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?

Achievements in Video Games

 

Image result for an xbox achievement
An example of what an Xbox One achievement looks like when earned. Source

Achievements are a huge part of video game culture.  Almost everyone who owns a console or Steam has earned at least one, and many gamers stake their gaming reputation on how many achievements they’ve gotten or how hard the ones they’ve completed are to get.  There are multiple websites and videos designed to help gamers complete their achievement list for the games they’re trying to complete, and there’s even an entire YouTube channel called The Completionist geared around, among a few other things, collecting every achievement in whatever game they’re covering that week.  There’s no question that achievements help give gamers a goal to work forwards when playing games, especially for open-ended games or match-based games where there might not be that much drive to continue playing the game without them.  However, are achievements really helpful to gamers, or do they merely distract players from the important parts of gaming?

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I Really Hope Mobile Gaming is Not the Future

I usually have a short attention span with games. Unless something really snags my attention early on, I leave it after a few hours of playing. Because of that, console or computer games can be a big commitment for me. I do my research, I watch game play videos, I read reviews, all to make sure that I wont be sinking $30-$60 on a product that I’m going to put down a few days after buying it. the hectic schedule of college doesn’t make this process easier, but it’s my tried and true way of finding games that I enjoy.

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Copyright Clash of Clans

Enter my issue with mobile gaming. I loved it when it started. I could drop a small fee of often $.99 or a bit more and have access to some classic concepts and games like Angry Birds or a pocket-sized Civilization game. It was easy to get a quick gaming fix between classes or while “on the go.” I also didn’t feel such a threat of not falling in love with a game either, as the costs are so small that it really doesn’t matter, and it’s pretty easy for me to rationalize spending a buck on even five hours of entertainment.

This all changed with the invention of “free” games like Clash of Clans, Mobile Strike, and Game of War that seem to dominate in grossed money and advertisements. I got in to some of these games pretty enthusiastically. It didn’t cost anything to try, and I loved some of the strategic concepts and settings of the games. I mean just look at this ridiculous commercial for Game of War. The budget for something like this from a mobile game is absurd.

 

All these games have the same problems though. They’re just barely fun enough to keep people interested, and they all involve waiting as the main way of playing the game. Upgrading buildings and units eventually takes weeks! However, players can pay real money in order to speed up this process, often separating the players in to two groups: one’s who don’t care enough to pay, and those who do. What’s even more troubling is that they seem to play in to people’s addictive personalities. Playing these games feels like a trip to a slot machine in some ways, with the frequent level ups, random rewards, and “check-ins” that reward you simply for playing the game repetitively.

I’m pretty good about not falling for these tricks, despite my personality type very much being the one that these sorts of games are meant to entice. It’s really concerning to see the top grossing app list dominated by these games, because we know that many people can rationalize paying $.99….but then do it a LOT more than once. With all this money being made, I can’t really blame the developers, but couldn’t these games at least be a little more…fun? Have a little more staying power? I’ve noticed myself literally spending a few weeks on one of these games before bouncing to another setting, another iteration of the same concept. It’s frustrating. There’s still a lot of great games being made for our phones and tablets, but I wonder how much creativity and brain power is going towards perpetuating these cheap imitations that capitalize on people’s impulsive behaviors. I hesitate to say that I want a game genre to die out, but I really think a lot of the potential for mobile gaming is being wasted on some of these base attempts to recreate an online gambling culture.

What do you think about “free” mobile gaming? Please leave a comment!

Virtual Hopes

VR is an exciting way to experience media in a more immersive way although it still has a long way to go before it is truly available for everyone to experience in their daily lives. This is largely because of the cost for a single setup even before you buy any games or interactive experiences to enjoy with your headset. You can either have no interaction with your environment other than turning your head or you can have a fully immersive experience that costs a ton. Another major setback is that these expensive setups that can track your movements are not always very accurate which was a problem we ran into while solving a puzzle in our first experience with the HTC Vive. We were far enough from the walls and close enough to an object in the game that we should have been able to pick it up but the tracking system believed that we were much closer to the wall and prevented us from being able to grab the object until other people in the room moved around and the tracking started working correctly again. It is also rather obvious that you have a screen right in front of your eyes no matter which virtual reality setup you were using and depending on how clear the resolution is and how the screen is created it can get hard to watch really quickly.

