Tag Archives: Games

Trying to understand the rules of the game

2 Jan

Natural selection is the engine that drives evolution, but within the heart of natural selection is a concept that is central to all of existence; there are rules to the game that determine who wins.

This concepts of rules exists in every aspect of our lives. The rules may change from scenario to scenario, but nonetheless there are rules. We are born into this game not knowing what the rules are for each scenario, and as we grow up we hope to uncover little by little what those rules are. In order to survive and prosper you must understand the rules of the game, for it is only then that you can manipulate and maneuver through them.

The most immediate and glaring example of the existence of these rules is in evolution, from whence we first discovered the concept of natural selection.

In evolution, the goal of the game is to survive and pass on your genes to your children. Nothing else matters. Anything that hinders you in this process will be phased out. A bird better adapted to catching a worm will survive and have children more successfully than a bird more poorly adapted to this task. Those are the rules. That which is most efficient in helping you achieve the goal of the game wins. There is no mercy or tolerance for anything less. Such is the brutality and indifference of nature.

One of the biggest challenges we face growing up is uncovering the true rules, the true mechanics of the game which are often hidden under the more palatable false rules.

For example: “Just work hard and you will succeed” portends that the most efficient and best way of achieving the goal of succeeding is by hard work. Surely the harder you work, the more you will succeed.  While hard work is definately needed in a lot of situations in life, this is a misleading explanation of the rules.

In 2010 Nike’s CEO Mark Parker made 13.1 million dollars. The average Vietnamese Nike sweatshop worker makes $.26/hr. In order for the sweatshop worker to make the same as the CEO, she would have to work nonstop for 5,748 years. Most of these workers are trapped in sweatshop jobs with the choice to either work 40 hours in overtime a week or starve to death on the street.  Obviously in this scenario the notion that “hard work equals success” is a delusion.

A less extreme example is in the American workplace. Yet again, as children we are told that the rules are “hard work equals success” and that knowledge gives us a leg up. While these are both true in some degree, we quickly learn that this is not how the game functions. In order to achieve the goal of getting a promotion and being “successful” it is more important who you know than what you know.

We see the same thing in the dating world. From the onset guys are told that in order to succeed (ie, have lots of sex) the rules are “be sweet and caring.” Yet what it takes years for some guys to figure out, and others never learn, is that maximizing sweetness and caring in an attempt to maximize success fails because sweetness and caring equate to boring, and boring = death. Hence why aggressive asshole guys are more successful in having lots of sex because, while they might be assholes, they’re interesting.  (Now if the goal was to have a stable and healthy relationship and not just copious amounts of sex, then the rules would change and sweetness and caring would be more important)

Another great example of the concept of rules and false rules in action is politics. Ostensibly politics is about how to best lead the nation, how to best maximize the quality of life for the people who pay taxes and make up that nation. A naive person who still believed this would likely also believe that the rules would favor politicians and legislation best suited to this end. (I was once one such naive person) However, if you closely follow politics long enough, you will quickly discover that this is not the goal of the game, nor how the game operates. The game has never been about “the nation and the people who comprise it.”  That is just glittery lip-service every politician gives to half-heartedly mask the true mechanics of the game, namely the self-enrichment of the powerful players (the politicians) within the game.

In politics, as in much of life, those with the most money win. It is the cold and indifferent fact of the game, no different than the fact that the slower bunny will be dinner for the wolf. We may cheerfully delude ourselves with David and Goliath stories, but in the end the mechanics are what they are, irregardless of your strongest desires.

This is why nothing more than PR campaigns and package re-branding will ever be done about global warming until the problem is so severe it starts seriously hurting profit margins. (By which time it will be too late and our life sustaining eco-system is destroyed) This is why despite a 70% approval of a public option in healthcare the measure was defeated. Competition would have been bad for business for those who were writing the congressmen’s checks.  This is why America’s deficit will never be brought under control. Politicians will pay lip-service and feign outrage over the debt and then turn around and add $3.9 trillion in debt over the next 10 years by giving taxcuts to themselves and the other richest people in America.  That is the reality of the politics game and how it is played.

