Escapism v. Consumerism cage match, go, fight

Games– digital games and boardgames and sports and childhood pastimes, the whole bunch– are all escapist activities. Even games with grim messages and furrow-browed insights into our real world provide release and respite from that world. Games are governed by fixed rules we can learn to understand, and this in itself is a liberating and entertaining alternative to the real world. In short: games are escapist because they are games. They can be more or less escapist, yes, but they’re escapist.

Games which undermine their own escapism are, however, increasingly common. In Dragon Age: Origins, an NPC infamously sells you his own DLC. Free-to-play games can occasionally make their cash shops extremely intrusive. Facebook gaming has birthed an entire genre of games which are, essentially, fancy eggtimers: they turn your attention not to the world of the game, but back out into your own world, to your own mundane schedules and time commitments, asking you to plan and schedule your real life to accomodate the demands of the game.

These games are all still escapist actvities. A Facebook game has created an alternate reality in which I am both Laura Michet, the lowly contract employee, and Laura Michet the cafe owner, or farm owner, or what have you. That’s escapist on some level. Not profoundly so– not even always entertainingly so– but there you go: I’ve got a fancy little city, or farm, or digital cafe. It can occupy some of my time, and I can use it to pretend that I’m not who I really am.

If I do this– if I choose to escape in this way– I’ll have to accept that there’s a store hiding up there in the corner of my screen trying to sell me fancy crops or recipes or tickets to skip the boring bits of the game.  As a person with little income, reminders that I am a consumer are bothersome to me. They kill the mood. They cancel out my sense of escapism. Having a strict budget takes all the fun out of “free to play”– it makes my experiences more tense. It makes it harder for me to relax.

If I want to get away from that, then, I can go play Red Dead Redemption–which asks me in the start menu, every time I turn it on, to see if there’s any DLC I can buy. Or I could play New Vegas, which asks me the same thing. I tolerate this because I have to, but also because I don’t care enough to feel that bad about it. And, of course, I enjoy DA:O despite the awful NPC-DLC fiasco. These games are all good games. They’ve got enough in the base product to keep me thoroughly entertained. There is, then, a degree of business-minded intrusion into my escapism which I do accept, and even welcome: I’ve played some mighty fine DLC over the past two years.

Basically, I and most other people now accept, without question, that our escapist spaces can also be, to one degree or another, consumer spaces.

I think this is what bugs a lot of the people who are still roaringly angry at the very idea of DLC. Traditional PC games have done the expansion-pack thing for over a decade, but it was never this intrusive. You can play Age of Empires at home alone and never even realize that there was an expansion pack and a Gold Edition. Even Oblivion, with its slew of overpriced DLC houses and horse armors, never allowed the game itself to become a consumer environment. Once you buy the game, it’s a purely escapist bit of entertainment. Once you’re in the game, you can pretend you belong there: that you never bought it, but were born there, this silent wanderer in her battered Mithril Helmet, with her implausible Glass Longsword. The world where you bought the game has vanished– or you’ve hidden from it very well, at least. You could play this game alone forever and never even know that the infamous Horse Armor exists.

Lately, though, many games are becoming actual stores.

There’s a few good reasons why this has happened. First of all, it’s effective. DLC is a gold mine: many AAA developers are charging a sixth of their base game’s price– ten dollars or so– for additional material that adds up to less than one or two percent of the base game’s content. If putting advertisements for DLC in games makes more people buy– well, it’s working, isn’t it?

Secondly– and this is more important– visiting a store is even more escapist for a lot of people than games are. I’m not convinced that the act of purchase can ever be a true escape from reality, what with money being real and all, but window-shopping is fun. Being a consumer– even a potential consumer– can be fun. These days, browsing PC hardware websites and imagining the desktop I’ll build for myself once I save up is a pretty good way for me to escape. Many people find browsing the Steam store to be a pleasant experience. Why shouldn’t they or others take similar pleasure from browsing stores inside games? Despite the wailing that continues in some corners, there’s no going back from this: it’s already very deeply rooted and totally acceptable.

Thirdly, ‘what games are’ is also changing. Games are services, not just products. Games are environments, not just activities. Games are places where we do things. Shopping is a thing that people do. Because games are places, is there a good reason why we shouldn’t shop in them? We shop everywhere else, and downloading things like DLC from inside a game is now easier than  buying them from stores, and sometimes easier than buying them from online portals.

But it’s not just a ‘tech thing’ that makes this possible– it’s also a culture thing. There are now very few areas of our lives where we are not made constantly conscious of our role as consumers. Is this the same ‘culture thing’ which turned police brutality protests in London several months ago into a multi-day fiasco featuring angry, deprived teens exercising their purchase desires with violence? Are we so thoroughly consumers now that we’d rather not ever be separated from that identity, not even while fighting the fuzz? Not even while playing a game?

Am I bothered by this? I suppose I am. I like DLC when it’s meaty and interesting, and I like that I can browse Steam and XBLA without leaving my house, but I wish that I didn’t have to be conscious of my role as a consumer while I play certain kinds of games, particularly games with strong immersive or intricately escapist tendencies. (I’d much rather be conscious of my role as a dual-specced arcane warrior/blood mage elf.)

Clearly, however, this doesn’t bother too many players, and it certainly doesn’t bother a lot of designers. A certain kind of player enthusiastically welcomes it.

And times are changing: sometimes I imagine that in about thirty years, this kind of thing will not bother me one bit.

I also imagine that the world I’ll be cheerfully living in thirty years from now would make current-day-me a little bit queasy.

Your Handy-Dandy Field Guide to “X IS NOT A GAME”

People love to talk about what is a game and what isn’t! With this HANDY-DANDY FIELD GUIDE (TM), understanding what those insistent people mean can be up to one infinity times easier!

It can also be up to two infinity times harder, if you disagree with me or are easily confused. But hey! That’s your brain, not mine, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

1) ”You and I: let’s argue, please.”

For some people, the word ‘game’ has acquired a numinal halo of strange and powerful magic. This is because the word ‘gamer’ is so meaningful and important to them! Often suffering from an inability to separate themselves from the things they love, these people will attempt to attack your identity or self-image by insinuating that you are not a Real Gamer. They may do this by suggesting that the games you like are bad, or are somehow not Real Games.

