Playing the Game: Writing about Game Content: AQA Media A Level. Tomb Raider Anniversary, Metroid: Prime 2 Echoes and Sims Freeplay.

Looking through a recent set of essays by some of my students I was struck by something really important. So important that I had to sit down and write this to help my students and other students who might find themselves in this particular brand of pickle.

The essay question asked about representation in Tomb Raider Anniversary (both the game and the game cover) but the answers, nearly universally spent far more time writing about the game cover than anything else.

This is weird.

Games are big things.

Not just financially big (the UK games industry is the fastest growing and most profitable of the creative industries) but big in terms of audience experience (that’s time commitment). Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 came out recently and both promise between 50 to 100 hours of novel gameplay. These games cost about £50 a pop but that means that they are working out at about a pound per hour or less. Compare that to a film (about £5 per hour of entertainment) or music (about £10 per hour).

So players spend hours and hours, you know, playing the game. Charlie Brooker described good games as “time-sponges” and he’s right. Games are interactive. Games go beyond the vicarious pleasure delivery systems of other media. Games can be thought of as highly efficient dopamine delivery systems designed to make the player feel good and (in a truly B.F. Skinner – pigeon in a box pecking at a light – way) keep the player engaging in the activity that will give them more rewards.

blumler and katz

(Blumler and Katz – always sound like old -school drum and bass or garage two-step producers to me – although they look more like a jazz pair in the pictures above).

One of the great theories that media students use is Blumler and Katz’s Uses and Gratifications theory. Unfortunately they were working long before modern gaming and useful though their ideas are, entertainment, or diversion, isn’t enough to explain why gamers play games with such a variety of gameplay exp[experiences.

Or another way of thinking about it is this: When was the last time you gave up on a game?

Ignoring the times that a game is too hard (check out Dara O’Briain here on how games are different from all other media),

although we will consider how some of the CSPs overcome the difficulty issue, what happened to stop you playing a game you loved? If you are like me one of the things that keeps you playing is narrative. There is a story and missiony-quests and things to do and once you have finished it the drive goes out of the game a bit.

Then there is completism (this is when you have to complete the game – visit all the locations, own all the weapons, build all the buildings, kill all the enemies (including that one who is stuck in the room that you can only access by some convoluted mechanism that really isn’t worth it but it presents you with a itch-you-have-to-scratch need).

After that is the drive for perfectionism. Can you complete the game without losing a life or whatever other mechanism you have chosen?

Finally some games allow you to create your own setups which is lethal for your time. A few tweaks and you have a whole new narrative playing out in your head as you undertake the same levels as before (can I complete that mission armed only with a blowpipe and a few bourbon biscuits?).

Then there’s co-op and multiplayer play (both IRL and online) which throws in a social dynamic to the whole experience and a million years worth of social behaviour evolution gets stirred into the mix.

At some point the juice goes out of the game. The dopamine is not being released anymore. You see it as a game and notice all the repetitive animations that you ignored while you were engrossed in the gameplay. You get tired of doing the same actions over and over and some other need takes over and you find you don’t have the desire to return to the game (often forever).

But until that time you play.

For hours.

So can we list some game-specific pleasures and gratifications?

Yup!

  • Narrative
  • Exploration
  • Problem solving
  • Engaging in real-world problematic behaviour (i.e. Destruction and violence esp psychopathic violence)
  • Role-play
  • Omniscient control
  • Creation, maintenance and expansion
  • Safe exposure to perceived threat
  • Exciting hyper-alert attention demands
  • Soluble problems
  • Meditative immersion
  • Gentle paced experience
  • Hyper-real physical abilities
  • Hyper-real perfection
  • Super-positive and colourful environments
  • Thematic understanding gained through interaction

Notice that these are different from the Blumler and Katz uses and gratifications categories in that most of them are actively participatory rather than simply participatory through reception, decoding, understanding and enjoyment.

