Learning Through Play: Competition

When’s the last time you played a multiplayer game that was purely cooperative? There aren’t many of them. Almost all of the ones I can think of and find also set you and your team against another entity of some form. Oftentimes, as in games like Divinity: Original Sin, Left4Dead, almost all MMOs, and similar, that entity is an explicit opposing force– some great monster or enemy faction or villain of some flavor. In other cases (as in a game like Mansions of Madness, Pandemic, or The Secret World), the opposing entity is more vague, an unknown that you have to give shape to before fighting.

Consider that these are the cooperative games, the ones in which you are ostensibly working together. They’re structured to create for you an enemy to fight against, and when one isn’t immediately apparent, to create one. Even cooperative games are often focused around creating adversarial relationships, and it’s generally more important that you beat the enemy than help your friends.

What does this teach us?

Well, judging from the obsession with it in storytelling, it teaches us that heroic sacrifices are some kind of ideal, rather than a costly pyrrhic victory. “Go on without me”, the doomed movie hero claims, often attempting to redeem an extended series of flagrantly awful behaviors with a single ostensibly noble act.

It teaches us that the fight is more important than the team— it should come as no surprise that teamplay games such as MOBAs have such incredibly toxic communities– the games themselves incentivize victory over teamwork, to the point where a flagging team member is a target for derision, because they “bringing everyone down”, rather than an opportunity to work together.

It teaches us to identify opponents before identifying allies, and often to distrust allies, who by some quirk of AI or differing tactics or player skill are unreliable unknowns. If there is no opponent, we create one.

Likely half of you are rolling your eyes and saying this is an overreaction; the other half are nodding along. What fascinates me about this kind of thing is that it has very clear parallels elsewhere. There’s a chicken-and-egg argument about whether games are a reflection of real world mindsets or if the real world mindsets are what create games (to wit: why are so many games about violence? is it because we are violent and games are an outlet, or are we encouraged to be more violent and games reflect that taste for violence?). I think this is a false dichotomy– the two feed one another.

I talked with someone years ago who genuinely could not understand why someone would play a singleplayer game. “There are no opponents, you’re just playing against the computer,” he told me, “how does that not get boring?” The idea that you might play a game for some reason other than establishing dominance among other human opponents was entirely out of his comfort zone. That kind of thinking isn’t inherent, it’s learned– he got heavily into MMOs for the PvP and now plays exclusively PvE raids. The hops were fairly straightforward: solo deathmatching -> team deathmatching -> team objective-based PvP -> team objective-based PvP with progression -> team objective-based PvP with progression tied to PvE -> team PvP in parallel with team PvE -> team PvE supported by solo progression.

Each step along his path taught her about some new behavioral pattern, until his behavior changed entirely. Remembering our previous conversation, I pointed him at DayZ, only to hear him tell me that he didn’t like DayZ because it was “too oppositional”. Something of a surprise coming from someone who, only a few years before, suggested that a game wasn’t worthwhile if you weren’t fighting against other humans.

I think the heavily competitive focus of games — be it against other players or against the game itself —  also teaches us to define ourselves by how we face opposition. It’s an interesting bit of identity generation, because it goes a layer deeper and teaches us to look for opposition so that we can define ourselves by how we face it.

It’s something I catch myself doing a lot– it’s very easy to see real-world situations as us-vs-them because both “us” and “them” are deeply trained to look for opposing forces. When none exist, they’re created, and you see coalitions disband and groups succumb to infighting.

At the same time, when an opposing force does surface, we come together rapidly and effectively, because it gives us an opportunity to define ourselves.

I wonder, then– what if games taught us to define ourselves in other ways? It’s hard for me not to think of Bioware RPGs here, with the sheer amount of fanfic and fanart inspired by a game that often downplays “fighting the threat” in favor of “hanging out with your friends”. I can’t help but wonder what we might look like as a community if those sorts of games were the majority, not the minority.

Daythoughts

A big thing that stopped me blogging last year was a sense that I didn’t have anything interesting to say, not on a daily basis. Realistically, I don’t have something interesting or thought-provoking to say every day, and trying to come up with one is kind of unsustainable when I have other things to do (which I do, now!)

So, instead, when I feel like writing but don’t have a clear topic, I’m just going to label it “daythoughts” and run down some of what I’m thinking. It’s my equivalent of chatting about my day when I get home, except in my case my dog is not the most receptive. This might be interesting for me to look back on later, too.

So. Daythoughts, 9/6/17.

–I am deeply concerned by the weather, locally and elsewhere. Smoke and ashfall where I live is distressing. Monsoons in south Asia are devastating, the hurricane(s!) slamming the Caribbean and Gulf Coast are doing serious damage, and basically the predictions of increasingly dangerous weather that went ignored for so long are proving to be as accurate as the data used to predict them. I’ve checked in with my family as much as possible, but I don’t have contact info for some of my more extended family, who are going to get hit by the weather.

–I think about data a lot lately. We have more tools to know more things about more things than ever before, and we live in the Data Age. Information is one thing; we can communicate what we know. Data is a different thing– it’s empirical evidence that can be used to predict what we don’t know. If we get good enough at it, and in many places we have, we can act on things we don’t know as well as if we did know it. I can imagine a person from today with some basic modern data collection tools flashing back even a hundred years and putting them to use. That person would look like a prophet, just acting on simple behavioral data.

–Despite all of this data, we’re really, really bad at actually listening to it. I think there’s a deep-seated (learned?) distaste we have for the idea that we’re predictable to a high degree of accuracy. It’s weird for me personally, because it’s something I take comfort in, it suggests that we don’t act randomly, that we act in patterns that can be seen and understood and modeled. It’s not just a chaotic weave that we all contribute to, it just looks that way if you aren’t looking at it with the right tools.