The easiest way to deal with this species of X Is Not A Game is to demonstrate your inability to care about their opinion, or your indifference towards your gamer status. Once aware that you simply do not care about being a Real Gamer, their claws will  be pulled, and they will slink sullenly away into the shadows of the nearest troll-den.

2) “I know a lot about game design!”

For some people, having a specific and well-rehearsed opinion about what games ‘are’ is part of an ongoing quest to become a game designer or a games critic. Most of the time, these people are not and will never be game designers, but harbor as their deepest wish a desire to become one.

These people are not always aggressive or hostile: sometimes, they simply want an intelligent discussion about games, but cannot find the words to initiate one properly. Other times, they are simply semantics whores. Occasionally, they are sad and angry academics (usually, the kind of strict ludologist who has written a paper about Whist, or stabbed a games copywriter in public). Sometimes, however, they actually believe that there are restrictive rules about what can be a digital game and what cannot be. These people will probably lecture you for hours. Feign overt boredom and escape by pretending to go to the bathroom.

If subject is a real game designer, do not engage.

3) “I am uncomfortable with things I do not understand!”

Some people will play art games for half a minute, back away from the computer, announce “this is not a game,” and leave the room. For whatever reason, these people are profoundly unnerved by experiences they feel doubtful of their mastery over. They may also feel that their identity as a “gamer” is threatened by mere contact with digital experiences that fall outside their comfort zone. By declaring something to not be a “Real Game,” they can distance it from themselves and handily push from their mind whatever it is that has discomforted them.

Do not worry about this one. If you can play and learn from the game which unnerves them, you have already won.

4) “I think game X is total shit.”

These people have a strong, well-defined taste in games, and they are fiercely defensive of it. Their taste in games is always highly conventional. They are bringing up the X Is Not A Game argument because they wish to knock X, or knock its developers, or insinuate that its developers have done a bad job, or that their work is not worth any attention. They use the argument dismissively, as if no further thought is necessary once one has realized the sub-par gaminess of X. They also use the argument with hyperbole, saying things like “Flower is not a game, it’s a screensaver!” with the assumption that you will laugh.

Appropriate reactions include: short, horrified snorts of laughter, silence, and if you are strong and patient like ox, “What do you think was so wrong about X?”

5) “The game we were just talking about does not have many ludic elements in it, does it?”

Some people say “X is not a game” when they really mean to say “let’s have an interesting discussion about the different elements which make this game so unique.” This specimen of X Is Not a Game should be ignored– passed over as if it were never spoken– lest you alarm your interlocutor, back them into a corner, and force them to support an argument they may not actually believe. These people know what the word ‘ludic’ means; they will agree that the digital experiences made in the “games industry” are not always ludic in nature; they can tell you what a “loop” is, in the context of game design; they may find Minecraft’s bravely persistent “&e0” a chuckle-worthy commentary on games in general. They are nice people. Don’t beat them up.

In an age when ‘what digital games are’ is changing so rapidly that none of us can truly claim to be keeping up, having a proscriptive opinion about what games “are” demonstrates that you are very silly indeed. The games industry has been producing relatively-nonludic digital entertainment experiences for at least twenty years– but we still call them all ‘games.’ We’ve got nothing else to call them that doesn’t make us sound like poncy morons.

Since we’re stuck with the vocabulary, we’re going to have to work harder to keep our brains as limber and accepting as they’re going to need to be. And they’re going to need to be super limber, guys, and waaaaay accepting. Way, way accepting.

Happy Accidents

According to Glitch’s website, I haven’t seen something like this before:

After playing the game pretty intensely for about three weeks, I don’t know what to think of that statement. There’s a lot about Glitch that’s incredibly new and refreshing– stuff that will influence the way some more-traditional MMOs are made, I hope. There’s also a lot about Glitch that’s astonishingly tired and conventional. The conventional and the radical often mix well in Glitch, but occasionally they don’t, and I can’t help but notice.

Glitch is a sidescrolling cooperative crafting MMO with a freemium payment model, played in Flash in a web browser. It’s not quite released yet, but when it is I’m sure that it will do well– it’s a heap of fun, no matter what I have to say about it. Plot-wise, you play a tiny person who lives in a universe that is currently being ‘imagined’ by eleven sleeping godlike giants. From what I gather, the name ‘Glitch’ is a reference to the weird and accidental ways independent life or culture forms in an ecosystem. In the world of these giants’ minds, the players are ‘mistakes,’ somehow. Their lives and their culture are happy accidents– much like our own.

And according to the info page of one large player group, the game’s creator, Flicker founder Stewart Butterfield, has said that “Glitch is a game about culture.” I haven’t been able to corroborate this quote, but I certainly hope it’s true, since there’s a lot of wisdom to it. Though Glitch gives its players many goals to pick and choose from, this game has a sandbox attitude, and many players treat it as a platform for social experimentation and creative acts of do-goodery. Some players drop cryptic, clue-bearing notes in the environment which lead others on a treasure-hunt. Some players host in-world events or parties to celebrate a variety of occasions. I’ve noticed two or three players who like to leave notes bearing poems from a variety of important modern authors hidden in the game’s subway stations or atop the game’s climbable trees. Quests are rare things in Glitch right now, and players tend to solve them as groups rather than on their own. Cooperation and cooperative invention are the stuff of culture, aren’t they? Glitch is rapidly developing an unusual culture of its own.

This is possible, I think, because Glitch is the first MMO I’ve seen that mechanically encourages goodwill. It also goes out of its way to encourage creative, cooperative problem-solving. For example: two people gathering on the same resource node will give each other resource bonuses, not compete with one another. There are achievements for everything, including making friends and giving other players free stuff– so everyone’s eager to do those things. The entire world is filled with tendable and destructable resource patches, and players must work together to keep them alive and productive. There’s hardly anything in Glitch which can’t benefit from cooperation.

This attitude is  perhaps most pronounced in special in-game events called ‘Street Projects,’ which require players to team up and produce many random items in order to ‘build’ new explorable areas in the game itself. Though many players treat this as endgame content, many low-level players participate, since player power isn’t determined by level: like in Eve Online, skills are learned on a timer-based system that is totally decoupled from time spent playing the game itself. If there’s a thing to be done, chances are that anyone could contribute– so everyone does.

