Looking Down from Heaven: How Simulation Perspective Encourages Cruelty

On Friday, December 14, 2012 1 comments

Last time we talked about how perspective influences the player’s relationship with the main character. This time, let’s look at how view point changes how the player feels about other characters in the game. Let’s talk about god.

Okay, god perspective (I had you worried for a second, didn't I?). God-perspective is a top-down view used in simulation and strategy games. The player views things from high up and far away, as if they were a spiteful god. Oftentimes they act like one, too. See, the god-perspective puts a lot of distance between the player and the miniscule figures onscreen. It allows the player to observe humanity impartially. It also allows them to be an enormous jerk. No game demonstrates this better than The Sims.

Look at those snide little jerks. They're begging for a thunderbolt. 

In The Sims, while the player does create and control characters, none of the individual characters are integral to the game. The player can delete and create new characters at any time. This, combined with the looking-down-from-heaven view, makes the Sims dispensable. The player is free to do whatever the heck they want without feeling responsible. While the ambiguous goal of the game is to earn money and build a merchandise-filled house, many players choose to make their Sim’s life miserable. In an online chatboard, players brainstormed fun things they could do with their Sims. Responses ranged from “make a huge family and kill them all and make a new family move in ... in the same house” to “refuse to use the bathroom” to even “Make your Sim cheat on their husband/wife and see how long it takes them to get caught.”1 Players feel no guilt about what they force the Sims to do, because the remote perspective reduces the Sims to mere playthings.

Likewise, in the strategy game Civilization, the player is a ruler of a country, and the goal is to build the best empire (or as an albino mouse might put it, try to take over the world). This involves sending troops to war. When the player is at war, their forces are referred to as “units.” Their soldiers and people are not given an identity or any individuality. There is no reward for keeping them alive, other than the fact that they can be reused as more cannon fodder. Once again, the top-down perspective gives the player a sense of being above the action, both literally and figuratively. Because of this, the player is detached from the struggles of the NPCs.

Apparently Civilization is about a society of giants.

Contrast this with Valkyria Chronicles, a war game that uses the same perspective. At the beginning of every turn, the player views a map showing the position of their soldiers and the opposing forces on the field. However, when the player selects a soldier to move, the game switches to 3rd person perspective, and the player controls that unit directly. Not surprisingly, the soldiers all have an individual identity, complete with a unique character model, names, and even personal likes and dislikes that influence the way they perform in battle. By knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their soldiers on an individual basis, the player can use them more efficiently. This play style reinforces the plot, which is also heavily character driven.

The Pokemon series uses a similar technique to spotlight the fantastical freaks of the franchise. Every new “generation” of games has a new, silent protagonist. This protagonist never speaks or shows any personality. Again, the top-down perspective of the games detaches the player from the onscreen character, making the human avatar seem disposable and unimportant. When a Pokemon battle starts, the perspective switches. Suddenly the player views the battlefield from ground level, from a perspective that may or may not be the player character. When Pokemon are sent out to battle, the player views them up close and personal. You could argue that this is to better show off the violence, but the joke’s on you because Pokemon is about as non-violent as animal fighting gets.  Instead, this makes the player more likely to care about their Pokemon, whom they see first-hand fail and succeed, than the player character, whom they see only from a distant view. 

This is at least twice as violent as the average Pokemon battle.
So there you have it. Perspective is a crucial part of making a game fun or a flop, and it's something developers should never ignore. By controlling how the player sees the game, developers can control how players interact with their environment and the characters. Next time, we'll look at another critical aspect of making games succeed: goals. Until then, curb your craving for nerd by checking out the rest of my blog!

1.                  "1000 Fun Things to Do in Sims 3." Jan 2009. NeoForum Community, Online Posting to Neoseeker. Web. 28 Mar. 2012.

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Seeing is Believing: How Camera Placement Can Make or Break Video Games

On Thursday, December 13, 2012 0 comments

Last post we talked about how viewpoint influences how responsible players feel for their actions. Viewpoint also changes how the player feels about a character. For example, Ultimate Spiderman shows two perspectives. The player alternately controls Spiderman and Venom. Because the player also controls Venom, he cannot be the antagonist. Unlike other mediums, where a villain can share a large portion of screen time and parts of the story can be told from their perspective, in video games the player sees their avatar as an extension of themselves, and thus as a protagonist. Most players don’t mind doing villainous deeds for shits and giggles, but there is a difference between villainy and being the villain..