–I wonder, often, how much of this aversion we have to being predicted is cultural. I think about trying to spend some time living in another country, just to get a feel for how differently people think.

–This is the worst time of year for me. I am reminded of the things I haven’t yet accomplished this year, the things I meant to do but didn’t, or couldn’t. It’s some combination of convention season, my birthday, and the end of summer, which is my favorite season. Cons remind me that I am not the person I’d like to be, my birthday reminds me that time continually ticks away from me, and the end of summer is a start of the cold/sunless/quiet season. It’s not quite loneliness, but the expectation of impending loneliness.

–I’m trying to engage on Twitter a bit more. It’s a platform that I really don’t like for a variety of reasons, but it’s also one of the few that I’m a part of that have expanding circles rather than contracting ones. I’d really like to meet and get to know some new people, and Twitter seems like the best avenue for that.

–It makes me really happy to play games that feel like they have something to prove. I’ve spoken before about my love of the “second place” MMOs, because they really try harder than whoever’s on top at the time, and it’s true for other games in other genres as well. Currently am very impressed by the storytelling in GW2, which is something I didn’t expect I’d say, and the anniversary event in FFXIV was really touching. I look forward to more from both.

–I’m looking forward to the GW2 expansion more than I expected. I’m (finally) caught up in the story and while I’m sometimes frustrated by certain parts of the game, I have fun pretty much every time I play. Unlocking our guild hall and working towards that is really fun.

–My FFXIV playtime has dipped, as it often does, as I’m left in a place where any progression I do either requires a full raid group or requires me grinding daily roulettes. I really don’t love daily things, and (frustratingly, predictably for this expansion) long queue times as a DPS haven’t done much to inspire me to play more.

Thoughts for today. Not sure if they spark anything in anyone, but let me know if they do.

–Tam

Learning Through Play: Persona 5

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT PERSONA 5, THROUGH AT LEAST SUMMER.

Persona 5 has been stuck in my head basically since I played it, which would be literally the day it launched until I’d finished it, taking a couple days off work to do so. It’s been stuck in my head so much that my morning walk to work is mostly paired with P5 OST tunes, and not only because Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There is a great song with which to start your day.

It’s stuck with me, I think, because it’s taught me a bunch of things that I hadn’t previously had a good inroad for. The easy one is the Tokyo subway. At the start of the game, you’re sent to get to school and told “don’t be late!” which automatically triggers some amount of urgency-anxiety in me, especially when I don’t know how to not be late. I got terribly, terribly lost in P5’s initial subway system, and what I found out in the process is that it’s laid out almost exactly like Tokyo subways, including how you navigate them. I’m now used to navigating P5’s subway system, and from folks I know who’ve visited Japan, the parallels are good enough that I might be instantly used to navigating those subways, just through osmosis. It’s an interesting thought, and with any luck I’ll be able to take a trip there and see for myself at some point.

More interesting to me, though, is seeing how P5 has quickly and effectively taught me about judging people, and then letting my opinions change. It’s a game where you’re encouraged to make early judgements about people, because it’s a survival trait. P5’s world is not a friendly one, and it’s one where, from the very start, you’re told that not only is someone going to betray you, but that it’s going to be someone close to you. It teaches you not to trust people early on. It then teaches you that if you’re too untrusting and too paranoid, you don’t get close to anyone, and that sometimes those early snap judgements are the right ones. It’s a really impressive series of arcs that twists and turns and leaves me with Thoughts, about the characters, about the portrayals, and honestly about a lot of stuff.

The one that sticks in my mind the most is Yusuke/Fox, the artist. He’s not my favorite character in the game, but he’s probably the one I’ve thought about the most. I started out hating him. I didn’t like his introductory arc, I didn’t like what looked and sounded like overt sexual harassment / blackmail towards Ann on his part during that arc, and there really wasn’t any kind of redemptive piece to that arc that made me feel any better about him– he never even apologizes to Ann (nor do any of the other characters, who abet that whole arc, also bothering me).

Then he’s a party member. A useful party member, and one who moment-to-moment annoys me less than Ryuji/Skull, but with whom I’ve had a bad start and am still put off by his being a pretty horrible person in his intro.

Then we talk, because The Emperor is a useful set of personas and I’m working on social links. Sometimes it’s just because I have nothing better to do that day. I hear about how obsessive he is about his art, how much he delves into tiny details and how frustrated he is when he can’t quite get them right, even (especially!) when he can’t quantify or explain how they’re not right. I watch him struggle for words and just deflate, defeated, and I roll my eyes because I don’t have a lot of sympathy for him.

Then we meet Futaba. I get Futaba, I think she’s pretty awesome, and I want to help her with her problems for a variety of reasons, not least of which because she wants to be helped with her problems, and hasn’t had a good onramp for it until now. I’m willing to do what it takes, and engage on her terms, because I (as a person) can relate (to her character). I also notice that she’s really good at talking with Yusuke. They don’t get along, per se, but they communicate with one another incredibly effectively, and Yusuke is like a different person when they’re in the same room. Then Futaba makes an offhanded comment and a theory clicks into place. I get it.

I don’t think Yusuke is an asshole. I think he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum. There’s a design in his head that he has trouble communicating, and he’s not great at relating with people, and he gets frustrated when these two things intersect. He’s intensely awkward because he just doesn’t get social cues, but he’s also very smart. He knows he’s bad with people, and is trying to get better at it, and partly doesn’t know how and partly has his own brain working against him. He’s able to look at and imitate people who he views as more socially functional, it’s just that his exposure to those people has been badly skewed over his life.

