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We’re told that the ‘relatively new’ field of digital psychology (or web psychology) is one that looks at the web from the perspective of behavioural economics and psychology. Put succinctly, it is technique of informing design through an awareness of buyer habits to ensure the best chance of securing a purchase from site visitors. Put uncharitably, it is the practice of not-so-subtly brain-washing users into becoming, well, consumers. There is an informal ‘handbook’ of digital psychological techniques, familiar to anyone who has studied HCI with a focus on UX. Timers, attractive layouts, creating the impression of scarcity, familiarity, non-trivial effort… Websites like Amazon and Booking.com use these techniques to great affect, particularly Booking.com that provides a user with real-time updates on how many users are viewing an available property at any time, how much it will cost, what others thought of it… It feels much more like an old-fashioned auction house than a typical booking site! And, speaking of auction-houses, let’s not even get started on eBay…

Well, far from decrying the evils of this hyper-advanced form of marketing-cum-gambling-cum-heroin-addiction, I want to suggest something. Something personal to me and my private life, but ultimately to do with Game Studies and and videogames specifically. If the techniques above sounded at all familiar, the methods through which online companies attract and persuade users into becoming buyers, its because many of them are the cornerstones of ‘good’ game design. There is a fine line, if there is a line at all, between the techniques applauded for creating satisfying user-interfaces and game mechanics, and those used to disable a user’s rational thought. We want users to continue playing – with the view of them having an emotional experience through the games they are playing – but at the same time, we are also co-ercing them to an extent. What I am driving at is that games ultimately use the same tools of persuasion as Amazon and Booking.com in maintaining players and driving them forward.

However, this is not what really concerns me – after all, this can’t really be helped. If we intentionally make games uninviting and difficult to use (not challenging, but intentionally counter-intuitive – and not in a fun Bennett Foddy way!) What really concerns me is the lasting psychological impact this could be having. How might a lifetime of exposure to media sharpened through the handbook of digital psychology be affecting our emotions and relationships? Spending our entire lives engaging with media that rewards expedience, creates feelings of scarcity and manipulates familiarity, how can we feel any way other than disappointed if not constantly rewarded, praised and given further opportunities to purchase and consume.

Thinking personally, after I turned 25, circumstances in my life caused me to seriously reconsider the relationships I had been in and my behaviour in them. It took me another 4 years to realise that I had essentially been playing a role-playing game with my own life. Stick with me here, we’ve all played World of Warcraft. We’ve all felt the rush of accomplishment as we rise through the first few levels, easily complete the first few quests and are rewarded with new and unfamiliar tokens and trinkets. Putting in minimal effort, we are given huge rewards. As the game progresses, of course, tasks become harder, rewards more scarce and the effort required, far, far less trivial. But, of course, many of us stick with it because we’re driven by the idea that this increase of effort and time now results in a heightened sense of consequence. We maybe only gain a level every week now, but the reward is still coming and the payoff feels even better because we worked for it (so we think). Eventually, when the level cap is reached, we look for our own rewards by joining guilds and raids. We look for rarer armour and forge conquests of our own devising – can I gain higher standing within my guild? Maybe I can, if I just stick with it?

Now I want to talk about a terrible way of conducting a relationship, by way of counter example. You fall hopelessly in love in your first few meetings. You have some common interests but importantly, this person is different from you. You want to be with them all the time and they want to be with you. Every minute spent together is a reward – some new piece of information gained that you previously didn’t know. Each milestone moment is a huge achievement – the first time you make them smile, the first time you make them laugh, the first held hand, the first hug, the first kiss, the first time you sleep together, the first time you wake up together. The milestones are achieved through non-trivial effort: texts, phone calls, small gifts, attentive conversation, improved personal hygiene and fitness. You’re putting the effort in because their are rewards to be achieved.

To be perfectly clear here, I am 100% of how horrible and one-sided this sounds. This is not a mature or even healthy way to be conducting interpersonal human relationships. Yet, I’ll be the first person to admit, this IS how I’ve conducted relationships in the past, particularly when I was a teenager and in my early twenties. I didn’t really know any better; I didn’t have a handbook on how to treat others with respect because, I didn’t really know how to treat myself with respect. And, to be clear, I don’t think either party in this relationship is actually gaining anything – they’re likely both making each other ill. I’ll return to this self-reflection but I want to continue with the example.