This framing gives the story more emotional depth. When the final battle comes and it’s time for Spiderman to beat Venom, it’s not clear who the player should root for. Yeah, Venom’s a sick abomination who would eat your Granny, but he is also an extension of the player. Players want to succeed in games, so when they controlled Venom their goal was to help him achieve whatever the heck he wanted. Then they are put in a position where one side has to lose. This creates a bittersweet victory.

Hipster Venom had tentacles coming out of his back
before Slenderman made it cool.
The same thing happens in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. By allowing the character to control both sides of a war, the player cannot see either side as a villain. What’s more, much of your time in the game is spent trying to keep your troops from dying. Once a character dies they are gone for good, so you will spend many a battle resetting over and over. And then you are put in a fight against yourself, where the goal is to defeat your other team. All of a sudden all that frustration spent keeping characters alive is fruitless. Kind of like war itself. This dynamic allows the designers to build a compelling picture of war as a two-sided issue where neither faction thinks they are wrong.

This son of a bitch cost me several hours of my life
trying to keep his sorry ass alive.

Perspective can also serve as a cosmetic tool. In games like World of Warcraft, where the primary goal is raising and developing a character, the game uses 3rd person perspective. Players are drawn to these games because they want a chance to create an alternate persona. The character that the player designs is a “’vacuum into which [their] identity and awareness are pulled,’” allowing them to step out of their real-world self.1 If you want to be some sort of ninja cat person, you be that ninja cat person. Because so much emphasis is placed on creating a new identity through a fictional character, being able to see the character is paramount. Also, the 3rd person perspective allows the players to see their avatar within a fantasy realm.

You have the ability to become ANYTHING, and you choose a half-naked elf chick. Way to flaunt that imagination. 

Skyrim, on the other hand, allows players to switch between 1st and 3rd person perspectives. In an online forum, players discussed what viewpoints they preferred. While opinions differed, several players remarked that they used 1st person perspective for battle and 3rd person perspective for exploration. While part of this is due to the interface, where 1st person is better-suited to combat, part of it is also because of the rhetorical effects of the perspectives. As one commenter put it, he enjoys a “mix of both for me. I like combat in first person, but I do a lot of exploration in third. It's nice to be able to see your character and the changes new gear makes, and the models/animations look much better than I expected they would.”2 Players like to experience the triumphs of combat in 1st person, but when it comes to building a character and exploring a world, 3rd person is better-suited.

World exploration is integral to many platforming games, because part of the joy comes from discovering new and imaginative worlds. Psychonauts is a platformer that takes place within the mindscapes of other people. The worlds are as colorful and varied as the characters, and much of the joy comes from seeing the onscreen character interact with the environment. For example, in one level the player is in the subconscious of a giant mutated fish who just so happens to be terrified of people. This manifests as the player-character being a towering colossus rampaging through a surprisingly sophisticated cityscape. The player is suddenly a Godzilla-esque force in a field of buildings that collapse when you stomp on them and denizens that running shrieking from your approach. While this set-up would still be hilarious in 1st person, the ability to see the panorama of destruction the player causes adds to the enjoyment.

Pictured here: Raz destroying Lungfishopolis. And enjoying it. The monster.

Katamari Damacy also allows the player to destroy parts of the environment by combining them into an ever-growing ball. Allowing the player to see the stripped-bare land behind them gives them a satisfaction in knowing that they have the power to change the way the land looks. It also allows them to see the citizens fleeing in panic. You leave a wake of destruction and desolation, like a colorful avenging angel. The 3rd person perspective allows players to see the effects of their actions on the environment, which is why it is useful for platforming games and other genres where the focus is on exploration.

All shall become part of the collective.
But wait! We're not done exploring the joys of perspective yet. Join us next time for an exploration of being a dick in The Sims.

1.                  Wolf, Mark J.P.. "Abstraction in the Video Game." The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Ed. Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
2.                  "Skyrim: 1st or 3rd person?." 12 Nov 2011. N.p., Online Posting to Gaming Outsiders. Web. 28 Mar. 2012
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The Rhetoric of Video Games

Video games are pretty awesome. That is self-evident. However, why are video games so cool? It’s because video games are a powerful, interactive medium. They engage players in ways that books or movies can only jealously dream about. Because it is interactive, video games employ a different kind of rhetoric than other entertainment. This rhetoric is the why. Over these next few posts, I am going to explore how video games engage players. So come with me, and together we can explore exactly what makes video games so darn awesome.

There are so many areas of rhetoric in video games, it would be TL;DR central if I crammed them into one post. Different topics are in different posts for your reading convenience. Click on whatever topic looks interesting!

