Thursday, January 15, 2009

Serious games, human values, and classics

This post is an index to the discussion we've just kicked off at VGHVI about what VGHVI should say and/or not say about the Serious Games Movement. My contribution has classics content (Plato!), as you might expect. It's also here on the wiki, where I'd love your suggestions on how to refine it.

Senior fellow Stephen Schafer of English at Digipen University has contributed "The Pscyhecology Game," a fascinating analysis of the Story-Based Game within a Jungian frame that I, as a myth-guy, find incredibly interesting despite not really being a Jung-fan.

My colleague in educational psychology at UConn, senior fellow Mike Young, will make his contribution soon.

Since this is my own blog, I hope I may be excused for saying, well, "Squee." This conversation already is a dream come true for me--interdisciplinarity takes patience, but when it happens it's pretty awesome--at least for a fanboy of reasoned discourse like me.

The forum thread for carrying on the debate engendered by the reasoned discourse is here. I hope you'll stop by and at least write a line or two about your own view of serious games and their movement.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Oedipus the RPG (Blogs of the Round Table)

Oedipus and the Sphinx

(If you're interested in reading Sophocles' version, click here; it's probably worth noting that my ludization of the tragedy originates in my own highly contentious reading of its plot and themes. Above all, I believe that the Athenian audience would have recognized that Creon is in fact attempting to seize the throne from Oedipus.)

The game begins with a fade in from a screen upon which appear only the words “You are a citizen of Thebes. A man named Oedipus is now the king of your city. Almost everyone in the city has been infected by a plague, and no one knows why.”

The player’s character is indeed a citizen of Thebes, in the time of a terrible plague. At the start of the game, he or she can choose to go with a mass of other citizens to the house of Oedipus, tyrant of Thebes, or simply to explore the city. The gates of the city are closed and under quarantine, but, other than that spatial limit, and the increasing percentage chance that the player character will be infected with the plague and grow gradually weaker, at last becoming immobilized with the disease until the resolution of the story finally frees him to lead a perfectly uninteresting but potentially endless life in the city, he can go to a large variety of ordinary places and do a large variety of ordinary things.

On the other hand, if the player chooses to follow the crowd, he or she may become involved in the story of Oedipus’ attempt to solve the mystery of the murder of his predecessor—and, it will turn out, father—, Laius. The player is able to question a large variety of NPC’s along elaborate dialogue trees—trees so elaborate that it is practically impossible to exhaust them (and the player is told as explicitly as possible that he or she should NOT try; indeed, NPC’s eventually refuse to keep talking if the player seems intent on exhausting the dialogue; moreover, talking too long to NPC’s will cause the player to miss parts of the ongoing story); pieces of dialogue are frequently enhanced by brief cutscenes that illustrate the back-story; these, and the final cutscene of the game, are the only traditional cutscenes.

The rest of the story plays out in real-time, whether the player character is there or not; it is occasionally difficult for the player to find the location of the story-action.

The player’s only task in the game—and this task is hidden from the player until he or she uncovers evidence of the conspiracy against the tyrant—is either a) to convince Oedipus that he is not guilty of the murder of Laius, by discovering the crucial pieces of information necessary, and thus to become the trusted advisor of what remains of him after the story’s disaster, or b) to join with the conspirators and bring him or herself into power along with Creon and Teiresias. That is, the main quest is simply to bring the story to its conclusion, by interfering in it effectually. Doing so brings a cutscene contextualizing the story, and then the credits.

It is more than possible—in fact it is easy—to avoid participating in the action of the game completely. The action unfolds over a game time-frame of approximately 10 hours. Progress-saving checkpoints occur only when the player has completed a piece of the story—something that must be done on the game’s internal schedule. Returning to the last checkpoint is at the discretion of the player; when he or she does, he or she is then free to attempt to continue with the story, or to wander off its path again.

With only a little bit of work on the main quest, however, it becomes clear to the player that something is wrong with the case mounting against Oedipus. From that point on, the game is a gradual but very fast-paced build towards the decision of whether Oedipus is in fact worth saving, and how to go about saving him. It turns out that there is no way to prevent Jocasta from committing suicide or Oedipus from blinding himself, but that bribing the herdsman and/or Teiresias (who, it turns out, have been bribed already by Creon) precipitates a scene in which Oedipus is shown the ultimate horror: the folly of his self-conviction.

If the player does not accomplish this bribery, he or she may instead go to Creon and threaten to expose his treachery, in which case Creon introduces the player as the new second-in-command of Thebes at the close of the action, as Oedipus is herded back inside the palace blind and polluted. If the player is watching, he or she will also see Creon talking to Teiresias, obviously planning the player-character’s downfall.

The central idea of this game might be called “tragedy by other means”—that is, in sketching it out I’ve attempted to create the opportunity for the player to experience tragic identification with Oedipus. I have no idea whether anyone but me would ever want to play it, of course. Above all, I want to thank Corvus for the topic!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Epic values, game values: what’s so funny 'bout glory, honor, and violence?

Jack Nicholson as Col Nathn Jessup

Once I’ve gotten someone—whether a fellow academic or a teacher or a parent—through their initial “You’ve got to be kidding” response to the basic idea of Living Epic, one of the issues that he or she frequently wants to talk about almost immediately is whether the values of the Iliad and the Odyssey really are values we want to be supporting in 2008. That is: even if we grant your thesis, Roger, that gamers are like bards, does that really mean that we shouldn’t be yanking the controller our of our son’s hands before he becomes Colonel Nathan Jessep?

