Why we wish life was a game

 

homo economicus was a term first coined by John Stuart Mill, the influential utilitarian theorist and 17th century economist. Since its injection into the discourse of politics and economy, homo economicus has been a central characteristic of both neoliberal economic theories, as well as a heuristic tool by those infatuated by hegemonic thinking into believing that the normative prescriptions of these theories be not only taken seriously, but believed in seriously beyond their normative claims–used as a guiding principle, a basis to form judgement, a lifestyle or path upon which one must closely tread if they are to reap the fruits of its conclusion.

homo economicus is the Economic Man. To borrow a brief description from our friendly and publicly accessible online encyclopedia (and to borrow from Mill himself), homo economicus can be described as: “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” this conception was eventually distilled further in the 20th century with the emergence of rational choice theory, the theory that individuals acted “rationally on complete knowledge out of self-interest and the pursuit of wealth”. for those more familiar with the history of Enlightenment thinking and project of classical liberalism it inevitably bore with it, the idea of rational self-interest (admittedly older than Mill, introduced by Machiavelli as it were) was given new rigor.

however, homo economicus’s most perfect form did not emerge in the ivory towers of very white academics. though existing in various forms, from proportionate arrangement of pixels to the highly detailed polygons (themselves, a series of clean triangles) of an anthropomorphised automaton, homo economicus found its most practical homonculi not in the real life people it was supposed to be describing, but in the multiple representations of video game player-characters.

anyone whose spent any amount of time reading up on contemporary political theory knows that something like rational-choice theory is losing it grounds. while this realization has been fueled by political scientists’ attempts to reconcile material reality with the ideals that were supposed to motivate its construction (ex: Locke, one of the fathers of liberalism and upholder of values such as freedom and liberty, writing plantation policy for the Carolina colonies and holding stock in the slave-trading Royal African Company…so much for walking the talk).  to be frank though, one doesn’t need to be an up-to-date political theorists to feel compelled that something about rational-choice theory is oddly off, in the alarming kind of way that would have you ask who thought it was a sound idea; one merely needs to simply live life, where we have witnessed, or ourselves made, irrational decision making. the irrationality of humanness has re-centered itself in the mainstream imagination by those both on the left and right, yet the dominant system and the people who construct it are seized, in a state of awe, at how clean homo economicus is.

play any video game though and it makes sense. .video games, in a way, can be understood as abstractions of life. i use abstraction in the critical theory sense popularized by Adorno and Horkheimer, who describe it as the process of rationality, which seeks to make “dissimilar things comparable” by reducing them to “abstract quantities” ; to pull away from (if we break down the ab-prefix and tract-suffix). no one person’s life is exactly the same, but homo economicus attempted to even out the roughness and diversity of the lived human experience by doing directly to the impetus of life — motivation.

however, we know material reality is different. complete information sets are not universal, the most rational decisions contextually varied and consequently diffuse, and what’s more, we do no live in a vacuum, temporal or otherwise; we are constantly adjusting to the decision we made previously, whose consequences may not appear procedurally in the order they were made.

video games are a lot easier than the lives we live. take a simple game like Pong. the individual, the pong player, can have a complete information set concerning the world contained within Pong, that is: goal, controls, and the game rules. if we are to think of Pong as just a game, we need not consider knowledge of the code, platform, or device as necessary (since the game was not built with those things in mind as necessary game components). With this knowledge, a person playing as a pong character can, for the duration of the game, honestly exhibit the most of homo economicus. for many simple games, this is the truth — knowledge of the goals, rules, and controls gives one the means to truly pursue one’s rational self-interest in the context of a game.

here, we find that rationality is a matter of construction and artificiality, than it is of a universalizing and objective principle. we also are presented with the notion then that inequalities of a certain kind are also a matter of construction and artificiality…

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Is this good representation or just pandering?

I will be focusing on a game I love and enjoy, Overwatch. Overwatch has been lauded for having a very diverse set of characters and bringing representation into the field of triple A games. Despite their efforts, however, it certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. I will briefly talk about three characters that are part of the game: Mercy, Tracer and Pharah.