The issue you have here is this; print, film, television and music are non-interactive forms that lean heavily on representation (complex encoding and decoding: HALL). Games don’t need to rely on this at all. Pong here (1972) doesn’t bother trying to represent tennis players (‘cos it couldn’t) so the player just fills in all the missing pieces. There’s an important message about all media encoding and decoding here.

BTW there are loads of pong emulators. Try it. Because you are playing against a friend it is still fun (in a five-minute diversion kinda way).

Media analysis tends to focus on representation (Stuart Hall, in the 90s, used to lecture on the primacy of the visual image in media) but in games the representation is not necessarily the primary motivation for engagement. I love Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency series Tropes vs Women in Video Games but in some ways she still puts representation above gameplay (although she does still say some great things about gameplay). I think that there is still lots of progress to be made in the analysis of games which puts gameplay first. In that way genre becomes more important than setting and character and different genres of game promise different experiences and pleasures.

If you are interested in this can I recommend this book.

71RH+PQVnLL.jpg

This is now getting on a bit but is one of the best books to read if you want to win the argument about why studying media is important in the first place. If you don’t have the time there is a summary of it here.

Steven Johnson writes about the things that gamers do which are different from other media consumers. They multitask (in a really deep way rather than just doing two things at a time – gamers prioritise and re-evaluate continuously), they telescope (which is remembering overall aims while undertaking minor objectives) and they are able to assimilate the rules and rewards of the game and game-world (some of which are explicit but others are implicit).

Side note – and one of my big popular culture bugbears.

Remember nobody teaches players how to do all of this in a formal way. Individual games may have tutorial sections (all of these CSPs use early game tutorials) but learning to multitask, telescope and navigate the rules of games is something that games expect players to do themselves. This is the same as all other popular culture and is one of the reasons it is often denigrated; nobody formally learns how to decode the media language in visual media so it is assumed that it is easy, or that a popular dance form is easy.

We see this thrown into sharp relief when a popular culture activity gains social or financial status and suddenly there are classes and qualifications offered in it; Film School (the Moscow Film School, very theory based, opened in 1919. USC School of Cinematic Arts in L.A. opened in 1929), dance classes (especially what had been street or scene dances like tap, disco or break-dance) or, more recently, competitive video game coaching.

Media Studies often asks the Media student to look at these complexities. Non-media students then often ask if these complexities are intended by producers or consciously recognised by the consumer. The answer is of course that both producers and consumers are working in a complex culture that they have learned to swim in and often work with automatically, unconsciously and uncritically.

To extend the point: Nobody ran classes in understanding Shakespeare plays back in the 16th Century (and people didn’t talk in iambic pentameter then btw) the audience had to skill-up, learn the rules and rewards and expected behaviours in order to engage with the popular culture of the day.

Oh and many people thought plays were immoral and a threat to social order back then too. Moral Panic anybody?

So how can you get better at writing about gameplay?

Game reviewers don’t really help all that much. They sometimes write useful things about the experience of gameplay by trying to nail down the pleasure the game brings; they describe some of the thrills or explain key actions. Looking at some of the recent Read Dead Redemption 2 reviews the writing is filled with lists of activities and experiences (although Matt Reynolds described them as being so detailed they became “chore”-like in Wired magazine) but is less clear about the pleasures of the game (unlike this Guardian review).

The first thing you need to do is spend some time watching walkthroughs. Some serious time. Make sure you watch enough to take in cut-scenes, regular play activities (which might be quite varied or have different phases) and, if it is linear, make sure you watch the ending so you know where the story goes (8.15 here might dispel/fuel the Samus transgender debate in Metroid fandom depending on how you view the significations of femaleness). If you haven’t spent time watching walkthroughs then you don’t really know anything about the game and you won’t be able to write about it!

Here are where you can see them:

Metroid: Prime 2 Echoes

Tomb Raider Anniversary

Sims Freeplay

This is a good place to start. The same YouTuber has a sequence of them. Then find loads of your own. As the game is, unlike the others a non-linear sandbox there are lots of quest and event videos to watch.

