(upcoming post for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/ – please email me if you want to link this, because I need to post it to the JAG blog before that happens)
Every once in awhile, I struggle with the idea of the breaking newsgame. How could a newspaper, or an independent game developer, possibly make a game on the fly that was both “worth playing” and directly relevant to the news of the day? The makers of newsgames have, for the most part, freed themselves from worrying about this problem by dealing mainly with ongoing, long-term public issues; however, I constantly have the nagging feeling that these games need to become quite a bit more timely before being attractive as a regular feature for a news source. Let me share the story of a recent flurry of ideas exchanged on this subject.
We recently had a demo day here at Georgia Tech. Sitting in the corner of the room at our News Games booth, I watched (with a twinge of jealousy) Raph Koster and some dudes from the EVE Online team celebrate the accomplishments of some of my classmates on a board game they’d been working on all semester. None of the famous folks were coming up to ask me about my thoughts on the crossroads of news and gaming. Maybe this just isn’t something that has a direct impact on their work? Just when I thought I wasn’t going to be having any good conversations that day, a middle-aged man shuffled toward me and asked, in a British accent, if I had anything interesting to show him. It took me a few moments to spy his name tag.
This was Richard Bartle: one of the early online gaming movers and shakers, and architect of my ten long years of MUDding (I played Gemstone and Mihaly’s Achaea). This man was a personal hero of mine, sure, but did the old Wizard have any tricks up his sleeve when it came to thinking about newsgames? As it turns out, he did. It also turns out that he was only talking with me for so long to avoid the pesky necessity of leveling his warlock up to 80 in WotLK (joking). Perhaps all the little esoteric niches within the critical gaming community were closer together than I’d previously thought. After some polite conversation on the nature of our research, I shared with Bartle some of the roadblocks we’d been coming to. On the subject of the absence of the breaking newsgame, he had this to say:
“Well, we all know the Queen is going to die someday. So we could make a game about it today, and release it when she does.”
This seems like such an obvious partial answer to the problem – one which Ian hints that he already might have been thinking of – but it’s one that we really hadn’t talked about in discussions of the topic before. At first I thought making such “predictive” games might somehow violate journalistic integrity; however, it turns out that this would fall squarely within the practices of most news outlets. There are a few different manifestations of this. First is the article on something one knows is going to happen once. Obituaries for famous people are commonly written long before their actual deaths, and they are constantly updated as these people continue to survive and add to their accomplishments. The second case is when one knows that a decision or outcome will fall in only a small number of ways. One such example of this is the tradition of pre-making two headlines for the two possible resolutions to a presidential race. And then there’s the pre-making of material for events that are known to occur cyclically: weather, economic activity, politics, etc.
When we start looking for examples of games that might fit this predictive mold, we run into some initial hiccups. Take, for example, the “obituary games” dealing with Steve Irwin’s death by stingray. How could one possibly have predicted that he would die this way, let alone made a game about it beforehand? This isn’t as big of a hitch as one might initially think. You simply have to choose which information you can be most sure about. For example, Paul Newman was pretty old when he died. You wouldn’t have had to predict exactly what he would die of to be able to make a great video game where an old man surrounded by salad dressing bottles fantasizes about his early days as a cowboy or Cool Hand Luke. In the case of Steve Irwin, it was likely that he’d die playing with dangerous aquatic animals. Despite being unable to know which animal would manage to penetrate his catlike reflexes, one would still be able to create most of the underwater gameplay mechanics, placeholder art, and sound bytes before the actual event occurred.
For the second case, that of pre-making a news story that will assuredly break in one of only a few possible directions, I’d like to take a look at some of the media surrounding Obama’s recent election. When it comes to biting, timely satire on a public issue, nobody can really hold a flame to Comedy Central’s Daily Show and South Park. The night after polls closed South Park aired an episode (click on “About Last Night…”) wherein Obama wins the election, liberals get drunk and riot in the street to celebrate, and conservatives fear for the end of the republic while locking themselves away in a fallout shelter. Now, it’s possible that Parker and Stone have such an ace team on their hands that they were able to make this episode in one night’s time. But it’s more likely that they’d pre-written the shows for either decision (and had of course already prepped the art for both).
