Monday, November 22, 2010

Here's Looking at You: Reexamining the Relationship of Player, Character, and Game

[Today I am heading out to QUT to attend "Games & HCI: A Long Romance", a workshop looking broadly at the topic of game interfaces as part of this year's OzCHI conference. I'm not sure if I will be talking there or not, but I'm looking forward to the discussions either way. For the workshop, I prepared the following academicish paper. 
As I have mentioned previously, I am interested in exploring the relationship between player and character next year when I begin writing my Honours dissertation (ed: which I have now written and you can find here!). Recently, I have started reading about Actor-Network Theory and have grown increasingly excited about how it may be useful for my studies. This paper, while very general and broad, gives a simplified account of how I am interesting in using Actor-Network Theory to look at this relationship. I feel I must stress that I am in no way an expert on Actor-Network Theory. I guess it is best read as a kind of hypothesis of what I believe I can show in the future, not of what I have already shown. Anyway, I am quite happy with how this has turned out, so hopefully you find it interesting.]

“In games more than any other medium often the problem is just you” – L.B. Jeffries.

When we discuss the ways in which players interact with games, in both everyday and academic discussion, it is not uncommon to discuss interactions in terms of ‘you’. In Grand Theft Auto IV ‘you’ explore Liberty City; in Mass Effect ‘you’ save the galaxy; in BioShock ‘you’ decide if the Little Sisters live or die. Text adventures and tabletop roleplaying games, meanwhile, use the second person construction explicitly: ‘you’ are in a dark room; there is a door to ‘your’ right; ‘you’ are likely to be eaten by a grue. ‘You’ is a necessary construct to talk about the hybridisation between player and game, but just what ‘you’ consists of has never been adequately accounted for. Who, or what, is ‘you’? The instinctive answer to this question is also the most problematic. ‘You’ is not the player. Or, more specifically, ‘you’ is not just the player.

Consider Hemisphere Games’s 2009 title Osmos. When the game first begins, the playable character, a single-cell organism called a mote, is in the centre of the screen above a line of text that addresses the player: ”This is you.” ‘You’ (that is, the mote controlled by the player) exists in a plane of other motes of various sizes. The player propels their mote around the screen, absorbing motes smaller than themselves to grow larger while avoiding being consumed by larger motes. In order to move, the player’s mote must expel mass that re-enters the level as more motes. Put simply, the mote controlled by the player—‘you’—is not just a single actor but a hybrid of many smaller connected actors. This simplest of examples shows that ‘you’ encompasses more than just the player. ‘You’ is a complex network of actors mediating and affecting the actions of each other through their own agency. One of these actors is the player.

Conflating the role of the player to the entire role of ‘you’ is problematic and prevents us from properly understanding the player’s relationship to the game and the interface through which they interact. Through the work of Bruno Latour and Actor-Network Theory, the full network of actors within ‘you’ may be rendered visible and the full cost of the player’s interaction with the game may be accounted for.

To assume that ‘you’ is the player conflates and privileges the role of the player’s agency within the game at the expense of hiding and dismissing a multitude of other agencies that are also present. This privileged understanding of player agency sees the other actors within ‘you’ as simple intermediary objects—mere tools—that transport the player’s input pure and unchanged into the game-world. The player says jump and the character, supposedly, does not even ask “How high?” This sees the relationship between player and character as not merely unproblematic and simple, but nonexistent—the character is the player, and the player is ‘you’. In Osmos, all the other motes consumed by you no loner exist. Such an understanding of you is useful to talk about the player and the game as two separate spheres, but is unable to demonstrate how the two relate and interact.  Such an understanding renders the game interface invisible and untraceable.

However, if the player’s agency is examined through the lens of Actor-Network Theory (abbreviated to ANT), the complex web of agencies, both human and nonhuman, actual and virtual, that are in play every time ‘you’ acts are exposed and able to be properly examined. ANT demonstrates how all objects mediate and alter action with their own agency, and shows that the relationship between player, character, and game is anything but straightforward and unproblematic. ANT is able to challenge the popular construction of ‘you’ as being equal to ‘the player’ and can expose the myriad actors who mediate and are mediated by the player’s agency, the actors that are forgotten in our haste to place the player on an all-powerful pedestal of agency. In Osmos, the agency of the mote controlled by the player is utterly dependent on the motes that it has absorbed and the motes that it expels. ‘You’s ability to act is directly connected to these other actors and their mediation of the playable mote’s actions and intentions.

This is more than an act of semantics. Removing the player from the privileged position of an actor ‘over’ the game and instead understanding the player as just one more mediator in the game renders the full network of actors and their relationships traceable. This is crucial if the game’s interface is to be properly located as the connections between these actors, the interactions between player and nonplayer actors are the game interface. If the game interface is to be properly situated, ‘you’ must be opened up and understood as neither player nor game but as a hybrid of player and game relating to each other. “Agency is continually redefined within the hybrid occupying the spatial environment of the game even as there is an overall meta-negotiation within the hybrid triumvirate comprising the player, the code and the hardware” (Veale 38).

As we are used to dealing with ‘the player’ and ‘the game’ as two distinct entities, this sounds counter-intuitive to the way we typically think about how we interact with games. Should not the aim of game studies be to strengthen the player’s agency and to further immerse the player in the game-world? Of course. Thus, should we not be focusing on how to equip the player with more freedom, with more meaningful choices? Again, of course. But then why would we want to tie the player down to all these other nonplayer objects? Because, as Latour says so beautifully, you do not free a puppet by cutting the strings. “The only way to liberate the puppet is for the puppeteer to be a good puppeteer […] The more strings the marionettes are allowed to have, the more articulated they become” (Latour, 2005 216). Just as the puppet’s freedom is in the quality of its connections to the puppeteer, so is the player’s freedom in the quality of their connections with the game. The agency of the player is dependent on the agency of other actors within the game and their ability to mediate and relate to each other. The player does not need to be set free from the game, but rather they must be better connected.

To do this, the role of other objects that would normally be ignored in such account must be acknowledged as mediating actors that translate and alter the player’s intentions. For ANT, no object is an intermediary, merely outputting the same effect input by an actor. Instead, all objects are mediators that transform, translate, distort, or otherwise modify the meaning they are supposed to carry (Latour, Reassembling 38). An action, then, is never ours alone, but a combination of ours and a myriad of other mediators that the action passes and is changed through. This translation of an action does not relate a human actor to a nonhuman intermediary, “but induces two mediators into coexisting” (Latour, Reassembling 108).

Instead of seeing the player’s agency as a linear, directed agency leading outwards from the player into the game via an intermediary interface that passes the action on unchanged, an ANT description reveals the network of actors expressing their own agency back and forth through mediated interactions. When the player says jump, the character does not only ask “How high?” but plays a part in determining how high. A game’s strength is not in the player’s ability to act, but to interact, and any given interaction “overflows with elements which are already in the situation coming from some other time, some other place, and generated by some other agency” (Latour, Reassembling 166; original emphasis).