Now you’ve watched the games what can you say about them?

For each game I’ll give you a list of game pleasures, you can look at what the board says (in the grey box) and then look at how you can apply it to gameplay.

Tomb Raider Anniversary

  • Narrative
  • Exploration
  • Problem solving
  • Engaging in real-world problematic behaviour (i.e. Destruction and violence esp psychopathic violence)
  • Role-play
  • Safe exposure to perceived threat
  • Exciting hyper-alert attention demands
  • Meditative immersion
  • Hyper-real physical abilities

Building on the semiotic analysis, consider the way the gameplay works through narrative codes to construct narratives of adventure and enigma for the character.
Analyse the way narrative techniques such as binary oppositions and conflict are used to create meaning and to position the audience.
Consider the ways in which the video game allows participation in and development of narrative.
Narratology including Todorov

Genre

The genre conventions of different types of games can be identified such as
• first person, shooter and role playing games.
• Action adventure conventions which reference Hollywood cinema
• The study of genre conventions will also overlap with issues of audience – such as mode of address and target audience.
• Genre theory including Neale

• Structuralism including Lévi-Strauss

• Theories of gender performativity including Butler

Firstly there are useful things I have written about the gameplay of Tomb Raider Anniversary here (esp hyper-real gymnastic ability). The player spends lots of time in this game jumping, climbing and avoiding Lara fall to her death. This is a combination the pleasures of role-play, safe exposure to threat and the use of hyper-real physical abilities) This was a tried and tested gameplay mechanic even in the 1990s (Pitfall pioneered this in 1982).

atari-2600-pitfall-screenshot

The acquisition of the player skills necessary to control Lara is through a tutorial section of the early game. This is a key element of modern game design where the player learns how to play in-game (this has spread to many other areas of life and the resultant gamification explains the demise of the product handbook – when have you ever looked at a smartphone handbook?) until the actions have become automated. Once they have been automated there is a meditative pleasure in the game which builds out of the hyper-attention attention demands of the earlier sections. The pacing of the game is one where tension is managed by running/walking between high-tension action sections.

The next part of the gameplay experience is the solving of puzzles. These puzzles are incorporated into the narrative of the game in a way which reminds the player of the Indiana Jones films (a source material for the franchise) but there is often a lot of physical action to work the mechanisms. The mechanisms are usually shown operating through cut-away video which creates an element of dramatic irony as the player has a better understanding of the puzzle than Lara could from her vantage point.

The final ingredient in the gameplay involves Lara shooting dangerous creatures or fighting. The use of button prompts, slow motion and aiming reticules helps to guide the player through many of these sections (which helps reduce the problem of difficulty).

  • Adventure and enigma coding is evident in both the movement and problem solving (MEDIA LANGUAGE – SEMIOTICS).
  • The narrative and problem solving regularly disrupts equilibriums moving the story onwards (Todorov).
  • Action genre elements are found in the violent sections (NEALE)
  • Lévi-Strauss‘ binary oppositions are evident in the violent gameplay sections (Lara is the heroine after all).
  • Role-playing is embedded in the tutorial elements of the movement and violent sections. These are a constructivist reworking of gender performativity (BUTLER)

Metroid: Prime 2 Echoes

  • Narrative
  • Exploration
  • Problem solving
  • Engaging in real-world problematic behaviour (i.e. Destruction and violence esp psychopathic violence)
  • Role-play
  • Safe exposure to perceived threat
  • Exciting hyper-alert attention demands
  • Hyper-real physical abilities

Media Language
The semiotic analysis of the visual style is indivisible from the study of genre and narrative with the mise-en-scene of the game – apparent in the gameplay and the cover art work – referencing sci-fi, action adventure as well as the conventions of different types of game play.
• Mise-en-scene analysis
• Semiotics: how images signify cultural meanings

