Japan Hiatus

Hey guys, I’m currently studying abroad in Japan and have no time to update my blog. I probably should have written this 3 months ago, when I got here, but I didn’t think I’d be this busy. Thanks for reading and contributing to my blog up to now. I promise to come back with loads of ideas to share after my trip is over. Please “follow” my blog so you can be notified when I write my next post.

See you all later

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In Reality, Virtual pt.3; The Feel(s) of Videogames

This is the third post of a five part series that examines the way we experience games and compares these experiences to the traditional concepts of “real” and “virtual.”  Here are links to part 1 and 2.

Player interactions with videogame input devices (keyboard, controller, etc,) are often treated superficially in both game studies and game design discussions, and from my experience, players only concern themselves with input devices in terms of optimizing configuration and ergonomics to enhance in-game performance, but there is a more complex and oft overlooked relationship between players and input devices that deserves further exploration. Player interaction with input devices provides the most concrete stimulus to our sense of touch, and this seems fairly obvious, but it is a far more layered interaction than it appears to be. What begins as awkward maneuvering and a few clumsy button presses becomes a seemingly intuitive, immediate extension of the player’s body that induces a sense of proprioception and telepresence associated with the player’s avatar.

When players begin to play a game they’re not familiar with, the first thing they are likely to do is run around to get a feel for maneuvering their avatar, then they test different buttons to figure out what actions are mapped to what buttons, or they look up the configuration in the game’s manual and then test out the actions. All in all, the process seems very unnatural as it involves deliberately thinking about the actions of our hands, the configuration of the input device, and the actions on screen. At this stage of game play, the input device is clearly mediating between the player’s actions and the actions of the avatar, which leads us to distinguish between our body’s real movements and the controller-mediated, digitally rendered movements on screen, but as players become proficient, the input device ceases to be a border separating player input and avatar action. Instead of thinking, “I’ve got to press A to jump,” players are able to act without thinking, and their avatar responds as if it were an extension of their body. What was once an action configured to a specific button becomes movement that occurs seemingly at will; the input device fades from cognizance as players enter a flow experience that does not require language-based thought. It is a trance like stage that some would call “second-nature” or “being in the zone.” I’m sure many of you, my dear readers, have experienced this while cranking out solos in Rock Band or delivering a perfectly timed smash attack in Super Smash Bros.  At times, the immediacy of our own actions leaves our conscious selves bewildered. On several occasions, I’ve said and heard others say, “I don’t even know how I did that” after accomplishing an impressive feat of game play.

I attribute the phenomenon of faster-than-consciousness player proficiency to the way players incorporate the feel of the input device, the distance and sensitivity of the buttons, the configurations and the respective actions they’re mapped to, and the physics of the game into their virtual models of the world. Of course, players don’t necessarily know they are doing this, and this incorporation is hardly conceptualized as such, but that doesn’t stop our minds from recognizing patterns in the way in-game objects act and react. These patterns become expectations of how the game “world” works, and this in turn allows players to create a model of the game world in their minds. This model is not separate from our virtual model of the “real” world. Rather, it is a subset of our overall model because we experience it in the same way we experience everything else, as per my first post of this series. However, because videogames are computer programs governed by lines of code, compilers, physics engines, etc, they do function differently than the physical world. They are different than other parts of our virtual model of “reality,” but they are not separate from “reality.”

Mental game “world” models are built from both linguistic and pre-linguistic understanding. In terms of linguistic understanding, players are able to describe strategies and techniques. They can describe their actions and the reactions of the game world, but the split-second decisions that occur during flow experience are much harder to describe, and this is because they are not thought out but rather felt out. Proficient players develop certain expectations of the game world that allow them to sense how far and how fast an avatar will move, jump, strike, fall. They can learn to alter their actions to compensate for circumstance in the game world, and for the most part, they don’t have to think about their actions. For proficient players, game play becomes a reflex, and their avatars become extensions of their bodies complete with proprioception and a sense of telepresence. Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and of the strength and effort being employed in movement. Telepresence refers to a set of technologies that allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect at a place other than their true location (got it off wikipedia cus I’m lazy). If you think this is far-fetched now, you’re probably going to question my sanity by the end of this post. But you shouldn’t think I’m crazy because I’m not the only one who’s noticed and tried to describe this phenomenon in similar terms.  Some scholars have attributed gameplay’s ability to induce proprioception and telepresence to a form of affect. I’m no affect expert, and I’m still feeling lazy, so check out this quote:

“This analytical perspective works to reconfigure the Cartesian mind-body dualism, to force open the lacuna between events that are registered by the organic sensory technologies of the body and the points at which action is required and occurs. Massumi calls this gap the ‘missing half second’ (2002, p.28) where the implication is a recursive physiological ordering; a latency or ‘lag’ between ‘the beginning of a bodily event and its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression’ (Massumi, 2002, p.29). The half-second is occupied with the autonomic reactions of the body, previous to, or alongside, conscious application and exists ‘between brain and finger but prior to action and expression’ (ibid). Cognitive function, that includes semiotic meaning making in Massumi’s argument, does not have a monopoly on the determination of human action (Shinkle, 2005). The half second is an eternity for FPS gamers who have a particular name for the reactions of the body that can occur during game play that are not always cognitive and intentional – the twitch.” (Moore 2011).

