The Difficulties of Sports Video Games

“Madden Sucks”

Enter the title of any mainstream video game followed by the word “gameplay” into a YouTube search, and you will soon be presented with a wealth of user-captured evidence of what video games look like. Some of this comes from directly captured audio-visual signals and appears essentially seamless, while some is more roughly captured from television screens with handheld digital cameras. Some includes audio commentary and shows, blow by blow, how to complete a given game, some displays users’ impressive achievements in gameplay, and some provides a record of games which may no longer be easily accessible to users.[1] This, of course, is only an incomplete picture of the wide variety of game-related content that can be found on YouTube.

To begin this essay I would like to point to a particular thread within all of this video content: gameplay samples uploaded by users complaining about the most recent iteration in the Madden NFL series of football games, Madden NFL 12. While this might seem like a minor topic, the number of examples to be found is quite staggering. Grumbling through their frustration (and often their impressive profanity) these users describe artificially prescient computer-controlled opponents, poorly animated movement, limbs and torsos passing through each other, flying footballs inexplicably changing course in mid air, superhuman movement, and scores of other problems.

Though Madden is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time and Madden NFL 12 sold over a million copies in the week after it was released, these users have no trouble finding flaws in the game, or supporting their claims with video evidence.[2] Furthermore, Madden NFL 12 is not a particularly poor representation of the series; these sorts of complaints are made on a yearly basis.

While perusing these grievances, I came upon a video titled “Madden 12’s magical 1 handed interception” that led me to consider some unique issues in users’ dissatisfaction. The video’s creator, identified as “bballashotkalla,” protests that “these players can jump up twenty feet in the fucking air, these linebackers, and intercept these passes like they’re fucking Jesus Christ or something.” The video indeed shows Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher leaping to make a one-handed interception against the Kansas City Chiefs. The play seems improbable, either in “real” life or in a Madden game, especially because Fletcher is a hard-tackling linebacker and is not expected to be so dexterous.[3] Logos on the virtual field reveal that the recorded game was a virtual Super Bowl, meaning that it is likely to have had particular significance in the National Football League season narrative supported by Madden NFL 12. This helps explain bballashotkalla’s extreme frustration with the game: he feels that he has been cheated at an important moment.

What makes this particular video especially telling, however, is its resemblance to an athletic act which took place in a real-world football game. In January of this year, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans leaped to make a one-handed interception against the Cincinnati Bengals, and returned the ball for a touchdown. In a critical single-elimination playoff game, this gave the Texans a lead that they would not relinquish. The real play by Watt is visually similar to and as impressive as the play by the virtual Fletcher, and the two plays came in games of very similar import.[4] Watt’s play may actually be more surprising for, as a defensive end, he is expected to be even less apt to catch a football than the linebacker Fletcher.

An important difference between the two situations is that, while the virtual Fletcher is seen as having done something impossible or even wrong, Watt’s play is seen as impressive. NBC commentator Mike Mayock indeed suggested “I think [Bengals quarterback Andy] Dalton knows that there’s not much you can do about that. That’s just a great individual effort by an opposing player.” It seems that in both cases the offensive player (Dalton or bballashotkalla) felt helpless in the face of what their opposition (Watt or the virtual Fletcher) did, but the real play can be accepted while the virtual play appears unacceptable and unfair. This is in spite of the fact that the two plays are about as near to identical as two football plays can be. Why is it that one event is merely unusual, while the other is deplorable? The root cause seems to be something that generally goes unmentioned in discussions surrounding sports games, perhaps because it seems too obvious to mention out loud: what happens in sports games and what happens in real sports are not the same.

Difficulties of Visual Resemblance and The Uncanny Valley

            The statement that sports games and real sports aren’t the same is quite broad and encompasses many differences between the two. These differences seem to be problematic because sports games aspire to be perfect simulations of real sports. In other words, they aim to be entirely the same as real sports, or at least as close to that as possible. Of course, as so many YouTube users have pointed out, a game like Madden NFL 12 hardly accomplishes this goal.

However, even these dissatisfied users would have to admit that the game does at least make impressive strides towards visually resembling the real National Football League, down to the uniforms, tattoos, hairstyles, jumping, catching, and tackling. Nevertheless, perhaps the most easily apparent difference between sports games and real sports is the fact that, at least with current programming, graphics, and computing technology, the visual resemblance between sports games and real sports is incomplete. Sports games certainly don’t look exactly like real sports seen in person, nor do they look exactly like televised real sports, despite the fact that televised real sports, like video games, are viewed on television screens. Technical limitations cause Madden to struggle in rendering everything from virtual athletes’ facial expressions and movement, to more general things like lighting and the textures of different materials. While a televised football game is a very believable simulacrum of the real game it depicts, these flaws prevent Madden from being a perfect simulation.

The concept most frequently deployed in examining these visual imperfections is the idea of the “uncanny valley,” first described by Japanese robotics engineer Masahiro Mori in 1970. In considering a graph of our comfort with robots versus their visual likeness to humans, Mori said he “noticed that, as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley. I call this relation the ‘uncanny valley,’” referring to the dip seen in the graph.[5]

Research into the causes of the uncanny valley remains ongoing, but it does seem that there is an unpleasantness about something which appears very human, but not quite human. This is why Mori ultimately recommends that engineers building robots should take advantage of the first peak in the graph, rather than strive for the second, for “although the second peak is higher, there is a far greater risk of falling into the uncanny valley.”[6] Applying these insights on robots to virtual athletes in sports games, it seems that this may also be why the visual imperfections in Madden NFL 12 are more forcefully apparent than those in, say, an older Madden game like Madden NFL 95. The later game looks a great deal more like real-world football, but as the Madden series’ developers have produced more lifelike graphics, they have actually exposed their games’ visual appearance to harsher scrutiny.

Another study in robotics by Jennifer Goetz, Sara Kiesler, and Aaron Powers adds an additional element to the uphill battle for visual verisimilitude. These authors note that “humanoid robots convey animistic and anthropomorphic cues that evoke automatic perceptions of lifelikeness in the robot. These perceptions will lead to people making attributions of ability and personality to the robot. In turn, their social responses and expectations will be shaped by these initial attributions.”[7] In other words, robots’ appearances are pleasing when they match their function and abilities. A robot should look very humanlike only if it can behave in a humanlike manner, while a microwave is better off looking like a box. Applying these insights to sports games suggests that the more lifelike sports games appear, the more will be expected of their ability to simulate real-world situations. This seems like a fairly common-sense point about the Madden series: the more lifelike the games look, the more unacceptable it will be when one virtual player’s hand passes through another’s arm, or a football changes course in mid air.

