lifification

I don't necessarily think that the concept of "gamification" in "real life" is bad, but I've always been a little skeptical of the idea because it's sort of the opposite of what I've always valued in video games. Recently I've been thinking of the idea of "lifification" in video games and the ways that game feedback systems can be analogous for human interaction in relationships.

In class, I stress the importance of one-to-one feedback in games (as well as web development or any interactive project), i.e., if the user touches a button, it should immediately become clear what change that button effects through some audio or visual feedback and some change to the game world or state of the application that should be just as clear. The audio/visual feedback and game state change reinforce each other. If you're Mario, and you jump on a coin and it disappears, but you don't hear a little ding, do you know that you actually captured the coin? Or that it was a good thing? When I hit the jump button and Mario jumps and lands on the head of a mushroom, there's an animation for the mushroom to be squished, another sound, a new event or state change in the game world. So there's basically two levels of game feedback that are intertwined to the extent that one should (almost) never exist without the other.

My emphasis on game feedback is slightly hypocritical though, because in my own work I'm interested in creating games that have more ambiguous kinds of feedback, at least on the game state level. In my mind, an ideal game, or one type of ideal game, is one that has no instructions, no tutorials, and no explicitly described goals.

This probably comes from my background in creative writing and English lit. One of the most satisfying and difficult to pull off things in fiction is to have the implications of a character's actions or decisions be clear to the audience without having to explain them. A good example of this is in chapter eight of the The Great Gatsby, when Nick is urging Gatsby to leave town before his car is tracked down after having killed Myrtle while being driven by Tom. The reader knows that if Gatsby stays he will die but Gatsby can't leave. This is one of the details that tells us Gatsby's obsession with Daisy has made him crazy, essentially suicidal.

I typically enjoy First Person Shooter (FPS) and open world games more than platform or strategy games (although I'm relatively genre agnostic) because the goal of a platformer, in most cases, is to get from one side of the screen to the other, which removes a huge amount of possibilities and ambiguity. There just couldn't be a more explicit goal in terms of its visual representation. It is too bad, because platformers have tended to be where a lot of exciting, innovative or novel thematic content and interactions are developed in the video game world, at least until now, and I would guess that's because developing a platform game is relatively easier in terms of the needs of media assets and programming than 3D games or strategy games, making it somewhat more doable for a single developer or small team to realize a game on their own.

One of the few games that is, as far as I know, univerally acclaimed as a "work of art" is the platformer Braid by Jonathan Blow. Braid plays with time as a central metaphor to explore themes like forgiveness and desire. Braid seems to intentionally turn game mechanics typical of platformers previous to its release in 2006 upside down. What makes Braid such a stand out is that it achieves the difficult goal of having plot and gameplay work together so that they are inseperable.

Syoban Action, or "cat mario", is another example of an artistically inclined platformer that is a sort of ironic recreation of Super Mario Bros released in 2007. In Syoban Action, the principle mechanic of the game is that the expected feedback or typical game mechanics are subverted or ignored. For example, platforms will begin to fall for no apparent reason, the player can run into invisible obstacles and rack up an endless number of negative lives.

But both of these games, and other examples of innovative platformers, still require the player to solve puzzles and more or less go from one point on one side of the game world to another point on the other side. In FPS and open world games, although there is also a point where the player begins, and a point where the player usually will end a level or scene, the paths available for the player to get from the beginning to end are often indefinite. Likewise, in FPS play, different players employ various styles of play or strategies to "beat" the level or kill enemies, avoid obstacles and get to the end. Whereas platformers typically train the player to perform the same patterns of actions with growing competence, FPS games require players to combine button pressing dexterity with general strategy, creativity and decision making. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I'm going to work with this basic understanding in service of a larger point.

Human beings can be compared to game systems in that there is a feedback system that a "user" must understand to interact with another person. But a human's feedback system is complex and filled with ambiguities and delayed responses. Someone on a date would rarely say to their companion, "You need to compliment me three more times and I will kiss you." Likewise, in workplaces, tons of time is used (you might say wasted) in meetings, in part because the process of communication between humans relies on ambiguous social conventions making the conveyance of even simple information often needlessly complex. For example, a new employee at an organization is asked by their boss to file a report, let's say a TPS report, but the new employee is unfamiliar with the acronym. Rather than admitting ignorance, the employee agrees before frantically asking other employees what a TPS report is. A boring game, but a kind of game anyway, with a goal, obstacles and rewards.