Sharing Sight: The use of perspective controls the degree of separation the player has from onscreen events. 

Seeing is believing: Perspective influences how emotionally attached a player will feel to the character, depending on whether or not they view them as an extension of themselves. 

Looking Down from Heaven: An explanation of why torturing Sims is both fun and rhetorically effective.

Winning Terms: What do the goals of a game say about the beliefs of the creators?

Your Objective is Anarchy: Learn how questioning authority and free-thinking can be built into the medium using goals.

Madness in the Method: The developers betray a lot about their own belief system in the way they program their game. 

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Sharing Sight: How Perspective Influences Player Achievement

In video games, the perspective, or view point, is one of the biggest determining factors in play style. It’s crazy to think that something as simple as where the camera is placed could change a game, but it’s true. The way the player sees the game changes how personal events are. Used effectively, view point can make the difference between a compelling drama and an uninteresting conflict.

The two most common perspectives are 1st person, in which the player sees directly out of their controlled character, and 3rd person, in which the camera is placed behind a character. Many competitive shooters, such as Call of Duty and Halo, use a 1st person perspective, hence the label “first-person shooter” (FPS). This view is preferable when the game focuses on precision aiming, because the player can aim directly without an avatar’s body getting in the way.

Except for the hands. Stupid hands, blocking my field of vision.
Perspective determines how the audience relates to the story and the main character. In a 1st person game, players rarely see the character they are controlling. The player can “transfer [themselves] into the video game character, experience the intensity of the challenge, and achieve the sense of mastery and exhilaration of success.”1 This allows the player to feel like they are directly responsible for the victories and achievements in the game. Call of Duty is widely liked for its competitive aspect. Players compete online against one another, trying to outgun and outlast their fellow players. Part of its massive success and popularity might be due to the perspective. The players cannot see their own avatar, thus there is one less constant reminder that they are playing a video game. 1st person perspective allows the player to feel like they are the ones responsible for victory instead of the character they control.

Another popular FPS, Halo, goes so far as to have the character be both faceless (constantly wearing a helmet) and voiceless. Because the character has no distinct personality of its own, players can project themselves into the game. So it’s not the story of how Master Chief saves the world, it’s the story of how you save the world. The player becomes Master Chief. So when they make it through a particularly grueling level, they know it’s the result of their skill as a player and not because of Master Chief.

No glory-hogging for you, Mater Chief.

Sometimes developers may want to limit the amount of responsibility a player feels. In Sucker Punch’s Infamous, the game takes a 3rd person approach. Even though a majority of the combat relies on aiming, the game does not go into 1st person perspective. Instead, the camera zooms in to Cole, just above the shoulder so that players can aim accurately. Infamous also has a lot of platforming elements, and being able to navigate the environment is a must, so the 3rd person camera helps players see their position relative to other objects around them.

Can you imagine how much this would suck in 1st person?
They'd have to rename the game Mirror's Edge.
However, the 3rd person perspective also has the side-effect of providing a constant reminder to the player that they are not physically in the game. Because the main character is always on the screen, there is distance between him and the player. Infamous’s main draw comes from its morality system, where players can choose between “good” and “evil” alignments determined by their actions. “Evil” actions take the form of injuring innocent bystanders, killing police officers and basically being a giant douche. By distancing the player from the character, the player is also distanced from their actions. This allows the player a greater sense of moral freedom, because they do not feel directly responsible for the acts they commit. If they decide it would be funny to blow up a car with a bunch of snotty kids in it, well, it’s not them doing it, it’s Cole.

There was a family of four in that car.

The 3rd person perspective lets the character be as big of a jerk as they want without feeling any guilt. After all, it’s only a game. They aren't supposed to be the main character, only control him. So if they want to set the town on fire, they can do it with wild abandon. All the consequences fall on Cole, not them.

Part 2 of perspective is here.

Part 3 of perspective is here.

Main Video Game Rhetoric Directory

Stay tuned for more articles on video game rhetoric!

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How To Get Your Friends Addicted to Anime

On Wednesday, December 12, 2012 10 comments

Anime is awesome. You know what makes anime more awesome? Watching it with friends. What’s that, you say? Your friends think anime is weird and refuse to give it a shot? Well, have I got some good news for you: I’ve created a dandy little guide that will help you help your friends become every bit as anime-obsessed as you are. Read on, and soon you will be able to spread the joy of anime faster and easier than spreading a venereal disease.

Why would your friends think THIS is weird? It's just a rifle-wielding teddy bear.

