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Violence in Video Games

February 3, 2010

Do video games cause real-world violence? To many, the answer is an obvious “yes.” Unfortunately, misinformation and ignorance fuels the arguments of the uninformed, and causes them to strike out so harshly against something they hardly understand. Parents are very familiar with movies. They will let their child watch a Disney movie, and stop them from watching SAW V. Parents have a deep understanding of the film industry’s products, and understand that kids aren’t really supposed to watch these R-rated movies meant for adults. They understand that watching somebody wield a gun in a movie won’t necessarily cause the viewer to dart to his nearest gun store. Video games aren’t as familiar of a medium, and so parents can’t really make those connections. This is unfamiliar to them, and probably somewhat scary as well.

The idea that violent video games cause actual violence was brought about largely by the school-shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, simply dubbed “Columbine.” The actions of the two students who went on the killing spree, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were explained to be caused by the excessive amounts of video games that they played. People believed this for 10 years, mainly because that is what was explained by officials such as Jack Thomson, active video game protester and now-disbanded layer who has yet to win a case. The word of video game caused violence spread like an airborne disease, and many began to support anti video game efforts without a full comprehension of how kids react to them. It wasn’t for 10 years that researchers actually looked deeper into the Columbine case and actually produced accurate results. Peter Langman, author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, discovered that the two students had deep set psychological issues before video games even became a factor. He tells that “These are not ordinary kids who played too many video games. These are not ordinary kids who just wanted to be famous. These are simply not ordinary kids. These are kids with serious psychological problems.”

Violent crime rate. The emergence of violent video games has certainly made a big impact on crime... right?

Whether or not violent video games cause real-world violence has researches and hobbyists alike on a frantic and furious mission to discover the truth and argue their case. John P. Murray, a psychology professor at Kansas State University, says that a group of kids playing games for a short span of time caused “an increase in emotional arousal – and a corresponding decrease of activity in brain areas involved in self-control, inhibition and attention.” When the kids where subjected to short clips from the boxing movie “Rocky IV,” the same feelings and emotions were shown at roughly the same scale. So these games, that arguably cause the youth to commit such nefarious acts, are about as likely to actually cause conflict, as say, Rambo. A researcher at England’s University of Essex, Patrick Kierkegaard, comments “Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s. With millions of sales of violent games, the world should be seeing an epidemic of violence. Instead, violence has declined.” In fact, juveniles who commit acts of violence often consume far less media than most average citizens, according to a recent study.

Many adults consider video games to just be a mindless release of emotion and anger, but they what they are ignoring is far more important. Many researchers and authors, from Ralph Kosher to Ian Bogost, talk about the positive effects of video games on not only children, but adults as well. Professor Oscar Williams at the University of Illinois, says that “Games are about solving problems, and it should tell us something that kids race home from school where they are often bored to get on games and solve problems. Clearly we need to capture that lightning in a bottle.” He also discusses the ability of games to teach, when saying “How often can someone direct and coordinate a group of eight or 40 real people to accomplish a complex task, as they do in these role-playing games? That’s a real skill.”

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Zelda, Gameplay Progression, Recurring Elements in a Series, the Human Brain, and Video Games

February 1, 2010

One of Many

The Nintendo DS has seen the release of two Legend of Zelda titles: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. As always, they are excellent games with great design, but not many would argue that they are better than their predecessors (mainly the critically hailed Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 64). After getting a chance to play Spirit Tracks, I got to thinking about what made Zelda such a great series, and why we love the “classics” on the Nintendo 64 more than the newer titles. It seems to be a generally accepted assumption that long series such as Zelda will never return to their “glory days.” We remember the golden age of games, which never seems to be a single time period depending on who you ask. Logically, no series is condemned simply for being long-running, and so I became curious why some series reach a peak, even when they use the same tactics and designs as the games that came before them.