There has been a debate for some, since the beginning of game making, about the inability of games to create compelling and sophisticated narratives on the level of film or literature, but adding interactivity as a new magical ingredient. Explicit feedback, like coin reward bells, is a great obstacle to this goal. A game that rewards a user with points, or scores, or other quantifiable measures, necessarily undermines the representational capability of narrative. "You only need to shoot 200 more ghosts to save your mother from the alien invaders," doesn't feel like literature, and it's not because literature doesn't have aliens or ghosts or guns, but because it doesn't have metrics. The greatest examples of literature that we have, in my opinion obviously, rely on ambiguity, in terms of narrative, or moral content or otherwise, for their power. Madame Bovary is an enduring work of fiction in part because it captures a struggle between Emma's inability to change her position in life because she is a woman and can only use sex to gain power which leads to her and her husband's death. The text doesn't tell us that Emma's choices were immoral or not, we have to form our own opinion.

Of course, I don't think that all games should have some kind of moral consideration or complex plot and character development as their goal. A lot of games are just fun to play and that's great. But we can assume that there is value in pursuing a more literary goal (or whatever you want to call it).

Video games are often talked about like there are none that approach this level of sophistication or complexity, but the fact is that lot's of games that do this already exist. Fallout 4, released in 2015, is an example of a game that, while it employs a complex system of quantified rewards with points and levels, centers on a plot presents a genuinely ambiguous series of moral decisions to the player (which seems to be becoming a staple of the big studio "triple A" games, although most seem to do it kind of poorly, as sort of an afterthought), somewhat outside of the typical FPS game where you can almost always shoot everything that moves as you trudge your ways through hell or a battlefield or whatever the setting might be.

In the Fallout 4 world there are four separate factions that the player can join and although at the beginning the player can be a part of all four and perform actions and missions to aid each at the same time, the player must eventually make choices to help one faction at the expense of others that have conflicting goals. These decisions are not made clear, even when you complete a campaign or "beat" the game, in terms of whether the were the right choice or the moral choice. The game allows for multiple endings in which different factions achieve their goal mostly through the actions of the player. When I finished one ending in the Spring of 2016, I found myself wondering if I had chosen the right path. I realized that I may have made a poor choice, not in terms of my success or ability to gain points or experience, but in a more abstract moral sense, that my decision had lead to the demise of the wrong group of people. The advantage of interactivity is putting me or the player in the position of making the decision, as opposed to describing the choices of a character.

The fictional world of Fallout 4 is large, complex and impressive, and is the result of a lot of writing and decisions made by a huge team of writers, artists and developers. It can't represent a singular vision of the world as Madame Bovary does, and the moral decisions presented to the player in the game don't carry the weight of Madame Bovary. Fallout 4 has incredible graphics and many complex missions and characters, but it's representation of the world relies on video game tropes and mechanics that are still familiar and on some level, for lack of a better word, cheesy. A lot of the writing, the scenarios and the character dialog, is cliché and boring. This is an opinion, obviously, but while I loved playing Fallout, I don't enjoy it the same way I enjoy reading something like Madame Bovary or The Great Gatsby. A lot of the demands of the game make this difficult, both the technical demands of producing a large scale game, and the market demands.

Of course, there's no reason playing a big market video game should be similar in experience to reading a classic novel, but there's a feeling that it could be, a feeling that I think many people share, specifically because of the power of an interactive, and in this case, 3D, world. In a novel or a film, the author guides the viewer through every scene and moment of a fictional world. In a game, although it's a relatively simple degree of freedom, the ability to ignore the narrator for a while and look a particularly interesting tree in a forest scene or appreciate a sunset is a really significant addition to the experience of inhabiting a fictional world, which is, to me and I imagine others, foundational to the experience of reading a great novel.

Getting back to "lifification", obviously, this has nothing to do with what gamification is really about, making real world tasks more efficient by employing the simplicity of game principles and feedback, but I'm using it to contrast what I find unappealing about a lot of games, is their gameness in a way, the clunky explicitness of the narrative. Really simple games like Pong or Asteroids do not have this problem. Asteroids, in a way, is a really good example of the kind of game I would like to see more of. There is a very simple narrative frame. You don't really make a moral choice, you still have to kill stuff, but at least the game doesn't try to have some cheesy cut scenes explaining the player's clichéd back story where his mother was captured by aliens or whatever.

In Fallout 4, what is unusual and unexpected, is that when you're presented with options to perform actions, you aren't told that you are joining the good team or the bad team. There are different teams, with different perspectives on the world, and you have to make a choice which one you support. You are never told that your decision is right or wrong. This is an unresolved input that never has a direct feedback, much like you may never resolve your feelings about a bad choice you made in a relationship or a decision to take one job over another. The problem of making games that have only this type of interaction, and take out the things Fallout relies on to be an entertaining game, like shooting stuff and making guns with better and better damage rates, is that they tend to be kind of boring. This is partly due to the expectation of games, but my feeling is that it's mostly due to the lack of talent by game makers. There are a lot of talented game makers, I'm not saying there are not, but with some exceptions, there aren't a lot of games with really good stories or things I appreciate in literature and film like moral and narrative ambiguity.

Another point about this is that the kind of choices that are presented in Fallout 4 or other games like it are often kind of non-personal or unemotional. Although there are moral and ethical and abstract considerations at work in the choices the player makes, ultimately your goal is not to die and to join the group that gives you the best chance to not die and either kill or make friends with everyone else. In a way the considerations are political. Thinking about the feedback systems of actual humans seems like a way to approach making a game, even if it's not literally about interacting with other people or having relationships, that takes on those kind of ambiguous, social and contextual interactions and feedback systems. I've never really watched Game of Thrones but it feels like that's the narrative style of a show like that, which is obviously really exciting to some people, but there's a lot of people who aren't interested in politics and war, who would be excited about a game about friendship or heartbreak. One of the most fun parts about Fallout is that it does provide side narrative that are focused on interpersonal relationships. I became lovers with one of the NPCs at one point during my play through, after a series of advances I made that were rebuked, the game actually gave me something resembling the beginning of a romantic relationship, I was able to ask questions that were ambiguously flirtatious so that, although I was not sure if there was actually built into the game the possibility of a romantic relationship, it was leading enough that I was interested to find out, and when it turned out that I could actually seduce the character it was more exciting than a lot of the main plot points of the game.

Part of my thinking about this topic was in reaction to an Ian Bogost article in The Atlantic called Video Games Are Better Without Stories. I generally find Bogost's writing on games really insightful, and this article is worth a read, but the title is kind of dumb (I think) and very click-bait feeling. He has some really interesting questions in the article:

The approach raises many questions. Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?

On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.

Bogost has really good analysis of some games that approach storytelling and an interesting point about games being "the aesthetic form of everyday objects," but ultimately I find the title and the idea of the article kind of stupid because video games are stories. It's not as though story is a component layered on top of a game like the icing on a cake. Regardless of the mechanics, graphics, complexity or simplicity of a game, the existence of characters, dialog or narration, or any other components, video games are stories in the simplest sense that a story is a series of events. Beyond this you can argue about the meaning or purpose of a story, but that's what a story is at its core and people are constantly creating stories and narratives out of all experience, no matter how ordinary or mundane. In the case of asteroids, an individuals story maybe different and it may take place over several experiences, but it will be interpreted as a story, with a beginning, middle and end.

At the end of the article Bogost argues that video game makers ignore story in favor of "taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways," which is fine and agreeable but seemingly not mutually exclusive with storytelling. In a way I feel like this argument is a reaction to the exhausting and often annoying discussion of narrative in games, a way of rejecting or putting aside that argument in favor of a discussion of the intrinsic properties of games, which I'm totally in favor of, but I think using literature as an example is helpful in terms of thinking about the possibility of narrative as it relates to games, not that games should strive to be exactly like a classic novel or film, but that there are things achieved by fiction that could be done with games in new and cool ways.