Video Gaming (EL 250)

Gamer Culture in Movies

On the appropriate page on the course blog, participate in a discussion of two of: Tron; Wargames; Big; Spy Kids 3-D. (Experienced bloggers, you are welcome to use your own blogs to drive the discussion.)

Permalink | 2 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Initial Reactions

I will post discussion questions via e-mail and/or the course blog, based on issues that come up on the work that you have done so far. If we can agree on a time, we might hold future discussion in the J-Web chatroom.

Note: This is the course weblog. The default behavior of a weblog is to display the most recent entry first, so this actually the last thing I want you to read on Jan 2.

To see the items arranged in their proper order, click on today's date (either from "2 January 2006" above, or on the calendar to the upper right.

Permalink | 2 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Class Discussion

I will post discussion questions to the course blog, based on issues that come up on the work that you have done so far. If possible there is any interest, I'd like be willing to hold this discussion in the J-Web chatroom. (What do you think? Would a chat session be helpful?)

Permalink | 3 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Rights and Freedoms in Virtual Worlds

The online community described in "A Rape in Cyberspace" is home-grown, and an important philosophy there is the libertarian self-governance that has been the key to internet culture for decades now. A commercial game company, whose chief interest is to keep paying customers happy, can make rules and boot off uncooperative users.

In responding to A Rape in Cyberspace, Leslie wrote, "I personally don't see why these users were so incredibly offended." But Puff writes, "I hope as the internet grows, unchecked by the arguement of freedom of speech, that someone will realize that there is still a basic humanity that can be violated, even without our senses."

Permalink | 3 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Effort: Work and Fun with ''Adventure''

The discussion of Thy Dungeonman (a game which Puff correctly noted satirizes the text-adventure genre) and of Adventure are useful to help us consider how the games that went before us have shaped the games that we play now.

This is a good time to introduce the term "ergodic," a word appropriated for Game Studies by Espen Aarseth, who writes in his book Cybertext:

The reader's pleasure is the pleasure of the voyeur. Safe, but impotent.... Trying to know a cybertext is an investment of personal improvisation that can result in either intimacy or failure. The tensions at work in a cybertext, while not incompatible with those of narrative desire, are also something more: a struggle not merely for interpretative insight but also for narrative control: "I want this text to tell my story; the story that could not be without me." In some cases this is literally true. In other cases, perhaps most, the sense of individual outcome is illusory, but nevertheless the aspect of coercion and manipulation is real.

His book considers hypertext narrative along with text-adventures, but his concept of "ergodic" -- that is, requiring effort -- has become very popular among games scholars.

Another important concept is fluidity -- that that part of gameplay that seems fluid, when you're in the zone, motivated to keep pushing buttons and running through mazes because you're enticed by the wonders your actions create.

Leslie spoke of a heroic effort to get her "IF juices flowing" -- to move the experience from conscious effort to fluditity. I created the annotated Adventure frameset in order to help out people who were stuck in the very beginning of the game.

Since the first mainframe computer games were created by geeks, for geeks, for the share pleasure of doing and admiring something cool, I wanted the class to look at Adventure -- a pre-commercial product, created by a man who know a particular cave very well, and who first shared it with his young daughters, who knew caving very well.

Text-based games weren't boring to the first generation of computer gamers because for a long time, all programs were written to run on terminals that printed out on reams of folded paper. The display could do nothing but print out a line of text a time. You could do ASCII art to make some kinds of text-games look useful, but when that program was played on a machine connected up to the printer, it would have to print out the whole screen if one item on the screen changed. And that could take a minute or more.

For those of you who felt frustrated by the command-line routine of type something, read the response, then type somthing again, how would you feel if you had to enter your command into a bunch of punch cards, take your "stack" to a machine that read the cards and sent a request to a lab-coat-wearing "computer operator," who, when he or she got around to it, would enter your program into the computer, then take the resulting printout and put it in a cubbyhole with your name on it.

Correcting a single typo could take a whole afternoon!

The ability to issue commands directly to the computer, through the keyboard, was a huge innovation that revolutionized programming -- and, shortly thereafter, gaming.

Initially, the only people who played computer games were computer programmers, so those games naturally incorporated a hacker's idea of fun -- puzzle-solving, brute-force trial-and-error techniques (such as the ones you need to make progress in Adventure). But it's not enough simply to like hacking, you also have to like words. You have to invest *effort* to get the game to work.

Some gamers enjoy making their avatars respond to button combos. To me, mastering those combos is *work*. Solving a verbal puzzle is certainly *effort*. I don't turn to IF when I simply want to relax. But just as what counts as "fun" will change from person to person, so to will what we classify as rewarding effort and meaningless drudgery.

Permalink | 3 Jan 2006 | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Replayability in Movies

On the course blog, participate in a discussion on It's a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, and/or Sliding Doors.

Permalink | 4 Jan 2006 | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Koster; New Games Journalism

After I've marked the work that's due today, I'll post some comments and thoughts here. I'll draw your attention to it during my usual 4:00 update.