When I participate in a Street Project, I’ll find myself willfully handing over resources to people with better crafting abilities than me so that they can finish the tasks needed to assemble the street. I’ll willfully spend all my savings to buy stuff at the auction house to make a million scrambled eggs  and turn them in to the collection point, totally unconcerned that I’m now utterly broke, with nothing to show for it. And I’m proud! I feel accomplished! I have spent all my crap, have an empty inventory, and I love it. It’s a crazy MMO that can accomplish this reaction in a player.

Glitch’s creators have put some great mechanics in place to incentivize the unusual atmosphere they want this game to have. Street Projects are one of the most successful examples: players crowd close around the resource drop-point, chattering away and handing hard-bought goods over to people they’ve never met before. When I’ve run out of things to contribute, I can sit down and cook food for everyone to raise their ‘mood’ and ‘energy,’ the two constantly-depleting stats which govern a player’s ability to influence the world. I can be helpful. That’ll make me feel good about myself. It’ll make me want to play again.

In most games, it’s game-controlled reward schemes which keep up a player’s hopes and keep them chugging away at the game. There are plenty of those in Glitch, but the more-powerful rewards are social, and are player-created. If I can help out in a Street Project, those people I helped will pitch in next time and help me. And if they do, I might do well enough to earn a trophy. Or perhaps the next time I try to do something weird and unusual in the game world– say, for example, copy an entire HP Lovecraft short story onto notes and lay them out in a row on a major street– those people will help me do it. Who knows? Investing in fellow-players is important, and it produces unusual rewards.

As part of its attempt to make something ‘you haven’t seen before,’ Glitch energetically avoids many traditional MMO sandtraps. Player wealth gaps are meaningless: they have no effect on the game world or a player’s ability to function in it.  One of the main leveling techniques– “donating” items to the giants who rule this world– involves producing valuable items simply to toss them cheerfully down an actual money hole. It does a lot to encourage a kind of detachment to goods and wealth in the game: everything’s there to be given away. Player commitment gaps are also a non-issue. A casual player dipping in for half an hour a day will function just as well as someone who commits hours and hours a day. Everyone gets all their energy refilled every four hours; someone who only plays once every 24 hours will always find their stats maxed and ready to go, while someone who plays all day long will have a much harder time being productive. There are no questgivers, no towns of exclamation-points: all quests are triggered by player milestones. Achievement hunting isn’t something you see many players doing, either. Achievements are awarded at almost random numbers, like 151, 11, 10008, and 41. If you can’t tell when you’re going to be rewarded for a task, you’re less likely to grind away at it like a robot. And speaking of robots, there aren’t heaps of people lying around AFK all day long, turning major gathering points into ghost towns, like some MMOs I’ve played: players take a mood and energy hit every 90 seconds, forcing them to keep playing or die from inactivity. It keeps the world looking alive and active.

However, Glitch is still based on a traditionalist MMO foundation, and there’s a lot in it which is pretty darn typical and derivative. No matter how much I enjoy the interesting new places they’ve taken this game, Glitch’s creators are shackling some of those innovations to an ancient paradigm, and sometimes I wonder whether that will end up keeping the game floating low in the water.

First of all: this game is a grinding nightmare. Until extremely high skill levels, the only way to get any kind of resource is to grind away at producing it. And, yes: you can grind mining. And yes: loads and loads of people do. Whenever I sit down to mine repetitively, I’m reminded strongly of the short time I spend playing World of Warcraft. Grinding agricultural resources is more interesting, since the animals you harvest food from sometimes run away– but it’s still incredibly repetitive. And it costs energy to grind resources, meaning that you’ll need to turn a lot of those resources right around and make food to keep from running out of energy and dying. Many major crafting projects in Glitch, at low or medium skill levels, will take hours of repetitious clicking to accomplish. At higher levels, the rewards you get for each action increase, and some of them no longer require as many steps, so you’ll end up with a lot more stuff, and a lot more interesting things to do with it– but until then, grinding is the game’s foundation.

Making items is also a bit of a drag. It’s menu-based; ‘tool’ items simply enable crafting menus, like in plenty of other traditional MMOs. The game is based around crafting, so you tend to see a lot of these menus; sometimes I feel like I’m spending half my time in menus, watching progress bars tick. It makes me wonder why the developers resorted to traditionalist crafting systems when they managed to revamp so many more-entrenched MMO paradigms elsewhere in the game.

As it is now, however, Glitch also falls prey to the classic MMO inventory-management disaster. Unlike Minecraft, which makes up for its wide array of objects and tools with an intuitive click-and-drag inventory system and the ability to expand storage indefinitely, Glitch’s inventory interface is limited and difficult to use. This, coupled with the fact that I must carry around twenty-seven different tools in order to use all of my current skills– and many more items in order to do anything with those skills– makes dealing with tools and items a pretty big hassle. Every time I deal with the never-ending problem of my many item bags, I’m reminded, again, of World of Warcraft, where item-bagging is a bit of an art. And unlike Minecraft, which encourages players to stick close to a home base and only take what they need for a certain task, the world of Glitch is so big and sprawling, and the skills so interdependent, that I need to carry practically all my stuff around with me at every moment in order to accomplish anything at all. It’s irritating to get bogged down in this kind of stuff when the rest of the game is so refreshing and different.

Bit let’s face it: people actually enjoy grinding, and they’re willing to put up with inventory bullshit. They’ve done it in a million games before, and they’ll do it in a million others. There’s enough in Glitch to make dealing with these things worth it. Even if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand a progress bar, I’d take a look at Glitch, if just to sample the weird atmosphere and get a taste of the writing (which is incredibly good, by the way) and the community (which is refreshing). The character customization system– which I haven’t discussed, since I like it but find it less interesting than the game’s mechanics– is also pretty charming.

Let’s put it this way: in Glitch, I’m actually a drug dealer. That’s something I hope to write about soon: how to be a drug dealer in a charming game about cooperation and friendship. Any game that can pull this off with such panache is definitely something to take a look at.

