Return of the Obra Dinn, Henry Jenkins, and Bad News

The beauty of The Return of the Obra Dinn, for me personally, lies in the fact that the game is a masterpiece in storytelling spatially and temporally.  I feel that though Henry Jenkins describes narrative architecture of being evocative, enacting, embedded, or emergent, Obra Dinn to me not only exhibits characteristics of several, but also subverts general conventions of these categories.

When playing Obra Dinn, I was in awe of the different ways that the narrative unfolded and untangled over time, both spatially and temporally.  It reminded me the most of an embedded narrative, one where viewers “assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues.”  Each snapshot of a death, as shown by Memento Mortem, slowly unraveled more about the storyline as the player searches around the ship to find contextual clues and information.  Jenkins, however, also describes embedded narratives as “less of a temporal structure than a body of information,” though I would argue that Obra Dinn stands forthright as an embedded narrative that also prides itself on its complex sense of temporality.  It reminds me of the game Braid, where moving backwards means moving forward in the game; in advancing in the storyline of Obra Dinn, one has to advance earlier in the storybook, then jump back to areas forwards (technically backwards) in the story to hunt for earlier clues.  Obra Dinn excels in its ability to time almost begin to exhibit a spatial aspect, as it did not feel like a line in 1D space, but rather, a multidimensional platform in which to roam through.  Timeline events were sloppy—and not even in a bad way—in being able to tell a story in which there were events stepping over each other and lapses where the player had to fill in gaps purely through inference, the game is successful. Obra Dinn is a testament to the fact that stories need not unfold linearly; real life occurrences and events are complex and messy, spilling over each other and affecting each person differently—so why can’t media narratives be the same?

Another question I have been grappling with that may be interesting for others to comment on is how Obra Dinn is either different from or similar to Bad News, and how each game excels in its own way.  For starters, Bad News exists in a shorter timeline and involves only one death.  Narratively and temporally, however, Bad News doesn’t unfold backwards in the same way as Obra Dinn: sure, it starts from the death, but one advances forwards in time to find the next of kin. In Jenkins’ terms, I feel that the game blurs the lines between an embedded and emergent narrative.  Spatially, Bad News felt like Obra Dinn in the embedded way that one explores an ecosystem fertile with narrative clues and hints; however, Bad News also exhibits an emergent narrative in that the storyline can be actively shaped and molded by whomever the player chooses to visit.  There was an aspect of live improvisation involved that reminded me of games with open-space worlds like The Sims that Obra Dinn could not provide.

Thoughts on “Bad News”: Generative Gameplay and Loss/Death

For me, personally, I was blown away by how moving our playthrough of Bad News was.  For a game that was created entirely through a randomly generated town, I was afraid that I would not be able to immerse myself in the gameplay because I would always know in the back of my head that the game and narrative was just generated, rather than an actual storyline written by a game designer; however, by the end of the game, I felt myself completely invested in the lives and stories of the characters, and even moved at the end when the bad news was delivered (I even noticed several people around me tearing up).  I think the game really highlighted something beautiful about the nature of humans in general to be empathetic; there were really no visuals or faces to attach to certain characters, and yet we still were able to feel for characters.  Part of me wonders if the game would be as emotional if there was not an actor involved to be able to add color to the town attributes we found out through lines of code.

I also wanted to highlight a moment in the gameplay that I felt was overlooked. At the end of the game, the game mediator entered a line of code that deleted the entire town along with its 150 years of history, then mentioned that there was no possible way to recover it.  In this exact moment, I felt almost a more powerful version of loss and death than I did when the bad news was delivered.  Even though the end of the game was somber in that our character’s death was communicated to the next of kin, this ending felt final and satisfying; part of me imagined how the town would live on and cope with such death.  When the town was wiped out after the game ended, I felt the loss of an entire town with its over 130 inhabitants and its multiple generations of history.

Bad News also makes me contemplate what the future of generative gaming could be, or at least how Bad News could be improved as technology advances.  Currently, I have only noticed generative gameplay in games like Terraria or Minecraft, where entire worlds are generated by AI, and so different playthroughs are unique; I would not be surprised to see games in the future where even characters and dialogue are randomly generated.  I think the next logical step for Bad News would be for the game to be so automated that there would not need to be a mediator to communicate to actors.  For example, in the game’s current state, the mediator had to distinctly type out lines of code to find out that two characters were in love, or that two characters were mortal enemies. I think that as machine learning technology progresses, the computer could understand the relationship between two characters by taking in all these relationships to naturally generate lines of dialogue or narrative text.  I would almost like to see a version of Bad News that could be played at home in the future, where one could talk to different characters and they would respond characteristically live without the need of actors.

