VR: Virtual Heaven, or Virtual Hype?

There’s been a lot said about Virtual Reality (VR) recently, and with good reason.

It’s been hailed as the future of immersive entertainment, but also, if pop culture is to be believed, the harbinger of doom.

So lets look at this a little. I was reading Janet Murray’s book recently, and according to her we have this simultaneous fascination with technology, and a fear of it. In relation to VR, one of the many examples of this that Murray uses is that of the holodeck. For those of us like myself who grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the holodeck was always a source of fascination. And it’s no coincidence that the loading screen of the HTC Vive situates the player in a black room with yellow gridlines, in emulation of the now-iconic representation of the holodeck in this cult sci-fi series.

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With this fascination with the new tech however, there is also something uneasy that comes with it. If we think back to Star Trek: TNG, there were always those episodes where the holodeck malfunctioned, meaning the user couldn’t exit, or (gasp) could be hurt within the simulation. Realistically though, using our current VR technologies (apart from self-inflicted damage by face planting a wall, hitting yourself with a controller invisible in the game world, or slight neck problems due to the 10kg electrical equipment attached to your face) you will probably be ok .

But could we potentially be hurt in one of these VR simulations, and not just by our face hitting the wall, but really, mentally hurt?

It’s these types of concerns that really manifest in popular culture. As Janet Murray asks, “Would the power of such a realized fantasy world destroy our grip on the actual world?” Is VR really as “dangerous and debilitating as a hallucinogenic drug?” According to Charlie Brooker’s new Black Mirror episode, Play Test, there are very real fears that this may be the case.  This episode (most excellently) plays upon this fear we have of such technologies – in that we may begin to lose track of what is real and what is virtual. And this isn’t a new idea that has cropped up specifically in relation to VR – the Matrix springs instantly to mind, though the films also suggest that our reliance on machines produces subservience to them though our ignorance. And as Cypher, the antagonist in the matrix says to Agent Smith when he’s asking to be reinserted into the Matrix,

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This then, is perhaps is a different fear that has manifested, in that it is not so much that we will become ignorant of what is real  and what is virtual, but maybe that despite our knowledge of both, we may actually prefer the one that isn’t real. I imagine not so much for the main character in the Playtest episode of Black Mirror,  but certainly so for Cypher in the Matrix. But as Janet Murray so rightly asks, “who hasn’t wanted to jump into the pages of their favourite book, or daydreamed of being part of the world represented on screen?” Except now we are essentially able to do so, and also with our favourite game title.

Where do I sign?

But it’s certainly important to note that it’s not all fun and games in reality. Another fear that VR has (once again) brought to the forefront in gaming is the potential for players to act immorally, where there have already been multiple news reports from the Guardian and the New York Post, amongst others, about sexual harassment or assault occurring with women players using the tech.

*Sigh*

There is also the Japanese-produced Illusion VR sex suit, designed to “make masturbation more futuristic….”, something that isn’t necessarily immoral per se, though it does make one feel a little uneasy about some of the development directions that this technology is going in.

But again, these fears are hardly something new. One only has to remember the controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and the potential ‘immorality’ that could be exhibited by players when, for example, the avatar could sleep with a prostitute in the game only to kill them and steal back the money from their digital corpse. This is especially true with the first person version of GTA V, where you could do this with the player in first person viewing position, instead of the third person – giving the clear distinction that the player is “I” carrying out this act, as opposed to the character, or “he”. Is the problem with the Illusion VR suit that the hardware stimulates the player in addition to the visuals that are intended to be stimulating – which indeed is their only real function, unlike in GTA where this particular first person perspective with a woman is a small (and optional) part of a much larger and complex world?

Maybe.

Maybe it’s just that the Illusion VR is a tech-enhanced version of a sex doll, and sex dolls are just a bit creepy.

However, the fact of the matter is, in detailed virtual worlds when you know that the non-player characters (NPCs) within the game aren’t real people, who hasn’t tested the boundaries of what is permissible in the world? If no one gets hurt, and this isn’t the way players will go on to act in real life, what exactly is the problem? Just because GTA allows these behaviours doesn’t mean the game condones it. If you shoot people the police chase you. ‘Bad’ actions are punishable, and laws are still enforced in the game.

Having spent some time watching the new HBO series Westworld recently, the problem only really seems to arise when the NPCs (“hosts”) are indistinguishable from the players (or “guests” in WW’s terms) – they are “too real” – it’s not clear that they are an NPC as they are too much like a real person. [It’s also that they actually become sentient and aware of their ill treatment by the humans who enter the world, so people are actually getting hurt, but I digress]. Although it doesn’t specifically market itself as VR or a game in the traditional sense, Westworld replicates all the essential features of a videogame world: players/guests can’t die and they undertake quests (or narratives) while they’re in the world.

It seems pop culture has a long – and continuing – relationship with these fears, though to a degree that is in the realm of science fiction more than contemporary VR. But with this arguably amazing new technology, everyone is always so eager to focus on the good things – the potential that the medium offers, ignoring the bad things, which is why I have focused on them in such detail here. Hopefully you don’t feel too negative about VR, because of the influence of pop culture on my personal perceptions of its potential issues. Because all these things being said: it is a wonderful and amazing thing that we now have access to, and I admit – I was absolutely blown away when I tried it for the first time, as I believe were many of the attendees to our most recent games night where we had the opportunity to play both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.

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Two intreptid VR users.

On the surface, it appears that there is little difference between the two platforms, though having played them both and if considered in more depth, there are actually quite a few. Currently, the Rift’s VR controllers haven’t been released, meaning that you have to use an XboxOne controller (or racing wheel, etc) to actually play and affect things in the gameworld. In contrast, the Vive’s controllers were released with the headset, and actually being able to see your digital hands and their effects upon the gameworld certainly made for a better experience for nearly all of our attendees. This aside however, it will be interesting to see how the Rift’s VR controllers measure up when they are finally released in December.

The headsets were also slightly different. The Rift has built-in headphones which easily flip down over your ears in a pleasing way, whereas the Vive requires separate wired headphones. Although the separate headphones don’t really impact upon your VR experience directly, it does mean that you can get a bit tangled in wires at points, especially given that both VR headsets are still currently tethered by wires. In terms of the visual aspects of the headsets themselves, the Rift is apparently supposed to have a crisper image, but I can’t say we noticed too much of a difference, where some of our attendees actually found the Rift to be a bit blurrier (though there could be many reasons for this).

