Critical Angles

POV: Academic.  DIFFICULTY 2.   LEVEL 1 - 1 POV: Academic.  DIFFICULTY 2.   LEVEL 1 – 1

When we set about the task of trying to analyse a game, often we are faced with the choice between two angles of approach. Say we’re analyzing StarCraft. From one angle a Marine is a symbol denoting a certain bag of properties and behaviors (small ground unit that costs 50 minerals, has a ground attack of 6, a defence of 45, the ability to use Stimpacks). From another angle a Marine is a trope: a reference to the gruff, hypermasculinized, gung-ho space marine.

Which of these angles should game critics focus on? Is one more valuable? The endless narratology vs. ludology debate has this question at its core.

You can roughly class analysis into two buckets:

  • Cultural relevance and critique. (Marine as an icon of militarized masculinity.)
  • Functional systems analysis. (Marine in its role as a unit used to try to win a match.)

image from jinx.com image from jinx.com

I conceptualize these two angles as outward and downward. The systems perspective analyzes the symbols in the game as pointing downward to the game’s mechanics and rules. The systems analyst sees symbols as references to the outside world that are chosen to teach the player about the system. The enjoyment then comes from the system in itself: the problem-solving endeavor of play, or merely exploring how a system works and bending it to your will. There is a certain beauty and artfulness in the masterfully manipulated system.

Other analysts–and these predominate in the critical sphere–look at games as pointing outward, at the world and culture in which the games are made and played. The game is a cultural artifact, and outward-lookers see the symbols in games as references that the game uses to say something about the human condition. The game acts as a lens through which to see the world. Play then becomes a way of exploring a new perspective and engaging in a cultural discourse with the player, the designer, and onlookers.

Consider Super Bunnyhop’s review of Wargame: Red Dragon and his review of Doorkickers. The Red Dragon review starts with a multi-minute discourse on war and power, contextualizing the game in its real-world basis, and using games about war as a lens through which to glorify war. He talks about how Americans can console themselves for the dreary and often tragic realities of modern military action through their recreational military-focused gaming. “It’s with that ethos that the Wargame series charges into battle.” Wargame: Red Dragon is used as a lens through which the player can see the world outside the game, its symbols pointing outward and organizing the real world into a package that is easier to deal with than the bafflingly relentless complexities of the real world could ever be. All of this is circumscribed by the analysis of Red Dragon without the slightest mention of any gameplay details.

Contrast this grand, zoomed-out view of the cultural context of Red Dragon with the way that Super Bunnyhop sets up his analysis of Doorkickers. He begins the Doorkickers video by tracing the game’s roots back to the planning stages of Rainbow Six games, then summarizes how the game plays using direct references to controls and mechanics, all in less time than he spent on his monologue about war that led off the Red Dragon video. The shooting and explosions and human suffering in Doorkickers could’ve been highlighted, but instead he treats them as symbols that the player uses to engage with rich tactical gameplay in a strategy-focused context. Instead of analyzing the cultural context of hyper-militarized police forces bringing overwhelming force to bear on under-equipped perhaps-guilty citizens, the video highlights the engaging gameplay of planning out how to breach a building and neutralize its inhabitants through quick shooting and smart movement. The critique is oriented downwards, on the way the symbols bring the player into the gameplay, not on how the symbols portray the world at large.

As in other forms of art, the analyst who can appreciate and deeply understand the facts and details of a work’s form is more prepared to accurately critique it. All of a work’s details combined with its context form a rich fabric of meaning in the player’s mind while he or she plays a game just as it does when he or she reads a poem or views a painting. In game design analysis we can think of this as the downward-oriented analysis informing the outward-oriented.

Here at Design Oriented, we’re working on gameplay-oriented, and thus downward-oriented, critique. We hope that our analysis will help not only advance our understanding of games through examining their gameplay, but also better inform others’ outward-looking critique.

Wordless

Susan Schaller believes that the best idea she ever had in her life had to do with an isolated young man she met one day at a community college. He was 27-years-old at the time, and though he had been born deaf, no one had ever taught him to sign. He had lived his entire life without language–until Susan found a way to reach out to him. ~source  

I think all of us with the ability to see and hear can imagine and even experience what it’s like not to have such abilities. By using a blindfold or earplugs we can temporarily shut off our senses. Even with our senses temporarily blocked we have memories of what it’s like to see or hear, so the experience can’t compare to someone who is born deaf or blind.

