20 May 2013
Video Games as Art and Social Issues
“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome,” says Salen in Rules of Play. The definition that will be used in this essay is more abstract. Through the class, Concepts in Gaming, Professor Schoemann showed the complex debates that involve the definition of games. I propose that games are meaningful works of art and platforms for social issues like gender and race.
The first major debate that was publicized about games as art was when Roger Ebert said games could not be art. The lengthy discussions grew as gamers expressed their opinions on news sites and forums. Ebert has mastered the act of critiquing a film and people hear what he has to say because of it. The use of camera techniques, characters, and dialogue in film has been considered in the summation of calling that medium an art. Games also have camera angles in full motion video scenes, characters in role-playing games, and dialogue for every storyline. If art is to be something that has elicited emotion, games have also done that. The film, “Reign Over Me,” starring Adam Sandler, used the video game Shadow of the Colossus as an important part of the plot. Sandler acts as Charlie, who plays the game obsessively as a result of losing his family from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The game mirrors Charlie’s own life as the game character loses a loved one and goes on a journey. Charlie has to go on a journey of grief and choosing whether to move on from his tragedy. There is also the documentary, “Indie Game,” which features the creators of the games Fez, Super Meat Boy, and Braid. These creators revealed how they have spent hundreds of hours to create something that they truly believe in. The games were artistic expressions of their creators and labors of love. The creators had experience in game design, art design, and used computer technology to make their games. Van Gogh and Da Vinci spent many years working on art as did these creators.
For the next eight months, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City will display video games as part of its exhibit, “Applied Design.” Curator Paola Antonelli supported the November 2012 installation of games like “Pacman” and “Katamari Damacy” to be on view at the world-renowned museum. Antonelli wrote on the moma.org website, ““Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, and the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design. This acquisition allows the Museum to study, preserve, and exhibit video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.”
Before the declaration as an art form, video games have been accepted as a form of entertainment by consumers for decades. “Almost all the young people in the Net Generation greatly enjoy using computers and spend much of their time browsing or playing computer games,” cites a study in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. The masses collectively gather every year at the San Diego Comic-Con and Penny Arcade Expo because of their love of games.
There is a rich plethora of things to love about games, but there is much that can also be improved.
The category of being a “game” can be problematic because adherence to strict standards breeds elitism in the games community. If gamers accept only one narrow view of games to be acceptable, then the whole industry will remain stagnant and regressive. First person shooters and clones of “Angry Birds” will dominate an industry that still has underlying problems like gender disparity and idea theft. One designer who would see the definition of what a game is as irrelevant is Keita Takahashi. When Takahashi was making his hit “Katamari Damacy,” he thought too many games were unoriginal. The act of defining something as not being a game is exclusionary when reviewers on popular video game websites dismiss certain games that stray from the mainstream style of popular fare. “Noby Noby Boy is not a game,” wrote Anthony Burch, a reviewer for the video game website Destructoid. Gamers define what a game is through their buying habits and their voices online.
So here we have instances of reviewers who negatively review a game with quotes like “there’s not much else to do [in the game].” Looking at the Giantbomb overview, the point of the game is to explore and find things to do. The game is intended for people who want to use their imagination then and not for people who expect to be fed prompts and missions. Noby Noby Boy is an example of a game that is different from any other game. That’s one of the best things about games: they can offer new ideas and experiences.
On the website Giantbomb, the game Noby Noby Boy is described as a game where you control a strange creature named Boy, exploring surreal, randomly generated worlds featuring a plethora of objects animal, vegetable and mineral. “While the art style is reminiscent of Katamari Damacy, it’s also more basic, not having any enemies, time limits or immediate goals or missions. Boy has two sets of legs which are controlled independently with the left and right analogue sticks of the Playstation controller. The player can stretch his body like a slinky dog by making his front and back legs walk away from each other. You can make him eat objects with his front end and eject them out his rear end. He can be torn in half if his two ends are forcibly pulled apart by some object.” This unique gameplay mechanic opens possibilities for many interpretations of meaningful play. “The objective is purely to have fun exploring the weird surroundings, interact with things and control the character in any strange way you see fit. The random situations created, coupled with the odd properties and control method of Boy make the game flexible enough to keep players occupied for hours just messing around. The goals become whatever the player sets for themselves,” Giantbomb said.