Glitch recently closed its servers in order to execute the final player reset before its big release. I’d stay tuned for a chance to sign up within the next few weeks.

The Power of Pettiness

I wrote this months ago, during our dry spell, only a few days after Portal 2 came out. Because we are lazy and slow, you finally get to see it… today! Wahoo!

I’m going to do the English Major thing and talk about Portal 2’s story for a bit. Forgive me if I don’t dwell on the game mechanics: I thought they were perfect, I adored the new puzzle elements, and I have nothing else to say about it, not even “oh gosh it was very good” since everyone has been saying that for a while now.

But the story’s tone has changed dramatically since the first game, and that’s what I want to talk about. “Oh,” you might say, “changed dramatically? I didn’t notice!” And that’s okay, because the changes pretty subtle. But they’re also pretty important.

What it says on the tin

Something you rarely see in action games or movies these days is the Alien/Aliens protagonist-antagonist relationship: two energetic and capable ladyfolk who fight each other to the deadly death with dignity. In Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley performs heroics in a rather gender-neutral way. The fact that she is a woman isn’t relevant to her relationship with the monster. In Aliens, that changes– Ripley plays surrogate mother to a child and duels an evil alien brood-mother whose spawn are the stuff of nightmares. But the dignity of their struggle remains: it’s “Ripley the human versus the evil alien,” not just “some human chick versus an evil alien.”

To me, Portal 1 was very much like these films. Two female characters dueling to the deadly death on terms unlimited by the fact that they are ladyfolk? The antagonist is an inhuman freak? The protagonist strengthened by her humanity (in this case, by the fact that the player identifies very, very closely with her)? Sounds an awful lot like Alien to me.

In both of these works, it’s the relationship between the protagonist and her nemesis that controls the entire mood and meaning of the story. I’ve read somewhere that Chell was made a female specifically to support a desired tone for the protagonist-villain relationship; to some degree, the same is true for Alien. Both Portal and the Alien films controlled these relationships incredibly well–mostly by maintaining the characters’ dignity.

Portal 2 changes the tone of its central relationship by stripping some of that dignity away. Glados insults Chell constantly in ways intended to be understood as cattily “female”: calling Chell overweight, insulting her appearance, and so on. She seems to believe that gendered insults will be the most effective against this mute, implacable enemy, and tries a variety of them. And even though these jokes are, cheap and awful, they’re fantastic.

"Hey, Chell! You suck!" "..."

One of my favorite jokes in the game has Glados ‘discovering’ ancient official paperwork that calls Chell’s outfit stupid. First, Glados pretends to commiserate with her– how could this foolish, male scientist know anything about Chell’s clothes? Then Glados reveals that the paperwork writer was a woman… with a medical degree… in fashionfrom France! The delivery is magnificent, and the implication– “The only way I can harm you emotionally is by making you feel like you’re bad at being a woman”– is equally hilarious in context, since we know that Glados is pathetic and that Chell is powerful no matter who she is (because she is us, and we are powerful).

So, Portal 2 focuses our attention on the fact that the protagonist and antagonist are both women in a way that Portal 1 never did. Glados transforms from a grim threat to a cattily (but delightfully) irritating snarker even before she’s stripped of her deadly powers. Some of her dignity as a female antagonist is lost–but it’s lost in a way that’s useful and productive. Portal 2 doesn’t say the same things about its characters that Aliens said, but the things it says are not the less meaningful because its some of those characters are no longer dignified.

See: Portal 2 is about watching people become pathetic. It’s about watching people debase themselves, about watching them fall from power and glory, about watching the strong become weak, about seeing the things they fear and hate finally come to them. The moral I took away from Portal 2? Everyone is pathetic. Everyone is pathetic in a hilarious way! And when we fight each other on petty terms, we only make ourselves more pathetic.

A pair of pathetic losers

Out of all the characters in the story, Chell maintains her dignity– mostly because she can’t possibly participate in the insult-flinging, thanks to the game’s design. While Wheatley and Glados claw at each other, Chell silently saves Aperture Science. While Glados is paralyzed and embarrassed by painful self-discovery, Chell is secure in her self-confidence (a self-confidence that is, in fact, the player’s). While Wheatly demonstrates his incompetence, Chell demonstrates her supreme competence by completing the game’s hardest levels.

So, when Glados assaults Chell using “female” insults, sliding into a mode of behavior often cruelly stereotyped as “female”, the audience isn’t made to accept these things– instead, we laugh at them. We know that Chell is above them. We know that Glados, as a robot, is only saying these things because she believes that this is how humans think. But it isn’t how Chell thinks! Chell, the real woman here, would never behave that way. Because we’re made the harassed target of these gender-focused insults, we see, first-hand, how stupid they are. We maintain our dignity, and Chell continues to be a female protagonist we can respect– mostly because she’s a shell, incapable of participating in the guts of the argument. Her personality is our agency. We know she’s not stupid, or fat, or even bothered by the insults, because we’re not!

(And, in the end, maybe we learn a little bit about how dumb gendered insults are.)

Glados, however, doesn’t remain forever in this frantic, undignified state. In our final conversation with her, it’s obvious that she’s been changed by her experiences and that she’s returned to the self-posession of her earlier life. You’ve improved each another through your antagonism. She bids you goodbye with hilarious respect– this song, of course, exemplifies that– and leaves you to your own devices, confident that you can survive and excel on your own. We know that Glados can do the same. You’re both professionals, Glados suggests. You are each very, very good at your own things. And you can respect each other for that. Nevermind the things she said earlier! You’ve been through Idiot Hell together!

It’s a bit astonishing when you take the time to figure out how this message is conveyed to us. Portal 2 is one of the only games I’ve played that sends a perfectly positive message about gender while being almost entirely petty and ironic about it. Which is to say: it’s a clever story. It treats its players like clever people. And it makes some interesting points about how sarcasm and irony can be conveyed in the very mechanics of a game– how the demonstrable proof of a player’s actions can be used to prove  rhetoric false.

I’d love to see another game where ideas are judged with a player’s actions.

I have never seen a Jamba Juice in Connecticut: Things Tiny Tower Is, Part 3

5) …a place I recognize

Every floor in Tiny Tower is a perfect little scene, and every scene is something I recognize.