In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, you go about the world collecting various items to aid you on the long journey ahead. One of the items featured in the game is called the “Spirit Flute”. The player can learn songs to play on the flute which open up new areas of the world, and helps with smaller tasks as well. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game that was released about a decade earlier, featured nearly the exact same item, but in the form of an ocarina. You used the ocarina to cause special events to happen, and open new paths and trigger changes in the environment. This gameplay piece isn’t exactly fresh, but that much is obvious. Why should using the same idea worsen the game? It worked then, shouldn’t it work now?

Well, the main issue here is a lot more complex than it may seem. The problem isn’t simply that the same idea is being used over again, but rather the complications that arise from reusing ideas. In Ocarina of Time, the Ocarina plays a very vital role in the story and gameplay progression. The story revolves around the progression of time. Without going into too much detail, the Ocarina is used in the game’s story to give the main character, Link, a method of overcoming the obstacles that lie in his path, while tying together multiple characters and plots. But the instrument serves not only as a story device, but as a gameplay device as well. The player can use the Ocarina to open new paths, communicate with other characters and manipulate the world around them. The wonderful  thing about this is how connected the gameplay ideas are to the story, making the player very attached to the Ocarina, and giving it real weight in the plot. Part of the reason that this mechanic felt so embedded in the experience, and the reason the world was so immersive, is because of this integration of the story mechanics into the gameplay.

Unfortunately, the strengths of Ocarina of Time are the weaknesses of Spirit Tracks. Before I get into Zelda in particular, it’s worth going over what it even means for a game to be in a “series.” A series, as defined by video games at least, is a chain of multiple separate experiences held together by recurring ideas and motifs, such as characters or gameplay elements. However, one very important balance to keep is the amount of new content versus recurring content. Most games in a series stick to a pretty simple format: create a game, and add new characters, areas, weapons or what have you. A sequel also allows the developer to improve areas of the game that need it, and to add new and interesting elements. A sequel cannot simply be the same game in a new light. What I mean by this is that a game cannot simply present different scenarios in place of new ones. A game that is merely different than its predecessor is flawed in concept, because it means that the gameplay elements are interchangeable. Swap out an old character for a different one, or replace one world for another. Without fundamental structural changes, the game will simply not ascend to as high a level of success, or even fail completely. The reason for all of this is really not very complicated. Our brains require stimulation, in some form or another. When we learn something new, our brains are happy; when we sit facing a wall for three hours, our brains are sad. Basic human instinct has us constantly craving new materials and thoughts. This is why words like “repetitive” and “monotonous” are so negative; we don’t like to repeat an action over and over and over without any progression or mental gain (some repetition is very good for us, but only when we are learning from the process).

So, what does any of this have to do with video games? Well, video games are essentially learning devices. They teach us about morals, teamwork, or blowing zombies’ heads off. We play games for many reasons, but the one I’m interested in for the time being is the fact we learn from them. Of course, this is at a very basic level, and games being fun, interesting or imaginative all stem from that idea of learning. This isn’t true for everyone, but most people only pay attention to a game as long as they’re learning. Remember, learning in this context is a very general concept, and can be applied to many different parts of any game. You’ve no doubt (assuming you’ve played a game or two in your time) felt the repercussions of when developers forget (or never knew) this fundamental idea. You know it in the form of boredom. When our brains lack the stimulation provided by learning new concepts, boredom kicks in to tell us we’ve had enough. Summing it up, we like patterns, but not repeated experiences to the point that they just become simplistic and monotonous tasks.

Most games fall into this trap before you even have a chance to play through them, but as far a The Legend of Zelda is concerned, it’s a bit of a different story. The Zelda games manage to stay fresh throughout the experience by giving you new obstacles to tackle, and new tools to overcome these challenges in new ways. However, The Legend of Zelda is no longer a single game; it’s a series. And therefore, anybody who has played through the games will begin to notice this gameplay progression style repeat itself, making the reemerging pattern blatantly obvious. Many elements of the Zelda games carry over into the sequels (such as items, characters and dungeon puzzles). Yes, after playing through three or four Zelda games, and using the same item to accomplish the same task in each one, it does tend to feel like a repeated experience. But this isn’t really the biggest issue. Sure, you might be using the same weapon in three different games, but often the setting, dungeon progression, puzzles and surrounding elements (dungeon themes, such as rising/lowering water levels, or wind) make each scenario seem somewhat different. It doesn’t help that so many areas of the game are recycled, but at the same time, each successive game manages to bring something new to the table, sometimes making this less of an issue, or at least disguising it. Reusing specific elements of the previous game isn’t actually the largest recurring parts of the series. The bigger problem, at least in my opinion, is not the specific gameplay tools that appear time and time again, but the way they are presented, and how it plays into the overall flow and progression of the game.

