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August 2010

Slaying the First Colossus

1-valus When you sink your sword into the skull of the first colossus and end its life, do you feel a tinge of regret? Do you feel sadness, or perhaps empathy, for the great beast you have just felled? And whether or not you do, would you not agree that what you feel for overcoming this foe is intensified by the struggle you faced to climb it, that your satisfaction in attaining victory is enhanced by the trials that preceded its defeat? And if so, you must concede that the triumph you experience is not merely that which you can assign to the task you mastered, but also to the way it was represented.

In the Game Design as Make Believe serial, I discussed Professor Kendall Walton's concept of quasi emotions –states of genuine emotional arousal that are altered in their cognitive nature by the fact that what we are feeling is fictional in origin. For instance, when my wife plays Resident Evil, she reacts with fear to the zombie dogs attacking her – her amygdala is activated, adrenalin flows in her veins – but she does not flee the room or take any other action we would associate with being genuinely afraid. Walton would say she experiences quasi-fear; that it is fictional that she is afraid. This does not mean she is pretending to feel fear, per se – what she experiences is a genuine feeling. But it is fictional that this feeling is fear, since none of my wife's behaviour is consistent with the idea that she is truly terrified of the zombie dog.

In the same post, I also raised the discussion of quasi-emotions in videogames in the context of boss fights. Emotion researcher Paul Ekman refers to fiero as the emotion we feel when we succeed in overcoming adversity (the feeling which causes us to punch the air in victory), but we can use triumph as a more recognisable synonym for this emotion. The question I asked was whether or not we should talk of quasi-triumph when one defeats a boss foe. There is no doubt that the victory occurring is a fictional win – the monster you slay is purely an entity in a fictional videogame world – and that suggests it is fictional triumph (i.e. quasi-triumph) one experiences. A counter argument is that you really did have to master certain motor reflexes and responses in order to achieve victory, and thus it is genuine triumph, with no significant fictional element at the level of the emotion felt.

But what you experience when you slay the first colossus is not merely the triumph of beating the literal motor-skill task involved. If it were, you would feel the same way upon pushing the button atop an equally hard-to-scale giant top that caused it to stop spinning, or if the game simply presented you with a series of reaction and spatial tests that were equivalent to what you had to complete to overcome the monster. Embodying the foe as a beast, a mighty colossus does affect the emotional experience of victory against it. Not only may it elicit quasi-sadness (which the spinning top or the sequence of tests would not), but I will claim that the quasi-triumph is more intense than the triumph associated in mastering the strict task in and of itself. The representational elements of the game directly affect your emotional responses to it, and enhance the feeling of victory. Thus it is quasi-triumph you experience upon slaying the first colossus (accompanied, for many of us, with quasi-sadness), and we must conclude that representation directly affects the gameplay experience.

We hear all too often the phrase "gameplay is everything" but this is misleading. The genuine emotional experiences of play are intensified as a result of the fictional elements of the game – the quasi-emotions of play are enhanced by how the game is represented, and by this I do not simply mean the quality of the graphics. A text adventure uses no graphics, but it still represents its fictional world in a particular way. The experience of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy adventure game would be palpably different were it not based on Douglas Adams books, even if the puzzles were functionally identical. Magnetic Scrolls' Guild of Thieves would have been less enjoyable for me had it been called Kleptomaniac Garden Gnome because the fantasy of being an apprentice thief holds more appeal in my case than that of a compulsive lawn ornament. Gameplay is not everything. Representation is as vital as gameplay.

In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, it is absolutely crucial to the experience of this game that you are a lone swordsman slaying monstrous beasts that dwarf you, and which fight viciously to defend themselves against you. Identical play elements in a different representation would radically alter the way we would relate to the game. Those of us who experience regret upon slaying the first colossus have this specific emotional response because of the representational elements of the game that make it fictional that it is a living beast we have slain, not just an animated mesh of polygons, and this is an intimate part of the play of this game which cannot simply be set aside as gloss or irrelevance. Our empathy is aroused by representational elements of the game, and this directly affects the play of the game.