So the question then becomes “Is there a way to change the rules?” I honestly don’t know. The only example I can think of where we’ve changed the rules slightly is in basic survival. Over the centuries science has developed new technologies that increase our life span. Child mortality has fallen drastically in most parts of the world, and many people who normally would not have survived thousands of years ago do. Chances are you’re one of them. I know I am. I have poor eye-site; if it were not for the science of optics, I would be blind to everything 5 feet away from me.

Even if the rules pertaining to human survival have been tempered by technology, the rules regarding prospering and politics have not. Ultimately the rules regarding those two games effect the rules regarding basic survival. (Earlier I gave the example of global warming) So far we as a species have been unable to effect the rules governing politics and prosperity except by temporarily resetting them through violent revolutions.  “Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders become cruel.” I’m not sure if it is possible to effect a paradigm shift other than regularly tearing everything down. But I digress.

I just wanted to reflect on the existence of these rules that govern every scenario and how one task of growing up is discovering these underlying principles through experimentation and observation.

Roleplaying as a woman

14 Nov

Whenever I get the chance to roleplay, I enjoy being a female character. I’m a straight male and I’ve very comfortable in my gender and sex; I just enjoy exploring different gender dynamics. Roleplaying as a woman also gives me a chance to escape the default male privilege and experience a world through the opposite gender. I’m aware of male privilege in this world, and I recognize when something like a commercial or product is constructed in a way that assumes a male consumer, but most of the time all I can do is recognize it; playing as a woman lets me get on the other end of it.

Roleplaying as the opposite gender, while fun, can be challenging. When I first started trying this, my ex, an experienced roleplayer, warned me that she’d often seen guys try to play as the opposite gender, only to descend into very heterosexual male fantasies about lesbians. The characters they are playing are female, but the players and their actions were most definitely male. I try my best to avoid this, even creating relationships with male characters, but I’m not perfect. From time to time I’ll see an attractive female NPC and think “dang, she’s good looking, wonder if….oh wait…” I’ve also noticed that male players who play female characters often have their characters fall into one of two stereotypes: cold bitch or temptress slut. I also avoid this as I feel it is a misogynistic generalization of women, damning them to two equally unfair and unrealistic archetypes.  Trying to get inside the head of a character of another gender is really hard to do, but I feel it is a lot more interesting than just playing your normal self with all your gender specific baggage.

Currently I’m playing Fallout New Vegas. My character is an independent drifter woman named Afya. (Afya is actually a character I’ve played for a while before, but in another roleplaying game. She’s always been chaotic good)

 

Normally I don’t care much for very gender deterministic clothing like this pink dress, I just liked the contrast between the inferred domesticity and the huge fucking missile launcher.

Do you live life like a game/movie?

13 Nov

Earlier today I was watching a short lecture clip discussing media’s impact on sexual fantasy. The hosts were discussing how the advent of images and film changed how we think about sex. One of the hosts pointed out that our very language is stuck on the technology: “The movie in my head” or “the sex tape.”

I’m not exactly sure how my brain made the transition, but this got me thinking about how computer games, along with movies, affect how I view the world. It didn’t take long for me to think of all the instances in which games and movies directly affect the way I think. This isn’t surprising. I grew up with video games. The first video game I ever got seriously into was Age of Empires. I was in the 4th grade and I became addicted to this real-time empire building strategy game. I played it constantly. When I wasn’t playing it I was imagining I was playing it. I distinctly remember having dreams that I was playing, only to wake up and realize I was simply dreaming…and I was doing so well! It was not until the second Age of Empires game came out, Age of Kings, that my life was changed. Age of Kings was set in the medieval era. I fell in love with the time period, joined a medieval re-enactment group at age 12, built a trebuchet, my own suit of armor, learned how to fight with a longsword, and went to college to major in history…all because of a game. (Well, no, the game was the gateway, I became interested in everything despite the game, but still, the game was the gate way)

Those strategy games influenced how I thought about the world. I guess I was frustrated at times growing up because the world’s mechanics didn’t match the game’s.

At the same time I was discovering games, I was discovering film. Throughout my teen years my friends and I were constantly working on film projects. I started to think of life like a movie. I started to look at things as “scenes” and people as actors. I wanted my life to be a perfect script. This was most evident in my romantic life. I my dates to be picture perfect. I’d work for hours before she came over to fix up the house, to make sure everything was set just right. I wanted what I said in romantic moments to be movie perfect too, like I was reading from a script, yet genuinely felt what I was saying.

For the longest time I viewed myself as an actor in a play. I was very upset because I felt that the story of my life was being told as if I was a secondary character in someone else’s  story. I always felt everything was about other people, never me; that they were all staring in their own movies and I was just an extra. I felt powerless to change this. I didn’t know how to wrestle the spotlight away from them so my life could be about me for a change. (I don’t mean that I wanted attention, I’ve never liked being the center of attention; I just felt I was always doing things for others, never for myself. I never did anything because I wanted to do it. Whenever I was in a group with my friends, we always did what my friends wanted to do.) Thankfully I’ve grown out of both this and the romantic movie scripting, but games and movies still affect my life in other ways.

One of the perhaps more normal ways they affect my life is with music. I love going places or doing things with my ipod. My ipod allows me to put a soundtract to my life. In fact, when I think back through the history of my life, I have a play list with a song for each period of struggle or triumph. My ipod lets me pick a soundtrack depending on my mood. When I don’t have it with me, I still play songs in my head.

I had a restaurant job as a teenager clearing tables and bringing waiters their food. I absolutely hated it, but one of the ways I made it somewhat fun was to imagine it as a game, or a movie. As dorky as this sounds, I used to imagine that we, the staff of the restaurant, were fighter pilots locked in deadly combat with the food and customers. We were constantly rushing around, weaving in and out of tables, swooping down to clear tables, running to refill drinks. Sometimes a waiter would be overwhelmed and would call for backup, at which point we would dive in to the rescue. Set to a high-energy soundtrack in my head, it was actually thrilling.

This fighter pilot game imagery carries over to other aspects of my life. Growing up in a navy town, on a street full of fighter pilots, I really wanted to be one as a kid, but my fear of heights, the falling sensation in my stomach, and my poor eyesight means the closet I will ever get is driving my car.

Driving is another activity that has really been affected by movies and games for me. Again, this might sound really dorky, but sometimes I like to imagine a fighter jet/terminator style HUD display when driving. Instead of a weapons targeting system, I’m tracking the curves of the road, the other cars, people on the sidewalk. When I come to a yellow light and I can make it in time, I imagine Peppy Hare from Star Fox telling me “Use the boost to get through!” (I know it’s silly, but it’s the little things in life…)

I also like to think of the car as an extension of my body, just like a character in a video game is an extension of myself. If you think about it, it’s just another layer for your brain to transmit information through. Normally when moving your body your brain sends the signal to the muscles which move you. In a game or driving you simply add the layer of physical controls, be it the mouse, controller, or steering wheel. When you are really in tuned with a game, or driving, you lose sense of your limbs interacting with the controls to make the character do something. You become that character or that car. You think and it moves, just like your body normally would. It’s an amazing feeling, especially in a car on the highway. To have the car as your body, to pull out into a lane, hit the accelerator,  feel the thrust as you lunge past another car, it’s exhilarating.

The last way gaming really effects how I think deals with objects and interacting with people. ( I know that sounds really vague, I’ll explain)

I think about things I have the same way I think of a role playing equipment list. Picking equipment has always been a favorite activity of mine since I first played Oregon Trail as a kid, having to pick what supplies to buy for the journey. I always like to be prepared. In college I viewed my dorm room as a colony from my home. I wanted to be self-sufficient, so I brought a lot of things with me. Whenever my housemates needed something that they didn’t think to bring, I usually had 3 of it. (You’re not going for a weekend sleep-over, you’re living there!)

In my car I would pack a variety of equipment I might need: an extra pair of clothes, a towel, a crow bar, 50ft of rope, a flash light, medical supplies, blankets, a fire extinguisher, emergency food rations, and my longsword. (I don’t know what events I had in mind, but I wanted to be ready for anything)

I also like to think of things in terms of abilities and spheres of influence the same way a character in an RPG would have abilities and spheres of influence. Again, it might sound silly to use game terms to describe it, but I have a repair ability, a research ability, a cooking ability, and a longsword ability. ~_^  (among others) I like to think of other people’s talents and skills in the same way you would an RPG character.

As for spheres of influence:  Your sphere of influence is you immediate surroundings along with as far as you can travel. For example, if I saw a stranger being attacked I’d help them in a heartbeat. My ability to help is obviously limited to my immediate line of sight, or sphere of influence. The people who I see while walking on the street don’t know that while they’re in my sphere of influence I would come to their aid if they were in distress, but nonetheless they would be helped. My secondary sphere of influence is as far as I can get in my car with the money I have for gas.

I realize I’ve kinda meandered all over the place. I hope this makes sense. Does anyone do something similar? Or should I check myself into a mental hospital? ^_^

Making games more like life

15 Sep

Lately I’ve been playing this game, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is the last in the trilogy of STALKER games. The graphics are pretty nice, but the interesting thing about this game is how it tries to mimic real life, not only in terms of looks, but in terms of play. Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation gave a nice review of the first game in the series “Clear Sky” where he pointed out that while ” in most FPSs the player is some kind of hybrid of man and refrigerator, able to take entire munition dumps to the face, while the enemies all have armor made out of whipped cream and skulls made of cake, it seems going into this game everyone got their character sheets mixed up…” You see, in the STALKER series there are several mechanics that attempt to make the game more life-like, despite the horrific radioactive, monster filled setting. When you look through the scope of a weapon, your weapon wobbles slightly, as you fire on full auto, the gun kicks up, you become exhausted very quickly after running for a long time and need to stop to take a breather, you get hungry if you don’t eat for a while (which depending on how long you’ve gone without food, will greatly affect your energy regeneration), when you get shot, not only do you really get hurt, but there is bleeding to worry about, (same with all wounds, you need bandages to stop the bleeding that will slowly sap your health), weapons wear down quickly and start to jam more and more often, NPCs don’t like it when you walk around brandishing your weapon, and most importantly: the environment will quickly kill you if you don’t pay attention to your Geiger counter. I would argue that it’s mechanics like this that really make a game more immersive than just graphics alone, but graphics have come a long way. Check out this demo for the CryEngine 2 from Crytek. The graphics are three years outdated now, and the engine is being replaced with a more advanced cryengine 3, but it’s still amazing and highlights some of the graphic advances that go into making a game more immersive:

Now I enjoy that and I wish I had a computer that could run that, but it got me thinking. If the goal of game developers is to make games more and more lifelike, theoretically we’re eventually going to get to a point where video game graphics and game mechanics are indistinguishable from real life. How does that fit with the idea that games are an escape from real life? Will real life lose it’s appeal?

As I’m writing this I’m starting to have second thoughts about what I originally set out to write. I don’t think the fact that games are becoming more and more lifelike will eventually become counter intuitive. After all, while the mechanics and immersion will start to bring games closer and closer to the world we’re trying to escape, at the same time the settings and events played out in those games will still allow us to transport ourselves from our current reality.

Unlike some Sci-fi I don’t foresee a world where everyone abandons real life in order to play video games. I feel this way for a host of reasons but mainly because some people will just not be interested, and other will be too busy with life, like feeding their families, to be able to indulge in devoting large amounts of time to virtual space. Plus, I think there will always be a niche of people who like to play “old school” games, regardless of the medium. I realize I didn’t really take a position here in this post, or discuss in detail the deep philosophical questions, but I guess that’s because I’m still unsure myself. If this topic interests you, I highly recommend you take 20 minutes out of your day and listen to this talk given at TED. It’s pretty thought provoking.

Darkest of Days

11 Oct

So the other day I bought Darkest of Days on Steam after watching Yahtzee’s review of it on Zero Punctuation. As a senior history major in college this game intrigued me greatly. One of my favorite things about this game is the fact that it is at times a muzzle loading FPS. You shoot your musket and then you have to wait a few seconds before you fire again while your character goes through the reloading steps. Given, the steps are sped up so you can fire again in about 2 seconds, but still.

The other thing I enjoyed about this game is being put in the middle of big battles. Usually in other FPS you’re a solo tank running around doing things alone, but in this game you’re put on the front lines with a bunch of other soldiers. One of the best examples of this is when you fight in the corn field of Antietam. You move up in line with the rest of the Union soldiers and you exchange a few volleys with the confederates before having to run.

The other very cool thing about the game is how every so often you’re given modern weapons and told to have at it with the enemy. At one point you have to turn back a WWI German advance and you’re handed a laser guided rocket launcher.