The aims of the Madden series and other mainstream sports games seem to fly in the face of these observations. Attempting to make a game with a lifelike appearance is very demanding, and it seems that it can only be truly a successful endeavor if it is absolutely successful. Nevertheless, game developers have continued to pursue visual verisimilitude, and perhaps they will succeed with enough technological advancement, in both the techniques for making games and in the computing power to run them. Though this doesn’t seem achievable in the near future, it’s a fine hypothetical solution for any complaints about momentary amputation.

But, looking back to the London Fletcher example, do the visual problems of the uncanny valley and the need to match humanlike appearance with humanlike behavior entirely explain the frustration displayed in bballashotkalla’s video? Would making the virtual Fletcher completely humanlike in appearance and behavior, i.e. making him look like J.J. Watt, completely resolve this problem? My suspicion is that it would not; after all, the two already look quite similar, that was the reason to compare them in the first place. Greater visual verisimilitude would address some issues to be sure; giving Madden a more lifelike appearance would make it difficult for users to suggest that a linebacker jumped unreasonably high, or that he made an unreasonably dexterous catch. Nevertheless, I believe that a user like bballashotkalla will still feel somewhat cheated by an unexpected interception, even if that interception appeared entirely lifelike.

Difficulties of Credibility, Simulation, and Realism

To construct a more complete explanation for this sense of frustration, it is necessary to locate another way in which sports games and real sports are not the same; something beyond visual appearance. It seems helpful, then, to revisit how Watt’s interception was acceptable, as evidenced by Mike Mayock’s commentary, while Fletcher’s was not, as evidenced by bballashotkalla’s video. This was despite the fact that the two plays were, from a football standpoint, essentially the same. Since that is the case, the difference must stem from the context of each play, rather than any feature of the plays themselves. It could be said that both plays were “incredible,” but in different senses of the word. Watt’s catch was “incredible,” meaning “so extraordinary as to seem impossible,” while Fletcher’s was “incredible,” meaning “not credible; hard to believe.”[8] The question, then, is what about the context of Fletcher’s interception sapped it of its credibility?

The answer can be found easily enough, for once again one only has to state the obvious: outcomes in real sports really happen, and so they are entirely credible, while outcomes in sports games are simulated, and so they are not entirely credible. If something incredible happens in real life, there is no choice but to accept it. No matter how strong an understanding of the world one may have held before a truly incredible event, that understanding must be reconsidered in the face of the inconceivable becoming conceivable. If you believed that a defensive end could not make a leaping, one-handed interception, J.J. Watt has proven that your belief was ill founded, and that it must be reconsidered. Alternatively, if something incredible happens in a video game, it’s very easy to question it. An incredible play by the virtual London Fletcher can hardly convince us that the real London Fletcher is capable of doing likewise. The only belief which must be reconsidered is the belief that the game in question is a well-designed simulation. This, in essence, is what all of the users who uploaded videos pointing out Madden NFL 12’s failings were doing: suggesting that the game is not a well-designed simulation.

In the case of Madden NFL 12, with so much visual evidence available on YouTube, this claim actually seems to be a very strong one; the game doesn’t seem to be well-designed. However, it seems that even a well-designed simulation would struggle with a lack of credibility in the face of incredible events. MLB 11 The Show might be considered a better-designed simulation, but when users’ perfectly located pitches are hit for a home runs, the game will likely struggle with its credibility in the eyes of its users, even though good pitches are frequently hit for home runs in real Major League Baseball games. The same goes for goalies making incredible saves against users’ well-placed shots in FIFA 12 or NHL 12, players missing wide-open in-rhythm jump shots in NBA 2K12, or a ball taking an unfortunate bounce in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13. If these things aren’t enough to strain players’ belief in sports games, what happens when a goalie makes incredible saves throughout an entire game, or a basketball player misses ten consecutive jump shots? These things certainly do happen in real sports, but in sports games they will eventually be hard to believe. And, while users may react more strongly to their virtual misfortunes, one’s good fortune in games may also seem all too incredible when, say, a player makes ten consecutive jump shots or a golf ball always bounces the right way. Again, these things certainly do happen in real sports, but may be hard to take in sports games.

Though incredible outcomes may cause games to lose their credibility as simulations, sports games also cannot gain credibility by backing away from incredible outcomes. Real sports are expected to be unpredictable and dramatic, rather than entirely consistent. A sports game without incredible outcomes would thus not only be boring, it would also feel unnaturally homogenous. As a result, players need to go on sudden hot and cold streaks, balls need to take unpredictable bounces, and mediocre players need to make unexpected, incredible plays at least some of the time, but not too often. No player should always make a certain sort of catch; sometimes he should drop the ball. These aspects of sports games, then, must be determined by probabilistic abstractions: the player will make the catch 79 out of every 100 times. And, because sports are unpredictable, these probabilities cannot be absolute: the player will make the catch 79 out of 100 times, 87 out of 100 times. The developers who design sports games have to set up these probabilistic models and try to match them to real-world statistics.

For users, however, experiencing the outcomes produced by a very good probabilistic model is still different from experiencing the outcomes which occur in the real world; the outcomes of such a model are never entirely credible in the way that real events are entirely credible. As a result, games that seek to simulate sports can never achieve the “reality” of real sports. Instead, they can only achieve “realism,” an effect produced in the minds of users; the sense that sports games are very similar to reality. Realism, it seems, can never be absolute, as incredible and unexpected outcomes must always intervene, but preclude any sort of stability. A game that allows London Fletcher to make a one-handed catch will always lose credibility, but so will a game that never allows Fletcher to make a one-handed catch. A perfect balance between the two, a balance that would yield absolute realism, does not appear to be achievable.

Difficulties of Control and Difficulty

So far I have considered sports games as largely separate from the input provided by the users who interact with them, as I have focused on the frustration and disbelief involved in moments that are well beyond users’ control. Interactivity, however, introduces additional problems for sports games. The first set of these stems once again from a way in which what happens in sports games is not the same as what happens in real sports; namely, from the fact that real sports are played with one’s own body, while sports games are controlled through much more indirect mechanisms.