When one plays a video game, they complete a series of objectives (whether it be complete a level or mission, or just move forward) and progress further into the plot, or just further through the experience. The way the player continues through the game is called the gameplay progression, and varies quite a bit from game to game. When video games first emerged on the home consoles, gameplay progression was generally pretty uniform and simple. On the Atari, usually the player was tasked with getting as far as he could, trying to get a “high score.” An example of this would be Space Invaders or Donkey Kong. On the Nintendo Entertainment System, many games adopted the simple “get to the end of the level” style of gameplay progression. The number of games that had you try to get from one side of the stage to the other is enormous, and many still exist like that today. In recent times, with the emergence of 3D systems especially, the variety of gameplay progression methods have boomed. Some games have you complete multiple missions or quests in any order you choose, some are expanded versions of the “level-to-level” style, some don’t give you any definite or ultimate goal at all, and many more methods exist.

Zelda has a very signature form of progression. The player travels to a new location, acquires a weapon or item needed to proceed, overcomes a series of challenges and puzzles in a dungeon, defeats a boss, and repeats the process six to eight times before the game is over. If you remember my original point, regarding the repeating elements in the series, this is what I was talking about. Once the player has been trained to follow these patterns, they are able to figure out how to proceed in the game almost instinctively. This overused process is made only more repetitious by repeating puzzles and tools. Simply put, the player needs new experiences to make the game feel fresh, and no matter what the game is filled with, if the mold is identical, it will always feel at least somewhat old, giving the “been there, done that” mentality to the player. Now, keeping the same general formula isn’t always bad; sometimes, it can be very beneficial. It can help keep the player grounded, and guide them through the game without any confusion. However, when the method of gameplay progression is tied to closely to the difficulty and main draw of the game, it becomes hard to overlook the fact that the game seems to just play itself. This is in the most extreme case, and Zelda doesn’t always suffer from these tired patterns, it just simplifies the experience, which isn’t what a lot of people look for in a game where they are expecting challenge and stimulation.

This hasn't changed in a while.

I think that part of the problem here isn’t simply the fact that gameplay elements are being reused, but rather that they are being used for the sake of being used. What I mean is this: certain traits have come to be expected of the Zelda series. For example, most followers of the games come to expect dungeons, specific items (some instrument, or the hookshot), bottles, switches and Princess Zelda. In fact, the only game where you never come into direct contact with the titular princess is also my favorite. A game that seemed to break the mold: Majora’s Mask. It was certainly a breath of fresh air. But as I was saying earlier in the post (if you can remember that far back), many of these elements and patterns played very specific and genuine roles in the gameplay and story. With each new entry in the series, these elements have become diluted with less meaningful mechanics and forgotten purposes. If these areas of the game were still given the level of meaning they were created with, it probably wouldn’t stick out as much. As it stands, many of the things propelling the game forward are somewhat empty. Mechanics become interchangeable, and elements lose weight and significance. Some “staples” of the series are fine left as they are; for example, Zelda games are about adventuring and puzzle solving. There’s no need to change the ideals that the series is known for, just the parts of the game that make it feel stale, such as recurring elements,  and progression patterns. Rather than simply focusing on finding something new to toss into the game, I believe that Nintendo should place more value in creating gameplay that once again contains a true sense of purpose and importance; feeling “fresh” should be a side effect.