Though what we did notice with the Rift headset was that it didn’t seem to fit our faces as well as the Vive headset did, in that there was an air-gap between the headset and the nose, meaning you could see (and had a constant reminder of) the physical environment instead of becoming completely immersed in the virtual one. And just for the record, my nose is not insignificant (having been called “Roman” on occasion), so I can only imagine this effect may be compounded on those with a lesser nasal capacity than I possess. I find this really problematic, as after spent a few minutes using the Virtoba, a budget version of VR that uses you’re a smartphone, I found the headset fit my face better than the Rift did in that there was no nose-gap, despite the Rift retailing at an, ahem, significantly higher price. Granted – the visuals were nowhere near as good – of course they were never going to be.

But if Virtoba managed to nail this aspect for £19.99, why couldn’t the Rift?

We also found that some of our users who were more prone to motion sickness found this to be more pronounced when they used the Rift than when they used the Vive, possibly due to the differences in the shape of the lenses. I had the opportunity to use an earlier iteration of the Rift a couple of years ago, and found I was feeling incredibly nauseous almost as soon as I used it. Though with the newer versions with the much higher frame rate of the image, I have personally found this to be much better, except when using the rollercoaster (aka nausea) simulators, or particularly “swooshy” games involving lots of visual movement. These elements of nausea that some participants had is actually symptomatic of the power of our visual perception over the rest of our body. It was interesting to hear one of our attendees, after spending some time at the top of a (virtual) mountain, exclaim when they took off the VR headset: “Now I’m safe”. Because you still get the feeling of vertigo that you might from being at the top of a mountain, or a building, even though you know that you are not. It seems even if your mind is well aware that you are in a simulation, the body doesn’t quite seem to grasp it.

So what does VR offer, regardless of platform? Complete and utter immersion, in the words of one of our attendees, in “any world or situation that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to recreate…. In the most realistic form possible”. There is another side to this immersion however, and that is that you are completely dissociated from your physical environment – which can be a bit disconcerting, though I think it is necessary. To give the experience its immersion, you have to be able to put the physical environment to the back of your mind.

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Be sure to maintain awareness of your surroundings when using VR equipment.

The potential of the tech though is literally limitless – for education, science, business, medicine, entertainment, sports, history…….. the list could go on forever, and I can’t help imagining what I would like to see developed for it. Imagine being able to stand next to Leonidas as one of his 300 Spartans while they fight the Persians, using the controllers as swords or bow and arrows, in a “survive the waves: hoard mode”. Or being Arya Stark within Game of Thrones, sneaking around and planning her revenge, in a stealth type game. Or Napoleon at Waterloo – how could he have won the battle that we know was his most famous loss? I could go on all day…. but instead I’m going to use this time to have a think about where I would have enough space to set up VR, and perhaps more importantly, when I can afford to buy one.

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Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and the Appeal of Music Rhythm Games.

There is, and arguably always will be, a space in my heart for music rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  They are compulsive and addictive, ideas that are alluded to in South Park numerous times in relation to Guitar Hero itself, as well as their fictional “Heroin Hero” episodes. 

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“Stan Hits Rock Bottom”

Much like the nature of play, music rhythm games occupy a liminal space,  somewhere between “real” music (“the real life”) and “real” gaming (“just fantasy”). Though perhaps this is an unnecessary distinction to make considering that games and real instruments are both “played”.

Let us take a moment to reflect upon the nature of music rhythm games .  Generally, in social situations (or mine at least) someone takes the initiative of choosing some music to play in the background while people are busy socialising.  Pretty standard stuff in terms of social interactions, but what these types of games do is allow the social gathering to be a part of the music that is played, and for it to have a hand in creating it.

But are we actually creating the music while playing? In the wider contextual sense: No.  These songs have been written, released and performed long before we have picked up our plastic guitars or our wooden drumsticks.   But in the players’ immediate context, if you don’t in the literal sense “play” your part  – be it drum, guitar, bass or voice – the song isn’t heard in the “proper” way that we are familiar with .  If in Rock Band you fluff the guitar part at *that* point in Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, by god you know about it.  The fact that it is a game however does mean you don’t have to be perfect at playing it, an affordance that real musicians are not accorded when they perform.

Playing music rhythm games is made implicit by the mechanics themselves, as well as how the controllers align with what they represent in real life.    As an example, if you’re singing with the mic in the game, this is the same action you would take as when you sing with a real mic.  You sing or speak into it as you would a real mic, which in fact it is.   That it is connected to a game and can affect it it is actually irrelevant to how you use the tool,  or how you use tool to engage with the music (you would presumably sing exactly the same in karaoke, for example).

Similarly so with the drums.  The affordances of both the “play” drums and real drums align, making the game fairly transferrable (in both perceptions and actions) of what it is to play the real drums.  This is true to a much lesser extent with the guitar controller, as instead of strings  you hold down buttons, placed in areas that represent the frets of a real guitar, and strum with your opposite hand in line with the song’s rhythm.   I don’t actually play the real guitar so I’m not sure how much like playing a real guitar it actually is (I would assume not that much), or whether it helps or hinders with playing a real guitar. But @woodlandstar once told me that playing the rock band guitar made his fingers more dextrous, making his playing of an actual guitar a bit easier.  

When you are playing a “real” instrument, you’re reading notes on a page (or chords, or tabs etc.) and not coloured buttons from a moving graph with segmented bar lines.  Perhaps this just a transplantation of what it is to read music in actuality, though on paper it’s horizontal whereas in its digital form it’s vertical.  Though, in both methods there is a definitive coding scheme that tells you what you should play and when.  As long as these symbols, these coding schemes, are understood by their respective players, is any disparagement towards this more popular form of music making as not “real” music, or any cultural elevation of one of the other merely cultural elitism at at most blatant?  

Nah.  It takes years to become an expert musician, but music rhythm games can be picked up and played fairly proficiently in a heartbeat: some of their appeal is because of their accessibility.  Of course “real” musicians should be elevated over rock band players, and rightly so.  

