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May 2013

The Extinction of Blogs

Over on Only a Game today, I ask if the community of bloggers destined for extinction. Here’s an extract:

Why was Google+ toxic to the blog clusters? After all, it made it easier to share blog posts, and simpler to manage comments from random passers by. True enough. But it also sank the concept of engagement with another person’s ideas by transferring the locus of community from the blog to the social network. Bloggers do all the work for Google in posting ideas or sharing links, but Google sells the tickets to this three-ring circus, monetizing the data and the social connectivity.

I welcome your feedback to The Extinction of Blogs over at Only a Game.

Microsoft Counts Backwards

Xbox One It’s like a question from one of those IQ tests that assess how white and middle class you are: Complete the following sequence: “Xbox, Xbox 360…” The answer, we now know, is the Xbox One, Microsoft’s newly unveiled ugly brick of a console. I’m fascinated by the number base that Microsoft’s marketing department are using that has ‘one’ in the third slot, and ‘360’ in the second.

The explanation for the new silly name is that it’s “The all-in-one entertainment system” – which makes it sound a lot like the PS4. Or for that matter the PS3. Especially considering that what makes the Xbox One into an all-in-one system is the final acceptance of the Blu-Ray Disc format, which Sony has been using for seven years. Everything else the Xbox One can do sounds awfully like everything the Xbox 360.5 (i.e. 360+Kinect) can do – except, hopefully, turn itself from something that looks like an ugly brick into something that is literally an ugly brick thanks to shoddy early version engineering problems.

Microsoft gained ground on Sony in the previous generation to the extent that they are currently ahead by a nose – the installed base figures are at 77.3 million versus 77.2 million. Of course, this figure doesn’t take into account the fact that Microsoft have made more money on the 360 thanks to their very clever online strategy based around Xbox Live, something Sony were very slow to recognise was going to be a requirement in order to remain competitive. But given that Microsoft went from number three to joint second last time around, you would think that they would use declaring their cards after all their competitors as an opportunity to announce something show-stopping that it would be too late for their rivals to imitate. Apparently, turned to their R&D department and found nothing that was ready.

What’s seriously missing right now is the answer to the question: “You must own an Xbox One because….”, and frankly at the moment the answer seems to be “you’re an Xbox Live subscriber and Microsoft need you to upgrade.” My Twitter feed this morning was full of 0people making jokes about the fact that the new Kinect is always on, and speculating about who it will Skype as you are doing something embarrassing… Apart from the fact that it is an upgrade over its predecessor, there’s little of interest about the Xbox One as it currently stands, and certainly no reason for anyone not already locked into Xbox Live to choose it over its rival, the PS4 (unless, of course, you are in love with Kinect – which almost no gamer hobbyists are).

Of course, it’s always been the “killer app” that makes a console – the original Xbox was saved almost single handedly by Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, for instance, but the way things are going with AAA development it’s become much harder to make exclusives worthwhile. The problem is twofold: on the one hand, development costs continue to rise – Epic’s Tim Sweeney stated: “We are hoping costs at the start of the next generation to only be double the cost of the start of the previous generation”. Yikes! On the other hand, the truly big franchises can’t afford to be tied to a single platform any more. The moment Rockstar North decided ‘never again’ to platform exclusives, the “killer app” became a very different proposition since all the major franchises have now gone multi-platform and the odds of a new franchise getting major traction from launch is rather low.

Although I am no fan of Microsoft, the 360 did pull a grudging respect out of me because it successfully initiated a service model that made the economics of console manufacture less horrific. But the economics of blockbuster game development is becoming ever more horrific, and to describe the release schedules for retail games over the past few years as ‘stale’ is only unfair because there are still plenty of players lining up to play sequels of the same old franchises. I’m at a loss to explain why Microsoft think the Xbox One can succeed just on the basis of it being “The all-in-one entertainment system”, especially since Sony has for several years been touting the PS3 with the tagline “It only does everything”. Your unique selling point is supposed to distinguish you from your competitors – not make your new product sound like your competitor’s previous product.