It isn’t hard for a long-running sequel to become formulaic. Making a original and fun game is a feat; making significant improvements and changes in a sequel is another feat; but keeping each game in the series meaningful and unique is perhaps the most difficult of all. Yes, the Zelda series is guilty of stagnation, but it isn’t alone. More current series such as Halo, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, and Tony Hawk are seeing the same issue as well, and no, adding a plastic skateboard doesn’t count as innovation. The series’s creators need to take a step back and look at how their games ask the player to progress through them, and most importantly, which parts of the game hold no significance to the gameplay and themes of their title or series. It seems easy to just stick to a formula and plug in new mechanics and elements for the sequel, but by the third or forth installment, these patterns become almost routine, leaving behind any element of surprise, excitement, or uniqueness. Each game, in a series or not, should feel like a new and interesting experience that brings something fresh to the table. This is what makes a video game significant, and why they matter. Innovation is the key to success, and it can be easy to forget this when you have a popular money-making series: the need to stand out isn’t as obvious, but it’s still important as ever. A series that can make a large number of games, where each experience ties into the themes of the series while still feeling different to not only the series but all video games in general, is a series that is bound to stand out and be remembered. If such a series exists, I bet that people would know about it.

M-aaawwwww!

January 4, 2010

The Maw

You may or may not be familiar with small development team Twisted Pixel‘s latest hit on the XBox live arcade, ‘Splosion Man, but it was a well-received 2D platformer that won the hearts of many and featured some intensely fun and challenging timing-based gameplay. While this is Twisted Pixel’s most recognized XBox game, it isn’t their only one. Their single other game, The Maw, also got some positive feedback, (winning the Pax Award Show and being a finalist in the Independent Games Festival to name a couple) but wasn’t as big of a project as the infamous ‘Splosion Man, which is made obvious by the improved graphics, polish, and sales of the title. But that doesn’t mean that The Maw should be left to be forgotton, and while it isn’t a perfect title, it certainly deserves some more attention, even so long after it’s release about a year ago.

The Maw is based around pretty simple concepts. Eat enemies to get larger (not unlike Katamari), and steal their special powers as well (Kirby, anyone?). Yes, these ideas aren’t completely new, but The Maw is a game all its own. You play as a small alien boy who leads around his pet, the Maw. The Maw is an ever-growing gelatinous purple blob cyclops monster, which is a lot more adorable than it sounds. The game overflows with charm, which can be traced back to a number of things. Perhaps it’s just the low-res background textures and oddly shaped polygon mountains reminding me of my fond childhood days on the Nintendo 64, but this game feels like an old classic. The game’s setup is fairly simple: Feed the Maw, and get to the end of the level. What the game does well, however, is make the world in which The Maw takes place interesting and enjoyable.

The Maw, using his newly acquired fire breath

Instead of thinking some well worded transition to lead us into the main section of the post, I’m just going to lay it out for you: Now we’re going to go in-depth about the design choices in The Maw. Awesome, let’s get on with it then. One thing I admire The Maw for, is it’s ability to make old concepts feel fresh. The levels are set up in a very simple goal oriented fashion; You are tasked with overcoming one obstacle at a time in a usually pseudo-open world and must use your character’s abilities to progress. We’ve seen this in games like Banjo-Kazooie, DK64 and Mario 64, but the Maw puts it into a smaller scale, and provides some new ideas as well. The Maw’s designers uses a tactic I like to call “The Toolkit”, meaning that the game gives you tools you need to solve puzzles, kill enemies, platform around obstacles, etc, (which in this game is the Maw’s ability to devour his foes and the player’s small set of non-lethal moves), and lets you use those tools to figure out the rest for yourself. Actually, a lot of games use this very common tactic. To put it into simpler context: Imagine somebody giving you a wrench, you discovering a metal nut, and using the wrench on the nut. Obviously you know what a wrench does, but if you didn’t, I’m sure there would be a sense of satisfaction in figuring out how to use it to your advantage. This is the principle gameplay mechanic in The Maw, only used in many different cases and in great variety. Only once did the game lead me astray by not telling me I had a wrench, or in the context of the game, not telling me that I even had the attack necessary to proceed. You can probably see how that would be confusing and problematic, but the game avoided this a majority of the time. One of my favorite moments in the game tasked the player with climbing onto a ledge that was too high to reach. The tool the developers gave the player in this level allowed you to pick up the small creatures in the world. Figuring out how to apply the tool is where the satisfaction lies. Monsters flew around the level, and dove into the dirt in pursuit of the tiny creatures. In this case, you had to examine the properties of the world (dirt is soft, metal is tough), use your tool by picking up a small creature and throwing him onto a metal plateau, and watching as the monsters dive after it, only to smack directly into the metal ground. Using the Maw’s power to eat the monster, you gain the ability to fly, leading you onward to the next area of the map. That’s good design. Old design, but not outdated.