Yet the more colossi we slay the less we feel the quasi-sadness and the more we feel just the quasi-triumph instead. Perhaps the representation of Shadow of the Colossus gives us a glimpse into what it is like to be a hunter, a soldier or someone else who kills. The more lives you take, the more routine it becomes. And in this respect, as Miguel Sicart has asserted, the play of Shadow of the Colossus is a genuine moral experience, and of a kind quite distinct from other forms of art since you take an ownership over the choices of play (even down to the decision to keep playing) that you cannot take when you watch a movie character perform similar acts. We do not say "he slew the first colossus", we say "I slew the first colossus". True, it is merely fictional that we did so. But the emotions evoked are no less genuine for being quasi-emotions.

The Problem with Updates

App-store-icon.edited It has become standard practice to automatically update software and this, it is presumed, is a good thing. The more of my time is taken up with overseeing this "good thing", the more I begin to wonder about its merits.

Once upon a time, you knew where you were with a piece of software (game or otherwise). Some didn't work, and those that did had their share of bugs and problems that you simply got used to and accepted. Half the time you didn't know what was a bug and what was a feature, but it scarcely mattered because you had to make do with what you had – or, in the case of a game like Jet Set Willy, you could always resort to poking the code manually to fix the bugs, which was a necessity if you actually wanted to complete the game.

Patches took a while to emerge in home computing, but were always already in use from the early days of software. The very name "patch" refers to a section of punched paper tape that had to be literally patched into the original tape in order to repair bugs in the code. With the widespread adoption of patches in home computing, users had the option when facing a particularly crippling or nigglesome bug to check if there was a patch that would address their problem and then install it. Often, this would make the situation a little better, although software being what it is, each patch naturally carried the risk of introducing new bugs.

Nowadays, the role of the patch as an optional intervention has been extensively replaced with automatic updating – software simply installs its own patches, sometimes with the approval of the user, often under its own auspices. This, I presume, is supposed to have made matters better for all concerned... yet I am at a loss to see where the benefit to me is coming from. Scarcely a day goes by that Windows doesn't alert me of new updates, which I must manually review and decide whether or not to install, a policy that I might dub bureaucratic updating – all the joys of red tape, all the time. While security updates for Windows are certainly a necessity given the number of malicious hackers always looking to take vengeance on the monopolistic media monolith, I am astonished at the number of other software suppliers who use up the resources of my computer and internet bandwidth to robotically check for updates – irrespective of any utility this process may hold for me. I do my best to disable these interminable wastes of my time but sometimes there is no escape.

Of course, when I mentioned the software asking for the approval of the user, this isn't always the case. For instance, the Sony PS3 pursues a policy which could be described as Mafioso updating: it asks if you would like to update, but in fact you have no choice. If you decline the update, you can't run the software at all, making the users' acceptance of the update something of a formality. For the operating system updates, less forceful measures are used, but still it is clear that it for Sony's benefit that updating occurs, and only very rarely for the users – the update which removed users ability to run alternative operating systems being the most famous instance. Personally, I was not very pleased with the update that meant when scrolling through media the PS3 now hides the titles of all but the one you are looking at. No longer can my wife and I pleasantly saunter through our media and choose what to play; it must be done at the speed mighty Sony has decreed, or the pertinent alternative information is concealed from us. This particular update did nothing to improve our user experience, but we had little choice but to accept it.

Then there's Apple. Much as I have loved my iPhone, I can't say I have enjoyed the policy Apple uses for the updating of apps, which could be politely described as semi-automatic, or acerbically described as neurotic updating. The little iPhone apps just can't bear to be left alone, even when you aren't using the app in question. Games I have only played once still clamour for updating, joining the queue of nervous software applications that line up behind the door to the App Store, which generously displays a little bubble to let you know how many neurotic programmes are oh-so-desperate for you to update them. This has nothing to do with my needs or my usage or otherwise of those programs... as I say, they line up to be updated whether I use them or not. I found this so perpetually irritating that I eventually banished the App Store icon to the farthest corner of my iPhone interface and now very rarely add new apps. (The fact that each installed app also makes using iTunes slower, because it must backup each app every time for some reason, does little to encourage me in this regard).

