DIGC310: Clear Definition and Separation Between Media is Impossible so Frasca Should Stop Trying

In Simulation 101 Gonzalo Frasca argues that there’s a significant difference between simulation and representation. He says traditional theoretical modes and frameworks fall short in discussions of the manner in which videogames function. He particularly singles out theories of narrative and representation as insufficient to deal with the complexities of videogames, and instead argues that ‘simulation’ is a more fitting “rhetorical tool” (2). He says that theorists try to extend narrative theory and apply it to videogames by adding the concept of interactivity, but he believes this is trying to squeeze something too complex into a model that is no longer adequate.

It’s interesting that Frasca focuses in his article on the role that behaviour plays in setting videogames apart from more traditional media, pushing it from mere representation into the realm of simulation. He says that Sim City, for example, bares not only the characteristics of a city, but also behaves like a city because of the game’s specific ruleset: “as systems get more complex, simulations become a more attractive tool because they can model the rules that govern the system” (3).

In a previous post I said I wanted to discuss this article from my perspective as a Literature student, and although I can appreciate that Frasca draws attention to significant way in which videogames differ from traditional media, I still wonder if it really sits outside a narrative framework. By this I don’t just mean that there are both small and overarching narratives within any game. My argument is more that humans relate to the world through narratives, and that meaning is always inherently constructed through the stories we tell. Frasca’s flash simulated pipe (2) is a story in itself, with the illustrations and word choice (“Suck”) being a form of representational language. For someone to understand the simulation, they must lay narrative over top of it.

In the same kind of way, I think Frasca’s notion of behaviour also inflects traditional media. Videogames, film, literature, and even art all work and are experienced according to conventions and rules that have grown up to simulate ‘reality’ in a way that can be shared and understood. This reminds me of my thoughts surrounding what Chris (Moore for those of you reading who weren’t part of the course) said about affect. I think that simulation is ultimately less about the medium, and more about the sensation of, and the way in which you experience and emotionally comprehend, what is presented.

And because it’s relevant, I like it, and Chris wants me to take more advantage of the web format of this blog and the multimedia it can contain; here’s a video of Nika Harper talking about narrative and videogames.

Also, if you’re intrigued by the inescapable nature of narrative and how it relates to videogames, you might find Nika’s intro to her Story Mode series interesting.


The article this was in response to:

Frasca, Gonzalo (2001), ‘Simulation 101: Simulation versus Representation’

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Parents Approve Monster Smashing Activities for their Kids

(This is the fun background story behind this week’s blog post. For the DIGC310 specific uni angled blog entry stuff, read below the horizontal bar.)

Recently I attended the birthday celebration some family friends were hosting. Ordinarily at gatherings with this family, my own, and my cousin’s I fill the role of the entertainer, providing the movies or games to keep the younger generation content throughout the evening. Admittedly we’re probably old enough now after all these years to participate quite happily in the adult conversations about politics and taxes and renovations and what have you (that’s what grownups talk about, right?). I still tend to arrive with a stack of DVDs, ranging from stellar to dreadful, under my arm though – just out of habit.

On this particular occasion, however, I knew it wasn’t just our usual familial trio in attendance, and didn’t know what to expect. So instead of DVDs, I showed up awkwardly balancing a pile of Betrayal, Tokyo and Pandemic, and explained (badly) to a person or two I happened to know from university that usually I’m in charge of amusement. It seemed for a while that I was just going to remain that weirdo who brought along a useless clutch of board games that were going to go unplayed while everyone was enjoying their adult conversations about politics, taxes, renovations and what have you.

But then, Zach showed up.

I was sitting in a room at the front of the house to escape from some of the noise when this intrepid ten year old thought to do the same (he may have been avoiding having to dance with his mother).

“What’s your name?”

“Dael.”

“Ok.”

“What’s yours?”

“Zach.”

“Cool. I like your shirt.”

“Are you going to be playing those board games?”

And there it was. Straight out of the blue, this kid looking for an escape from boredom, the unwanted attention of those he deemed grownups, and awkward interactions with the half dozen other kids there he didn’t know had seen his way out. And the way out was King of Tokyo. We needed at least three players, so with my sister Shannyn onboard, we sat down for my first ever go of this game I’ve had since Christmas.

