Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Koopman's Response + My Thoughts

Response to my article by Kimiko Koopman

Koopman here brings up the interesting point that when we consider possibility and impossibilities in a game, what will feel an arbitrary restriction on our freedom is also largely dependent on the identities of the people playing the game.

I argued that just because FFVIII doesn't offer certain experiences that I didn't come to experience that it does not feel arbitrarily limited. Koopman makes the point that, when players have more exploratory playstyles, the arbitrary borders between the possible and impossible become more immediately apparent and grating. In their words:

The waist-high fence is annoying (feels like it limits your freedom) because there are other fences that you can jump over or break through.
The painted-on door is annoying because it's the only door there's no keycard for in the game [. . .] These examples draw attention to them by being exceptions to rules that apply elsewhere in the game's world. They stand out because we (are led to) think things should be possible that turn out to be impossible.

(Note: I tried to format this quote to be centered, but blogger's system ended up jumbling the words by doing so.)

I would like to note that this is why consistency in design, something I've been rambling about quite a bit on twitter and on various streams is so important in games. After all, the arbitrary waist-high wall will feel arbitrary when it's placed as a deliberate barrier that should be easy to pass, but most games worth talking about barely ever feature this particular design problem. What some games do have, however, is arbitrary differences between examples of waist high walls. Personally speaking though, I am fairly forgiving when a game is completely consistent on it's position: I would rather play a game where waist-high walls are a consistent barrier rather than a game where some waist-high barriers are climbable, thus leading to a situation where I as a player have to test each of them for the HUD climbing indicator.

This is applicable to every facet of design: I may not enjoy SFIII's parry mechanics very much, but I believe that the game is a better game for making every hit parry-able.

Moving on: Koopman also make the point that the personal identities of players can rub against what experience a game wants to offer and therefore make that experience itself meaningless to that player. This is when a player of color is playing a game that "just so happens to have an all-white cast", to name one example.

Koopman makes the point that these are all arbitrary decisions on the developer's part that reflect the worldviews of the developer and I would like to emphasize that I absolutely 100% agree with that.

However, Koopman seems to make the argument that the decision for a game to star a straight, white character is already an inherent and arbitrary limitation on player freedom for a queer player or a player of color. To this I would respond with a modification original point that when a game is upfront about the experience it intends to offer than players do not expect the choice to play as a character of color or a queer character, and therefore in the confines of that particular experience the restriction does not feel as arbitrary.

But of course, when every "particular experience" offers us the same kind of characters, that's where the problem is.

This again brings me back to a point of cultural criticism. To me, the problem isn't that any one videogame does not offer the experience of being a character of color or a queer character, but that the larger culture of games (mainstream games at least) offers these experiences in stunningly less numbers than offering the experience of playing a straight, white male.

To be certain, this is worthy of loathing even when we consider that, to my knowledge, there are not any major AAA directors who are women, queer, or genderqueer (a fact that is loathable in and of itself), and thus these people may not be experts on the lived experiences of these groups. But mainstream games are made by absolutely gigantic teams of people, and the more people who work on them it becomes impossible to deny that there are definitely trans people, queer people, people of color, and women who work on these games who, in addition to their job as an animator or a UI designer, could also be part of the central creative team to assist in the creation of games that respectfully and responsibly depict those lived experiences, to say nothing of the lack of diversity in the upper echelons of AAA development.

I cannot condemn an individual game for it's omissions without condemning the culture that produced it, without considering the lack of diverse experiences that games offer. To me at least, an individual game's lack of diversity or lack has to be used as a jumping off point to criticize the larger culture of games.

I would also apply this logic in reverse to system and world design: we notice the problem of the waist-high wall (in games where the waist-high wall is a genuine problem) because of the large number of games that have this problem. However, unlike when we consider representation, it's easier to argue that if [x] game's treatment of a particular design idea is not to your liking than perhaps it's time to play a different game, because games by and large do offer lots of different choices for games to play that treat similar design ideas differently. Do you wish you could use a quieter approach when achieving objectives in the last Call of Duty or Battlefield? There are Splinter Cell games that call out to you. Do you like how first-person stealth works in Skyrim but wish there was a game that focused on those mechanics, rather than a sliver of those mechanics in the same basket as slivers of others? There is always the Thief franchise to consider. Going back to FFVIII, if the highly scripted experience it offers is not to your liking, there are plenty of games that offer more freeform approaches to gameplay, for example the RPGs made by Bethesda. To be certain, diversity in mechanics is important in games, but it's something that games seem to be handling pretty well. Even in the most mainstream publications, selections for the possible "Game of the Year" award tend to be across multiple genres including shooters, stealth games, and RPGs among a number of other choices that are harder to define, or games that blur genres together to create unique experiences.

In any case, I thank Koopman for taking the time to read my piece, and for responding, and I look forward to hearing back. 

 - Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

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