What this quote suggests is that players can develop a preconscious connection to their avatars that is similar to the preconscious connection between brain and finger that precedes action and expression. At this stage of game play, players overlook their interaction with input devices. Their sense of touch transcends the plastic buttons of the controller or keyboard and extends onto the digital space displayed on the screen. Through this extension of the senses, players can feel videogames, and if you disagree, dear reader, I would love to hear your explanation for how professional StarCraft players can make 400 actions per minute (APM), or how Super Smash Bros pros can make around 200 APM (the difference in genre accounts for the discrepancy, but both figures are impressive in their own rights). Here’s another quote to back me up:

“The gamers’ ‘twitch’, a potential product of this translation, has also been equated to the muscle memory of the trained dancer, or that of the surgeon. Swalwell (2008, p.78) compares the finger movements of the gamer to the intuitive movements of the hand of the touch typist, where the interface does not require the application of conscious intention or thought.” (Moore 2011).

The “twitch” is a term used to describe action that bypasses conscious thought. It is precise, immediate, and it makes the mediation between actor, interface, and action undetectable to the human mind; the action occurs before the actor is consciously aware of it.

Ok, so my next point is kind of even crazier, for real.

If we analyze the way our bodies move, we can break down the process into a few phases. For example, let’s say you want to eat some cake. The first thing that happens is that your brain registers that it wants to move the muscles in your arm, but to activate these muscles, the brain must first send a message from the cerebral cortex.  This message travels down the spinal chord, and is then broken down and relayed to the motor neurons. The message from the cerebral cortex to the spinal chord is not necessarily the same as the message(s) sent from the spinal chord to the motor neurons. The difference is that each motor neuron is directed to make their corresponding muscle contract in a specific way. This means that the original message is split into separate messages that go out to a multitude of motor neurons, and this occurs because even the simplest movement requires the activation of several muscle groups, supposedly, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But ok, so the cerebral cortex sends signals to the spinal cord, and from here, signals are sent to the motor neurons, and these motor neurons allow the agonist muscles to contract concentrically, the antagonist muscles contract eccentrically, and the synergistic muscles to stabilize the movement. After a few messages have gone through this system, you’ve picked up a fork; you’re several steps closer to having some delicious cake. This is some complicated stuff considering that we can do it without really thinking. It’s hardly the immediate connection between will and movement that we think we witness every time we decide to move. In “reality,” the nervous system has several levels of mediation between mind and movement, and this mediation is similar to the mediation provided by input devices for videogame consoles and PCs. In a weird way, our nervous system is like an input device, and our bodies are like avatars. Yes, I’m really going to argue this because it makes sense (to me).  We perceive an immediacy between thought and action when carrying out daily activities because we are proficient at maneuvering our bodies, like certain players are proficient at maneuvering in-game avatars, but if we look at how toddlers learn to master gross and fine motor skills, or the way trauma victims have to re-learn how to walk, we can see that mastery of the body is far from intuitive. Rather, it is a process of trial and error that reminds me of a noob picking up a first person shooter for the first time, running into walls while aiming at the floor. We have to learn the configuration of our bodies like a player learns the configuration of a new game. Our bodies are like tools or vehicles that we identify with and embody, but that don’t encompass our whole identity. They are our mandatory avatars.

OK, I can’t handle this post anymore. I’m going to have to come back to it when I arrange my thoughts a little better. I’ll probably be editing it sometime this weekend, but I would love feedback on what I have so far. Some of the other issues I wanted to further develop the issue of embodiment and identity: to what extent do we identify with our bodies. Are our bodies our identity? Ultimately, what I want to demonstrate is that although we can’t feel digital objects with any part of our bodies, there is a distinct way in which we do feel videogames, and this way of feeling games is similar to the way we feel our bodies and establish a sense of presence and identity in the “real” world. I believe that conceptualizing the haptic facet of our experience with games as an extension of self, as opposed to a disembodiment, will allow us to further bridge the erroneous dichotomy of virtual and real that dominates both academic and layperson discussions about games.

