video games

Gaming with the Victorians: 2016 Course

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's Jacob Frye

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s Jacob Frye

UPDATE: The completed course website for Gaming with the Victorians is now available here.

This is the preliminary course description for my Spring 2016 ENGL 1102 course at Georgia Tech. I’m still trying to figure out how to insinuate Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which releases later this month, into the syllabus.

Gaming with the Victorians: Narrative and Play

This course will facilitate the continued development of multimodal communication strategies by engaging with both nineteenth-century literature and video games that adopt nineteenth-century and/or Victorian settings to tell their stories. In order for students to hone their WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal) communication, the projects throughout this course will allow participants to design and create artifacts that examine manifestations of nineteenth-century literature and culture in video games.

Espen Aarseth has described video games as “integrated crossmedia packages” that combine a variety of narrative forms into a whole that gets metonymically flattened by the term “games.” Drawing on this understanding of video games, this class will explore how the literary and historical heritage of the nineteenth-century in general, and the Victorian period in particular, have informed a number of contemporary games. Andrew Stauffer argues that “time and technology make plain that our Victorian period will […] always be a simulation,” and video games offer some of the more compelling simulations of the nineteenth century. By highlighting the immense cultural, economic, and technological changes that occurred during this century, such video games encourage us to trace the nineteenth-century’s lasting influence on the present.

Games will include Sunless Sea, Amnesia, and 80 Days, among others. Readings will include nineteenth-century short fiction and poetry; expect to read from authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition to a semester-long blog project, students will write a multimodal essay, develop a branching video game narrative, and code a text-based adventure game as a collaborative project.

Class Warfare: Videogame Classes, Narrative, and Choice 1

I Heart Class Warfare - Occupy Wall Street Protest - 8 Oct 2011 - Zuccotti Park - NYC - USA - BlackBerry Photo

Class Warfare in action

Inspired by the recent call for papers of the North American Victorian Studies Association, which asks for research examining “classes and classification,” I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the notion of classes is enacted in videogame narratives. Recently, a friend of mine who has not played videogames in several years decided to try Skyrim, and while the idea is familiar to longtime fans of the Elder Scrolls series, he was impressed by the fact that the game does not force you to choose a class at the very beginning. Unlike many other RPGs and MMOs, in which a player’s class significantly influences (and often restricts) his or her choices throughout the game, Skyrim’s model allows the player’s actions to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

Class Selection and Narrative Limitation

In many ways, classes have become one of the most common staples of videogames, not only because they were prominent in pen-and-paper RPGs, but also because they offer a convenient way to structure narrative. Take, for example, Star Wars The Old Republic, an MMO that sold itself as a game that would reintroduce narrative as a central component to online gaming. While my experiences playing TOR were satisfactory, there were always those red, translucent barriers blocking doorways in certain buildings. Beyond those barriers were portions of the game limited to players of other classes; and while it makes sense that the game would create these kinds of sectioned areas to funnel players of the correct class into the correct areas, it was suggestive of a limitation.

Mary Barton

What if this had been an early attempt at choose your own adventure?

It was as if Elizabeth Gaskell required her readers to decide, before beginning to read Mary Barton, whether they wanted to enjoy a novel critiquing the crippling inequity in industrial Britain, a murder mystery, or a love triangle between a girl and two young men (a la The Notebook: one wealthy, another her childhood (but poorer) friend (yes, I know, I just compared Elizabeth Gaskell to Nicholas Sparks)). What if, depending on the reader’s choice, certain portions of the novel would then be sealed, unless you agreed to go back to the beginning and start again, this time with a different choice?

Lisa Dusenberry, a friend and colleague who is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech, has developed the concept of a “reader-player” to describe participants in and consumers of children’s literature that isn’t “restricted to a single medium, single source text, and/or a single method of reader interaction” [1]. Her term is useful because it aptly suggests that players experience the narratives of videogames across a variety of media. At the same time, the close connection between reading and playing only exacerbates the disconnect that a videogame creates when particular avenues of narrative exploration are deliberately closed to the player. Of course, many (if not all) videogames are designed around the notion that the player might not experience all of the content on their first playthrough. As early as Super Mario Bros., secret tricks and areas offered new exploratory and (minimally) narrative possibilities. But the best games offer these alternatives in a way that doesn’t impress upon the player that their experience is somehow incomplete.