The Maw is most successful (as a game and in design) when it is able to present new and interesting interactions with the game world, whether it be light puzzle solving or exploration. The Maw is weakest when it fails to make the interactions feel like a new discovery. The discovery can be solving a difficult puzzle, finding out what’s over the horizon, or something as simple as what happens when the Maw eats a stag beetle, but when the player (ME) fails to feel a sense of discovery, that’s when boredom settles in. I’m not saying that The Maw is a boring game, I’m just justifying why I wasn’t fond of the game segments that failed to show me something new. Actually, The Maw often feels like new ideas are around every corner. The level variety is one of the game’s strengths. The environments themselves don’t actually have any degree of variation, all being grassy plains, and while I understand that a short game doesn’t necessarily have time to fit in new settings (like a arctic or underground backdrop for instance), it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Some levels are straightforward bouts of running and jumping, some are puzzle-based, some combat focused areas, and even one that’s centered around exploration. Doing something different in each successive level really helps the design feel fresh, even if some elements recur. Obviously, some elements of gameplay must recur anyways to add some degree of familiarity, but you get the idea.

The Maw takes some very classic design moves and wraps them up in a charming, albeit brief, experience. It doesn’t revolutionize the platformer, but it doesn’t need to. It’s nearly always fun, and I know a few developers who could use some design tips from Twisted Pixel’s staff. Trusted and familiar gameplay mechanics in a unique and charming setting: MAW.

Starlight Video

November 22, 2009

Game Development- An Art or a Science? Part 2

November 16, 2009

If you haven’t had a chance to read part one, check it out before you continue.

PortalHopefully, you have gathered a few key points from my previous post, but I’ll recap briefly keep it fresh. I’ve mentioned that a science has defined rules (like the rules of programming in C), and an art has no defined rules, relying instead on expression of emotion. As you begin to examine game design, however, the lines become blurred. So if the question here is “Does game design have rules?”, then the answer is yes… and no. In programming, the rules are unbreakable. You must use semicolons, you must draw objects to the screen to make them appear; that never changes. But when you are drawing a picture, for example, the rules are far less defined. Do you have to use a brush? Do you have to use color? Are there any rules at all? In game design, there are rules that can be obeyed or disobeyed, rules that are optional, rules that aren’t unbreakable, but hurt the game to ignore them, and areas where there are no rules at all.

Electroplankton

The "rules" are getting harder and harder to define

Defining the rules of game design, like the rules of the English language, is tricky. A rule of English could be as follows: A sentence must have a subject and a verb. This seems perfectly acceptable, and it’s a rule that everybody follows. The problem related back to what I said earlier about a science having unbreakable rules. Could you ignore that English rule? Sure. Hey, look at that, I just did! I’m not the only one either. May authors take artistic liberties in order to convey a message, or to express their personal style. Now that you have an example, I’ll discuss it in terms of game design. What’s one thing that every game you’ve ever played has had in common? One thing that comes to my mind, would be that they all have pictures. So, could it be said that it’s a rule that all video games must have images, text, or any other sort of visual? Well, I played a game on the “XBOX Indie games” (although granted not a very fun one) where the screen was entirely black, and that game used sounds to communicate ideas to the player. So was the rule broken, or was there even a rule to break in the first place? This is the main argument I’ve had with myself, and, from what I’ve deducted, it seems that it is up for interpretation. There really isn’t a right or wrong. Just patterns and norms.

Pixel Junk

How do you define a video game?