To my knowledge, there weren’t any games that addressed the public hype over this event – probably because we were all celebrating or cursing the event in “real” life. But that’s not to say that such games wouldn’t be enjoyable and interesting to experience. We’ve talked a lot about how great it would have been if the CNN “holograms” on election night had simulated for viewers the experience of being in Grant Park that night. It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for somebody in Second Life or There.com to have recreated this space inside a virtual world for people to experience in real time (please drop a comment if this was actually done in some way). Of course, it is an incredible asset for virtual worlds that they can play host to post-election celebrations and grumbling drunken escapes in ways that the South Park episode did. Doug Wilson is planning a series of posts on our explorations into the world of Kuma Games and their re-creation of current and historical war zones. They do some decent work toward trying to allow players to “take part” in actual military encounters (like the capturing of Saddam’s sons, for instance). It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for such a company to make the kind of predictive leaps in game development that I’m talking about here.
Finally we come to the idea of games about cyclical events. Doug is also planning a post on hurricane and meteor-strike calculator “games.” Such simulators, which allow users to input various sorts of data about the size and location of storms or extraterrestrial objects in order to see the amount of havoc they might wreak, could easily be expanded into games about actual events. We’ve played some games that retrospectively look back at the events in New Orleans during Katrina, but there’s no reason that such games couldn’t have been made on a “breaking news” deadline: “Try to rescue survivors from rooftops… but beware, some of them will shoot at your helicopter as you attempt a descent!” On the subject of the cyclical nature of the economy, we have the fact that most everyone knew we were headed into a recession many months (or years) before feds actually announced that we’d officially landed in one. Newsgames about the recession and its impact on various sectors of the corporate and public world could have easily been pre-made for this event.
Now, it’s one thing to come up with the stories and core mechanics for games such as these before the event strikes, and it’s another thing to have the art and assets ready and up-to-date when the final details are reported. Bartle also addressed the subject of content creation for breaking newsgames. Advocating a Farmer & Morningstar-style approach (introduced in their Lessons from Lucasfilm’s Habitat), he asserted the fact that the core game mechanics should be separated from the graphical content should there be a technological leap in the latter before the predictive breaking newsgame can be published. He entertained my idea of multiple news sources outsourcing the work of creating newsgames to an independent company supplying the lot. This is probably the only conceivable way that a newsgame developer would have the fiscal security and size to hire the amount of people required to make games on a regular or breaking news schedule. If the people who pioneered info-visualization in newspapers and their websites (Alberto Cairo is our preferred source of information on the subject) could figure out a working model for their work, then there’s probably a solution to this problem out there in somebody’s head as well. What I’ve written here is only a tentative first step in that direction.
We wrapped up the conversation by talking about (non-video game) journalists and their standing disdain for games as trivial. Bartle seemed to think that this was the largest obstacle toward making games a common sight on news websites. We can only hope that more journalists will pick up on the potential for video games to address serious or personal issues, following the odd example of the BusinessWeek Arcade that Ian posted about. One disconnect here might be the fact that a reporter has to work on strenuous daily deadlines and sometimes pull all-nighters to bring a story to print, while most makers of newsgames have no such deadlines and can therefore be seen as pronouncing judgment from a temporally distant Ivory Tower. Perhaps the availability of breaking newsgames might interest or satisfy journalists in a way that current such games do not.
EDIT: Richard wanted me to know that he thought it was funny that I’d described him as a “shuffling, middle-aged” gentleman. I wanted to note that I would never describe the man as “shuffling” in general. He’s as regal as they come. If he denies that fact that he’s quite a bit older than I am, then I will also go along with him on this point. The man is damn sprightly.