Consider attempting to block a shot in a real game of basketball. A player blocks a shot by using their body; they jump as high as their legs cause them to, their arms move as fast as they cause them to, and they react to the offensive player as quickly as possible. If they deflect the ball their body has done something successful, if the ball continues unimpeded their body has done something not entirely successful. The entire truth of the matter is readily apparent. Alternatively, consider blocking a shot in a basketball sports game. Since the advent of basketball video games (or at least since the mid ‘90s) success or failure in virtual shot blocking has usually depended on a user positioning the virtual player under their control with a directional pad or control stick, and then pressing a button assigned to blocking at the right moment. While this certainly requires quick reflexes, good timing, and other skills, attempting to block a shot in a real game of basketball is much more complicated than pressing a button. As a result, the game must invent the movement of the player under the user’s control. In more recent games, players programmed to be good shot blockers may move quickly and decisively, while players programmed to be less effective shot blockers may move more slowly, even though the user presses the same button to cause each to attempt to block a shot. Even if probability is not introduced into the situation and a user will always succeed in blocking a shot with the proper positioning and timing, it’s easy for a user to second-guess a sports game when it judges their timing to have been off the mark. This is because the truth of the situation is not readily apparent, as it is in real basketball. In real sports, outcomes are directly and physically determined, while in sports games outcomes are mediated by the user’s means of controlling aspects of the game and by the game’s programmed simulation of the real world.

The advent of so-called “motion controls” in the form of the Nintendo Wii, Kinect for Xbox 360, and PlayStation Move might appear to offer solutions to this problem through their ability to respond to users’ nuanced physical movement. However, these devices cannot truly combine video game space and real space. A Wii controller and a virtual baseball are not the same as a real bat and ball because they cannot touch each other; a real physical relationship is not present. Furthermore, each of these devices only works within a small area in front of users’ televisions, and there is a fundamental disconnect between simulating, say, an entire football field within the space of a living room. Additionally, users still only have images from their televisions to react to, rather than full three-dimensional, panoramic vision which a user can reorient by turning their head. As such, the information they can receive is limited, and so they cannot be expected to react as quickly as an athlete in a real sport. In short, motion controls cannot produce fully embodied experiences, and at each of the points of disconnect discussed here they must involve invention or abstraction beyond what users can input. As a result, games using motion controls can still be second-guessed in the same way that button-based games can be. Perhaps the sort of seamless virtual reality envisioned by science fiction like The Matrix will solve these problems, but until then our conception of sports games will retain these limitations.

Because there is such a distance between users’ input and the outcomes involved in sports games, the success or failure of users is arbitrary; it is simple to program a game that users will either always win or always lose. However, as has been discussed already, sports games strive to reproduce the appearances and outcomes of real sports. Thus, if professional sporting leagues generally produce close contests, so should sports games modeled on those leagues. If they fail to do this, sports games lose their credibility and their essential relationship with reality. Interactivity causes another problem here, however, because some users are more skilled at playing sports games than others. The New York Yankees should beat the Kansas City Royals maybe two out of three times if a sports game is to conform to reality, and they should have this success rate whether they are controlled by a relatively skilled user or by a relatively unskilled user, because the game seeks to be credible for all users.

Sports games achieve this by introducing variable levels of difficulty, ranging from “Easy” to “Hard.”[9] As difficulty increases, users will face stiffer opposition and will find it more challenging to achieve positive outcomes. For instance, users playing a football game set with increasing levels of difficulty will find that computer-controlled defensive players react more quickly to their offensive plays. Along similar lines, blocking the same sort of shot in a basketball game set with increasing levels of difficulty will require increasingly well timed user input. The same goes for the timing involved in hitting pitches in baseball games; once users have mastered one level of difficulty and find themselves achieving positive outcomes with incredible consistency, they are encouraged to increase the game’s difficulty in order to restore the game’s balance, credibility, and relationship with reality.

This is an unpleasant situation, however, because it ultimately forces users to decide how often they would like to win in sports games. If a user is able to take a squad of unheralded players on an incredible journey to a championship, was it because they played well or because they didn’t have the game’s difficulty set on an appropriate level? Once this difficulty of difficulty, as it were, is apprehended, the arbitrariness of users’ successes and failures comes to the fore once again, and sports games lose their essential relationship with reality.

One possible response to this situation is to take the setting of difficulty levels out of the hands of users and instead program difficulty to be set dynamically in response to the outcomes users achieve. This is what Madden NFL 09 attempted with its “Madden IQ” difficulty setting, which would increase difficulty as users won games and decrease it as they lost. Hiding dynamically determined difficulty behind the scenes might make for an even stronger effect, concealing the arbitrariness of users’ successes and failures even further. However, dynamic difficulty necessarily enforces a “normal” level of outcomes for users, which could cause sports games to resists the incredible to an undue degree and become homogenous. It also seems that dynamic difficulty could make users’ efforts to achieve better outcomes in a sports game meaningless, as doing so would only cause the game to pose greater challenges. In the end, it seems that the arbitrariness of users’ successes and failures will come through at some point.

Games Creating their Own Reality

            Given these difficulties with visual verisimilitude, credibility and realism, and interactivity and difficulty, it seems that sports games will continue to be deeply flawed for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the development of a form of seamless virtual reality or the introduction of other new technology could resolve some of these issues by allowing sports games to attain more of the reality or directness of real sports. Judgment on such developments will have to be withheld until the fundamental relationship between sports games, their users, and reality is indeed changed. Until then, however, the flaws of sports games can be used to shine light on the strengths of other varieties of video games.

Think of some of the most successful arcade games; Space Invaders and Defender can hardly be lauded as brilliant simulations of space combat, Joust won’t garner praise as a realistic representation of ostrich-mounted jousting, and PacMan can hardly be said to relate to the real world at all. The same can be said for recent games like Super Stardust HD or Shatter which owe a great deal to classic arcade concepts, or games like The Last Guy which only relate to the real world very abstractly. These games don’t tie themselves to the reality of the real world through an effect of realism; instead, they create their own reality.

Looking through the flaws found in sports games, it’s clear that they aren’t present in these more direct video games.[10] Visual verisimilitude and realism are not at issue in a direct game like Tetris because Tetris makes no attempt to look like the real world. There are no problems with credibility in a direct game like Asteroids because Asteroids does not attempt to simulate anything; instead it presents only itself. If something incredible happens in a game of Asteroids it is not incredible because it seems unlike what is expected to happen in the real world, it is incredible because it is unlike what is expected to happen in Asteroids. As such, “incredible” shifts back to its kinder sense, and incredible outcomes in direct games can be believed without question.[11] Interactivity is not a cause for concern in a direct game like Super Mario Bros. because the actions Mario is expected to perform match users’ ability to provide input. Mario is expected to run from side to side at two different speeds, duck, go down pipes, jump, and use a special abilities like throwing fireballs, and users are given a four-way directional pad and two buttons, which is enough to control these actions entirely. If Mario jumps too high, it is not because game invented the height of his jump or determined it probabilistically, it is because the user held the jump button for too long. Thus, the efficacy of Mario’s movement completely matches the efficacy of users’ input. Finally, difficulty is not difficult in a direct game like Centipede because the arbitrariness of the game’s difficulty is manifest. It is clear that direct games are entirely invented by their programmers, and so how difficult it is for users to achieve successful outcomes is not beholden to the real world. The difficulty of direct games is thus free to become a matter of users’ taste; some users will prefer to succeed with ease, while others will prefer a greater challenge. Centipede actually anticipates users’ different tastes, or users’ different levels of ability, by providing three difficulty settings. Difficulty settings in sports games are introduced to strengthen sports games’ connection to the real world by counteracting users’ different levels of ability to keep outcomes in line with real-world expectations. Thereby, however, sports games make users’ achievement of particular outcomes arbitrary. Alternatively, difficulty settings in direct games allow games like Centipede to simply offer users different challenges.

The categories of sports games and direct games are, of course, not absolute. For example, Madden NFL 95 was mentioned earlier for its more abstract graphics, and these indeed allow the game to move away from the real world and towards creating its own reality. This is the case to an even greater degree with simpler sports games like Baseball Simulator 1.000 and Tecmo Bowl, which make no attempts to simulate the full complexities of athletic acts or the full appearance of the real world, leaving less for users to question. Nevertheless, a fielding error or a poorly-thrown ball in these games can still be blamed on their use of probabilistic determinations, and thus can be second-guessed. Others sports games are able to match users’ ability to provide input with what would be necessary in the real world; racing games like Gran Turismo 5 or flying games like Pilot Wings 64 have had little trouble equating mechanical game controllers with the mechanical controls of cars and aircraft. Driving a car and playing Gran Turismo 5 will always be quite different, while playing an entirely direct game like Super Mario Bros. cannot be unlike itself, but it can also be said that if a user’s car goes off of the road in Gran Turismo, it’s almost entirely their fault. In these cases, then, directness in input also helps sports games’ credibility.

Conclusion

            Many of the flaws that I have identified in sports games are also present in other games that relate to the real world. That includes everything from the Uncharted series back through Grand Theft Auto 3, Goldeneye 007, and beyond. All games of this sort will have at least some problems with lifelike appearance, credibility and realism, and interactivity and difficulty. Ultimately, it seems that these failings originate from the truism that what happens in video games and what happens in the real world are not the same. Along these lines, it could be said that what happens in these “realistic” games is not real at all, while what happens in direct games is real in and of itself.

This is not to say, however, that games striving for realism should be abandoned. First and foremost, games which resemble the real world allow us to simulate experiences, like playing in a top tier professional sports league or fighting in World War II, which most of us will not have a chance to undergo firsthand. Clearly enough, they also relate to the real world in ways that direct games do not, and thus can tell stories, change users’ understanding of the world, make political statements, and serve other purposes in ways that direct games cannot. Even if experiences with realistic games are indeed fraught, their defects are not damning. I, for one, keep coming back to and enjoying realistic games anyway, so they can’t be all bad. Still, I do think that, for realistic games to move forward, both developers and users need to be aware of these problems and to work towards new ways of addressing them.


[1] Here I will refer to people playing video games as “users,” rather than as “players,” to avoid them being confused with the virtual “players” involved in sports games. Please note, however, that “user” doesn’t really seem to be an adequate word, since someone “using” Microsoft Office and someone “using” Super Mario Bros. seem to be doing pretty different things.

[2] This story available at http://www.1up.com/news/madden-12-sells-14-million-first-week. It’s the same every year, really.

[3] I’m going to keep using the word “real” throughout this essay to refer to the physical or tangible world outside of video games. The caveat, of course, is that games are also “real” in a sense. They also happen, and indeed happen in the “real” world; that’s where one plays them or sees them. But the three-dimensional space of a game like Madden isn’t “real,” it’s illusionistic, representational, or “virtual,” while “real” football is played in “real” space. So that I can drop the scare quotes, consider this caveat about the word “real” to be in effect for the rest of this essay.

[4] That is, insofar as real and virtual sport can be compared; such a comparison has to be made with virtual sport’s goal of simulation in mind. Here, Fletcher’s play seems impressive because the terms of Madden, as a simulation, make it seem impressive. Under other terms, Fletcher actually jumping twenty feet into the air might not be surprising at all. Similar comparisons between real and virtual sport will be made here, so consider this point about simulation to be another proviso that will be in effect for the rest of this essay. All of these problems with language may suggest that video games require a new vocabulary, perhaps with some newly invented words.

[5] Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley” Energy, vol. 7 no. 4. (1970), 33-35. Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato, 2005, available at: http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html. The above version of Mori’s graph was also produced by MacDorman and Minato.

[6] Mori, “The Uncanny Valley.”

[7] Jennifer Goetz, Sara Kiesler, and Aaron Powers, “Matching Robot Appearance and Behavior to Tasks to Improve Human-Robot Cooperation,” Proceedings of the 2003 IEEE International Workshop on Robot and Human Communication (2003), 55-60.

[8] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/incredible?s=t. Used in a sentence: Isn’t it incredible that I have no qualms about citing dictionary.com in my term paper? Thanks, internet!

[9] Or “Very Hard.” Or “Grueling.” Or “All-Madden.” The names, like the levels of difficulty, are arbitrary.

[10] I’ll go with the name “direct games” to refer to games that have this quality. “Arcade games” often refers to the same thing because most arcade games are indeed direct games, but “arcade games” points to a particular part of the history of video games. “Direct games,” alternatively, can refer to games created at any time and for any platform.

[11] Users may occasionally suspect that a “glitch” or shoddy programming has altered an outcome in a direct game. It seems, then, that an important concern for the directness of direct games is ensuring that outcomes are consistent. In Asteroids, for example, this means ensuring things like users’ projectiles always causing asteroids to explode when they are properly aimed.

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The Den of the ChillerFont (and an Almost Manifesto)

Since everyone in class asked so nicely, this post will be devoted to the YouTube channel I started last summer, at the urging of a couple good friends of mine from back in Ohio. The name of the channel, “ChillerFont,” comes, of course, from the ubiquitous and generally lousy Chiller font that is included with Microsoft Office. No one would be wrong to notice a certain commonality between this blog (Twelve Os) and the ChillerFont channel; in both I’ve employed a sort of mix of automatism and irony, sometimes in the context in which content is presented (channel/blog name, layout, description, etc.), and sometimes in content itself (my use of links in these blog posts, the parody present in the ChillerFont videos, sarcasm, whatever bro). If you’re my “friend” on Facebook, my history of off-beat profile pictures might fall under the same category.