• Narratology including Todorov
• Structuralism including Lévi-Strauss

Genre
The genre conventions of different types of games can be identified such as
• first person, shooter and role playing games.
• The study of genre conventions will also overlap with issues of audience – such as mode of address and target audience.
• Genre theory including Neale

In lots of ways the gameplay of this CSP seems the most old-fashioned and clunky. There are lots of cut-scenes, cut-aways and pauses for new information to be uploaded and read after scanning. This means that the player really needs to buy into and be engaged with the sci-fi action and adventure narrative not to be bothered by these pace changes. When playing the game the playing audience is busy reading and absorbing new information (this does not translate well in the walkthrough) so the pace/threat change is seamless for them (not so for someone watching the game being played).

The game really functions much like Tomb Raider Anniversary but with more shooty stuff. The game is made up of a non-linear environment in which progress depends on solving problems and gaining upgrades. These allow access to, and completion of, other sections of the map. The first person shooter (with increasing threat and firepower) was perfected in 1993 in the game Doom (probably the most influential game ever) by id Software out of the earlier success with Wolfenstein 3D.

Doom’s entire concept spawned (geddit) the genre that the 3D version of the Metroid franchise works with (even down to the suit-wearing protagonist). Halo would later co-opt this completley.

Doom_Marine_(Doom_Slayer)

Part of the appeal of the sci-fi shooter is the combination of nightmare-fuel threat and the ability to kill it.

Problem solving is aided as instructions are given by the suit computer. There are other shooter style problem solving issues where problems consist of movement, choice of approach and target priority.

  • Adventure/sci-fi action and enigma coding is evident in both the mise-en-scene and problem solving (MEDIA LANGUAGE).
  • The role-playing, sci-fi shooter is a particular form of game (genre – NEALE) whose pleasures are signified by mise-en-scene. Broken and semi-broken technology, dead soldiers and alien life-forms are part of the visual language of the genre.
  • The narrative of the game consists of equilibriums which are rapidly de-stabilised leaving the player to re-stabilise them before moving on to the next section (TODOROV).
  • There is little time for complex morality in the game (the action is so frenetic) so it relies on Lévi-Strauss concept of binary oppositions where the player automatically assumes the role of good (regular use of words like “dark” to describe opponents helps reinforce this).

Sims Freeplay

  • Narrative
  • Problem solving
  • Omniscient control
  • Creation, maintenance and expansion
  • Soluble problems
  • Gentle paced experience
  • Hyper-real perfection
  • Super-positive and colourful environments

How are the codes and conventions of a video game used in the product? How are these conventions used to influence meaning?
• Have developing technologies affected the media language? Some familiarity with the development of the Sims franchise (2000 – present) will be necessary.
• The way media language incorporates viewpoints and ideologies. As a life simulation game Sims Freeplay includes many normative codes and values.
• The application of a semiotic approach will aid the analysis of the way in which the website creates a narrative about the world it is constructing.
• The genre conventions of video games, particularly the subgenre of life simulation or sandbox games, can be identified and discussed in relation to other CSP video games.
• How is the game’s narrative driven? What is the motivation for continuing engagement with the product and for the purchase of ‘premium’ content?
• Narrative in the context of online material can refer to the way that the images and the selection of stories construct a narrative about the world – one which is likely to be ideological.
• Sims Freeplay provides a useful case study for the discussion of Baudrillard’s concepts including simulation, simulacra, implosion and hyperreality.

Media Representations
This product provides a wide range of opportunities to study representation. These include self- representation and representations of reality. The representations of gender (van Zoonen), ethnicity (Gilroy), religious affiliation and age in the Sims franchise have been an on-going subject of debate and there have been notable changes as the series has evolved.

• Representation of particular social groups
• Who is constructing the representation and to what purpose? (Stuart Hall)
• What are the values, attitudes and beliefs embodied in the representations found in Sims Freeplay?
• Analysis of the construction and function of stereotypes
• Representation of the real world and claims about realism
• Audience response to representation and issues around identity (Gauntlett)

In many ways this game is the most media-student interesting of the CSP bunch. To understand this you have to understand the place that Will Wright has in the history of video games.

will-wright-3

Will Wright auditioning for the role of man who is about to give you a bad cancer prognosis.