TL;DR. Humans have a sense of proproception that allows them to feel the relative position of their body parts and the amount of effort it will take to make certain movements. This sense of proprioception can encompass in-game avatars when the player becomes proficient in any game. We can incorporate avatars into our sense of presence and propriception, effectively making them extensions of our bodies.

this sheds some light on our relationship with out bodies. What seems like an instant connection between will and action is actually the result of learning the configuration of our bodies and extensive practice. We become proficient at manipulating our bodies like some players are proficient at manipulating in game avatars. This proficiency, the seeming immediacy between thought and action, is not a given. It is very much learned. In a crazy way ( i know this sounds crazy) our bodies are our avatars in the real world.

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In Reality, Virtual pt.2: Re-Modeling Reality

Dear reader, have you ever spent hours reading a book only to find yourself narrating your own actions after you’ve stopped reading? It’s a bizarre phenomenon that I believe can be explained by the concept of virtual models as described in section 1 of this series of posts. If we experienced reality as it is, then there would be no reason to begin conceptualizing experience as a narrative simply because we’ve been immersed in a model where actions are narrated as opposed to comprehended in a pre-linguistic fashion.

What do I mean by pre-linguistic comprehension? Well, as people go through their everyday routines, they’re not consciously thinking about or describing their actions, which would require the use of language. For example, when I shower in the morning, I’m not thinking: “I’m moving the shower curtain, I’m getting in the shower, I’m turning on the water.” All of those actions are carried out pre-linguistically; I don’t have to conceptualize them as I act. In fact, when I’m about to take a shower, I usually think about how I’m going to be late to work, and I do think about the water, but mostly in regards to getting the right temperature. I don’t think about my hand moving the handle, I’m thinking “a little hotter, hotter, too hot! too hot! ahhh, just right.”

So, most of our actions, most of our existence even, is taken for granted in the sense that we do things without conceptualizing them through language. This is kind of hard to grasp because as soon as you think about it, you’re using language. But anyway, back to my reading/ narration example. When we read a book, we interact with a model where actions are narrated as opposed to comprehended pre-linguistically. What happens next is that we become used to the rules of this model, and this in turn affects our own model of the real world; we become linguistically aware of our actions and begin to narrate our lives. We even begin to refer to ourselves in the third person (depending on the point of view the book is written in). The model presented by the book distorts the way we construct our model of the real world to the point where we begin to think differently and lose our sense of self, albeit temporarily. As a side note, I believe the concept of a paradigm shift is akin to this concept of re-modeling, and the change we experience after reading a book is a sort of temporary paradigm shift based on structure rather than content (you can have a paradigm shift based on actual information, but what I’m describing is a re-modeling based on structure).

I should mention that the reading example is much more drastic than the next ones. It’s particularly more drastic than the re-modeling that occurs from playing videogames. I think this is because they way we experience videogames is similar to everyday experience while the way we experience books is drastically different. The biggest difference would be that actions are narrated in books, but they are pre-linguistically comprehended in videogames AFTER a player becomes accustomed to the configuration of the input device (controller, keyboard, etc,). For example, when a player is learning a new move, they might literally be thinking, “down, slide forward, punch” (hadouken!) but once that move is mastered, it becomes part of pre-linguistic experience.

So how do videogame models distort our models of the real world? This is a much more subtle process. It’s really hard to describe, but bear with me. While I was playing Mass Effect 2 a few months ago, I noticed that when I stopped playing after a few hours of continuous play, things felt different. Walking around felt different, and talking to people was weird. It was almost as if I started thinking of other people as non-playable characters (NPCs). I live on campus at my University, so when I would stop playing to go get food, I would go to the cafeteria, a building that is constantly packed, and what I noticed was that the hustle and bustle of these human beings felt like the illusory hustle and bustle of the cities in Mass Effect 2. The conversations I overheard and the people moving to and fro, all of it seemed like it was running on a loop. At times, I almost expected dialogue options to appear when I talked to others. After playing Halo, I often found myself analyzing the way the features of various buildings could be used strategically to help me win a firefight, and after playing Grand Theft Auto, cars seemed easily high-jackable. All I had to do was press Y. Anyway, I know these examples kind of suck, but maybe you can think of some better ones. For now, I’ll stand by my sucky examples because I do believe that these were instances of re-modeling that occurred from interacting with the models of specific videogames.

