Archive for games

Games & Power Structures

Posted in My Work with tags , , , , , , on February 13, 2009 by alessandrovalente

In this essay I propose a  taxonomy of games based on the type of power relationship between the player of a game and the virtual environment he or she explores, reconfigures and/or negotiates. The theoretic framework of this essay is based on Aarseth’s Cybertext, Perspectives on erodic literature, Foucault’s Dicipline and Punish,The Birth of the Prison and Deleuze’s article ‘Society of Control’. With a case study of the games Asteroids, Portal and World of Warcraft, it tries to show how all three games show a different power relationship between user and the game text and how general concepts from the work of Deleuze and Foucault can help understand and describe these power relationships. To hopefully shed some light on games, in how they work, are experienced and are different from eachother.

Link:  Games and Power

An extract of one of the case-studies:


Portal is considered to be a first person action/puzzle game and was developed by Valve Corporations. The game was released in the bundle package The Orange Box for Microsoft Windows and Xbox 360 in 2007. Where Asteroid’s game world only exists of dynamic objects on a black field, Portal presents a completely graphically rendered virtual space where object and the surroundings are all viewed three dimensionally. The player controls the main character named Chell from a first person perspective. At the start of the game Chell wakes up in an enclosed white room. A mysterious robotic voice tells her that she is the object of an experiment and challenges her to navigate through a series of rooms using a “portal gun”. This gun allows the player to create two distinct portal ends, orange and blue. Neither of the portals is specifically an entrance or exit; all objects that travel through one portal will exit through the other. Every level or stage of the game consists of a room that has only one exit point that can only be reached by making clever use of the portal gun. Every room is thus a puzzle that needs to be solved by the player to get to the next room. The more progress a player makes by traveling trough the rooms the more difficult the puzzles become and the more inventive use of the portals is needed to pass. This shows a different relation between the player and the game environment then was the case with Asteroids. The objective of the player becomestraversing an enclosed virtual space, this makes the user traverse through the game text,rather then just managing to ‘stay physically untouched and alive’. ‘Corporal punishment’ or a ‘virtual death’ that means exclusion is no longer what motivates ‘good behavior’ of the player. The power structure of the game system works with a more positive punishment and reward system. Good behavior is awarded by the passing of a closed environment to enter the next one. Each next room implements a more difficult challenge that needs a further enhancement of the player’s behavior for it to be able to pass it. Not behaving according to the rules of the system simply means that the player isstuck in the enclosed space and no progression occurs. The only way the game finishes (without walking away or turning it off) is by clearing all the levels. Mastery of the good behavior needed to pass all the enclosed spaces will at the end result in the ‘Intriguee’ exiting the closed game environment for ever and disappears. This is the moment, when in Portal  the collapsed distanced between user and ‘intriguee’ or ‘avatar’ ends. When playing  Astroids  the opposite is the case, it is bad behavior punished by an exclusion of the game by a virtual death that erases the main character and ends the merging of player and ‘intriguee’. In some of the levels/rooms of Portal it is also possible for main character Chen to die, for instance by falling from an edge into a pool of acid. However when this occurs an automatic save function automatically reloads the game and puts main character Chen right back where she was just before the accident happened. Chen is alive again and the player can instantly continue where he or she left off before getting killed. This shows that the sovereign power at work in Asteroids with its measures ofcorporal punishment, death/exclusion has been replaced for something else. It’s thepositive goal of learning good behavior to traverse the rooms or levels that drive the player. Off course it’s not the implementation of a saving device that changed thestructure of the game; it’s the structure of the game that makes the implementation ofsuch a device sensible. Implementing a device that constantly saves your progress in Asteroids  so one can always start from just before the ship exploded makes no sense. It would take away almost every reason to play and master it.The above also explains why Portal doesn’t have a point system like Astroids. In Portal good behavior is rewarded by the passing of enclosed spaces, it therefore doesn’t need points. In Asteroids good behavior means not being punished, the only way of marking this is by the implementation of a non-diegetic element such as a points system. The described relation between game system and player is comparable with Foucault’s concepts of the disciplinary society. “They (disciplinary societies) initiate theorganization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”);then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminentinstance of the enclosed environment. It’s the prison that serves as the analogical model…” 30. It is interesting to note that in Portal the prison as analogical model is clearly visible. Main character Chen is constantly imprisoned in white cells and is constantlymonitored by camera’s on the wall in every room. The robotic voice that gives Chen instructions and compliments by monitoring her through the implemented cameras is invisible to her. This situation corresponds therefore exactly with that of JeremyBentham’s ‘Panopticon’. At a certain point escaping this imprisoned panoptic situationbecomes part of Portal’s narrative. After Chen has traversed multiple rooms as instructed by the robotic voice there is a crack in one of the white rooms that the player needs to go through to traverse the level. Chen has then escaped the panoptic vision of the robotic voice and traverses enclosed spaces in the same way as before, but now they are represented as outside the panoptic construction (of the narrative). The enclosed spaces that need to be traversed aren’t the sterile white prison rooms with the mounted camera’s anymore, but dirty environments with visible tubes and electricity cords that give a backstage feeling. Paradoxically while Chen has now changed the power relationship between her and the robotic voice, the relationship between the player and the game mechanic has stayed exactly the same. While Chen is now acting against the instructions of the robotic voice, the player is still following the ‘good behavior’ that is needed to traverse the text. This shows that it was never just the instruction of the robotic voice that motivated the actions of the player to progress the text by passing the enclosed spaces in the first place. In the final level of Portal  Chen reaches the center of the ‘panopticon’, a control room where she meets face to face with the robot/computer system that was behind the voice. Here the player must defeat this robotic entity by applying the inventive usages of the portal gun he or she learned and trained by progressing through all the previous enclosed spaces. When the robotic entity is defeated the player has reached the end of the game. In the structuring mechanic of Portal we can see aspects of Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’. ‘Good behavior’ is now more internalized as a natural behavior of the player that needs less or no direct physical force to learn how it should behave to progress in the game. The evolution of the activities of the player is controlled by the passing from one enclosed environment to another that discipline the player to absorb the ‘good behavior’ needed to traverse them. While the ‘panopticon’ was clearly present in the fictional world of Portal it is problematic to apply on the structuring elements of the game text. The only gaze that actually exists is the one of the player at the main character or ‘intriguee’. One could maybe argue that the relationship of the ‘intriguee’ and the textual machine is panoptical since the actions of the ‘intriguee’ are based on what a player can deduct only from the interface level. The textual machine however ‘monitors’ every aspect of the ‘intriguee’ (while constantly saving its exact location) to calculate gameswhat will happen next, resulting in an unequal gaze.