On the Ethics of Pervasive ARGs

I am currently writing my blog post for next week about the Jane McGonigal “This is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” reading, which really piqued my interest as it synthesizes themes of drama/performance, truth-seeking/truth-finding, and pervasive gaming.  More interestingly, the reading purports the idea that ARG players are highly ineffective at determining game from reality in various alarming ways.  In the following response, I am going to offer an idea that is a bit countercurrent to our previous discussions and want to discuss more about the ethics of ARGs. More specifically, I want to propose that highly pervasive ARGs are dangerous and should not be supported, for several reasons that I see in the reading. (not necessarily my actual opinion, but a valid implication from the reading that I think is worth exploring)

There seems to be an issue with the fact that when ARGs end, the players are so immersed in the gameplay that the magic circle is still blended in with everyday life.  The immersion was so intense that “players complained of losing not just sleep, but also jobs and friendships” and the experience was described as “waking up as if from a long sleep,” having lost everything.  While this kind of addiction and immersion also occurs outside ARGs with other famous addictive games (I’m thinking your Starcraft, your League of Legends), the difference here is that players are enamored to the point where they still try and play the game outside the pervasive game, viewing the real world as a game.  For example, when the gamemakers of Push, Nevada announced that the game was over, players essentially “hijacked the game and continued to play, despite the fact that its puppetmasters had abandoned it, even though there were no new clues.” 

When game players view real life as a continuation of the game, spiraling out of puppetmasters’ control, there are many dangerous repercussions.  One is that video games have no essential real life consequences to losing, and so people who mistake real life for a game may begin to view life with the same attitude of zero consequences, which can lead to dangerous scenarios.  For example, the paper discusses how co-founders of Cloudmakers group post-9/11 decided to try and approach the attack as a puzzle to solve; it could have spiraled out of control, until the groupmakers had to take it upon themselves to cease all “play.”  It is not uncommon to see this sort of mob or herd mentality promoting dangerous or illegal activity, and the article even notes how there were activities like “hacking into an in-game coroner’s office…was identical in practice to the process of hacking into a non-game coroner’s office” or the notion that gamers ‘could have built the atomic bomb if the solution was put in code.”  It is almost more frightening to imagine a reality where the Cloudmakers did not cease investigating the 9/11 tragedy and used any means at all, legal or not, to uncover the “truth” all in the name of gaming and “puzzle-solving” over actual justice.  Another possible negative repercussion is that these are all generally scenarios where puppetmasters/gamemakers had best intentions in mind—what happens when a group of gamers are mobilized by gamemakers who want to cause harm?

Last, I want to discuss the idea of “truth” again, as it relates again to previous readings of post-truth and truth-finding.  While in previous discussions we have hypothesized that ARG gameplay can lead to objective truth finding among “fake news” and false statements, this paper seems to suggest the opposite.  As suggested before, many players of such immersive games begin to view real life as a game and solve mysteries under the guise of puzzles and not actual truth-finding; the flaw I see here is that in a game, the gamemaker has already created an answer or solution to a puzzle, while in real life, there is no objective verification of a solution.  I can see situations like the 9/11 game investigation lead to dangerous conspiracy theories unlike those of “flat earth” and “anti-vaccines” when gamers are lead to their own conclusions.

The logical conclusion for me now is that true game pervasiveness and full mastery of a “This is Not A Game” game may not even be ideal (in contrast to previous readings and discussions which lauded pervasiveness in games). Once situations get to the point where there is no killswitch on a game, and puppetmasters saying “This isn’t actually a game” encourages players to play more rather than less, harm can easily come.

I have several questions and would love to start a conversation. Do you agree, first of all that true pervasiveness (inability to separate life from game, ludic from ordinary) may not be something we want to attain in games? Do you have any suggestions as to how puppetmasters can prevent this kind of dangerous herdlike behavior, if it is possible? Is it a good or bad thing to view high-stakes scenarios in real life as a game (and what are the implications or consequences of doing so)? Should we support or discourage these vigilante-like game groups and how can we compare them with other groups that exist like Anonymous?

Subtle Messages in Games

Personally, I was particularly intrigued by the study from this week’s reading: “A Psychologically ‘Embedded’ Approach to Designing Games for Prosocial Causes”(Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan). The study claims that certain techniques such as “1) Intermixing: Combining on-topic and off-topic game content to make the focal message or theme less obvious and more accessible” and “2) Obfuscating: Using game genres or framing devices that direct players’ attention or expectations away from the game’s true aims” make it more effective to influence players of a game about a certain topic when it is not overtly obvious what the game’s intentions are to manipulate a player’s opinion.