I actually have some examples of re-modeling that occur without interaction with other models. Have you ever ridden an elevator and gotten off on the wrong floor. In that moment when your expectations and what you’re experiencing are incompatible, your mind adjusts the virtual model in your mind based on the new information. You’re not on the first floor; you got off on the second. Your expectations of the world don’t match what you’re seeing, and in a split second, you re-model the virtual world in your mind based on what you’re experiencing. This is very similar to what happens when we become disoriented. For example, if I live in an apartment on the right side of a hallway, and I visit my friend who lives on the left side, when I leave his apartment, I may become disoriented. My mind is so used to crossing the threshold of the doorway and having the entrance of the hallway to my left and the end of the hallway to my right, but as I cross the threshold of my friend’s door, my model of the world is inverted. The expectations that I formed because I live on the right side of the hallway are wrong, I’m disoriented, and my mind has to re-model the virtual world in my head to match what I’m experiencing at the moment of disorientation.

Another interesting example of re-modeling occurs when we get off the highway. If I was traveling down the highway at 70 miles per hours (mph), my mind becomes accustomed to moving at that speed, and when I get off the highway and onto a regular road, 45 mph seems slow as heck. But this feeling dissipates after my mind becomes accustomed to covering distances at 45 mph. What happened was that my mind re-modeled the way I experience movement by adjusting to the speed of 70 mph, and then it re-modeled again to adjust for the slower pace of 45 mph. The way we interpret movement changes as our virtual models adjust to match our experiences.

This actually reminds me of another videogame example. When I play Guitar-Hero or Rock Band, my mind adjusts over time to the speed of the notes, and I also begin to re-act to the game pre-linguistically. For the most part, when I play Rock Band, I’m not thinking, “green, green, blue, yellow,” I just act. Once again though, I can only experience the game pre-linguistically after I’ve gained a certain level of proficiency. I should point out that I would not classify music-rhythm games as a type of virtual model because one does not control an avatar or move through computer generated spaces. Although there are avatars involved, the game is mostly about reacting to the cues on the screen. You’re not exploring a space, interacting with characters, or playing through events. The space is your living room and the event consists of you attempting to input the correct sequence of button presses and strums.

TL;DR. The point I’m ultimately trying to make is that any concept of reality is not fixed. It can be and is often altered through different experiences. I believe this can be explained through the concept of reality as a virtual model that is based on sensory information that is interpreted and used to construct said model. Interaction with different models and variations in sensory information can trigger the re-modeling of our virtual model of “reality.” This post is kind of weird because I’m not really making a case for why we should consider videogames as “real,” but I am arguing against the concept of reality as something that IS by demonstrating that it isn’t fixed; it’s continuously becoming. Moreover, it’s not even real; it’s virtual.

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In Reality, Virtual: why videogames are real-real pt.1

For a while now, I’ve been picking apart the way I, and probably many of you, experience games. As anyone who follows this blog knows, I’ve read a ton of academic literature concerning games of all kinds, but my focus has been mostly on videogames. What I’ve found in these works is a frequent presupposition that videogames are virtual, and their virtuality somehow differentiates them from the “real” world.  This is problematic because virtual connotes fake, or if not fake, it’s at least conceptualized as an antonym to real. In fact, Thesaurus.com lists actual, authentic, and real as antonyms to virtual. So if we refer to video games as “virtual worlds,” we’re effectively separating and distinguishing them from the “real” world, and this is the point of departure that many academic analyses of videogames take, as has been summarized in Lehdonvirta (2010). I think this has hindered past analytical endeavors to varying degrees, and other scholars have written about the shortcomings of studying games with a frame of mind that presupposes a binary opposition between virtual and real. In this essay, I’ll demonstrate why the dichotomy of virtual and real leads to fallacious understandings and articulations of videogames, and I’ll do so by exposing the virtuality of the real world. This is the first of a 5-part essay, and in this section I will focus on how visual and aural stimuli allow us to create virtual models of the world in our minds

The presupposition that there is some distinction between “virtual” games and the “real” world stems from the belief that we know a real world. As self-reflexive beings, labeling certain aspects of our experience as “real” has served us as a provisional conceptualization that helps us comprehend the world around us, but this frame of mind can also limit our understanding of the world precisely because it allows us to make statements about truth and existence that rely on what’s “real” as evidence for their claims. For example, if I say grass is green, and I know this to be true because I can see it, and it looks green, I’m ignoring the arbitrariness of the word green; green is just a signifier we use to describe items that reflect light in a particular way. Also, because I’ve been conditioned to label certain items green, I ignore other possibly useful labels. For example, in the Japanese language, only artificial items can be green (midori), and what we would consider green plants actually fall under the label blue (ao). So, while labeling things based on what we consider real can be helpful, we’re actually limiting ourselves if we ignore the arbitrariness of our labels. I must admit, it’d be hard to imagine what civilization would be like if we didn’t assign signifiers to objects and had no concept of reality, but I think we can continue to rely on these provisional concepts so long as we keep in mind that they’re not real. Grass is not green; we just say it is.

