ENG 730: The Game and Immersive Narrative

Watching The Game, I kept thinking of Kafka. In many of his stories, Kafka presents this looming network that always recedes as the protagonist gets closer to solving it. I think A Messenger from the Emperor puts it best:

“he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years. . .

In The Game, Nicholas, much like many of Kafka’s characters, must navigate the ever-withdrawing, seemingly omnipotent CRS. Things escalate as he goes forward, almost to an absurd degree. And at the end, instead of closure of catharsis, we get this bizarre party. As John notes, no one seems to recognize the emotional turmoil that Nicholas endured, revisiting the suicide of his father, shooting and thinking he killed his brother, and attempting suicide himself, only to stumble into a room of friends and strangers who only moments ago–he thought–were trying to kill him.

I guess my frustration stemmed from the notion of immersion and boarders that Murray discusses. As Murray writes, “Part of the early work in any medium is the exploration of border between the representational world and the actual world” (103). When immersed, much like the Holodeck example from the beginning of the book, one is caught up in a procedural, participatory medium, as Murray describes. But as she also notes, this participation is “a visit,” and we must often “actively create belief” (110). There is a border, in other words, between the illusion and the larger world in which that illusion sits.  This larger world may have its own hyperreal characteristics, but it is nonetheless distinct–or seems to be.

But the blurring of that border is what seems to make The Game and The Grasshopper examples so haunting. As John notes, Nicholas ends up no longer really playing in a way, as he thinks that he is actively fighting a real entity. For example, toward the end, the ontology of the gun is ambiguous: in the actual world, it’s a prop; in the representational world, it’s a gun. But for Nicholas, the representational world has become the actual world. The game, and all of its trappings, has become his new reality, including the gun. And, as many others have noted, the “voluntary” element of Nicholas’ participation feels murky, making this “game” all the more problematic.

Connecting it back to Kafka, I think the reason why The Trial is so haunting is that the legal system has left its boundaries. To draw from Huizinga, the court has flooded outside its magic circle and has become an existential way of life. K is guilty without his consent, and forced to solve the maze of “state sanctioned violence” as Murray calls it (131), as himself, not a player version of himself.

In a similar note, The Game shows this haunting Grasshopper-like dystopia where the representational aspect of play has permeated and supplanted actual life. But, the game ends, and this is the strangest part. As Murray points out, digital mediums have a more ambiguous ending, often created by their interactive aspect. They often end through exhaustion and not a linear progression. The same could be said for the movie.

The doctor/actor jokes at the end, for example, that if Nicholas didn’t jump, he’d have to throw him.  This raises the question on how prescriptive the game was. Jordan points out that the game maybe was not that interactive, and indeed, it’s hard to see how the game wasn’t pulling all the strings, giving CRS an almost deterministic quality that feels godlike, all driving toward this “ending.” Were there alternative endings? What if, for example, Nicholas didn’t drink the tea? What if he didn’t get the gun from his house? What other rhizomes could he follow, and would those rhizomes still lead to that party in that way?

Much like K’s demise in The Trial, the ending in The Game feels inevitable, and I wonder–since they lied to him before, including about him not being picked to enter the game in the first place–whether the game is really over. Once you turn life into a game, it doesn’t feel easy to get out, and maybe Nick’s blithe acceptance at the end is a sort of absurdist, nihilistic acceptance of the Grasshopper’s wisdom. Worst birthday gift ever.

ENG 730: Player Experience, Identification, and Identity

I feel that Roger Caillois, in some ways, offers a helpful rejoinder to some questions (or critiques) to Huizinga from last class through his focus on “games.” While Huizinga seemed more concerned with a broader concept of play, Caillois seemed to take a more more grounded approach. As Caillois says early on, “[Huizinga’s] work is not a study of games, but an inquiry into the creative quality of the play principle in the domain of culture” (4).

In particular, I thought Caillois taxonomy of games proved helpful, particularly as it further acknowledged the hybrid mixes that could take place within the terms. As he lays them out: “I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively” (12). To this “rubric” he adds a further axis between the more open play of paidia (a tem Huizinga also takes up in tension with agôn) and the more structured ludus.

Continue reading “ENG 730: Player Experience, Identification, and Identity”

ENG 730: Illuminati and the Play-Sphere

Huizinga’s notion of play often connected to four main elements as he traced it through its various spheres: the notion of the agonistic contest,  the role of rules, and way it took place outside of everyday life. As he defines it:

a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.  It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (13).

As the definition shows, “play” extends beyond games, including the grounds for the ritual of religion, the structure of law, the agonsitic structure of “warfare,” and the playful riddling at the root of philosophy. Of these parts, the break from “ordinary life” and the role of internal rules–a structure outside of the rules of everyday life–seem to be particularly significant.

To transition to Illuminati, I think one can see some of the tensions and manifestations of this definition. In particular, I want to focus on the role of cheating and deceit in the game.

Continue reading “ENG 730: Illuminati and the Play-Sphere”

Game Studies: Rules, Emergence, and Information

Of all the games we played last week, I was most interested by Mastermind, as it felt the most systematic and logic-based. From the six base colors and the four possible slots for these codes, you had 6x6x6x6, or 1,296, outcomes initially. I found myself thinking through my succession of moves each round logically whittling down these potential outcomes, in a somewhat mathematical way.

In other words, with the code already made, I was free to work within my own head and not respond to the moves of the other player in an ongoing, emergent way, unlike Blockus and Connect Four. I could stick to my own system or strategy and not have to worry about the way other players shifted their strategy. Over a succession of rounds in Mastermind, this may change, but in the context of the night, it did not. It was almost like the game was completely inside my own head as a series of logical possibilities scaffolded over a series of decisions.