But for us mere mortals that are neither virtuosos or rock gods, what these types of games allow is for us to simulate some of what it is like to be a virtuoso or rock god, and also promote a feeling of virtuosity and proficiency at an instrument .  And this simulation, or mimicry, is one of the four classifications of play that Caillois mentions, as outlined in the last blog. The playing of games generally is a performance in itself – as is playing a musical instrument.  By incorporating rock music into a game system, the performative and simulatory aspects become beautifully aligned.

It is this mimicry, the ability to simulate and relive the music that we love, that is the real appeal of these types of games.  Though it is not merely being able to relive the music itself, but also the cultural impact that the music has had elsewhere.  I challenge anyone who plays Bohemian Rhapsody on Rock Band 4 (hell, or even anyone of a certain age who listens to the song) to not mentally reenact this iconic scene from Wayne’s World. 

 

As the singer (and maybe with the other parts to varying degrees), one adopts a persona or a character, or a role in Linderoth’s terminology, drawing from Goffman’s ideas of the roles we take on in social situations.  Let us use the late David Bowie’s Space Oddity as an example, that one of our players chose to sing on rock band.  The player HAD to sing it in Bowie’s unique style, adopting his persona, and even differentiating and changing roles between Major Tom and Ground Control.  So not only can we mimic the roles of “a” music performer, we also adopt the roles and personas of specific artists, of “the” performer.

I will unashamedly state that it was I who was Bowie-Ziggy for those 3 and a half minutes, and I’m not sorry that I was.  

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At our games night, we played Rock Band 4.  One of the newer mechanics that I noticed (having previously played only the original rock band) was what I like to call the “sacred solo”.  At certain points in certain songs, the lead guitarist in the game doesn’t have to physically play the notes that correspond to the solo that is being heard, but only needs to strum.  I put this down to the fact that there are some solos that are so sacrosanct, or just so f**king awesome, that the player can’t be trusted to deliver it in its full glory.  Or maybe it’s just so the player can have a nice rest.  They have a comparably easy role in relation of the rest of the game, as the game itself pretty much takes over.  But despite this removal of some agency in these solos, the player still feels like they’re doing really well, as what you hear sounds great.  Though I can imagine some people nonetheless would rather play these solos, as because of their “sacred” status, these are precisely the bits that people would actually want to play.  

Rock Band 4 also allows you to purchase individual songs for the game of the artists that you like, and in previous versions released expansions or full game versions for particular artists or groups.  Beatles Rock Band, the ACDC expansion for Rock Band, or Guitar Hero Metallica are those that spring to mind, and being able to add to your music (rhythm) collection and tailor it to your own preferences has infinite appeal.

So far I’ve only really discussed Rock Band 4 in detail, and Guitar Hero’s newest addition – Guitar Hero Live – also deserves some consideration.  In the game your band plays before actual  crowds (in the sense that they are real people who have been filmed specifically for the game), who cheer or boo in relation to how well you play the music.  Your digital bandmates (also “real” people) also engage with you, giving you questioning looks if you miss too many notes. This adds a new element to the simulation aspect, in that it gives extra realism in playing that previous versions of GH as well as Rock Band, with their cartoon-y representations of the band and the crowd, never quite achieved. 

However, unlike Rock Band and previous iterations of GH, the new live version has introduced what they term “the party pass”.  There is in-game currency, coins that you accrue by generally playing the game, that you can then “spend” to play specific songs on demand.  So far so good, and pretty standard in games across the board.  However, to accrue these coins, often you have to play through one of their “radio” channels, which more often than not are made up mostly songs that are utter, utter tripe.  And this is all fairly mercenary, as if you don’t want to play through these endless filler songs of varying and questionable quality, you can buy a “party pass” for £4.99, allowing you 24 hours of unlimited selections of the songs you actually want to play.  

Seeing as you have already purchased the game, one would expect that you would already have unlimited access to the songs in that game, at the very least after “unlocking” them by progressing through it or even by purchasing the song itself, as with Rock Band and previous iterations of GH.  The whole idea of the party pass just comes across as corporate greed, in that the developers introduced this mechanic as the one-off payment for the game itself is no longer enough, so they must continually charge you for wanting to play the songs that you enjoy.  I’m sure the developer’s argument for this would be that they are trying to promote these less popular bands.  But quite frankly, if the bands wanted me to play their music on GH, they should have written better songs.  The party pass feels very much like Activision exploiting Guitar Hero players, and I have no doubts that they are similarly financially exploiting the bands that consent to have their music transposed into the game form .  After all, you don’t become a multi-billion dollar conglomerate like Activision by looking after the little guy.  

Being able to play the songs that you like, when you like, is crucial to the enjoyment of the game, something that Guitar Hero Live appears to have lost sight of in their lust for greater commercial gains.

Shame

Many of us have said, in relation to music rhythm games, that if we had devoted the amount of hours and time spent playing them to actually learning to play a real instrument, we would probably be half-decent at it.  But that is too much like “work”, and these games are “play”. The distinction is important, though sometimes playing them does feel very much like work.  Plus, I already play an instrument, and it doesn’t matter how hard and long I practice my clarinet (DEVIL HORNS), I’m never going to be able to smash out a rendition of Sabbath’s War Pigs on that in the same way I do by playing Rock Band.  It would however, make for quite an interesting cover version.

Secrets and Lies: The Power(s) of Gambling

Gambling.

Games that are played in millions of Casinos, shady back-rooms, racetracks, betting shops, homes, and innumerable other places across the world. Played legally or illegally for the lowest or the highest monetary stakes, for prestige, for infiltration (I’m looking at you Mr Bond…), and sometimes – just sometimes – because they’re fun.

Poker, blackjack and the powers of gambling were on the agenda at the most recent sOUgame meeting, where four intrepid players brought their cash in the hope they may leave with more than they started with. But before we delve into the workings of this admittedly small stakes and friendly gaming session with friends, first we must look at the nature of poker as a game.

I’m not going to go into all the rules of poker here, few though they may be. At the most basic level, certain combinations of cards are more valuable (and statistically less likely to be achieved) than other combinations, and this establishes who wins each round. I don’t think that it’s hyperbole to suggest that you could spend a minute to read and understand what the rules of poker are, and a lifetime actually learning how to play it – or I suppose, playing well enough to win.  This implies that poker is, fundamentally, a game of skill – there are better or worse players (hence “Pro” players) and that playing well is a skill that can ultimately be learned.  One must learn what to do with the cards they are dealt in relation to the cards on the table, as well as how to read their opponents.