I want to first question the notion of conducting studies on how a game influences players. We mentioned the idea of playtesting in class, how players play games to break them, and how Beta testing is important to determine how players will actually react to a game. This is quite on the contrary to the games played in this study, where students were meticulously picked by researchers to play games where, essentially, cards with stereotypes on them were given to players, and a “Universal Orientation Score” which measures “general non-prejudice” are assigned to how players essentially put cards down to refute stereotypes. First, by coining game’s name as “Awkward Moment” (which already frames the game as one which one needs to identify situations outside perceived social norms) or adding in cards with blatant stereotypes, I do not believe that the focus of the game is as “intermixed” or as “obfuscated” as the researchers believe, as the researchers believe. Second, as the players know that they are in a study, they will be influenced to play according to what the researchers may want. In a real playtesting environment where players do not know that they are being watched, I have suspicions that players might play to reinforce stereotypes because they might think it is humorous or to “break” the game. If the researchers wanted to truly see how players would react to the game, they would release the game to the public to gauge how players respond, or at least release the game in a way where the players do not know that they are explicitly being watched. Think about Cards Against Humanity–how would gamers play if knew they were being watched by researchers?

Is it even possible to successfully obfuscate messages into a game? I think that it is extremely difficult to; the games in the study are already, in my opinion, painfully obvious as to what they are trying to convey when players are responding to painfully cheesy cards that say “While shopping at the mall, you notice a store that sells T-Shirts for girls that say ‘Math is hard’.” I feel that a successful game in doing so in implementing these kinds of pro-social messages cannot signal to the player at all any kind of intention, for example, being able to signal some message into a game like Apples to Apples, which is framed as a game where players are supposed to “Play the funniest card,” as opposed to aforementioned scenario where one “Does the right thing to avoid an awkward scenario.”

Last, I want to question the ethical implications of being able to codify or obfuscate messages into a game, if that even is possible. I feel that this can be an extremely dangerous concept; in this fairly tame scenario, where kids are supposed to learn how to refute stereotypes, it is easy to say that there is an inherent good in disseminating this game to players. However, there are many points of contention and issues in today’s post-truth society where people argue for both sides and there seems to be no objective truth. Thus, the role of a gamemaker becomes one of high stakes, and I worry about the possibility of being able to implement “subtle means of designing games to shift players’ psychological responses” through these seemingly innocuous games. It does not seem difficult for impressionable players to be radicalized through subtle messages fed through these kinds of games.

If you’d like to comment about my post, I guess I really have three main questions I’d like to focus on (though feel free to comment about whatever you’d like): 1) What is the best way to accurately glean results of how players will play a game without bias while still being in a controlled scientific environment, 2) Do you think it is possible to successfully intermix or obfuscate messages into a game, and if so, what would that kind of game look like? 3) What are the implications of being able to obfuscate messages into a game, if it is possible?

Are ARGs Truly Pervasive?

The reading “Games and Pervasive Games” by Montola concentrates on the idea of a pervasive game and how it “has one or more salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play: spatially, temporally, or socially.” It distinguishes nonpervasive games like Super Mario Bros, where players step into the magic circle of an extraordinary mushroom-filled world with particular rules, from pervasive games like Killer, where the game world is synonymous with the “ordinary” world, lines are blurred between the ludic and ordinary, and the magic circle follows players wherever they choose to roam.

My question, then is if all ARGs are truly pervasive, or if, more generally, there are instances of gray areas where games can have both pervasive and nonpervasive aspects and straddle the line between both. Let’s take the example from the second reading, which discusses the ARG The Source, which “used digital storytelling, games, and emerging new media forms to explore emotional health issues, social justice, and civic responsibility, primarily with urban youth of color.” The ARG occurs from Monday to Friday through either online or on-campus aspects where students engage in games, activities, and exchanges with experts. From my perspective, this is a clear “magic circle” where kids after school enter a designated area with clearly set rules and expectations. The game stops, or rather, pauses, when students attend school or go about their daily lives during the weekend. The pervasive aspect only follows, then, through online interactions.

This, in my opinion, differs from Killer, where the magic circle never leaves the player, who needs to stay alert throughout all daily activities. I think that many ARGs strive to achieve a similar pervasiveness as Killer, though it often results in a game that has both pervasive and nonpervasive aspects. Some ARGs succeed in becoming extremely pervasive, where the player is truly convinced of his role in the world of the ARG and continues to solve puzzles and communicate via social media platforms even when they are off of designated game territories, while other ARGs struggle to maintain that sort of pervasiveness due to practical limitations.

I’m curious to see what you guys think about this topic, if you agree or disagree, or if you guys have other examples of games that have both pervasive and nonpervasive aspects. For example, is Pokemon Go a truly pervasive game? Would the example from page 76 from the “Worlding through Play” about “school as a large-scale game” or “gamified education” count as a pervasive game?