Tuesday, March 13, 2012

GSL: Off the Record and Apparatus

VIDEO LINK!: MarineKingPrime- No Keyboard

In February of 2012, MarineKingPRIME (Lee Jung Hoon), a professional player of the computer video game Starcraft 2 played an exhibition match against a high-ranked amateur under the tag OnlineJaguar. The match was one in an ongoing series called “GSL-Off the Record,” hosted by GOMTV.net (an e-sports broadcasting website), in which professional players are paired with amateurs and given handicaps chosen at random. In the first of two matches MarineKingPrime wore a pair of mittens while he played. In his second match MarineKingPrime was restricted to the use of a computer mouse only, prohibiting the use of a keyboard while the challenger, OnlineJaguar, played normally. These conditions drastically alter the material process of gameplay with the intention making play more cumbersome for the professional players; ideally, evening the playing field between the ‘pros’ and the ‘joes.’ This anecdote is interesting as it sheds some light on the relationship between the material apparatus of gameplay and the experience or relationship between player and game. Specifically, these conditions seek to disrupt ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ gameplay apparatus in a way that makes the material conditions of play visible and at least partially absurd.
            Generally, Starcraft 2 is played with a computer mouse and a keyboard. In the style of a typical “real-time-strategy game” (RTS), a player uses the mouse and keyboard to move units around a map and to make selections and actions in the game’s interface and system of menus. These games most closely resemble a kind-of chess game (only one where players are always acting, rather than taking turns). In this genre of games the player does not control any one avatar or unit but rather is responsible for the actions of an entire army of units. Under this system the mouse can be used to navigate the entirety of the game’s graphical interface; however the keyboard is generally used to supplement this navigation, allowing players to ‘hotkey[1]’ their way through basic menu selections. For example an ‘attack move’ command, which directs selected units to move to a location and attack any enemy units encountered en-route, can be completed in two ways: a left-mouse click on the attack button and a left mouse click on the desired destination on the game-map (or the mini-map) or the player may use the ‘A’ key on the keyboard to select ‘attack’ and then simply left-click on the map to direct the selected unit. The advantage to the second method is that, with experience, the physical process of inputting an ‘attack-move’ command with the keyboard and mouse is significantly quicker than if it is done with the mouse alone. This is because the player may use one hand to select the ‘A’ key and the other to make mouse directions on the map rather than pointing the cursor first at the interface button to select the attack command and then moving the cursor to the desired destination on the map and left-clicking to move. The benefit of the mouse+keyboard combination relative to the mouse-alone method of play becomes increasingly apparent when one recognizes that in addition to basic menu navigation the keyboard can also be used for more complex menu navigation. For example, in order to ‘build’ structures on the map Starcraft players must first select a worker unit on the map, then select the ‘build’ option followed by the specific structure (from a list of about 9), and then select the building location on the map. While this is all possible with a series of mouse selections this type of command is also possible with as few as one mouse selection (for building location) assuming the player has the worker assigned to a hotkey or two if the worker does not have a hotkey. Thus, with the keyboard this build action can be completed with 3 keystrokes and one mouse-click or (more likely) one mouse-click, 2 keystrokes, and a mouse-click; while using the mouse alone, a player would have to make these selections by alternating between the game’s menu interface and its map interface for a total of 4 clicks interrupted by the movement of the cursor[2].[a1]  These commands are referred to as ‘actions’ and any given game can contain thousands of ‘actions.’ Skilled players are often clocked for their “actions per minute” (APM), much like typists register words per minute, and can have APMs as high as 400 in some cases. Thus, the difference between playing with a keyboard and hotkeys versus playing with only a mouse becomes increasingly significant as ‘actions’ add up.  
            As a game, Starcraft 2 tasks players with the development and maneuvering of an army through a system of resource gathering, unit/building construction, and unit battling, with games ending when one player either surrenders or has all of his structures destroyed. In this regard the capacity to make inputs quickly and efficiently plays a large part in determining how well a player can play the game (the other deciding factor being strategic ability). So, when MarineKingPrime plays against OnlineJaguar without the use of a keyboard he is placed at a significant disadvantage, the figurative statement ‘fighting with one hand tied behind my back’ takes on almost-literal significance here. OnlineJaguar has the benefit of a more complex interface in which both of his hands may be used to navigate the game while MarineKingPrime retains the universally useful mouse (which can be used to make all essential game-menu selections) but must sacrifice the use of his supplemental keyboard (and left hand). In the context of this exhibition match, MarineKingPrime is faced with the difficulty of a more cumbersome interface and must compensate with his more advanced understanding of strategy and general game-awareness.
            For us, this match explores the relationship between a player’s sense of, or actual ‘embodiment’ in relationship to a game and the material mechanisms of play which facilitate this. In the match-up between MarineKingPrime and OnlineJaguar both players are playing the same game text at a narrative and semiotic level; indeed even in terms of ludological understandings of gameplay, the rules of the game here are the same for each player. However, the interface changes for each, resulting in very different embodied relationships to the game. OnlineJaguar, with his mouse and keyboard, plays the game naturally or as he would under any other circumstances; by contrast, MarineKingPrime has his natural relationship to the game disrupted, he must re-learn or at least re-route his gameplay in terms of this limited and less efficient interface. To return to the question of the ‘attack-move,’ the reflexive ‘A’-‘click-move’ command is replaced by a much more deliberate and cognitively-intentional ‘attack-click’-‘click-move.’ So, while both players are playing the same game, they are distinguished based on the depth of their embodiment in the game. In simple physiological terms OnlineJaguar’s body is more completely addressed by or immersed in the mechanics of play while MarineKingPrime must contend with him while using a less complete apparatus of engagement.
            Taken cumulatively this disruption of the gameplay apparatus available to MarineKingPrime in contrast with a ‘normal’ system of play reveals something about the natural-ness of experienced or learned play. Specifically, in the moment of this exhibition match the apparatus does not disappear, it does not simply function as a means to the content of a game fading from observation or consideration in favor of the larger experience of play; rather it becomes increasingly apparent, it is comparatively cumbersome and at least partially absurd. In this moment, the promise of (efficient, unobtrusive) ‘control’ is broken and the role of the technological input apparatus in the larger mechanism of the videogame experience is revealed.