Even with these limitations there is a lot of space for VR to expand in videos, games, and simulations for educational purposes. For example, it would be cool if they could have doctors practice surgeries in virtual reality so they don’t have to get cadavers all the time and they can practice over and over with different representations of peoples bodies. Personally, I would like to see VR improve with its tracking capabilities so that it becomes more immersive and can truly simulate real world experiences. VR has already been able to explore many concepts and styles of play by transforming regular three dimensional media into something you can stand in the middle of and feel like you are actually interacting with your environment rather than just sitting in front of a screen where you can’t touch any of the objects surrounding you. For example, there are many VR experiences that allow you to experience things that you wouldn’t be able to do in real life. This includes climbing Mount Everest and becoming a bunny in an animation. Experiences such as this where you can walk a plank at great height can even allow people to experience the things that terrify them without facing any real danger. VR can even transform games that start out as PC games into an immersive experience  allowing you to become a surgeon or play fruit ninja in almost real life. A great side effect of games in virtual reality is that it allows you to become active and practice archery or tennis without ever having to go too far or find a gym to work out in. And if you want to be able to play sports with friends or strangers around the world then you can do that as well though you can’t play with any friends who do not own their own VR setup. Virtual reality can even allow you to experience completely impossible environments that have an animated, drawn, or dreamlike feeling. Though these are all really cool advances in virtual reality that demonstrate how it can be used socially or in an active or dreamlike environment to enhance the way you experience a piece of media the tracking and visibility are not quite at the level they would need to be for it to be used in a truly educational sense for surgeries and other applications. Once these advances can be made and the price comes down to an accessible level then it everyone will truly be able to experience and enjoy virtual reality.

Beauty for beauty’s sake(./?)

Apologies for the late blog. It’s been a week of shifting, as a number of major parts of my schedule are either being moved or disappearing. In any case, I was able to give Journey a few hours of my time (of many, many more to come, I’m sure), and, simply, I was amazed. I’ve known about the game for quite a while, and I’ve spent more time with the score than I care to admit.

But the thing about so comprehensive a work of art as Journey is the additive impact of all creative aspects upon each other. The gameplay of Journey is nothing short of sublime. It’s deeply immersive, visually stunning (to say the least), and sonically superb (again, to say the very least). The character, though only vaguely developed, is masterfully crafted to evoke a sense of calm, wisdom, and camaraderie, even though he/she stays largely mysterious. The world itself is unique and gorgeous, and the physics strike a dreamlike balance of grace and realism. The result of all of these working in tandem? A fantastic, immersive, and starkly beautiful experience.

There is something to be said for the engineering of so unique and compelling an aesthetic. The overall aesthetic of a fictional world can only be quantified to a certain point, after which comparison and experience become more useful tools. Journey transcends the mystical, entering into a space of profoundly unique fantasy and artistry. Aesthetically, I find Journey similar in some ways to the world of The Old Kingdom (Abhorsen) series by Australian author Garth Nix. Both are set within beautifully depicted ancient, abandoned kingdoms, with feminine main characters who operate more upon grace and wisdom than on valor and strength (à la many typical masculine protagonists). Nix, too, evokes a specific imagery regarding the world of The Old Kingdom that seems to echo Journey’s imagery. Highly recommend this series.

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Journey accomplishes something that is its own feat as well, however. It successfully brings the world of art into the medium of gaming. Following the New Yorker (full article here), the late Roger Ebert would argue the following:

“…The ultimate objective of a video game—unlike that of a book, film, or poem—is to achieve a high score, vaporize falling blocks, or save the princess. Art, [Ebert] argued, cannot be won.”

But Journey does in fact make “winnable” art! Of course, the entire point of the game is the path (journey) to the end goal, but it does have a teleology that Ebert seems to think cannot be artistic. Despite the sparse “narrative” of Journey, it does successfully combine a game’s immersion and drive to participate with an artistry of imagery, sense, and mechanic. This is largely new territory for the video game, as the vast majority of releases at this point are merely readaptations of concepts and ideas that have been proven to work (and make money). In this kind of dynamic, artistic endeavor becomes secondary, if not tertiary.

But Journey has successfully brought it back to the surface with a game that operates more than anything on an enjoyment of the beauty that is its design. Yes, the goal matters in Journey, but Journey is not beautiful to serve the purpose of the narrative. It is beautiful for the sake of being beautiful! Beauty, in this case, becomes its own end, while still operating within the goal-oriented teleology mandated by the medium video games.