This post gave me the opportunity to visit two of my old virtual stomping grounds, Achaea (Iron Realms MUD – http://www.achaea.com) and Azeroth (WoW); the fact that I made these visits in the town where I did my undergraduate work (Athens, itself a fantasy land of liberal arts education) made this experience triply nostalgic for me. In Achaea, Azeroth, and Athens, I’ve always mapped myself to the “Achiever” style in Bartle’s typology. I know the assignment here is to study an MMO, but it’s always been my experience playing graphical MMOs that I find them lacking key features of the MUDs I played that, for me, made them truly worthwhile gaming environments. What I hope to show is that in both of these worlds the “Explorer” type has practically faded into non-existence, having been integrated into the “Achiever” and “Killer” archetypes, while giving rise to a new type that I’ll call the “Streamliner” or “Automator.” Also it is a major (career, or life) goal of mine to conceive of ways that many of the more unique components of commercial MUD architecture might be integrated into the more future-looking graphical MMOs. I will not mention developments in the “Socializer” type, because it has been my outside-looking-in experience that socializer communities in virtual worlds have continually stuck to what they do best in text-based and graphical worlds alike: gossip, role play, act as group therapy, and perform cyber sex (for an in-depth discussion of my formative cybersexual experience as a fifteen-year old being seduced by a married 40-year old female player – which definitely hammered in the fact that Baby Boomer gamers seek “mature” companions in games [Pearce 10] – you’ll have to buy me a drink).
Achaea was the first MUD to allow for the purchasing of virtual property with real-world money. Its creator, Matthew Mihaly, sought to create a commercially viable alternative to subscription fees. On the whole this enterprise has paid out well for him: his MUDs have enjoyed ten years of commercial success, employed many players who worked their way up to administrative positions, granted him keynote speeches at game developer’s conferences, a technical editor job on Bartle’s last published book, and in the past year given him enough clout to begin development on a casual, family-friendly, browser-based, “free” graphical MMO (Earth Eternal, budget $4.25 million). Virtual property paid for in real cash also helps to regulate the gold economies of his games and bypass the deeply ethical problem of Chinese gold farming. The fact that virtual property carried significant real-world costs also meant that the Baby Boomer gamers with significantly higher incomes than teenaged players (Pearce 7) had an advantage in Achaea. Here’s the non-ethical result of paid virtual property: in WoW any achiever or killer must spend time in order to gain dominance over competitors and friends, while in Achaea one must spend money. Either of these systems becomes grossly unbalanced on a long enough timeline lacking intercession by game administrators and coders; Taylor describes how hard these imbalances are to fix when considering the economic and technological constraints on game developers (Designers 3). WoW solves this problem by frequently patching new content into their world and making all but the best tier of gear/loot progressively open to acquisition by progressively more casual players (with the introduction of heroic badges for epic gear, for instance). Achaea does significantly less to solve this problem. Outside of allowing players to trade gold for credits (real currency converted into the ability to gain new skills or virtual property), the game rewards players with credits if they compose literature or histories on the game world, with helping train new players, and with in-game events such as hunts and quizzes. So even though Achaea does less coding work to solve the problem of balance, they do so in a way that fosters community development and the creation of fan-fiction that becomes a meaningful component of players’ virtual world. I mention all of this because these differences had profound effects on how I progressed through these two worlds and related to my virtual body as an achiever type.
