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.