A Philosopher's Blog

Story & Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 11, 2012
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All the roll playing you need.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics and a gamer, I find questions about games and art to generally be rather interesting. As I have argued elsewhere, I take the intuitively plausible view that video games can be art. However, even if that matter is considered settled (which can be debated), there is still a rich vein of philosophical issues to mine.

One topic that I and many other gamers often find interesting is the matter of the importance of story in games. John Carmack, who knows a bit about games, said  that “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Folks who delight in story driven games no doubt disagree with this view and there does seem to be an issue worth discussing here. For the sake of this discussion, I will be assuming that games (specifically video games) can be art. I have argued for this in an earlier essay and hence will not repeat my arguments here.

Obviously enough, there are games that have no story at all and are still fine games. To use the obvious examples, Tetris and Asteroids are story free, yet fine games. Naturally, these are not the sort of games that people debate about when it comes to whether or not story is important. However, it is worth noting these sorts of games because they provide a relatively pure context in which to present two relevant points.

The first is that game mechanisms (that is, the purely game aspects of the game) are reasonably seen as being distinct from the art aspects of the game (that is, the game as art).  After all, while all games are games and some games are art, not all games are art.  This can, of course, be argued against. However, it does have enough intuitive plausibility that it is well worth considering.

The second point is that even the art aspects of a game that is (or contains) art can be distinguished from each other. For example, while Tetris and Asteroid do not have plots, they do have game artwork and sounds (which might be dismissed as mere sound effects rather than having any status as art). As another example, the music and visual art of Halo can be distinguished from each other in that one is music and the other visual art. This point seems reasonable certain.

The matter of the importance of story is most interesting when it comes to games that do, in fact, feature a story. Obviously enough, the story (or plot) of games have varying degrees of integration into the game. For games that have a story, in one end of the spectrum lives the games whose story have an extremely minimal role in the game. One excellent example of this is Serious Sam: The First Encounter. The game does have a story: an evil alien threatens earth and you, as Sam, have to travel in time and kill wave after wave of monsters. That is pretty much it. Despite the rather limited story, the game works amazingly well as a game-that is, it is fun to play. On the other end of the spectrum are games that are heavily story driven, such as Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars the Old Republic. These games are, not surprisingly, role-playing games. In these games the player takes on the role of a character and spends considerable time talking to non-player characters, making decisions and experiencing the plot unfold. As might be imagined, the story in such games seems to be rather more important than in the typical first person shooter. In the middle are games like the Halo series which have well-developed stories and unfolding plots, but do not actually have any role-playing elements. For example, in Halo your choices mainly revolve on what gun to use to kill which alien in what way.

As might be imagined, the significance of the story would seem to be proportional to its role in the game. After all, a first person shooter whose plot is rather lacking or poor would suffer less than a full blown story-driven role-playing game whose plot is lacking or badly done. That said, it could still be argued that plot is important.

It is tempting to compare a game with a story to a movie and, obviously enough, plot seems to be somewhat important to a movie (although Michael Bay, some might claim, endeavors to prove otherwise). The idea of plot being the most important aspect of poetical works (broadly and classically construed to include theater) dates back at least to Aristotle. To steal his argument regarding tragedy, the following argument can be given for the importance of plot in games that have a story element.

Games are not an imitation of humans (or elves, aliens, or dragons), “but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” It is, of course, the actions taken by people that  “make them happy or miserable.” As such the “the incidents and the plot are the end of” the game  and “the end is the chief thing of all.” Thus the story is important, at least on the key assumptions made by Aristotle.

For Aristotle, a key part of having a good plot is ensuring “that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity permits a change from bad fortune to good or from good to bad.” In more general terms, the plot must be such that the events make sense and fit together to form a coherent whole. In my own experience as a gamer, I have consistently disliked games in which the story fails to meet that basic requirement that events play out in a way that makes sense (except, obviously enough, for games that are supposed to not make sense). After all, if you are running around in a game doing things that make no sense for no apparent reason that leads to nothing, then that will tend to be a disappointing gaming experience (although it would be a fair approximation of life).

The rather obvious reply to this is that there are games that are rather weak in the story department that seem to be great successes as games, thus helping to support Carmack’s claim. This seems to be a rather consistent aspect of the top tier first person shooters-they tend to be marked by weak, implausible or otherwise lame plots but are top-ranked for game play, especially competitive multi-player. As I once jokingly put it, “I don’t really care why I am killing, I just care about whether I’m enjoying it or not.” That, I think, nicely captures the view of most gamers.

Interestingly enough, this view often extends into games in which story would seem to be rather important, such as role-playing games. While some people do enjoy going through all the dialog and getting into the story, my general experience has been that the main focus is on the game-play rather than on the story.  This even extends to my experience in traditional role-playing games, like AD&D and Pathfinder:many players are far more into roll-playing (that is, simply killing monsters in combat) than role-playing (that is, talking to the monsters before killing them).

Getting back to the point raised earlier, namely that the game aspects of a game are not art this does seem to suggest that the story is not as important to the game as the game aspects of the game. Alternatively, it could be argued that the game aspects of the game are still art, but they are a different sort of art than a story. After all, the name of the game is, well, “game” and not “story.” In the case of a first person shooter, the game is (obviously enough) about shooting things from a first person perspective. Story is thus secondary. Even in role-playing games, such as Pathfinder, all the actual game mechanism are about rolling dice, usually while trying to kill monsters who are blatantly and shamelessly holding the loot that rightfully belongs to the party. While the game can be augmented by art (acting, beautiful maps, and well-crafted stories) the core of the game is , it can be argued, the game mechanics. As my friend Ron puts it, “if you are not rolling dice, you are not playing the game. You are just sitting around the table talking.”

The idea that a game should be focused on the game is, interestingly enough, also consistent with Aristotle’s view: “each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure proper to it.”

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SWTOR Patch Notes

Posted in Humor, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2012
George Lucas

George Lucas (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

For those who play SWTOR, the Legacy Patch Notes:

– C2-N2 and 2V-R8 are now considered hostile and may be freely engaged and looted.
– Corrected an issue that caused weapons to display inappropriately beneath some Droid companions (like T7). The weapon graphics have been replaced with mechanical testicles, as intended. These mechanical testicles will be known as “droidicles” and provide two upgrade slots for droids. An upcoming patch will address female and transgender droids.
– Many gathering nodes that were spawning in unreachable places (such as underneath the world) are now reachable. However, they are now surrounded by level 50 champions, as intended.
-Light side and dark side mission results no longer occasionally display decimal values. They now display in Roman Numerals, as intended.
– License costs for Vehicle Piloting rank 1, 2, and 3 have been reduced. However, expensive mandatory emission inspections have been added to the game, as intended. 
– Players with a Legacy can now send unbound and bound-to-Legacy items to other characters on the same account via in-game mail (even if the characters are not of the same faction). Legacy items include only non-combat items, such as the George Lucas non-combat pet and transgender outfits.
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Darth VaPaula: Gender & Video Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2012
Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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