On Minecraft and positive reinforcement

In which your author decides to try Minecraft.

I’ve had Don’t Starve and enjoyed it for some time now (I think I first tried it in June 2013), and I’ve always heard that it’s basically a Minecraft clone with fancier graphics and a different set of problems. Not that different, but different enough. So I downloaded the demo for Minecraft several months ago (onto my old computer), and didn’t have much fun with it.

Today, however, was the end of a stressful week, and I wanted to do something that was fun and cooperative (we’ll get to that part later I think) and without win-conditions. I don’t feel like playing a game that put pressure on me to perform. So I booted up the demo, started a new world with “Peaceful” selected, and actually put some effort into trying to learn the controls. So far, I’m enjoying it, and if I like the demo I think I’ll actually buy the game so I can play with people. I’m going to be the boring person who just wanders around and makes stuff…but I think I’m okay with that. Maybe I should try Farmville instead (no).

I think this is known as self-care, and I’ll let you know how it works (and if I end up deciding to buy the game).

Also, if you’re curious, I highly recommend Don’t Starve if you’re looking for an enjoyable but intense single-player game. The spiders are adorable. But don’t go near them.

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Connecting through porn, or just creeping?

Preface: since this is about porn games, any links should be assumed to be NSFW. The games linked also include a huge variety of fetishes, so. If there’s anything you know you don’t like, it’s honestly probably best to avoid the games. Besides like, hardcore gore, it’s mostly “anything goes.”

So I’m sitting here at my computer, and I get up to brush my teeth and as I’m getting up I pass my boyfriend at his computer. I ask what he’s up to, and he responds, “it’s in alpha,” and points to his screen where I can see a rudimentary interface and porny text.

It’s a text-based porn game, like Corruption of Champions (at the time of writing this post I don’t know the title of this particular one, or have a link to it; a day later, here’s a link to LEWD. As the boyfriend said, it’s in alpha, and moreover, I haven’t tried it. No guarantees. I have no idea about the content although I’ll assume there’s some transformation fetish going on).

As I was brushing my teeth, I got to thinking about how porn games work to realize this fantasy of sexual prowess and how it’s all about making your fantasy happen within the confines of the game world. I’ll be honest here, I think porn games have figured out a long time before mainstream games that your embodiment in an avatar is crucial to the experience (especially to the experience of virtual sexual pleasure) and that giving players the ability to customize *everything under the sun* is a huge part of this embodiment. But I digress.

So there’s this fantasy of being the one that is attractive to everyone in this world who you are attracted to. It’s been written about with respect to Dragon Age; that everyone in the game is Warden- or Hawke-sexual more than they are any other sexuality, and that real people’s sexual appetites are more subtle than that. But this is the guiding principle behind porn games. (It’s actually more nuanced than that because many of them, especially the text-based ones I’m thinking of, will have character preferences encoded into the NPCs. But I digress again.)

I was thinking, and this is where it gets weird: this is the same fantasy that real-life prostitution materializes. The idea that this person is here, completely sexually interested in you, and only you…for as long as you have scheduled together. And real-life prostitution has time limits and more importantly, you can’t barge in on a session if someone else is in the middle of their own private fantasy.

What if we take this and apply it to a multiplayer online porn game? The multiplayer aspect being completely invisible, except when you try to do a scene that someone else is in the middle of doing. Say you decide you want to try to fuck the bartender with the robotic horse dick (yeah that’s a real example), and you’re turned away because, hold up, he’s fucking someone else right now. I don’t think I’d go so far as to have the players contact one another in the game or see one another or anything, but just being aware of the presence of other real people engaging in their own sexual fantasies in the same imaginative landscape that you’re using for your own. I wonder what that would do to people.

ETA: There are a couple links I can’t not add…

Also I should also state explicitly here: I am not against sexuality. I really hope that didn’t actually need to be said.

How do we talk about communication in multiplayer games?

I’m posting this now because it’s been percolating for weeks so I might as well.

In other news, I’m getting tired of these titles, but I like the consistency…sigh. Problems in academiaaaaa.

Let’s talk talking. How do multiplayer games implement easy, fast communication? Communication is one of those things that we take for granted in off-line (analogue?) play because it comprises so much of the play experience that it is invisible. For example, a tabletop role-playing game only exists when players communicate to the GM what actions they are taking. Similarly, a game of chess-by-mail only exists because two people write to each other and state the move they wish to make. Communication is, quite simply, the name of the game.