It doesn't help that I begin to wonder exactly just what the extent of the changes that can be forced upon me by automatic updating might be. For instance, back while I was willing to let the neurotic iPhone apps get their fix of therapy, one of my toys – a shotgun SFX app – updated itself into an advertisement for a console game. The change was temporary, but no less annoying because of it. I have to wonder whether some of the demos I have downloaded for the PS3 will spontaneously decide to withdraw some of their features one day, perhaps because someone has decided the demo could be "improved". Given the ideas some developers have as to what a demo should offer, I don't really hold much confidence that this would be to my benefit, but since I cannot prevent it I have no choice but to see what happens.

It used to be the case that you would be able to learn what a game or software application was like. True, it would have its flaws and bugs, but you would learn what they were and get used to them. This option is now systematically denied to the user in a great many cases. With automatic and semi-automatic updating, the bugs and flaws in any software program you use is constantly in flux... you are apt to discover new flaws all the time, and might as well give up hope of getting used to specific problems since these will shift on a regular basis.

Lee Segall famously said "a man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure." So it is with software updating. A person with one program knows what it does and doesn't do. A person with software that automatically updates is never quite sure.

Where do you stand on automatic software updates? Share your views in the comments!

Optimal Game Demos

Segbass A game demo has a very specific purpose. From the point of view of the developer, it is to encourage players to purchase the game. From the point of view of an honest player, it is to help evaluate the game to see if it is worth purchasing. These distinct purposes should have a substantial common ground that offers the basis for a concept for an optimal videogame demo. But what is the nature of an optimal demo?

I believe too many developers misunderstand the role the game demo has in the life-cycle of their game, and perhaps some have even been put off by the not-too-surprising news that when you take demos as a whole they don't demonstrate an increase in sales for titles with demo versions, but rather a decrease. I want to advance the equally not-to-surprising perspective that the poor performance of game demos reflects the poor design of most game demos for their purposes. A good game demo will generate sales. Furthermore, a good game demo can generate sales that were otherwise impossible. But a bad demo will surely put players off your game, and in this respect, no-one should be surprised.

'Good' and 'bad' in the context I'm using here refers to the goals already picked out; a good demo is one that is closer to optimal, a bad demo is one that is far from optimal, in terms of both the developer's and the player's purposes. An example of a good demo from my own life would be Sega Bass Fishing for the Dreamcast (pictured above). There is absolutely no way I would ever have considered purchasing this game. I wouldn't even have picked it up in the shop. But it came on a demo disk for the Dreamcast, and my wife and I played it. It was a little silly, and kind of fun, but we didn't really know what we were doing. It intrigued us, though, so we played it again. And after we'd played it a few times we began to get the hang of what we were expected to do, and it started to become a lot of fun. Eventually, we came to the conclusion not only to buy the game, but also the custom fishing controller that went with it – and proceeded to rack up a great many hours of enjoyment with a game that without a demo we would never have discovered.

I play a lot of the demos that come down the pipe on the PSN service, and most are rather poor. Many are poor because the game itself is ill-considered – there's no hope of saving such a game with even an optimal demo. As the scatological expression goes, "you can't polish a turd". But many might be perfectly reasonable games, or at least reasonable for their price, but all too often the demo manages to annoy me, or exclude the possibility of getting into the play of the game, or otherwise act as a barrier between me and the game itself.

One sure way to achieve this kind of failure is a time limitation that is persistent e.g. you can play this demo for 10 minutes total, after which you cannot play it ever again. Such a demo is sure to be deleted as soon as the time limit is expired, and as such the chance of converting into sales is minimal. Time limitation itself is not problematic – the Just Cause 2 demo, for instance, offers a generous 30 minutes per-sitting slot of play which is more than adequate to get to grips with the game itself, and the demo has also been structured to encourage repeat play of the content. It serves to whet the appetite of the player, and encourages them to return to the demo multiple times. This, I suspect, is a principal factor in optimal game demo design – if the player returns to the demo multiple times, over any period of time, they are increasingly likely to purchase the full game.

