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?