And, as if this game were the Pied Piper’s flute, we played and the children came. One by one they appeared through the cracks. Young girls sat aloof on a nearby couch watching the game unfold, kids enthralled by the exciting artwork snatched up each card to ask me what it did, boys so tiny a feather could break them appeared at my elbow and asked to roll my dice for me (I’m glad I allowed this, they were much luckier than I).

So out of nowhere a spirit was fostered of companionship among these children who didn’t know each other and only minutes before had no interest in GETTING to know each other. Three games in and I was losing almost instantly while these humans half my age, and less than half my height, continued on without me, engaging with each other for hours on end, the game acting as babel fish translating their previous disinterest into sudden and unexpected friendships. Even the kids who elected not to partake in the game play itself were opening up and chatting with each other as well as me, like the room had filled up with an aura that said “this is where the fun is at” and all of the kids could sense it a mile off.

But it was what happened next that REALLY surprised me. A little while in to the Tokyo smashing frenzy, the party’s parents must have realised they hadn’t heard complaints from their children in a while. I was showered with unanticipated (and mostly unearned) praise, with thank you after thank you, and kisses on the cheek, I’m part way surprised there wasn’t any confetti being thrown—these people were thrilled to not have to worry about keeping their youngins entertained. The appreciation was honestly overwhelming, especially given how little effort I’d had to invest and how much fun I got out of it, plus a cool little gang of demi-human peeps to boot.

So I guess it was a good idea to bring those board games after all.


MORAL PANIC AND VIOLENT GAMES

So both children and their parents were swept up in powerful positivity in response to the kids’ participation in the game King of Tokyo. It’s interesting to me, thinking about it now after a lecture on Moral Panic and Violent Games, that not a single individual was concerned that the core of this game is “punch each other until there’s only one of you left standing”. Granted, you’re punching each other as big city smashing monsters, but still there was a lot of punching involved.

It’s interesting thinking about this in regards to the concept of moral panic from the lecture, especially once you add in the concept from early on in the course of moral panic associated with new technologies. When coming up with entertainment for these kids I didn’t find myself having to stop and wonder whether a “monsters punching each other” board game was suitable, or questioning whether their parents would object. It was all just immediately deemed acceptable by all involved (including parents). However, any time I’ve found myself in a situation in which I’m selecting videogame based entertainment for children, I’m instantly having to consider a bunch of different things. What will the kids enjoy? What will the kids find simple to play? Is the content in this game suitable for their age group? Do I just think it’s suitable for their age group because I’m a gamer who doesn’t think of videogames as damaging? Even if it IS suitable, will their PARENTS think it’s suitable? Do I even KNOW their parents, what they’re like and what their standards are in this regard?

It just makes me a little bit flustered, you might spot.

Even a videogame I would consider comparable in many ways to King of Tokyo at least so far as violence is concerned, Injustice: Gods Among Us (ultimately just a big smash up, larger than life player characters, bright colours, violent concept with low gore factor), is something I question in presenting to children. But what’s the difference? Is it that while playing a videogame acts of violence are depicted visually in front of the player while a board game often relies on a players imagination?

I mean after all, where’s the harm in just rolling a handful of dice and using your imagination? No one would be crazy enough to fly into a panic over the effects THAT would have on children!

Oh wait...
Oh wait…

I definitely feel like there’s an element at play here in which new technologies tend to attract moral panic. Board games, new or not, are an old school gaming medium—videogames are where the real fear is at. It seems to not (always) have a whole lot to do with the violence within the game itself, and more to do with the mode in which the player consumes that violence.

Gregory Kenyota describes the relationship between videogames and controversy and makes the point that “While the Congressional hearings took place, Congress focused mostly on Mortal Kombat and Night Trap and missed games that could have been just as controversial.” (790) In their panic, congress was so busy going after videogames as a medium for violence, that they actually forgot to keep in check the violent content itself. This suggests that the technology in question likely, and the content not necessarily, has a big role to play in the moral panic associated with violent games.

(I’d just like to take a moment to state clearly that I do not think that videogames, board games or tabletop RPGs make people violent. I am also appreciative that all the families at that party were cool non-dubious types, which is also probably part of the reason no one questioned the monster beating up content.)

DIGC310 Game Pitch: Working Title – Changeling

Aha! My game pitch! Finally! In a vlog that’s disguising itself as a blog post! Here’s the link to my Google Doc as promised (http://bit.ly/1EEfcrN) and here are some of the early concept sketches for locations as well (I was going to scan in all my first round scribblings of notes and drawings from my notebook as well, but my scanner is fighting me, so for now this will have to do).

Library Lines

Swamp Lines

Chruch Lines

Forest

DIGC310 Blogpost 4: Anything but a Fail

So these are my thoughts on which grade I would like to achieve in this class and how I plan to get there. It’s a bit full of my scattered thoughts and insecurities, so bear with me.

For week 6 I would LOVE to present my Beta Game Design along with the other students. I feel a little intimidated by the idea just because SO MANY of the game designs seem really awesome, while I feel like I’ve fallen behind and am destined to be a bit forever alone in the project. But in actuality I know that I have designs sitting in the back of my head that I’ve wanted to work on for an age, and that if I just throw the idea out onto the table there are no doubt people who’d be happy to work with me (if it got voted in I suppose). I’ve never used Prezi before being an English/Theatre student who regularly feels personally attacked by technology, so that could be an adventure. I don’t really mean to ‘lone wolf’ this assessment, but it’s looking like it’ll turn out that way to a degree purely because, while other people were getting stuck into modelling, I was still faffing about trying to get Let’s Plays done with the Media crew (which of course have been worthwhile in their own ways, just not for me presenting a game design in a few weeks).

When it comes to the final group presentation I anticipate that my major contributions will be mostly surface level with lots of little additional work added into the mix. With such large groups to work with and so much and such varied talents, it seems like my skills helpful to the group will lean towards the presentation itself. I can see my work being mostly spread across the Media and Modeller groups. For media I can offer highly developed skills in regards to video filming and editing, and have plenty of experience in reaching an audience via social media, as well as being practiced at organisation of information (and people in need be) and giving engaging presentations. As a theatre student I also have a lot of practice when it comes to working with lots of people throughout stressful periods, which might come in handy towards the end of session. As for modelling, my deep interest in gaming and narrative creation will be my strongest assets allowing me to work on developing the themes, stories, titles, worlds, artwork and overall mood of the games, which would tie in nicely to the Media group in helping decide how the game should be marketed. While I don’t anticipate I’ll be much use to the Maker group, I suppose I could provide elements that would bring polish to some potential game designs, such as voice work to any games that might benefit from it (not only through myself but various acting contacts) or fairly basic artwork (though Olivia seems to have that pretty well covered). I am somewhat concerned that my technical knowledge and skills with things like budgeting or analytics may be too limited to be of use for the group presentation, but ultimately I will just have to wait til the time comes to find out.

The dossier is an area that, at this point, frightens me a little bit. I’m not really sure what it’ll require of me and have never put one together before. So far as I understand, it will be a document collecting all of the work I’ve done in the course basically, and then critically reflecting on my contributions and what and how I learnt. I’m sure I’ll be capable of doing it with some level of competence by the time I get to it but right now I’m just really not certain of what that level will be.

Overall, I’m loving this subject and plan to give it my all, but in my current state I do find myself occasionally struggling with the readings or technical terminology or with concepts that seem to come naturally to others in the class but are entirely foreign and new to me (though very interesting). I called this post “Anything but a Fail”, but that’s not really true. I think once I really get into the swing of things I’ll be aiming for a grade of Distinction or beyond, but now, while writing this and immediately as the question has been put to me, I’m going to say I’ll aim for a Credit. I want to really apply myself and do well, but I think that if I try for any higher right at this second I could potentially push myself into a panic, when I just want to continue enjoying the subject as much as I have been. So I intend to aim for a Credit – at least until I get my bearings.

Note: While some of the readings leave me scratching my head, others have been super engaging. One of them was the Frasca reading from this week. I chose the “which grade” topic for this blog post instead but really want to talk about Simulation 101 and look at the idea of simulation vs representation from a Lit student point of view and examine the nature of empathy in regard to both. So, I dunno, this is to remind me to write about that in another blog post because this one’s long.

DIGC310 Blogpost 3: The Magic Circle and Betrayal at House on the Hill

After the struggle last week to get a Let’s Play video up and running due to confusing rulebooks, I had a revelation; this utter confusion… This could totally be a thing. We could absolutely make a pretty alright video series on this with a watchable premise and everything! Something that is really valuable to know about a board game before purchasing it and introducing it to your friends or family is “how easy will this be to just pick up and play immediately?” Whether you have to spend some time on your own beforehand looking over the rulebook and trying to understand it well enough to explain it to your friends or can just work it out as you go along is a significant element of a games enjoyability on the first few runs, at least in my experience. Add to that the bonus that, in the world of online video, watching someone try to do something without having any previous knowledge on how to actually do it usually produces hilarious results, and you’ve got YouTube gold (or at least some fairly shiny copper)!

knife
Add sharp objects like knives for a sense of danger, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success! Trust me — I know.

So I grabbed one of my favourite medium-difficulty board games and headed into class to pitch the idea that we should go ahead with the Let’s Play! But this time I would explain the premise and basic rules of the game only once and without clarifications to a group of players with no previous experience, and they would have to work the rest out for themselves while we filmed and snickered from the side lines.

This didn’t end up happening. But it didn’t end up happening in THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE. The game in question was Betrayal at House on the Hill, one that I love but has received mixed receptions in the past, but enough people seemed psyched to play it that we went ahead and did just that without filming. It plays up to six people, but once various players had to drop out part way through with others taking their places I think about 9 of us actually participated. I mucked up some of the rules and the game went for way longer than usual but none of that really mattered because it was so much fun! The Banshee was THIS CLOSE to killing everyone in the research lab when she was finally banished!

I found it particularly interesting experiencing this game play while keeping in mind the concept of “The Magic Circle” which Chris talked about in the lecture. The concept originated with Johan Huizinga who talked about play as occurring in any spaces where “the ordinary world” is set aside to give way to fabricated rules and restrictions that are happily adhered to in the name of creating a sort of new virtual reality. Places “within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (Huizinga 1955, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, p. 10)

The concept can be problematic in that it is often read as though there is a distinct barrier cutting off the “real” world from the “playground” of games where this special mood takes place. As far as I understand from the lecture and further reading, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman try to alter that perception suggesting in Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later that the boundaries implied by the Magic Circle were never intended to be so rigid. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals their argument seems to be more that the willing, and joyful, suspension of reality entered into by participants at the beginning of play IS the magic circle, and that the magic circle isn’t nearly so confined or restricted as it originally appeared. “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins” (2004, p.95)

I feel like I witnessed the Magic Circle in action during this particular lesson. A virtual reality was certainly summoned into being as we accepted our roles as Ox Bellows the dumb jock and Professor Longfellow the creepy old scientist heading into a clearly haunted house with very little reason. I would also say that in these circumstances the sense of play wasn’t restricted in any way to this virtual realm of constructed rules. Despite players coming in and out of them game, confusion over rule technicalities, and even in many ways regardless of the game having finished, that sense of play lived on. And it. Was. Excellent.

Note: This is also the lesson in which we started our game designs but I think I’ll talk about that in another blog post because this one’s pretty long already.

DIGC310 Blogpost 2: Where I Fit In

For this week’s Game Cultures lesson I elected to take part in the “media group” where, after messing around with the oculus rift for a while, we decided to put together a Let’s Play video of a board game. This is how we discovered that making decisions early and sticking to them is a very necessary step in this process when you have limited time. Realising we only had an hour left we chose to spend that time sitting down and getting to know a game so that next week we would be ready to go, which I think was an excellent plan. Except that we had apparently chosen the game with the most convoluted, wibbly wobbly ruleset the world has ever seen. I know that there were adventurer characters and Indiana Jones style temple booby-traps involved, and I think I understand the basics of character movement, but that was about as far as we got before class was over and we had to wrap it up. Someone suggested that we could all go our separate ways and try to learn the game mechanics with the aid of YouTube and the rest of the internet. While I firmly believe everyone in the group has the most honourable intentions in agreeing to do this, we have set a backup of a game of Pandemic, which at least two group members have played before. Just in case.

My immediate willingness to participate in the Media group early on stems mostly from the fact that I work in this sort of area, making YouTube videos on a regular basis and engaging with audiences over social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for promotional purposes as well as interaction for interactions sake. However, I begin to fall down as a Media type regarding WordPress and blog maintenance, administration and moderator work. I have, you will note, forced myself to use WordPress at least part time this session in attempt to rectify my complete inability to understand what’s going on with that damn website.

I have intentions in the coming weeks to participate also in the Modeller group. While the kind of work that needs to be done here intimidates me somewhat, I do have quite a strong interest in game creation, especially from a thematic point of view. I have some half-baked game concept designs floating around in my brain that I hope to be courageous enough to bring to the table at some point. Modelling is perhaps the area I would like to focus on most during class over the session, but we’ll see how events develop and whether I at some point change my mind.

The Maker group is the area where I have the least experience or practical knowledge, so at the moment I am shying away from it. I do fully intend to dip my toe in at some point and learn some new things, but I will be going in almost completely blind, which is always a bit scary.

DIGC310 Blogpost 1: Review — City of Horror

This is a blog post written for my Digital Game Cultures class at university which required I limit word count, if you want to read my full review with pictures, quips, and all you can find it here.


I got far too invested in my first blog post for DIGC310, reviewing a board game I’ve played in the last week, so for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read my near 2000 words on City of Horror (and for Chris to read as part of the assessment criteria), here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

The game requires that each player try to keep a team of survivor characters alive through four rounds of incoming zombies, scarce supplies, and blatant betrayals by other players. Significant mechanics include limited movement, limited capacities at each location, a democratic voting system to decide who gets new items or dies, among others.

The art in this game is truly fantastic, and was one of the reasons I bought it in the first place. In particular the clever use of art on the board space to make the placement of piles of items not currently in use feel natural is something that stands out, for example the barricade of sandbags behind which the restless army of undead are held, and the abandoned ambulance housing the antidotes players must scavenge throughout the game. The game’s pieces are beautifully thematic, combining comic book elements with the appropriate gritty and abandoned feel of any apocalyptic setting. The use of art serves as an excellent production element, happily using detailed images on 2D stands for characters and zombies instead of the plastic miniatures opted for in some other games which can easily warp or send the price skyrocketing.

Apart from this, however, the game is really quite disappointing.

Many characters are stereotyped, possibly in an unsuccessful attempt to mock the tropes and character archetypes of B Horror films. The characters of The Rasta, the Sushi Chef and The Student stand out as being problematic—a psychic black man, a chef who, being Asian, OBVIOUSLY makes sushi and has ninja know-how, and an Asian high schooler with an extremely short skirt as part of her sailor style school uniform. Then there’s my personal favourite (read: the depiction I hate most). The Blonde. This character doesn’t even get a special ability. Instead she is constantly screaming, which attracts a new zombie to her location every turn, and the only way to stop this is by “exhausting” her character. Flip over the card to see the alternate art for the “exhausted” Blonde and, oh hey, she’s been physically gagged!

Funny.

My disappointment when I first bought the game and discovered the thinly veiled elements of sexism and racism (not mentioned by anyone in reviews while I was researching before making my purchase) was immense.

In fact, most of the media surrounding the game online was fairly misinforming. Specifically, the ‘buy me’ text attached to online store listings of City of Horror claimed that “the city map changes each game” insinuating a high level of replayability. This was a big selling point for me, so imagine my dismay when I discovered that in fact the game contained only six locations which are present in every single play through that can be flipped to reveal… More or less the exact same thing.

The game as a whole, while it does some things very right (especially when the mechanics and theme align), often feels more like an unfinished prototype, with simple instructions translated into obscure coded images in game, and the rulebook occasionally difficult to navigate on top of having some frustrating ambiguities in the way it has been translated into English by the Belgian production company.

Pretty pictures aren’t enough to carry a game.