Though not commonly thought of in this way, having access to language — the ability to form and recognize words as symbols for actions, objects, and ideas — is a powerful and fundamental ability like the rest of our senses. You’re reading this now, so you’ll have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without words. So, take the time to listen to the first 10 minutes of this Radiolab episode: Words.

“Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him shift his body… He looked like something was about to happen… Then he slaps his hands on the table, ‘oh! everything has a name’” 7m30s

“And he points at the door and I sign door. And he points to me and I sign ‘Susan” and then… he started crying.” 8m15s

Again, we have a person who is overcome with emotion and erupts in tears upon gaining access to a whole new world of expression and sensation. This time, though, it’s purely through words. The 27-year-old wordless man in the story was an adult. Other than being deaf, he was perfectly normal, capable, and intelligent. Yet without words, he was on an island to himself, standing to the side in a world where people interacted with sound to share ideas, and having no idea what to make of it. He thought that others were “stupid” according to Susan Schaller. And the moment he realized that everything in our world of sound has a word, many of the questions, doubts, and unsettled feelings he had lived with all his life finally made sense.

Susan Schaller’s story is a strong case for why language is so powerful and why understanding through language is just as powerfully linked to our feelings and emotions as our other senses. It’s profound that first perceiving the world and then understanding our perceptions is a necessary combination for relating to other people and ideas.

“What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols. It changes our thinking. It changes our ideas. It’s no longer the thing – a table – that we eat on, but there’s something about the symbol ‘table’ that makes the table look different.”

Earlier in this article I mentioned that you, the reader, could only imagine what it’s like to live in a world without words and language. Maybe that isn’t entirely true. Every culture, every subculture, every work environment, every artistic work, and every game is a world unto itself complete with its own language and lexicon. Word symbols are constantly being invented as people encounter new experiences and latch on to the words that makes those experiences and concepts stand out distinctly in their minds.

Better-understanding and better-enjoying video games requires engaging their design. Considering design is how we grasp the intentionality of the designers and compare it to our experiences. The best way to do this is through language. If you don’t have the language for breaking down a game into smaller parts, you won’t be able to untangle their silent interconnections. Consider that you might be like the 27-year-old in the story, perceptive, intelligent, but ultimately isolated from the world of expression happening all around you.

Deafness

When I show a game to people I don’t ask their opinion or give them a survey. I just watch their eyes and their face while they play. Do they smile? Do they look frustrated? So I guess I do test my games — but it isn’t very scientific. ~Shigeru Miyamoto

In a Shigeru Miyamoto-like move, I want you to look at the faces of the people who experience hearing for the first time. I’ve watched this video many times and it never gets old to me. The reactions are so genuine. I hope to move someone in the same way with my words, my games, or my actions.

My former Piano teacher Dr. George Deforest shared his understanding of the purpose of public musical performance. To him success is measured by whether the piano player had an effect on the audience; “did you move somebody.”

We may never be able to share our first-hand experiences like the sensation of seeing color. There may be an uncrossable gap between my feelings and yours. If so, perhaps having a powerful affect on others is the next best thing.

Notice in the video how the experience of hearing has a different effect on the young (ages 0-6). The kids smile, clap their hands, laugh, and ultimately delight in the new way to perceive the world. Contrast their reaction to the others, who are all overcome with emotion and tears.

How is it that the reactions of the young children are so different? My best guess is that it has to do with the children’s inability to perceive how they are different  from people who can hear.  According to Selman’s Theory of Role Taking Development, at a young age, kids do not understand that other people see from a different point of view than they do. Likewise, they cannot understand the feelings and values of others as being separate from their own. The younger the child, the less they understand that they can’t hear sounds, which makes them different from many others. They don’t have as many memories of failing to relate to the reactions and sensations of others. This results in kids who are delighted to hear sounds for the first time in much the same way that they are delighted by everything else that is still so new and captivating in their world.

The adults, on the other hand, have lived a life full of comparisons and questions. A life where the question of “why can’t I hear” has been overtaken by questions like “what is it like to hear” and “how does my deafness affect me?” A life full of memories watching most of the world respond to sound and not having a way to relate to the sensation. A life of being different and having no way to form a meaningful connection with the sounds of the world. A world filled with countless actions and objects that suddenly gains a whole new dimension the moment the inner ear hearing implant is turned on.

I have no doubt turning on a fundamental ability like hearing would be an amazing experience transforming the familiar world new again. But I believe the tears of the people moved most deeply by being able to hear for the first time is the result of living with other people and putting up the daily questions about the dimension of sound that almost everyone engages with so naturally; a whole world they have no access to. They may not have known what it’s like to hear, but they knew that they were missing out.

After the hearing aid is turned on, it’s amazing how “hi mom” or “purple” or even a quiet room cuts through years of questions, culture, and context. Perhaps this is what design is. More specifically, this is what good art that’s designed to move people is. A collection of details, tools, and best practices put together to create a work that will hopefully be deft enough to cut through the junk we put in between each other, the noise that prevents us from being moved.

Pitching a Nuclear Baseball

POV: Designer.  Difficulty 2.   Level 1 - 1 POV: Designer.  Difficulty 2.   Level 1 – 1

In a recent TED Talk, Randall Munroe shared his secret on how to effectively engage students when teaching science. The secret, according to Randall, is to relate science to areas of interest the students already have. For example, he asked kids to come up with answers to the “what if”s, “how much”s, and the “how many”s in the Star Wars universe because Jedi and Jar Jars got the kids excited about science.

Randall’s fanciful questions about Star Wars turned into absurd questions about anything. Randall’s attempts to answer these absurd questions led to a mild obsession, which manifested in the popular webcomic “xkcd”.  While the mission has a different header, the results are still the same. By answering questions with math and science, you can find insights to subjects you might not have otherwise considered.

In front of a room full of like-minded peers, Randall asks the absurd question “what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball at 90% the speed of light”. But unlike his science phobic kids, this room of techies and brainiacs used their excitement for math and science to spark their interest in the uninteresting subject: baseball. I can only assume most in the room would find baseball snooze inducing because most people in any room would find baseball snooze inducing.

Though baseball purists often butt heads when it comes to the notion of speeding up the game of baseball, Randall shows, theoretically, that speeding up a baseball to the level where Newtonian physics breaks down makes for a more interesting game. Pondering over the details of throwing a ball so fast that a nuclear explosion obliterates the stadium is my idea of  a good time, but the entire thinking exercise is just science with a coat of baseball paint. The real question is what does this scientific approach teach us about the game of baseball?

taken from Randall's XKCD. taken from Randall’s XKCD.

According the the Official Rules of Baseball a funny thing happens to the game when the physical world doesn’t function like we’re used to. As long as there is an umpire to interpret the rules, the game of baseball is able to be played in all sorts of abnormal conditions. This is not because the rules account for the unexpected but because they don’t! Apparently the rules check for a legal ball, a legal set up, and a legal pitch, so everything that happens in between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box is up for grabs. Broken sound barriers? Baseball doesn’t care. Rapidly expanding walls of plasma due to nuclear explosion? Baseball doesn’t care.

So the answer to the question “what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball at 90% the speed of light” is actually a question baseball can answer. As Randall notes, if a ruling could be made before the resultant blast vaporizes the city, according to rules 5.09, the ball (which would be in a plasma state) would make contact with the batter as the fastest pitch ever. And no matter how well thrown, making contact with the batter always results in a walk. So in this hypothetical game of baseball, the stadium lies in ruins, the ground is contaminated, the fans are a wisp of a memory, but as far as baseball is concerned, the batter gets to take a base.

The answer to the nuclear pitch is an anti-climactic, well-known fact of baseball; the batter gets to walk. As they commonly say when the destination is more mundane than expected, it’s not about the conclusion; it’s about the journey. The real value here lies not in the answer to the absurd but in the hypothetical, impossible space we needed to consider. Baseball doesn’t care about nuclear blasts because the rules of baseball have nothing that can interpret such a thing. But our minds can walk the space between explicit rules and grasp impossible concepts straight out of the plasma air; concepts like a near light speed fast ball. Even between an intentional walk and the next batter, there is space to wonder, learn, and reach for a star.

Blindness

This is the kind of video that I would tweet along with some kind of cryptic message like, “See if you can figure out which person in this video understands the value of game design.” It’s the kind of tweet that would get a few favorites, perhaps. But it would ultimately fail to spark the kind of conversation I want to instigate. And I would have to wait until I got home from work to show my brother, Marcus. I’d probably stand behind his shoulder pretending like I’m not waiting to see if he reacts to the same messages from the video that I do; holding my breath to see if the key words jump out to him like they do in games like Ocarina of Time.

You may be wondering how a video about the color blind relates to design or video games. The key isn’t that these people are unable to see certain colors, it’s that they live in a world where others can see them.

I didn’t really know there was such a thing as color blindness at the time. I think I was six or seven. I thought maybe I wasn’t intelligent enough to tell, because I didn’t know… So I just stopped painting and drawing.

Is this why people give up? Of course there are plenty of common, legitimate reasons for someone to stop painting, drawing, playing piano, or playing a video game. If someone told me they quit because they didn’t have enough time or money, I’d nod my head because I’ve been there. Still, I’m curious about the people who quit for more mysterious reasons like “I’m just not feeling it.”

For example, I love platformers. I love tracking Mario’s position as he moves in arcs across the forever blue background of the Mushroom Kingdom. Simply moving Mario around does it for me, it hits me in a way that I appreciate deeply. I’ve talked to plenty of people that feel nothing about Mario or other platformers. Maybe they just don’t know how to play them or they haven’t found a platformer that suits their style. Inevitably, confronting someone else’s feelings forces me to consider the feelings that fuel my appreciation and opinions are in part reactions that I cannot control. I either have it or I don’t. Feel it. Or feel nothing. So if we can sit down and hold the same controllers, play the same game, and JUMP on the same 1-1 level yet I feel engaged and you feel nothing, then isn’t that in itself a kind of blindness?

There are times where I wish I could see how my kids put the colors together and what they were visualizing.” “All these things that are intentional in life, I never caught on to it.

Like the dad in the video who watched his kids meticulously pick over crayon colors, there’s a degree of intentionality that we cannot know, that we cannot even suppose of each other, when we cannot see the difference between one choice and another. We define ourselves largely by our choices. I’ve spent the majority of my thinking life trying to better understand why I take ownership of my seemingly random assortment of preferences. My favorite flavor of the five-Ss is salty. My favorite color is red. My favorite video game character is Kirby. Why? Why? Why? If I keep answering this question I’ll eventually reach the definitive, “because I do” which roughly translate to “because that’s how I feel” or “because this is who I am.” At such a level it’s difficult to dig deeper into my motives, intentionality, and personhood. As mysterious as this why-ward journey is, I see all expression, art, and design as a collection of externalized intent that allows us to navigate toward the indescribable, voiceless spiral of self-affirming feelings.

I just want to cry a little bit. I never realized…how much I was affected by the fact that I can’t see the world like the way other people see the world.

The woman in the video can’t see pink with her naked eye, but I can. This is just one example of many experiences we cannot share via direct experience. Certainly there are cultural and biological differences between us. But what about things like music? Perhaps she can “feel” a melody just by looking at a piece of sheet music. I’ve been a musician for 20 years and sheet music still looks like meticulously organized scribbles of silence to me.

In the end, the experience of color is so private that you don’t really know how to explain that.

This is the part of blindness that worries me the most. The kind of blindness I’m talking about isn’t a matter of seeing color or not. It’s not even about vision. Blindness is about how we struggle to relate to experiences we cannot feel for ourselves. Because we’re all blind to some experiences, there are gaps in what we relate to and how, which hinders us from understanding the intent of others. Are my private feelings, the ones that are most quickly and strongly felt, impossible to explain? Is there a limit to the ability for words, expression, and design to reach across the gap and connect people? How far are the gaps between us? Does it widen as we age?

 

If we can make glasses that bring color to the colorblind, then I know that we can find the words to illuminate the dimensions of game design.