The Asian Cuisine is a PF Chang’s. The Sub Shop is a Subway. The Video Rental is a Blockbuster. The Smoothie Shop is a Jamba Juice. The Mapple Store is an Apple Store. The Game Store is a GameStop. The Tech Store is a Best Buy. The Cake Studio is the place from Ace of Cakes. The Coffee House is a Starbucks. The Frozen Yogurt is a Pinkberry. The Shoe Store is a Footlocker. The Diner is my local diner. The Mexican Food looks just like a Mexican Restaurant tends to look.

The outfits are familiar. The Barista outfit is a Starbucks uniform. The Fast Food Uniform is a McDonalds Uniform. The Mapple Genius outfit is an Apple Genius outfit. Plumber A and Plumber B are Mario and Luigi. The Monster Suit is Domo-kun. The Engineer is the TF2 Engineer. I have seen the Waiter before, and the Doctor, and the Surgeon, and the Chef. I have seen all these people before. It is probably why I like them so much.

The details are familiar, too. In the Aquatic Apartments, the fish food bottle is the same color as the one I used over a decade ago to feed my goldfish. I saw the Barber Shop’s mirrors, shelves, and chairs only three weeks ago, when I went to have my hair cut. The water cooler in the Health Club is perfect. The ketchup bottles in the BBQ Place are perfect. The kegs in the Soda Brewery are perfect. It’s all perfect. If I had a brain injury and forgot what everything was like, someone could give me this game, and when I finally got out of bed, rehabilitated, I’d be able to recognize all these places perfectly. I’d feel familiar with them. I’d understand how America’s consumer spaces look and feel.

There are two compelling ways to think about this, guys. First: think about how similar all our lives must really be if we really all recognize these places! Everyone who recognizes Tiny Tower’s consumer vignettes is drawing on huge familiarity with brands, store types, and product categories. We all eat the same things. We use the same things. We eat the same things and use the same things in the same places. If we didn’t, Tiny Tower wouldn’t make any sense to us.

However, these moments of recognition also make me think about how different the developers’ world is from mine. I live in Connecticut, and there are no Jamba Juices or Pinkberries in Connecticut. If I’d made the game, I would have left them all out. And because I don’t care much about Apple Stores either, I probably would have left them out too. And I certainly wouldn’t have screwed up the Optometrist shop the way these guys did. Optometrists sell and adjust glasses; they don’t do laser eye surgery, and you have to go to an ophthalmologist to get contact lenses prescribed. My mother is an ophthalmologist. She doesn’t even do laser eye surgery. I grew up with this kind of stuff. If I’d made the game– if I’d made consumer viginettes specific to my own life– I wouldn’t have gotten it wrong. If I’d made the game to match my miserable, stay-at-home life, there’d only be about five shops total. One would be Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Another would be a Stop + Shop. One would be XBLA. All the others would be different parts of my Steam client.

In about eighty years, I and my old-people friends will sit around reminiscing about old restaurants and businesses from the year 2011. We will have had different experiences. We will disagree on all the details. Unfortunately, we probably won’t have Tiny Tower around to help us settle the score. If I had the cash to spare, I’d buy an extra iPhone today, install Tiny Tower, and hide it in a time capsule with a charging cord. I’d dig it up with my garden trowel in eighty years and burst into the argument.

“This is what it was like,” I’d say, holding out the game.

“Oh,” the others would say. They’d recognize the places and the things and the people. They’d recognize BitBook. They’d see themselves in this game. “Yes,” they’d say. “You’re right. We’d forgotten.”

Tiny Tower is a vertical slice. It reflects our world. But it’s things like Tiny Tower which also create our world, and shape the way we  understand it.

Tiny Tower is a pretty big deal, guys.


3) …a place of anonymity

When I first began making my tower, I knew all the Bitizens in it. There were only about ten of them for quite a while, and they all looked pretty different from one another, and the BitBook thing– a tiny version of Facebook which the Bitizens chatter on for your entertainment– was hilarious. They were saying clever things to one another while puttering around in my tower, at my mercy, so I loved them.

I would like to tell you some kind of charming anecdote about this time, but I have forgotten all my Bitizens. I have too many. I have nintey Bitizens. They all look the same to me. To tell them apart, I have begun buying special outfits for them with Tower Bux. I dress everyone from the same business according to a theme. Everyone in the Aquarium is wearing a giant frog suit. It helps me tell them apart.

As the number of Bitizens increases, they will continue to be more than my brain can handle, and I will continue to be unable to tell them apart. They will continue to be cheerful, passive cogs in whatever machine this is, totally anonymous and practically interchangeable. They express themselves in BitBook, scrambling madly for individuality, but the rate of repetition is comically high, particularly when a lot of Bitizens suffer the same event at the same time. When I am tired, when the screen blurs, the chatter comes across not as a weak feature but as a cynical commentary on Facebook itself.

Modern life, as depicted in Tiny Tower, consists of a consumer environment filled with identical, happy, marching, mouth-flapping little dudes who repeat the same meaningless trivialities over and over again, buy expensive products they cannot use, come from nowhere, and exit to nowhere.

The game itself even seems to makes fun of this. There’s a Bitizen-finding mini game which asks you to find a Bitizen somewhere in your tower.They give you a picture and set you off. You’ve seen them before– they’re vaguely familiar– but for the life of you, you can’t remember who they are, or what they do, or where you put them. They’re interchangeable. There are so many of them that thier individuality is meaningless. That’s why I’ve started putting teams of them them in clown suits.

The businesses are generic, too. We get a “Mexican Food,” a “Plant Store,” and a “Wedding Chapel.” The vaguest names, like the “Asian Cuisine,” are the worst. I can imagine the Bitizens talking to one another in tinny robot voices:

“What nutriment do you desire for today’s evening meal?”

“I desire the Asian Cuisine.”

“I shall obtain for you a sample of Asian Cuisine.”

“Obtain for me the sample of Asian Cuisine which costs two Coins. I prefer it to the Asian Cuisine which costs three Coins.”


In my imagination, these little robots live in a cloud of complete robot happiness. They enjoy this bland and homogeneous environment. They enjoy it because it is comfortable.

