Category Archives: Philosophy

Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.

Hellion-Oops

Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.

 

There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.

LongDark_GL

Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.

I am (Not) Ironman

With my dead 970 graphics card just now reaching the RMA warehouse, I am having to seriously sort through my gaming library for titles that will boot up on a 560ti. WoW runs fine, for example, but 7 Days to Die maybe pushes 20 fps if there isn’t anything going on.

Enter XCOM 2, which I purchased for $12 whole dollars in a recent Humble Monthly Bundle.

I started my first game on “normal” difficulty with Ironman enabled, as I did with the prior title almost four year ago. A few hours later, I abandoned that game and started anew without Ironman.

On the one hand, the decision was easy. XCOM 2 is filled with such crazy amounts of bullshit that I didn’t even feel bad for opening the door to save scumming. The third enemy type you face in the game, a Sectoid, has the ability to Mind Control your units through walls. And create zombie troops from dead bodies. Which is great when your squad consists of only 4 people and you lose one of them to Mind Control off the bat, and that one ends up killing another (who then turns into a zombie). Killing the Sectoid breaks the Mind Control and (re)kills the zombie troops, but that gets a little difficult when one of your guys is Mind Controlled.

Or how about that mission with the Faceless ones? Rescue six civilians… oh wait, one of them morphs into a putty creature with claws and you just ended your turn in melee range. Hey, six damage to your 6 HP dude, that’s convenient. Then you have the snake creatures that can move, then grab a sniper off the top of a train 30 feet away with their tongue, then instantly coil around them, permastunning them and dealing 2 damage per turn. I mean, I suppose I should be grateful there isn’t a chance I could shoot my own coiled guy when I shoot the snake, but I was absolutely expecting that to be a thing. Because fuck you.

None of these things are insurmountable. They just happen to be inane, “gotcha!” bullshit that artificially increases the difficulty of Ironman games. And not even permanently, as once you (the player) know about the existence of these abilities, you can play around them in the future. Which is the point, of course, but I see no reason to structure a game this way while also punishing you long-term for these same blind pitfalls.

On the other hand, after playing a few more hours in non-Ironman mode, I started to wonder about the philosophical ramifications of Save Anywhere.

Fundamentally, a Save Anywhere feature makes eventual success a forgone conclusion. Even in extremely skill-intensive or luck-intensive sections of gameplay, any incremental progress is permanent progress. Some tactical games have RNG protection, e.g. all dice rolls are determined in advance, to dissuade save scumming a 15% chance attack into a critical hit, but that doesn’t prevent you from simply coming in from a different angle or using a different ability.

The other problems with Save Anywhere are the player behavior ramifications. If you can save the game at any time, there is an advantage to doing so, which means there is an incentive to. Tapping F5 is not onerous, but I consider the mental tax of “needing” to remember to do so… well, taxing. It’s not that saving after every attack ruins the game (it does), it’s that I now have to devote constant attention to an out-of-game mechanic. Is there anything worse than thinking you hit Save before turning the corner, but realizing later on that you didn’t, and now you’re stuck with a poor outcome “unnecessarily?” Feels completely different than if the designers make that decision for you.

I feel like there is a middle way, especially in games like XCOM. Specifically: saving inbetween missions. This lets you avert complete disasters like the mission that eventually scuttled my Ironman attempt – a total squad wipe one square from the extraction point – while still disincentivizing save scumming inside each mission. At least then you can weigh the option of losing an elite soldier to some bullshit versus 30-40 minutes of your time.

Stealth Games Are Kinda Easy

In-between my many WoW sessions, I have been working on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The short version is that it is pretty much Human Revolution with new plot and Augments; if you enjoyed the first game, then you will enjoy this one as well.

But one of the things I have noticed over the course of 30 hours is that… well, it’s easy.

I am playing on the highest difficulty – Give Me Deus Ex – and just breezing my way through, even without Augments. Indeed, I spent half the game with 11+ Augment Points banked just waiting for a situation in which I needed to spontaneously develop wall-punching or remote hacking skills. However, this may be more a systemic issue with stealth games generally.