In both of these examples, players communicate intent within rule systems. It’s not as easy as I made it sound up there; communication isn’t the only thing reifying these game instances. The established structures of rules and notation and yes, communication styles, empower players to act in meaningful ways.

It’s never as easy as “give them voice chat and they will come”. Opening up such a system to the public invariable invites abuse and trolling, and does not always work well with the existing game. Players in a group of friends often use outside services such as Skype, Mumble, Teamspeak, or Ventrilo. On the other hand, these things are not friendly to strangers trying to create a cohesive group from within the game itself.

Multiplayer games, especially ones with large and diverse player bases, have taken different approaches to easing communication inside game spaces. There are a few that I’m familiar with through play, and a few that I’ve been pointed towards through exploring this. I do not present these with any extended commentary, but just to show the range of options and the questions raised by each one.

Team Fortress 2 supports voice chat in game through a simple press of the “v” key, though this feature may be abused; players have the ability to mute other players for their own sake. More interestingly, Voice Commands are built in to the default key bindings of the game. These voice commands are often context- and character-sensitive. There are three menus of voice commands, accessible from the “z”, “x”, and “c” keys. Each of the menus has a set of 8 commands further triggered from the 1-8 number keys, with 0 reserved as a cancel. The commands are pieces of information that the designers felt required easy and fast communication between players; they are pieces of information that make the experience of play qualitatively better.

Looking at the voice commands in Team Fortress 2, we see certain categories repeat. Most important are the calls to the medic for help:

Due to its importance and universal nature, the “Medic” call by default has its own separate keybind (default E).

– “Voice Commands”, Team Fortress Wikia

But beyond that, there are a set of commands for informing team movements (z3-z6), commands for revealing information about enemy team movements (x1-x2), requests for aid from the support classes (x3-x7, and the aforementioned “Medic” call), as well as general communication such as “Thanks”, “Yes/No”, and all of the calls under the c menu. With this set of 24 voice commands, players should theoretically be able to communicate their intent in a restricted domain (the game space). Anything left over is then relegated to voice chat or text chat.

With this kind of system where critical pieces of information are bound to particular keys, conveying that information is easy and leaves no room for trolling (except creatively, such as by spamming “Put dispenser here” as a heavy, which leads to a chorus of “pootis pootis pootis”).

In Left 4 Dead/L4D2,as in Team Fortress 2 Valve have taken cooperation as the goal of gameplay. The GDC slides that I’ve linked before (“Replayable Cooperative Game Design: Left 4 Dead”, Michael Booth, GDC 2009) take one slide to focus on “vocalizations” (“Requiring Cooperation: Vocalizations”, slide 25 of 71). As described in this slide, these vocalizations are automatically generated by the player characters and NPC human allies based on contextual clues. They have three main purposes that enhance cooperative gameplay: “Improv[e] situational awareness”, “Communicat[e] short term goals”, and “Encourag[e] cooperation via a baseline of camaraderie” (slide 25).

With Team Fortress 2, we’ve seen what happens when you take communication of situational awareness and short term goals, and map it to keys rather than leaving it to players to type up long statements in chat, or to press a button and then voice chat to the subset of the server that is currently on a third-party service. It makes for easier teamwork, and often a friendlier set of interactions. (I wonder. This is based on personal experience.) It also models the appropriate forms of communication for the system, as these are the twenty-four commands that the designers have chosen as vital to the experience of play.

With Left 4 Dead (and L4D2), we can see what happens when, instead of mapping those to key-presses, you remove those from the conscious decision-making process of the player. The human allies will always produce vocalizations, regardless of whether they’re played by a human player or controlled by AI systems.

We also needed a way for the AI characters to shout out important facts in the world. If I’m playing with my friends, and one of them sees an ammo cache in a dark corner, then my friend can just tell me. That’s an important thing to know; the ammo is in different places every time. … Once we did it for the bots, we realized it was pretty cool for the human-controlled characters to do it also; it’s a bit of additoinal roleplaying, and more convenient than having to call out yourself.
– “Rule Databases for Contextual Dialog and Game Logic

…To be continued…

Why don’t we talk about eSports?

Or, Do We and I Just Don’t See it?

