Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Research Argument

[The following is an email that I wrote to the course convener of the research topic I am writing at uni this semester. I explain what I plan on looking at, why I plan on looking at it, and what texts I plan on engaging with. It is a fairly narrow topic as I only have 4000 words and a single semester to write it. If you have any interest at all in what I am planning on writing this semester, read on.

EDIT: I should also note that the essay must in some way tie in to the concept of 'dark play' as described in some random article the convener sent us. I guess the key elements of dark play can be described as a blurring of the frame of play, and a masking of the audience so that they can take part in forms of play that are not socially acceptable without having to fear social repercussions. This isn't too important to this article, though, but when you see the weird reference to dark play, that is why.]

I have been doing quite a bit of reading this week and have found a few texts that I think will be seminal to my essay. As such, I have been able to narrow down my interests into a specific topic… hopefully one specific enough! Now, the tricky part will be describing that topic in this email, which I already suspect may come across quite rambling.

In a sentence, I am going to look at how the real-world player and virtual character share the responsibility of protagonist in Fallout 3.

Over the last two days I have read several chapters of Jesper Juul’s half-real (2005), which is largely focused on, as the name suggests, how video games are 'half-real' in the sense they are played in the real world while simutaneously imagined in a fictional world. The relationship of a video game's ‘rules’ and ‘fiction’ (Juul intentionally avoids using the term ‘narrative’ as much as possible as he believes it has too many definitions and can only be applied to games if you pick and choose which definitions you use) are pivotal to the book. Juul’s defines the two as:

“[…] the fiction of the game cues [the player] into understanding the rules of the game, and, again, the rules can cue the player to imagine the fictional world of the game.” (p163)

This quote in particular made me think about the frame-blurring aspect of dark play. The player must play by the rules of the game, while the character that the player must use to interact with the game’s fictional world must abide by the world’s fictional laws (how gravity works, how non-playable characters to relate to your character, whether or not aliens exist, for example).

The following two quotes about the player and the character in relation to rules and fiction appeal to me as explicitly related to what I hope to look at, as well as clearly linking the topic to dark play’s concepts of masking and hiding the state of play respectively:

“A game is a play with identities, where the player at one moment performs an action considered morally sound, and the next moment tries something he or she considers indefensible. The player chooses one mission or another, tries to complete the mission in one way or another, tries to do “good” or “evil”. Games are playgrounds where players can experiment with doing things they would or would not normally do.” (p193)


“If we assume that the fictional world of the game is a world, it would make sense to assume that the characters in that world are therefore generally unaware of their being fictional characters or being part of a game at all.” (p183) [Not sure why this quote is formatting so weirdly, sorry.]

I understand I can’t base my entire research topic on one book, and I have been reading chapters of other books and articles (including one specifically titled “Moral Decision Making in Fallout”), but I think these quotes sum up quite nicely what I am interested in.

My one problem with Juul’s book is his presumption that the playable character is the protagonist of the game’s story. A game’s narrative revolves around both choices the player makes in relation to the game’s rules, and attributes of the playable character (physical, mental, and moral) within the game’s fiction. Both the player and the character share the role of protagonist.

Fallout 3 will be a good game to exhibit this as the player has much freedom over creating the playable character’s attributes—gender, ethnicity, physical abilities, charm (or lack thereof), morality (based on a quantified measure of ‘karma’ on a sliding scale of -1000 to 1000), etc., and those attributes in turn affects what quests the player is able to attempt, which non-playable characters are friends or enemies, among many other variables. Essentially, the fact that the player may enact either a ‘good’, ‘evil’, or ‘neutral’ character, or even one that swings between the three based on the immediate circumstances, means that Fallout 3 will be a good example to highlight the shared role of player and protagonist, and also to tie that shared role to dark play.

As the essay is so short, I know I will have to apply strict limitations, such as the type of video games this applies to (specifically, coherent-world, adventure games) and so forth. However, and counter-intuitively to the rambling length of this email, I feel this is a topic that I will be able to cover in this essay.


Fraser Allison said...


That sounds like an interesting topic. It certainly gets tiresome writing "player-character" all the time, but to say "the player jumped up to the ledge" is not strictly accurate (unless they're playing some kind of future Project Natal rock climbing game).

A lot of anti-videogame controversies (most recently the furore over the MW2 No Russian airport sequence) are fuelled by an assumption about the nature of this avatar/player connection; protestors generally assume that anything a character does in a game is something the player approves of. The idea that you can play a game like Edmund and make your character do horrible things while thinking he's a bad person for doing them doesn't seem to occur to them. In fact, a lot of people within game culture think the same way.

On a totally separate note, I remembered a study I read recently that made me think "I wish I had seen this earlier!", so I'll pass it on to you:

It's not directly relevant to your research, but it's about the experience of students undertaking self-directed game studies for the first time. In short: everyone has trouble. And the students in the survey are studying in dedicated games courses, too, unlike us fresh-minded mavericks.

I've seen all the troubles described in that paper in my work and in my classmates' too, so if you find yourself struggling, don't worry, you're not alone! And if you don't, well, you're obviously a gun researcher. ;)

Cheers and good luck!


Brendan Keogh said...

Thanks for the link to the paper, I'll definetly give it a read.

As I have absolutely no room for it, I will be avoiding all the anti-videom game controversies in my essay, but certainly it ties in closely to what I am looking at. People who make those arguements seem to forget about all the books and movies where the protagonist is the 'bad guy' (eg. The Godfather, Scarface, Dexter, Star Wars, etc.). These fictions allow the audience to see the events and choices that led to that character becoming who they did. Stories in games are capable of the same thing, but it is the player that is forced to make some of those decisions. I guess it adds culpability. The player can't just sit back and go "Well it's Nico's own fault for getting into this mess."

As for Edmund, I never actually played it. I had gone to the same site your link goes to after reading about it, intending to play it, but the video disturbed me just a bit, and the comments in the thread following it disturbed me a lot. People seemed excited about it for exactly the wrong reasons, and that worried me. That said, people are still sure to play Fallout 3 or GTAIV because "lol killing shit is awesome" so it is unfair of me to judge the game by the comments. Still, I don't think i would feel comfortable playing the game. Though I resepct what the designer was trying to achieve; that is quite a challenge to set himself.