When we talk about stealth games, what we’re really talking about is extremely simplified, often binary, gameplay. If you are outside the cone of an enemy’s vision, you are hidden. The alarm is either raised or it is not. The enemy is fully active or they are incapacitated. This binary nature even extends to after the enemy is alerted, as almost every stealth game features the conceit that guards eventually completely forget that they watched their compatriots die, and go about their usual patrols.

This is not a criticism of stealth gameplay, per se. There is a good reason why “more realistic” behavior is not often implemented: it is less fun. Ever play a stealth game where the enemies patrolled randomly? It’s an exercise in frustration. Without a pattern to recognize and exploit, incapacitating/avoiding guards either requires RNG (which doesn’t feel good) or just attacking them straight out. And if the guards never reset after the alarm is raised, why wouldn’t the average player not simply reload their last save?

So if you are going to have “stealth mechanics” in your game, you have to make some concessions. This means it is incredibly difficult to introduce varying levels of difficulty with stealth mechanics without running afoul of annoying gameplay.

Still, I do have some suggestions. These mostly pertain to Mankind Divided – and especially at the higher difficulties – but I feel like they can be applied more generally as well.

1) Incapacitated Guards wake up.

Some stealth games have this already, but its lack seems especially egregious in Mankind Divided since you are in the same city for most of the game. Basically, once you knock out the guards, they are unconscious permanently. Since you already get more XP for using nonlethal methods, there really is no reason to not knock them out rather than use lethal methods. Yes, unconscious guards can be awoken if discovered by other guards. But considering how easily guards can be taken out – and no one cares about patrols reporting in – this is an irrelevant concern.

So… have the guards wake up, randomly. Not immediately, mind you, just over a period of a few minutes or so. This will still give you enough time to stroll through the area, but maybe not enough for a thorough searching of every file cabinet. If you want safety in your looting, you will need to kill the guards instead.

2) Nonlethal takedowns are more difficult.

In the last two Deus Ex games, you get the option of lethal and nonlethal takedowns any time you are within melee distance. In truth, there is just one rational option: nonlethal. Not only do you get more XP with nonlethal, but the actual nonlethal action is quiet, whereas the lethal one makes a lot of noise. Considering you can just shoot sleeping guards in the face with a silenced pistol afterwards, there is zero reason to go lethal initially.

How about we just reverse that? Lethal takedowns are quiet, but nonlethal makes some noise as the target struggles. This can extend to tranquilizer dart weapons as well, considering nobody really seems to care about a huge syringe poking out of their leg, even after it was fired out of a sniper rifle 50 yards away. Let them make some noise for the few seconds of consciousness they have remaining. Or, alternatively, make the tranquilizer take a random amount of time to fully go into affect, so that it’s possible they fall unconscious after walking to a less discreet location.

Because, honestly, the situation with the Tranq rifle in Mankind Divided is just silly broken. Headshots will instantly knock out guards, and body shots take a few seconds more. But, really? The delay is actually a boon. I can tag three guards in a row, all in the leg, and by the time the first dude hits the floor, the others start passing out before they have a chance to raise an alarm. That shit would be impossible with a regular sniper rifle, even a silenced one. Speaking of which…

3) Silencers not being silent.

This is one of those universal videogame/movie sacred cows, but silencers on guns don’t actually make them silent. As it turns out, propelling lead out the end of a metal tube by way of igniting gunpowder is still kinda loud. So let’s have those guns still be loud with silencers attached. This will shorten effective engagement range for stealth runs, thereby increasing the chance that a guard could discover you, e.g. making the gameplay a bit more difficult.

4) Guards check in with each other.

There is a level in Mankind Divided that sees you skulking about a research facility with a PA system. While I was taking out guards left and right, I got a little nervous by what I heard. “West wing reporting all clear.” “Brzezinski, please report to docking bay 12.” Did I already take out Brzezinski? Would he be missed?