At present, as ‘you’ is often treated not as a hybrid but simply as ‘the player’, all the actors interacting within ‘you’ are often not accounted for and we are unable to account for all the instability and dissonance within ‘you’. However, if these interactions are traced, if the price is paid for the translation of an action through all the mediating actors, ‘you’ is exposed for the actor-network that it is. “Stretch any given inter-action and, sure enough, it becomes an actor-network (Latour, Reassembling 202). If the full cost of translation is paid for, if all the actors within ‘you’ are accounted for, ‘you’ can be understood as existing as a hybrid where the spheres of ‘player’ and ‘game’ overlap.

Veale succinctly describes the concept of the hybrid with his example of the humancar hybrid:

Humans are not allowed on to the motorway on foot. Cars are not allowed to be parked on the motorway. A human in a car (humancar) is allowed on to the motorway. The human’ s agency is redefined by this association, in that the human is capable of actions which would not be otherwise possible, such as speed. On the other hand, the human’ s agency is at the same time constrained as the humancar, since the humancar cannot do things which humans can. For example, the humancar cannot explore sights of interest on a whim and must proceed at a set pace without slowing down to savour the view. During the exchange, the human and the car have effectively disappeared and will not return until the agency of the humancar is abandoned (Veale 11).

Similarly, ‘you’ is not a distinct player interacting with a distinct game, but a ‘playergame’ hybrid that exists where the two overlap. If we look at both player and game as existing in the one actor-network,  “we may be able to accommodate the hybrids and give them a place, a name, a home, a philosophy, an ontology” (Latour, Modern 51).

The player does not lose agency when they are connected to other actors, without connection to other actors the player has no agency. Rather, the player loses agency when they are connected badly. Just as the puppet’s agency is increased with more strings, so it can be held in bondage by the same strings connected poorly. If we wish to increase the agency of the player and create more immersive, more meaningful experiences, the solution is not to liberate the player from the game, but to pull them closer together with more connections, to increase the overlap between player and game that is the playergame hybrid. If we wish to truly locate the game interface and understand what it is doing to our interactions, we must account for the agency of other actors.

Jeffries, L.B. “On Design-Centric Game Criticism.” Popmatters. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. Print.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Veale, Kevin. “The Amniotic Sac: Intersubjectivity and Affect in Computer Games” MArts Thesis. U of Auckland, 2005. ResearchSpace. Web. 18 Nov. 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010


While I don't think it aired here in Australia, I came across the following commercial for Call of Duty: Black Ops via several discussions of it online this week.

Over at Border House, they applaud the commercial for the diversity of the people portrayed: 
The commercial portrays a war in which a variety of people are the soldiers. The commercial includes people of color, men, women, people of various body types, and even a number of professions. All of these people are portrayed as equal soldiers in this war. This commercial implies that this first person shooter game welcomes adult players from a variety of backgrounds and is not simply a toy for men aged 18-25.
Meanwhile, writing over at The Atlantic, Sam Machkovech has a different take on the commercial:
I couldn't have asked for a more disappointing game-related ad. These aren't the video games I play. Even at their highest levels of action and violence, video games play like sophisticated games of Cops & Robbers. They're silly; they require colorful, funny-shaped controllers; they stay decidedly in the domain of detached fiction.

This ad equips people with real guns and simulates real-life, no-CGI combat. The thud of recoil, the screams of rockets, the dust of explosions... and the look of exasperation on that little, shotgun-wielding girl. The only things missing are the dead bodies on the receiving ends of each bullet and blast.
It really is a slick commercial, there is no arguing that, and I certainly agree with Border House that the diversity of the the people portrayed in the commercial is (probably) a good thing. However, I also can't help but agree with Machkovech that the commercial is ultimately problematic. To try to express why I feel it is problematic, i am going to compare it to an Xbox commercial that Microsoft opted not to air. Machkovech noted the same commercial in his article and my conclusions will be similar to his, but not identical.


Personally, I think this second commercial is absolutely fabulous. It shows the true beauty of games: playfulness and imagination. Violence is not something kids learn just from videogames; many games (videogames, boardgames, schoolyard games nursery games) are situated in re-enactments of violence, either real or pretend. This Xbox commercial simply shows a large group of strangers playing together. It is cute. It makes me smile. I would love this to happen in reality.

The Black Ops commercial is trying to tap into a similar theme, I feel. However, while the Xbox commercial brings war into the context of games, play, and fun, the Black Ops commercial takes games and players and fun and puts them into the context of war. The difference is nuanced, but it makes a huge difference.

Using war as the basis for entertainment is already a gray area ethically. It risks belittling real acts of violence, real lives, and real sacrifices (to use a potentially loaded word) into fictional, consumable action plots. Generally, though, if the line between the two is kept clear, then there is no problem. You can have a game, movie, or book based on war that is entertaining that also acknowledges that the real war was not entertaining at all. It is a thin line, but it is one that various media have managed to more-or-less maintain through the decades.

And that is where the Black Ops commercial falls down. By placing the game players not in a virtual game but in a real war, the distinction between the entertainment product and the real war is blurred--potentially to the benefit of the former, but certainly to the disrespect of the latter. When I play I war game, I  want to have fun, and I want to feel the gravitas of war. I do not want to feel that the two are the same thing, that real war is fun. That is when it stops being a game and starts being propaganda.

This line blurring is disconcerting from another aspect, also. I have written before (as have many others better than me, I don't doubt) about the blurring between 'real' war and 'virtual' war, as each looks more and more like the other. War videogames are becoming increasingly realistic while real wars are looking more like videogames with each leaked video appearing on YouTube. 

As Machkovech points out, the tag line of the commercial is "There's a soldier in all of us". Not a hero, a soldier. Not "everyone is capable of great sacrifice and fighting for a noble cause", but "everyone is capable of being conditioned to follow orders and to kill without question". These commercial puts these two ideas together (war is becoming more like a videogame; anyone can be conditioned to be a soldier) alongside a young girl (or boy) clearing a real room with a real shotgun in a commercial for a virtual videogame. When I watched that girl clear the room, I was not sure if I should be happy to see someone other than an '18-25-year-old male' enjoying videogames' or concerned that I was seeing a child be conditioned into a soldier. 

Which, as something of a side note, makes me skeptical of the true nature of the commercial's diversity. "There's a soldier in all of us". With the right technology and the right content, anyone can be conditioned to fight in a war, and not just any war, but a war as morally hazardous as Vietnam. Okay, perhaps that is a bit fatalistic, and I should just accept the one time the broader gaming industry does diversity right. But considering Activision's track record, I can't help but be skeptical.

So what are your opinions on the commercial? Are Machkovech and I the only people who have a problem with it?