This is all pretty far-fetched stuff, though some of you might find it extremely compelling, and still others may be familiar with these concepts because I’m borrowing and appropriating many concepts from post-modernist philosophy and epistemological dualism. “WTFudge are you talking about?” you might say. Well, allow me to clarify. If the world indeed exists (which I think it does), we can’t know it in the traditional sense of knowing because any and all stimuli are first received through imperfect senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.,) and then must be interpreted by our brains/ minds.  By imperfect senses, I refer to sensory limitations, such as our eyes’ inability to see certain wavelengths, and our ears’ inability to hear certain frequencies. All of our senses provide us with drastically limited information when compared to how much stimuli the world actually provides. For example, if I could see infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths of light, the image of the world in my mind would look much different. If I could hear below frequencies of 12 Hz or over 20,000 Hz, the world would sound much different. So what does the “real” world actually look and sound like? We don’t know; we only know what our mental model of the world looks and sounds like. Mind you, there are many other factors that distort the way our senses receive stimuli, so our mental model must be quite different from the world that provides stimuli. It makes me wonder what the real world is really like.

When you add interpretation to the clusterfudge of sensory reception, the rift between our minds and the “real” world becomes a gorge. The process of interpretation allows us to make sense of the imperfect sensory information we’re receiving. While interpreting, we’re using socially constructed values and ideology (stuff that’s completely made up, such as the word green) as a guide or directions that inform the way we create our distorted mental models of the world. For example, as an American, I’m conditioned to value perfectly white, straight teeth as a sign of health and cleanliness; this is an attractive feature to me, but in different cultures (such as Japanese culture) crooked teeth are considered cute. This might seem like a subtle difference in the way we construct our models of the world, but when you consider all the other discrepancies in values and ideologies, the way two people from different cultures see the world must be drastically different. Moreover, even people from the same culture subscribe to different ideologies: consider the difference in ideologies between conservatives and liberals in America. Sometimes, in oder to get a better sense of how different my model must be from that of another person’s, I perform a little mental exercise that can be pretty mind blowing; it consists of making eye contact with someone while they’re talking to you, and focusing your imagination into recreating what they probably see when they look at you (I don’t inform the speaker that I’m doing this). When I perform this exercise, it makes me hyper-conscious of others’ viewpoints, of their realities and that helps me be a little self-centered.

In summary (TL;DR), an interrogation of how we know what we know at the level of reception and interpretation of sensory stimuli reveals that our “real” world is actually a virtual model that exists in our heads. No, this isn’t solipsism (a philosophy that states that all we can be sure of is the existence of our minds). The difference is that my view of reality concedes that there is an outside world that provides the stimuli we in turn interpret into a virtual model. Everyone experiences and interprets their world differently, and people themselves stimulate and alter each other’s mental models through the transmission of values and ideology. Our realities are all virtual and different. In a sense, we don’t know the world, but we know of the world.

So, 1000 words later, what does this have to do with videogames? Well, let’s take a look at how videogames stimulate our senses. Let’s start off with the obvious ones. There are visual and auditory stimuli involved with almost all videogames. When we play videogames, we see and interact with what happens on screen and we hear what comes out of the speakers. Both are critical sources of information that allow us to create a mental model of the game we’re playing. Remember, what you see in your head was first received by your eyes and interpreted by your mind, so although there is a real game on a real screen being played by a real person, we can’t ever truly know this “real” world because of our unreliable perceptions and subjective interpretations. All we can know is the virtual world in our head, which is informed by the stimuli that the real world provides. In this sense, the sights and sounds that make up our experience of playing a game are just as real as the television set that displays and produces them. The “real” world isn’t kept out of the game by the edges of the screen, nor is the game confined to these borders. Everything in and out of the screen is experienced the same way: as received and interpreted stimuli.

“Ok, but you can’t touch or taste videogames. Surely, this lowers their position in the hierarchy of realness.” I don’t actually think any of your are thinking this, but I suppose someone could make this sort of argument, even though it’s kind of silly because there are plenty of “real” things that we can’t taste or touch (e.g. Oxygen and X-rays), and this doesn’t make them any less real. More importantly, my argument is not that videogames are real because they stimulate our senses (although it builds off of this statement); my argument is that the way we experience videogames in the virtual, mental model of the world is the same as the way we experience the real world, and this renders any distinction between fake and real nonviable. In other words, we experience existence through virtual models. “Reality” is virtual; therefore, videogames are no less real than anything else.

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Crouch, Aim, Shoot: The Game Mechanics We Take For Granted

To clarify, I’m not implying that some mechanics are more appreciated than others (although this might certainly be the case). What I’m trying to say is that we use “mechanics” (such as crouching, aiming, and shooting) without really understanding what they are and how they’re different from other elements of the game. Mind you, this does boil down to mostly arbitrary, meaningless naming and defining, BUT this can help Game Studies scholars analyze games and communicate with each other. It can also potentially amount to a bunch of fluff that only confuses people, and definitions can constrain the way people think about topics, but if they’re done with precision and with deliberation, definitions can streamline the research process.