[1] The ‘Hotkeys’ in Starcraft 2 can be edited or reassigned; however, as I do refer to them, it will be in reference to their default configurations.
[2] If we write out the operations necessary to construct a structure using only mouse inputs it would look like this: 1)Click to select unit,  2a)move cursor to menu box,  2b)click ‘build’ command, 3a) move cursor to desired structure, 3b)click to select structure, 
By contrast the hotkey input could be written as follows: 1)Click to select unit, 2) B key (to build), 3) ‘x’ Key (for desired structure), 4a)move cursor to location on map, 4b)click to build structure.
In the second model steps 2a and 3a are completely eliminated. Furthermore, the second method allows a player to use both hands in order to produce a build action, further expediting the process. 

 [a1]Heidegger on tools?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Espen Aarseth's "A Hollow World" and Experiencing Games

“The notion of a ‘gameworld’ is a tricky one, since it implies that what we are looking at is actually a world. Games have carefully constructed arenas optimized for gameplay, and their resemblance to real worlds is usually second to their function as playground and social channel.” (Aarseth 121)

In “A Hollow World: World of Warcraft as Spatial Practice” Espen Aarseth examines the gameworld of World of Warcraft and argues that the primary function of this constructed space is not a sense of realism but a mediation of the pleasurable experience of the game. That is, space in WoW is designed to be quick to navigate while giving the illusion of complexity. He proposes that space is artificial or “slick” meaning that while it appears fantastic, it only functions to channel players through the world; players never have ability to actually change physical space of the world or leave a mark on it. Instead of responding to the players the world only changes and expands as a the game is updated, which Aarseth suggests is a marketing model intended to attract new players and to keep old players coming back, similar to theme park expansions.