Full disclosure: 1) I have been listening to The Rolling Stones all day thanks to the excellent use of music in the Black Ops commercial. 2) I have not yet played Black Ops and do not mean to comment on the game's content itself but rather the themes of the commercial and the content of war games generally.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Update (or lack thereof)

It has been some time since I have updated Critical Damage, and I apologise for that. The good news is that this is largely because I have been busy writing elsewhere. So until I finally finish off one of the three half-written posts that I am meaning to post here, I thought I would update you all on what I have actually been doing.
Firstly, and consuming the majority of my writing time, Towards Dawn is now up to Day Thirty-One and till going strong. I've had some crazy adventures and seen some amazing sights. I'm still unsure just how and when the saga will end, but when it does, I would very much like to compile the whole series as an e-book for people to download. 
Still Minecraft related, I am now a writer over at CraftHub. I'll be posting things as often as I find things worth posting about and have time to post them. I would also like to use the opportunity to perhaps write some more in-depths pieces on this game that has consumed so much of my gaming time this year. 
This past week has also seen my first two print articles published. Hyper 206 has my Minecraft guide "The Craft of Mining" in the Front End section, and Kill Screen #2 has a story I wrote called "Capture the School". I haven't received my copy of Kill Screen yet, but if the past two issues are anything to go by, it will be absolutely stunning and well worth your money--and less of your money than previously! Seriously, you will not find a better collection of game writing this side of the internet. As for Hyper, issue 206 is something of deputy editor Dylan's lovechild. He has put a lot of work into this issue and it really shows. If you are in Australia and walking by a news agency, go in and pick it up.
At the academic end, I am putting a paper together that I will hopefully get to submit for the OZCHI 'Games and HCI: A Long Romance' workshop later this month. The topic is going to be a furthering of an essay I wrote for a course this semester that looks at applying some Actor-Network Theory stuff to my interest int he relationship between player and character. The more ANT stuff I read (predominately just the work of Bruno Latour at the moment, I admit), the closer I feel I am getting to articulating what I actually am talking about when I talk about player privilege. I'm not sure on the copyright specifics of OZCHI papers, but assuming I am allowed, I will post the completed paper here after the workshop.
And that is where I currently am with my writing. I am also doing quite a bit of reading in preparation for Honours next year and my dissertation Similar to the above OZCHI thing, I will be looking at the player/character relationship through an ANT lens, which consequently will probably mean I will end up looking at the player/character/everything-else relationship if I am not careful. But more on that in the coming months.
As for games I have been playing, I sadly have not had much time to get too committed to any new games. I am still spending many hours in Minecraft, both in my nomad game and my more traditional games. I've also, quite recently, discovered the joy of multiplayer servers. I am not one for building towns, but just knowing that other people are in the same world certainly adds something to the experience. The joy of mining with a couple of comrades is also something I underestimated.
I have also been playing quite a lot of Super Meat Boy. The game is absolutely stunning and deserves all the praise it has received. The controls feel absolutely perfect. I love the way my entire body tenses as I realise that this is the run that will shave .02 seconds off my time if I can just clear this last jump. The game also acts as a sign of maturity of the medium of gaming. The multitude of intertextual references to other games is only possible because of the maturity of videogames as a medium. Somewhat related, I really enjoyed Michael Abbott's writeup of the game.
And apart from my nightly wind down in Audio-Surf, that is about all the gaming I have done. I dabbled in Red Dead Redemption's Undead Nightmare DLC (the subject of one of my unfinished posts for Critical Damage), and I still hit up Reach from time to time. I am yet to get Fallout: New Vegas; however, I think I may pick up a copy this week to keep me occupied after I get my wisdom teeth ripped out on Thursday. 
And that is my update. Hopefully it will not be so long until the next one, and hopefully it will be more interesting than this one. Oh, and one last thing! Along with several other handsome, game-writing gentlemen, I am growing (or attempting to grow) a mustache for Movember. If you want to help men with depression and prostrate cancer, or if you just like laughing at how foolish we all look, you should totally consider donating some coins to our team.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Towards Dawn

Hello there.
Due to my study load and some other writing commitments, Critical Damage has been a bit quiet lately. I have a few deadlines coming up in the next week and after that I will finish off a few posts I have been working on and try to get them up. However, in the meantime, on something of a whim I seem to have started a side project that is turning out to be quite interesting. 
That project is Towards Dawn, and is simply a diary I am keeping of one specific Minecraft game where instead of setting up a 'home', I continuously walk east towards the dawn and note the new and exotic things I see.
In the earliest forming of the idea in my mind, all I was thinking was that playing Minecraft as a nomad could possibly be kind of a cool, alternative way of playing. The majority of players tend to have a 'home', not too far from where they initially spawn on the map. Sometimes this is a large castle; sometimes it is just the first room in the player's first cave. Typically this home contains vast riches that the player has mined and placed in chests for safekeeping. I thought it could be interesting to subvert this. In my Towards Dawn game, I only possess what I can carry with me. I have no home (though my spawn point far to the west still feels like home, interestingly). I leave as little a mark on the lands I pass through as possible.
I did not fully consider at first how this would in fact be something of a perma-death experiment, somewhat similar to Ben Abraham's Far Cry 2 experiment, or the many others that have already followed. I made no pact with myself to delete the game if I die, but if (when) I do, my nomad adventure will certainly be over. I will spawn back at 'home' and I  most certainly will not be tracing my steps for game-days on end to pick up the trail. 
Perma-death playthroughs are something I have been fascinated about for some time as they relate deeply with my interest in consequece (that the blog where Ben's initial perma-death experiment can be found is titled Sometimes Life Requires Consequence says it all). 
The extreme consequences faced in a perma-death playthrough of a game highlight, I think, how permanence adds to the significance of a story. The story is not weakened by the player dying and then rewinding time to tell the story a slightly different way--the player dies and the story ends and is complete authoritative. This isn't how the story 'could' be; this is the story.
This is not to say that for the sake of story all games should go so far as to delete the player's file when they die. Rather, that permanency in some fashion can go a long way towards strengthening the fiction of a game.
Minecraft already had this before I began my adventure, and I would argue that it is one of the reasons the game resonates so deeply to so many people. While death is not the end in Minecraft, its consequences are certainly real. Minutes after my first ever diamond discovery, I tripped and fell in lava, losing said diamond, along with over two hours worth of other resources. I respawned and the game continued, but that loot was lost forever. The feeling of loss and despair in my gut as I watched myself burn to death that night was one of the strongest emotional reactions I have ever felt towards a game. That is not an exaggeration.
This occurs simply because of how Minecraft saves the game. That is, the game is always being saved right now. You cannot simply load an old save and not get your items back. The second you died, your game saved again. 
This permanency, this fact that you can not go back, that you must keep moving forward, makes experiences in Minecraft more meaningful. At least I feel like they do for me. That existing energy is something that Towards Dawn is tapping into.
But that was quite a tangent! The point is that Towards Dawn is an accidental perma-death experiment, and I feel that is what makes it more interesting than if I were to simply blog as I begin to build a castle, die a couple of times, and finish building a castle.
But what is the point? What is Towards Dawn trying to prove? Well, I'm not too sure yet. I'm thinking that will become apparent as I continue to play. For now I am enjoying the new experiences my less grounded, less materialistic lifestyle is offering. When it ends (whenever that is), perhaps I will have something more profound to say about it. For the meantime, I hope you enjoy the journey.
You can follow Towards Dawn here, or start from the first post here. Also, I would really appreciate some feedback. Is it interesting? Boring? Is there anything you think should be changed in either the presentation or the playing? Let me know!
In other news, I am playing Halo: Reach. But this post has already gone on too long so that will have to wait for a future post.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Liberty Cities