In trying to find an angle onto games criticism and its relationship (or lack thereof) to sports discourse, I had a discussion with my advisor (yay advisor, doin it rite), and he advised (lol) that instead of looking at eSports broadcasters and how they construct the game, I should investigate why eSports titles don’t show up in the main outlets of games criticism that I’m familiar with. I understand the danger of making sweeping claims about the lack of discourse, because it’s quite possible that I just don’t see it. And if this is true, pleeeeeeease tell me.

On the other hand, I consider myself pretty on top of current games criticism: I read Critical Distance almost every week, I follow a set of games critics on Twitter that keep me in touch with what’s going on, I read Borderhouse Blog, I read other outlets ranging from Kotaku to Nightmare Mode to certain tumblrs (this isn’t meant to be braggy; the thing is, as someone researching games criticism, I have to know these things). And rarely do I come across any kind of discussion of eSports titles.

For example, I’d like to look at Critical Distance. Critical Distance bills itself as a curated archive, creating a weekly round-up of critical writing on video games. It’s one of those sites that is central to games crit, and really does have its finger on the pulse, as they claim.

With our coverage we aim to provide both an entry point into the wide network of like-minded blogs and websites, and to promote up-and-coming or lesser-known authors. We are not, however, a site for original writing that is criticism itself, instead we aim to capture the videogame criticism ‘zeitgeist’ and act as a ‘memory bank’ in this notoriously short-sighted and quick forgetting industry.

– “About“, Critical Distance

Keeping this in mind, let’s try an experiment. How often does League of Legends (or another eSports title) show up in the kinds of critical posts that are featured on CD? Searching the archive of Critical Distance (using their own site search tool) reveals three compilations linking to posts on League of Legends. Two of these compilations are from 2012 (December and August), and one from November 8, 2009 (within two weeks of the open release on Oct. 27, 2009).

For a site that has had weekly round-ups since 2009, the (admittedly not thoroughly controlled) numbers are dismal. I searched for some other games, popular and indie, using the same interface (CD’s in-site search). Here are the results in the order that I thought to search them, and remember, LoL had 3 hits:

I also did a (highly unscientific) attempt at widening the net by searching for “league”, got 14 results, only 3 of which referenced League of Legends and were in fact the original three results from my first search. As you can probably see, all of the games on this list had more results than League of Legends, except “dota”, another eSports/RTS title. Even “tetris”. Really.

Back to these elusive three posts! One of the posts, the most recent, highlights a discussion around character design: responses to Todd Harper’s open letter to Riot to claim Taric as gay.

In a similar vein, Zoya Street of The Border House responds to recent calls to ‘out’ League of Legends champion Taric as gay, challenging the assumptions taken in assigning Taric’s gender and sexual identity […]

UPDATE: Also recommended is Todd Harper’s response post.

– Kris Ligman, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: December 23rd“, Critical Distance, 12/23/12

I’ll definitely be returning to the centrality of character in discussions of eSports. Bother me if I don’t.

The other two posts, one from August 2012 and one from November 2009, discuss the League community and its notorious toxic behavior; these posts try to explain why the relationship between players within the game is often so riddled with negativity and zero-sum competitiveness.

At Moving Pixels, G. Christopher Williams actually attempts to answer the question of “u mad?” He’s a braver person than I, evidently. His piece is an interesting consideration of why League of Legends players so obsessively want to know if they’re hurting their opponents. The answer speaks quite directly to the lack of consequential signifiers in online competitive play, he says.

– Katie Williams, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: August 5th“, Critical Distance, 8/5/12

And from 2009: “The Blame Game“.

This is getting long, but I guess I just want to pause here: the three posts on CD talk about individual character representations (again, I’ll go into this more) or the community. There are no close-readings of the map or of the rules. The lore doesn’t enter into any sort of critical discussion, often.

Why not?
aka, stay tuned for the next segment, where I offer some rampant speculation!

The Beautiful Game?

Something older, but still mine!

With a game like this, where every player’s movements matter, communicating with teammates is essential, and playing with friends in the same room takes play to a whole new level. You talk, of course, because talking is faster than typing and why would you type when she’s two feet away? Sometimes, he gets loud and you know, without even hearing it, that you need to hurry back to your base and help defend.

I wrote this in December 2012 as part of Culture Ramp’s series on “What it’s Like to Play” (link goes to series).  I looked at the movement and communication in Team Fortress 2 as the same kind of movement and communication that I was personally used to as a soccer player.

Have a go and tell me what you think.