He and Futaba, while they don’t exactly get along, are on a similar wavelength, just by dint of being awkward around other people. They’re both very smart, and both frustrated about not being good communicators, but they can communicate with each other.

Flash back to my entire series of interactions with Yusuke at this point, and I realize how consistent this has been. I understand why so many of my dialogue choices have gotten a poor response, and why I feel like I have to work so hard to “get through” to him. I’d been treating him entirely like a different person, because it wasn’t obvious that he wasn’t.

This is on me. This is me snap-judging someone (even with evidence, I think his actions during his intro are still pretty crap, even given the ‘doesn’t really understand how to interact with people’ context) and then not giving them a chance. Yusuke’s been trying to open up and I’ve been patronizing him. He’s asking “how do I become better at this” and my answer is “you’re bad at this”, which is something he already knows.

The applications of this in my actual life are beyond count. Good communication is a skill, not an inherent trait shared by all people of some level of competence. Like many skills, some people will have a much, much harder time developing them. I’m kind of short– basketball is a skill I am predisposed to have a hard time developing. The same is true of communication for other people.

It’s a drum I beat regularly, though usually in the context of management. Good management is a form of good communication, which is a skill, that not everyone has. You’d think I’d have expanded that sphere to this extent, but it took P5 to get me to broaden that sphere.

P5 has a lot for me to unpack. It baits me a lot with things, suggesting I make a snap judgement about them, but sometimes proves that those snap judgements are correct. The lesson feels like an interesting balance between making the snap judgements and being open to having them changed, which I think is a lot harder than only doing one or the other.

What Do We Learn Through Play?

Long hiatus, back now. A thing about me: it’s an effort for me to talk when I don’t feel like I have something to say (often, even when I do). I usually default to listening. I’ve spent a lot of the last year listening.

When it comes to games, we talk around some topics a lot. An example: games are art. This isn’t really refutable. It honestly wasn’t, ever, but for a solid couple of decades there was a big question mark around that. We’ve moved past that in a big way, and we’re seeing more and more amazing, beautiful, moving things in our games that simply aren’t possible unless it’s widely understood that games are art.

That understanding is important, it unlocks things, it makes people think and inspires them. Modern graffiti wasn’t viewed as an artistic medium for decades, and wasn’t widely accepted for even longer. Now we have Banksy, and massive outdoor city murals, and street art. The frame of expression widened as acceptance did. We’re seeing the same things in games.

This gets me to my original thought– listening and talking around topics. Games are art, indisputably. Games also teach, indisputably. We have an ever-expanding body of research that concludes that games are one of if not the best mechanisms for teaching. We’ve known that games are great for teaching for centuries– Go and Chess are old war games, used to teach strategy. The question becomes not “*can* games teach?” but instead “what are games teaching?”

It’s a thing we talk around a lot. We’ll talk about how well the game teaches us how to play it, how good the tutorial is and whether the progression curve teaches you the skills necessary to keep progressing. We talk about games teaching resource management, and strategy. We’ll laud games that use smaller versions of boss mechanics to prepare you for the boss itself.

What doesn’t come up much is the other stuff games teach us. Assassin’s Creed taught quite a few people how to appreciate classic art. Guitar Hero and Rock Band taught people about classic rock. These aren’t a core part of the game, they don’t help you beat the game, but they’re the parts that can stick with you. In school, no one cares that you’re good at completing worksheets or homework– what those things do is give you skills that stick with you for when you need them. Math class teaches you how to finish math class, but it also teaches you how to balance a budget, how to make estimates, how to think about problems logically, and a variety of other handy life skills. It teaches you how to use a calculator, so you can solve complex problems with one, and teaches you how NOT to use a calculator, so you can tell if the answer the calculator is giving you is likely to be correct or if you’ve put in some errors.

Games teach us all kinds of ancillary things, but we don’t really talk about them much (outside of some flavors of game scholars, hi2y’all if you’re reading this). It’s certainly not a discussion that comes up in the design process. There’s rarely enough space in the usual games-industry development cycle to have those kinds of discussions, much less act on them.

It means that a lot of stuff gets unintentionally taught, lessons that sink in that weren’t ever part of a plan. There’s an parallel to parenting here– the parents I know talk about the things they teach their children, and then the things their children “pick up”. These are the unintentionally taught parts, and games do the same thing.

I want to spend some time over the next few posts trying to put words to the unintentional things I’ve learned from games. It’s a conversation I find interesting, and (as mentioned) not one that comes up a lot. It’s a hard thing to think about, because it forces me to not just read between the lines of the game but also self-analyze and see how I’ve changed.

Might be an interesting experiment, we’ll see!

Whose Fault Is This?

Per the title, quite possibly the least meaningful question it is possible to ask about anything. We learn it early, we learn it from everything around us. We obsess over the answer, as if the answer had any significance whatsoever. Spoilers: it never does. In relationships, in business, in politics, in parenting, whether the event in question is good or bad, we ask this question constantly.

We’re also really bad at answering it, or of doing anything useful with the answer once we have it. Perhaps we can definitively assign blame, then what? Are those to blame then exiled? Social pariahs? Sometimes. Sometimes we eliminate them in a variety of ways, removing them from “positions where they can continue to do damage”. Oftentimes we seek revenge for their wrongdoings, exacting vengeance in the name of justice as if any data anywhere suggested that was effective. What all of these things do is drive  a desire never to be caught, for even the tiniest mistake. Never be at fault, never be the one to blame. It is how small errors pile up until massive systems come crashing down. It is how those seeking to exploit the system find loopholes and get away with them. It is what makes it ever harder to answer the question “whose fault is this”, because we all know that it will be a Very Bad Time for whoever that person is.