Does it pay to follow the norms? Should you be different and “break the rules” just for the sake of doing so? How far can a game stray from the norm and still be accepted by the mainstream? These questions leave any sort of objective realm, and are based entirely on opinion. I could give you my thoughts on the subject, but I think it would be more beneficial to form your own. One of things that I love so much about games is the variety, so the fact that these questions even exist is something to celebrate.

Game Development- An Art or a Science? Part 1

November 11, 2009

 

Mario Galaxy

We can all agree that it's awesome, but is game development an art, or a science? The answer is not simple.

Is game development an art or a science? A game designer might say art; A programmer might say science; A video game player could say that it’s simply entertainment. You could ask 10 people what video games are, and get 10 different answers. Simplified, a science is something that has hard unbreakable rules, and an art is a form of expression, where there are no constrictions. So, which category do games fall into? On one hand, game programming and design both have rules. Programming has rules, which if deified would only result in errors and broken code. Design has rules as well, mostly revolving around the best ways to go about communicating information to the player, but these rules aren’t as rigid. Are games ever used as expression, like a painting or fiction novel? If so, can only the music and graphics be considered art? What about the design, or even the programming? Video games are a medium which is diverse and variable, and today I’m going to go into what makes games an art, science, both, or maybe even neither.

 

 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The behind-the-scenes work going on here is arguably as interesting as the product. What goes into making a game?

When considering the topic, I made sure to think about all of the areas of game development. A far as programming is concerned, the first thought to come into my head was “programming is a science”. This is true. After all, if you go to school to learn programming as a major, you are getting a degree in “Computer Science”. However, after going into the subject, I discovered that there is a little more than what meets the eye. Now, programming has many, many rules that can never be broken. Commands must end in a semicolon, “if” statements must use parenthesis, so on and so forth. Breaking any of these rules results in code that will not even run. That is what makes programming a science. An interesting thing to consider, though, is that while the rules cannot be broken, there are many different ways to follow the rules. Let me give you an example in the code. (Keep in mind that you don’t have to understand what any of this actually means to get my point.)

 

Example 1:

for(int i = 0; i < 5; i++)

{

array[i] = 5;

}

Example 2:

array[0] = 5;

array[1] = 5;

array[2] = 5;

array[3] = 5;

array[4] = 5;

array[5] = 5;

MetroidSo, what does this even mean? Well, one thing you should know is that both example one and two do exactly the same thing. You don’t need to know any programming to understand. “1 + 1” is the same thing as “4-2”, You know that much. So, there are multiple ways to achieve the same goal. What does this mean? Well, if you think about it compared to other sciences, such as physics, or even cooking, you will notice an immediate difference. In physics, gravity acts upon an object to pull it towards the ground. No other force does this, and there is no other way of anything having the exact same effect as gravity. In cooking, you create dishes by combining ingredients. No other combination of ingredients will have the exact same effect. Sure, using milk instead of water could produce a similar product, but there is only one combination that will make a meal the exact same way. This is where programming is slightly different. Sure, there are ways of doing things that are slightly more acceptable than others (for example, saying “1+1” is a lot more acceptable than saying “1+1-2+5-3-4+1+1+1+1+2-3+1”,) but any way you want to accomplish a task will work. This degree of variation I feel is important for a couple of reasons: It creates diversity among programmers, allows developers to use their own style and methods, and gives people the option of having options, rather than being confined to a single method. In all honesty, they way you program, and the methods you choose don’t make a very large difference (at least to a play tester or somebody other than the programmer), but I feel that no difference can be ignored. Especially because this variation is consistent in video game development, and is seen again and again throughout game design, only at a much greater magnitude.

 

The Science/Art conversation is too large to have in a single sitting, so I’m going to create a part 2. Next post I’m going to continue on this topic, but instead of focusing on programming, I’ll go into the graphics, music, and game design.

Stay tuned!

Starlight images and concept pics

November 9, 2009

I thought that today I would just try to flesh out some of the Starlight content I have on the blog thus far by providing some concept images, and images being used in the actual game. Click on an image to get a full-size version and description. All of the images are connected by a gallery, so you can go between them within the enlarged versions.