Arcadian Blogs of the Round Table: January 2012

Knights of the Round

A few weeks ago the gaming blog Critical Distance invited all and sundry to participate in a series of open discussions, with a new theme for discussion established each month. Arcadian Rhythms likes being opinionated, so some of us decided to get involved.

January’s theme was ‘being other’:

Games, like most media, have the ability to let us explore what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. While this experience may only encompass a character’s external circumstances–exploring alien worlds, serving with a military elite, casting spells and swinging broadswords–it’s most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion. This official re-launch of the Blogs of the Round Table asks you to talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse. Conversely, discuss why games haven’t provided this experience for you and why.

Read on for AJ’s thoughts and then Shaun’s…

AJ reckons

Well, to be a bit of a dick, I don’t believe that video games are able to place us in a position where we identify with someone whom we fundamentally disagree with or don’t identify with.

Video games are not passive and they are mainly about user empowerment. They allow the user to fulfil some kind of objective and, most importantly, reinforce that they are a good person because they were successful in their intent.

Even in games where bad choices are made, the game will reward you with something that justifies your choice, and it will be generally be marked with a point system that allows you to know where you are going: to Hell or Heaven.

I don’t really want to identify with a lot of protagonists; they are always so picture perfect that they tend to be dull. Even games that make attempts at showing flaws in their actors have to deal with player agency.

And that is the reason that Frank West from Dead Rising is so brilliantly awful.

I hated Frank West from the moment I started to play the game. He was clearly only there for himself, with any efforts undertaken solely to protect himself. The awkwardness of his walk and the deliberate annoyance of some of the mechanics in the game fed into his personality. When you fought with the game you were fighting with Frank.

At the same time nothing you did was judged. You could score a lot of experience from doing heinous things and at no point does the game condemn you for your actions. Instead, it makes you look at yourself (or not, depending on what kind of person you are).

One of the most impactful moments in Dead Rising was when I realised that I was a terrible person, willing to see the life of a human being in terms of money or experience. I could let them die and I would be just as ‘good’ as if I helped them but with less effort. My character would level up regardless of my choices and most of the time doing what would be considered the ‘right’ thing was often much harder to accomplish.

The game framed Frank West’s desire: he was desperate to be a dickhead and was indifferent to people’s plights unless it suited him otherwise. The opening of the game epitomises this portrayal by having the player take pictures for points as they’re being forced to watch people die.

I hated Frank West but, as a result, it made me realise that I was nothing like him. I have my faults but I would never be so self-interested as to neglect another human being.

Shaun

Before I launch in to this piece I want to note that I’ve not yet read any other contribution toward the January 2012 Blogs of the Round Table event (including AJ’s piece above). What this means is that I am eagerly looking forward to reading a large number of blog posts explaining in loving, caring and sharing detail just how wrong I am about to be.

The more I’ve thought about this month’s theme—we’ve included a refresher at the top of this post for those of you not already reading Critical Distance—the more I’ve wondered if the theme itself overestimates the extent to which videogames are structurally capable of genuinely conveying an experience other than one’s own. Let me unpack this a little: videogame protagonists are a fairly varied bunch, even allowing for the praxis of the male action hero. I’m not trying to claim there isn’t a certain amount of challenging experience to be derived from a variety of characters whose shoes we, the players, are asked to fill. But what I am saying is that there are inherent difficulties in how Otherness can be represented in a game.

There are a few obvious methods available to present the varied facets of a lifestyle or culture that aggregate together to make a whole person. When we’re pushed into the role of an observer, as in traditional literature, TV or film, game developers can use cutscenes or dialogue to tell us who a person is and show us how they react in certain situations. The problem is that these methods of storytelling, no matter how successfully they can be handled, are ultimately a hangover from other mediums; mediums to which a juvenile videogames industry looked for inspiration. I stress again that I don’t want to imply that this is a bad thing. I’m actually much more of a fan of cutscenes than most gamers I know, for whatever that’s worth. But it would take a brave individual to argue that the dialogue and cutscenes in videogames stand out in comparison to the dizzy storytelling heights of more mature mediums; Grand Theft Auto IV is not The Wire and I’ve never even heard of a game that tried to represent an experience akin to those of the main characters in The Woodsman or The Sea Inside.

If a game ostensibly offers us the opportunity to fill someone else’s shoes and catch a glimpse of what their life might really be like, it would logically have to do this in a way that connected with the game-ness of a game. It can’t only be presented in the narrative dressing that surrounds the creamy nougat core of fun which is what we recognise as a game. Therefore it logically follows that if we’re to really get a feel for the lived experience of a person who is in some way ‘not like us’, you’d have to reduce their life and all of their past and present experience to a set of playable mechanics. I’m not convinced that this is something that has been done well, or even could be done well, though I’m very keen to be proven wrong in this.