A second aspect of his analysis examines the space of WoW in terms of distance. He writes “not only are the distances absurdly small, but the curious adjacency of glaciers, marshes, jungles, deserts, and agonistic ethnic groups and wild life challenges the critical explorer to take the world seriously.” (Aarseth 120) Aarseth uses the size of objects in the game world to evaluate the size of the world itself, what he argues is that in terms of real world equivalents the gameworld of WoW is only about several miles across. This diminished space has two functions: first, it makes travel more feasible and, second, through non-linear exploration it allows for an exaggerated sense of scale. Obviously the compressed space of Azeroth allows players to move between points in a timely fashion. Aarseth compares exploration in WoW to the distances traveled by characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where places are hundreds of miles apart. He proposes that while these distances pose no real problem in literature, where the reader is not actually forced to endure the duration of this travel, in the gameworld travel times must be compressed to preserve enjoyment. This demand for quick navigability necessitates that the gameworld be small. In order to then preserve the illusion of space the navigation of this space is regulated and non-linear. Instead of allowing players to simply walk across the map, their movement is regulated by quests and high level monsters which limit access to particular zones.

So, this regulation of compressed space coupled with the fixity, or hollowness of the gameworld produces what Aarseth identifies as a theme-park-like environment. This study is interesting as we consider digital labor and play because it suggest that the gamewold is designed in order to diminish the labor of play- the effort and time spent traveling, and to maximize the sense of exploration and progress. Furthermore, by considering game-space Aarseth presents an interesting approach to the study of player experience in games. We can begin to see the psychological (maybe affective?) relationships players form based on the space of the gameworld.

Monday, March 14, 2011

There is a paper proposal in here somewhere...

So I’m killing two birds with one stone here, I said I would mention this article I read in Wired last weekend and I also need to come up with a paper proposal, this is me doing both.

The article that I am referring to dealt with the Wiki-Leaks labor model and suggested that what provides the website with content is not a paid labor force but rather a collection of individuals working and providing information out of a shared ideology or shared support of the site’s revolutionary project. The article went on to suggest that despite the community effort which keeps Wiki-Leaks provided with information, the actual control of the site and its content is reserved for its founder, Julian Assange, who retains final say over what gets posted and what doesn’t. So, while the work which powers Wiki-Leaks is done as a shared community project, the regulation of the sites content is closely monitored by one person.

The author of the article goes on to suggest that this structure must become more egalitarian or Julian Assange will quickly become one of the elite his website seeks to challenge. While this challenge to Julian Assange is interesting, what is more compelling is this articulation of the model of labor employed here. The work done by Wiki-Leaks contributors reflects a number of free labor practices employed in digital space. Obviously the Wiki model itself is predicted on community participation and contribution but taken more generally forum participation, YouTube posting, Blogging, Facebooking are all examples of free labor provided out of a shared community interest.

(Paper Proposal!?)
Considering this participation as an example of free labor it seems that beta testing also functions as a space in which free labor from a community of users is channeled for particular corporate endeavor. Indeed, in beta-testing the link between free community labor and private benefit is more apparent than in forum participation or wiki contribution. Considering that beta testing has become a fixture in contemporary product development a study may consider the development of beta testing as a form of free labor essential to digital product development, a labor which changes the relationship between tester and product and consumer. (Patching and use as perpetual test/labor cycle? Maybe. Affective relationship to labor? Less sure about that.)  

Friday, March 4, 2011

Schiller Chapter 1

In “The Neoliberal Network Drive Originates in the United States” Schiller provides a historical discussion to the emergence of network technologies, associated companies, and the laisseze-faire attitude towards regulation which these companies proposed. What Schiller suggests is that while originally closely regulated, telecommunications and network technologies became increasingly unregulated; the result is a business model for communications technologies which become the norm both within the US as well as internationally.