The currently-ending generation marked a change in focus towards online – the coming generation is apparently marked by a general absence of any compelling ideas, coupled with the ever-present threat of a total collapse in the high street retail of videogames. Except for the original PlayStation, I’ve owned every console hardware released from the Sega Megadrive onwards. Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’ve yet to see any reason to buy any of the new consoles and Microsoft and Sony better hope that it’s just us 8-bit gamesters who are nonplussed by the future being offered. With Nintendo’s Wii U sales failing to meet even the most conservative of expectations, Sony and Microsoft are locked into a deadly battle, tumbling into a high-tech Khazad-dûm of their own creation – and it’s not yet clear who is Gandalf and who is the balrog…

On the Verge of Beginning to Finish

Beginning of the End Still more swamped than a drunken Cajun fisherman who mistakes a log for his boat. But I can see the light switch at the junction nearest the end of the tunnel, even if no actual light is reaching my retinas at this precise moment in time...

  • I was on national radio yesterday, on BBC Radio 4's consumer affairs show, You and Yours, commenting on (of all things) the portrayal of disfigurement in videogames. It’s a step up from local radio, to be sure! Slightly too many 'ums' coming out of my mouth for my taste, but I guess I did fine. If you’re in the UK you can listen for the next week on BBC iPlayer. My slot is 20 minutes in, after gold traders and smart meters.
  • Now less than one day’s writing (about 3,000 words) short of a first draft manuscript for Chaos Ethics! So far inside its world now that I no longer know how people usually use the word 'ethic'.
  • Have a final version of my PhD materials approved by my supervisor squad now. Soon, I shall be a real fake doctor!
  • After a year, the journal Games and Culture found one reviewer to provide feedback for "Implicit Game Aesthetics". Alas, I don't think they understood my paper but on the plus side I can now edit it to reduce the chance that others will also misunderstand it. In journal terms, let’s call it a win.
  • Three games of Arkham Horror this weekend, all against Zhar. Result: 14 Investigators devoured. We had good fun, but it’s galling to lose so badly so many times in a row. Great to get a friend along for the last game, though – even if he was as doomed as we were!

So close to wriggling free of my obligations – expect far more frequent and regular bloggery from me this Summer!

Reposted from Only a Game.

The Final Winner

It’s with great pleasure that I announce that the winner of the third copy of Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophy is Samantha Blackmon. A signed copy of the book will be winging its way to Indiana shortly! (Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery).

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the Spring Review Drive – you all won a book, so that’s a pretty equitable outcome for all concerned!

Fiction Denial

Space Invaders Invade TetrisAre game scholars dismissing the importance of fiction in games?

Games studies has thus far been ideologically united by commitment to what can be called fiction denial. Fiction (setting, world, representations etc.) is guaged of lesser importance to rules, or of no importance whatsoever. The premise of this is expressed in multiple equivalent ways: that the setting and representations of a game are interchangeable and that only the mechanics are 'eternal' (something akin to what Raph Koster or Dan Cook occasionally suggest); that players initially engage with a game via the fiction but later this becomes unimportant (as Graeme Kirkpatrick and Jesper Juul assert); that the representation has no effect on how the player behaves (as Espen Aarseth claims). Espen gives the paradigmatic example of fiction denial when he says he wouldn't play Tomb Raider any differently if Lara Croft had a different character model. I believe him. But isn't this a fact about Espen Aarseth and not a fact about either Tomb Raider or its players?

The problem goes back to the dawn of game studies – well, the first issue of Game Studies – with Juul's seminal line in the sand between games and stories. Stories, it is claimed by Juul, are already set – they occur in the past, while games happen as you play – they occur in the present. At the time, it was necessary to make this distinction to prevent game studies from being colonists by neighbouring disciplines like narratology that would have silenced the emerging voice of games. But Juul's argument is not as plausible as it first looks. Any stage play that participates with the audience or environment (passion plays, for instance) are as much in the present as games. Furthermore, both games and stories are constructed, scaffolded, or designed before they are experienced – the player of Halo can no more prevent the ringworld from being destroyed than the reader of Ringworld can present the spaceship from crashing. Juul's concerns about the problems entailed in translating books and films to games are mirrored by the problems translating games of one kind into games of another.