This in-my-head quality made the game feel more like what Salen and Zimmerman say about “decision trees,” where one could trace out a consistent set of approaches, including a winning strategy, through a flow chart. With the numbered layout of six colors and four slots, the game has a series of discrete decisions mapped along two possible axis of variability, unlike Chess with its range of varied moves. But this only describes the possible moves, which is where the role of information came in.

Again, in Blockus and Connect Four, my move changed based on the information of the ongoing moves done by the other player(s). As Chris encroached on my territory, for example, I started making a stronger effort to block him. But in Mastermind, my moves changed based on the information provided by my own past decision. In this way, strategy was still emergent in Mastermind as I got new information, but the components of the game–like the input of other players–affected that emergence less. I could create an arc of moves that, theoretically, could be almost algorithmic and unchanged as each guess progressed.

In the information theory approach, as Salen and Zimmerman define, “information is a measure of how certain you can be about the nature of a signal” (193). As they breakdown Mastermind, as the guesser gets more feedback about the nature of the code through the black and white begs, “the guesser narrows down the possible answers (decreasing uncertainty), carving out a single guess fro ma range of all possible guesses” (194-95). Initially, the uncertainty is total–1,296 possible outcomes–but each round reduces the possible answers, so that by my final guess, I was no longer guessing. I logically knew exactly what my answer was.

In the other games, I never experienced this level of certainty. There was no set “strategy,” just an emergent web of possible strategies based on the changing game board, particularly in Blockus. I could get a sense for where people may go, but I never “knew.” I got a sense, as Even points out in his post, that a more expansion-oriented strategy seemed effective, or that certain pieces could fit into key choke-points for other players. But chance, or uncertainty, remained high. Noah, for example, could deliberately not play the “right” move, as we often did in connect four to delay the victory. Or one of us would miss the right move. Or a new move would come up based on the third or fourth person. All of these variables would, in turn, affect my move, feeding back into the system and affecting theirs.

In this way, Blockus, and to a lesser extent Connect Four, felt more “complex” and more uncertain than Mastermind. Or perhaps, it felt more emergent. But importantly, as Salen and Zimmerman point out, these feelings may simply be feelings, and the formal backdrop, the “constituative rules,” of all the games had a similar logic that operationalized in different experiences.

ENG 730: “Werewolf” and Fundamentals of Play

I had played “Werewolf” a handful of times in the past, mostly at parties with larger groups of people. These past times also had different variations, like the inclusion of a witch who could silence a villager in the night and no dead goat/cow/chicken/corn to start the game.

This initial dead goat/chicken/cow/corn felt like one of the more significant parts of the game, as (unless you are the Seer and get lucky) you lack information, making the choice of the vote more random. Salen and Zimmerman’s concept of the “anatomy of choice ” highlights the character of this initial vote I think. As they break it down, the anatomy of choice includes the following five steps:

  1. What happened before the player was given the choice?

  2. How is the possibility of choice conveyed to the player? 

  3. How did the player make the choice?

  4. What is the result of the choice? How will it affect future choices?

  5. How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player?

If we take the “voting of a villager to exile” as our choice, then some of the answers to these questions would be the same in latter votes. For example, the possibility of choice is conveyed through the narrator announcing the daylight and the need to vote, and the immediate result would be the showing of the player’s card and their exile.

But other elements differ. For one, the dead goat offers no information, so in the initial vote, we are all suspect. Initially, we had no way to really back up a decision–no answer to the “how” in an experiential sense for making our choice. Later on, we could use evidence from the course of play, but the first vote feels more awkward, dangerous, and random.

I feel like that created our role-playing. With the addition of roles, it eased the difficulty of this initial vote because we could essentially make up narrative reasons, easing the sense of randomness. As time went on, however, we seemed to embrace more of the arbitrary nature of this vote with a “go for it” approach. The randomness also heightened our appeal to the gambler’s fallacy and other more probabilistic thinking. Later votes invited more meta-gaming, analysis, and psychology.

The result of the choice, in a larger sense, was also important. If the villages got the wolf in the first turn, winning was much easier, raising the stakes.

I think what makes Werewolf an interesting game is that the choice–while the same procedure through each round–changes so much as the in-game context changes. As Salen and Zimmerman note about design, “Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges.” Almost like stages in a game-show, as contestants get eliminated, each new vote provides a new “level,” “round,” or context to be encountered by the players as participants. And as the context changes, the experience changes. Patterns and skills emerge, but each vote presents a new problem to solve, a new experience of “meaningful play.”

This creates an elegant scaffolding between the “macro” and the “micro” levels of choice and outcome, to use Salen and Zimmerman’s terms. Each round, the available information changes and the stakes change in terms of our immediate “quantifiable” goal, and while the larger strategy for either wolf or villager may be the same, the tactics for each round are flexible and rhetorically situated.

Early on, for example, the wolf may want to appear completely innocuous and invisible. As time goes on, the wolf may want to eliminate more villagers, especially in the penultimate round. Or, initially, the wolf may kill the other wolf, making them appear innocent for the rest of the game. The round helps determine the more productive choice, to which the player must respond and be sensitive to, while maintaining the larger goal in mind.

Works Cited:

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT P2004.

ENG 730: Werewolf and Meaningful Choice

I’m going to start posting my school blog posts here, just so all my writing is in one place. They’ll come up fairly regularly and will be signified by a course title. Today is Game Studies.

I had played “Werewolf” a handful of times in the past, mostly at parties with larger groups of people. These past times also had different variations, like the inclusion of a witch who could silence a villager in the night and no dead goat/cow/chicken/corn to start the game.

Continue reading “ENG 730: Werewolf and Meaningful Choice”