While the historical discussion of the development of communications technologies itself is quite useful as it outlines the development of the internet and modern network technologies, this concept of a laisseze-faire approach to communications business and technologies is particularly interesting. Speaking anecdotally, this idea of network technologies as un-regulated space seems to extend in many was to the way that we conceive of network content, that is the internet is seen as a space of un-mitigated cultural expression and like a hands off system of economics, the assumptions made regarding web content suggests that this content respond naturally to extant demands or markets. We also see this concept of the internet as a self-regulating or free market manifested in current debates around net neutrality. The idea being that individual service providers could determine what content is made available as a means of marketing, similar to the way certain countries limit content. Schiller’s discussion provides an economic based genealogy for this concept of information technology while simultaneously revealing the very real corporate and government structures that do control these networks.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'Cyber Racism' and Identity Studies, A Model?

In chapter four of Cyber Racism, Daniels considers the role of the internet as a space in which white supremacist communities may be formed. What he argues is that these white supremacist communities are not necessarily geographically particular but instead may be articulated across national boundaries, that they not necessarily a politically viable threat, that is they my never produce a political candidate, they do function as spaces in which these racist frameworks may find support. However, his final point is that not all users who view these white supremacist websites are necessarily experiencing them in the same way; rather some users may run the site or contribute while others simply participate or only watch. Furthermore, some of the users on these sites may be actively opposed to the message of the group.

This Discussion is interesting on a number of levels but what I find most intriguing is the reading of community practice and the articulation of the function of these sites which Daniels offers. While Daniels’s approach is obviously useful for a discussion of racism or racist identity on the internet it also offers a framework for the consideration of various other relationships formed over the internet.

Daniels refers frequently to the work Manuel Castells, particularly Castells’s study of the patriot movement. Among the critiques of Castells’s study that Daniels presents is the suggestion that the internet functions as more than just a space for linkages between groups or between individuals. That is the internet des not just connect these groups but actively produces racist identity. Daniels first suggests that these interactions occur without regulation or without gate keeping, allowing racist discourse to validate racist discourse. Second, rather than having to actively recruit members, these sites naturalize and promote racist identity via recurring interaction. Although these observations are essential to his argument about racism, the capacity to promote certain identifications or ideologies through recurring, fleeting encounters or through unchallenged repetitive discourse is an interesting proposition. I wonder if the preponderance of homophobic dialogue in online gaming has similar consequences.

What I was really impressed by in this chapter was Daniels discussion of forum participation and “lurkers.” While I am sure this is not a new concept, the analysis of the ‘lurker’ as a particular type of user or particular user practice opposed to other more active interaction is quite interesting. Daniels addresses the “lurker” in order to suggest that users of the racist websites cannot simply be lumped together. Rather, he proposes that we must acknowledge how the user engages the site rather than just that a user engages the site in order to fully recognize the sites function. Obviously this complicates the way we read these white supremacist sites but this could also be used to complicate how we consider any kind of internet based participatory space. Perhaps this question of users’ activity/passivity could be useful in a consideration of affective engagements with internet space?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reflecting on (Academic) Inqiry within the Network

James Salvo is responding to a concern that the networked library will change the way we engage knowledge and information. Particularly, this is the concern that its infinite capacity and power to connect and index all texts will obsolete the work of scholars and researchers. Furthermore, this suggests that these academics, with access to a complete centralized index, will never actually be done researching, there will always be more work to do. What salvo proposes is a reconsideration of the role of the academic, not to be a collection of information (this is the function of the library) but rather to map a course through this knowledge, becoming well read. Thus, rather than collecting or storing knowledge, it is the academic’s role to navigate this field and develop their own personal trajectory. Salvo concludes with an interesting suggestion, “We cannot allow the network to steal our intellectual wanderings. The infinite library of the network should merely give us a bigger city, not an Itinerary.” (Salvo 40)
While this discussion is relevant to a consideration of academic labor in a contemporary moment, what it offers in the way of a discussion of the value or role of all texts within more expansive information networks is also quite interesting. That is, the increasing centralization of access to information raises a similar problem. I recognize that to suggest that we expand Salvo’s discussion misinterprets his concept of the networked library as a centralized indexed collection because texts and media across global networks is significantly less organized or centralized than in the networked library. None the less, I wonder if it could be argued that the increasing amount of information that is searchable raises similar problems for culture as the networked library does for academics? That is an increasing number of media texts, not necessarily associated with digital forms of distribution are increasingly accessible and searchable online. One could look specifically at underground media culture loosing its cache- think cult film or punk rock. However, more mainstream examples may also merit consideration; the context in which films and television (for example) are experienced is also less restricted. While the solution to analyzing these sifts may not be as simple as what salvo proposes for the academic, the concept of indexing within a not finite space and increasingly total accessibility is a question not just relevant to academic knowledge but to all information.  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reading Videogames