 

Mercy is a white, female medic who is described as a “guardian angel”. It was recently unveiled that during the concept development for her character, she was actually a he, and not just that, but also black. This received some backlash from the Overwatch community; the concept of the “white savior” has been used many times to try and be “progressive” yet it is also commonly used to deny representation from other minority groups. This was the perfect example. Here we could have had an interesting character, a gentle black medic, which contrasts the usual portrayal of black men as aggressive and hypermasculine, but we ended up with a concept that has been used many times before.

 

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Concept art of Mercy

 

Tracer is sort of the mascot for Overwatch and many gamers who don’t play Overwatch themselves recognize her. A few months back she was revealed to be a lesbian through a side comic on Overwatch’s site, which was wonderful news of course. During the months following that, however, many fans realized that there was no “follow-up”. Currently, Tracer has no such reference to her sexuality in the game, no voice lines, no skins, nothing. If you played the game and didn’t read the comics, then you would not know unless another player told you. Announcing something that would mean so much to a marginalized community through a comic that not even a majority of players read and not incorporating that fact into the actual game was a bit disappointing because that would have been potentially something even bigger.

 

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Tracer (left) and her girlfriend Emily (right) from the Overwatch comics

 

Then there’s Pharah. She has two skins called “Thunderbird” and “Raindancers” which obviously allude to Native American art motifs. At this point, however, we only knew that her mother was Egyptian. With her background unclear and having skins like these, the developers were criticized for possible cultural appropriation.

 

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Pharah’s Thunderbird skin

 

Later on they released another side comic where she was shown with what was possibly a father figure, eating at a home that hinted they were in Canada. That was it. No official confirmation of her background or ethnicity. Just a small panel from, again, a comic that many don’t read.

It can be argued that the developers of Overwatch have been doing more than other triple A developers in terms of representation of marginalized groups. However they can also improve by leaps and bounds by listening to the people that are actually part of the communities they represent and acting on them.

Using games for research

Two summers ago I was part of this summer Neuroscience class and we got introduced to this site called Eyewire. At first, I heard that we were going to play a game, which was a pleasant yet confusing surprise. But then I realized that it was used for actual research. Here’s how it works:

You are given a cube on the left and an image on the right.

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The image is a “slice” from a part of the cube. Your job is to focus on one of the shapes (like that green area shown above) and as you scroll through the cube, you try to keep selecting that same area. It’s a bit hard to understand the explanation by just text, but it’s quite intuitive once you experience it for yourself. The images used are actual images of neurons inside the brain of a mouse. The brain was “sliced” into extremely thin areas and then scanned. Several people will work on the same image, so even if an individual makes a mistake and diverges from the actual neuron, the majority of people will choose the right path of the neuron, so there is a sort of safety net for mistakes. There are also “moderators” who are experts of this game; not professionals in terms of academics, but normal people that just have been playing this game for longer than others. They help answer questions users may have or help correct a neuron’s path.

So, collectively, thousands of people play this game to collect data on the path of neurons from the brain of a mouse. There are billions of neurons in the human brain, and trillions of synapses, which are the paths between neurons. The way to understand the brain would be to study these neurons and synapses, but the staggering amount of research to be done would take far too long if it was to be done by the small groups of researchers we have around the world that focus specifically on this. That is why they turned to a broader community, gamers. Well, anyone that knew and was willing to play the game, really, so that would encompass an even bigger group. This is a revolutionary game that uses the collective work of non-specialized and non-academic people working to create valuable data for future research. There has already been research conducted that analyzed these paths that were labeled by these players. Hopefully, this game inspires others to adopt this idea to create more beneficial change.

Learning and appreciating cultures through gaming in a non-problematic way

I thought Never Alone was a successful game which achieved its purpose: it captivated me with its beautiful visuals and rich story, the gameplay was quite fun, especially when co-playing with someone else, and I got to learn more about the culture of the Iñupiat people through the rendition of a folktale.  The art style of the cut scenes was also inspired by traditional Alaska Native art and there are several videos that can be unlocked as the story progresses showcasing members of the Alaska Native community. Never Alone is a good example of the potential games have to become platforms to create better understandings of different cultures in ways that are truly representative and non-problematic.