PICNIC 08 – YOUNG seminar: Virtual spaces

Posted in lectures with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2008 by alessandrovalente

25 September

Virtual spaces

The motto of this PICNIC seminar is that bringing computer simulations and games into the classroom will have a positive effect on the learning abilities of students. For a new media academic this can’t be very shocking news. Modern Simulations are powerful tools that bring an alternative to the traditional linear ways how we present and understand things. Simulations and games can model systems that are otherwise too complex to deal with and give a firsthand experience to their dynamics. Also kids love games and seem to have the intuition to learn how to work with simulation tools far faster than adults. Frasca, 2001

In the world of education this doesn’t seem to be common knowledge. The implementation of simulations and games into the education curriculum is very poor, almost nonexistent. A reason could be that they just don’t know how to implement these new tools into the current basic education curriculum. Hopefully these seminars can inspire some minds to take the necessary steps to implement these tools into our education system.

Here three of these seminars will be discussed. They all deal with the theme virtual worlds and their deployment in education.

First speaker: David Nieborg

The first speaker of Picnic Young is David Nieborg who doesn’t really represents an idea or a product, but gives us his vision on the future of social and creative uses of virtual spaces. The main question Nieborg poses is what these virtual spaces can do for us and for the future of children. Nieborg starts off by showing the audience an old video (1998) about the former Dutch prime-minister who receives help with the use of the internet from a young girl. When presenting some numbers on the game and internet use of children (97% of US children play games) it becomes obvious this new medium should be looked at in more detail. While trying to answer this question, Nieborg addresses some of the point of the current new media debate. One main argument he makes is about the so called convergence culture; about the way we can order a pizza while playing World of Warcraft. Or the way Japanese World of Warcraft-players meet up to dress as their favorite characters offline. This to Nieborg is the convergence future, mixing the physical world with the virtual; here we see the blurring of boundaries between the online and offline world. This blurring of boundaries is misconceived in the Dutch media, where the discussion is often centered on the consequences of children playing violent games and therefore bringing these ideas to the real word , for example school massacres by children. But children do know this difference between the virtual and the real world according to Nieborg. And this current negative discourse is distracting the attention from the more interesting blurring of boundaries, such as friends meeting up to dress as their World of Warcraft character. While Nieborg addresses some more interesting focus points -the discussion of private vs. public, the idea of the social networking sites- his talk quite disappointing ends with the discussion of Second Life. This well known virtual world does ,as Nieborg poses, combine some of the main elements of the future of new media. For example the entrance of the ABN Amro Bank online mixed the virtual and shows that Second Life can actually be financially interesting. But the answer to the first question the audience poses is even more interesting. When asked if the entrance to Second Life was increasing or decreasing, Nieborg told it was actually decreasing. And by the end of his talk this answer sums up the overall idea of his speech; it touched on some interesting discourses on the new media, but it did not answer his suggestions on the future use of the new media. But introducing such new application or programmers is indeed something for the rest of the speakers.

Second speaker: Josephine Dorado (USA), Zoomlab

While Dorado starts off by showing some of her virtual art work, she mainly focuses her presentation on the idea of virtual play spaces. The project she uses as her main example at this conference is Kidzconnect. With Kidzconnect the social networking element of the web 2.0 is used to create cultural exchange. Through programmes such as Second Life children from different real spaces come together in one virtual space; here the cultural exchange takes place. Kidzconnect last cultural exchange program connected children in New York with Dutch children who used their avatars to exchange cultural information and therefore enhance their cultural awareness. The way the children use this virtual world of Second Life again combines the real space and space. One kid put a picture of some graffiti in his ‘real’ neighborhood on the wall of his house is Second Life. This combination of the real and the virtual in one singular space is of great importance to Dorado, who for example has put images of actual dancers on her avatars to create a more layered experience.

When the presentation’s last slide states that ‘Even if you’re just affecting one kid you are affecting our future.’ we notice that the presentation and the idea of Kidzconnect is a personal project to make the world a better place. The idea of Kidzconnect is very ideological and the idea of social exchange through social networking is absolutely interesting. Maybe the more ideological part of the presentation should have been swapped for a more practical component and some more practical tactics to continue with this idea of social exchange instead of losing the idea of Kidzconnect to some ideological statements that stand no ground and have no further value.

Third presentation: By representatives of the Waag society

The third presentation introduces the project Self city from the ´waag society´. Self city is a game environment made within Second life, developed for kids who are socially impaired. The social skills of these kids are so poor that they can’t function well in groups and therefore can’t participate in regular education programs. According to psychology theory this is mainly because they are not able to adapt their social behavior to the different scenarios and settings of their daily lives. Normaly people develop different ‘I positions’ they use in a strategic manner to deal with social situations. Someone behaves different at work dealing with his boss then at a bar with his buddies. These kids however don’t know how to change their ‘I position’ according to the given situation and therefore get in to trouble all the time. Simulating different social situations with role playing games, can help these kids train these skills they lack. But playing these role playing games is a group effort, that requires the social capabilities they lack. In the virtual world of Selfcity however, these teens can login together with their teachers, all with their own avatar, and be part of a virtual group without experiencing it as a ‘real’ group. The virtual world is setup as an MMRPG where the player gets assignments that in order to complete them, require him to deal with challenging social situations caused by interacting with other avatars controlled by teachers or other students. To help the players through these situations they are accompanied by a virtual buddy, in the form of an animal avatar that follows the player everywhere he goes. In a conflict situation this virtual pet acts up as the players conscious and gives advice as how the player can alter his behavior to he reaches his goal. This way the player learns with the help of his trusted buddy how to modify his social behavior according to the different scenarios he needs to go through to reach his in-game goals. From here the information of this seminar becomes less clear. According to the speaker further techniques are necessary to help the player bring his newly trained skills from the virtual world to the actual world. This technique’s aim is to blur the boundaries between the game space and the actual space for the players. This is done by a bracelet with a video screen where the animated computer image of the player’s virtual pet can be downloaded to. This way the players can bring their virtual pet with them in the real world. For now the bracelet is mostly just a physical and iconic reminder of the advice they received from their buddy when confronted with difficult social situations in the game. The aim for the future is that this portable virtual buddy will even be able to give its advice to its owner in the real world. The bracelet could monitor certain body symptoms like heart rate and body heat to react on with audiovisual messages for the wearer. The question why this blurring of boundaries is a preferable or effective way for these kids to deal with their new virtual identity was never raised nor answered in the seminar.

This was an interesting presentation that shows us how computer simulations and games can model social situations for their users to interact and experiment with their dynamics. A learning experience traditional linear ways of explaining could never give. But also leaves us whit some unanswered questions about the relations between virtual behavior and its effects on someone´s behavior in the real world.

Heleen Kerkman and Alessandro Valente (2008)