Choose your class...there's no going back

Choose your class…there’s no going back

The Possibility of (Illusory) Narrative Freedom

Yet with the class selection systems of many games, the game makes it only too clear that your choices will place you into a particular category from which you are rarely allowed to deviate. This argument has been raised recently with the changes between the skill trees in Diablo II and Diablo III; where Diablo II locked players into their choices, Diablo III has allowed more freedom and customization. Opinions on this change vary, but even Diablo III’s options exist under the aegis of a class choice; you may be able to change your character’s abilities, but that character is still limited to being a barbarian, monk, or wizard. The necessity of this choice suggests a longtime difficult with videogames: are they primarily a narrative medium or something more fundamental. As in chess, it seems silly to expect that all the pieces (or characters) could have the same movement (or class) options. So how should videogames negotiate their narrative and gaming aspects in the context of class choice?

The word “class” is itself fraught with all kinds of social, cultural, and political baggage. And while it may seem that the term is somehow shed of these undertones in the context of videogames, I would suggest that in many ways character classes create systems of inequity that have ramifications for how a videogame’s world is presented to players. I was an early purchaser of the first Guild Wars in 2005, and the game appealed to me initially because it had a strong narrative component. Indeed, the entire game world was dramatically altered between the introductory quests and the bulk of the game. But what was fascinating about the way that the class system in that game impacted my experience as a player focused on the Guild War’s heavy reliance on an instanced mission system. In these missions, up to six players could team up to tackle a particular part of the game’s narrative campaign, but in many of the cities, which served as hubs where players could meet up with and join other groups, a resounding refrain continually graced the community chat window. “GLF Monk!!!” In Guild Wars, monks were the healer class, and for whatever reason the game’s player economy, in those early days, was largely bereft of a sufficient number of monks. Especially in more difficult missions, where a healer was essential, an inability to find a monk could dash a group’s hopes of completing the narrative.

Between Star Wars The Old Republic and Guild Wars, it becomes clear how much power character classes can wield over a players experience of a narrative. Obvious restrictions on content based on an initial (and somewhat contextless) class decision fostered a conflictedness within the player. Ignorance may be bliss, but obligatory ignorance often grates, particularly in a narrative medium that often revels in possibility. “Class warfare” suggests the inner-turmoil that players experience as they realize how a game’s narrative is restricted, but it also can point to how particular classes become more or less valued within the game’s social economy. So how might games arrive at a possibility of creating different kinds of experiences for players without relying on classes as a restrictive narrative method?

A game that navigates these difficulties quite well in the single-player realm is The Cave. While players are required to choose only three of the eight initial characters available, the narrative seamlessly weaves the stories of your chosen characters together. Additionally, The Cave, while labeling the characters in a way reminiscent of a class structure, invests their characters with a sense of being that extends beyond their labels. Returning to my friend’s first impressions of Skyrim, I was impressed by his exuberant realization that the game in no way forced him to choose a certain class of character. And perhaps games that eschew classes and classification actually proffer a greater sense of narrative immersion and possibility to their players. On the other hand, in games where class selection are an essential part of the game design, perhaps developers can look to The Cave as a prototype of the kind of game that effectively masks the narrative limitations that class selection necessitates. [2]

[1] Dusenberry, Lisa. “Reader-Players: The 39 Clues, Cathy’s Book, and the Nintendo DS.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.4 (2010): 443-49.

[2] Reader’s might note that this article seems to posit a conflict between online and single-player videogames. While I agree that my examples do fall along those lines, I would suggest that there is nothing inherent in online games that requires them to adopt a class structure. While it was a commercial failure, Cyan’s short-lived Uru experimented with an online world in which players were not assigned any kind of class limitation.

Anne Frank and Trauma as Interactive Experience 1

AnneFrank_dHontThis week there were some reports about a prototype video game from a German game developer that puts players into the life of Anne Frank’s family while they are in hiding from the Nazis. The concept is striking particularly because the designer is reported as saying that the game isn’t “really about having fun.” While I’m not opposed to having fun in video games, the notion of a game whose purpose is decidedly not about having fun is intriguing.

What’s particularly fascinating about the game as it’s described, is that it doesn’t conclude with a prurient endgame in which the player sees the family hauled off to concentration camps. Instead, it offers players the opportunity to live through a single day in the life of a family in hiding. As such, the future, well-known and inevitable, hovers at the margins of the experience. The possibility of such a game raises questions about trauma and how it can or should be represented as part of an interactive medium like video games. In this particular example, the physical trauma of being arrested and taken away is sublimated into the quotidian decisions that might occur during a single day. But what about more overt representations of trauma?

Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider have been noted for their representations of traumatic incidents. But ostensibly those games, unlike the Anne Frank game, are about having fun. How do games navigate the division between wanting to offer players an enjoyable experience while also trying to represent traumatic events? I would suggest that such an effort is either doomed to failure, or that the pursuit of fun in the game will undermine the traumatic moments. Conan O’Brien’s popular non-review of Tomb Raider offers a perfect example of this; during the game players must navigate a raging river full of perilous branches and downed trees, one wrong turn and Lara Croft ends up impaled through the head by a sharp stake. The death scene is awful and shocking, but ultimately players will have to get past the traumatic death animation and successfully navigate the river. As such, the trauma of the imagery starts to diminish as players’ focus is drawn to surpassing the obstacles. (This particular moment occurs around the 5:43 mark in the video.)

One game that succeeds in offering a gripping portrayal of trauma for players does so by moving the trauma into a fantastic scenario: TellTale’s The Walking Dead. An essential but subtle way that TellTale helped players to experience the game’s zombie scenario as traumatic was with its distribution method. Unlike most games, which are released all at once, TellTale employs a method of releasing games in chapters over a period of months. This style of release, which recalls the days of serialized novel publication in the nineteenth century, prolongs the game’s experience over an extended period of time. The way that this impacts a player’s decision-making is that The Walking Dead was designed to take all of a player’s decisions into account throughout the game, effectively offering each player a unique experience tailored to their choices. The difficulty, though, when playing as each chapter is released, is that remembering precisely what decisions one made six weeks ago can prove challenging.

As such, a player’s individual memory starts to play a role in how the adventure unfolds, and this checkered recollection is precisely indicative of the way that people in traumatic situations recall events. Unlike what we might expect, memory of traumatic events is typically spotty and uncertain. This is why, unfortunately, a rape victim’s recollections of her assault might be unstable in the face of cross-examination. The critical theorist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it this way:

“If the victim were able to report her painful and humiliating experience in a clear manner, with all the data arranged in a consistent order, this very quality would make us suspicious of the truth. The problem here is part of the solution: the very factual deficiencies of the traumatised subject’s report on her experience bear witness to the truthfulness of her report, since they signal that the reported content ‘contaminated’ the manner of reporting it” (Violence [2008], 4).

In this way, The Walking Dead, in its original distribution method, makes perfect recollection of the details of its traumatic events unlikely. And while now that the game is entirely released, and playing from beginning to end in one fell swoop is possible, players will more likely experience the uncertainty of a traumatic scenario more faithfully under the conditions that were present in the game’s original release schedule. [Note: The Walking Dead does undermine this somewhat by giving players a display of their decisions at the end of each chapter, but because subsequent chapters don’t offer clear reminders of each decision, particular recollections can still be foggy.]

The Anne Frank game deals with trauma by keeping at the margins of experience, and The Walking Dead represents it by incorporating the degradation of memory into its distribution design. In both cases the reality and recollection of the trauma is occluded by the way the game builds trauma into its structure. Any beneficial representation of trauma in video games has to contend with these necessities: trauma isn’t fun and it creates broken and fragmented memories. The fact that these games offer a faithful method of interactive trauma suggests that as a medium, video games can connect us to trauma in a way that uniquely recreates aspects of the experience.