Then the relationship (this terrible, terrible relationship) progresses. The trickle of rewards and achievements slows down. You’ve slept together once already, so the next time is maybe not as exciting but maybe it feels a little better – that’s still something right? It’s not a milestone, but it puts a spit-shine on what you previously achieved. Your constant contact attention and affection is definitely still building towards something (you tell yourself) but you’re not sure what. Maybe moving in together? Maybe children? Maybe that’s the big reward? Maybe if I just have children, or get married, then I’ll get the best reward of all?

Then you have a fight; maybe either one of you has become a little sloppy somewhere along the line or maybe you’re trying to push some boundaries. You have a lot of fights. You start to push against each other. The relationship actually becomes worse to be in than it would be to not be in it. But you stay. You solve the problems, you apologise and make up. Because this is all building towards something; isn’t it?

Let’s be clear about a few things here: firstly, once again, this is a terrible relationship. If you suspect that you or your partner are conducting themselves in this manner in a current relationship, there needs to be discussion and possibly some intervention on the road towards psychological improvement. Secondly, let’s be clear – though it doesn’t really need to be said, because human beings are not pinata’s – there is no reward to be had. There is no end-game state to be reached in a relationship. But then, why should we not be expecting that? We’ve spent our entire lives being confronted by the idea that people fall in love an live happily ever after. Alongside this, if you’re anything like me and learned to read from videogames just as much as books, you’ve spent a lifetime pressing buttons for a sense of happiness and fulfilment. Of course you view human relationships in this way.

So, what’s to be done? Well I think the first thing that should be done is to take stock of just how much games and videogames in particular are a part of society right now. By videogames, I don’t just mean games you buy from the store with fancy cover-art and Xbox achievements. I mean anything software that gives rewards for non-trivial effort (that’s my definition of a videogame, just in case you were wondering). Facebook, Twitter, Grindr, maybe even your email client if, like me, you treat seeing 0 unread emails as an end-game state. I don’t think this is an isolated thing. Western society has gone beyond the ideas of ‘late-capitalism’ and notions of capital that Fredric Jameson envisioned. We live in a constant reward cycle. We live in a Cookie-clicker society.

The second thing I think we need to encourage is a posthuman education. We need to continuously consider ourselves as a tiny, inconsequential element of a grand machine. One that we should be trying to take care of. Along with this should come an enormous emphasis on just how much you need to treat your reality, your consciousness, your brain (whatever you call it) as a fallible, faulty and unimaginably complex relationship between chemicals and natural forces. We cannot continue encouraging the sense of entitlement and self-assuredness that fosters such a behavioural pattern that would encourage humans to treat others as a means to end.

A final thing, way down the list, and focused on games in particular, would be a part of this posthuman education. We need to continue designing games that deny rewards. Imagine if World of Warcraft suddenly told the player that there were no new experiences, no new weapons, no new raids, no new players to come to know… no lands left to conquer. Instead, your challenge was to accept what you had. To find intrinsic value in what you had seen and collected at that point. Now, I don’t mean this in the manner that Tokaido the wonderfully fun board game attempted to implement this, where you are given points for seeing sites of natural beauty (eye-roll). I mean the game simply gave you a verbal indication – this is it. You are free to wander, to look at what you have and what the world is, but there are no rewards left of any kind. Just reflect. What kind of experience would that engender? It would be hard, but the prize is possibly the most valuable one there is. An ability to be content without rewards.

Using digital psychology in this, regrettably, somewhat Marxist manner, it might become a useful counter-metric. Analysing games from the perspective of digital psychology we can ask, was this game made with ‘the handbook’ in mind? What were they trying to accomplish? And then, instead of accepting this as ‘good design’ or simply decrying the extension of the hegemony of the neo-capitalist, consumerist, whatever (Marxism bores me) we could instead ask, what impact might this game have on our psychology? Our desires in interpersonal relationships?

Just a thought.

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Yes, yes, I know… I have 0 right to put forward any opinions about this. I’m not going to disagree. Seriously, I’m not. If you’re waiting for a “but” it just isn’t coming. For me (and I mean that, just me, this isn’t a manifesto it’s a personal preference) games (video- and otherwise) are a really cool medium because they don’t have to be characterised by gender at all.