Defining game elements has proven to be a decidedly tricky process. This applies to terms such as play, game, immersion, narrative, rules, mechanics, goals, world, etc. The malleability of such key terms has hindered Game Studies somewhat as researchers always have to define these game elements for themselves, and then they must explain these definitions to their audience. So far, Game Studies definitions are even less than provisional, they’re temporary. As the author of the article I just read points out, ” This lack of conceptual precision points to a definitional problem: it is unclear what game mechanics are, and how the term can be used in game analysis.” However, the instability of these conventions affords scholars room to think independently, so there are some benefits.

I’m really picky with definitions because they’re so easy to unravel, but I can appreciate a rigorously thought out definition, which is exactly what I found in Miguel Sicart’s article, which is aptly titled “Defining Game Mechanics.” I’ve gone through like 2 years worth of research articles, and this is the first one I’ve deemed worthy of writing about (which is why I haven’t posted in like 2 weeks).  Sicart’s goal with this article is to “define game mechanics, using concepts from object-oriented programming, as methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state. With this formalized definition, I intend to:

  • Provide a tool to discover, describe, and interrelate game mechanics in any given game.
  • Define mechanics also in relation to elements of the game system, game hardware and player experience, mapping mechanics to input procedures and player emotions.”

If you’re familiar with object-oriented programming, then this article will be easier to understand. If not, don’t worry; this article is still pretty accessible and straightforward. The author begins by pointing out that game mechanics have been defined before, and he builds off of past definitions by pointing out their short-comings while borrowing the aspects that do work (for him). He then describes his own definition and how it incorporates other concepts, such as primary, secondary, and sub-mechanics. The third part of this article uses his definition of game mechanics to pick apart Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, 2005), Rez (United Game Artists, 2002), and Every Extend Extra (Q Entertainment, 2006).  Then, like a total boss, he analyzes the results achieved through his definition of game mechanics, and he points out what he believes to be the short comings of his own definition.

Overall, what impressed me the most about this article was the author’s caution and attention to detail while outlining his definition of game mechanics. He makes it clear that he doesn’t think his definition is “the one,” but he does believe that it is more precise and useful than definitions used in the past.

Honestly, I could probably write more, but it’d be more regurgitation than even I feel comfortable with, so i I’ve piqued your interest, then check out this accessible and rigorous analysis of game mechanics and the process of defining them.

Defining Game Mechanics

by Miguel Sicart

 

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What The Sims’ Design Can Teach Us About Ourselves

***Many of the concepts discussed in this post are explained more thoroughly in my previous post***

Analyzing the way we design virtual models that somehow mimic  aspects of the “real-world” allows us to identify values and rules that we perceive in the “real-world.”  Dynamics that are often overlooked in the real world are presented more distinctly in virtual models, and this makes them somewhat easier to analyze. We must keep in mind that there will always be a loss of fidelity when presenting a real-world dynamic in a virtual space, but what’s important is not necessarily the accuracy of the representation, but rather what the representation shows us about how the designers perceive the dynamic in the real-world and how they choose to implement it in the virtual world (other thins are important too).

These kinds of skeletal, theoretical discussions are always easier to grasp with some meaty examples to fill in the gaps. Luckily, an article I read on how The Sims brings attention to a certain “sociology of interior design” is the perfect example.

Long story short, the Sims reflects: trends in consumerism, the contemporary rise of interior design, and the increased signification of consumer goods as status symbols. “Domestic aesthetics have become, in their own right, a “gender-neutral playspace”. Weekend design enthusiasts are on course to eclipse foodies as America’s premiere subculture of recreational snobbery. The cable dial is clogged with trendy home makeover shows. Reupholstering a sofa now passes for a hip Friday night.” The beginning of the article elaborates on the shifting signification and importance of the home space, not that these spaces haven’t always been important, but recent trends in pop-culture demonstrate that there seems to be more to this signification than previously thought. I’m pretty sure anyone with a cable subscription has experienced this phenomenon in some way. Excuse the long quote up ahead, but it is so funny and worth it.