But time limitation can also generate frustration in a manner not likely to lead to sales. Trash Panic, for instance, offered a time limitation of about a minute on a puzzle game which offers multiple levels. As a result, I was unable to really get into the play of the game because the only way to play the demo is to rush hell-for-leather through the content. Nothing was gained here. Since the final game contains multiple different levels, it should have been sufficient to let the player enjoy one of its levels at their own pace as often as they wish. The time limit on Trash Panic blocked the normal play of the game – it was no longer even a demo of the game, as such, in that the way one must play this demo is not the same as the way one would play the game proper. Compare Critter Crunch, which offered several levels of the game, with many more for players who purchased. I bought this game on the strength of the demo. (I had my issues with the full game, alas, but the demo was an accurate representation of the gameplay and the demo let me discover its play).

It seems inevitable that a demo must be limited in some way – it can't be the whole game, although there are titles that are close to exceptions. Tale of Tales The Graveyard is essentially complete in the demo form, and the 'full game' simply has one extra point of functionality. Some massively multiplayer games (e.g. RuneScape) use a similar kind of limitation – one which is cast as the paying player getting access to more of the content by paying, rather than drawing attention to specific limitations that "box out" the demo as a tiny proportion of the game proper. This "get more" approach has huge advantages since you're giving enough of the game to the player to get them hooked. And getting them hooked, I'm claiming, is precisely what an optimal game demo needs to do.

Some demos offer basically a tutorial and no gameplay... this is ill conceived. The developer needs to give the player enough of the game to allow the player to try out what's on offer. Besides, most successful games do not reinvent the wheel – if your game is so complex that you need to tutor gamers in its intricacies your whole project may have problems (with, I accept, some allowances for attempts to move in new directions, such as Skate). By all means include a tutorial, what you don't want is to exclude so much of the game that players can't really see what's on offer. Another problem in this regard is that a tutorial is one of the hardest things to design for any game, so putting your tutorial on prominent display is something of a risk. It's not so much of a problem for a game that simply modifies existing tropes (such as almost any FPS), but it's something to bear in mind.

The other extreme is the game which throws the player right into the thick of it. This seems to be the norm for all manner of shooting games – I did not finish the demo for (say) Dead Space or Kane and Lynch 2 because I didn't feel in any way adequately prepared for the challenge delivered in the gameplay, and I thus quickly lost interest. Now in this respect, this might not have been a flaw in the demo – because these games might not be games that I want to play anyway. It might be that these games require a more challenge-oriented player than I am, and that having the demo present that level of challenge was the right way to go. But I wonder if it wouldn't be better to offer the demo in two parts – one easy and one hard – such that there is a chance for the player to adapt to the game before they are thrown into the thick of it.

An interesting trend in recent demos is to end just as the boss appears. Presumably the idea is that since players (it is assumed) want to fight and beat the boss, stopping at this point whets their appetite. For me as an individual, I love these demos but I will never buy the game that they are promoting. I love them because as a general rule I hate bosses, and these demos don't make me fight one. I hate bosses largely because they are usually poorly designed – I did not hate Shadow of the Colossus, for instance – but a demo ending on the boss tells me "this is a game that makes bosses have a prominent role", and discourages my purchase. But of course, vast numbers of games I have bought and enjoyed have had bosses that I simply put up with. While I frequently enjoy the demos that use a boss-foreshadow to close, I'm not going to buy the game because the boss is what's being emphasised, and I don't trust developers to make bosses I will enjoy. (I imagine other players, especially challenge-oriented players, have a different feeling about this).

In terms of determining an optimal game demo, the requirements will presumably need to match the form. As I say, I am not much interested in bosses, but other players are. There is a question here as to whether the optimal game demo for a boss-including game should be trying to reach me as a player or not. After all, if its core non-boss gameplay appeals to me, I might be in its hypothetical audience... I might ultimately put up with its bosses, as I do in Zelda, Castlevania or Metroid. But the boss-loving player has different requirements, and it might not be possible to devise a demo that would appeal to both of us. This being so, perhaps the optimal game demo in such a case is the one that meets the needs of the boss-lover. Perhaps what is optimal for a game demo is to prefer the larger audience over the inclusive audience; some players are excluded from any given game, after all, and no game can be all things to all people.