It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite games, Okami. The story focuses on a representation of a Shinto sun goddess who has been reborn as a wolf and must vanquish the evil that has been terrorizing the land of Japan. (I later learned that the title is also a pun; ōkami (狼) means “wolf”, but the kanji used in the title of the game is ōkami (大神) means “great deity”, and so they are homophones)

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The game’s themes and story are heavily influenced by Japanese myths and folklore; Okami was made in Japan and by a group that lived in a society that would usually know these stories as part of popular culture. For the art style of the game, they had tried out a realistic 3D rendered one in the beginning stages but changed it to one that resembled the traditional East Asian type of brush painting called sumi-e. The soundtrack in this game was also inspired by classical Japanese music and included traditional instruments such as the shamisen and shakuhachi.

Even though I had already gotten a better understanding on some of the most popular traditional tales from the game itself, my later research that was inspired by it also helped me learn. So this particular game also gave me additional motivation to look more into the culture it was representing.

Such games like Never Alone and Okami will hopefully be part of a growing pool of similar games that explore the ways in which different cultures and societies can be expressed in ways their audiences can learn to understand and sympathize with more.

Cheat Codes: Subversive Gaming?

In one class we had a very interesting discussion on what constitutes “free choice” when it comes to video games and whether it is even possible for a player to break the designs of a game. I posed a question for the class, “How do we view cheat codes as it relates to “free choice”? There was not much time to fully flesh out this discussion in class but I would like to delve a little deeper into this question here.

The cheat codes I am referring to are cheat codes which are pre-programmed by the game developers. For example, in the game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, if a player enters a series of specified inputs, a “cheat code” will be registered and something will happen to alter gameplay. For example, if a player on PS2 presses UP, DOWN, L1, R1, L1, RIGHT, LEFT, L1, LEFT, then cars will fly. To see the wide breadth of cheat codes in this game, click here.

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The cheat codes range from cosmetic alterations, such as making the world change to “night” on demand, to mechanical alterations, such as maxing out shooting abilities, weapon stats, and having infinite ammo and health. These cheat codes, namely the mechanical cheat codes, fundamentally change the game. The player is no longer confined to the original limitations. The player, in effect, is turning the game world upside down. Do we therefore view these cheat codes as subversive gaming?

Or instead, do we view these cheat codes still within the confines of the game because they have been pre-programmed by the creators. The player technically has not broken any of the creators “rules” and has not actually played in a way that was not already intended by the creators. As someone in class stated, in video games, there is no true free choice, as every outcome has already been predetermined or algorithmically determined ahead of time by the game creators. Therefore, unless a player actually alters the coding of the game and modifies it themselves, can we still cal it “subversive gaming” and true free choice?

 

 

The Limits of Graphics

I just have a quick thought towards graphics. Each year, our gaming technology grows more and more. Graphics become increasingly more realistic with each passing year. We are in the technological era where, pretty soon, we might reach the so called limit of graphics.

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Once our video games have graphics that are exactly the same as in real life, where do we go from here. How can you make reality even more realistic? Would we just stay at this level, or would VR gaming take over. After all, the fourth dimensional world comes after the third dimensional. Many people play games to escape reality. Would they want to play games that mimic their reality? If we develop gaming to where we can actually get lost into the game. Aka if we morph into the game’s world, then what is the point of going back into reality?

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Soon enough, we will see gaming that will blow our minds away. I am pretty sure that fifty years ago, people didn’t think that we can have virtual reality gaming and graphics that are as good as our newest games. What will become of the future of gaming and where will we reach the limit as to what these games will look like?

Remakes and Remasters

As consoles become replaced by new, more powerful ones, we no longer have viable means to play our nostalgic games. I am talking about games like: Pokemon Yellow, Legend of Zelda, Dragonquest VIII, Crash Bandicoot, etc.