There are plenty of counter-arguments to this of course and I’ll get them out of the way here so you don’t think I’m an idiot. What I consider “non-gendered” others may consider gendered or, even worse, “male”. In this case, I could be unable to conceive of this characterisation because of my restricted (read, gendered male) view. This would suck, but if what I consider to be “un-gendered” is not so, that’s not my fault. If, in a patriarchal system, the default space is patriarchal, I have a feeling that attempting to make this overtly feminine would only worsen the situation. Consider this: you decide to set a game on a white piece of paper – the semiotic implications of the white sheet encourage some viewers to think of my game as male. If I was to attempt to set my game on a pink sheet of paper, believing this will somehow change the game’s association to be in some way more feminine, only those who agree pink is feminine are appeased. And given the history of pink and its social normalisation as both masculine and feminine throughout western history, this would be particularly troublesome. If I attempt a colour with neither race nor gender implications – say… purple? – then my move to orient myself within some social framework will, undoubtedly, have some ramifications and cause someone offence somewhere. Essentially, I can’t win. I could, of course, allow the user to tweak the colour scheme of my game, and that is why games are amazing, but for the minute lets just adhere to the assumption that nothing is neutral and therefore best intentions to be neutral are the closest we can get to not offending anyone.

The other aspect of this is that the game itself may not have a gendered aesthetic or gendered characters but the player will always be gendered. Well, in this aspect I would have to take a Butlerian, “gender is performative” stance and argue back that we lose our gender and possibly find another one in the act of play. Turing once argued that during the process of mental arithmetic humans function as machines. Well, I would argue that during the process of playing an as near to non-gendered game as is possible, the gendered human loses its original gender and is augmented by the need to perform specific actions as the game intends rather than as you would like. Your new gender would be a fusion of whatever you brought to the game-table clashing with whatever the game was sending back. When you step away from the machine – well, maybe you’ve changed a little forever, but – honestly – when the majority humans aren’t just part of a machine, they kind fall off my academic radar.

A last counter-point would be that you could say the same about animation or possibly abstract theatre. I agree, and would love to see more animation and theatre go in that direction. Wall-E springs to mind as a kind of example and disappointment all in one. I like Wall-E and Eva’s interactions in the film. I think both of the robots (and they do appear to be robots, not cyborgs) display a spectrum of gender traits, sometimes being typically “Martian” (invoking Mars, all that is studly and war-like in the world) and in other moments being “Venusian” (flowers, blushing and all that). However, there is just something about the square/circle, rough/smooth dichotomy between them that I think a western child would perhaps too readily say, “Wall-E is a boy robot”, not recognising how ludicrous that is. So, really, I think you’d always be making an argument for, in those cases, rather than witnessing the lack of gender being self-evident.

By contrast, and drawing from videogames, I’ve been playing a lot of games that have a focus on puzzles and physics. Their narrative or meta-narrative could be summed up as, “things behave in certain ways because of defined rules. But these rules are not beyond change. This is cool.” I’m talking here about Portal (in which, this is the meta-narrative) Anti-chamber (in which, this is the primary narrative) and Relativity (I have a press copy, ha). Portal is a bit special and deserves more rigorous discussion and I will get to that. However, with Anti-chamber and Relativity, the gender of the on screen avatar is entirely irrelevant. Gender as a whole, including the player and the world represented, seems to just take a back seat in these cases.

For me, this ability to be genderless is a good thing. A really good thing. When playing through Anti-chamber, it’s cold, inhuman world seems to ask you different questions than those we have become familiar with. There is no mention of fate, no reason for questing. Rather, the point of the quest, the world of the game and the mechanics of play seem to be the unravelling of our assumptions about the world we inhabit. What are dimensions? What is colour? What can we see and should we trust it? The same goes for Relativity which, in its current build, is kind of a less oppressive, more sand-box feeling Anti-chamber successor. Using the looped, Pac-Man like space that only videogames allow, it successfully creates a world in which concepts like direction and orientation can be imploded.