Permalink | 4 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


We'll hold off discussion of Koster until more people have gotten hold of their books. If you've got it, keep reading, reacting, and responding. Leslie's blog is a great example of using a blog to help sort and organize your responses to a stimulating text.

Permalink | 5 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Simulation in Movies

On the course blog, post your reaction to Matrix, The Truman Show, and/or Capricorn One (if you have already posted reactions to four movies, then participation in this group is optional, but of course I would welcome additional contributions).

Permalink | 5 Jan 2006 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Video Games as Art? Roger Ebert says ''No''

We have spent some time discussing movies that raise important issues about gaming culture. Now that we're about to leave the cinematic frame of reference behind and focus on the academic study of video games, this exchange with film critic Roger Ebert makes a great transition. What's your take on the subject? :: :: Answer Man (xhtml)

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Why did the chicken
cross the genders?

November 27, 2005

Q. Not wishing to appear a sexist pig, I hesitate to approach this subject. However, in your review of "Chicken Little," you keep referring to the protagonist as "he." In my opinion, Chicken Little was a "she." A male chicken is usually referred to as a rooster.

Derek Verner, Tuckahoe, N.Y.

A. Actually, the word "chicken" encompasses both genders of the domestic fowl. A hen is a female chicken and a rooster is a male chicken. This doesn't get me off the hook, however, since how did I know that Chicken Little was a male and not a female? Perhaps because he was supplied with a male voice by Zach Braff, and referred to as "he" throughout the movie's publicity materials.

Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that Chicken Little is not a rooster. Perhaps he is a capon, in which case more than the sky has fallen. Another good question: Since Chicken Little has no ears, why don't his glasses slip off?

Q. I have a big complaint with the folks who release DVD versions of theatrical releases. I now own "Titanic," "Star Wars I-III" and a lot of others. My question is: Why can't the directors put all the extended and deleted scenes within the context of the film itself? We are smart enough to sit through a longer version.

Marianne Brzezinski, Oak Lawn

A. Yes, but perhaps there was a reason those scenes were shortened or deleted? The director's cuts on DVDs reproduce the director's original vision, which in some cases ("Picnic at Hanging Rock") may actually be shorter than the theatrical version. And when a director does incorporate longer or deleted scenes or makes other changes, I get complaints like this one from Robert Wiseman:

"Do you have any idea if and when the original version of "Blade Runner" (i.e., the one that made the film a success, not the one that Ridley Scott's ego destroyed) will be available on DVD?"

Answer: An edition that includes three versions of the film, including the original version, was announced a year ago, but reports rumors that the forthcoming special edition will feature, once again, only the director's cut. Versions of the original version, which opens with Harrison Ford's narration, are on sale an eBay at bids ranging from $1.99 to $30 (for the Criterion laserdisc).

Q. I was saddened to read that you consider video games an inherently inferior medium to film and literature, despite your admitted lack of familiarity with the great works of the medium. This strikes me as especially perplexing, given how receptive you have been in the past to other oft-maligned media such as comic books and animation. Was not film itself once a new field of art? Did it not also take decades for its academic respectability to be recognized?

There are already countless serious studies on game theory and criticism available, including Mark S. Meadows' Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan's First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, and Mark J.P. Wolf's The Medium of the Video Game, to name a few.

I hold out hope that you will take the time to broaden your experience with games beyond the trashy, artless "adaptations" that pollute our movie theaters, and let you discover the true wonder of this emerging medium, just as you have so passionately helped me to appreciate the greatness of many wonderful films.

Andrew Davis, St. Cloud, Minn.

A. Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Permalink | 5 Jan 2006 | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Koster, Aarseth, Hayward & Wong

If I were to ask all of to read the biography of an important psychologist, a journalism major, a creative writing major, and a literature major would each approach the book differently and evaluate it on different criteria. A psych major might not have the experience interpreting stories, but would bring a set of criteria from the world of psychology, and would thus focus on the accuracy and insight of the content.

Let's see what we can come up with as we consider the points raised by a game developer and writer (Koster), a level designer and art geek * (Hayward), a scholar of cybetext (Aarseth), and a journalist who knows the indistry well (Wong). All come to consider games from a different perspective.

Evan's response to one of the Hayward discussion questions did an excellent job crystalizing an issue I hope we can discuss here.

Hayward notes that video game rendering engines have approached closer and closer to achieving photorealistic images. But in the real world, cubism and abstract art grew very popular just as photography matured as a medium. When Madden Football touts realistic player arm hair as a selling point, we have to ask ourselves -- as Hayward does -- just how important is photorealism in video games?

Hayward offers several alternatives, but ends up concluding that greater realism will achive the "lucid dream" quality that gamers seem to want.