The life of an achiever is hard, indeed. Myopic as I am, I see socializers as noisy nuisances in the way of me accomplishing my goals and killers as either hyperactive teenaged boys or sexually frustrated baby boomers sitting in the dark cackling to themselves madly (also, nuisances in the way of me accomplishing my goals). As mentioned by Bartle, achievers also struggle with a sort of “grinder’s depression” when for long periods at a time they realize that they’ve turned a multiplayer game into a solipsistic quest to reach the end of something with no win condition. In Achaea I was always kept from achieving the top levels of experience by the fact that I was a teenager with no money to buy enough virtual property to compete with older players, while in WoW I was constrained by the fact that I wanted to achieve real-world good grades – keeping me from spending enough time raiding to get the best gear. In this way I can be seen as a complete failure of an achiever. There is a reason, after all, that I don’t play massively multiplayer games of any sort these days. The only solace I have is the chance that maybe one day I will be in the now-enlightened position to create game content that might ease the feelings of inadequacy that players like myself end up feeling at the end of inhabiting a virtual world for a year or so. The problem, of course, is that commercially viable games are usually the most fun to play; and in the case of MMOs, “commercially viable” means “manipulative in such a way that most players never feel completely satisfied by their experience.” This is what keeps us achievers coming back for more. Perhaps the vicious practice of creating purposefully addicting, ultimately unsatisfying content might be countered by an acceptance by the medical community of some definition and analysis of “video game addiction,” but at this point no such affliction has been taken seriously (though at my father’s drug company they treat it, on an ad hoc basis, as most similar to alcoholism). To make my main thrust here explicit: players who map to the achiever type are the most likely to suffer from video game addiction (this is something I am likely to expound on in the thesis I plan to undertake). I am actually not blaming game developers here, because they need to make money to support their companies and their families; market forces, or perhaps other aspects of the Hegemony of Play that go largely unquestioned, cause this problem.
One way that the boredom of grinding has been countered in games by developers is through allowing automation and interface customizability. These features killed the Explorer type and gave rise to the Streamliner. In MUDs this started out as allowing aliases (setalias dh “drink health potion”) and triggers (if “you run about in fear flapping your arms incessantly” then command “compose self”). At first it was necessary for Explorer types to explain to achievers and killers how they might use these affordances to crack the code of the game world in order to grant the user access to a more streamlined experience. Because this gave rise to infinitely more complex and fast combat situations, developers made the virtual worlds all the more complex to equalize the experience. Once this happened, any player hoping to kill or achieve had to quickly learn to automate and understand the game world’s code in order to compete or stay alive. The upshot of this is that virtual worlds allowing for streamlining become increasingly more arcane and frustrating to new players, and (in my opinion) less realistic on the whole. Let’s look at a specific case of this in Warcraft.
The healers (be they druid, priest, shaman, or paladin) in a raiding group download a UI mod that allows them to input the names of the most important healing targets (usually the tanks, then the damage dealers, then the other healers); their UI then automatically chooses the raid member that most critically needs healing attention, and when they click on the key that is aliased to whatever healing spell they wish to cast the spell goes directly to that member. The Streamliner player type usually educates members of the guild on which UI mods to install, and usually even has a controlling program that allows them to synchronize and tweak the UIs of most of the raiding party before an encounter. In WoW we call these players Raid Leaders. They study encounters and the latest mods, and they’re usually the most important member of a guild (especially if they’re also the main tank). This allows for more competent, efficient team play and is all but necessary when a guild hopes to down Azeroth’s most fearsome bosses. But I feel that any feeling of realism developed by the virtual world suffers greatly when every player has a UI that tells them what to do faster than they could possibly ascertain with their own brains and fingers. One might say that realism isn’t important to their game experience in a fantasy world, but I feel that some semblance of reality must be present in order to allow a willing suspense of disbelief in a virtual world (again, maybe this isn’t important to everyone). I would also like to suggest that this automation and organization by the raid leader is also a major contributor to the feeling of many WoW players that their experience in Azeroth “is more like a job than a game.” In the long run this notion might detract Baby Boomers from participating in end-game content, because they seek experiences that take them away from their busy work lives (Pearce 8). On the other hand, the allowance of UI mods and automation features can be seen as a way for game designers to open up the design space to their players in a meaningful way, breaking down the narrative structuring division between devs and players described by Taylor (Designers 1-2). In any case, I hope that I have sufficiently showed that “Explorer” is no longer the correct name for this player type, and that to a degree every player, be they killer or achiever, has had to integrate streamlining into their play style.