Which brings me to Portal. It is perhaps unfair to judge Portal by the same standards as its off-spring. I’m not going to mention Portal 2 here as I think it is actually, largely in the same bracket and Anti-chamber and Relativity. However, Portal really does deserve to be discussed because it dares to be both gendered and non-gendered at the same time in a way that makes it avant guard today but has also future proofed it for the more racially and gender diverse future. The protagonist of Portal is a black, female scientist that is exceptionally physically capable, utterly fearless and entirely silent. Of course, much of this characterisation comes from the player’s control of the character and, if we took play experiences as narratively canonical then she is also immortal. Leaving that aside, however, this “casting decision” for lack of more appropriate phrase, is one too overtly exceptional to not, currently, consider it political.

Portal asks, what I feel, is an obvious question: why, when gender is not an integral part of the narrative, do we default to making characters white males? Why not black females? There is an inherent danger here, making the black female a seemingly oriental body, but that so completely validates the point. Why is the body of Portal’s avatar exceptional? With the film and television industry there is a whole myriad of factors to take into consideration. But when something like Portal has already paved the way, showing that audiences will completely accept and celebrate the casting of a black female as the protagonist of a game, why have other designers still set on using human forms as their avatars remained so cowardly and unimaginative. I was about to mention how I haven’t seen a game whose protagonist was female but not still in peak physical condition (i.e., a media-praised body weight and height) but then I remembered Fat Princess. Then again, it maybe isn’t the kind of body diversity representation we’re looking for.

Games, I believe, have the ability to create a non-gendered paradigm more acutely than any other preceding medium. What’s more, they may have the ability to help normalise what are persistently, offensively underrepresented body types and ethnicities. When we default, when we create a character who is neither male, female, white or black within the narrative, I would always stray towards “neutral” or “abstract”. But perhaps that isn’t the most positive move? Maybe the best action would be to look around you? Too see what forms are represented on the Steam marketplace and think how an hour or two in your chosen model creation platform, even a texture wrap, can help to represent a minority in some small way in western media. But if that makes you feel uncomfortable, please do anything other than Marcus fucking Phoenix.

I had the pleasure of attending the Film-Philosophy 2014 conference in Glasgow this week. A strand running through the conference, typified by the keynote talks of William Brown and Laura U. Marks (to a much lesser degree in the equally brilliant talks by Patricia Pisters and Lúcia Nagib) was that of impending digitally. This was expressed by speakers in a multitude of ways: non-cinema, imaginary cinema, algorithmic cinema, network-cinema. The anxiety between the speakers remained the same however: what do we do now in the face of this new cinema? Many methods were suggested, enough to make me believe the future of film studies will be just as engaging and interesting as that which has come before. However, there seemed to me (perhaps unsurprisingly) to be a ghost at the feast. Many of the theories and philosophical approaches developed across the weekend seemed underwhelming when applied to the cinematic text. This is not because film is not an interactive medium; it’s because it is a limited interactive medium. Film, increasingly, when understood by theory developed in the era of digital media, seems a poor choice for this newer analysis so excited by the possibilities of the digital present.

In particular my feeling was present in the talk by Marks. Her discussion of Mulla Sadra’s imaginary realm – an abstract theological space of the mind which is closer to deistic existence than the standard form of the world – in application to the charming The Lebanese Rocket Society (Hadjithomas and Joreige, 2012) presented a particular frame from which to appreciate a particular culture’s artistic output. In the film’s closing moments the filmmakers switch form from candid camera to animation, imagining a future (or present) for Lebanon that will never be. Sadra’s imaginary realm allows this imagining to take place in a way that links it explicitly back to the people of that continent’s past. There are connections here that run deep, deeper than blood, into the cultural roots of a people, a religion and a social order.

Marks’ appropriation of Eastern esoteric philosophy in application to a medium anachronistic by hundreds of years opens new doors for approaching all media, not just cinema. Cinema, to my eyes, seems to me to only be a mildly satisfactory testing ground for the ‘imaginary realm’. Given the existence of The Cat and The Coup, a game that presents an extreme abstraction of the life of Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and his subsequent downfall through a CIA- and MI6-engineered coup during the 1950s.