I thought about writing a post about this tendency earlier in the semester, but I never found an occasion to do so, so this short statement will have to suffice for now. Basically, this combination of automatism and irony (and maybe irreverence too) comes naturally to me in my dealings with the internet; it emerged without me really thinking much about it. I’m not sure exactly how it started or when it came into its current form as a semi-conscious strategy, but since around when I started using Facebook (2006) this is what my internet engagement has looked like. Once I started to realize this trend, I started to ask myself why it had emerged.

One factor is how I want to present myself online (this is how most people think about how they use Facebook, YouTube, blogs, etc. after all). I don’t take my participation in these internet venues particularly seriously, and I have a relatively strong desire not to be perceived as someone who takes that participation particularly seriously. Paradoxically, it seems that crafting a way to get that point across has actually taken a bit of effort on my part, but I can’t see a way to participate in these venues otherwise.

Another factor is the way that internet venues like Facebook, YouTube, blogs, etc. all structure anyone’s participation in them. In each, what one can create must fall within particular boundaries, and what one is encouraged to create falls within an even smaller zone. I find it pretty unpleasant to capitulate entirely to those sorts of restrictions or suggestions, so I bring in my irony and automatism. Of course, any participation at all in these limited venues constitutes some capitulation to them, capitulation to forces that seek to subtly structure our lives… but maybe this helps a bit.

But if that’s the case, if participating in these venues at all requires so much care and involves capitulation to what seem to be sinister forces, why participate in these venues at all? You’ve got me there, rhetorical question. Do I participate because other people are doing it? Because the venues seem to be culturally important or to be the way of the future, and are thus worth examining through participation? Because the venues really do provide tangible benefits and somewhat worthy avenues for expression? I don’t really know; I could try to work it out here, but I’ll save that for another time. As things stand, I do remain engaged with these venues, some more than others. Blah, blah, postmodernity. (There I go again, I think I could run around with myself like that all day.)

Turning (finally!) to the ChillerFont YouTube videos, they are similarly automatic and irreverent responses to elements of popular culture that I found unpleasant; after all, culture is another thing that we capitulate to in some ways. It’s not that this is really a terrible circumstance, but it does seem that unpleasant elements of culture do deserve to have (entirely ineffectual and largely personal) criticism lobbed at them every once and again. I won’t say anything about the particular videos, as each has a description on YouTube (which I’ll include here for your convenience), but my use of the phrase “Worse because it’s real” is worth paying attention to, as it was a helpful way to consider the content used in the videos, the videos themselves, and the relationship between the two.


Sometimes you say things in front of children; other times you say them in rhythm. This is one of those times.

Original video (worse because it’s real): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svXrAZKfX5k

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Do try to sit through (or enjoy, rather) more than the first minute. If you dare.

“Spies and thieves!” she spits. “Spies and thieves!” Her spittle becomes acid and lands on each of their cheeks, burning little pockmarks as reminders of their transgressions. They will never forget.

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The blame for this vulgarity rests squarely upon Stacy Ann “Fergie” Ferguson, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and perhaps Interscope Records, A&M Records, the will.i.am music group, and an anonymous advertising agency.

Original video (worse because it’s real): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHV_SCAwPPE

————————————————————————————————–

The fart philosopher (fart-losopher) blessed me with their words, saying: “ur fukin video sux balls” and I was compelled to document their glory.

Please understand that the glory of the fart-losopher may appear distorted when experienced through this crude medium. Indeed this is “[their] reaction to a farting video..not tht interestin but hey.” We can only be thankful that the phartlosopher would share such wisdom with an undeserving world.

Original video (worse because it’s real): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUmNocf_JI0&feature=channel_video_title

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Whither? The End of Cyberspace (Or, If It Won’t End, Let’s “Kick Ass” Instead)

In the past, when I’ve begun posts by disclosing that their titles and topics were dictated by the class I’m taking at UT, I think I tended to take a sort of humdrum tone about it. Well not this time! This title was dictated by my class at UT, but it has some poetic oomph to it! You can’t really go wrong withWhither.”

But maybe you can go wrong with “The End of Cyberspace,” as cyberspace doesn’t seem ready to end just yet. Saying that the end up cyberspace cannot be envisioned yet may seem to betray a lack of imagination, so know that I’m trying hard to imagine it…but I can’t do it; I can’t imagine a digital future built from anything other than the extension of recent trends. I mean, the march of cyberspace seems ready to continue onward through what one might call the “foreseeable” future. For those on the cutting edge, desktops and notebooks were replaced with netbooks and ultrabooks, which have been replaced with smartphones and tablets (ultabooks lasted for all of a few weeks). There’s no reason to think that iPhones and Pads are the last digital platforms… I doubt that they will even be the last major Apple platforms. The power and physical arrangement of our digital devices seem as if they will continue to change, likely in favor of more power and greater accessibility. Indeed, the buzz this week surrounds Google’s “Project Glass;” here’s a very nice video demo (and some nice parodies). If anything, the domain of cyberspace seems to be ever expanding; the augmented reality offered by “Project Glass” seems to annex the entirety of physical space, or at least to cover all physical space with a blanket of cyberspace.

Though the physical devices that we use to connect to cyberspace are constantly being replaced or upgraded, the underlying concepts, the underlying cyberspace, doesn’t seem to be changing so quickly. For instance, Usenet newsgroups were replaced with instant messaging services and chat rooms, which were replaced by Twitter, Facebook, and Skype. It seems unlikely that today’s major cyberspace venues will be around indefinitely, but it also seems unlikely that communication will ever cease to be a concern in cyberspace. Likewise, advertising, news, entertainment, commerce, and many other categories of cyberspace activity seem very likely to remain major concerns, just as they will very likely remain major concerns in physical space. I could try to speculate about many particular forms that our future interactions with cyberspace might take, but in the face of such a general issue as “The End of Cyberspace” I can only give this relatively uninteresting answer.

But at the outset of this post I was excited about the word “Whither,” so maybe it will be productive to go back to that. I think “Whither” seems exciting in the context of this title because it sounds like “Wither,” and any progress towards the “End of Cyberspace” would indeed likely take the form of “Withering.” That gives “Whither,” and its almost aimless question of “to what place?” an appealing sense of desolation. For me the word becomes tied to empty (cyber)spaces that are dry and dead, maybe with a few cyber tumbleweeds rolling through. That’s the “Wither” part. The “Whither” part means that these spaces will exist in the future. I’m probably thinking this way because I’m such a fan of movies set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic futures; work with me if that’s not your scene. Anyway, the prompt led me to start wondering what a “Whithered” and desolate cyberspace might look like.

This thought was likely brought on not just by the particular title dictated for this post, but also by my recent encounter with a fairly interesting New York Times article on the sort of “stupid games” which have taken hold of smartphones and smartphone users. More striking than the article itself, however, was the image that ran with it, which turned out to be an interactive game which allowed me to “destroy” the very article I had expected to read (some coverage here). Thanks to a link in the caption for this interactive image, I came across its inspiration, a “bookmarklet” game called Kick Ass designed by 18-year-old Swede Erik Rothoff Andersson. Andersson provides an internet bookmark which, when clicked, turns any website into something quite similar to the classic arcade game of Asteroids. Andersson’s website and the Kick Ass Facebook page use phrases like “Bored? Click here to Kick Ass,” “Destroy the Web,” and “Tip: It works great for vaporizing annoying ads. Try it out!” The Kick Ass site even provides an AT&T ad, ripe for destroying. I briefly tried to find a way to link directly to the bookmarket itself on this page, as the blog and I almost certainly deserve a good Kick Ass-ing. Sadly, I was unsuccessful in this endeavor. Still, feel free to go bookmark the bookmarklet from Andersson’s page, come back here, and have at it. I’ve already strafed through the Twelve Os site twice myself, and I must say I’m glad I put in so many links; they make nice targets.

Kick Ass, in the context of a New York Times article and elsewhere, is fun in many visceral ways that are familiar to players of the original Asteroids, or of many other video games. It’s fun to swoop around a digital space in a representation of a rocket ship, it’s fun to fire a bunch of projectiles from such a rocket ship, and it’s fun to see things blow up in a shower of red and orange pixels when struck by those projectiles. This is basic video game stuff, with emphasis on the game, since the narrative aspects of video games that I’ve been interested in before aren’t present in this understanding of Kick Ass.

Then again, while there may not be narrative in Kick Ass, there certainly can be content. Rather than providing the vague or generic sorts of enemies and obstacles in Asteroids, Kick Ass lets players “Destroy the Web.” That’s the added attraction involved in destroying something like a New York Times article as opposed to a purely utilitarian target in a shooting gallery; interfering with a webpage this way lets players display (dare I say “perform”?) irreverence towards the webpage and its content. That’s why blasting away at online features like comments sections is so appealing. Putting, say, an image of an unpopular politician on the aforementioned shooting gallery target adds the same kind of attraction, but Kick Ass is even more successful in this vein. While players may not be able to destroy “actual” webpages all the way down to their servers (insofar as servers are where the “actuality” of a webpage lies) and the destroyed pages will refresh themselves with a push of browsers’ “refresh” buttons, destroying what you see when you go to nytimes.com seems much more direct than putting holes in a picture of Rick Santorum. Perhaps Kick Ass finds a sweet spot between docility and actual destruction. Come to think of it, that’s probably the same sweet spot that makes The Kids in the Hall’s “Head Crusher” sketches so effective.

That’s the irreverent element of the fun of Kick Ass. But, in playing around with the bookmarklet, I ended up finding yet another aspect which, for me at least, was even more compelling. Though I’ve never been the sort of video game player who is compelled to complete games in their absolute “100%” entirety, when it came to Kick Ass it seemed right to destroy everything destroyable on the webpages whose asses I set out to kick. This urge isn’t as easy to explain, but it seems embedded in the logic of Kick Ass: if some ass kicking is good, then more should be better, especially because more destruction will continue to change the look of a webpage.

And so I proceeded to completely Kick Ass on a few different webpages, and I found myself impressed with the results (click images to embiggen):

nytimes.com

facebook.com

netflix.com

espn.com

ps3.ign.com

utexas.edu

Kick Ass allowed for the removal of almost all of the content from these webpages, but left just enough for my familiar eye to be able to recognize each one very clearly (these are pages I have bookmarked and visit frequently, after all). Rather than reducing the pages to white nothingness, Kick Ass turns them into empty spaces that feel like wastelands rather than absolute voids. So, finally, this is something “Withered” cyberspace might look like!

The truly surprising thing here is that I really like looking at these emptied web spaces. In some ways I think they are improvements upon the pages in their original states. Looking at a wasteland of a webpage makes me realize just how much webpages tend to overflow with text, color, images, and information in general. Paring pages down to some of their basic graphic elements makes them much easier to look at and much easier to process. I don’t mean for this to be a nostalgic way of looking at cyberspace; a pining for the days when one didn’t have to process so much information so quickly. After all, I’ll probably keep going to these websites very frequently, even after kicking their asses and despite their overflowing. Rather, I think it’s possible to separate nostalgia out and simply say that, while I would hardly refuse to engage with cyberspace outright, I would rather not have to contend with quite so much overflow when I do engage with it.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think a lot of people profess nostalgia for life before the internet, but that they would certainly be happy with less overflow. So “Whither Cyberspace?” Maybe we should hope that it will “Wither” a bit.

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Space Invaders: In Which “Space Invaders” Is Not Actually Mentioned

This post is coming a week late (I mention this because most people reading the post likely have an immediate familiarity with the relevant syllabus, if you get my meaning)  because last Tuesday I was tasked with leading an in-class discussion on the chapter of our cyberspace anthology which deals with video games (a natural choice for me indeed). In going over the necessary articles, the one which stuck in my mind the most was David J. Leonard’s 2005 piece “To the White Extreme: Conquering Athletic Space, White Manhood, and Racing Virtual Reality.” This wasn’t because I liked the article; quite to the contrary, I found it pretty poor in most respects. Leonard’s reading of race and gender in extreme sports games was fine where it was obvious (women are indeed portrayed in a sexualized fashion in BMX XXX, go figure) and allowed him to make a few interesting points (it’s not uncommon for the games to portray black characters as shallow types), but for the most part it was tripped up by major flaws, including hypocritical descriptions of white athletes as a homogeneous group, constant failure to distinguish between different games, and startlingly poor research (Leonard erroneously claims that there are no female characters in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Games, and thereby lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes). As I have played many of the games Leonard discusses, I had to ask myself whether I had overlooked their racial elements, or whether Leonard’s reading went too far. I ended up settling on the latter explanation; virtual skateboarding in a simply-portrayed downtown Minneapolis, for example, cannot be equivalent to white men seeking to conquer the ghetto.

While most of Leonard’s claims could be dismissed quickly, one of his arguments has stayed with me somewhat longer: he mentions that “the emphasis on danger and conquering untamed space is particularly powerful” in extreme sports games, and that “masculine, frontier-related, rhetorical devices… frame virtual extreme sports as a battle between man and nature.” During the in-class discussion, it was agreed that this point is hard to get around in current games, as most of them really are about conquering and dominating space, be it natural or not.

One can certainly see that this spatial interest has long existed in video games. The urge to press on to “another castle” to find the princess indeed involves passing through the dangers of the intervening spaces. I would think that a strong argument could be made suggesting that video game controllers have nearly always included directional controls, and 360-degree control sticks of late, so that players could interact with virtual spaces. Taking a look at which games have recently won various game of the year awards, the likes of Mass Effect 2, Skyrim, Gears of War, Half-Life 2, Portal 2, and Red Dead Redemption are indeed all in the space-controlling mode. Even Flower and Journey, the recent offerings from thatgamecompany, a developer often praised for bringing games which are artful and non-violent to mainstream audiences, are indisputably about conquering space. In fact, those two games may seem so impressively simple, straightforward, and lyrical because they deal almost solely with the exploration and control of space; in Flower the player’s sole task is to control the wind and open flower buds across the spaces of various levels. While paring a game down to the exploration of space may make it seem like a quintessential video game, doing the opposite will often make games seem like puzzles or gimmicks, better suited for “casual” gaming audiences.

I’m not sure whether I take Leonard’s point that this way of dealing with space necessarily makes these games masculine in every case, but it seem to be an element that tends towards that direction. At the very least, it seems that games ought to be able to deploy other modes of game play; the predominance of game narratives which involve characters going on adventures and vanquishing enemies is surely related to games’ proclivity for the space-conquering mode. This is to say that, without finding other sorts of game play, games will have trouble engaging with other sorts of narratives. To see how this might be accomplished, I’ll take a look at Heavy Rain, a game that avoids the space-conquering mode, and Shadow of the Colossus, a game which successfully critiques the space-conquering mode from within.

I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Floating Weeds from 1959, and many features of the film’s cinematography remind me of Heavy Rain. Floating Weeds takes place in a small Japanese town, but the film never lays out the spatial relationships between features like streets and buildings. Even when the characters parade through the town near the beginning of the film, the outdoor spaces are not ordered by wide establishing shots or clear cutting, and they are never connected to the interior spaces where most of the film’s action takes place. Even in these interior spaces the sets are fairly generic and the avoidance of establishing shots continues. Rather than explain these spaces, the camera focuses on the characters. Indeed if a space is broken down and understood at all (or even identified) it is only through the characters, through their movement or dialogue. The characters alone motivate the placement of the camera; the spaces they inhabit seem to be completely excluded from consideration. This, however, does not really make Floating Weeds hard to follow. The characters seem to anchor viewers’ attention just as much as they anchor the camera.

Heavy Rain presents a similarly character-driven view of events. It takes place in a city, but it really deals with various spaces: a police station, a suburban home, a shopping mall, a junk yard, a warehouse, etc. None of these are ever connected to each other, which is somewhat surprising given that the game’s genre of murder mystery/police forensic drama often favors clearer detail (and in other areas the game is very detailed in this way). A few of the game’s sequences even hinge on maps, but these are always read very abstractly, evoking investigative procedure and other drama in a general way, rather than dealing with nuanced spatial relationships. Comparing this with the very strict use of maps in other games suggests that Heavy Rain’s approach is indeed quite different. That Heavy Rain follows characters who generally lack control over the situations in which they find themselves helps too, but a character-driven treatment of space helps the game feel much more like a film that is focused on human interaction, rather than a game which is focused on killing things and taking their land. Of course, Heavy Rain’s branching storylines separate it from cinema in a major way, making it a game-specific and interesting take on drama.

Then again, as I think I have said in earlier posts, current games and game technology have a really hard time representing the nuances and fluidity of human interaction. This isn’t to say that making a game like Heavy Rain in 2010 was premature, each step towards representing human interaction in games need to be taken sometime, but it does seem that games like Heavy Rain can’t fully realize their ambitions just yet. This may be why Heavy Rain received positive reviews, but perhaps more enthusiastic hype and previews (then again, most major game titles get a lot of pre-release hype these days, oh well).

Alternatively, Shadow of the Colossus, which is often lauded as a truly artistic video game, had no trouble realizing its aims when it was released on the Playstation 2. This is largely because the game is about going around and killing big monsters, something video games have been able to handle for quite a while now. However, as is never the case in a typical game of this sort, killing the monsters of Shadow of the Colossus is a horribly depressing enterprise. The music is grave, the settings are foggy and solemn, the main character never speaks, and the monsters (or perhaps that’s a loaded term) are never bothering anyone until the player’s avatar comes along, itching for a tussle. Reviewers often described the game’s fourteen colossi as monumental puzzles which the player must climb and stab in particular weak points. This observation rings true in some ways, but it also seems too mechanical, as  the colossi also bleed streams of black liquid and cry out when they are attacked. Their deaths are never quick or kinetic, as death is in so many games; here death is slow and gruesome.

Shadow of the Colossus justifies all of this destruction by saying that the killing of the colossi will allow the protagonist to bring his lost love back from the dead. This is perhaps a decent goal, but I didn’t find it worth the necessary harrowing ordeals, so I twice started playing the game and twice stopped playing around colossus eight. Maybe it would be better to finish a game before writing about it, but I’m okay with this outcome, it feels more honest. In a medium that almost always makes killing and conquering fun, Shadow of the Colossus deserves a great deal of credit for making conquest unbearable for those who are interested in empathizing with the game. If the space-conquering mode is indeed masculine, Shadow of the Colossus asks “What’s so great about being masculine? Aren’t these things actually unpleasant?” rather forcefully.

Once again I’ll avoid speculating about the future of games or the general potential of the medium at the end of a post, but it seems clear that these atypical directions (a fittingly spatial word to use) are available for games to pursue (and indeed to conquer and dominate!).

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Now Museum, Now You Don’t

My efforts to bring video games and art history together in this space would be significantly lacking if I did not make mention of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibition, which opened on Friday. Rather than summarize the whole show myself, I’ll just refer readers to this review in the New York Times. Yes, this review is by Seth Schiesel, and the ever sagacious Tom Bissell did once remark “I have learned not to trust a single thing Seth Schiesel has to say about video games,” and I agreed with him… but given that Schiesel’s main effort in the review is to say that having an exhibition in a Smithsonian museum is a big step in the recognition of video games as a cultural force, it seems appropriate to point out that the exhibition is also being reviewed in the august pages of the NYT, and by someone who is now a full time video game reviewer for the paper no less. Another notable aspect of the exhibition is its catalogue, which I received as a gift last week. It’s a very nicely designed book and is worth checking out.

My only complaint about the show is its subtitle: “From Pac Man to Mass Effect.” That’s a great subtitle, but the problem is that the show features Mass Effect 2 rather than the original Mass Effect. I know this was determined by voters (weird in itself)… but come on, the second game does not deserve to be in a museum before the first!