Newgate Fiction and the Panic of Video Game Violence

Jack_sheppardLast week, Kotaku posted a critique of the use of scare tactics to represent video games in a recent episode of Katie Couric’s new show. The post included video from Couric’s show that featured dark, shadowy images of young men playing fiercely with controllers while a deep, gravelly voice-over described the dangers of video games to children everywhere. While I don’t necessarily think that video game proponents should adopt a reactionary or overly defensive position with respect to the question of representations of violence in video games, it does seem that popular airings of this debate slant toward sensationalizing what is really just a general sense of unease related to video games. As it often is with such programs on video games, the presenters and commentators rarely seem to have played video games on their own. In fact, the criticism is often a criticism of distance–of looking at something askance as much for its unfamiliarity as anything else.

Particularly telling was Couric’s exchange with Jim Steyer, who lamented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchant’s Association to affirm the protection of video games as free speech (PDF of ruling). Indeed, Couric takes a moment to quote from the majority decision, which points out that “the books we give children to read–or read to them when they are younger–contain no shortage of gore. […] As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ’til she fell dead on the floor'” (8). Streyer’s response to this argument is simply to say that the justices were wrong to make a comparison between literary depictions of violence and those in video games.

I would not want to go so far as to suggest that representations of violence in literature and video games are precisely equivalent, but I was intrigued by this question about the effect of violence in video games, paired as it was with the dismissal of any suggestion that violent literature could be dangerous. In the aftermath of television, film, and video games, the notion of literature as a dangerous form of entertainment may seem a little ridiculous (despite the annual lists of banned books that circulate the Internet), but of course, this was not always the case. Indeed, the recent renewed focus on video games brings to mind the controversy that rose around a subgenre of adventure novels that appeared in England in the 1830s; they were known as Newgate novels after the famous Newgate prison in London. The novels took as their subject the lives and exploits of famous criminals, some historical, others fictional. The books were wildly popular until the high-profile murder of Lord William Russell in 1840 essentially killed the entire genre.

Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who went to great effort to make the murder look like a robbery gone wrong. It was soon reported that Courvoisier had been reading William Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839), which was one of the most popular and widely read of the Newgate novels. The novel’s eponymous hero was an actual eighteenth-century criminal, and Ainsworth’s apparent glorification of Sheppard’s criminal successes was denounced by many reviewers. But these concerns were exacerbated when, during the inquest into Lord Russell’s death, Courvoisier testified that reading Jack Sheppard had given him the idea of murdering his master. Much of the popularity of Jack Sheppard wasn’t due to the novel alone, however; Ainsworth’s rendition of Sheppard’s life inspired many stage adaptations, which were themselves quite popular. But in the aftermath of the association between Courvoisier’s crime and the fictional representation of a life of crime, the Lord Chamberlain essentially banned all plays based on Jack Sheppard or similar material. While the Chamberlain’s office was tasked with approving theatrical productions, because Courvoisier’s testimony suggested a clear connection between the representations of violence in Newgate fiction and an actual act of murder, the censorship office essentially stamped out the genre.

Of course, the parallels between representations of violence in Newgate novels and in video games are palpable in the history of Newgate fiction. In England, a mechanism for restricting and removing objectionable material was already in place and made the censorship of Newgate fiction relatively easy and immediate, but we are fortunate that such a mechanism is not present in twenty-first-century America. While the conversation about the impact of representations of violence will (and should) continue, we should keep in mind that novel ways of representing (or glorifying) violence are not uncommon. Banning or restricting access to creative works has a dubious history at best, and a longer historical view of such debates would be a welcome addition to the discussions surrounding video games. As it is, though, the divisive rhetoric that characterizes much of political and cultural life these days seems to be mirrored in the video game debate. I would hope that proponents of restricting video games would think twice before trying to establish a contemporary censorship office on the grounds that such restrictions will prevent tomorrow’s tragedy.

Sources: William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard. Eds. Edward Jacobs and Manuela Mourao. Broadview, 2007.
Jan-Melissa Schramm, Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative. Cambridge UP, 2012.

“Someone to Watch Over Me: social spectatorship in games” on Nightmare Mode

Over the weekend, I had an essay published on the newly revamped Nightmare Mode. This site is working with a very impressive group of authors, and I’m very humbled to be able to contribute during the first week of their return.

So I hope you’ll take some time to check out “Someone to Watch Over Me: social spectatorship in games”. And while you’re there read some of the other insightful essays from Rachel Helps, Alois Wittwer, and others.