What do we gain by this? Do we correct the error by identifying its source? Can we even accurately identify the source, or is that, like many things, more complicated than a simple pointed finger? Does ferreting out those responsible change the past, or adequately ensure that errors won’t happen in the future? Not really. Instead we spin our wheels unproductively, generating acrimony and paranoia to no real end. We get very worked up over the pursuit of this unknown, as if knowing it is an end unto itself.

My mother has a question that she poses whenever I or anyone else is getting worked up this way: “How would that be productive?” It’s a question that comes from a lifetime of clinical detachment, a need to separate conscious thought from emotion lest the latter overwhelm you. It can feel heartless; when I confide in her that I’m trying not to have an anxiety attack over my current stress level, she asks what having a panic attack would accomplish. Nothing, obviously, and to the wrong target that would be infuriating. For me it’s a redirection, a shift in focus and a hint at a better question. I get anxious when I ask the question “what is going to happen next?” — it’s not an answerable question and it’s possible to expend a lot of energy trying in vain to find an answer. It’s stressful to pursue unanswerable questions, but “How would that be productive?” hints at a better question: “What would be productive?” At an uncertain time, my mind works to find certainty, and I get anxious if I pursue questions that can’t be answered. Pursuing questions that CAN be answered, ones that add value and are productive, gives me something for my mind to work on and lowers my stress level.

For me, it’s a stepped process. I might not be able to answer “What happens next?” and I might not be able to answer the better “What do I do next?” I’ll take that a step deeper, if I don’t know what I should do next, I’ll ask “What can I do next?” Sometimes this isn’t enough, and the next question becomes “How do I find out what I can do next?” If I can’t answer a question, I step down until I get to a question I can answer, then work my way back up.

So, “Whose fault is this?” is really two questions. One is “How can we stop this bad thing from happening again?” and the other is “How do I stop feeling bad about this thing that has happened?” The unspoken thought process here is that finding the fault allows us to answer both at once, by “eliminating” the problem. Unfortunately, that’s not how problems are fixed, especially with people. At the very best, it brings up another question: “What do we do with this knowledge?”

There’s a different question that I’ve come to prefer: “What do we do next?” It helps us move forward productively, and helps us focus our efforts in a way that bears fruit. It skips the assignation of blame because the followup step to finding fault is inevitably “okay, now what?” which is where we’re getting to anyway. It sacrifices vengeance for forward motion– we will go on and if you are not with us, you will be left behind. It outs your actual saboteurs while allowing those who have made honest mistakes to atone. It is not forgiveness, it is efficiency. Exacting punishment requires resources that would be better spent on forward motion. We are a social species; being left behind is often punishment enough, and exceptions tend to make themselves known.

I spend a lot of time now trying to pursue only questions that have productive answers, and determining what those questions are. I want to ask actionable questions, I want to pursue trains of thought that have a tangible effect. It’s called in some circles a “bias for action”– a bias I’ll readily admit to.

(Games) Journalism versus Enthusiast Press

I read an incredibly, incredibly petty article today. It’s written as a defensive piece that lashes out and, ironically, proves the very thing they’re railing against.

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Short version, so you can skip the article if you choose: Polygon is upset because Bethesda has evidently claimed that games journalism doesn’t matter. They cite Bethsoft’s “late” review copies as an attack on reviewers and, by extension, customers. They strike back by offering the “sage” wisdom of not preordering games. It’s honestly sort of a pity that this kind of thing is coming from Polygon, because of all of the gaming media outlets out there, they’re the ones who flirt the closest with actual journalism the most. Polygon has some really excellent articles on occasion.

I have a variety of thoughts about this. First of all is the difference between “journalism” and “enthusiast press”. We have a name for news written by fans of a thing, about that thing, that is generally excited about said thing. It’s called enthusiast press, and it is what virtually every gaming media outlet actually is. Enthusiast press is fine, it’s a way of being a marketing signal boost, it’s a way of celebrating common interests, it’s great for building hype, it’s great for getting the word out about upcoming things. It is not hard-hitting journalism.

Journalism is a different thing entirely. It takes a goodly amount of training, and is genuinely very difficult. You have to extract information from potentially unwilling people, you have to know exactly how to protect your sources, you have to understand concepts like fact-checking, reduction of harm, integrity, and accountability. You also have to find a way to keep the lights on in your office WITHOUT that revenue stream being a conflict of interest. You can lament reality all you like, but that separation is absolutely vital to calling your content “journalism” and having anyone take you seriously.

I have no doubt that there are people at Polygon who understand this. It probably chafes them, I’m sure they would love to be able to do actual journalism. It chafes me, because the games industry could use some really great journalist outlets, ones that can report and make the entire industry better through transparency without pandering to major publishers or allowing themselves to be influenced or controlled by the very people they’re supposed to be reporting on. The industry could use it. Unfortunately, what’s happened instead is that the games enthusiast press has, as their relevance has shrunk, started throwing around the term “games journalism” to regain credibility, painting an illusion of separation where, realistically, none exists. In so doing, they’ve devalued the term “games journalism”.

Allow me to retell a story I heard: A group of people from games media outlets were invited to a closed-doors showing of an upcoming title. Their trips were paid for by the publisher, as were their meals and their hotels. Fairly standard practice. While viewing the game, several of these people heckled the presenter, disrupted the play session, and otherwise made big enough asses of themselves that they had to be escorted out. Their later-published reviews of their experience were, unsurprisingly, extremely negative. The publisher said nothing, simply did not bother to invite said people to another event. They quietly made a note, remembered the behavior of the hecklers, and acted accordingly.