In this brief look at the idea of an optimal game demo I have suggested some key principles:

  • the limitations on the demo should not block the core gameplay from being experienced
  • the demo should include a sufficient slice of actual gameplay to entice the player
  • the player should want to play the demo multiple times

It may be that these principles don't apply to all game genres – a computer RPG demo, for instance, might not encourage multiple replays but might simply be an adequate demonstration of what is on offer. Nonetheless, it seems to me that there is a concept of an optimal game demo, and that there are principles that developers should be considering if they want their demo to do its job and get players interested in their game. At the moment, there are far too many demos that have the opposite effect, and poison the well for any player who might be considering purchasing the game in question. A conversation between players and developers may be absolutely necessary if we are going to solve the problems associated with game demos.

What do you think? What annoys you in game demos? What do you think an optimal game demo should consist in? Please share your perspective in the comments!

Sicart & Bateman (4): Morality and New Media

Miguel Sicart is a researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen, with a special interest in ethics. After reading his book, The Ethics of Computer Games, I wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts and theories. This is the last of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.

Chris: One of your ethical videogame forms – closed mirroring – derives its ethical relevance from allowing the player ethical reflection but denying them ethical agency. (They can think about what they are doing, but they don't have complete freedom to choose how to act). Isn't this exactly the situation of someone viewing a movie? They have ethical reflection, but no ethical agency. So isn't this kind of videogame ethics applicable to wider media studies (or rather, isn't ethics in conventional media studies applicable to this kind of videogame)?

Miguel: Indeed, closed mirroring is very closed to other media. However, the fact that the game is interactive (or ergodic), is what makes closed mirroring interesting: it is not that in Manhunt the player has to commit those hideous acts, it's that these acts are the perfect strategy, and it is rewarded with points. I am not sure I made the point this clear in the book, but that is what I mean.

Chris: You briefly mention the idea that a game such as Manhunt might become ethically illegitimate a priori as a result of players finding its content distasteful. This was certainly my situation in this case – I was not going to support this game by playing it – although I'm open to your claim that if you do engage with it on its own terms it can produce an interesting ethical situation. Both Hume and Walton raise the point that we may refuse to appreciate an artistic work if it offends us morally. (Walton suggests that there are not good grounds for deciding whether interpretive questions are independent of moral issues or whether moral considerations sometimes have interpretive consequences).

Miguel: Right. I think art and games (if they are different) both create this ethical subject or agent. But I also try to say that ultimately, the moral agent we are outside the game decides if we are willing to participate in the experience, and therefore we can chose not to play if our values are challenged in such a way in which we think that playing a game will not help us develop our values as human beings (as you can read, I am a virtue ethicist also in my "personal life"). I think that even in play, our values are ultimately deciding what type of activities we want to engage with, and how.

Chris: Sure, but you seem willing to set aside the normal ethical considerations in the context of a game – but then, why not also in a film (especially in the case of the parallel with closed mirroring)? Or, for that matter, in the case of any artwork? Surely the circumstances around some art (including games) are such that they can reasonably take precedence over the ethics relating to the player-subject (or art-subject)?

Miguel: I think this is, of course, applicable to all arts. Reports from the Marina Abramovich exhibition in New York seem to confirm this (some audience members leaving or not participating in the performances). As much as I admire Abramovich's work, when I had the opportunity of seeing it live I decided not to attend, since I think that is beyond what I'd like to witness.

Chris: I always find it interesting when people face this limitation – I face it all the time, there are many things I don't want to experience (including Manhunt!) and often I feel that the decisions involved are ethical. And it makes me wonder about some of the things that people watch on the Internet, which of course can be sensationally tasteless. Do you think the Internet has created a certain amount of moral ambivalence towards spectacle, or simply acted as a spotlight to bring this part of human nature more clearly into focus? Would you compare the more grotesque side of the Internet to, say, the Roman Colosseum?

Miguel: Well, yes, but I'd say it's a needed Colosseum. I don't mean to be a puritan – I like the idea that there is a lot of filth on the Internet, since I don't need to consume it. Of course, with the obvious limits of what is illegal. So the Internet is just a massive improvement on what has always existed, which is the human compulsion to show, document, perform and explore not only virtues, but vices, and not always for catharsis. I would personally think less of humans if we were not compelled to these explorations. Historically, nothing good comes out of repression and censorship.