The prompt was:

What's your take on the importance of photorealistic graphics in games? You all know that I'm a textual person, and I know some of you have those tendencies. Refer to specific points Hayward makes (quoting directly from his article) in order to support a point you want to make about the visual aesthetics of video games. (Aesthetics = that which makes something beautiful and/or good, as well as a branch of philosophy that explores the relationship between that which is beautiful and that which is good.)

Evan's response was:

"Of course, though a graphic design tool such as flash easily lends itself to aesthetic experimentation, the potential illustrated by print translates into any 2D game, for instance Project Rub, Spheres of Chaos, and Vib Ribbon."

Hayward notes in this passage that aesthetic transcends medium. In other words, concepts that work on one visual medium can be applied to another with equal success. Spheres of Chaos is an excellent example of this concept. Note the quality of color in SOC. Although the images are pixelated, it works because it mirrors the established pointalistic ideal.

Another example is Shadow of Colossus. Note the use of color in that rendering. The omnipresent greens and greys establish a medeival, chivalrous feel. Like the method of yellow filtering in Amelie Poulin, Shadow of Colossus creates a world in and of itself. Whereas Amelie takes on a somewhat plastic skin texture, the environment in Shadow of Colossus takes on a more natural, earthly tone.

This is not by any means photorealistic; however, it works because the rendering compliments the setting and story.

Okami demonstrates that pure iconic renderings can be effective. Rendered as Japanese paintings, the design of Okami demonstrates a tasteful application of concepts from other media to a similar-themed game. Hayward calls this aesthetic "both stunning and thematically relevant."

Thus, because concepts of media transcend their originating medium and because certain media are established with effective concepts, video games can apply aesthetic qualities of other media effectively.

Permalink | 6 Jan 2006 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

What is Fun?

I've put together this 4 1/2 minute audio lecturette on Koster and fun. I hope it will help focus the discussion.

Permalink | 6 Jan 2006 | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Laurel; Close Playing; Etc.

A reading-heavy day. The pace will slow down tomorrow, so we can focus on reading Juul's book, and so you can start thinking about your final paper. Today would be a great day to try out initial ideas for the term paper.

Discussion Prompt:

In high school English, being able to summarize the plot an describe your emotional reaction to the situation faced by the protagonist was enough to get you an A+. In a similar way, being able to describe how a game works and describe whether it is enjoyable was enough to make a successful game review.

Laurel presents herself as a story-teller. She doesn't spend much time describing the interface or the scoring system of her Purple Moon games. We actually get a much better idea of how the website works than we understand any individual game.

Laurel pretty much skips over the act of summarizing her games, and spends far more time discussing what she was trying to accomplish.

Now that you have written your first "close playing," consider your chosen game as the work of a utopian entrepreneur. That is, consider the values system inherent in that game, and speculate on how the world might change if the values system inherent in the game became more prevalent in the real world.

Permalink | 9 Jan 2006 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Analyzing Game Studies

What were your experiences as you searched for 5 scholarly items to include in your thesis proposal?

Permalink | 10 Jan 2006 | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Topics TBA.

What issues are coming up as we continue to work through Juul's book?

Leslie said she was surprised that Juul spent so much time examining games as stories. I found that noteworthy, since Juul is strongly identified with the ludological position (games-as-rules), as opposed to the narratological (games-as-stories). It might be worthwhile to visit this brief introduction to gaming scholarship, which I wrote as the preface to my notes for a conference on video game criticism that I attended in 2004.

The eight or ten pages of references in the back of Half Real should be enough to dispel the idea that video game scholarship is still scarce, though I recognize fully that in a compressed course like this, it's crucial to find a thesis that you can actually examine based on the limited information that you can actually get your hands on. Much good games research is available onine, but so are a lot of fan sites and shallow game reviews.

You may have noted that Jesper Juul is writing in a mode that differs greatly from both Brenda Laurel and Ralph Koster. How would you characterize Juul's mode? How do his goals, as an author, differ from the goals of Laurel and Koster?

Permalink | 11 Jan 2006 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Topics TBA.

What issues are coming up as we continue to work through Juul's book?

Permalink | 12 Jan 2006 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Topics TBA.

What issues are coming up as we continue to work through Juul's book?

Permalink | 13 Jan 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Discussion About Online Presentations (40pts)

Sign up for Wednesday or Thursday. Please do not simply post the full text of your term paper, or break it up into chunks with "Click here to continue" at the bottom. Nobody will want to read it online, and you'll get few useful comments for your trouble.

Your online presentation can be personal, creative, satirical, full of images and links, a podcast, a Choose Your Own Adventure story, etc. Make the kind of online presentation that you yourself would find useful and engaging. It should be ready first thing in the morning, so that the class has had the chance to view it and comment on it by midafternoon.

I should specify -- while I consider the homework (reading and responding to peer online presentatoins) to be important, it's the online presentation itself that's worth 40pts. The discussion of those presentations is worth no more than any other assigned reading.

Permalink | 17 Jan 2006 | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Online Presentations, cont.

See notes on the first Online Presentations page.

Permalink | 18 Jan 2006 | TrackBack (0)