However, it isn’t just skill though is it? Card games are by the very nature often games of chance, which puts poker in both categories, but which element is the most important to the game: skill, or chance?

If we reduce play to the most basic components, according to Caillois, games can be classified into four categories.

  • Agon games are those that embody the spirit of competition. Sports fall into this category, as well as board games such as chess. Indeed, any game that involves any kind of contest includes an agonistic element and tends to be based on one element for the competition (speed, strength, skill, etc).
  • Alea games are those that fundamentally have a chance element, where the decisions of the player have no affect on the outcome of the game – the player has no control. Heads or tails, or playing the lottery, indeed gambling, are examples of the alea classification.
  • Mimicry. This classification related to the idea of simulation, of propagating an illusion of something. When children play make-believe as Cowboys and Indians, or pretend to be their favourite superhero, this is a form of mimicry. Though adult equivalents are also numerous, role-playing for example.
  • Ilinx are those games in the pursuit of vertigo, of spinning around until you become dizzy, or riding a rollercoaster – it’s purpose is to temporarily remove the stability of reality. Even indulging in alcohol is a form of Ilinx.

Many games do not have any one of these classifications alone, and Caillois suggests that within individual games, certain combinations of these classifications have fundamental relationships (as opposed to contingent or forbidden relationships), in that some of the classifications are particularly well-suited and ultimately compatible. His assertion is that the agon-alea relationship is a fundamental one, “parallel and complementary”, and it is this fundamental relationship that the game of poker embodies.

I could wax lyrical about Cailliois’ for a very long time, as it’s one of those texts that changes how you view the world, so much so you can never go back to looking at it in the same way as before.

Read it. Read it now.

Having outlined these play classifications, and where our games this session fall within them, that our game let us to return to our poker game.

There were various experience levels amongst the four players. Two of us had played poker before many times, one of us had played a digital version (not online poker, but games of poker within a digital game, so there were no stakes of real-world money) and one player had never played before. If we take poker as a game of skill, one would assume on experience alone, that one of the two more-experienced players to win the game.   We will return to this later.

All players had invested the same amount of cash, exchanging this for the same number of chips, so all players had the same starting point. As the game progressed, one of the players got knocked out, in that they had no chips left. As it happens, I won the round that ultimately knocked that player out of the game.   Surprisingly, this produced in me a feeling of guilt – even though I had, in effect, “won” the round. I suppose it was because the way I had had played the game meant someone else couldn’t, and to me that felt wrong.   It was that they were no longer able to play the game anymore, it was the exclusion that bothered me, not because I had taken their money – far from it. When you decide to play a game of chance, it is with the knowledge that you may lose the cash, or indeed you may win it.

And cash is nice.

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“Uh, Captain?.. I know we usually bury the treasure, but what if this time we use it to buy things? You know, uh, things we like?”

To compensate for this, I began to offer them chips in exchange for bringing me a beverage from the fridge – and additional chips in fines for my poor etiquette in the household – forgot to close the fridge, doh! – admittedly a faux pas but in normal circumstances would have constituted a friendly scolding as opposed to a financial penalty.  This is certainly not to say financial demands were placed upon me (I must stress that the opposite was true on multiple occasions) but this was my way of trying to balance my conscience as a winner using actual, real cash.   Perhaps this is the feeling that motivates rich philanthropists – they can justify their millions in the bank by making comparatively pitiful donations to worthy causes.

Talking of millions, casinos make big money. As an example,

“The University of Las Vegas found that the 23 Vegas casinos bringing in over $72 million each in the 2013 fiscal year ended up with over $5 billion of their visitors’ money, altogether. That’s an average of over $630,000 a day, per casino.”

This, I feel, is another inherent problem with gambling – in establishments such as casinos at the very least. The odds are always in the house’s favour, and stacked against the player. These casinos prey on people’s hopes for a win, the brief exhilaration felt on the odd occasions where it actually happens, and upon many people who have the compulsion to gamble or are ultimately addicted to the positive feelings that gambling gives. In our session, we talked about the adrenaline rush of winning a round of poker, and that this was (obviously) the most enjoyable element of the game. Those moments of exhilaration are fleeting and few, though enough for people to continue to gamble, resulting in losses that can be catastrophic and involve these – arguably fairly vulnerable people – spiralling into debt.

The vehement and aggressive rejection from casinos of those that are believed to be counting cards – who have become better skilled at playing the game than the casino would like or allow – is symptomatic of the importance that casinos place on being the only entity that should profit from the gambling experience. Casinos would call card-counting “cheating”, though if the odds are always stacked against the player and in the house’s favour, who’s really cheating who?

Online gambling was also a topic that was under discussion, in how does not seeing or even knowing your opponent affect the gambling experience? Tlook in the eye.pnghere is an element of truth to being able to look your opponent in the eye, and to finding out whether you’re playing with bluffers, risk-takers or neither. If playing with friends, it’s interesting to find out their “poker persona”, who they are within the game. Playing online removes this personal element to the play experience, and also (in my mind at least) produces questions about the legitimacy of the games. If the odds are stacked against the player in physical casinos, how can one know that the games aren’t rigged against the player even more in online gambling environments? The whole point of games of chance, those with the alea element, is that you surrender to destiny and that the outcome is unknown. Whether there is truth to this position or it is merely a conspiracy theory, it feels that games of chance in online environments could be more likely to have pre-determined outcomes, stacking the odds ever-more against the player.

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To return to our game, where the stakes were admittedly small and we began as equals with the same chances of winning (or losing), we were playing not for any great commercial gain (though that may have been nice) but to enjoy the experience of play itself.   Even with poor hands, we all admitted to betting in rounds rather than folding, just to be part of the play experience. Though it was also important for there to be a financial stake involved, small as it was, as this impacted how we played – if there is nothing ventured and nothing to lose, there is no incentive to play carefully. Then the alea element would fully take over, as the game would rest merely on who has the highest cards, without needing any skill to “read” the other players’ actions. The monetary element of poker is what makes it truly agonistic: the players compete to win the money. However, the best player in the world won’t stand a chance if what they draw is at odds with the cards on the table – unless, of course they have the skill to bluff their way out of the situation. Both agon and alea are too firmly seated in poker for the game to work without either one of them. Perhaps this is what Caillois meant, when he talked about those fundamental relationships. Something that also affected how we played? Alcohol. In our pursuit of ilinx, perhaps we affected the agon of the game.  Worth it.