1. Find stuff that interests them
Admit it, your desire to get your friend addicted to anime is mostly self-interest. You want someone you can laugh with, someone to share your hobby with to make it even more fun. That’s understandable. However, you are far more likely to succeed if you think about what your friend likes first. If they love Disney movies and romantic comedies, starting them out with a psychological meltdown like Evangelion or Serial Experiments Lain probably isn’t going to go over so well. Try something like Fruits Basket instead. And if they’re a sci-fi nut, steer away from Sailor Moon. Introduce them to Ghost in the Shell instead. There’s an anime out there for everyone. However, the uninitiated think Pokemon or Naruto are the norm. If you show something that captures their interest, they’ll be more willing to sit through an episode. After the strangeness of “japanimation” wears off, then they might be more willing to branch out into new territory. Until then, though, your best bet is to show them that anime can be cool be introducing them to genres they already like, just in a different medium.

My friend likes Twilight.  I bet she'd LOVE this show.
Look, it's got a vampire and a werewolf!
2. Control your inner nerd. 
What’s more annoying than a squealing fangirl? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You know how most people mock Twihards and people who wear Jacob Black shirts? It’s because people don’t like you rubbing your weird obsessions in their face. If they’re a fan too, that’s another story. Then they might just squeal along with you. If they aren’t a fan, though, more than likely they will find your constant blabber about the “godlike sexiness of L” annoying, and it will turn them off to all anime. You can show you like something without looking like an obsessive maniac. As a general rule when talking about shows or characters you love, imagine someone saying the same thing about a subject you are disinterested in. If you don’t like My Little Pony, and someone says, “Man, I love those ponies. That show makes me laugh,” chances are this won’t bother you unless you are really immature. But if someone goes, “Omigosh, I freaking watch My Little Pony seven hours a day! I’m saving all my chewed bubblegum, and I’m gonna make a huge sculpture out of Pinkie Pie with it. You have to see it when it’s done. Anyone who doesn’t like MLP is gay!” …that’s weird. What are the chances you will want to go home and watch MLP after this? Not very likely.
Pop quiz: This guy sits next to you on the bus. What do you do?
Answer for a non-anime fan: Be very uncomfortable.
3. Help explain things they might be confused about
Spolier: anime comes from Japan. This means that anime uses different narrative techniques to express itself. When people first watch anime, they might be totally confused over something as simple as honorifics. If they are, briefly explain what you know. Tell them that when characters go “super-deformed” it is usually for comic relief and not what is literally happening. Let them know that magical-girl transformations usually don’t happen in real-time. This may seem like common sense to you, but it isn’t. You learned it intuitively over a period of time. Your friend can’t help being a stranger to the culture and norms of anime. Don’t make them feel like an idiot, because they aren’t (and making them feel bad will only associate a negative emotional state with watching anime, lowering their future enjoyment). Try not to overwhelm then, and don’t talk so often that they can’t hear what is going on onscreen. But if they are confused, try to explain it to them. They are in unfamiliar territory, and you are their guide.

For example, your friend might have questions like:
What exactly is a host club? And where can I FIND one?

4. Don’t strap them to a chair. 
Here’s a little anecdote a hope you will find enlightening: when I was in middle school, I had a friend who was absolutely insane over Inuyasha. I did not like Inuyasha, but she was certain she could “convert” me. On a sleepover to her house, she forced me to have a non-stop marathon of the show. Before, I had only known enough about the show to think it was bland. After sitting through fifteen episodes, though, I changed my mind. Now I hate it. Forcing me to do something didn’t change my mind. It just made me bitter, and forever sparked a fiery rage against the fur-eared faux-female. The same can happen to your friends if you coerce them into watching anime. Refer to step 1. Find a show you think they will like, and explain that it appeals to their interests. If they don’t want to watch it, then drop the subject for a little bit. Only bring it back up occasionally, extending the invitation but not being pushy. No one likes a pusher.

Behold the subjects of my darkest nightmare.

5. Give it time.
So they watched a few episodes of whatever with you, and they are unimpressed. Fine. Don’t fret. Give it a little while. If you did step 1 properly, then chances are they will want to see what happens eventually. It just might take some time for them to lay aside their pride and admit they actually like an anime. If they don’t come around, then either they are really biased against the medium, or you didn’t do step 1 properly. Try again, choosing another anime that you think they will like. Again, don’t force it. If you introduce them to something that sparks their interest, they’ll come around.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my guide! If you did, feel free to browse some of my other nerdy blog posts. And for the even more nerd, check this sweet puppy out
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