“Trading Spaces has spawned a plurality of gimmicky imitators. There is a glut of new shows that portray home renovation as equal parts hip and accessible: ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, TBS’ House Rules, USA’s House Wars, VH1′s Rock the House. The Home and Garden Channel boasts 22 such fixer-upper programs. Even MTV is in on game-their Crib Crashers infuses the genre with so much street cred the word “house” is inadequate to contain it. Many of these shows also endeavor to replicate Trading Spaces’ surprise reveal. The device is employed to similar effect in TLC’s own While You Were Out and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, among others. The latter program, in which a quintet of culturally enlightened gay men spruces up both a heterosexual schlub and his squalid abode, is noteworthy in its own right. In pairing the home and cosmetic makeover, the show suggests the former now rivals the latter as consumer society’s pre-eminent rite of redemption. At the moment of reveal, the wife/girlfriend is always duly impressed by her mate’s newly waxed brows, but the étagère and coral bathroom trim inspire an ecstasy that verges on religious. It is not just transformation-it is transubstantiation .”

On its own, the Sims as a cultural artifact demonstrates that interior design has indeed become a sort of “gender neutral play-space,”but when we consider more specific examples of design choices and game mechanics in the Sims, we can get a better picture of how this cultural dynamic is perceived in the eyes of the designers. “Absurd as it may seem, designing a fabulous Sim pad can be a serious commitment. Much has been made of the game’s open-endedness-the freedom of the player to do as she sees fit-and to be sure, this freedom is substantial. Suffice to say, though, not all choices are equally rewarded. The Sims are by no means indifferent to the player’s decisions, including those countless decorating calls described previously. The most vague and initially bewildering of their fundamental need-meters is something called “Room.” One might assume this relates to a desire for personal space, but it is actually a gauge of a Sim’s satisfaction with whatever room he or she occupies. In other words, the game posits approval of the décor as a human need ranking up there with food and water. A minor break from Maslow, but entirely in step with Baudrillard, who would argue needs are embedded in consumer goods.”

The “Room” need-meter is a perfect example of how games as models present subjective, hard to define concepts in simplified and abstracted ways. The meter itself demonstrates a real-world dynamic that I would argue most people have experienced. The dynamic I’m referring to is the effect that a material goods’ signification value has as a status symbol and, in a bizarre way, as a source of well-being. Material goods also have use value (what the item can be used for) and exchange value (monetary or bartering value).

“Additionally, all Sims share some subtler aesthetic predilections. When it comes to architecture, they prefer spacious rooms, sizable windows, and abundant natural light. That these are features we tend to associate with upper-class homes is not accidental. The Sims, it seems, are hard-wired social climbers. Another commonality the player will note is their obvious preference for high-end designer furnishings over the cheap stuff.”

These real world dynamics become distinct in-game rules, and their effects become quantifiable attributes of in-game objects. This suggests that, at least in the mind of the game designers, the importance and prevalence of the current “sociology of interior design” is a highly influential aspect of our culture. The game, although only a model, can even highlight facets of the interior design dynamic that most players were not aware of, as the author of the article I read describes in the following passage. “As if sensing my indecision, a help message appeared in the corner of the screen, informing me the female half of my Sim couple was a Winter, and that I would do well to decorate accordingly. It was a level of aesthetic nuance I had not previously been aware of, even in the real world.” In this quote, we can see how interaction with the similar model (the game) informed a player’s understanding of the familiar model (the real world).

The choice of objects present in this model (the Sims), the rules that govern the way these objects interact (game mechanics), and the fact that this model represents the “real-world” to a certain extent: these are three aspects of the game that, in conjunction, make compelling claims about the “real” world. The Sims mirrors aspects of our mental models that are often overlooked and taken for granted and highlights them by increasing their importance and abstracting their value to quantifiable figures. When compared to our experience of pop-culture trends, we might even come to the conclusion that these claims are accurate. Of course, these conclusions are largely determined by the interpretation of individual players, but a more concrete argument would be that the design of the Sims does indeed make claims that can be analyzed, and these claims (right or wrong) can help us understand our world.

Read the article yourself! here. It’s funny and informative =]

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What Playing The Sims Can Teach Us About Ourselves

Games can be considered procedural models in the sense that they are a series of representational objects governed by a set of rules (thank you, Ian). Ok, hold that thought.

In my humble opinion, humans understand (just about) everything by creating mental models that distinguish objects and identify rules. Through a compilation of mental models, people are able to perceive and make sense of the world, albeit in a flawed way. These are models of the way the world works. We create models to understand relationships, economics, traffic, exercise, well-being, etc,.  Also, people’s mental models of the world, their perceptions, are continually revised as they encounter new experiences and reinterpret old experiences.

Back to games. Games are simplified and abstracted models that can be used to represent anything and everything imaginable. The representations used in these models don’t necessarily have to make sense (it helps though), but the game as a whole should be governed by logical rules that determine interactions between the objects represented in the model. By logical, I simply mean that the rules should be coherent and learnable. I should probably also explain what I mean by “simplified” and “abstracted.” Games are simplified because there aren’t as many variables to be accounted for as there are in “real” life, and they are abstracted because the variables that are present in the model are represented symbolically, and they behave in defined and predictable ways. For example, a health bar representing a character’s health is a form of abstraction.