Finally, it’s also important to note that the ultimate winner of the game was the player that had played poker for the first time that evening, and not one of the more experienced players. Experience in a game clearly doesn’t always mean “skill” at it. At least the rest of us could console ourselves with ideas that “they obviously had better cards” and thoughts of “beginners luck”.

Perhaps the alea element in poker is greater, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rubber Banding Mechanics: Does the Best (Wo)man Always Win?

I find it hard to believe that there is a person on the planet who doesn’t, or wouldn’t, like Mario Kart.

Those who have played it before are always willing to play it again, and those who play it for the first time always want to, or at least are compelled to, often by other people. After all, it is particularly non-threatening. For the seasoned gamer, the nostalgia and familiar characters related to Mario Games plays no small part in their appeal, and for everybody, the cartoon-y graphics, simple controls, bright colours and “cutesie” aesthetic give them a degree of accessibility.

Mario Kart in most of its incarnations is arguably the King of the rubber banding mechanism.  Although in the newest version (MK8) the rubber-banding is less pronounced, we opted to play the retro Mario Kart: Double dash on the trusty Nintendo Gamecube, with its clunky plastic controllers and its tiny, tiny discs.

Rubber banding is a game-balancing mechanism where players in the lead are essentially handicapped and those that are not doing so well are given bonuses.  Mario Kart is famous for its inclusion of this mechanic, in that players in the lead get less powerful power-ups than those that are behind.  This was exemplified in one race of the tournament, where a player who had played the game for the first time ever that evening actually beat another player, who was very experienced in more realistic driving games.  This is not to say that complete gaming illiteracy can produce a win with a rubber banding mechanism – you can’t just bash buttons repeatedly against your face and still magically win – but Mario Kart goes a ways in levelling the playing field between more and less experienced players.

 

IMG_1465[Is this complex mathematical formula calculating the Event Horizon of a Black Hole? Almost. It’s our tournament scoreboard. Credit for the Image to @JLMittelmeier]

 

In our discussions after the tournament, this is something that we agreed is actually expected from Mario Kart, and indeed we love the game for it.  After all, it is no fun and actually pretty boring to be beaten in any type of game, over and over again, by a player that is better than you.  If you think you have no chance at all to win, the odds are that you probably won’t play it all that much, but Mario Kart circumvents this precisely because of its rubber banding mechanism.  It has replayability because of this mechanism as well as because of the luck element involved – this means even when you lose, you don’t feel angry about it as you know this is the nature of the game.  Plus, racing a kart driven by a dinosaur or a moustached plumber with no neck – the lack of realism in the game – makes a loss ok, more so than with more realistic driving games.

 

We also played a dice game called Heck Meck,

a (probably) Swedish game using die and tiles.  There are tiles numbered between 21-36 on their top half, and on the bottom half that have “worms” that relate to their value.  By this, I mean the ’21’ tile has one worm, and the 36 has 4.  The fiction of the game is that the players are chickens trying to get the most tasty worms for tea.

The aim is to have the most worms at the end of the game.  To obtain a tile, and hence those coveted and yummy worms (at least by some, see below….), you roll and keep (i.e. do not re-roll) all the die with the same numeric value (all the 1s, 2s, etc), and repeat this process, re-rolling all the die you have left over, without taking a numerical value that you have already.  For example, you might roll and take all, but only, the die showing ‘4’s on your first roll, meaning you cannot take ‘4’s on any subsequent rolls until the end of your turn.  On the 2nd roll you make take the ‘5’s, and the third all the ‘3’s. Easy yes? Surely you can get a mollusc cocktail each time….  Not quite.  You see, on the die themselves there is a ‘worm’ in place of the 6 – a measly little worm that doesn’t count in terms of your score at the end of the game, but it does allow – or the lack thereof prohibits you – from taking a tile.  In other words, you can have 36 in numeric value on the die faces, but without at least one worm (worth 5 in value, incidentally) you will be sans tile, or in other words, go bust.

heckmeck.jpg

So although the aim is to have the highest number possible on the combined die, and take a tile as your reward, you must have a worm in the hand (and not two in the… can?) to be in with a chance at a prestigious and glorious victory. However, the game includes targeted interaction where you can steal other people’s tiles if you roll the exact number of their tile on the die.  Although this doesn’t in a strict sense create a rubber banding mechanism in itself, it does mean that the person(s) that visibly have the most tiles and appear to be winning are the ones that you aim to steal from, and this brings more balance to the game.  There is, of course, a luck element involved in that you are rolling a dice, and chance is what a dice is particularly good at.  But it was certainly interesting to note how the elements of chance and targeted interaction worked together in our sOUgame session this evening.

For example, at the start of play when most of the players were unfamiliar with the game, there was much collaboration involved in terms of both the rules (“is this right?”) and also the play of it (“is this a good move?”) but this was to be expected.  However initially during play, even when a player rolled an exact value (28) and were within their rights to steal this tile from another player, they chose not to – instead opting to be ‘nice’, instead taking the lower value (27) from the tile pool, something allowed within the game’s rules.  I see this as potentially being for one (or both) of two reasons.

1) There was an element of social negotiation, in that the player in question, being unfamiliar with the other player, was unsure how they would react to such blatant and outright pillaging.  This could have been awkward, and no one does awkward like the British so perhaps the player didn’t want open this can of, ahem, worms.

2) The player in question was aware that taking the ’28’ tile would award them 2 worms at the end of the game, but the ’27’ would also award them 2 worms, so why create a conflict when this makes you a target?

Stealing a tile from another player instantly marks you as a player that deserves to be stolen from, something that became immediately evident when it became almost a greater achievement to steal a tile from the player that opened pandora’s worm farm than to obtain one from the tile pool.  Though conversely, stealing another player’s tile means they have less worms than you and is thus a sound tactic, as it might hinder them and help you win…. or at least that is one way you could play the game.

 

That’s if you’re not nice.

 

Theft of tiles amongst players more familiar with each other was swift and immediate, so I’m more inclined towards (and perhaps would like to believe) in the former explanation, or at least that there are nice people gamers in the world.  Though, as play progressed and familiarity with the game and each other increased, the egregious theft of hard-earned tiles also increased, and rightly so, given that we were many players meaning “legitimately” gained tiles from the tile pool became increasingly hard to obtain.  As we were a few in number, it is also fair to say that that players who were at the beginning of the turn order had an easier time of it, in that they had more tiles in the tile pool available to them when they took their turn, as well as the ability to take a tile with a lower value than their die from the tile pool rather than needing to roll an exact number to be able to steal one.

Some might say that the early bird catches the worm. (Pause for groans).

There was a certain element to our play tonight, however, that was surprising (and if I may say apologetically, pretty amusing) in that one of our number appeared to have a phobia of worms – even the cartoon worms represented in Heck Meck, with smiley faces, eyes and the like.  So strong was this phobia was that the player had to roll the die wearing gloves, in that they had a real repulsion of handling the die, despite the fact that they were evidently and categorically merely pictures of worms.

Here you may have to indulge me for a moment, as I’d like to return to Bateson (1987), mentioned in passing in the last blog.  You see, Bateson was a psychologist and talks about aspects of play as “denoting” something. So in play terms, “these actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote” (185).  So, the nip of a puppy denotes a bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by a bite, i.e. an aggressive and serious act. The puppy is not actually “biting”, but what it is doing *looks* like it is biting: it’s a fictional bite, in that it is not “real”. It looks like it, but it’s not.

Have you ever seen a dog try and play with another dog, but the other dog gets unnecessarily aggressive? This is an example of where this meta-communication becomes confused, i.e. the other dog has misinterpreted the signals and mistakes those that mean “play” for those that mean “not-play”. [I mean, the other dog might not be in the mood to play so is just warning the other dog to stop being so bloody exuberant ….. but I’m sure you get the picture in that both would be reasons for this behaviour].

In other words, one dog is in the “play frame” and one isn’t – something that happens with humans also, for example, when you’re not sure if someone is joking with you or not (“Is this play?”).  But more so, Bateson is talking about humans in this paper, and about how distinguishing between these frames, of drawing categories between different logical types, can be difficult for certain types of people.  Although he talks most prominently about people with schizophrenia finding it difficult to distinguish between these different frames, I think the phobia we saw could fall into this category of frame confusion, albeit at a much, MUCH reduced scale.  The tiles and die denoted “worms” to the player, but rather than them responding to these denoted worms as denoted worms (a “nip”) and that these represented worms did not denote what they stand for (i.e. “real” worms), the player had a similar response to them as if they DID denote what they stood for.  This is not to say that the player thought the cartoon worms actually were real worms – the exact opposite is true, something that clouds the application of frame confusion here.  But that their response to the denoted worms was similar as they might have been to real worms…..

So far, I fear this is becoming a bit complex and will result in me having a cranial haemorrhage, so I will return to Bateson with another example that will hopefully clarify some of the meaning here.  Bateson also states (188-9) that this relationship can be reversed.  Imagine a nightmare, where you are falling from a cliff.  Your response to this nightmare – even though the actual falling from a cliff is fictional, and not “real”, nonetheless it still evokes a feeling of fear, i.e. “The images did not denote that which they seemed to denote, but these same images did really evoke a terror which would have been invoked by… a real precipice” (189).

In Bateson’s cases, the theory doesn’t quite fit in terms of our player and their response to the denoted worms, in that they were aware that they were not real worms but had a similar response to them, unlike in a nightmare where (for the most part) you are not aware that it is a nightmare, or that the player had a frame-confusion about whether the worms were ‘real’ worms, which they didn’t.

 

So much for clarification.

 

Much as I’d like Bateson’s theory of frame-confusion to fit in our case, I can’t help the feeling that I’m trying to shoehorn it, but I appreciate the mental free-spill being indulged.  It has also been pointed out to me that frames in a play sense, really, work more in the social construction of an experience i.e. in terms of (mis)meta-communications between players, of which this actually wasn’t.  It was perhaps more related to individual perception, i.e. the player’s phobia caused a misreading of the affordances of the light related to the denoted worm, meaning their response was similar to that of a real worm. As wonderful as it would be to get into the nitty gritty of Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception as an explanation for this phenomenon, this is perhaps best saved for another time.

To conclude, in regards to Heckmeck, the roleplay elements were lacking, in that no one really identified with their chicken-self and threw themselves into the character, which was a shame.  But it was certainly fun to play it and produced some interesting questions that have only begun to be answered.  In terms of Rubber banding mechanisms, did the best player win? In Mario Kart I think we could all agree that the winning player was a consistent winner, i.e. they weren’t constrained too much by the rubber banding mechanism so as not to achieve the victory that they probably (it wasn’t me so….) deserved.  The rubber banding mechanisms however did even the playing field, meaning that all of the players felt they were in with a chance, and were happy to keep racing. Though this might be a conclusion that is only be applicable to Mario Kart, it’s one that is fine by me.

Good game, guys, good game.

Everyone has an opinion on Cards Against Humanity

At the second meeting of the sOUgame circle two discussion games were on the agenda: Cards Against Humanity and the Metagame.  As with all discussion games, my belief is that a couple of drinks never harms the proceedings (and in fact, actually makes for more nuanced answers and hilarity), so this time the location was the OU’s local of the Cellar Bar.

The first game on the cards, so to speak, was Cards Against Humanity (CaH), is a fill-in-the-blank game using pre-determined phrases on cards, and is a game “for horrible people”, according to its box text.  So what exactly makes people horrible – is it the intent to play it, the playing of it, or how we play it?

There’s a lot of criticism of CaH arising from it’s content, in that it actively includes on it’s cards subjects that are typically considered taboo in polite conversation, or at least in seeing these subjects as fodder for laughter, fun and play.  It includes subjects that are controversial, i.e. often derogatory terms relating to sex, race, abuse, sexual violence, religion and  political satire.

Cah

 This is something that CaH gets away with that other games (especially digital ones) struggle with, also known as “The Limits of Play”, a concept developed by Chapman & Linderoth (2015).  Their argument is that controversial subjects (such as racism, sexual violence, or the Holocaust) are seen as too sensitive to trivialise through play, so these elements are not included.  For example there are very few instances, in digital WW2 games at least, of Swastikas as part of the gameplay – even the term “Nazis” is not used – and when you can play as the Nazis Germans they are labelled as “Germans”, or they are called “Axis” and “Allies”, as opposed to fascists and Allies, or Nazis and Allies, etc.  Things like this that are ok to represent in TV or film dramas are seldom represented in games, as the playable position in many senses would allow the players to reenact such atrocities, clearly something that game developers are not willing to be criticised for.  Even in games like the new Wolfenstein, one of the few that does allude to the Holocaust as part of the narrative, it is presented in the form of a cinematic cut-scene, i.e. it is portrayed in the form of traditional media and not a part that you can play.

It is this element in terms of the Limits of Play in other games that CaH circumvents, where it blurs the boundaries between the verbal and the printed, as it merely gives you the tools to be a “horrible” person. After all, “The Holocaust” written on a card isn’t, in itself, offensive.  The game itself isn’t horrible.  It’s how these cards are used to answer the questions you are asked.  The game doesn’t force you to play a card.  You, as the player, have the agency to decide when that card should be played – if ever.  But, and this is a biiiiiig but. Chances are you are not likely to win if you take a politically correct approach to the game.  The more shocking, random, appropriate, or on occasion, clever answer you give, the more likely you are to win the round.  The card in itself isn’t a joke, it is only in conjunction with the question that is asked that humour may arise, and perhaps, the offence, and it is the reading out loud of the answers by the Card Tsar that gives them their power to do one or the other. 

I, for one, am not easily offended.  I grew up close to Liverpool, where dark humour is not just a genre but a way of life (it took less than 2 hours after her death for me to hear a joke about Diana Spencer regarding [insert wall/paparazzi/tunnel/promiscuity/  assassination joke here].  However, you wouldn’t see these jokes printed anywhere….  

Or at least not in the “reputable” rags of right-wing news, ironic considering it was these newspapers that contributed to her death in the first place.  Even now there is many people (in the UK at least) who would actively complain if they were to read such a thing, even more than 18 years since her death.  CaH makes it ok to joke about these perceived sensitive subjects, and if someone is offended, well, it’s irrelevant.

The game says that it’s for horrible people, right?

 

 

Something must be said about the “game frame”, to use Goffman’s term, which is described by Goffman (drawing from Bateson 1955) as the ability that animals have to understand the difference between a nip and a bite, i.e. drawing the distinction between the playful and the serious.  This can equally be applied to our play of CaH, as post-game every person present stated their awareness of the fact that the terminology, content or subject matter seen on the cards would never be something that would be said in real life (in terms of Goffman’s metaphor, “a bite”), whereas in the game frame it is ok to use this terminology as it is merely “a nip”.  The game frame essentially takes the agency from the player when they’re “horrible”, almost in “the game made me do it” type of way.  The anonymity of the answers in terms of who played them further removes the player from the subject that they are answering on.

One thing that can be said, however, is that the game doesn’t discriminate against one ethnic, religious or cultural stereotype in it’s humour – to paraphrase South Park “either it’s all ok, or none of it is ok”.  But perhaps the real irony lies in the fact that the reason that the stereotypes of these ethnic minorities are found to be amusing is that there is an acknowledged, nay propagated,  disparity that these groups have in the wider world, meaning that their plight (in want of a better word) is found to be amusing, despite the players’ chagrin at the highlighting of it.  This is not to say that any of the players were racist, etc., as all stated being fully aware of the dubious ethical connotations of our answers.  Only that perhaps the humour arose not in the fact that this disparity and the awareness of it was all too real, but that the real humour arises in the quiet ridicule of the people that do try and propagate these myths, for example, about racial superiority. Indeed, “White privilege” was one of the cards we saw and the humour arose in the awareness that this was a fundamental and strong force in the modern world, saddening though it is.  Something that came up in our discussions post-game is that the more liberal a group is, the more there is an awareness that the cards played were in fact politically incorrect, but that the humour arises not from the racial/sexual/religious stereotypes themselves but in poking fun at people who believe these arbitrary classifications actually should reflect reality, not that we should question this reflection.  And, of course, in saying something that you shouldn’t.

Although there is certainly the argument to be made that you can win through shock factor in this game, the element of “comedy” timing is also a factor, as well as the fact that there is a “Card Tsar” that you are effectively targeting your answers to.  So it might be said that the better you know someone’s humour, the better you will fare at CaH, though there is always the random draw of the cards themselves that must be taken into account.  Though this is surely a feature in many games, including the metagame, as well as others card-based or not, so serves to inject some variation into the format.

The Metagame

The mechanics of the Metagame in many ways are similar to that of CaH. There is a Card Tsar who asks a question and decides the best response of all the cards given (this can also be decided by a democratic vote as another variation, but I always like the idea of a Dictator), however there is an additional discursive element in Metagame, in that you choose your card and must argue for that card’s win (at least in the “debate club” game variant we played).  There is 200 culture cards that highlight civilisations “greatest achievements”, including works of art, films, music, fashion, and video games, and has 6 game variants – 

  • Matchmakers: match your culture cards to the right opinion cards
  • History 101: put everything in the right chronological order
  • Debate Club: argue to the critics for your hilarious opinion
  • Head to Head: a fast-paced race to get your cards out first
  • Massively Multiplayer Metagame: for big parties and events
  • Metaquilt: a tricky combination of strategy and discussion

 

Although the player has more agency in the Metagame, as a group of 7 that played who had various International backgrounds, there was a certain level of pop culture knowledge and perhaps an anglo-centric orientation that had to be negotiated.  For example, the Big Mac may be seen as a legitimate cultural phenomenon by at least Americans and Brits, perhaps this is not quite so important to world culture as western culture may have us believe.  Similarly so with “the Mullet”.  

Though, presumably this comes back to the agency of the player in choosing the card as a potentially winning answer, what works for some doesn’t by any means work for all parties.  In the metagame, how you “sell” your card is just as important as the card itself – the game is as much about the presentation of the card as it is about the card, an aspect that is lacking in CaH, where you almost sneak your card across in the hope that you are revealed as the winner, where if you don’t you are undoubtedly doomed to obscurity until the next turn.  perhaps the appeal in winning in CaH is merely the hope for recognition that you chose a “good answer”.  

In the discussion of the metagame, it was emphatically stated that it requires more skill than CaH.  Yes – there is a randomness to the selection of the cards themselves, but there is the skill of both choosing the right card to answer the question as well as how you present it.  The heightened discursive nature of the metagame means that perhaps native English speakers are at an advantage, whereas in CaH you can play a card you don’t understand and still, potentially, win. 

     There was also the fact that the discussions in relation to the cards produced discussions outside of the “game frame”, in that it inspired us to talk about aspects of the question or cards presented in ways that were relevant to our own lives.  To some extent this did also occur in CaH, though for the most part this was to explain the content of the cards.  For example, I remember a discussion of the nature of Blackpool (ahem), as well as “reader’s wives”, amongst other personal highlights…. but this also illustrates a particularly Brit-centricity to the game, understandable given there are different American, Canadian, Australian and British versions of CaH.  

   This is as opposed to inspiring actual debates about the cards or surrounding topics as we saw in the metagame – the game was a jumping off point for non-game related discussions more so (in my opinion) than could be said for CaH.  This being said, we were further along in the night (and thus further down our drinks) when playing the metagame, so perhaps this assertion won’t hold up in the cold light of day.

One thing that particularly struck me with the play of the metagame was that even while people were submitting their cards and arguments, there was a rebuttal of the arguments (or agreement with them) by the other players.  This meant the game was a negotitation not only of the Card Tsar (as in CaH) but of the rest of the group also.  Ultimately, the game was much more of a social experience – more of a discussion game as it were – than in CaH, as people were having to actively find their answer’s place in the hierarchy, as opposed to sneaking their answer in and being told their answer’s place in the hierarchy, i.e winning or not winning, as in CaH.

Whereas the format of CaH risks becoming a bit “same-y” with increased familiarity with the cards and despite the expansion packs, I have found that over time I have become somewhat desensitised to the content of the game.  And once some of the shock factor of the cards is lost, it becomes much more difficult for it to have replay value.  This is certainly not to say that I didn’t enjoy our game, but that I think that the longevity of it may be brief, especially if played on a regular basis.

As the metagame relies more heavily on the individual players to create the fun through their opinions and discussions, every time it’s played is different – and this isn’t even taking into account the different game variants.  Though, as stated, we had imbibed somewhat more by the time we played it, so perhaps we should repeat the playing of the two games and invert the order of play, to see if it still holds up.

I, for one, am happy to play the metagame any time.

 

Cards Against Humanity is available in the different regional versions as a free pdf download here.

The Metagame is available by import from US Amazon.

 

 

 

Bateson, G. “A theory of play and fantasy,” in Psychiatric Research Reports vol. 2, no. 39 (1955), pp. 39-51.

Chapman, A. & Linderoth, J.  ” A case study of the representations of Nazis in games” in The Dark Side of Gameplay: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments.  Routlege. 

Goffman, E.  Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.

Bending Exploding Kittens

At the inaugural meeting of the OU games circle, the card game Exploding Kittens was on the agenda.

Exploding Kittens is an amazingly simple card game for 2-5 players, described as a “kitty-powered version of Russian Roulette”[1] by its creators.  Quite simply, the aim of the game is to draw cards (or force other players to draw cards) but avoiding drawing an exploding kitten.  If you draw one, you lose the game and are thus the object of shame and ridicule for your fellow players.

By July of 2015, Exploding Kittens was the most backed Kickstarter project ever with more than 200,000 backers, raising over 8 million USD in funds [2].  Its accessible though fun game mechanics, combined with the quirky drawings by web cartoonist Matthew Inman (a.k.a The Oatmeal) as well as multiple deck versions (a regular and, ahem, dirty ‘NSFW’ version) seems to justify this initial and continuing popularity.

Bending the Rules

Exploding Kittens is designed for a maximum of 5 people, but what if 6 people want to play?

This issue came up during play in our meeting: how could we adjust the mechanics of the game to accommodate an extra player? As it happens, this was as simple as re-inserting “exploded” kittens back into the draw deck but this produced many questions relating to the relationship of the rules to the game, and indeed to the players.

What are rules to a game?

How integral are they  to the design of it? Can they – or more so should they – be bent or broken? 

Should some rules in a game be sacrificed to make a more social game experience for everyone, or is it more important to ensure that the few have the optimal experience that the designers intended?  

How does changing the rules affect the play experience?

 

If you’re looking for answers to these questions, sorry…

…I don’t have them I’m afraid.  If you know of someone who does please let me know – but really I’m pretty sure there is not “right” or “wrong” answers here, only different opinions.

Obviously, there is arguably no doubt that a game by its very nature must have rules – this is not the question here.  The more important question is perhaps whose rules matter? How sacrosanct are the written rules to the experience of a game?

In the example given above, of adapting the game to incorporate 6 players instead of the intended 5, wasn’t it more important that we the players agreed on a set of “meta-rules” that we would all adhere to, i.e. we applied rules enforced by social pressure as opposed to the rule book?

In my opinion, we have to have a shared set of game values when we play or chaos misunderstanding ensues.  Surely this is why people get so angry when people cheat at games: the cheats are not conforming to the shared expectations of how a game should be played. But if everyone is cheating  the written rules in the same way, is it still cheating?  At what point does cheating become collaboration?

But I digress. For a wonderful overview of the nature of cheating in videogames I would heartily recommend Mia Consalvo’s book Cheating: Gaining an Advantage in Video Games.  

For our purposes, when playing Exploding Kittens it was enough that we found a way to adapt the game to suit our immediate context, and socially constructed an appropriate ruleset that we would play by.  In effect, we created a mod for Exploding Kittens meaning we were all able to have fun and enjoy the game experience.

And isn’t that the most important thing?

 

 

[1] Exploding Kittens. 2015. Created by Elan Lee, Matthew Inman & Shane Small. Published by The Oatmeal. Available from: Explodingkittens.com

[2] Miller, Ross. 2015.  “Exploding Kittens, the most-funded game in Kickstarter history, is now shipping” The Verge, July 30. Available from: here