Then I remembered I was playing a standard stealth game, and none of that stuff matters.

To an extent, having guards checking in (or being sought by other guards) is one of those realistic features that end up making the gameplay feel worse. After all, if you are going to be so actively punished for taking guards out, you may as well remove the ability to take guards out at all. But what if the mechanics were more nuanced than that? What if you could get some kind of guard manifest that lists which ones need to check in, or figure out when they already checked in such that you are free to take them out afterwards? What if their absence is noted and guards are sent to investigate, but they eventually disperse if they don’t find any foul play?

Basically, instead of having each guard be a puzzle individually, perhaps force the player to consider a more holistic approach to rendering a base unconscious.

5) Blood stains.

Just so it doesn’t seem like all these changes make nonlethal useless compared to lethal methods of infiltration, let’s have guards react to blood stains. And, you know, have blood stains result from wetwork, assuming specific methods are not employed. Moving bodies might still be useful, especially for distraction purposes, but it shouldn’t be a Get Out of Jail Free card either.

——–

I will be honest with you here: I’m not even sure any of the above will result in a better gameplay experience. All I do know is that my current experience with stealth games (and Deus Ex in particular) has made all of them not only play the same, but play easily. If I choose the highest difficulty in a stealth game, that difficulty has to be a function of changing stealth mechanics and not just making it easier for me to die once a firefight starts. Because a firefight will never start when I’ve knocked out every guard everywhere with impunity.

CAN there be another MMO success?

While Syncaine laments that the MMO genre hasn’t gone anywhere in 12 years, I was left pondering a different question: can the MMO genre go anywhere? Can there be another breakout success?

I would suggest the question is less straightforward than it might seem, for a few reasons.

The first reason is due to the nature of the genre itself. Even if you are a super-fan of Half-Life 2 and believe it to be the best game ever invented… you still likely bought and paid for other FPS titles in the past 12 years. The same is not necessarily true of MMOs. I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you? Someone would move on from Half-Life 2 because eventually you would run out of content to explore. That is much less likely in MMOs, because they are updated regularly, expansions are released, other players generate content, and so on.

The above generates the curious (and fairly unique) phenomenon that a lot of MMO players – possibly even a majority – are still actually playing the most influential MMOs (Ultima Online 1997; EverQuest 1999; EVE Online 2003; Second Life 2003; World of Warcraft 2004). If the market for FPS titles is 40 million people, each new FPS has 40 million potential customers. Meanwhile, the market for MMOs is X – Y, where Y is the number of people currently satisfied with their present virtual home.

The second issue is one of definitions. While it might not seem so at first, “MMO” as traditionally defined is rather restrictive. For example, most people would suggest that Crowfall is a MMO, despite its “persistent” worlds having an expiration date. That sounds more like a long-lasting lobby to me. But why is Crowfall an MMO and Destiny not? Or PlanetSide 2, which is arguably more persistent than either? A game like Fallout 3 can be said to move both the FPS and RPG genres forward in specific ways, but MMO-ish games often fall outside the standard MMO purview, thus limiting potential genre-changing titles. In other words, experimental MMOs can innovate themselves right out of the genre.

Third, a given game can only really be considered influential if it, or its derivatives, are a success. Consider the glaring omission from the Top 50 list: Star Wars Galaxies. I would have thought that with the amount of name-drops SWG receives in just about every MMO dev design sheet, it would be a shoo-in contender for sure. But if you think about it, not only has SWG shut down, but I don’t even know if any other game claiming its mantle has survived or even been released yet. Anyone know of any? Regardless, this means a given game must both shake up the genre and be successful in a general sense to count – just the first is not enough. Which leads me to the next point.

Fourth, not to be alarmist or anything, but… I’m pretty sure the MMO genre as we know it has peaked. As recently as 3-4 years ago, over half the MMO market was just WoW, and WoW has lost half of said playerbase since then, and is still top dog by a factor of 3-4, minimum. Where did all the bodies go? Not to other MMOs, for sure.