As for technical gripes, the first thing I found out was just how hard it was to control your player with the mouse and keyboard. I constantly found myself sliding my mouse over to look in another direction, only to find that I didn’t turn as much as I wanted, and I had to pick up my mouse, move it back to the other side, put it down, and slide it again every time I wanted to look further to the left or the right. After about half and hour of this I got fed up and went to get an xbox 360 controller.

I then found that I couldn’t easily map the controls on the xbox controller to my liking. I tried to copy the Halo controls of COD controls but no luck. It took me a while to retrain myself not to accidentally throw a grenade when I was trying to switch weapons.

The last technical complaint is with the sound. You literally cannot hear an NPC if you are not looking at them, so you better have subtitles on.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have with the game is a moral one. The people you are working for don’t want to change history. Their goal is to keep history exactly like it happened. Dr. Kroell, the founder of KronoteK, the time travel company, even says “Who am I to play God?”. This all pissed me off royally.

As someone who studies history, I know history is shit. Almost the entire history of mankind is written in blood and suffering. Who are you to play God? That implies that God wanted history to turn out the way it has, which is extremely fucked up. And if you look at history, horrible shit happens to everyone, all religions, which either means that there really is no god, or if there is, he LOVES to see blood and suffering, no matter what your faith.

Dr. Kroell says that all this blood and suffering is supposed to teach us a lesson. This is an insulting and condescending answer that I have encountered before. So all those people who died painful and gruesome deaths in history did so to teach you a lesson? Fuck no. Any decent human being would want to go back and stop all that bad shit from happening.

It’s funny that they claim to be such stifflers for keeping history in tact. One of the final battles has me running around spraying bullets all over Pompeii before it is covered in ash. I leave a trail of dead future soldiers and bullets. Who’s going to pick all that stuff up? Archaeologists in 18th and 19th centuries….

Hit points

17 Aug

Hitpoints have always been a curious invention by gaming. I guess the frailty of our bodies is not very fun, and so to make gaming fun, we need to invent hitpoints.

Can you imagine if games were like real life in terms of total damage a body can sustain? You wouldn’t get three feet in a shooter game. The first bullet you took would shatter and shred your internal organs, leading you to bleed out all over the floor while going into shock. Not exactly stuff that would make a game like Gears of War a hit.

Huge battles in RTS games would be over in a few seconds. All your expensive units would die after being hit once, it would suck, but then so does war in real life.

One game that I must point out that does this differently is the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. In the game you are not a human tank. Bullets will deplete your health much faster, and even after you’ve been hit you will bleed, depleting your health further. While the damage is “more” realistic, it isn’t perfect. A bullet to the stomach would pretty much put you out of action. Still, the game is commendable for going the extra mile.

(Here is a really good and funny video review of it by Zero Punctuation)

What I find really interesting in games is how some weapons do more damage than others. Sure, if you want to talk physics a bullet has more joules behind it than an arrow, but both will still kill you. The total energy is different, but the end result is the same.

Perhaps the idea that some weapons are “superior” to others in games stems from the existence of hitpoints instead of the fact that weapons evolved for efficiency reasons and not because newer ones “killed you more”.

EdgertonBullet

Weapon effectiveness

16 Aug

So today I was playing around with Empire Earth II. I was having a great time and then a swarm of enemy pikemen surrounded one of my tanks and killed it. I was like “Hey…wait a second….” Let me see, how I can best put this? Oh, I know!

tank pwns

I know how the game calculates damage. X unit has Y hitpoints and does Z damage. If enough of unit A gangs up on unit B, then eventually the damage done by unit A is going to deplete unit B’s hitpoints. Simple. Unfortunately, in this case that scenario is totally impossible. A bunch of guys with pikes could never destroy an active tank. Maybe if it was left in a field and they had a few weekends to take the nuts and bolts off, but not if it was manned, moving, and shooting.

Now this is a computer game, and so it’s rather trivial, but it would be nice to make it as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, that would require a lot more code to be written about what the computer should or shouldn’t do when 2 units fight. Production times and costs are already so enormous, this issue will definitely be on the back burner for a long long time.

This is an area where I think table top gaming has an edge over computer gaming. D&D and its many spin offs have AC “armor class”. AC determines if, when attacked, a player takes any damage. The better your armor, the better your AC, and thus the less likely you are to take damage. Now the system is not perfect for every possible weapon/armor combination, but it really helps in trying to make the game more realistic.