Crossing back-and-forth across Liberty City as Niko Bellic, I pass the same districts and landmarks many times every hours. I visit the same Burger Shot a block from Middle Park to restore my health as I once again cross the same bridge and exit on the same highway. However, there are city blocks, mere metres from my regular commute, that I may only glimpse once every ten hours. Other locales may go upwards of twenty, fifty, even a hundred hours without Niko laying eyes on them. When I do eventually stumble across these spaces (usually while hunting down a criminal or an elusive pigeon) I marvel that such spaces could have existed all this time without me knowing.
Something similar happens in real life. In Brisbane, I live near a fairly major road. Not a freeway or anything, but a major thoroughfare from the CBD to the western suburbs nonetheless. I live on the southern side of this road, and my bus travels up and down it everyday when I commute into the city. The northern side of the road is really not that different from the southern side. Yet, for me, the road has become some kind of imaginary border. I have little reason to ever travel north of the road; the streets beyond it have become this abstract, foreign land whose topography is nonsensical to me simply because I rarely go there.
The other week, my girlfriend and I drove into this strange land to visit an old friend. I was dumbfounded. What was this place? Were we even in the same city anymore? How could such a place exist so near to my home for so long without me ever seeing it? Yet, there were houses here. And cars. And shops. Clearly, people lived here. People not unlike me. For someone living in these suburbs, there would be absolutely nothing strange about The Area North Of The Road at all. Perhaps for them, the southern side of the road is the bizarre, exotic land.
Two people in the same city can see the same places in completely different ways. This in itself is not a particularly revolutionary idea. Clearly, individual circumstances such as social standing, means of transportation, physical capability, income, and class (just to name a few) are all going to affect how we interact with our environment. What I find fascinating is that this implies we never truly, objectively understand a space—we only ever perceive it subjectively, based on our own circumstances.
What does this mean for game spaces? What circumstances are in play that affect how we comprehend the worlds games present us? Or, more pertinently, whose circumstances? There are several elements worth noting, but in this post I want to highlight the significance of the playable character’s circumstances in filtering our understanding of the game world.
That’s right. The character. Within the game’s fiction and mechanics, the character that we control in the game world has individual circumstances such as social standing, means of transportation, income, physical capability, etc. These circumstances affect the character’s understanding of their place and role in the world, and this in turns affects how the player perceives and navigates the game space.
Placing the same player in the shoes of three vastly different characters within the same game space, Grand Theft Auto IV and its two DLCs are perfectly situated to demonstrate this. My understanding of Liberty City—both as a fictional world and a navigable game space—changed based on the character I was experiencing it through. While Niko, fresh off the boat, rarely travelled to Alderney, Broker may as well be a foreign country to The Lost and the Damned’s Johnny Klebitz. Meanwhile, The Ballad of Gay Tony’s Luis Lopez lives between the glitzy high-rises of downtown Algonquin and the projects of North Holland, rarely concerned with the other islands. The blatant difference in circumstance between the three characters both in regards to the game’s fiction (e.g. the characters’ differing personalities) and the game’s design (e.g. the different positioning of safe house, access to different weapons), trickled down to affect the ways I perceived and navigated Liberty City in very subtle ways.

The roadmap that had been inscribed in my mind as Niko (shop at this store; sleep in this borough; use this major road to get to that suburb) is formatted and cleared when I jump on Johnny’s bike. Alleyways, courtyards, and burger joints that I pass without a second glance as Niko, I suddenly notice as Johnny. This was not simply a case of not being thorough in my initial playthrough—by the time I first played The Lost and the Damned, I had spent well over a hundred hours in Liberty City as Niko.
At the time, it seemed impossible to me that I could still stumble across areas that I had never before seen. Once or twice I actually reloaded my original game just to check these places were actually there in the original story. Sure enough, they were; me-as-Niko had just never noticed them. Then, several months later, I discovered even more locations when I stepped into the shoes of Gay Tony’s right-hand man, Luis.
So what changed? I was exploring the exact same city with the exact same controls with what were more-or-less the exact same models with different textures on top. Simply, the difference is perspective. Niko, Johnny, and Luis all look at Liberty City through a different lens (as a fresh start, as a corrupt cesspit, as a mine of drunk socialites) and I as the player could not help but be influenced by this.
Each character looked at the city from a different angle. While Niko looks west to Liberty City’s trademark skyline from the docks he arrived in, Johnny gazes east at a mirror-image city from the safety of his clubhouse, and Luis (to appropriate a cliché) can’t see the city for the skyscrapers. It is inevitable that the three would see three different Liberty Cities, and that the player, looking through the character, would see each city slightly differently.
This is not something unique to Grand Theft Auto IV, or even to open-world games. I would argue that our understanding and perception of all game worlds are influenced by the circumstance of the character we experience it through.
Often this is depicted literally as part of the game’s mechanics. Optimal drainpipes and ledges don’t actually glow red in the world of Mirror’s Edge, that is just how Faith (and by extension the player) sees her world. Left 4 Dead’s survivors see each level as a path to a safe house while the special infected see a playground of ledges and blind spots. Killzone 2’s invading force sees an evil dictatorship and faceless soldiers with glowing red eyes, not a viciously patriotic people defending their home planet.
All of this is not to say that the character is the only element that influences the player’s navigation of a space. Certainly, game levels are designed in a way that the space asks to be used in very explicit ways, and the character we are asked to play is arguably a small subset of this.
It is also worth noting that how the character sees their world depends on how the player sees the character. I sympathised with Niko as a broken, tragic character trapped in a cycle of violence he desperately wanted to get out of but only ever made worse. A different player, though, could just as understandably see Niko as a crazed madman not worth a moment’s pity. That player’s Liberty City is still filtered through a Niko Bellic, just not the same Niko Bellic as my Liberty City.
The character is a lens through which our understanding of the game world will always be filtered. We can never see the world as it ‘is’, just as it looks from our own point-of-view.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Freeplay 2010: Beyond the Controller