Part of the problem is that the realities of life as experienced by any person are socially and culturally embedded. Life is as much to do with the communities and institutions, large and small, that surround people as it is to do with anything integral to them as individuals. To use the obvious examples, if a game wanted to explore racism, sexism, queerphobia, transphobia or ableism it would be necessary to recognise that these are not phenomenons comparable to simple irrational dislike: they’re symptoms of a set of assumptions rooted in power and tradition. If a videogame presents a character who might experience such bigotry but slots them into a clean and tidy context in which these institutionalised prejudices don’t exist, then the power of what they are trying to do is lost. Similarly, if a game fails to acknowledge that these prejudices are institutionalised and factor this into the game world they’ve built, you might end up with something that fails because it represents a socio-cultural phenomenon as akin to individuals choosing to be dicks to other individuals. Such a gaming experience would be a reductive lie that teaches no one anything.

There are games which do recognise that life’s harsh realities tend to be larger than individuals. A couple of browser games spring to mind as solid examples. SPENT puts you in the role of someone who has fallen on economic hard times. The game requires you to struggle your way through a single month and keep yourself financially afloat. It’s intended to highlight the difficulties of a life living hand-to-mouth when the support available to you is limited; every setback you face is potentially ruinous, and every opportunity an immense gamble. It is difficult to reach the end of the month successfully. A similarly ruinous experience is presented by games such as 3rd World Farmer, which has you looking after an African family trying to scrape a living from the land. You might try to improve your lot in life – get the kids an education or purchase equipment to increase your farming yield – but there is little you can do about crops failing or family members falling ill and, ultimately, your plans and dreams will probably wither and fade in the face of harsh realities.

These games are mechanically very simple, essentially reducing a life to a set of occasional decisions which branch off in two or more directions. A human being’s life, however, is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book. But despite their crudity games like this do achieve their stated objective, which is to demonstrate how people with hard lives don’t find themselves stuck there through a lack of hard work or gumption. Poverty is described as a trap for a very good reason.

These games also inadvertently highlight another challenge that faces any developer who wishes to present a difficult life honesty. As gamers we so often demand that our games be ‘fair’. Make them hard, certainly, make them challenging… but those challenges must be fair! Everything we face must be something that, through skill or patience, we can ultimately best and move on from, stronger and better for it. Real life is not a steady progression; very few people can rest on their laurels and rely on a steady income from something accomplished in the past, or repeatedly try at something difficult until an arbitrary point is reached and they level up, whereupon they are suddenly able to coast through. Videogame mechanics and the indifference of the universe to life are not complementary systems.

Still, not everything need be about the extremes of experience. I did want to hold up a few games and praise them for doing a good job of letting me experience a life that is not my own. Sometimes they succeed precisely because they don’t attempt to emphasise difference in order to make a point. Sometimes they do. The Longest Journey’s April Ryan is a wonderful character, but her femininity is understated and that of an everywoman. She is a convincing and likable character because the familiarity of her life is so widely resonant: no matter that she can walk between worlds (she’s just as surprised as we are about that) because her focal point as a character is that she is hesitantly fumbling her way through life, never quite sure what the next week or month may hold. Pretty much everyone has felt and experienced that.

At the other end of the scale there is the blackly satirical Hey Baby, a one-trick pony that kicked up a storm when it was first released because it did such a cutting job of demonstrating to men how unpleasant it is to be repeatedly pestered, chatted up and sexually harassed whilst walking down the street (as well as realising the sort of daydreamed response that has no doubt run through more than a few minds). The Longest Journey’s subtlety and Hey Baby’s blunt force both do a reasonable job of representing different facets of female experience… or at least it would seem so to me, a man.

Other games represent a historical or national experience. Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII seems like a devotedly accurate attempt to embed the player in diplomacy, governance and war circa 2nd and 3rd century China. So far I have to admit that I have no real grasp of what I’m doing—my copy doesn’t have a manual which doesn’t help—but I rather like that. If I’d understood everything already it wouldn’t really feel like the game represented a culture and society so different to my own. To the best of my knowledge Way of the Samurai 3 is not a game overly concerned with historical accuracy—though it is set in the 15th-17th century Sengoku period of Japanese history—instead seeking to allow the player to explore the myriad possibilities that life offers to a ronin samurai in a territory fraught with factional conflict. Whoever the player chooses to support, and however they choose to do so, the experience is bound up in notions of honour, duty and martial prowess that are a world apart from the life of a 21st century Westerner.

It’s no mistake, though, that of the four games I’ve chosen to single out for praise, one sidesteps any question of sexism, another goes straight for its throat, and the other two don’t represent a particular character so much as they invite you to play tourist in a setting that paints upon a historical canvas with broad strokes, caring little for the lives of individuals. There are myriad possibilities to explore lives outside our own, but so far most of what I have seen has sought to represent commonality rather than Otherness, or crudely represent a narrow part of lived experience, or work at a level that transcends individuals (Western individualism as we understand it today is a relatively recent idea, after all). So the extent to which games can really teach us what it is like to be a person other than ourselves remains, I feel, in question.

UPDATE: As I’d not previously read any other BotRT posts from other sites, I’d not realised that there’s a round-up post here or that CD have provided code for a drop-down that allows instant access to all of the other January contributions. Check out the list below or go direct to the source