Harassment in VR Spaces

(Spoiler warning for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline in first two paragraphs. Links contain sensitive content relating to sexual harassment in online/gaming communities.)

Ready Player One: 80’s nostalgia trip, celebration of gamer culture, cyberpunk dystopia, hero’s quest, and – teenage love story? I’ll admit, I haven’t finished the book yet, but from the beginning our protagonist Will Wade/Parzival is smitten with Art3mis, a fellow gunter and popular online personality. He even has pictures of her (or at least, her avatar) saved on his hard drive. When he first encounters Art3mis in the Tomb of Horrors, he gives her advice on how to beat the lich king. Once they’re both High Five celebrities on the famed scoreboard, they begin a casual romance. Art3mis breaks it off when she feels their time together has become too much of a distraction from the hunt. Parzival, lovesick, sends her unread messages, flowers, and stands outside of her virtual castle with a boombox: part persistent “good guy,” part slightly creepy stalker.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has not (yet) examined gender politics on the OASIS, but it acknowledged the age-old mantra: “There are no girls on the Internet.” Even in a world where virtually the entire population uses OASIS and a game event with a massive prize, the default is presumed male. Parzival persistently questions Art3mis’s gender until he is assured that she’s “actually” female, accusations that Art3mis takes with good humor.

(Spoilers end here.)

But as we all know, there are women on the internet and in the gaming world, and they have been there since the beginning – even when the climate is hostile. Shortly after starting Ready Player One I found this article about the writer Jordan Belamire’s experience with sexual harassment in virtual reality. Despite all players having identical avatars, another player recognized her voice as female and followed her around attempting to touch her avatar inappropriately. She finally exited the game. The game’s developers were shocked and dismayed when they heard of the incident and in response developed an in-game “power gesture” that creates a privacy bubble around the player. They hope that other virtual reality developers will take harassment into consideration when designing their games. Online or in-game harassment is nothing new, but as we pioneer exciting new platforms and experiences, it continues to be a thorn in the community’s side.

Ready Player One might take place in the distant dystopian future, but in characters’ interactions with each other the culture seems closest to the Wild West of the 2000s internet – complete with flame wars and skepticism on women’s presence in the OASIS. Presumably, harassment continues to be an issue in this brave new world of the OASIS – but is the response closer to QuiVr’s developer-implemented “power gesture,” or the old advice of “just ignore it and it will go away?” Perhaps it isn’t even a talking point in the OASIS’s community – why worry about it when, after all, there are no girls on the internet?

What do you think of QuiVr developers’ response in implementing the power gesture? Do you think that this is a valid solution, or do you believe it is too much/too little?  What responses to harassment have you seen on other platforms and games?

Cathedrals on Cartridges: can gaming give us a spiritual experience?

Are video games the next frontier for spirituality? The indie video game Journey takes players on a, well, journey through a vast desert dotted with ruins, an “underworld” patrolled by menacing stone automatons, and finally an ascent up a mountain. The player may collaborate with other players they meet along the way, the two journeying characters becoming companions as long as they stay together through the levels. Players are unable to communicate with each other except for a musical “chime” sound.

Critics have praised Journey for its visuals, soundtrack, and story. Much of the praise, however, focuses not only on gameplay mechanics and visuals but on the experience of playing. Reviewer Christian Dolan of Eurogamer calls the game’s aesthetics “a kind of sparse… Biblical imagination” and called the game “an attempt to manufacture a kind of non-denominational religious experience for players: to make them feel like a small yet crucial part of something vast, mysterious, and powerful.” Finland says that the efforts fell short until he encountered a companion player: “all the convenient metaphors and artificiality melt away. The game’s lunges at profundity disappear, and you’re left to focus on the core of the experience: a pilgrimage.”

The description of this game as a “pilgrimage” caught me by surprise. the characters’ garb may recall religious wear, and the vast beauty of Journey’s setting can amaze and inspire, but do these elements create a sincere pilgrimage – even a truly spiritual journey – for the player?

It isn’t unusual for video games, especially rpgs set in fantastical worlds, to have their own religions and pantheons: the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age franchises, for example, both boast elaborate pantheons of gods who often meddle in mortals’ affairs and send the player on quests, but few would call these interactions with a programmed deity a religious experience.

Though there are many video games that focus on real life religions, That Dragon, Cancer was the first I’d heard of that achieved widespread acclaim. That Dragon, Cancer boldly and directly shows the creators’ spiritual journey and Christian faith as their son Joel fights terminal cancer. Their faith is never reduced to a game mechanic, but the player is an intimate witness to their spiritual evolution: one of the most powerful moments of the game, for me, was when the player (as Joel’s father) is unable to soothe cancer-pained Joel; after trying everything without success, the father prays, and finally Joel is able to find piece and fall asleep.

Journey doesn’t profess allegiance to any real-life faith or even claim a directly religious message – the player is free to interpret everything, including the large white-robed figured that occasionally appear, however they like. The open-ended nature of the game means that many, like Donlan, draw comparisons to a spiritual or secular-spiritual journey. Can video games like Journey or the very difficult That Dragon, Cancer share a genuine spiritual/religious experience with players, or can games not (or should not) convey sun an experience? How do technology and new media influence or transform how we interact and interpret the “sacred?” Have you ever had a spiritual experience with a cheek game or encountered a game that tried and failed to achieve that experience?

 

 

Ever, Jane: Mansfield Park and MMORPGs

Every MMORPG I’ve ever played has had murder as a basic and essential game mechanic. Need to complete a quest, advance a level, acquire an item? Better go kill a dozen wolves/bandits/pirates/mages so that you can get enough exp/gold to… buy more powerful weapons and kill stronger wolves/bandits/et cetera. Even in Lord of the Rings Online’s Shire area has kill quests – there are hobbit-suited quests like delivering mail and avoiding nosy neighbors, but there are also assignments to kill bears and slay wolves, even if the books themselves say it’s been generations since wolves appeared in the Shire. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this style of gameplay, but it’s become so ingrained into the MMO experience thatI I’ve come to assume it’s essential.

Enter Ever, Jane, an online roleplaying game currently in open Beta that is based on the novels of Jane Austen.

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The village of Tyrehampton. Screenshot from Ever, Jane.

Yes, Jane Austen. Set in Austen’s vision of early 19th-century Regency England, Ever, Jane allows players to create a character who – instead of climbing levels and increasing their strength, defense, HP, and other familiar stats – will develop traits called Status, Happiness, Kindness, Duty, and Reputation. Instead of kill quests, players may embark on ‘stories’ with or without the help of other players. As the game’s website says, “It’s not about kill or be killed but invite or be invited. Gossip is our weapon of choice. Instead of raids, we will have grand balls. Instead of dungeons, we will have dinner parties.”

Unlike Lord of the Rings Online, where roleplaying is only encouraged and required on specific servers, roleplaying appears to be the heart of Ever, Jane: players are encouraged to stay in-character at all times, build storylines with other players, and adhere to role-playing etiquette. However, the game’s stories and character traits introduce more traditional elements of gameplay that players of other MMORPGs might expect. Balls and dinner parties act like special events (or exclusive dungeons) where a player must meet certain requirements to enter; mini-games will simulate era-appropriate pastimes which help increase stats. Instead of slaying your enemy in PvP, you can ruin their reputation with gossip.

I was impressed with the creators’ passion to translate the experience of Jane Austen novels into a gaming experience — especially an MMO. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for instance, lends itself easily to action and adventure. To adapt Austen’s works the creators needed to challenge the basic notions of what an MMORPG is and cut away the stereotypes of the medium to get to the heart: community.

An online game based around Jane Austen novels might sound like a niche product, but it’s a niche with an enthusiastic fan base: during the game’s Kickstarter campaign, 1,600 backers pledged $109,563. As the game passes through its Open Beta and into full launch, it will be interesting to see which classical MMORPG elements will be integrated and altered to suit the game’s goals and which won’t be invited to the dinner party.

Pokémania: 1998-2016… and beyond?

With the release of Pokémon Red and Blue in the United States in 1998, “Pokémania” swept the nation. The video games, the anime, the board games, the Pokémon stuffed toys and action figures, the licensed Pokémon cups and bowls and macaroni and cheese – the craze lasted into the early 2000s as Pokémon movies saw release in theaters. As with any sudden pop culture craze, many parents were suspicious of the influence these popular monsters might have on their children. As Times reporters Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer wrote in 1999, “the key principle of the Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness… And never underestimate a child’s ability to master the Pokearcana required to accumulate such power: the ease with which they slip into cunning and thuggery can stun a mergers-and-acquisition lawyer.” Others expressed fears that Pokémon were demonic, especially psychic-types like Kadabra. And who can forget the debate over whether the Pokémon Jynx represented racist blackface?

Chua-Eoan and Larimer’s article focuses on other concerns of the parents of the 90s. Though the writers expressed discomfort at the way child players have adapted to the technology – “seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the miniscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It’s a much difficult task for adults” – their prime criticisms focused on the obsession that the game engenders in its players. Creator Satoshi Tajiri is described as having “obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque.” His early passion for arcade games made his parents worry that he’d become a “delinquent,” and he and his likeminded friends are called “junkies” as they start to build what would eventually become a multimillion dollar franchise. This wording reflects the concerns that many parents had: that Pokémon would convert their child into an obsessive, video-game-playing shadow of who they once were. But don’t worry, Chua-Eoan and Larimer wrote – “parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.” Pokémon never disappeared from the pop culture and video game scene – a gigantic version of franchise mascot Pikachu graces the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to this day – but it did, at least, leave the limelight.

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Pikachu continues to loom over Americans. Source: the Macy’s Day Parade Wiki. 

Until July of 2016, when Pokémon Go was released. Pokémania was back.

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Taking control of a gym. Screenshot of Pokémon Go gameplay from Niantic.

Created by Niantic, the smartphone game utilized augmented reality to place pokémon in the world around gamers and to turn local landmarks into Pokéstops where you can get items. You walk down to the corner store, spin an icon marking at as a Pokéstop, and get items: cool! You swipe to catch an Eevee: neat! You power up your monsters and battle hundreds of other players in your area to claim victory for your team and establish dominance for your team: rad! The simplified mechanics of the game, streamlined for mobile playing, irritated some longtime Pokémon fans used to the more complex battling system of the GameBoy and DS games, but generally it seemed like a cute, inoffensive game that encouraged people to go outside. What was the harm?

But just like the original Pokémania, the game set off another storm of controversy. This time, unlike the original Pokémania, critique focused largely on the actual g ameplay mechanics: the smartphone game was allegedly making players (a large portion of which being adults who had played the original Pokémon) inattentive to the world around them, it was a foolish waste of time, it encouraged players to trespass and drive recklessly, and – just like the original criticisms – it was a point of obsession. Click here to view a cartoon  by Polish artist Pawel Kuczynski that expresses many of the critiques of the game. I’m sure we’ve all seen the many Facebook posts from older relatives or people uninterested in video games elaborating on their disdain for the whole phenomenon.

And while a large amount of the Pokémon Go hype has faded by now, the game continues strong, with active players across the world and large content and gameplay updates planned for the future. Further, with the next generation of the handheld console games – Pokemon Sun and Moon – planned for a November 2016 release, Pokemon may stay in the news in the near future. What is it about the Pokémon franchise that stirs such strong emotions in supporters and critics alike – its popularity, the perceived childishness of the game? Or is its criticism not at all unique – what larger cultural contexts drive these criticisms? Setting aside the very real issues of safety (such as playing Pokémon Go while driving), are the criticisms of the game the same hostility that video games as a medium face, or is the augmented reality aspect of the game a special marker that sets its cultural response apart from other games?

Playing by the Rules

A player can cheat at any game. In video games, this might take the form of exploitable bugs, devices like GameSharks, and watching walkthroughs to maneuver around a difficult puzzle or anticipate the ramifications of an in-game decision. While the drawbacks of cheating in multiplayer games or competitions are obvious – cheating gives a player an unfair advantage over others and ruins the spirit of the competition – the impact that cheating can have on a one player game’s experience became controversial during our class discussion on Thursday. In the context of a puzzle-heavy game like Braid, the challenging gameplay is a deliberate part of the gamer’s experience: frustration, repetition, and forcing the player to look at a problem in new ways gives the player a great sense of satisfaction when they finally crack the puzzle, even if it is hours later. If the player is ultimately unable to complete the puzzles, or is too impatient or lacks the time to master the various mechanics, then they will ultimately never complete the game’s story. In the high fantasy rpg Dragon Age: Inquisition, decisions made by the player impact political alliances, the loyalty of allies, and can have life-or-death consequences for characters in the game. One wrong decision can dramatically affect the player’s story and the outcome of quests. In both types of games, a player may choose to use walkthrough guides to reach a desired outcome: completion of a puzzle or a particular plot line. If no competition is involved – if nothing is on the line but the single player’s experience – then why does the suggestion of cheating raise such strong feelings in others?

When we recommend games to our friends, we want to share with them a particular experience that was memorable, exciting, or even heartbreaking. I frequently recommend Undertale to my friends and sometimes buy or loan it to others, but with one rule: if it’s your first time playing, you can’t consult walkthroughs, watch Let’s Plays, or “spoil” the experience in any way. This isn’t even a rule that I myself adhered to my first time playing: before I ever bought the game, I was so curious about it that I read several articles and watched some gameplay. I ruined many plot twists for myself and, as a result, my game experience felt inferior to that of my friends who went in without prior knowledge. I’ve since experienced the game vicariously through the fresh experiences of my friends. In my first playthrough, by knowing too much about the game I had effectively cheated – but I affected no one’s enjoyment but my own.

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