It is nice that game developers create updated versions of these games for new systems, but do they really do these games justice?

What some developers need to realize that remakes aren’t just copies of the game with updated graphics. They need to realize that remastering a game means putting actual effort into making sure these gamers can feed on this nostalgia, but in a more accessible manner.

If the original game had DLC’s, include them into the updated version, don’t go halfway. Add some new content to the game as long as it doesn’t interfere with the old .I am worried that many developers today only focus on creating an exact replica of the original game, selling it off in modern consoles to make quick bucks.

For example, Skyrim: Special Edition is literally the same old Skyrim with hardly any changes. They even showcased that the water looks different, but there aren’t actual significant changes to the game. Bethesda could’ve fixed the game’s many bugs, but instead they focus only on graphics.

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Now, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the 3ds was done right. The graphics were completely updated, adding 3d to the mix. There was a new content that fit with the game. There is a “Sheikah Stone” to help players find hints and clues on what to do in the game. There is a Master Edition that becomes unlockable once you beat the game. In this mode, every enemy is harder and there is even more treasure to find!

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I am hoping that developers would put full effort into remakes and remasters because these games are important to a lot of people. Some may have grown up with the game, and it is sad to see that the needs of the players get pushed aside for money.

Rhythm Based Gaming

Remember when everyone was playing Guitar Hero/Rock Band?

Man, those were the days. People would jam together with plastic instruments, hoping to succeed in passing the song together. I think the time span of this era of rhythm gaming is from 2005-2012. Guitar Hero and Rock Band became a staple family-fun game in most households. What made this era happen?

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  1. This was a new concept. We hardly had games with an interface that matched well with the gameplay. It was perfect. A plastic guitar with only five buttons and a strumming bar to match with mimicking real guitar. Rock Band had four-set drums and an actual microphone to boot. These accessories popularized and sensationalized playing these games.
  2. It was accessible. There were four different difficulties (a fifth one later on) that made it so that you didn’t have to be amazing at this game in order to have fun. This game has a saving system where if one of your members loses, one can cover for them by using “star power”. This system made it so that the whole team can succeed even if one player ultimately fails. For lefty handers, there was a lefty mode, so that they aren’t left in the dust.
  3. The games had songs that we knew. Imagine jamming on to Khalid with your friends. The series’ playlists had songs that are memorable and recognizable. Let me just list a few: One, Hotel California, Chop Suey, When We Were Young, Mississippi Queen, Highway Star, Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Now, these types of games are no longer popular, but it was an appreciative era. It brought multiplayer gaming to a new level, incorporating parents to the gaming scene. Maybe, there will be a comeback, but it is nice to reminiscence.

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Tomb Raider: Controls -> Experience

How does playing Tomb Raider on your mobile device, with the original computer controls, affect your experience?

For me, it was probably one of the hardest feats of my life. Unlike modern interfaces, Lara Croft moves like a tank. She can’t just move right or left. She has to turn in that direction and then move up. Not to mention, phone screen sizes aren’t big, since they are suppose to be MOBILE devices. Your thumbs already cover a good portion of the controls. You can’t actually aim in this game to shoot at your enemies. It is random and depends on the direction that your facing, which again is even more difficult since Lara moves like a slow tank.

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I managed to connect a PS4 controller to my phone, thinking that it would enhance my experience of the game, but alas I was still struggling with the controls. The only improvement was that I didn’t cover the screen with my thumbs, but the tank-like controls were too much to handle for me.

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I find this control scheme very interesting because there seems to be a very polarized community for this game. There is a side that says that the controls are horrible and outdated (aka me). What I find intriguing is that the other side is arguing that they prefer these controls. It keeps the integrity of the original game, which was created about two decades ago. There is no reason to modernize the game’s controls since it is the true Tomb Raider experience. Those struggling with the controls should just suck it up and just adapt to the controls.

What is your stance on this and how was your experience with Tomb Raider?

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