PLEA FOR A CRITICAL GAME ANALYSIS METHODOLOGY

 

Games have graduated from neon arcades to Ivy League podiums.  As the apex of our current media ecosystem games have caught the fancy of many a scholars’ attention.  And why shouldn’t they?  Games fashion fun from rich cultural and procedural rhetorics.   The mechanical facets running the game as a system are dependent on the humanistic motives that lubricate interaction and engagement.  And with experiences like serious games, Indie games, and MMORPGs- these “games” are resembling real world narratives in uncanny and critically curious ways.  But if games really are terraforming the frontier of interactive experience, why are so many scholars giving them the same “critical” treatment as static mediums of experience? 

This week I was exposed to two “critical” articles concerning work in World of WarCraft.  While Jane McGonigal’s article focused on a “virtuous circle of productivity” while Lisa Nakamura’s work targeted fan-based racialization of in-game work, both of their issues deal with the ways reality creeps into the magic circle of play.  But judging from their writing, none of these scholars really immersed themselves in gameplay.  Instead, they study players of WoW as if they were indigenous Aborigines.  As a lifelong gamer, and as a cultural anthropologist, this methodology is as prehistoric and flawed as the armchair anthropology of the late 19th century. 

Not only does their writing style reveal their removal from the subject, but their narrow conclusions reveal how myopic methodologies damage their understanding of the game as a complex internal system.  For example, McGonigal claims that WoW leveling is as rewarding as the endgame of raids because players want to “pay for higher in-game productivity” by grinding levels.  But in my experience, and in the experience of my raiding comrades, leveling itself easily feels tedious; not because the game itself is ill-balanced- in fact it’s addictive in a deliciously guilty way.  Leveling in WoW is incredibly fine-tuned.  You start off with incredibly basic abilities, including racial endowments that give you an elementary feel for your character.  After you grind a few levels, you master the ability and you’re ready for the next class or talent ability the game has ready for you.  Leveling is just as more a part of forging your avatar’s identity than it is about completing quests.  Those five hundred hours get tedious, trust me.  But they allow the player an extended breathing room to complement or compensate for their unique play style with their expansive talent tree.  Had that tree been given to you initially, your brain would likely ‘splode and you’d permanently afk and there goes the productive bliss altogether. 

Similarly, Nakamura’s argument focuses on the external vectors of MMORPGs, completely neglecting the internal system balancing of WoW.  She claims that WoW players have developed a racialized discourse of labor targeting Chinese gold-farmers.  She explores Machinima instances and alludes to in-game discrimination and widespread “resentment”.  But to fully comprehend the nuances of this virtual racism, she needs to consider the ways the game has already corrected for these capitalist machines.  While gold can buy you some top tier gear, deck out a Twink alt, and lubricate level-grinding, gold can never buy you the best gear in the game.  To acquire the best gear, the game forces the player to raid, to play through dungeons, learn boss-fights, form long-term virtual cliques, and practically marry yourself to arena partners.  These sources of gear make gold almost negligible in the long term, especially since the gear you earn from these half-day expeditions bind to you.  They can’t be sold.  If Nakamura had played WoW, she would understand that this fan-based racism is much more complex because gold holds a complex position within the system of the game. 

For the first time in ethnographic history, our subject of study offers us full integrative privileges into their culture.  Instead of studying games like a static system that may or may not reflect the real world, we can get a full participant-observation stance, a visceral experience of the day-to-day culture.  So why don’t we get off our fire-place armchairs and into our X Rocker Pros? 

 

GAMIFICATION AND PRIVILEGE

 

 I consider myself an avid gamer.  I play everything from Indie platformers to old school MMO’s.  And every once in a while, amongst the torrent of standard games, I encounter a game that rattles my core.  It dishevels my expectations and reconfigures the way I experience the world.  Multimillion dollar narratives have been the usual culprit; Rapture’s dystopic gardens and Spira’s rampant tragedy represent seismic shifts in my thought processes and imagination.  However, I’m not here to praise any triple A titles.  Rather, I want to discuss two half-baked games (at least in many gamer’s eyes) called “Lim” and “Dys4ia”. 

While I was floored by the lovely simplicity of these interactive experiences, these games were harpooned by other players because they lacked the formal elements we’ve come to expect from games.  It wasn’t gamey enough.  But that’s the point.  They were interactive experiences that are diversifying the game market with caustic, oblique perspectives.  And they won’t dilute that experience with health bars and points, nor will they sacrifice their air-tight models for the sake of fun and gamification.  Because the ability to “gamify” an experience means you can quantify the message.  For those less privileged, a health bar doesn’t apprehend the rampant and varied forces that oppress them, consistently and systematically, on a daily basis. 

These two “games” put the player in the shoes of the minority.  As you traverse their levels, bereft of feedback and instruction, you are transported, if only for a moment, into an alternate landscape where you are marked, discriminated, and abused.  You wander through these worlds, without compass, map, or HUD.  Because for those who are missing the key inventory item, say race or class, the world triggers are different.  NPCs ignore you- you don’t have the prerequisites.  Quests are unavailable to you- maybe you need to “level up”.  And that armor?  Doesn’t fit.  Don’t even try it on, it was forged for someone taller, thinner, more privileged.  The metal probably wouldn’t complement your skin anyways. 

IN RESPONSE TO WOMEN VERSUS TROPES: WOMEN AS BACKGROUND DECO

 

The phrase, “women as background deco in games” stung me to the root.  When I first watched this women vs tropes episode, I felt battered and abused as a female.  Maybe it was the deadpan delivery; maybe it was the barrage of blood-splatters mingled with breast jiggles; but maybe it was just the utter lack of positive production.

As a female gamer, this video just salted an age-old wound.  I love many of these decried titles and I shouldn’t feel guilty or hegemonically dominated by the graphic imagery just because I choose not to take a stance of gratuitous feminism.  When I pop Dishonored into my ps3, I want to traverse a metaphysical realm with double-jump and shadow-stalk.  When I switch to Bioshock Infinite, I want to explore the irony of innovation with a fistful of lightning.  I lose myself in these magic circles for emotive promises such as escapism, power, and progress; not because I want to turn the tables on my oppressors.  I know these games don’t offer an avenue into its surrounding material world, nor do they pretend to. 

If tropes vs women wants to issue change, why don’t they highlight positive examples of strong female protagonists?  Instead of criticizing the stale, de-saturated aesthetic that plagues the triple A industry, why not explore games that have used female avatars to build rich, holistically satisfying experiences devoid of gender?  Such titles as Mirror’s Edge, Portal, and Mass Effect have handled the issue with grace and civility by not marking the female entity with a distinct power level. 

Criticizing the environmental decoration of a game doesn’t move the genre any closer to a gender-neutral space.  If you want to see action, action that will spur real change, the campaign shouldn’t direct its efforts to static atmospheric embellishments, but gameplay itself.  Processes within game are the surrogates for real cultural processes. Gameplay is the imaginary space where the real individual gets to express agency against these pseudo-ideologies and makes this engagement vivid and impacting.