Will Wright found, back in 1984, that he enjoyed creating islands while making the game Raid on Bungeling Bay more than blowing things up. This lead to him creating Maxis games and their iconic hit franchise Simcity (1989 to 2013). In the game players constructed, and ran, a city. This was, again, one of the most influential game ideas ever and Wright has the distinction of being one of those game-designers who had a huge influence in expanding the concepts and possibilities of games and their positive effects on players. The concept of the sandbox game is partially down to him.

Wright had a big part to play in the development of non-violently-psychopathic gameplay and he had a key role in the way The Sims series of games was devised and developed.

Sims Freeplay takes those gameplay mechanics and puts them onto mobile platforms with a freemium business model. As such it is very different from the console platforms of the other CSPs.

The gameplay itself is where the interesting genderised stuff happens. The original game, The Sims, was thought up by Will Wright after his house burned down in the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 and he was building a new one. There is nothing intrinsically feminine about the game, and the concept was devised by a man, but The Sims has always had a strong female audience demographic. Key elements of the walkthrough show that in Sims Freeplay traditionally gendered play (dress-up and doll-house) is a major component of the game. Before anyone gets mad I am very aware that the financial success of Epic Games’ Fortnite is partially based on the way dress-up (calling clothing by the more macho term “skins”) can be sold to a masculine audience. Also it would be too easy to say that less problematic stuff happens in Sims than in shooter games. Check this out:

sims

Ask anyone who’s played them. God games sometimes allow you to do really psychopathic, and sociopathic, things.

Out of Will Wright’s work there has emerged an entire gaming ecosystem of strategic simulation games which have nothing to do with blowing things up. As a result they gain very little attention despite huge player figures and massive profitability (partially down to the fact that there are few people who can create a moral panic over players giving their sims jobs and choosing their wallpaper).

FREEMIUM! Another really interesting thing is that the business model depends on the way the audience creates narrative. In order to get the audience to stump up the money that the developer/publisher (EA) is relying on they have to be sure that the players will spend money to establish a new equilibrium. The profitability of the game is intrinsically linked to gameplay experience.

The gameplay depends on recognising need based on some odd mechanics: Sims soil themselves regularly unless the player intervenes. They shuffle around looking depressed (with the emotion bar above them). A couple start kissing after only a few seconds of conversation. This is a representation of events that happen in the real world but hyper-stylised so that representation questions can get a bit odd (btw plants don’t grow money – I know, I tried).

Again you get tutored in the early sections of the game and the player learns quickly that there is no alternative way to progress. You can’t create a scocialist utopia of communes in this game but the game does not tell you not to try. It just tells you what it expects you to do.

  • Gender performativity is wired into the play mechanics of the game (BUTLER) with creative and nurturing desires propelling the narrative.
  • Narrative disequilibrium through stalling progress is part of the business model of the game (TODOROV). No job, no progress but no fire-station then no-job.
  • Gameplay is based upon decoding events from the real world (HALL) but it has been hyper-stylised into a hyper-real simulacra (Baudrillard).
  • The game relies on stereotype theories concerning shorthand (MEDHURST) to allow gameplay to progress rapidly. Ideas about gender and capitalism are taken as read by the game to a certain extent.
  • Hegemonic ideas are wired into the gameplay (GRAMSCI).

Please let me know if you think there is more that I could say here. Please like, comment and subscribe.

2 thoughts on “Playing the Game: Writing about Game Content: AQA Media A Level. Tomb Raider Anniversary, Metroid: Prime 2 Echoes and Sims Freeplay.

  1. Pingback: Playing the Game: Writing about Game Content: AQA Media A Level. Tomb Raider Anniversary, Metroid: Prime 2 Echoes and Sims Freeplay. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

  2. Pingback: The Mr G. Request Spot. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

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