Some of you may think you know who I’m talking about here. You probably don’t. This is a story I’ve heard retold MANY times, and the only difference is the publisher response– did they uninvite people to future events or did they grin and bear it? Otherwise the stories I’ve seen and heard are virtually identical. There’s a term for this: it’s called “biting the hand that feeds you”.

This kind of thing is *why* journalistic integrity is important, and why it’s vitally important for any kind of “honest” reporting to have that separation. Lest you think I’m absolving the publishers from this, consider: if the publisher is paying for the trip, controlling what reviewers see, and otherwise bankrolling the entire thing, how do any of us possibly think the results are unbiased? What possible value is there in paying money to show someone something and have them announce publicly that it’s awful? From a business standpoint, that’s unacceptable and expensive risk.

It’s not an unsolvable problem. If games media outlets don’t like being classed as “enthusiast press” and don’t like what they consider honest reviews to be characterized as “biting the hand that feeds them”, they can take the route of legitimate journalism. The difficulty here is that journalism in general is getting crushed out by enthusiast press which can be controlled by the things it’s reporting on. Finding a way to make money, to keep the lights on, without becoming beholden to the very people you’re trying to report on is a difficult obstacle to overcome. Not a lot of media outlets have figured it out, and I’m not limiting that to games here.

It’s a nasty problem, and it’s not one with a clear and obvious solution. Highly trained professionals with decades of experience are trying and failing to solve it. There’s no shame in being enthusiast press, because it pays the bills and keeps the lights on. It’s what a LOT of media outlets have been doing. But much like publishers can’t get both unbiased, publicly trusted mouthpieces and universally good reviews, the reporting side can’t get both the trust of journalistic integrity and the money/support from their targets.

Games reporters can accept this and either live with being enthusiast press or try to forge a path to journalistic integrity, but sniping at companies because they cast aspersions on your relevance is, well… petty.

Anger and Sadness

A bit of a personal post today.  Bear with me.

It hasn’t been a good year. I suspect a lot of people can relate with that feeling in general; for me it’s been a pretty steady grind with very few (highly cherished) bright spots. It’s been an extended exercise in coping, and staying not just functional but managing to excel in what I can despite it all. I’ve basically had most of what I used to consider my identity removed and don’t have a lot to replace it, paired with an uncertainty about my future that colors pretty much every decision I make. As of this writing, none of the likely outcomes look great; I’m basically hoping that in the next couple of months, something changes from what I’ve been doing for the last 18+.

Friends and family ask me how I’m doing, and for months it’s been pretty much the same answer: no change. I appreciate the sentiment, but rehashing my situation over and over doesn’t make me feel better about it. It’s not something I bring up, because I value my friends and family greatly and I know how much it sucks to have someone close to you suffer and be able to do nothing about it. You want to talk, you want to do something, but there’s nothing you can contribute so you’re relegated to making sympathetic sounds and looking sad, or if those gestures feel hollow, making any recommendations you can think of. As much as I don’t like being on the receiving end of any of that, I don’t really know how else to respond.

Someone asked me a different question, recently. I was asked “how are you coping?”, and when I responded with the usual “oh, you know, as best I can” the followup was pointed: “No, I mean what are you doing to cope, how are you mentally handling everything?”

It’s an interesting question, and one that had been riding in my subconscious for a while. It’s a question I appreciate, because it’s something I can articulate, and it doesn’t feel like the same circular thrashing of “things are bad, I don’t know what else I can do to make them better”. As a followup, my friend mentioned that I haven’t been posting here as much anymore– my reasoning was that I don’t trust my mental state enough to stay objective about the things I write; maybe that isn’t so healthy. So, here we are. Here’s the answer I gave about how I cope with stress:

I’m a very results-driven person. It’s a core that runs deep, something I’ve inherited from my parents. Being overwhelmed by stress and completely shutting down isn’t productive, it’s a response that, however powerful, runs counter to the fiber of my being; even my subconscious won’t let me do it. This would probably boil over if I didn’t have really great release valves built in somewhere.

I developed release valves in martial arts. I started my martial arts training as The Fat Kid; I couldn’t even complete warm-ups without being exhausted, and I was in the same space as others who completed the same exercises without breaking a sweat. Pair this with the fact that failure has never been acceptable for me, and you’ve got a stressful experience waiting to boil over. My instructor keyed in on this and focused on it, he first taught me to redirect that stress into motivation, watching to make sure I got better at it. I was eventually in good shape, which is when the real training began. My instructor would occasionally provoke me, try to get through my usual emotional wall, to provide motivation. Knowing I could react in anger and lash out was never in question for me, I just had too much self-control to ever let myself do it, and I avoided ever coming close. I tamped down my negative emotions to an extreme, and tightly channeled them through very controlled channels, if at all.

Flash forward to undergrad, where I had my first taste of failure. Going from breezing through high school to the much more intense and rigorous curriculum of a very competitive college was a shock, and not one I emerged from unscathed. At the time, I had it suggested to me that I should consider dropping out, that maybe my chosen school was too hard for me, and that, perhaps, I had bitten off more than I could chew. I think part of me was despondent, ready to give up and give in just so the stress would end, but another part of me was enraged. I was angry at myself for failing, angry at the suggestion that I might not be good enough, angry at the obstacles in my way, and years of martial arts training kicked in. Of the two emotions I was facing, one of them felt productive and one of them didn’t. I channeled white-hot anger into my studies for a year and brought my GPA up nearly two full points, and graduated on time.

Anger is probably a misleading word; it has a lot of negative connotation. I could also use “passion” to describe it, passion for myself, passion for self-actualization, passion for growth, passion for my interests and motivations. I see anger and passion as not terribly different, and useful but needing to be kept under control. I’ve gotten good at controlling it.

For myself, when faced with apparently insurmountable difficulty, I can see despondency and passion looming on the horizon, and of the two, passion is productive and it’s something I know how to channel. It gives me energy and drive to push through, and it sublimates well into excitement and joy when I do finally push through. It’s not without cost; without good outlets for energy it tends to build, and I tend to retreat from people and things when it does, because I know it’s sitting closer to the surface and can be provoked more easily. When I’m stressed and don’t have an energy outlet (like work), I tend to avoid putting myself in more stressful situations because I want to minimize that buildup of energy, and because I don’t want spillover to affect anyone around me. I don’t want to snap at people, and when I’m extremely stressed and can’t do anything about it, I’m aware my tight controls are weaker, so I try to avoid situations where I might snap.

I cope with stress by channeling it, and I tend to keep a few side projects going at all times to have outlets. What I’m starting to run into lately is that those side projects feel meaningless and arbitrary in the shadow of my actual situation, so putting time and energy into them doesn’t help. Also not helping is the rest of this year, everything going on that *isn’t* directly part of my day-to-day life that’s just a massive garbage fire. I try not to watch the news but it’s difficult to avoid.

I’m not really sure how this ends. I can maintain, for now. I can probably maintain for as long as the idea of quitting just makes me angry, and want to try harder.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s just what “perseverance” is.

Cinematic Universe 2.0

Worldbuilding is kind of my jam. As entertainment media has shifted away from the Stories As Told By A Storyteller model to something a bit more ephemeral and interactive, I feel like worldbuilding is more important than ever. I remember writing research papers on the move from narratives that were entirely about characters to the idea of introducing an entire world with its own rules and concepts. It’s a surprisingly recent shift, as far as the whole of human storytelling goes.

rogue-one-star-wars-logo

I’m also fascinated by big shifts in media development. The Marvel Cinematic Universe shifted the entire concept of the “summer blockbuster” from throwaway fun to a surprisingly deep, interconnected web of movies and shows that all link up. The biggest issue the MCU is dealing with right now is audience fatigue– people are getting a little tired of superhero movies dominating the scene. It makes the reintroduction of Star Wars so relevant, especially since it’s really apparent that we’re going to see a Star Wars Cinematic Universe in much the same vein as its Marvel precursor.

What I find interesting about this is the postmortem of the MCU– it’s obviously not finished yet, but there’s an interesting question about what lessons have been learned from the MCU’s arc– specifically, what is Star Wars going to do differently? Rogue One hints at this– it’s essentially a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, and I think it speaks to a bit of playing with genre within the setting. It’s a strong differentiator, since most of the Marvel movies follow the same theme of “superhero-action films” which likely drives audience fatigue. It’s entirely possible that we’re going to start seeing a lot of Star Wars movies in entirely different genres.

While it hasn’t been done before, the idea of a Star Wars war movie makes conceptual sense, and on the extreme other end, a Jedi-heavy movie structured like a martial arts film would also fit the setting, while being a heavy genre departure. There are a lot of possibilities, and the setting is big and varied enough to support a lot of them– a crime procedural, a disaster movie, a romance (read Lost Stars for an example), even a horror film could all work within the setting pretty easily. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably thought of the appropriate in-universe proper nouns that would go with all of the above.

I think that one of the big things that’s going to be important is figuring out all of the things that cause audience fatigue and working against them. Certainly they’ll have to do away with the classic opening crawl sooner than later, or it’ll become a tired trope very quickly. Character cameos will also need to be curtailed or kept to a minimum, lest the universe feel too small to fit all of these stories. I think Rogue One does a smart thing by emphasizing its unique title and not that it’s a Star Wars movie.

Furthermore, I suspect we stop seeing numbered “mainline” Star Wars movies after Episode IX, and a shift into a more disparate, more spread out series of movies rather than everything working towards a singular plot arc. It creates a lot of space for other media– comics, video games, TV shows, etc and allows the same experimentation that the MCU heralded with less risk of a single disliked offering bringing the entire thing down.

This might be my own bias talking– I checked out of the MCU because I find Captain America boring and eye-rolly, so I missed literally everything to do with Hydra. Essentially, two movies: the specifically Captain America one and Winter Soldier. Not wanting to spend the time with that section of the property meant that I found it hard to get into parts of Civil War (and disliking Captain America even more), and it left me uninterested in the MCU as a whole.

Star Wars can avoid this kind of outcome because it can separate its movies by genre and exclude entire portions of the setting without jeopardizing the setting. It’s entirely possible to have a Star Wars movie without Jedi, for example, or one that is entirely Jedi, and neither diminish the other. There’s even the possibility of setting up some unreliable-narrator stuff by having characters disbelieve the events of other movies– there’s already precedent for it in the original trilogy. It means that the audience can cherry-pick the parts of the cinematic universe that they like and skip the parts they don’t without necessarily being left behind by the whole.

Long story short, I’m really interested to see what happens in the next few years of Star Wars movies, and how they map to their Marvel predecessors.