This leads me to the question in the title: CAN there by another MMO success? FF14 has come the closest, but is there anyone out there that seriously believes we will see a second WoW-like coming ever again? I personally doubt it. There was always an element of “right time, right place” to WoW’s meteoric rise, and not only has that time passed, but there is pressure coming in from other genres co-opting the traditional MMO strengths, in the same way we see “RPG elements” everywhere today.

So, basically, I do not see that list of late 90s/early 00s-only influential titles as a deficiency of development testicular fortitude, but rather a simple systemic and semantic issue. Other genres can take greater risks because they need only make one sale, not twelve per year in a F2P environment, while also maintaining a healthy population. Even if smaller MMOs were released and did innovate, chances are they remain too small to be “Massive” or just shut down after a few years and thus no longer be influential.

It is lose-lose-lose for everyone, but there it is.

Practical Design Considerations: Water

A few people have talked about swimming in MMOs.

While I largely agree with the premise that not many (if any) MMOs have implemented water combat/exploration particularly well, I have yet to read the (rather obvious, IMO) reason so many different MMOs try: practical design space. Or more specifically, not having swimming means your world will only ever have ankle/waist-deep water, and all the cascading design restrictions that follow from that.

There are two things I immediately notice when playing an MMO for the first time. The first is whether my character can jump. A non-jumping character means that every action I perform will be anchored to a 2D plane, there will be zero verticality elsewhere, the majority of the game world will be skyboxes, and I otherwise may as well be on rails.

The second is whether my character can swim. If the first river you come to only serves to get your boots wet, that’s an immediate clue that swimming doesn’t exist in the gameworld. Which means the gameworld will be populated with large amounts of invisible barriers and/or incredibly unlikely mountain ranges. Which means the designers don’t particular care for crafting an immersive environment, as how can that possibly exist with a surface only sparingly covered with puddles?

So, yes, most MMOs don’t do underwater sequences justice. But the alternative can’t be “not implementing underwater areas.” I would much, much rather a MMO (or any game) toss in a half-hearted, empty seascape than imprison us in Flatland.

Time and Place

One of the definitions of nihilism is “the belief that nothing can be known or communicated.” I was thinking about this the other day, when I was watching the anime Cross Game. See, I was watching Cross Game because someone had rated it very highly, 9 out of 10, and I am always on the lookout for such recommendations. As I talked about in my review of it though, I personally thought the show was okay… but not a 9 out of 10.

Which is fine, of course, as everyone has differing tastes in entertainment. For example, the acclaimed Breaking Bad series which I stopped watching around Season 2. I’m not sure whether it gets better or not, but I had a hard time getting over the initial premise (I didn’t buy into the main character’s reasoning) and I don’t much care for the whole “double-life tension mechanism” as a whole. I was able to put up with it in Dexter, but that’s about it.

So I then realized that for the people who were deeply moved by Cross Game or Breaking Bad or what have you, I will never be able to experience their same joy. I can certainly empathize with it, and of course I have my own personal joys as well. But in a sense, we’re alone.

And the problem isn’t just what we find meaningful, but also when we were exposed to it.

It should come to no surprise to anyone that one’s favorite games/movies/etc are generally correlated with what they watched first, typically when they are younger. It makes perfect sense after all – games and movies and so on are experiences too, occurring in a specific time and place in one’s life. There is a fundamental difference between playing FF7 back in 1997 when it was bringing the entire RPG genre into the mainstream… and playing it for the first time in 2015. Even putting the graphics aside, one would miss the zeitgeist, miss the novelty of a lot of its systems and character design, missing the power of one of the most recognizable spoilers in gaming history, and so on.

For me, FF7 ties with Xenogears for my favorite games of all time. The majority of that goodwill however is tied up in personal experiences unique to me. I can indicate to you that these two games are my favorites, and perhaps even attempt to explain why, but unless we shared similar experiences back then, the actual feelings would not be transmitted. You will not be able to feel what I felt; in that or any experience.