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In Cat and Coup, Iranian history and politics is, fittingly, negotiated through a series of puzzles and hermetic systems that steep a user within an aesthetic of conflict and cultural discourse. Heightening the presence of the imaginal realm as a potential approach to games, the player is asked to traverse the game world using a series of restrictive actions (jumping, moving, falling) and is represented on screen in the figure of a cat. There are realms of disconnection, intra-imaginary realms present in the constant abstraction of action and person from process to action to code to action to process yet again. The game progresses but is never won – a sort of waking dream. Beyond the sit and watch processes of cinema viewership, The Cat and the Coup places player’s in control of the imaginal realm. It pushes against the links of blood and culture and extends a particular social event to include whomsoever wishes to engage with the text. We are all invited to re-imagine historical events from the perspective of a fly, or cat, on the wall.

In all, there seems room to proceed. As time goes on in academia and Computergame-Philosophy continues to tick along rather than grasp and create new and engaging theoretical approaches such as Marks’, game studies may remain that ghost at the feast. I hope, in my time, to see a conference with the same vigorous approach to form and content as this but dedicated to my own medium. Presently, I’m saddened that we are content to haunt rather than possess.

My own writing on games is concerned with the encounter of the natural and the machine. I follow the logic of Leo Marx through Sean Cubitt and eventually Karen Barad to theorise an intra-action of machine and user. A part of this, however, has been playing games that have tested my ability to become one with the machine (or, as I prefer to think of it, to create a new two, together with the machine).

One of the major games that has helped me achieve this line of thinking is Terry Cavanagh’s, frankly, incredible “Super Hexagon” (iOS, 2012). It’s completely counter intuitive blend of non-euclidian space and simplistically linear user interface create an experience that clearly articulates the feeling of needing to change as a user – to “come up” to the level of the machine. This is not just practice and repetition (although I will admit that is a large part of it) as the game uses procedural generation for the levels. In truth, this is a shift in something beyond thinking – reaction times and perception. The game becomes a matter of “flow”; of entering into a space where you siphon off brain power from the top level of your cerebral cortex to the raw, processual cores of your brain and associated motor functions. In that, the game has changed how I think about gaming and how I see the world (of “Super Hexagon” at least).

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However, another game has forced me to this point in a similar and yet different way. The game is “Bitless” by Nicholas Rapp (iOS, 2013) whose title is derived from the feeling of being “scared shitless”. Whilst I’m yet to experience any sense of terror from the game, a terror I was assured in the comments at the App Store, the game has allowed me to engage with a sensory realm I was hitherto unaware of in ludic experience. The only way I can describe it is as the “surgeon’s touch” and I think it may be something entirely unique to a specific type of one-button casual game played on capacitive touch devices.

By “surgeon’s touch” I mean to imply that the game relies on a specificity of input control that goes beyond standard, touch the button to win, ideas of one button game. Everything is infinitely divisible, of course, but there is something to the playing of “Bitless” that I have not experienced before.

When playing (particularly in the Green level 12) the game forces the player to enact specific movements, often purely through a sense of rhythm, pre-empting what would be a logical action in line with what is visible on screen. One of the actions is a long jump to short jump manoeuvre used to traverse wide pits before overcoming tight spaces between two fatal obstacles. In these instances, the contact with the screen becomes less about “touching” and more about “removing” one’s finger from the screen. It is only the length of touch which decides the movement and in order to accommodate the precision of touch required, I found, my hold upon the device had shifted from the usual cumbersome press of touch-control, to a feather light engagement in which I could barely feel my iPad but was instead trusting that it would feel me.

Perhaps this feeling is exclusive to my engagement with this game and perhaps this has something to do with my I am still, as of writing, stuck on a fairly early level in a fairly simplistic game which I have no doubt, truly native game players would digest in a matter of hours rather than days (as I am). But I cannot deny that the experience is has imparted to me of the “surgeon’s touch” to my device has been truly remarkable, reminding me, at the least, of the sophistication of the capacitive touch interface.

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In truth, I feel that I have felt a much more organic engagement with my device while simultaneously I have felt my own organicness being stripped away in favour of incredibly exacting inputs that only machine could realise.

But then, for me, that is exactly the experience playing a videogame should impart as it is exactly what is happening.

Conor Mckeown
Univeristy of Glasgow