I could say that I know people like that. I might. Chances are, though, that I’m exaggerating. Not even the dullest, grinningest, doped-up-est upper-middle-class yahoos I went to college with approached Bitizen levels of cheerful blandess. Despite the evidence to the contrary, they at least believed that they mattered, and they occasionally did things to prove it.

If you informed a Bitizen that he didn’t matter, I think he’d accept that judgement with perfect equanimity.

4) …a place of fulfillment

There’s another aspect to the weird kind of cheerfulness that the Bitizens have. Everyone, as I mentioned, has their Dream Job. Some Bitizens will have a 9 in Services, and and a Dream Job in the Dentist’s Office. Some will have an 8 in Creative, and a Dream Job in the Cake Studio.

And some Bitizens will have a 9 in Food Service, and a Dream Job in the Sub Shop, where I will employ them and where they will work for the rest of their lives, living at the same quality as the doctors in the Optometrist or the high-flying designers in the Fashion Studio. They will be just as happy (green-smiley-face-happy, to be specific– as opposed to beige-neutral-face happy or red-sad-face happy) as these fancy people, and they will, apparently, make just as much money as they do.

Where I come from, it is very bad, socially, if your dream job is making subs in a Sub Shop. It is very bad if you get that job and stay in it happily for life. Chances are you would never be happy in that job, even if it fit your capacities perfectly, because unending criticism would be levelled at you for staying there. And you’d probably grow jealous, of course, of everyone who worked doing glamorous things in some not-Sub-Shop somewhere.

In Tiny Tower, when you’re happy, you’re happy. Nobody criticizes you. Nobody urges you to move upward. No job is any more challenging than any other. No job is any more stressful. No job is any more worthy.

When you’ve got a green smiley face, you’ve got a green smiley face. Nobody questions a green smiley face.

Second Person Shooter 2:The Reckoning

Hello, my friends! It has been a long time since we have conversed on the ways of video games under the cool blue moon. But do not fear! We are back, Laura and I, to facilitate fascinating discussions, to tickle your brain cells, to ruffle your hair affectionately through the tubes of the internet, and to bend your kind internet ears. Yes, we have returned from our long journey across the empty deserts of academia, and now we are thirsty. Thirsty for games.

We graduated from college on a rainy day in June. On that day, Conan O’Brian, our graduation speaker, complained about Jay Leno from a wood-stump podium, and for some reason Dartmouth gave an honorary degree to George Bush Senior. Dartmouth also gave real degrees to your friendly neighborhood games writers, Laura and Kent! Laura finished a double major with honors in History and Creative Writing and completed her thesis, which, instead of being nonfiction writing about games as she had planned this time last year, was in fact an entire 270-page-long novel about angry children treating each other poorly. Kent was awarded a degree in Creative Nonfiction with a minor in Digital Arts. We said our bittersweet goodbyes, to one another, to our friends, and to the icy granite of New Hampshire, and we went our separate ways, our eyes misty with rain and our hearts cobwebbed with memories.

Laura has just started doing some copywriting work– basically, writing quests– for Tencent America, which means that everything she now says about social games is probably a conflict of interest and should be summarily disregarded. She is currently in the process of moving to San Francisco. Kent is currently searching for work in Hong Kong!

This week, to celebrate our return, we will be offering up fresh from the oven gaming insights for seven consecutive days! After that we’ll be posting 2-3 times per week. But regular posts aren’t the only change ’round these parts. You might also notice the new layout. Don’t worry; it will get significantly spiffier before we’re done. Also, the short-lived Second Person Shooter Podcast will be raised from the grave, and will be slowly ambling towards your ears very soon. We’re going to try out a few new types of articles, including multi-part posts and commentary-laden Let’s Plays–beginning with a Dwarf Fortress Let’s Play that’s already in the works.  Additionally, we will see you again tomorrow for the first installment of a 3-part post by Laura about Tiny Tower!

Welcome back, readers, and thanks for joining us.


The little-known world of competitive Minesweeper

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aryeh D, a fellow Dartmouth student, on the topic of his particular expertise: competitive Minesweeper. Over the years, Minesweeper has birthed its own online competitive community– one very different from the competitive gaming communities we’re used to reading about on the internet today. It’s centered around a single website, communicates chiefly through a carefully-preserved, late-nineties-style website guestbook, and has weathered a number of disasters and controversies on par with those generated by any more-popular e-sport community.

This interview has been edited for length. I have also taken the liberty of linking some of Aryeh’s comments to relevant articles in the definitive Minesweeper wiki. But first: a video compilation of his best recorded times.

Laura: So. Competitive Minesweeper! My first question: how did you get into competitive Minesweeper? How did you discover this was a thing you liked and were good at?

Aryeh: Well, I first played Minesweeper in the late ninties on my dad’s old Windows 3.1 computer. And I enjoyed playing it from time to time as an alternative to, like, Solitaire. But then, in freshman year of high school, I started to play it a bit more, and went online and found that there was a whole Minesweeper-centered community! And at the same time I had a friend who was pretty decent at Minesweeper, and I wanted to improve my times to simply beat him. So that’s kind of how I got into the community aspect of Minesweeper, just being able to compare scores. And then by the end of my freshman year of high school I was participating in the Minesweeper community and that continued through my sophomore and junior years of high school especially.

Laura: What is your current ranking?

Aryeh: My current ranking? Let me check, because these days, it changes way too often! People keep passing me! It’s not good. Right now I’m going to, which is the main hub of the community and contains the world ranking. And… I am currently ranked 31st. I’m 4th in the US.


Money for Art

I bought Inside a Star-Filled Sky this week. The game is currently being sold via the now-unremarkable (for PC indies, anyway) pay-what-you-want model, with a set minimum of $1.75– which is also how he now sells Sleep is Death. The purchase gets you every version of the game, the source code, unlimited downloads, and a guarantee for access to all future updates.