It is in the mind of the player to determine how much competitiveness or cooperation they want to experience since Takahashi did not intentionally put any explicitly stated goals in the game. Salen wrote about a type of systemic cooperation which refers to “the fundamental, discursive cooperation that is intrinsic to all games. Player cooperation refers to games in which players all work together to achieve the goal.” Players do have incentives to keep playing, despite what Burch wrote on Destructoid. More creatures and objects can be unlocked when a large version of Boy, named Girl, stretches from the earth to other celestial bodies. “This could be seen as a joint objective for the community that plays the game since the distance she stretches is recorded from the accumulated distance everybody playing the game has ever stretched Boy while signed into the Playstation Network,” said Giantbomb.
What makes Noby Noby Boy a game is the designed system, players, artificiality, conflict (through indirect competition or cooperation), rules, and quantifiable outcome, which are components outlined in Rules of Play. The first component, which is the system, defines Noby Noby Boy to be a creature with limits since he can only behave the way Takahashi intended him to. The levels were created to be artificial and are randomly generated as such. Conflict comes in an indirect form when the player decides to compete with other players “stretch” rankings, although that is a completely optional goal. The rules of how to stretch Noby Noby Boy are discerned at the beginning of the game in a tutorial and then the player is left on their own. Finally, the quantifiable outcome is not as pronounced in this game as other games. There is no high score or boss battles to encounter. However, every time the player stretches Noby Noby Boy contributes to the larger fabric of the overall game experience. Takahashi incorporated discernability through the visual representation of Boy’s stretching caterpillar-like body. Integration, another component of meaningful play, is portrayed when players see that the next planet has been unlocked by reaching a predetermined goal. If the goal of successful game design is meaningful play, then Takahashi made a successfully designed game. In 2011, players around the world already stretched Boy enough to reach Girl to Jupiter. Salen writes, “Game design is the process by which a game designer creates a game from which meaningful play emerges.”
“Conflict is an intrinsic element of every game. The conflict in a game emerges from within the magic circle as players struggle to achieve the goals of a game,” Salen said. I argue that games do not need to always be competitive or even have conflict.
Salen writes, “Shaping victory and loss conditions is an important component of game design. Victory and loss conditions directly shape the possible outcomes of a game.” I argue that all games do not need explicit victory and loss conditions since Takahashi succeeded in his minimalistic approach. The reviewers said that there is not really a “goal” in Noby Noby Boy but players bought this game regardless. The Destructoid bloggers may not have thought of Noby Noby Boy as a game, but the system that Takahashi designed sufficiently falls under the systemic category of a game as outlined by Salen.
Takahashi has a history of making unique games. Time Magazine praised Takahashi’s first game, Katamari Damacy, calling it an addictive game involving a cosmic prince rolling a sticky ball around a colorful landscape filled with things to pick up. “The game was a modest success in Japan. But when it reached the U.S., retailers couldn’t keep it on the shelves.”
Katamari Damacy proved that success could be had in nonviolent games with original content. “I don’t play games,” Takahashi said. “There are too many unoriginal ones.”
Findings from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology revealed that nonviolent video game exposure decreases aggressive thoughts and feelings and aggressive behavior. The researchers from this journal used nonviolent puzzle-solving games to show that prosocial thoughts increased, relative to both violent game exposure and a no-game control condition. A researcher on aggressive behavior named Youssef Hasan published another report confirming this data. The report found that “players do experience increased stress playing a violent game, which makes them more cranky and prone to aggress against others.”
Puzzle games are not only aggression relievers, they are also gaining popularity in the app store. The stock of the game “Puzzles and Dragons” by developer GungHo is worth $4.5 billion beating Zynga’s $2.8 billion, according to Venturebeat. The Wall Street Journal reported strong earnings last week for the “runaway success,” adding that the market capitalization or total value of the company hit $15.2 billion compared to Nintendo’s market cap of $15.1 billion.