I am finding this realization incredibly tragic. Not just because my tastes in entertainment are clearly the best, but also because I could not even really begin to understand yours on a coherent level. Why was Cross Game a 9/10 for that person? What is it about EVE that is in any way appealing? Or Dark Age of Camelot? We can use words and arguments and perhaps even sales figures to convey as much as we can, but the words themselves aren’t experiences.

It seems the best we can do while stuck in the back of Plato’s cave, is to desperately use shadows to express to others the objects only we can see.

Open World, Closed Story

Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.

For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.

Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.

The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.

I didn't want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

I didn’t want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.

The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.

I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.

Game Dialog Choice

I’m still slowly working my way through Pillars of Eternity, but this is starting to irk me greatly:

Fine then.

Fine.

Pillars is not, of course, the first game to tie your in-game dialog responses to statistics or skills. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas come immediately to my mind, for example. But on reflection, I don’t really like it in those games either. I find Pillars a bit worse in this regard though, due both to how much more difficult it is to actually raise your abilities, and how this game is supposed to be a spiritual successor to, you know, stuff like this:

Planescape_01

and this:

Answer: Charisma 16

Answer: [Wisdom 18 Required]

Ironically, Plansescape Torment also required certain attributes to be above an arbitrary threshold to unlock dialog options, so perhaps it is not the best of examples.

Or maybe it is. After all, the attribute breakpoints were invisible.

And I guess that is what annoys me the most: I do not understand the point of showing me dialog options I can never select. I don’t care that the other options would have only increased my quest payout by 100 copper, or saved me from one additional encounter, or given me an extra potion.

As a designer, what are you trying to communicate to me? The fact that I made poor decisions on the character select screen hours before actually playing your game? Are you trying to signal that certain skills will be important in the future? If so, are you giving me any tools or resources to achieve those thresholds later? I mean, clearly I can do nothing about these forbidden choices in the middle of the conversion, or even after I reload the game really. Or am I supposed to simply keep this in mind for some hypothetical second playthrough?

Truth be told, I was a bit miffed back in the day once I realized that most of the best dialog options in Planescape Torment were locked behind Wisdom 18+. But the game never rubbed my face in it, or otherwise treated dialog so… gamey.

Speaking of which: why are we all tying dialog to abstract attributes in the first place? For roleplaying purposes? To cause players to handicap themselves with useless Feats/Skills/Talents so players can’t be good at fighting and not fighting? Just give me my dialog choices and let me work things out from there. Or don’t and just not tell me about it.

This middle way is the worst of all worlds.

Post-Game Depression

Have you ever finished beating a game, only to find yourself lacking all motivation to do anything else for days afterwards?

Yeah, that’s me right now.

In this particular case, the diagnosis is easy. The last game I played was Metal Gear Solid 5 on Sunday, two days ago. According to Steam, I logged 75 hours /played. The game was released on the 1st. I did not actually start playing until the next day, but that means I spent an average of 6.25 hours a day on this singular piece of entertainment. To speculate that there might be some sort of withdraw symptoms associated with such behavior is extremely fair.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to explore while mired deep in it. I knew it was coming with MGS 5, but I’ve experienced it even in games I haven’t mainlined to quite this degree. I’m even relatively certain why it happens: it comes from the sudden loss of a body of useful experience. Games are a system of rules and, over time, you come to absorb these rules into yourself in the form of knowledge and reflexes. You generally get better at the games you play. You understand them more. You begin to anticipate future actions. All useful things in the context of playing a particular game.

Then it ends.

All that gaming minutia forged in the fire of experience… becomes irrelevant. Sure, it will still be there for you should you ever turn the game on again. My memorization of all the pulls of every TBC heroic might come in handy should I reinstall WoW during a Timewalking weekend. But just like after a breakup, sometimes (most times) you just got to let things go. The memories will stay with you in all your new experiences, but the specific way their hand fit into yours will not. That special, secret knowledge no longer has an application, and your mind mourns as it reclaims the space.

I enjoy playing games and will continue to do so in the future. It is precisely the mechanic of learning new systems that I enjoy games so – finding the contours, the edge pieces, the optimization. I enjoy this in spite of knowing the inevitable end of this process, the returning to Square One with a new game and novel idiosyncrasies.

Titles comes and go, but the process, the root that generates joy, is eternal.

Still… the ennui inbetween, I could do without.

Violence in Videogames

[Blaugust Day 17]

A new metastudy concerning violence and videogames was released last week, and the conclusion is that there is a correlation between such games and aggression.

Which, of course, makes me want to punch all those researchers in the face.

My own thoughts on the subject are complicated. I think it’s silly to suggest there is no effect at all on a person who plays violent videogames, while at the same time asserting that someone can feel moved, or challenged philosophically, or experience any positive emotion at all in some other game. Clearly games can make you feel things, yeah? And in this sense, we can extend the argument to say that if we agree that movies, books, or songs can have any long-term affect on us as human beings, then certainly games have the same power. Hell, games should arguably be more powerful given the unique sense of interaction, which those other mediums lack.

That said, I find it difficult to believe even violent videogames can have a necessarily net-negative, long-term effect.

Can people become desensitized to violent imagery? Sure. I’ll never forget one summer vacation when family from Nebraska stayed with us for about a week. During one of those nights, we gathered around the TV and watched The Patriot for the first time. There is a scene in the movie in which one army starts shooting cannon balls at the front lines, and it goes bouncing through the ranks like a bowling ball knocking over pins (and limbs). In fact, here it is:

My father, sister, and I practically cheered at the surprising/unexpected/morbidly humorous display. My family from Nebraska? They were – to a person – shocked, disgusted, and a few ended up leaving the room. Suffice it to say, I don’t think they were playing the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat back in 1992.

While I may be desensitized to fantasy violence though, I am absolutely not desensitized to real-world violence. Shit, I still sometimes get physically anxious whenever I get a Reply notification from Reddit or WordPress. “Oh what did I say now?” I was somehow able to corral a dozen people through 5 years of WoW raiding just fine – in addition to talking shit about other bloggers in this space all the time – but there is a sub-surface level of personal angst just the same. That may just be because I’m an avowed introvert and generally find social interaction with strangers exhausting anyway.

Be that as it may, if fantasy violence was supposed to have a correlation/causation with actual violence, I should be the most aggressive hoodlum imaginable.

And speaking of aggression, the Kotaku article brings up the fact that in most of these studies, the focus has been on violent videogames without bothering to control for competitive games. It is the most intuitive claim imaginable that people get more aggressive in competitive games, even if (sometimes especially if) there is no violence at all. My high school group of friends about split up for good a few years ago over a particularly spiteful game of Monopoly, for example. And I don’t know about you guys, but Mario Party practically trains you to both hate people and destroy game controllers.

On competition, the APA paper (PDF) punts by saying:

The literature on competition as the underlying causal component of the apparent link between violent game use and aggression is still nascent and is not currently substantial enough to influence, on its own, an objective assessment of the broader violent video game research. (pg. 26)

The other detail that I’m not entirely sure anyone is focusing on is simple adrenaline. Being more aggressive while under the effects of higher levels of adrenaline is basically a redundant statement. Do violent videogames provoke higher adrenaline responses than other games? I kinda hope so, because that is almost the point of violence in these games.

In fact, that is pretty much my default belief on the subject: nearly all of the negative effects of violent videogames can likely be traced back to increased levels of adrenaline – which competition also triggers rather readily. The rest are either attributable to younger children unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality, or older people with the same deficiency.

In any case, science is a complicated subject and psychology/neuroscience is more complicated still. If violent videogames did cause violence or even make people more prone to violent acts though, I would expect youth crime to be increasing, rather than decreasing by 37% between 2003-2012.

Tide goes in, tide goes out – can’t explain that.