To spin that thought out slightly, one could even stipulate that the values of the homeric epics were constructive for archaic Greek culture, but still maintain that they are destructive for our culture—that being alive in 800 BCE necessitated a warrior code, whereas being alive in 2008 CE can only be hampered by one.

For some reason, I always hear Stephen Colbert respond to this one in my mind, “Why do you hate America?” It’s not unimportant, I think, that a very large number of people in our society, and a much larger number in the human species, haven’t got over the idea that martial glory and the use of force to obtain legitimate ends are practices worth transmitting to the next generation.

But I think we’re probably better off to leave Colbert and those he parodies (Victor Davis Hanson springs to mind, just because VDH is a classicist by training) on their high conservative horses, and, because it results in a more comprehensive argument, to look at it from the liberal, pacifist point of view. If we want a world without war, how can we possibly value cultural forms that glorify violent acts?

Some very important ground has already been gained, I believe, when we have this discussion rather than (or perhaps in addition to) the subtly but crucially different one about whether video games that feature violence do or don’t make gamers more violent. When we take the ancient perspective on the matter, I think we can see that a full discussion will involve a process of critical thinking that can’t help but benefit us, even if we should conclude at the end of it (thought I doubt this will be our conclusion) that we have to take the controller out of the gamer’s hands forever, rather than just in certain very limited situations like age-inappropriateness. It’s hard to argue that learning about archaic Greek culture, and the way that classical Greek culture received it, is an unhelpful thing, quite apart from the fact that thinking in these terms removes at the outset the edge of hysteria that still seems to cling to discussions about video games.

So I think we have to go in two directions: first, the critiques of violence levelled by the bards themselves; second, the Plato/Aristotle divide on the matter of tragedy. I’ll treat the first direction now, and leave the second for another post (suffice it for now to say that Plato wanted to toss all of homeric epic and Athenian tragedy out because it made people bad, while Aristotle thought that that same material actually made people better).

Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain glorfications of violent military prowess; both arguably also contain glorifications of atrocities (Achilles’ needless slaughter of Trojans, Odysseus’ cruel execution of the serving maids). These works, however, as they have come down to us, which we should be careful to note is not the form in which they would always have been experienced by their original audiences, also have some of the most subtle and moving condemnations of needless violence, and some of the most resonant probing of the concept of glory upon which their entire traditions are based. Achilles’ refusal to fight, the basis of the Iliad as we know it, and Odysseus’ encounter with a regretful Achilles in the underworld, the heart of the Odyssey as we know it, are only the most obvious examples.

As I said the last time I wrote on this theme, the idea that glory is hollow is meaningless without the idea of glory. If we’re going to have the idea of glory, we’re going to have such things as homeric epic and violent video games. I would argue that this doesn't just apply to Call of Duty, but also to Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry 2, which don't seem on the surface to be about the same things, because, as the Odyssey also shows, what happens in war begins and ends at home.

If we’re lucky, we’ll also have bards who show us Agamemnon’s folly, and Colonel Nathan Jessep’s misplaced honor, and the way that Africa always wins. That last example links to a brilliant post by Tom Armitage that demonstrates, conclusively to me, that games are now levelling the critiques we need them to level so that we can go farther, just as Athens needed the embryonic critiques of the bards to make it to the full-throated ones of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, Plato, and Aristotle, none of whose works would have existed without the bards, their warrior-code, and their critique of it.

Do we need the ideas of glory and honor, though? Would we be better without them? Reasonable people can perhaps disagree about that, but I’m hopeful that some number even of my fellow liberal academics would be hesitant to expunge those ideals from our ideology, if only because so much of our past would become incomprehensible without them.

Ah, but does that mean we should allow our children to be indoctrinated in those ideas? No. But I’m surely not the only liberal academic parent who’s seen that honor and glory are quite possibly the best ideas we’re ever going to find to temper the ineluctable need to fight. Even mercy and peace have value only in opposition to that need. That’s just Saussure 101, I suppose—but then, if you don’t accept the semiotic gospel according to Saussure, you probably weren’t worried about honor and glory in the first place.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sententia novi anni (or, new year's resolution)

Baby New Year

I don't usually have anything to put under the "Resolution" rubric, but Dan Golding's wonderful post, and the still more wonderful philosophy behind his blog "Subject Navigator," make me want to be a better blogger.

Thus: I resolve to post here regularly--weekly, at least--in 2009.

Indeed, motive coincides with opportunity, since I have a couple weeks now in which I can concentrate on the "Living Epic" course and VGHVI to the exclusion of most other things save finally playing some of the games I've meant to play since the fall semester began. Moreover, my XBox 360 went to the great red-rimmed nether-realm this morning, so the time to play 360 games won't begin for a while yet.

Perhaps most helpfully of all, the students in the course are calling me to make more persuasive, more interesting, and more comprehensive formulations of all the themes of this blog, and I'd be foolish and even negligent not to try to bring some of those formulations over.

Thanks, Dan, and thanks also to everyone who's encouraged me to keep going. Tomorrow, some further thoughts that have been brewing about the values of ancient epic, and the values of games of violent glory.