Playing Games I Don’t Like (Redux)

I’ve talked about the virtues of playing games you don’t think you’ll enjoy. I think it’s absolutely critical to being a good game designer and why I think that as a game player it helps to keep your horizons broad and not tunnel-vision on increasingly specific game types until you connoisseur yourself out of having any games to play. I have a policy of playing games that other people like that I don’t think I’m going to enjoy, and it’s one I take very seriously.

suramarpalace

I got a lot of surprised comments when I started playing World of Warcraft again for the expansion. I found it somewhat amusing but also kind of depressing how frequently my last post about WoW earlier this week was reduced to “Tam thinks WoW is terrible”, when the reality is my feelings on the game are extremely complicated. I’ve now hit the new level cap and have gotten a pretty good feel for what the expansion offers, I didn’t want to write about it without having gotten a complete picture.

As a bit of warning, after the next paragraph there’s likely to be spoilers up to early level 110 content in Legion. Skip if you’re concerned about it, per usual.

There’s a thing I’ve discovered in playing WoW and comparing it to other games, that I see in games like FFXIV as well. I was once absolutely enamored of the gear chase, trying to get increasingly better equipment to take on bigger and fancier challenges, to master those and get even greater equipment to pursue yet bigger, fancier challenges, and so on. I’m not interested in it anymore, to the point where I’m actively annoyed most of the time when I get a gear upgrade. This isn’t just WoW, it’s something I’ve noticed in FFXIV as well; I simply don’t have the interest to spend time chasing after gear upgrades. In conversations with Bel, I’ve previously dismissed this as a distaste for random loot drops, but the structure of Legion and how quality gear flows pretty freely through the expansion really put this into perspective for me. It isn’t that random loot drops annoy me, and it isn’t that I don’t like the token grind in FFXIV for gear upgrades– both of those are true, but they aren’t separate. I no longer enjoy gear progression as a primary motivation. I’m actively annoyed when I get a gear upgrade at this point, because the upgrade rarely makes a noticeable difference in my actual play (but if I ignore it, it will) and I usually have to go put some work into not looking like a clown afterwards. The sole time I am excited for a piece of gear is when it looks particularly cool, which is where WoW’s dated graphical fidelity catches up to it– this is extremely, extremely rare for me, so I’m annoyed the vast majority of the time about the gear upgrading process.

So, I’m not playing the game for the gear chase, which means that a lot of the other systems are less than appealing for me. I think the implementation of World Quests and the “bonus” quest content is rather good and kind of a long time in coming– they’re basically Renown Hearts from GW2 tuned for level-cap play rather than levelling play. It’s a good system, and it’s good to see WoW adopt it. World Quests greatly ease the gear chase, which is generally a good thing but not directly appealing to me. I’ve done a handful of dungeons, and I’m finding that they message really poorly, at least from the healer perspective, so sometimes I have groups that take immense amounts of random damage and other times virtually no one takes any damage, with little apparent rhyme or reason. It’s hard to know if I’m doing well or poorly other than the binary “did people die”, and even that is hard to pin on either my own failings or someone else’s. Healing is also focus-intensive enough that I can’t easily zoom out and watch over the fight’s mechanics the way I do in FFXIV. Combat mechanics in general simply don’t interest me in WoW as in other games, I feel like I’ve played them out and other than slight remixes on the same concepts, I’m not going to see anything new.

On the other hand, I’m genuinely interested in some of the narrative of the game. For the first time in years, I can remember what it feels like to care about my character’s personality and place in the game’s setting, because parts of the storytelling are so good that I not only find myself interested in what happens next, but am thinking about myself in the context of that story. It’s the highest praise I can offer to an RPG’s storytelling. There are bad parts, and boring parts, certainly– I am extremely tired of the game giving you no option but to take the quests offered to you and then setting up obvious traps, then laughing at you when you “fall into the trap”. One particularly egregious example was in Stormheim, where a quest for a couple of Tauren turns into a painfully obvious con by a pair of goblins, and there’s literally nothing you can do other than a) ignore the quests, which is really just refusing to play the game or b) go along with their obvious scam until you finish the questline for obviously worthless rewards, one goblin literally says “So long, sucker!” and you get an achievement called, I’m not kidding about this, “What A Ripoff”. It’s supposed to be funny, I’m sure, but it’s a joke at the expense of someone who put time into seeing the story through, which is funny only to the person telling the joke, not the victim of it. It doesn’t really make it better that you get a followup quest (nowhere close to the original chain, and only able to be completed long afterwards), because it serves largely to reopen and salt the wound.

On the other hand, Suramar. The setup for this is great; you’ve spent a bit of time seeing these magic-addicted, twitchy elves without a lot of explanation of their background, except that some are lucid and some have gone completely feral, and that the lucid ones can turn feral if they don’t consume enough magic. It’s an interesting but seemingly throwaway device until you get to Suramar, which opens as a sort of setting-up-the-resistance piece. You’re the outsider, helping a group of these elves rebel against their queen, who’s made some pretty terrible deals with literal devils, but who still retains control over the city. You spend time searching for your contact, dodging or fighting both her pursuers and feral elves, while she uses the last of her magic to find shelter and a base of operations. You help restore her by finding and providing magic powder, a fairly thin metaphor but one that plays well into the rest of the story. Yes, these elves are hopeless addicts, but they’re also competent, intelligent, and capable, and working for a good cause. The addiction is regrettable and always at the forefront but doesn’t define these characters’ personalities; they are more than “just addicts”.

Furthermore, the elves you meet and recruit for this resistance are individually capable and powerful, but don’t steal the show from you. A big problem with a lot of the “helper” characters in WoW is that they’re always, always the ones to ACTUALLY save the day, usually through some kind of deus ex machina. In this case, you play that role, and you get the dual reactions of absolute thankfulness from the people you’re helping as well as a bit of irritation that you’re just swooping in and solving their problems, things that they’ve been working at for a long time. It feels very genuine, it feels very convincing, and it’s a very strong story being told– I would play an entire game and explore an entire setting built around just this premise. It absolutely makes it worth the frustration and annoyance of other parts of the game and other parts of the story (can we please, PLEASE just give up on the whole Alliance vs Horde constant war crimes and idiotic “vengeance” storylines already, not to mention the transparent, awful racism that they get paired with?), and I’m genuinely looking forward to playing more of it and seeing where it goes.

It reminds me, more than a little bit, of my experience with Fallout: New Vegas. I don’t like post-apoc settings, I’ve never gone in much for Fallout, and I played and didn’t really enjoy Fallout 3. FNV *should* have been a “nope, not going to bother” game for me, but I sat down with it anyway. What I found was a game with a really compelling story, a setting that changed my mind somewhat about post-apoc settings, and a bunch of new ideas and inspiration. It’s like Burnout, a racing game I ignored because “I don’t like racing games” until I sat down and tried it and discovered that under the hood (ha!) it was doing something I really enjoyed and found really fun.

I don’t love WoW, Suramar has not made me suddenly love the game again, and it doesn’t change anything about a lot of the other parts I dislike, but I’m glad I’ve gotten back into it and I’m glad I stuck with it enough to see that content. Suramar makes it worth ignoring those other things, because it represents a return to stories I actually care about and really enjoy, and can take seriously, which is what made me love the game in the first place.

What’s Satisfying?

Yesterday’s post sparked a few really interesting conversations for me, including a recurring one that drives home an interesting point and meshes well with a lot of the business-side stuff I’ve been a part of lately. How much is your gaming time worth? What is a gaming session look like for you, and what makes a gaming session feel satisfying?

there's not a lot more satisfying than watermelon

there’s not a lot more satisfying than watermelon

I know the answers for myself, I’ve talked about them a bit here and elsewhere, but for me personally it boils down to a couple of things: I want to experience something new or make visible strides towards mastery of something I’ve learned, and I want to spend social time with my friends. These two things are the prime motivators for me in games, above basically everything else. Essentially, I want to hang out, I want to see something new, or I want to be challenged. If none of these things are happening, I tend to feel unsatisfied by my gaming time. In an absolutely perfect situation, I get to do all three.

The absolute pinnacle of gaming for me is playing a game with my friends where we’re all playing new content none of us have seen before. I sit, sometimes for days or weeks, before going into a dungeon in an MMO just to play it with my friends (I tend to be a little ahead of the curve). I put Borderlands 1/2 and games like Divinity: Original Sin (a game I love even if I’ve never gotten really far in it) incredibly high on my favored gaming memories, and lately some of the most fun I’ve had has been exploring zones with Kodra and Ashgar in Guild Wars 2 and playing N++ with Kodra and another local friend. It’s absolutely what drives me, and I quietly do some frankly nonsense things just to try to make those experiences possible, like levelling alts just to kill time and spending hours researching upcoming games for possible good co-op experiences.

I’ve talked before about the idea of playing a game “to turn your brain off” as a strong motivator, which is a concept I understand though it doesn’t apply to me. It’s why I don’t like a lot of really popular games; the thing they’re delivering on doesn’t satisfy me, doesn’t make me feel like I’m spending my time well. At the other end of the spectrum, I have good friends who want nothing more than that zen, almost meditative state and value the ability to split attention, whether that means watching a TV show in the background (or foreground) or simply having the freedom to relax. It’s a thing I understand and look for in co-op experiences, that familiarity and relaxing atmosphere, because while it’s not for me, it’s important for other people. You’ll also note I’ve avoided using the word “mindless” to describe this kind of play, because I think it’s both pejorative and incorrect. I’ve watched and listened to my friends playing games in this way and it’s a very mindful approach, borne of thoughtfulness of those around them not playing or a self-awareness that the relaxed state they can achieve is healthy and valuable.

Some friends I have intensely value any gaming experience that they can get up and walk away from at any given time, guiltlessly vanishing at a moment’s notice. Multiplayer games in general tend to be a turn-off, and even playing socially on voice while playing something is something of a stretch, simply because it doesn’t allow the freedom necessary to really enjoy it. I have a bit of this myself, and almost always spend a little bit of time each week playing games entirely on my own without anyone else around. For me, a lot of this time is me ‘scouting’ games to play with the group, or indulging in something I know no one else wants to hear about.

Still others game entirely for the story– if a game lacks a good story they’re already checked out, and virtually nothing else matters. For yet others, it’s about art, seeing something gorgeous or a visual masterpiece is everything. I have a friend who plays slews of frankly horrible games just because of the textures or art style, and even if the game itself is barely functional he can use it as a vehicle to see new, exciting art. He’ll even comment that the game is buggy or pointless or mechanically unsound, but return to playing just to see more art. It really puts the idea of enjoyment of games in perspective for me– he’s even commented that he’s pretty sure X game is going to be garbage but it has a cool art style so he’s buying it.

I totally understand this, I’ve played games I don’t much enjoy simply because they fill whatever particular satisfaction hole I have that needs filling. Some of my favorite games are objectively terrible games but they fill a niche that is hard to fill elsewhere.

Thinking about games from the perspective of “what will I enjoy” or “what makes me feel satisfied” has really helped me figure out both what games I like and what games I might like, but has also made me a lot better at figuring out what games other people might like and why. We don’t have a great set of widely-accepted language tools for discussing this sort of thing, so it’s a lot harder than it seems. We kind of get stuck in a “I like this game” vs “I don’t like this game” qualitative mindset without always delving much deeper. It seeps back into the development side too, where “like Game X, but with Y and Z” tends to dominate the conversation.

What makes a game session satisfying for you? How does your time feel valued by the game you’re playing?