Anna Everett’s discussion of race in video games offers a compelling survey of the way representations of race in games results in a reinforcement of racist discourses. Much of her chapter is based on content analysis of specific games which, as an introduction to questions of representation in games is useful. Everett examines a number of games and locates within them racist caricatures, narrative structures which force players into particular subject positions, and, in at least one instance, explicit , intentional racist ideology . This aspect of the discussion is productive as it reveals problematic constructions of race within video games and it introduces those unfamiliar with the medium to the potential issues inherent within it. That being said, I did not find this aspect of the chapter to be the most compelling as this kind of content driven study around video games has become an increasingly common means of critiquing sex, violence, gender, etc. in games. Much more interesting was the discussion which seemed to book end this content study- a discussion around player identification with these games.
First, Everett’s discussion of George Lipsitz’s concept of a “possessive investment in whiteness” (113) raises a crucial issue within this discussion: certainly it is significant that racist constructions are appearing in videogames; however, more important is the way that this racism shapes player experience. A game like Ethnic Cleansing, from the perspective of content analysis is alarming but is relatively insignificant to a discussion of videogames as a medium if it isn’t distributed or played widely. Thus, what makes a game’s racist content or structure significant is how it shapes player’s experiences. In this regard Lipsitz model offers a useful means of connecting content and function, a connection that Everett may not fully capitalize on. Her discussion of Imperialism and Civilizations begins to do this however the same line of inquiry would likely also have been useful at other key points in the essay.
On a different note, Lipsitz’s “possessive investment in whiteness” reminded me of a video I saw years ago about the making of God of War a game for the Playstation 2. If I remember correctly there was a point in this video where an art director responsible for designing Kratos, the game’s protagonist, recalled being hesitant to give the character a face rather than a helmet, the logic being that assigning a face to the main character could potentially alienate gamers or at least prevent gamers form projecting themselves on the character. I mention this for two reasons; first, it provides an anecdote to demonstrate the significance of a study of identification in games. Second, this question of identity projection onto the main character perhaps reveals a space in which affect theory could be useful for an interrogation of representations in videogames.
The second portion of Everett’s chapter that I found to be compelling was actually a quote that she pulled from a message board. G-Tech writes, “The gaming community isn’t dumb, they aren’t mindless drones who are being brainwashed or hypnotized. They are people like you, me, that guy down the street, etc. Who are probably getting a bigger kick out of the competition of winning than the look of the toons.” (145) This is one of the few points in the chapter where the significance of the player experience becomes the object of study. Also, here and in the discussion of Civilization we also see how game meaning is produced by players. The problem with a content driven study is that it only recognizes the game, ignoring how players participate in this experience. Perhaps a more complete study of race and racism in games would consider the meeting point between players and text. I’m sure X-Box live chat could be reveal a great deal about the subject positions gamers bring to the equation.

On an unrelated note, Everett’s section Playing the “Skin” Game is predicated on a misunderstanding of the term “skin.” Although this does not alter the significance of the observations that she makes in this section, a Character “skin” does not refer to the character itself but the image mapped onto the character’s polygon frame to give it form. So, a single character can have multiple skins making it impossible for someone to select Brain Fury  as a ‘skin’.  

-Bryan fury skins: