Games as the Extension of Our (Lesser) Selves

Today I want to explore the implications of avatars as tools to express our lesser natures.

This week in Game Design we focused on characters in games and read a selection from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” In his chapter on the vocabulary of comics he discusses how we humans extend our selves through tools and using our awareness, bodies, and senses. He uses these examples below and later argues that when reading comics, comic artists use specific techniques so that the reader can see themself in the experience of the comic. Jesse expanded on this perspective by proposing that we may similarly project ourselves onto our avatars.

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An excerpt from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”

A couple of weeks ago I kicked off this blog trying to lay some groundwork in addressing biases that game designers and players have, particularly related to characters. I think this week’s reading naturally extends this thought into the realm of player agency, action, and choice as enacted through game characters and avatars.

There are a lot of ways that players enact disrespectful, insidious, evil, or mischievous instincts through games. Some games even promote this! For example, in the Fable games you are encouraged to consider the morality of your player and can see that your avatar changes through the good or evil of your choices. Many plyaers may choose to do evil just to see the horns that protrude from their head.

However, there seems to be a line we cross where the “magic circle” of the game is exited and we tiptoe into the realm of reality. There is a vast history in competitive games of “teabagging” or rubbing your avatar’s crotch in the face of a fallen enemy. Here players are using their avatars (their extensions of self) to digitally/physically violate and disrespect the avatar of another real life player. This behavior is ubiquitious and communally learned and taught. While it may have begun as a silly tactic to represent victory, players more dangerously also use this action as a type of psychological warfare and to discourage newcomers and women from playing the game. Game designers gave, ackowledged, and continued to give players this ability through the extensions of self they gave to the players.

In class Jesse proposed that in the future we may desire and have more deeply interactive game characters who learn about us and learn from us. My first thought was to think of Tay, Microsoft’s AI chatbot who became a racist nazi in less than 24 hours of learning from the internet. How can we responsibly prevent this as designers when our players can be so flawed and so desirous to express their worst tendency in the relative “safety” of games?

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Why Do I Love Cheating in Games?

Eventually I’m going to come up with a pithier title for this blog, but for now “My favorite part of games is cheating” is a pretty accurate representation of what I enjoy as a game player. In this post I’m going to explore a few anecdotes about cheating, specifically focusing on the emotional responses that cheating can invoke in the player, as well as some of the game design implications.

My first memory of cheating was at the age of 6 or 7 and playing Monopoly with my grandpa. I was losing pretty sorely when he slipped me a big wad of cash under the table so I wouldn’t go broke. I was confused at first but he smiled and winked and we kept playing. I felt invincible and loved and like we had a special secret. I know now that cheating in Monopoly is ubiquitous (see Hasbro’s recently released Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition). What’s interesting about this to me as a game designer is that cheating in Monopoly really doesn’t break the game or game balance. While I had a wad of cash to keep me going, that really can’t solve the issue of too few properties and a game board covered in other people’s hotels.

On the other hand, cheating at Settlers of Catan has often drastically turned the game around in my favor. In settlers there are five types of resources you need to build and expand your settlement. These are received by rolling the dice and gathering resources when the die roll aligns with resources you have claim over. The difference between picking up two wood cards vs. one when the probability of picking up wood is low can massively change the game. Whereas my grandpa helping me in Monopoly had a kind of cooperative/competitive mix, this type of cheating is entirely intended to flip the game and beat the other players. What I really enjoy here is taking the cards right in the other person’s face. So far, unless I’ve drawn direct attention to it, no one has ever noticed me do this (of course this will probably change if anyone of my friends or family ever finds this blog). I’ve even taken cards when I have no settlements that would allow me to take that resource. I find that most people are so focused on their own game and strategy that they’re not even paying attention to what the other players are doing. As a game designer, I don’t really know a strict way around this. I believe the designers of Catan have done as much as is reasonable to prevent this kind of cheating (e.g., turn-based system, limit of 7 cards per hand, a mechanic that draws attention to hand limits), which actually does end up being game-breaking to a degree, and it ends up being the other players who have left this door wide open. But really the cheating is less fun without that social component. At the end of every game, I always tell everyone else I cheated. What’s the point of being clever if no one knows about it? And they should have known better. I do actually try to play this game less now because it’s probably unhealthy to feed this kind of unwarranted and unearned egomania.

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A player in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion rides up to Batul gra-Sharob’s outdoor store

Finally, I want to talk about cheating in digital games which is an entirely different beast. There’s a pretty big range of ways you can “cheat” in a digital game, but the ones I’ve always liked best are taking advantage of bugs in the system. An old favorite of mine was one of the infinite gold hacks in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. If you equipped a weapon, mounted a horse, and rode up to an outdoor vendor in Kvatch, you could infinitely “sell” your equipped weapon without losing it. I imagine being the player(s) to discover this bug was extremely satisfying, but I was never an extreme enough player to uncover those things on my own. Instead my Dad shared it with me when reading an online forum about the game. We walked through the documented bug in detail and were ecstatic when it worked out. So here we enjoyed that social component of exploiting a cheat but without any form of competition. For the game designers the path forward was pretty clear and not too long after this bug was patched, much to my sadness.

I don’t think it’s the job of game designers to explicitly prevent cheating, especially when it’s known to be one of the most fun things in a game. Allowing the player to feel powerful and clever is often a goal of games and making room for cheating is just one way to achieve that. Rather, the game designer needs to ensure that by cheating, players don’t utterly destroy the balance or the magic circle of the game.

How Do We Combat Biased Audiences and in Turn, Our Own Biases as Game Designers?

I’m starting off my games blog diving head first into a big question: what is the responsibility of the author in combating the deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes in their audience? I don’t plan on coming anywhere close to answering it in this first post, but it’s a theme I plan on repeatedly returning to and want to lay some of the groundwork for my fascination with this question here.

“Imaginations fill in the gaps”

In the second week of the ETC’s Game Design course we discussed consciousness, the nature of experience, and the role of the game designer in crafting experiences. Jesse said that imaginations “fill in the gaps” of stories. This is a positive twist on another question that has plagued my thoughts for a long time. How can authors combat imaginations that will only ever fill in the gaps with straight, white, abled, and otherwise privileged representations? When, and how, and how much, and must they do this? I think they clearly must, but that first requires the desire to represent diverse groups as well as the acknowledgement of the author’s own biases.

I want to acknowledge my own identity and biases. As a young, able-bodied, Asian American, female PhD student there are several axis through which I experience marginalization but very many in which I experience a great amount of privilege. Understanding marginalization and using the resources I have to empower marginalized groups is deeply important to me, but this work requires me to grapple with my own privilege and limitations on a daily basis. Answering this question is as much to help my self as an author and game designer as it is to help myself as a consumer.

In Jesse’s anecdote he very briefly describes going to the store yesterday and meeting a female cashier. He then proceeded to ask questions to the class about the woman’s age, what time of day it was, etc. And many people in the class confidently answered! Their imaginations filled in the gaps. My focus is on instances where that filling in goes awry and becomes problematic and even dangerous.

In several highly public instances in the recent past we see how the (perceived) ambiguity of book characters lead many readers to the majority default (See Anna Holmes’ “White Until Proven Black“). When Jesse would correct people, he pointed out how easily their minds adapted to the new information and moved on. But in some of these public cases (e.g., Black actresses cast in the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises) where people feel they have a stake in “the truth”, rather than responding with acceptance, some of these more vocal ‘fans’ aggressively defended their stance that their beloved characters were white and that it would “ruin” the movie/play/show to represent them otherwise. When authors or “experience designers” aren’t explicit in their intent, we lose out on diversity.

I think games have the power to play with this desire to fill in the gaps in a powerful and interesting way. The mobile game Lifeline asks players to converse with an astronaut named Taylor via text. When pressed to give a definitive answer on Taylor’s gender, the creators respond that that is up to the audience.

I recently wrote an academic paper on character diversity in games (in press at ToDiGRA) and how games can and do successfully represent diverse players. One of my goals moving forward is to collect more examples of how games succeed or fail at scaffolding the audience’s imagination and the conversations designers have once their games are released into the world.