At last, here is one of the two final Freeplay 2010 pieces I promised to write. I walked into the “Beyond the Controller” roudtable discussion with a degree of pre-emptive (and presumptuous) reluctance. I was expecting a whole lot of death-of-the-controller, motion-sensor-utopia promotional talk. I was pleasantly mistaken.
While John Sietsma, Steve Bull, and Hugh Davies discussed their various augmented reality, transmedia, and cross-media projects, I don’t feel I know enough about augmented reality games myself to reproduce their presentations with any degree of accuracy—though, I now definitely want to learn more about them!
Truna (Jane Turner), however, started the discussion with a thought-provoking look at what precisely the controller ‘is’ and exactly what it contributes to our game experience. While all the presenters covered interesting topics, it was Truna’s talk that captured my interest the most and which I will be trying to do justice here. I should note, though, that I am basing this article entirely on my hastily scribbled notes so it should be read less as a report on what Truna said and more as what I personally took out of it.
“I don’t like controllers,” Truna began. “When you say ‘creativity’, I tend to think the opposite of ‘controlling’.”
By name, a controller is a thing that controls. But just what, precisely, is it controlling? This is not something I have ever really thought about. Clearly, the controller is so named because it allows the player to control some aspect of the game. But if that is the case, then it is the player that should be titled ‘controller’, right?
This all sounds very semantic, but what it comes down to is that the controller controls the player. Our actions and choices within the game are influenced, and to an extent predetermined, by the controller through which we interact with the game.
So how does the controller do this? Truna quoted Juul to say “The interface is the gameplay.” (I can’t find a reference for this verbatim quote but I imagine it is from “Easy to Use and Incredibly Difficult: On the Mythical Border between Interface and Gameplay”). The ways we can (and cannot) interact with the game determines how we actually play.
For the player, the controller functions as a form of prosthesis, replicating a limb that the player is missing. This prosthetic limb allows us to interact within the videogame world and serves the illusion that the fourth wall between the real and virtual worlds has been crossed: if what we are holding feels like a gun, then it is a gun.
For Truna, there exists two broad categories of controllers: specific and abstract (or generic). Within the specific grouping are controllers built for a specific style of gameplay: fishing rods, guitars, light guns, etc. that direct gameplay in a very narrow way. Abstract controllers are the more typical gamepads that the majority of console games rely on. Though, abstract controllers do not allow any more freedom for the player; rather, they just disguise the ways in which the player is being controlled. For Truna, the abstract controller is designed for two things: moving and shooting stuff.
Truna also made it clear, though, that she did not believe Sony and Microsoft’s new motion controllers were in any way moving beyond the controller. She pointed at a Microsoft press release that describes the Kinect as a “natural user interface”. But a player should be more than a user. Motion controllers do not remove the controllers (it is still in the name!); they merely remove them from the player’s hand. Using the player’s body as a controller is still situating a controller between the game and the player themselves.
So ultimately, the controller works to both give the player a sense of empowerment and agency (the player thinks, “I have a gun and I can shoot it whenever I want!”) and to discreetly remove the player’s actual agency (the player rarely thinks, “I can shoot, but I can’t do anything else.”). Our presence in the game world and the choices we make there are underpinned (and undermined) by the controller’s influence over us.
What Truna ultimately wants is for us to “think our way into games”. I initially took this as wanting some futuristic tech that we can plug into our brain. But the following speakers, with their different implementations of augmented reality games (such as Transumer and Jewel Collector) demonstrated how thinking into games would actually work.
John Sietsma summed up nicely what all the demonstrations showed: the more technology you add to a game, the more authority you ultimately remove from the player. Technology allows augmented reality games do things like geocaching and networking and recording data, but it weakens personal communication and (most importantly I think) limits the senses that the player is able to use.
So overall, what I took out of the discussion is that controllers aren’t ‘bad’ things that we must do away with, but they are doing very specific things to how we play, and we should be aware of that.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Guest Moments: Diary of a Minecrafter