Why the minimum? Rohrer explains that $1.75 covers “payment processing fees and download bandwidth” only—so, we can guess, it’s money Rohrer himself doesn’t keep. If you wanted, you could pay him a price so low that he wouldn’t see a cent of it. I haven’t seen a pay-what-you-want point out the minimum, break-even price like this before. Normally, when we buy things over the internet, that kind of math is opaque to us: we know that there are transaction fees and bandwith costs floating around out there, but we don’t actually know how much they amount to, and it’s almost as if they don’t really exist. So when Rohrer points out how much he actually gets from every sale, the option of leaving him nothing at all looms larger than it usually does.

Rohrer is a very consciously-‘arty’ designer. He does this kind of thing, and it certainly makes him stand out. In games-world, see, there’s recently been some discussion about what art is worth, and whether art is really something we should expect to pay for—whether we should allow art to be influenced by the demands of a market. Taken generally, that question is an unhelpful one. All art requires a time investment. Wherever food costs money, labor deserves compensation. But when people complain that the experience of art costs them money—as happened with Dear Esther and the ModDB community—or express the idea that it might be a good idea for them to earn zero dollars for their art—as with Star-Filled Sky—it suggests to me that there might be a better way to compensate these games artists. Is there a way that feels more right to us, and to them?

We’ve always had rather intricate, complicated ways of compensating our artists. In the past, patronage made art possible. Italian princes paid Michelangelo so they could brag about it. “Hey,” they would shout at one another in the streets. “I just paid Michelangelo to paint a picture of Jesus for me! Yeah!” Then they’d fist-pump and high-five a peasant, or something. Similarly, admission to the Getty is free because a fat-cat captain of industry established a trust to fund the thing. Public art is generally made possible through taxes or charitable donations– I’m thinking about things like the Crown Fountain in Chicago. Other kinds of art have weirder compensation-rituals. Most ‘literary’ novelists don’t live off of their work: they’re professors, journalists, or other professionals. Creative Writing professors at my college have to publish things to keep their jobs, so the department gives them the time and resources. Their compensation, in the end, is provided by a system only tangentially related to the production and sale of their books.

Allow me, for a moment, to imagine some weird possibilities. What if Rohrer– or another games artist like him– worked at a university, like my published professors? In an alternate universe, could some museum or public institution have funded a Rohrer project? If a games artist got a grant from a government to make public games art– what would that look like, exactly? Like this? I’ve been noticing more and more games floating around the internet which were commissioned by institutions for particular events. The money could be coming from tuitions, or charity, or endowments, or who-the-hell-knows-what mysterious deep-sea money vent. And as public games tied to specific physical places, the commissioned-by-the-college route makes sense for these particular works of art. Public art usually has a strong connection to places and local communities. However, only some kinds of games make sense in a public setting. For the same reason books aren’t ‘public art’, we’ll never see an eighty-hour, story-heavy game as public art.

And while I’m mentioning new ways to pay for games, I think it’s important to point out that the way we pay for things strongly influences the way we think of and value them. Imagine a universe where games started out as public art, and never left public spaces: there wouldn’t be any eighty-hour story-based games at all in that universe, would there? We might not think of such games as having value. The governments paying for them certainly wouldn’t.

I guess you could say that since somebody has got to assign art a value, why shouldn’t each member of an audience do that, for themselves, via PWYW? Maybe this is better than allowing an institution, a government, a corporation, or the artist to do the job. It certainly allows us to choose from a broader variety of ways to assign value to games. To some extent, what a game is ‘actually worth’ depends upon the aggregate philosophical stance of its audience.

So– are we lucky to be living in an environment where this is actually realizable? We’ll have to wait a few more years, at least, to see if PWYW really makes it possible for more artists to get better compensation for their work. But while we’re at it, I think we should keep our minds open for even weirder– weird for games, anyway– compensation systems. I’m hoping that ten years from now, my school will be giving money to games artists in the same way it gives money to writers, filmmakers, and studio artists.

And part of me is also hoping that I’ll be able to drive through my hometown and see, somehow, some kind of public-art game. I know that not all public art is the bee’s knees, but some of it comes pretty close. Why not give it a shot?

Zombie Apocalypse Pt 2: The Digital and the Physical

I mentioned at the end of my last post about Humans Versus Zombies, the ARG I helped run at my school, that it was a game of unusual digital and physical qualities. HvZ can’t be said to be either a digital game or a real-world game—instead, it’s both.

The game is, to be frank, far too complicated to handle without some kind of database keeping track of it all. Zombies must “feed” on a human every 48 hours, or be removed from play– “starving” to death. When a zombie tags a human, they share the kill with at least two other zombies, and it’s impossible to know who is near starvation without the database. Kills were reported through the website, meaning that any zombie who made a tag had to high-tail it to the nearest computer as quickly as possible, to keep the database up-to-date. Luckily, Dartmouth is covered in email terminals. (If you’d like to learn more about Dartmouth’s weird-ass email culture, and about why we all use an email client that’s over 20 years old, take a look here.) Our website listed who was a human, who was a zombie, and how much time each zombie had left before they starved

The database we used included each player’s real name. This meant that the game wasn’t an impersonal experience, the way online multiplayer frequently is– everyone knew, or could look up, the actual names of the other players. Humans Versus Zombies made new friendships. It gave us all a chance to meet a ton of people we’d never seen on campus before. The name-list was also important for strategic reasons: it allowed the players to assemble email lists and form group strategies—but also forced them to curate those lists, keeping track of who was alive and who had recently ‘died,’ becoming a zombie. One zombie player wrote a piece of code that scraped our website for data and kept the zombie list updated automatically. The humans, lacking such tech-savvy leadership, were constantly plagued by ‘dirty’ email lists that allowed zombies to listen in to their plans.

The game itself, then, didn’t take place entirely in the real world. The email lists were the site of most strategy and communication for both teams, and at times, the physical world seemed almost secondary. As mods, we did most of our communication with the players through email, and the NPCs were developed almost entirely through the in-character emails we sent each team.

The digital and the physical continued to combine in unexpected ways as the game progressed. Two zombies used a pair of laptops and Skype to create a remote “observation camera” in one of the campus dining spaces. They sat in a nearby building, ready to run outside and pounce on any player they saw heading out the door. The auto-updating zombie listserv is another example of how digital activities had more-profound effects than many of the real-world ones: the airtight zombie list meant that they had the advantage when it came to communicating and planning attacks.

