I wanted to make the kinds of things we discussed in my games class accessible to those of my gamer friends who weren’t interested in reading big-time games scholars like Espen Aarseth. If gamers are going to be self-aware and not a bunch of mindless dicks, they need the opportunity to talk about this stuff without taking an entire liberal arts degree first. I mean, I love reading some academic writing about games, but I wanted to write the kind of stuff on this blog that’s thoughtful without being overtly academic. I mean, hell, that’s work to me. Right now, that’s grades. I want to write for a living, and I don’t want to write for academic journals. Not right now, anyway. Capisce? Capisce. I’ll try harder in the future.

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