 [In this pseudo-regular section, I record some of my more memorable gaming moments, the moments that remind me why I play games. Those who follow me on Twitter will already be aware of my recent obsession with Minecraft's emergent gameplay. The simplest of systems (mine resources to craft tools to mine better resources to craft better tools) is applied to a sprawling, procedural world for you to explore, tame, and master. New stories are born practically by the minute. The following is one such story. However, it is not my own.
The first time I read the following story I was laying in a bed in a Melbourne youth hostel. It was 7am on a Sunday morning and my phone beeped with a new email. For some reason I rolled over and checked it, only to find this rambling, livid, excited tale from my brother, Glynn Keogh, who had just lost an entire night to his Minecraft world. It was a good tale that exemplified exactly what I love about this game, so I asked him if he would let me re-post it here. So thanks, Glynn, for the following tale.]
Note: Screen captures are taken from my own game, not Glynn's adventure.
Progress on the subterranean highway is going well. For many long hours I have toiled down here, far below the surface world, forging a safe path hidden from the ferocious creatures and demons that roam through the night up above. It started out as a humble mine, but time and necessity drove me to make it so much more. Back up on the surface I am constantly on edge as soon as that great square sun hits the horizon; but buried here amongst the rocks and dirt, I am safe and free.
For the hundredth time tonight, my pick axe digs into the tunnel wall, and another chunky cube of rock breaks off. The highway is another foot longer. Soon it will be time to travel back to the tunnel entrance and begin laying tracks for the cart system that will eventually make journeys faster and safer. A few more squares and I will raise another shaft to the surface to gauge my progress, for it is daylight and the world outside is safe. Another chunk of rock breaks apart, the sound reverberating off the tunnel walls. But there’s also another sound, the most dreaded sound a minecrafter will ever hear underground.
Running water.
I curse to myself and continue to listen, struggling to pin-point the direction of the underground stream. It seems to be coming somewhere from the left of the tunnel, but for all I know I may hit it if I continue forwards, too. This is my first Minecraft world and I’ve never struck water underground before, but I know it’s something I certainly don’t want to do. This tunnel is the backbone of my entire domain and I cannot afford to lose it; I have no wish to risk the surface world at night. There’s really only one option, so I backtrack slightly and begin digging into the wall towards the sound: better to find the stream on my own terms than unwittingly flooding the entire highway later on. Grabbing a torch from my pack, I seal the side passage off behind me in case the worst happens. One way or another I will find the stream, but it will never reach the highway if I can help it.
I dig for a long time, far longer than I expected would be necessary. The sound of rushing water is misleading; it seems to come from all directions yet never can I locate the source. My good steel pick is blunted from the continuous digging, and I am forced to use my back-up stone picks. Soon even they are all but exhausted. My torch supply is also dwindling rapidly. I decide that once my last pick is gone I’ll head back to my safe house at the mine entrance, make some new tools and go back to the tunnel proper. If I can’t find the water after this long it must be safe enough to keep digging. My final torch dug in to the ground beside me, I dig away at the rock one final time and my pick is destroyed. The rock drops to the ground…followed by a rushing torrent of water.
In that brief second when the water pushes its way through the hole, I realise just how inexperienced a miner I am. The side tunnel I’ve dug is completely unorganised and random, the result of me wildly trying to trace the confusing sounds. Worse still, the tunnel slopes away downwards the way I came. As the water hits me I know with utter certainty that this tunnel is almost perfectly built to become completely flooded.
Suddenly I’m under the surface, and so is my nearest torch. A few seconds more and the torrent has smothered my other light sources. I’m plunged into darkness so complete my monitor may as well be turned off. All I can see is my rapidly dwindling air supply, and all I can hear is rushing water. Every now and then my head somehow breaks the surface and I stop myself from drowning, but I can tell that I’m being swept far further than the start of this tunnel. Somehow I’ve entered a natural cave system.
After awhile I manage to clamber on to dry land, amazed at the fact that I haven’t died. The rushing water has deposited me somewhere on a cavern floor and continues to flow past me in the dark, sounding deceptively tranquil and calm. I have no idea where I am, only that I didn’t build it. There is no way out; the newly formed river is filling the only entrance to the cave, and I have no wish to jump back in any time soon. I have no torches, no picks or shovels, and no coal. All I have left in my inventory is my sword, some wood, and the stone I have been mining. Resigned to finding my way out with zero lighting, I turn off all the lights in the house and count myself lucky that it’s 1am; by making my own world pitch black I can faintly make out the outlines of the cave with some effort. With a chunk of rock in my hand I begin pounding at the wall of the cavern, prepared to dig my way out by hand. This will take some time.
I dig for a ridiculously long time, guided only by the soft, constant trickle of water. I follow the underground river upstream, hoping to work my way back to a familiar tunnel. Several times along the way I am forced to hastily dam the stream and alter its course, lest I be swept away once more. Finally, my eyes aching and my hands sore from clawing through so much solid stone, I break through into another cavern. The hole I’ve dug is already leaking water as I once again have struck the cursed river, but I manage to duck through the tiny gap without being swept away. Incredibly, this cavern is actually lit, and for the first time in ages I can actually see properly. The cavern is beautiful in a deadly sort of way. The centre of the floor is a pile of loose gravel, which I manage to climb on to with some effort. The mound is surrounded on one side by the large body of water I had managed to find myself under, and on the other by a huge pool of lava, the source of the glow.
As I stand surveying the scene, my screen suddenly flashes and I am knocked forwards as something strikes me from behind. Only luck stops me from falling head first into the lava. Turning around, I see a zombie advancing out of the shadows towards me. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t scare the crap out of me after all I’d been through. I draw my sword and charge the monster, knocking it back and gaining myself a little room to maneuver. I duck around behind it in an effort to get away from the lava, receiving a blow to the head for my troubles. My hearts perilously low at this stage, I know that another hit will end this adventure. I charge a final time, and send the zombie flying into the molten rock. I start breathing again.
I slouch away from the computer for a moment; my nerves just can’t take it anymore. As I watch the lava flow slowly by, I decide upon a course of action. I retrieve the almost forgotten planks of wood from my pack and craft them into a workbench. I could have done this earlier, but the notion of crafting items in pitch-black damp caves seemed too unfeasible for me to consider. But here in the light of the lava, I could finally set to work. Using the very last of my wood and some stone I manage to craft a single low quality pick. It is the most wonderful tool I’ve ever held. My new pick in hand, I begin the task of digging my way out. By now I have no idea where I am or in which direction lay the subterranean highway, so I go the only way that makes sense: up. All this effort, all this time and glorious adventure in the name of fleeing the surface, and now I am desperate to escape the underground and see the sky once more. Therein lies the beauty of this game: every hole I dig, every wall I build, every tool I craft is all in the name of forging a little place where I can be safe. And now, as I claw away the last few chunks of dirt and sunlight shines down onto my face for the first time in hours of play, I am finally safe.

After finally finding my way home from that fantastic and terrifying hole in the ground (another adventure in itself), I am once more at the advancing end of the subterranean highway. Now with new tools in hand and a good number of fresh torches in my pack, I am ready to continue my work. The sound of running water is no longer audible through the tunnel walls, and I can only assume that my efforts to redirect the stream were successful in leading it away from this point. In any case, I am not about to go looking for it again. Happy to finally be back to mining, I swing my pick at the wall and another chunk of rock shatters. But before I can swing again, the gap I have opened up is filled with loose gravel. I scoop it clear, and yet more replaces it. Careful to avoid a fatal cave-in, I continue scooping away the debris until the flow stops suddenly. With a loud clatter, something heavy lands at my feet.
A makeshift workbench which, until moments ago, had been resting on a pile of gravel between a river of water and a pool of lava in a cavern, which is beautiful in a deadly sort of way, not 3 squares above the fore of my subterranean highway.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feeling Every Punch

A lot of insightful, thought-provoking views found their way into the comments of my “Player Privilege” post. One highlighted problem with my argument was that I failed to articulate exactly what I meant by wanting games that are more ‘difficult’. Adrian made the very valid point that simply making games harder for players would not be abolishing player privilege but instead would simply reinstate the privilege of the hardcore by making games less accessible. That games should require more dexterous skill was not my intended argument so this is clearly something I need to distinguish better.
Related to this, The Shape of Games To Come highlighted an important distinction between real-world consequences and virtual consequences:
"While I too would like to see greater consequence for player actions, I think I would draw a critical difference between in-game consequence and real world consequence."
As essentially what my broader argument is saying is that games could be more meaningful by inflicting harsher consequences on the player, the distinction seems like a vital area to explore. However, the distinction I would make is that they are not distinct at all.
So I am going to start with a wildly presumptuous hypothesis and then work my way back to it. So here it goes: the player takes meaning out of a game (both positively and negatively) through the ways the game affects the player in the real world. To twist this around: the real-world consequences of the player’s virtual actions communicate meaning to the player.
This implies an overlap of what exists in the real world and what exists in the virtual world, and indeed there is a whole body of literature on this topic that I am grossly simplifying and re-appropriating here. While both worlds have exclusive elements (we sit with a controller in our hand in the real-world; the dragons we slay, the cars we steal and the aliens we shoot exist solely in the virtual world), there is this massive gray area where the two worlds smash together like a Venn Diagram. This is the space where you read Fallout 3’s The Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide on the bus home from EB Games. This is the space where a real-world friend shouts “jump!” while a virtual squadmate orders you to “press X!”.
It is within this overlap, too, that we are able to interact with the virtual world. Via our in-game avatar, we project our real-world actions (pressing X) into the virtual world. This is how we play videogames. We poke a finger through this little window into the virtual world and watch the effects of that action ripple outwards. However, this window is not one-way. Just as we can effect change in the virtual world via real actions, the consequences of those actions are able to ripple back to us in very real ways—sometimes too real.
We want our actions in-game to resonate into the real world... but not too much. (link)
The Shape Of Games To Come, in his comment, clarified between what he sees as constructive in-game consequences and destructive real-world consequences by comparing how Heavy Rain and Mirror’s Edge respond to the player’s failings:
"While I too would like to see greater consequence for player actions, I think I would draw a critical difference between in-game consequence and real world consequence. I though Heavy Rain was fantastic largely because of how it handled this; I could lose whole characters, cut off entire potential plot branches and gameplay sequences, etc. based on how I acted in a particular scene. That was great.

What is not at all great is for me to be punished outside of the game for my actions. This has two possible consequences for me, both of which are bad. The first is that the narrative of the game is broken. I died a lot playing Mirror's Edge. And at the end of the day, that reinforced something for me - that the character of Faith could not possibly have done what the game said she did with the skillset the game gave me unless she ran into an almost infinitely improbable string of good luck. The second consequence is that the game has essentially wasted some of my life. Do I have to go back and replay the past hour of gameplay because there was no checkpoint? Then I have just lost an hour of my life, and now I will have to spend another hour just to get back to where I already was. That's not meaningful consequence, that's abuse."
These are both great examples. However, I would argue that both are examples of games projecting consequences from the virtual world back into the real world. They key difference is that the consequences of actions within Heavy Rain continue to resonate in the virtual world as well as the real world. That is, the game reacts to our actions (intended or accidental) and continues along a certain route consequential to those actions. This is a virtual consequence (because it affects the characters in-game), but it is also a real-world consequence (because it affects the way we play, progress, and experience the game).
Meanwhile, the Mirror’s Edge example is a real-world consequence without any corresponding virtual consequence. In short, Faith does not die. Every action between the checkpoint and our misguided jump is erased and forgotten. The player suffers consequences in the real world (loss of time, alienation at the plausibility of the narrative) while the character suffers nothing. Faith has no memory of that fateful misstep, but the player must remember every bone-crunching detail.
My initial hypothesis was that the player takes meaning out of a game based on how the game affects them in the real world. Now I don’t want to twist The Shape Of Games To Come’s words against him so the following is my own experience of Mirror’s Edge and Heavy Rain: My experience of Mirror’s Edge was marred by the way it affected me in the real world without affecting Faith in the virtual world. Yet my experience of Heavy Rain was improved by the way the consequences to my actions affected how I played the game in both real and virtual ways.
So where does this leave us? Have I found a wedge to distinguish between privilege and accessibility? Perhaps what I mean by player privilege, then, is that many games are being designed in a way as to isolate the player in the real world. The player is able to poke through the window into the virtual world then slam it shut before the consequences ripple back to affect them in the real world—ultimately blocking the player off from any meaning those consequences may have conveyed.
An example of this would be the choice to destroy Megaton in Fallout 3. While Megaton’s destruction has very clear virtual consequences to the citizens of the Capital Wasteland (a major town destroyed, many deaths, a large area radiated), the decision hardly affects the way the player progresses in the game. Regardless of what the player decides to do, they receive a house for their troubles. Further, the quests available to the player do not change—the characters within Megaton that give out quests miraculously survive the detonation. While the game’s karma system does quantify the player’s decision with ‘good’ or ‘evil’ points, the real world consequences of the player’s virtual actions are practically nil, and any meaning the player may get out of the experience is greatly diluted. [Edit: Okay. It has been pointed out to me that there are indeed a number of quests and other elements that are shut off from the player if they destroy Megaton so this example is in fact not all that great.]
At the other extreme, however, is what Adrian highlighted in my previous post as a potential abolishment of accessibility. This would be ripping the window from the wall and allowing all the consequences of the player’s actions to flood back into the real world with no real affect on the virtual—such as Mirror’s Edge or any other game with unforgiving checkpoint systems.
So ideally, the consequences of our actions should not be exclusive to either world, but resonate across both. At the end of the day, why would we put so much into games if we did not wish to take something out of them?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What I Learned at Freeplay 2010

“Melbourne’s got a hipster-only policy, right?” I quipped at Fraser on Twitter, in reply to a motherly message about wearing enough layers. In the middle of winter, Melbourne’s weather can be a bit of a shock to us Queenslanders.
“Pretty much. The dress code is black clothes and no outward signs of enthusiasm.”
I was on the shuttle bus from Melbourne Airport to the city, thirty-six hours before the commencement of the second Freeplay Independent Games Festival. I’m not sure what I expected the festival to be like. It just seemed like the kind of thing I should be going to. If nothing else, the ideas of ‘Melbourne’, ‘indie’, and ‘games’ were enough to sell me.
I could not tell you where in relation to the CBD Melbourne’s airport actually is. While waiting for the shuttle bus, I sent out a simple tweet asking any Melbourne friends for directions to my hostel. By the time I was seated on said bus, I was engaged in at least five conversations, replying to an inundation of direction suggestions, public transport timetables, and phone numbers.
This set the mood for the entire weekend: friendly, insightful, and strongly reliant on Twitter. I met some incredible people, listened to some inspiring discussions, engaged in some mind-blowing conversations, and realised that the only thing holding back the art form of games is myself. 

Okay, perhaps I should rewind a bit.
Before Freeplay was to begin, I had an entire day to mosey around Melbourne by myself. Twitter gave me some tips for coffee, for food, and for things to do, so off I went.
Thanks to Dan Golding, I ended up at the Screen Worlds exhibition at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). All kinds of screen media were on display, exhibiting the diverse history of the screen. The pseudo-film student inside of me found it all interesting, but of course I levitated to the videogame tables. I spent most of my time at the exhibition playing Tempest, Asteroid, Super Mario Bros 3, and Tomb Raider under televisions flashing glimpses of Mass Effect, Shadow of the Colossus, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and Katamari Damacy.
What really struck me was the complete lack of self-conscious justification for why videogames were part of the exhibition. It seems silly now, but I have come to expect any inclusion of videogames in any kind of art gallery or museum to come with an excuse-filled placard blabbering about ‘why’ games are there, as though they are the awkward kid at the party no one really wanted invited. Screen Worlds, though, and the diverse people it attracted, all just assumed that the history and art of videogames belonged there along side the old cameras and monochrome cathode ray tube televisions. I felt somewhat guilty that I had not made the same assumption myself.

Freeplay Day One! I’ll be honest: I was freaking out. Not only was there the pressure of having to meet people I have never before met in real life (something I was greatly looking forward to but fretting about nonetheless) but also the nagging anxiety about the reports I was meant to be writing. You see, I was yet to convince myself that I was actually writing for Gamasutra. I was worried about the most irrational things (such as not being able to fit in the theater and completely missing the keynote). All this anxiety led to me waking over an hour before my alarm went off, showering, and rushing out of the hostel a good two hours before registration for Freeplay even opened.
This turned out to be a good thing as on the complete opposite side of the city I found a café in an alleyway selling ridiculously good coffee ridiculously cheap with (wait for it) soy milk for no extra charge! They also just happened to be the only café in the entire city open that early, I swear.
Anyway, 9 o’clock came around and with the course for my Neptune’s Pride fleets set for the next twenty-four hours, I headed off to Freeplay.
To begin the festival Paul Callaghan, one of Freeplay's two orgainsers, took the stage. Paul is a glorious, humble, modest man around which you cannot help but feel good about videogames. Bissell could remove all the pages from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and just replace it with a photo of this guy.
Paul, together with Eve Penford-Dennis, had effectively built this year’s Freeplay out of nothing. You could tell how much time, dedication, and effort both of them had put into the event from the way that started at loud noises. All of a sudden, my few reports didn’t seem like quite such a daunting task. These two people had sweated blood to get this festival running. It is a horrible cliché of a metaphor, I am aware, but totally appropriate. [Update: Okay. So I got a bit hyperbolic and vague in my writing. As Paul has clarified in a comment: "Just wanted to point out that this is the 2nd Freeplay that Eve & I have organised, but it's the 5th overall. Next Wave started it in 2004 and ran it again in 2005 and 2007. Without their foundation, I doubt we'd have been able to build it from scratch." Though, this does not change my emphasis that it was clear that they had put a lot of effort into this year's event.]
And so it began.
Between seminars, I met some staggeringly awesome people. Particularly the GameTaco crew, Fraser Allison (from RedKingDream), Dan Golding (kinda from RedKingDream but also from everywhere, we established), and James O’Connor (from Hyper, Pixelhunt, and others). With these guys I had some great discussions. It sounds silly, but speaking out loud, with your actual voice, about ideas and concepts you have only ever written about is an incredibly empowering feeling. Simply being able to have a meaningful conversation about the map design of X game or the narrative of Y game was alone enough to justify the entire trip.
We were talking about videogames. In real life. This is a big deal. We weren’t hiding out on websites and social networks; we were in public spaces and shamelessly talking about our passions. Perhaps this does not seem like such a big deal, perhaps you live in closer proximity to fellow enthusiasts than I do, but it is not something I have often had the chance to do, and something that I did not realize I had been craving.
After lunch, Saturday afternoon saw how really interesting presentations. The “Beyond the Controller” roundtable looked mostly at augmented reality games (interesting and significant, but not my area), but also included a presentation by the incredible “game activist” Truna who gave a thought-provoking speech challenging our unconscious acceptance of the physical game controller. She did not so much argue that we should abolish the controller, but insisted that we must understand just what the controller is actually controlling: us. This is a topic I will be following up with its own post.
Next was Brandon Boyer’s keynote. Boyer’s speech was a quiet revolution and I doubt there were many in the audience not inspired. I had given up on the actual creation of games years ago but Brandon’s speech forced me accept that the actual act of making games is something I still desire. Not just another platformer or another shooter, mind you (ultimately what all my early game attempts ended up as), but something experimental, something personal. We each have an obligation to make the game we wish to make and from that the videogame medium as a whole will continue to evolve.
And indeed, upon returning to Brisbane, Unity and its various tutorials was one of the first things I downloaded and its learning has become a serious side project.
Though, at the time of Brandon’s speech, the main thing I was thinking was, “Geez I have to do this brilliant talk justice in a report!”
So, of course, I followed everyone to the bar as soon as the talk finished. Long story short, by 2am, after several drinks and several drafts proofread by my awesome girlfriend back in Brisbane, I emailed off my first report and went to bed with Brandon Boyer’s words still ringing in my ears (partially a consequence of listening to his talk on my iphone over and over as I parsed for quotes).
And the report actually got posted! Fortunately, Leigh Alexander is a phenomenal editor and squeezed the odour of gin out of my words and rendered my report readable. But that wasn’t until Monday. For now, I was still stressing out about the report I had just sent and the two more I had to write. But beneath that was one of those vague, buzzing feelings that I have come to associate with the earliest formings of a new idea.
At the time I assumed it was a new article I would want to write, but it would turn out to be something much more meta: a shift in the very way I think of videogames.

Writing one keynote obviously did not alleviate my anxiety as I still managed to climb out of bed and leave the hostel well over an hour earlier than needed (despite only having gone to sleep four hours earlier) and ended up at the same café in the same alley on the same opposite edge of the city.
Adam “Atomic” Saltsman (As I believe I am meant to call him) kicked things off right away with the second keynote, “Play & Games & Videogames & Us”. He had a lot of ground to cover, yet he somehow fit it all in. If Brandon Boyer had convinced me that I should make personal games because they are meaningful, Saltsman convinced me making games is integral to our existence as human beings.
Following this, the “Twisted Space” panel complemented Adam’s ideas perfectly. A very broad and eclectic yet deep and thorough exploration of what we can do with space came with the broader theme of just how much untapped potential still exists in our medium if we are willing to explore it.
Though I had heard of it before, it was this seminar where I first got a good look at Hazard. Hazard is the supermutant brainchild of Alexander Bruce. This man is mad; his game is mad, and they are both exactly what the future of videogames need.
That whole vague buzzing feeling I mentioned before? Well this seminar is where I finally figured out what it was. Specifically, when Alexander said, “It’s a game. We can do whatever the fuck we want so why not do something cool.” This, coupled with the themes of the keynotes that we have an obligation to create ‘something cool’ would be the beginning of a subtle yet seismic shift in how I view videogames.
That night at the after party I was fortunate enough to be part of a conversation with Bruce about his game and what he is trying to achieve. This will also be a later post (though much brutalised as I was not taking any notes, sadly). Suffice to say he is absolutely mad and brilliant.
And, well, you get the idea. The two days of Freeplay 2010 blew my mind. There was something for everyone. In fact, everything was for everyone. A lot of the talks were only vaguely related to videogames but that was the point: play is everywhere and we as videogame makers and thinkers and perfectly positioned to tap that energy.
Throughout the festival was this empowering sense of self-worth. Not conscious self-worth, but assumed. This mattered. Games mattered. Not once did anyone try to justify games as art. It was presumed and things advanced from there.
That is the most significant thing I took out of Freeplay 2010: to not question how important videogames are, but to outright assume it. “Games are Art” is not the topic of a debate worth having, but a presumption worth making because beyond that is events like Freeplay and thinkers like Brandon Boyer, Adam Saltsman, Alexander Bruce, and the rest of the weekends speakers, and not the potential of what games can do, but what they must do, what they will do, and what they are already doing all around us.