Chris: Do you see the Internet as presenting a new moral challenge, or just changed the focus on existing ethical issues?

Miguel: What I find interesting about the Internet is how it actually has forced many of us, and here I mean users more than scholars or ethicists, to reflect about the morality of deeply important things like identity, self, community, privacy, and so on. I am not so sure the Internet has created moral ambivalence, or at least not exclusively – it has also created great communities around values, nettiquete, fostered hacker ethics...

Chris: So you choose to emphasise the positive aspects of the Internet, and let its more unsavoury aspects hide in the shadows?

Miguel: Well it is true that the Internet, like many other visual media, feasts on corpses. But as you rightly put it, it is the Colosseum, and while there is always the risk of falling into the "bread and circus" rhetoric and social dynamics, I have, by the end of the day, a highly positive vision of what the Internet, even the filthy one, has done for our moral condition.

Chris: Going back to your concept of closed-mirroring structures, I've used this idea here elsewhere to refute the claim that videogames cannot have authorial intent; it is clear that games with a closed mirroring ethics must have authorial intent.

Miguel: Yes, I wholly subscribe to this point of view.

Chris: Your ludic hermeneutic circle strikes me as being only tenuously claimed to be game-related. Heidegger's work on the hermeneutic circle uses it for interpretation of all situations... surely the ludic hermenutic circle is just an artificially constrained subset of this? And as such, is it not just the hermeneutic circle as applied to games, and not an identifiably separate concept in itself? (This for me strengthens, not weakens, its relevance).

Miguel: Well, you are totally right. As much as I am not that fond of Heidegger, I would say that the hermeneutic circle can be used in all situations of being, and therefore the ludic one is only a subset of a larger hermeneutic process. However, it is an interesting subset, since it is tied to the particular subject that plays the game – that is, the hermeneutic experience of a game can be "performed" by both a player and a non-player, and that is what makes some game interpretations both wrong and possible (like the interpretation of games as fostering violent behaviour, I'd say).

Chris: Doesn't this extend to other kinds of art? Professor Kendall Walton has demonstrated how representation art can be understood as a prop in a game of make-believe – and as such, they are all social. Where there is an artist there is an audience, and vice versa! You can play in private, but you cannot play alone!

Miguel: I am not very familiar with Walton's work, but it certainly sounds Gadamerian! I'm not sure I'd agree with the statement that all representational art are games – I am very comfortable thinking that there are artistic expressions or experiences, some of which are games, rather than making games such a powerful category. Play, though, is a whole different story. All art invokes play. But not all play involves games, of course.

Chris: Well Walton uses game in the specific context of "games of make-believe", such as those that children play, and this is very compatible with my own perspective on play and games, which is heavily influenced by Roger Caillois. Being French, Caillois had the same word, "Jeu", for both game and play, and along similar lines I tend to think that any structured play activity can be considered a game.

Miguel: I agree to some extent – but still, I think one thing is play and another games. Also, a lot of play is not "gamey", and a lot of games are not playful, so the distinction between both is, to me, needed. I guess the reason why Scandinavian game scholars like to distinguish both is linguistic. In Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, there is a word for (child)play, "leg"("lek" in Swedish), while "spil" covers, well, goal-oriented ludic activities, such as games. Both are incompatible and map quite well to paidea and ludus. Having these words, I think, gives an almost natural tendency to distinguish between games and non-games, and hence the need for defining games.

Chris: This is really interesting! And I can see why this would make it hard to think of something as a "game" if it wasn't goal-oriented. The same tendency creeps into English (it's essentially the reason why Roger Ebert denies games can be art), but because it is not explicit it seems to lead to more arguments! I don't believe that we'll settle disputes of this kind by any kind of debate over boundary conditions, my personal preference these days is to just throw the term open to its widest context, as Caillois did! We can always define terms explicitly when we need extra clarity.

Miguel: Exactly! But also, as a closing statement, I just want to insist that discussing the nature of games as ethically or aesthetically relevant needs to have more subtlety. There is something about the ethics of systems, and the ethics of games as objects, but by the end of the day, a game is played by players performing, and therefore we should maybe start talking more than about the ethics of games, about the ethics of (game)play. But that is, of course, a subject for another book.

With thanks to Miguel.