The structure of the game itself was also influenced by digital game forms. I wrote our HvZ quests using a template I’d learned while writing quest proposals for an MMO at my job over the summer. We used terms like “NPC”, “fetch quest,” “escort quest,” and “monster drop” while talking to players, and they understood us—the terminology of digital games was the language of this physical one. When the campus newspaper interviewed us about the game, we were forced to use references to World of Warcraft to explain some of the things we were doing with HvZ.

So, is Humans Versus Zombies a physical reenactment of a digital MMO? Or is it a traditional real-world game of tag with some aspects made possible by the digital? When I’m working on quests, I’m tempted to see it as a physical re-enacting of an MMO, but when I’m at the quests themselves, dressed up like a mad scientist and running through the snow, I tend to see it as a primarily physical game, like the games and activities I ran while working at a summer camp several years ago.

Problems we’ve grown familiar with through digital experiences plagued our physical game. We had plenty of HvZ trolls: disruptive players who made other players’ lives miserable in the same way that online trolls often do in games. We received complaints about a player trash-talking other players with race-based offensive speech. We received complaints about cheaters who went around without their identifying arm-bands and head-bands—essentially, players who “hacked” the rules with a simple run-around to gain a major advantage. The game is psychologically frustrating for human players, who often feel stranded or picked-on as the zombie horde camps outside their dorms or classrooms. Some responded to this stress with long, hostile email flame-wars. We saw rule exploits. We had a player actually kick another player in anger. I was surprised, over and over again, with the similarities between these problems and the kinds of offenses I’ve grown familiar with through online multiplayer games.

So, what’s the deal? Were players behaving like this because that’s how people are, both online and in the real world? Is trolling endemic to play, whether digital or not? I tend to see the internet not as a lens which warps human behavior, but as a lens which shows how we really want to behave, rudely throwing the cover off of the things we actually think and believe. Abstracting ourselves from the heart of a matter– whether that abstraction comes through the anonymity of the internet, or through the abstraction provided by the nature of play itself– allows us to forgive ourselves for things we’d never have done in “the real world.” Play can sometime make us forget ourselves.

Luckily, we didn’t have many truly offensive players—most of our problems were solved without much fuss. Our next game session, which will most likely begin in March, will include some rule changes which should greatly decrease the amount of disruptive behavior we see. We’re going to be more positive to the players, put a greater emphasis on levity and fun, and make sure that the stress doesn’t break the human team the way it did this winter.

Right now, player motivation is our biggest problem. While most humans took the transition from Human to Zombie team with grace, some refused to continue playing after they’d been tagged and ‘turned.’ Some said it was because they only liked playing if they were allowed to carry Nerf guns—and zombies have to go empty-handed. Some actually thought that there was less “honor” in playing a zombie than a human. Campus attitude may have had something to do with this: the zombies only won if everyone became a zombie, and on an Ivy-League campus filled with kids who seem to believe they’re entitled to special treatment, there is little appeal to the ‘everyone wins’ scenario. In the future, we’ll have to think of new ways to motivate the zombie players. We’re considering giving them special rewards for staying ‘in character’ and wearing cool costumes– for invading reality in cheekier, less-stressful ways. We’re going to make more quests which cater to their play style. We’re also going to hand-pick the Original Zombies from a pool of volunteers, making sure that they’ve got the enthusiastic leadership skills necessary to bind the moaning horde together. See, players take this game much more seriously than we’d anticipated– though, to be frank, we should have anticipated that.

HVZ, as an ARG, is all about taking things “too seriously”– and I’d like to discuss HvZ’s status as an ARG now, and discuss what I think the point and possibilities of ARGs, both digital and ‘real-world,’ actually are. The game’s official website, maintained by the Goucher grads who invented it, doesn’t actually talk about this. It calls the the experience ‘a game of moderated tag,’ and ‘a social opportunity,’ but its nature as a social alternate-reality game is never mentioned.

See, it’s the collision of the game and reality which makes HVZ so intense an experience for its players. They must figure out how to live their real-world lives—with all their attendant responsibilities and requirements—alongside their new, high-stakes lives as human survivors and zombie horde members. At one point, a student complained to me that a group of zombies had prevented him from getting into an academic building until twenty minutes into that class period. “What do you want me to do about it?” I asked him. “Sometimes you have to choose: am I going to stay a human or am I going to go to class?”

ARGs are exciting because they disturb and stress our ordinary lives. Because they require us to live in two worlds at once, never securely in the game or in reality. ARGs are dissonant. They can be upsetting. I saw our game of HvZ threaten actual, real-world friendships. This can happen in a wholly fictive, non-ARG game, but ARGs increase the possibility of real-world disaster. They invite us to forget what reality is, to alter our real-world behaviors and priorities. They’re games which ask us to take them “too seriously.”

As players discovered, there’s a thrill in that. We play digital games because they give us new and exciting experiences which, we say, we could never actually have in “the real world.” But we play ARGs because they force us to have those intense, liberating experiences in the real world. Too often we defend the digital with the claim that it provides us with those “new and exciting experiences,” as if there really are emotions or intense mental experiences in games which we can’t have out here in “the real world.” But the kind of mental energy we associate with a really great digital game– the feeling of being wrapped up emotionally and intellectually in an un-real experience– is definitely not exclusive to the realm of the digital. Now that I’ve done HvZ, I disagree with the idea that the ‘digital’ nature of digital games is what provides us with that unusual high. There are plenty of game experiences in that “real world” which meet and match the kinds of mental or emotional experiences we’ve grown to associate with digital games.

Because these experiences are much harder to organize in the real world, however, most of us have never experienced them. It’s impractical to expect that we could. A I said in my earlier post about HVZ, digital games offer us a high-intensity mental or emotional experience in exchange for a low-intensity outlay of physical energy. That’s the main convenience they offer us, and that– above and beyond promises of sweet graphics and sound– is what makes digital games special. They make our ambitious structures easier to achieve.

We could have those emotions in the real world, too– we could have that rush here and now. But it would be hard to set up. We need people to plan and design that experience for us, whether that designer is a digital expert or a hard-taxed real-world organizer. They give us the opportunities. And HvZ is one of these opportunities.