Finally I want to return to the Socializer type that I’ve avoided talking about. I think the major reason this category has always appealed to me the least is because not enough work has been done for making their interactions with non-socializers in online worlds meaningful. WoW does some work in this direction by making end-game content inaccessible to most people who aren’t willing to organize into a guild. Guilds in WoW range from the pure socializing sort, to loose clubs filled with casual players, to the highly stratified and respected raiding guilds. All of these, especially the raiding guilds, feature high levels of socializing, and usually this communication is a rich mix of interaction both about the game world and people’s outside lives. This is a case of achievers having to become socializers in order to access key game content. But does this go far enough? Even though end-game raiding guilds are an important part of the WoW community, everyone else in the virtual world could go on playing happily if they didn’t exist. Achaea provides an achievement structure for socializers and a social structure for achievers that might be utilized to improve social structures in games like WoW.
In my opinion, the most underdeveloped feature of WoW is the cities. Most buildings in Azeroth are a shop or a quest hub barracks; if they don’t fall into this category, then they are either closed off “wasted” space or relatively unstructured tavern spaces created for roleplaying magic. Although inter-city raiding used to feature prominently in the life of WoW players, this trend has diminished as of late because of the hassle of organizing a group and the lack of a reward for successfully killing a city leader mobile NPC. Contrast to the first few minutes of playing Achaea, during which you choose a city from a random list of names (with some information provided, such as “Shallam is the City of Light”) and then thrust into the citizenry. Everyone in the city welcomes you, and they tell you to ask them if you need any help finding your place in the world; the city provides every incoming citizen with a link to the city’s charter and instructions on how to join one of the city’s Great Houses as an apprentice. This both immerses the player instantly in an environment keyed toward firm organizational forces (Designers 5) and legitimizes the virtual world as a place for serious roleplaying and social development (Designers 7). The Houses in Achaea used to be called guilds, but I believe this changed when the concept of a “guild” was diluted by larger MMOs such as Warcraft. They are essentially groups of individuals formed around a shared interest in either combat, socializing, lore, or hunting (or all of the above) and a common ethos (in Shallam most Houses seek to “defend the Light,” “serve the Church of All Gods,” or “live in service toward improving the lives of all Achaeans”). Organizations centered around values and community involvement definitely led to the large numbers of Baby Boomer gamers who called Achaea their home (Pearce 10, 12).
Inside cities and Houses there is an achievement structure (called City Rank 1-6 and House Rank 1-15) and customizable formalized positions such as “Minister of Defense” and “Head of Diplomacy.” The members of cities and Houses can call referendums on changes in their organization’s structure and leadership – to the extreme points of choosing to devote themselves to a different God (roleplaying game administrator) or switching executive leadership from an Autocracy to a Triumvirate. The upshot of this is that people care deeply about their cities and their Houses; I’ve seen socializers on numerous occasions organize themselves into crude and massive armies in order to defend their city streets or seek vengeance on fleeing raiding parties. It also forces Achievers to develop interpersonal communication on a variety of levels: as a teenager playing Achaea I learned how to write high-quality essays on lore/history and philosophy, run for political office, and work in groups to formulate organizational charters and growth plans. Finally, it provides a meaningful avenue for Socializer types to influence the game world at large. All of this allows the development of identity (“I am Shallamese”) and social responsibility (“I am loyal to Shallam’s laws and citizenry”) that Taylor mention as key factors in embedding values in virtual worlds (Designers 5-6).
One organizational structure in Achaea that I wish I had room to talk about are the religious Orders, which provide close relationships between players and the game admins called Gods. These groups provides players with access to the thoughts of the game developers and provide a better forum for suggestions on how to change the game than online message boards usually do, because they are in real time and grounded in the virtual world. I feel that both Taylor and Pearce’s Baby Boomers would appreciate the “more variable non static world” that these Orders engender (Pearce 12). It should be noted, however, that the Boomer population of Achaea has dropped off in recent years because of Warcraft’s mammoth influence and an increased emphasis on player combat in Achaea.