It’s also curious that the show will be traveling around the country until January of 2016. I have to imagine that it will seem in need of some updating by then.

And while I’m writing, I might as well post this article about the potential downfall of video game consoles from IGN. They make some fine points, and this very possibility definitely is a bummer for me. The comments on the article are also amusing for showing how little credibility IGN has, even with its own readers.

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Phillips, Whaff, etc.

Well, it’s finally happening. By this point in my life I have sent almost everyone I know a link to a piece by Grantland’s Brian Phillips, and now I’m finally sending one to YOU. Brian Phillips has written something for everyone, so there must be something about cyberspace. Lucky for us, he wrote it today. I could post the link here, but I think I’ll blather for a bit first.

I have Brian Phillips on the brain these days. I am, you might say, a Phillips head. Haha. Very funny. Anyway, the thing about Phillips’ writing is that he does a lot of the things that I’ve tried to do on this blog, and that I try to do in my writing about art history. I could try to go on about these features in greater depth, but the thrust of things is that he resists generalization and overarching theories in favor of close readings of particular experiences, like watching a particular football player or reacting to news about a soccer player. Don’t get me wrong, Phillips does generalize, but when he does it seems clear that he’s open to having his claims overturned, and that the claims are personal before they are anything else. This approach is pleasantly honest, and it has the advantage of always being right because it deals only with things that the writer understands, i.e. personal experience. It’s possible that this sort of writing could be boring in the wrong hands, but it’s great when you have an insightful writer like Phillips, who offers very human ways to respond to current culture.

For further clarification, know that I enjoy imagining Grantland as an unspoken battle between Phillips and his arch rival, the perfidious Carles. Carles loves to generalize, to employ theory, to deconstruct, to talk about “memes,” etc. While Phillips often stresses the need to treat athletes as human beings, Carles is happy to turn them into cultural content. As ugly as that is, the biggest difference between Carles and Phillips is that Phillips wants to tell you what he thinks, while Carles wants to tell you what YOU think. (Any successful post includes YOU in all caps at least two (or three) times, blogging 101, guys.) One day the two of them will realize that this conflict exists and something amazing will come of it, though I guess acknowledging this rivalry would spoil the fun I have in pretending it exists.

Anyway, in today’s piece Phillips discusses “The case of the ‘crazy’ athlete,” bringing up folks like Mike Tyson, Metta World Peace/Ron Artest, and Mario Balotelli. His coverage of these sporting personalities is very good, but for the purposes of cyberspace consideration the insights along the way are even more valuable:

“One consequence of [the access to content provided by the internet] is the tone of burned-out overstimulation that, for no particular reason, I’ve taken to calling ‘whaff.’ Whaff, in its simplest form, is semi-sarcastic exaggerated praise for the bizarre, the cute, or the stupid. If you’re on Twitter, chances are you’ve encountered whaff within the last 10 seconds. ‘OMG THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVAR,’ followed by a link to an animated GIF of a baby owl falling into a hot tub, is the elemental template of whaff.”

If that excerpt and the fear of being left in the dark when I start referring to “whaff” in this space aren’t enough to entice you to read the rest of the piece, know that Phillips goes on to  make some very compelling points about internet culture and news reporting, sprinkle in some choice Mike Tyson quotes, and mention FDR spending $2 million trying to weaponize bats. ‘Nuff said, go read it.

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A LittleBigReaction

For my course at UT Austin I’ve been asked to react to a blog post by a fellow student, which was itself a response to the same prompt that I dealt with in my last post. Lucky for me, not only did my esteemed classmate (who knows whether people want their real names used in places such as this one… I mean, I could ask… nah, too easy) also choose to deal with video games, he even focused on LittleBigPlanet (IGN review, trailer) and its sequel LittleBigPlanet 2 (IGN review, trailer), games that I too happen to have played. I think that my classmate’s post gives plenty of background information on LittleBigPlanet (a.k.a. LBP), so I’ll allow readers to follow the above link for that kind of coverage and thus allow myself to jump right into things.

Our unnamed writer concentrates largely on the opportunity for LBP players to create their own video game “levels” (clearly delimited segments of gameplay) using a set of real-time visual tools provided by the game’s developers (Media Molecule). The unknown Longhorn makes a number of fine observations about this aspect of the game, most of them leading to a description of the LBP creative process as daunting and even frustrating because of its emphasis on openness. To wit: “My biggest problem with LBP is that I want the parameters of the game to somehow reign in my creativity, to give me some specific idea of not just what can be done but how to go about doing it.” However, the dashing and mysterious blogger reigns in this very impulse soon after: “Rather than being frustrated with my LBP experience so far, maybe I should take a step back and realize that it reflects the creative process more accurately than I want to give it credit for.  Creativity is messy.” The LBP level editor is thus found to provide a space for creativity which “teaches us how to appreciate that creative chaos once again.”

I think that this analysis is quite solid. It certainly accords well with my own experiences with LBP, as I have considered attempting to create a level, but have never gone as far as actually trying to do so. Knowing that the LBP level editor would do Little (hah) to hold my hand through the process (beyond explaining the basic techniques and tools), I vowed not to delve into it unless some moment of inspiration moved me to engage with the level editor. Such a moment never came, perhaps because I was too busy enjoying the levels made by Media Molecule, as well as a few of the thousands made by other users.

Nevertheless, while creation in the cyber space of LBP’s level editor can get players in touch with the general nature of “how human beings perform creatively,” it is also a specific experience. It is undeniably different than, say, creating a website or a blog post (within the bounds of cyberspace) or creating a painting or a live-action film (outside of cyberspace). I don’t simply mean that a website or a painting are different than an LBP level, I mean that the creative processes that lead to each of these things are themselves different. So, I think I might entreat the shrouded surfer of the web to take up two additional lines of inquiry: How is creating in cyberspace different than creating outside of cyberspace, and how is creating in LittleBigPlanet unique? Why cyberspace? Why LBP?

After thinking about this for a bit, I think that I still agree that LBP presents a creative experience which is open enough that it can be related to more general ideas about creativity, as my colleague suggested. Nevertheless, I think that LBP’s creative space can be said to be somewhat restrictive as well. The means to physically interact with the creative process are given by the PlayStation 3’s hardware, and the concept of the “level” is given by the nature of LBP, as is the means by which one’s creations are distributed. Then again, as LBP levels are “virtual,” so they offer essentially unlimited virtual space and virtual matter for creation, while real-world space and real-world matter are limited. I could come up with and elaborate upon more observations like these, but I’ll leave that for another time. For now, I’ll say that doing so could give an even deeper understanding of what LittleBigPlanet offers.

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