Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Existential Gamer

Instead of talking about games, I want to talk about gamers. Not hardcore. Not casual. But the existential gamer.

My 8 year old son has been looking forward to the new release of Sam & Max: Night of the Raving Dead and loves playing the series. Watching him, I've realized that he plays games in a very different way that I do now because he carries the game experience beyond playing the game.

For example, he talks about the game with anyone who will listen, recounting the funny parts or his attempts to solve the puzzles. Because he loves to draw, he draws pictures of the characters while sitting on his bed or riding in the car. When he plays outside with friends, they sometimes play characters from the game in some imagined setting. He's enjoying the game in other ways than just playing the game. He owns his play with the games, creating his own experiences other than what the game defines.

The last time I experienced a game in such a way was when my friends and I played Everquest in large part because we had such interesting stories to tell. Even if we played together and retold the night's events, the perspective each of us had was interesting and different, not to mention the humorous spin we added. We told stories about how we played through the game event as well as how our character behaved, somewhat separating the two. It wasn't uncommon for us to switch between first and third person: "I saw that no one was on last night . . . . Vali fought in East Karanas." Sometimes, though, the difference between player and character somewhat blurred. Yet, even for players who maintained that the character was apart from themselves, they still talked about that character outside the game with great details. Regardless, we all enjoyed the game outside of the game itself. While some of that external talk was about strategy and teamwork, we were also developing our characters while telling those stories, explaining motivations or telling some backstories. We didn't mistake those characters as "real" but they became interesting in their own ways.

But since that time, I don't talk or think about games (either playing them or the events in them) as stories. Listening to friends who play games, I don't hear them thinking that way either. It's about achievements or about the game graphics or engine or difficulty.

Certainly, a part of it has to do with the games themselves, but mostly, it's the gamer. Why recount something from Mass Effect or Super Mario Galaxy when anyone who plays it will probably have the same experience? Yet, do we really have the same experience? An multiplayer game is dynamic because it involves real people, and sometimes we can hear stories about multiplayer sessions.

There's also the consumer element. I know many gamers who are like speed readers: they consume games very quickly, and I frequently hear (from myself and others), "There are so many games to play." With so many viable platforms to play on, we have indeed more games that we can play. As a result, how do we not regard games as somewhat disposable and momentary? I also hear games talk about games as critics, how game Y isn't as good as game X.

For my son, Sam and Max are important. Not out of whack important. 'Meaningful' is a better word . . . these aren't just characters or a game that he plays and then leaves behind. His experience of those games are something he talks about, that he replays in different ways outside of the game.

It's tempting to think of this difference as one of identity and otherness. Mature gamers like myself mostly recognize our game experience as something very different from ourselves. It's a way to "get away" from jobs, pressures and the like. To get away from our "real" lives. Paradoxically, we often gain this separation by immersing ourselves in a game.

But for my son, he doesn't have that need to separate his life from the game. His immersion is different: he immerses the game into his life, allowing it to inspire his non-computer play and activities. His connection to a game that he enjoys is much deeper than mine. The boundaries are different for adults like myself where his boundaries are more fluid, thanks in large part because as an eight year old, he's still defining himself largely through play, even while working at school. When he does his math, he is making a game of the task and the numbers. Yet, for all his goofing, he is learning: He's a straight A student. So, his ways work, where boundaries between learning, work, and play, between games and life are looser, even while he clearly knows the difference between them and doesn't think the game is life. It's not that simple.

I'm reminded of a line in A Thousand Plateaus:

Be the Pink Panther and your loves will be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon.
This Lewis-Carroll sentence comes in a passage where Deleuze and Guittari explain their theme of the rhizome, of connections and interplay. They talk about betweenness as AND logic, which is not going one way and then another but traversing both ways at the same time. In a way, they are talking about the absence of boundaries.

This is what I think he does with his work and play, life and gaming. His gaming is both more playful and more serious than mine. It's not serious in the way of using a spreadsheet to track when to do what in an RTS. It's serious in that the game is something to use for other purposes, often creative. It's serious in that he's willing to experiment more than I do with the games that he truly enjoys.

What of this difference? Should I be more like my son? Am I playing Robert Fulguhm here? In a way, yes. But it's hard for us as adults because our lives are so different. If nothing else, few adults in their 40s are still trying to define themselves, although I think we still are. Most of us probably stopped drawing, writing, singing or doing anything creative long ago because we became convinced we couldn't that. I don't think we have the playful kind of roleplaying speech and activities that my son and his friends have.

I'm not sure the world would be better if we were more like kids. But I'm thinking that we might have more fun, at least. We've designated one part of our lives to gaming, where we roleplay in safety. But what if we did more of that? Some adults do that, but they get tagged quickly as abnormal, obsessive, immature, or queer. Some adults take the games too seriously and probably forget their responsibilities too easily. The point is to play but to open up the play.

Take a linear game like Titan Quest. Rather than play it as a shopping game or just following the scripted storyline, have your character start losing his belief and faith in these gods: begin as a pious character and play the game an increasingly disillusioned character. Or maybe play as someone who's fallen in love with one of the NPCs. Write your own story here, just as if you were playing a sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion. Don't take the given game as the only given.

When my son and I play a multiplayer game like Ben 10 or Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I would sometimes get frustrated because he wasn't "playing the game." But he is. He's playing his own game. When we play those kind of games now, we often provide our own dialogue and talk in voices for the characters and come up with our missions. Sometimes, we play just for the sake of trying to come up with bad puns and jokes. Sometimes, we don't do anything in the game that we are "supposed" to do. Sometimes, we have no goal at all. So, I'm learning to be the existential gamer that my son is. Oddly enough, I'm finding the attitude improving my "real" life, too. I'm not getting into cosplay, but I am reminded that I'm in control of nothing except myself and my attitude about what I can't control.

To paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is the father of the gamer.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Repressed Homoeroticism in R-Type

While the homoerotic subtext in films such as Top Gun and Frank Miller's 300 have been explored rather vigorously by the mainstream media, less attention is typically given to video games. In this article I explore some facets of subtly repressed homoeroticism its roots in cultural discomforts with the portrayal of the sexual human body.

Most side-scrolling "shooters" are known for their fast-paced action, copious enemies, and "end bosses" that herald the near-completion of a level. One of the most ubiquitous shoot'em'up side-scrollers was released in the 1980s: R-Type. Like most of the arcade shooters that followed, R-Type featured a singular space ship controlled by the player via joystick embattled by screenfuls of oncoming enemies. The ship, is conspicuously named "Arrowhead" - which is obvious phallic imagery hardly worth mentioning; it emits bursts of concentrated energy that explode enemies on contact; often the same enemies fire bursts of energy back at the ship threatening to destroy it. By the end of the level, the player encounters the end boss, thus signaling the beginning of a long and bitter fight to the death.

Editorial note: Throughout this analysis I will refer to specific timecodes of the following video - please cue it to the positions indicated in the text.

R-Type is most recognizably repressed in its homoerotic aspects through its visual symbolism. At an experiential level, the player engages with his ship through a short knobbed joystick, metaphorically controlling the rate and direction of his ship's bursts of hot, electric spermatozoa. Not only is the player encouraged to destroy its similarly-equipped onscreen enemies - he can only achieve it through the delicate firing of his own seeds. It is therefore clear that the player will "die" if his ship comes into contact with either the seed of his enemy, or the enemy itself. A long tradition of erotic repression since the Victorian era has highlighted taboo of male-male intimacy, suggesting that the player's own revulsion at touching other phallic symbols with his own is an inherent part of the game mechanic. The lust-hate relationship between the player's ship and his enemies becomes most obvious when the larger "snake-like" creature comes on-screen and resists the player's attempt to love/destroy it [3:35 in video].

R-Type again demonstrates its discomfort with the male body in its level design. Throughout the game, the player is required to penetrate through the defenses of vagina-shaped walls. While this would normally not be of consequence, and might in fact simply represent desires for heterosexual domination, it is of importance that the player is forced to proceed through the level. At no point can the player choose to not penetrate the vaginal canals; furthermore if the ship becomes trapped on the wrong side of the wall it is crushed by an invisible force represented by the edge of the screen. Like a young man forced by his father to bed a prostitute in order to prove his 'manliness', the player is forced to penetrate female genital symbols or be destroyed. By denying any possibility for sexual choice, the player is unable to satisfy his homoerotic urges and is thus left to unconsciously repress them.

This sexual violence comes to a head when the player encounters the end-boss. In the first level, the player encounters the end-boss "Dobkeratops". Featuring two wombs, a partially-exposed fetus, and a phallic tail, the creature both horrifically draws and repels the male player.
Without the destruction of this half-man-half-woman creature, the player cannot make passage to the next level. If the player has collected enough "power-ups", the ship will develop a bulbous protusion at its tip that can fire more powerful bursts of energy at the creature, thus destroying it. Similarly, the end-boss for level 2 features an organic creature consisting of rectal protusions [4:08 in video]. A large snake enters and exits these protrusions at its whim, and the player must destroy it to continue; if the player commands the ship into one of these protrusions it simply explodes. Thus, another opportunity to express the player's homoerotic desires is frustrated by the repressive game mechanics.

It is unfortunately clear that if you accept the inevitable consequences of the preceding analysis, arcade games such as R-Type have contributed to the repression of male homoerotic desire since 1987. In future articles I hope to explore this issue more deeply, and highlight some of the ways in which modern video games have allowed men to express their desires for other men, and women for other women.

Author's note: While this analysis has focused upon the male homoerotic aspects of the game, it is important that these aspects could easily be explored in their misogynic symbolism.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Cabaret: a different realism for gaming

I was hoping to write a more frothy, light post, but an idea grabbed me a couple of days ago and wouldn't let go. It appropriately starts with the movie Cabaret.

It seems that if anyone remembers a movie from the '72 Oscars, it's The Godfather. Maybe Deliverance. Yet, it was Cabaret that took 8 awards that year. I think part of the reason for the receded success of Cabaret is that musicals aren't done much, but gangster stories are still with us. And if we look at trends in gaming, it seems that they are pursuing what The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde did so well, making stories more real by making them violent. (Of course, that's not all those movies had by any means--in fact, it might be the least of their good qualities--, but it's what I think most viewers remember them for.)

I'm not going to rant about the violence in games, but I want to point to a different path for gaming. With Cabaret, Bob Fosse made a 'realistic' musical by setting the songs within reasonable contexts. But in doing so, he created scenes like the following clip. First, we hear a golden youthful voice, and then we see the face. Yes, we know where this is going, but it is gripping nonetheless, as the camera pans down and out. Then, we watch as the crowd, quiet at first, joins in.

This scene captures a sense of what happened throughout Germany. It shows how even a boy understands how to manipulate people, how to take something that is beautiful to enlist people's affections and even passion to take them to wholly different ends. The innocence of the line "tomorrow belongs to me" takes a dark turn in meaning even while the beer garden is still sunny and the voices are singing. It's the sort of scene that makes an audience uncomfortable because the face of evil is sweet and youthful. It's easy and even comforting to depict evil as insane and ugly. But it's not true.

What does this have to do with gaming? The point is that realism too often is reduced to outwardly appearance. We see that in Cabaret: a certain dinginess, natural settings. But the movie also gets at another kind of realism . . . a kind of inward realism. It's the reality of how people think and react. What makes the Hitler youth in this scene so frightening isn't that he pulls a gun and shoots people. It's that he manipulates people, and we know where it eventually leads . . . not just to the Jewish ghettos and gas chambers. Even worse, I think, it leads to the public acceptance of these things. (
For what it's worth, The Godfather also shows that inward reality as we watch the slide of Michael Corleone.)

Where, then, is the realistic game that shows us the slothful thought, blind and misled patriotism, manipulated values, or self-deception?
The horror of a violent act begins with the decision to commit the violence. So, how is it that people decide such things? Or how does a person wreck his life with behavior he knows is destructive? Our games focus so much on the how but have left the why mostly alone.

This is a game that I would like to see. It's a trend I'd like to see. It's not that the game has to be dark, even though a lot of games, especially 'hardcore' games, are quite dark. Cabaret had, in fact, several humorous scenes, although sometimes the humor had disturbing backdrops.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Welcome to the Game Cabaret

Yes, yes, don't be afraid. The dancers wont hurt you, neither will the gamers. Draw the heavy red curtains, ignore the smoke, avoid the drunken sailors, be courteous to the ladies and join three slightly intoxicated gentlemen and their guests at the table in the back of the Game Cabaret. It's the only place where Dumas' wisdom is recognized: Cultural abilities and philosophy do indeed flourish under the influence of exotic spices and wines.

Then again, all we do is look at the darker, sexier and rather more humorous side of gaming as we smoke Cuban cigars, drink overpriced wine and discuss the finer points of Zelda and Day of the Tentacle. Oh, and that's no music you're listening to. It's but a selection of a few random variations on a draw of 88 notes.


Friday, February 8, 2008

Cabaret worthy Links (to, uhh, other places)

A place for our permanent links collection. Yes, it's obvious, we know. It was supposed to be so, you know.

Our very own, yet other, blogs / Is same, but is other

The Artful Gamer
from the gutter
Gnome's Lair
Gaming on the Go
Walls of Gaming

Guest spawning places / Like us, but other

The Red Bull Diary

Ye olde gaming clubs / Video gaming places

Rock, Paper, Shotgun
British Gaming Blog
Game Life
Bits bytes pixels & sprites
FK's Wii-kly Sermons
J's corner of randomness
No Signal Input
Nebachadnezzar's place of awesomeness
Superfluous Gamer

Not contemporary gaming / Retro stuff

We make the cops look dumb...
Retro Treasures
Retro Remakes
Vintage Computing and Gaming
insert credit
Retro Gaming with racketBOY
The Sega Master System Junkyard
The Saturn Junkyard
The Dreamcast Junkyard

The less action oriented gamers / Point-and-click stuff

Adventure Lantern
The International House of Mojo

Adventure Gamers
The Adventure Gamers' Blog
Adventure Classic Gaming
Emily Short's Interactive Fiction
xii games
The Adventuress
Four Fat Chicks
Just Adventure +

Places of chappish excellence / Good stuff for smart kids

Stephen Fry's blog
Game Set Watch
The Brainy Gamer
The Cultural Gutter
Grumpy Gamer
stinkin' thinkin'
Richard's Online Journal

People's Captains / Indie and free stuff

Indies Games: The Weblog
TIG Source
The Download Munkey
Play this Thing
Indie Games

Ludology / Game design stuff

Games Are Art 2.0
Grand Text Auto

Varia / Various stuff

Space Cat Rocket Ship
Hunyak Blog
Yehuda's gaming blog
The Red Bull Diary
Dane of War