But, does the vagueness of Journey’s narrative weaken it? Surely we can all, with a bit of effort, learn to enjoy the sort of Zen relationship to beauty that Journey offers, but could it become even stronger artistically and more accessible if there was just a bit more narrative for players to chew on? Does it need anything else? Can strong narrative and beauty for its own sake be married into one cohesive product? Of course, these are questions for the future. Nevertheless, Journey is, as it stands now, one of the greatest achievements in contemporary video gaming. So let’s bask in it just a bit longer, almost as most players will undoubtedly want to do within the game itself.

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Emotionally Practical: That Dragon Cancer

There exists in this game a clear, apparent purpose by the authors/developers to ensure that those of whom are playing this game are given the ability to feel and to express emotion. I argue that it is not the purpose for this game to necessarily be satisfying in a typical FPS or level-up sense, but more so satisfying with regards to wisdom achieved or deeper understandings by the games end.

By just a little bit after the intro/begining, you will see how it already will be sectioned off into the life of the young child, with us eventually landing into the hospital. What was most intriguing by having this setting in a hospital is not necessarily showing or simulating that the parents were in the hospital, but it portrayed this dark ambiance, almost dark and mysterious feeling towards the players of the game. Even more so, one could feel extremley saddened by the juxtaposition of life- the young child- and there that of death- a happenstance that one only hopes to experience years well into adulthood- well into being elderly.

With regards to this newfound wisdom aforementioned in this game, I as a gameplayer was not privy to all of the different happenings goings (sic)  on with regards to dealing with the sickness of cancer. For instance, [below]

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one can see that what seems like a race-track game with the kids is actually a way to collect different procedures for dealing with cancer. It listed differnt types of blood-works taken when one collected a token during the race, as well as listed other procedures such as chemotherapy. While I did know of the procedure of chemotherapy, I was not previously aware of all the different types of bloodwork taken while being treated for cancer, therefore, as a gameplayer, my real-world knowledge was increased from playing this particular game.

What was most present though was the emotional forethought put into this game. Let’s take this scence for example [I’ve enlarged it a bit]:

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We can see hear the warm colors of the sun contrasted though with the hospital lime green of the Intravaneous fluid attached to the toddler. Specifically, what you can’t see, or hear that is, in here, is the baby’s crying. I remember having to turn down my computer’s volume when the baby cried, because of how loud and rough it was. This certainly was the most emotional part of the game-play- and in particular- made me as a gameplayer more aware of the struggles of taking care of a toddler  while you are in fatigue and exhaustion, on top of the worry for the baby’s well–being itself. \

Certainly, this game brings out the cultural awareness of the dealings with of cancer in the most practical, simulated sense. I would rate this game an 8.5-9/10.

Character development and communication in gaming

There are a lot of ways that characters can be developed in games. This could be something as simple as their communications with other characters in the game, dialogue, or simply a narrative. Every game has a different approach to the way they develop their characters, however almost every game depends on some form of communication to achieve this. Some of my most favorite games such as the Ratchet and Clank series on the Play Station Portable follow the idea of using a narrative to develop characters. The game uses short films in the middle of game play to both develop characters and further the plot of the game. This form of character and plot development is seen quite often in many games.

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https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/ratchet-and-clank-size-matters-psp/

Journey is one game that uses a very different way to develop the main character and communicate between characters and the gamers. Journey is set in a vaguely Egyptian region, with appearances of several things such as many glyphs and symbols and of course the figure that possibly depicts the Egyptian goddess Isis, that point to this Egyptian influence. The way this game communicates between characters and gamers is something I have never seen before and find very interesting. Throughout the game, we control a robed figure that travels through a desert towards the mountains in the distance. What’s surprising to me was that the game had no mechanics allowing us to communicate with other characters, and we didn’t even see any cinematic scenes where the characters talked.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_(2012_video_game)

We start off as single player but often come across other characters, soon to realize that these are actually other players playing the game from around the world. Usually in cases like this, you would expect to be able to communicate with those players, for example, in Lord of the Rings Online, the world chat enables us to communicate with those characters, and we can also interact with them, and challenge them to duels or form a fellowship with them. However, in Journey, we can’t do any of this and the only possible way we could “communicate” with those characters is by “singing” and signaling to them. I found this form of communication very interesting, and after watching a couple of walkthroughs, I found that gamers ethos plays a big part in the game. I saw that many gamers would guide new gamers through the game and wait for them as they followed them – even though they didn’t actually know them. The game has an overlaying theme of maternity and has a very calm feel to it, and the actions of the gamers really represents it. The game shows clear and definite themes of romance, and this game really shows that games allow portray their creativity by using familiar themes in and shows that the same effects can be achieved in different mediums in variety of different ways.