If puzzle games on mobile phones are enough to push smaller companies into the spotlight among heavyweight developers like Nintendo, studies can be conducted to field the wide variety of non-violent and innovative games market.
Gamers define what a game is. News media has shown how gamers themselves have been making the news.
According to an article on Gamasutra called, “Let’s Retire the Word ‘Gamer’,” negative impressions of gamers persist to this day. Brandon Sheffield writes, “That impression of the game player as a do-nothing, thoughtless drone is perfectly encapsulated in the word ‘gamer.’” He says that the marketing industry created the word ‘gamer’ to target and describe the basement-dwelling manboy who just wants to play games and cares about nothing else.
Sheffield implies that there are people who think gamers care about games and nothing else. The studies being done in the gaming community show that gamers do care about other things. They care about issues such as gender roles and racial stereotypes. Gamers can improve the reputations of the gaming community and improve the quality of innovative games that come to retailers if they create meaningful games and act more inclusively.
In Rules of Play, Salen discusses rhetoric as being an effective method of using games for information. People show their love for the nostalgia of old games in the Retronauts podcast by former 1up.com editor Jeremy Parrish that has been revived after raising over $50,000 on Kickstarter. Fans of this type of audio broadcast have access to professional opinions on games that they may have missed out on. Another way games can be useful is the article on the Daily Beast about Rhonda Lillie, who found the love of her life on the computer game Secondlife. Through analysis of the interactions that players can experience in different games, social changes in gender and race can be explored. The survivor horror game series, Silent Hill, brought critical acclaim for its gloomy atmosphere and psychological themes. Ever since the first game, scholars have been analyzing Silent Hill because of its mature and complex storylines. Ewan Kirkland, a lecturer on media and cultural studies contributed an article to the Duke University Press titled The Gendered Gameplay of Silent Hill. Kirkland wrote, “The Silent Hill series is notable in this respect: a commercial franchise that works within generic and
industrial constraints, yet manages to challenge traditional models of masculinity and their implication in conventions of video-game characterization, representation, and play. The game world consequently expresses without endorsing James’s ambivalent attitude toward Mary and women in general. Video games contain the possibility of alternative masculinities that challenge prevailing stereotypes of the medium. The Silent Hill series proves an interesting—albeit atypical—case study, indicative of the richness and ambiguity of a game franchise unusual among video-game titles in many respects.”
Silent Hill showed that games can be as emotionally provocative as a work of traditional art while reflecting the grim portrayal of vulnerable male protagonists. Diving further into social issues, games can be an indicator of how far the popular culture has progressed, or regressed, when trying to include ethnic minorities.
In a report from the publication Media Psychology, researchers found that stereotypical Asian and Black characters were overrepresented in E-rated games. Of the seven Black characters appearing on an E game, five were athletes, one was a benign cartoonish persona, and one was a Black man pictured behind a White male and White female, leaning around to point to the White male in the center of the cover. Every E-rated Asian character appeared on a single martial arts game. From a pedagogical perspective, games have a number of stereotypes to teach: Blacks are athletes or unprovoked social menaces with extreme weapons, Asians are martial artists, Hispanics are in short supply, alien characters outnumber minority males, and women of color are invisible. “Our results, together suggest that future research must examine the implied possibility that something as simple as increasing the frequency of admirable Black characters in games, and other media, could lead to significant reductions in automatic pro-White bias (and associated anti-Black bias),” the study found.
Overall, games have secured a place in the discourses of art and social issues. During this relatively nascent stage in games history, there is already academic literature reaching new heights of discussion and controversy. When critics try to limit the definition of a what a game is, they do a disservice to the possibilities of where games can go and what games can do.
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Brian P. Brown, et al. “Playing With Prejudice: The Prevalence And Consequences Of Racial Stereotypes In Video Games.” Media Psychology 14.3 (2011): 289-311. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 May 2013.
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Zimmerman, Eric, and Katie Salen. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. London: MIT Press, 2003. Print.