Games can be models of inter-species, weapon-based combat set on synthetic, extraterrestrial worlds, or models on how veggie-hating, sugar addicted space cats navigate dimensions; games can represent anything imaginable, but they must be governed by some kind of logic, and we can learn loads from how we create and interact with these games. This is particularly true of games that represent familiar objects governed by rules that function similarly to “real” world rules (or rules that coincide with the rules identified in a particular person’s mental model of the world). What I mean is, a game that closely represents something in the real world can provide us with information that translates smoothly to our understanding of the “real” world. For example, the Sims is a game that “hits close to home” as its subject matter is the everyday lives of “regular” people. Moreover, the Sims is one of the best-selling games of all time. This makes it a great topic of interest for the interdisciplinary eye of Game Studies, and I have examples to prove it. (Granted, the most palpable similarities between the Sims and the real world are representational rather than procedural, but there are plenty of procedural similarities as well).

The first example is a study that examines if and how players project their personalities onto their in-game avatars. The study finds some interesting patterns of behavior, including a high tendency of  players from divorced households to have in-game divorces. For the purpose of this study, the game served as a virtual lab that allowed players to make decisions in a setting that strongly emulates the real world. The game also allowed researchers to conduct longitudinal studies in a fraction of the time it would have taken in the real world. I’m by no means saying that virtual models (games) should replace traditional research methods, and I’m fully aware that the simplification and abstraction of these models (games) will certainly lead to skewed data to a certain extent, but with this in mind, I still believe that games can be a useful tool for conducting all kinds of research, and my conviction is fueled by my understanding of human perception as a compilation of mental models that are continually revised. Sure, games provide players with limited information, but this actually makes research on these games simpler because there are less variables to consider. Besides, the “real” world only provides us with limited information, and our means of receiving and interpreting this information are limited as well. Therefore, the discrepancy in quality of data between real-world studies and in-game studies is not that high (again IMO).

Allow me to explain the research done in example 1 a little further. Basically, the researchers observed and surveyed player actions and cross referenced it with players’ personality. Their hypotheses were as follows;

Hypothesis 1: Personality characteristics will relate to gameplay; for example, participants who score high on conscientiousness will organize their Sims’ time more efficiently, which will be reflected by the Sims’ job promotion level, and participants who score high on extraversion will make their Sims more socially oriented.

Hypothesis 2: Participants will pass their personal values to their Sims; for example, participants who place high value on wealth will create Sims who earn high incomes.

If I were to rephrase, which I know kind of butchers and twist this research to suit my purposes…. If I were to rephrase these hypotheses so that they relate more to my games-as-models frame of mind, I would say that “when players encounter a model that’s similar to a model they’re familiar with, they are likely to use their understanding of the familiar model to determine how they should conceptualize (perceive) and interact with the new, similar model. This basically amounts to a projection of attitudes, behaviors, and values that were determined through interaction with the familiar model (the real world) on to the new model ( in this case, The Sims).” In other words, the new model’s similarity to the old model invites players to utilize reliable strategies of interaction with the old model on the new model. In a way, the similarities between The Sims and the real world subconsciously prompt a player to think, “I’ve played this game before. This is what worked for me then, so let’s see if it will work now.”

This post is starting to get really long and technical, so I’ll just skip to the findings of the study. after conducting this empirical study on The Sims 2, there is supportive evidence to show that, yes, people do indeed project some aspects of themselves into their Sims. From the results of this study, we have seen that personality traits such as neuroticism, openness to experience and conscientiousness, values such as flirting, fidelity to one’s partner, wealth and creativity and other characteristics such as gender, race, age, need for cognition, number of enemies and parent’s marital status all relate to the different ways people play The Sims 2. However, this study is only the first of its kind. It is important that the results discovered in this study are replicated in future research and that other factors of the game are explored as well, especially if the game is to be used in a clinical setting. This project only marks the beginning of understanding self-projection in The Sims 2; much research has yet to be done.

What a nice conclusion. Obviously, there’s still a lot more to consider, and we shouldn’t be making wild claims and broad generalizations, but what I really want to stress is that I believe that this projection of personality in The Sims occurs because players’ understanding of the world happens through mental models, and a virtual model that is similar to players’  mental model of the real world invites players to transfer their attitude and behavior (including knowledge and skills) from the first model to the second model.

This is a 2 part post. The next post will examine how a game’s design, as opposed to play, can teach us about ourselves, and I’ll continue to use the Sims as an example.

Here’s a link to the study on personality projection in the Sims.

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