What I'll call Juul's Trench is an effective defensive measure, but little more – as by Half-Real, Juul himself seems to recognize. However, the later Juul still asserts that rules are real and fiction is not, and this is precisely the ontological claim that undergirds fiction denial. The idea that rules have reality while fiction is lacking in reality inevitably places the rules into a contrast with fiction where it will always come out on top. In Imaginary Games, I try to unseat this ontology by showing how rules and fiction are different forms of the same thing – different forms of fiction. I effectively support Juul's division while rejecting his ontology. I don't want to suggest that either rules or fiction is 'more real' than the other. To be honest, I don't want to get into an argument over what is real at all if we can avoid it.

At heart, fiction denial wants to make the (ontological) claim that it is the game mechanics, the rules, that are the real part of the game. Graeme Kirkpatrick's observation that players gradually see through the fiction to the rules is meant to support this assertion. While I agree that this does happen, my counter-claim is that this characterizes the experience of a particular kind of player and is not essential to games as such. Furthermore, for players who do engage with the fiction of the game fully, this 'seeing through' to the rules is an aesthetic flaw, not a strength, since it breaks with that nebulous experience we term immersion. From this perspective, it is not that the player 'sees through' the fiction, but the rules 'tear through' the world. Only an ironic ghost train rider wants to see the gears – or perhaps someone who makes ghost trains.

I want to make an additional claim that is more controversial: the causes of fiction denial are ideological commitments to the positivistic sciences. Some phenomena benefit from being studied in a positivist stance – chemistry, for instance. But in game studies Juul's Trench functions to divide art from science, and to put game studies firmly into the latter camp. What a disaster for the aesthetic appreciation of games: art is excluded by the very people who extoll the virtue of games! The strange and wonderful game ontology project epitomizes this assumption – offering dry, 'science-like' terms for game mechanical features, and refusing to allow them representative terms. But it does not even achieve this (thankfully!) – 'shoot', 'teleport', 'inventory', these are not fiction-neutral descriptions of game elements, and hallelujah! We should not want them to be!

What fiction denial hides is the intimate connection between fiction and rules, and particularly the way the content of the fiction implies rules, and thus wedding the wrong kind of rules and fiction together creates an aesthetically displeasing game. If fiction denial were viable beyond the preferences of particular players, an interface designed for a tank could become anything. It cannot – Battlezone controls work for tanks and sci-fi or fantasy variations on the key of tank. Despite the belief that you can reskin a first person shooter to be anything, you are always constrained to worlds in which wielding and firing a gun or a gun-substitute (a magic wand, fire breath) are central experiences.

One way to break through fiction denial is to temporarily forget the idea that game mechanics are eternal ideas, the "laws of physics" for play. Instead, foreground the world, bring the fiction into focus, identify the props (the fictional objects of the game world; those things with imaginative implications) and then see how the rules support or undermine their usage. As a matter of fact, this kind of thinking was already central to the way games are designed, and has been for over a century. The FPS is the game that emerges from the gun and the first-person camera – and always would be thus. The (fictional) qualities of the gun dictates the rules that can work well with it, and thus with the players' imagination. It is not the rules that are eternal but the fiction: no matter what rules you make, you cannot change the nature of a gun without it ceasing to be a gun.

I do not want to deny that game studies has been valuable, insightful or scholarly – it has been all this and more – I only want to deny the ideology that would mistake an individual interest in systems for an important truth about games. It is a fact about games that they attract nerds who think about systems. It is not a fact about games that the fiction is tangential to their play. On the contrary, for many players, for many games, fiction is absolutely central to the experience.