A Musing About Games and Gender

In a relatively recent video series on youtube, PBS Game/Show, one of the videos discussed was “Are You Weird if You Play as the Opposite Sex?” (source below). In it, there was quite a bit of discussion into a genre of roleplaying games that allow players to design their own characters. These game include many MMORPGs and single player games, such as World of Warcraft, Mass Effect series, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and many others. After watching the video, I have been thinking a bit about why I sometimes play as opposite genders in roleplaying games.

It would be lying if I said I often play as female characters in games. If one looks at my Mass Effect save files, the ration is something around 2:5 female to male. As a man, I still usually default to being a man in video games as well. While I do not consider this skewed ratio an issue, I have seriously thought about this particular behavior. Is it simply because I am a guy, or because I am uncomfortable playing a women, or perhaps I am unconsciously gynophobic? That last one is a joke, mostly. After thinking about it and getting nowhere, I decided to jump in and start a female Commander Shepard, back when I was playing Mass Effect 2. And I enjoyed it just as much as playing the male Shepard, even when I am getting her…romantically involved with other men, or male aliens (yep, you can do that). The experience was fun, engaging, and maybe even a little bit enlightening.

So understandably I was sorely disappointed with other games such as Skyrim, where playing male or female characters hold no difference whatsoever, aside from the occasional pronouns. In Skyrim, and most MMORPGs, the sex difference is very glossed over, and have next to no bearing on the gameplay or the narrative. At this point, I have actually surprised myself, because I am now actively trying to learn more about the female perspective from video games.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this little habit of mine has contributed to my sense of gender equality. Unfortunately, I still can’t come to any sort of productive conclusion about playing games as the opposite sex, but nonetheless, it has me intrigued, and of course I am not going to quite anytime soon.

-SyC

LOTRO: A Test of Patience

While I revel in the ability to run around for hours in a virtual environment while still convincing myself that I’m being productive, I must say that it has gotten to be a bit tiresome at times. My one biggest complaint about LOTRO is that there is just
so
much
running.

I picked up the controls to the game very quickly and I have enjoyed juggling the various quests I taken on; however, again and again I find myself just running back and forth between the various areas in this vast world of the game.

Now, I do appreciate how that adds to the experience of the game as well as contributes to the narrative. It enhances that sense of journey–of being just a tiny figure in this massive world. It goes along with the long and tiresome journeys we read about in the novel. With this being said, my patience runs rather thin when it comes to video games and I would rather not spend a significant portion of the time just running from location to location.
I did recently learn about the auto-run key, so that along with riding horses has eased my frustration on the matter, though the quests are still often more a test of my patience than anything.

I’ve only come across one quest so far that was even remotely challenging. I had to sneak around these goblin-like creatures and pick off one or two at a time in order to finally reach and kill the Goblin Chief. I later realized that this quest was definitely meant to be conquered with a partner or team, but I still enjoyed the challenge of taking it on by myself. Other than that, my quests have mostly been a matter of taking the time to run and find or deliver various objects or creatures. But maybe I just need to get to a higher level first.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed exploring this enormous world; however, I’m just hoping that as I progress, the challenges and quests will become much less wearisome than they have been thus far. I also really look forward to being able to work with the other players on quests and toward a shared goal, as I have yet to experience that.

– Logan W

To War – Reflections on Lord of the Rings Online

What would Tolkien have said about LOTRO? I wish we can know. Because this is one heck of a way to explore the rich mythology Tolkien has created.

In the familiar trilogy, the story is mainly focused on the Fellowship of the Ring and its adventures during the War of the Ring. However, given that there is a full-scale war going on, what happened everywhere else? Did the elves, humans, and dwarves  just sat around and waited for Gandalf and Aragorn until the few momentous battles occur at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith? LOTRO seeks to fill this gap, and I think it did a very good job of it, so far.

I have played LOTRO  briefly once before, but for some reason I found the narrative so much more engaging this time around. The story line of the epic quests provided a nice view of the beginning of the War from a fresh perspective, of forces from both sides working to gain more advantage (aside from fighting for that one magic bullet, that is) for the looming War. These forces included many elven guardians, dwarf champions, human vagabounds, unlikely hobbit warriors, Southern raiders, local scoundrels, ring-wraiths and many more. These narrative made Middle-Earth so much more lively and colorful, providing details I have never imagined in, for example, Bree before. It is also nice to see characters, places, and events mentioned in the original material and see many characters come to life and fleshed out. I felt a pang of excitement and urgency while helping Aragorn in ensuring the safety of Bilbo and company, could not help but feel alone and confused trekking the Old Forest, and stood in mild confusion talking to Tom Bombadil.

Aside from the narrative perspective, playing LOTRO has been a fairly standard MMORPG, where target selection is done by clicking the mouse, and extra abilities are with pressing progressively large numbers of buttons. While this in itself is not a huge problem, it does show that Turbine (LOTRO’s maker) did not try very hard in pushing the envelope or challenging RPG conventions (many of which are set by another MMORPG, World of Warcraft). Granted LOTRO was created in 2007, fairly early in the history of MMO games, Turbine could have made more effort in designing a better tutorial, for instance.

All in all, I feel LOTRO is a great MMO game, despite certain shortcomings. It has great narrative, amazing world-building, and serves as a great exploration of the original material. While the gameplay itself is not very innovative, it plays smoothly and is, most importantly, fun. I believe I will continue to play LOTRO and slowly make my way through the epic quest line, if only to see what happens to Skorgrim, push towards Angmar, take on a Balrog, and even participate in Helm’s Deep (soon-to-be-released).

-SyC

Echoes, Quests, and Neekerbreeker Nests

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Among those quotes that send shivers trailing down my spine, few have had as lasting an impact as these words, spoken by the wizard Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The same lines, barely altered, appear in the wildly successful film adaptation of the novel. The raw power and beauty of Gandalf’s speech seem an inseparable part of the Lord of the Rings experience, yet not all storytelling mediums are equal where emotional attachment is concerned.

In the gaming world of Lord of the Rings Online, though the creators gave a valiant attempt at staying faithful to the book, an observant player realizes quickly that some things simply cannot transfer from page to computer screen. This fact is seen clearly in the Midgewater Marshes, a key stop in both Frodo’s quest and the player’s. While the consistent presence of physical action in the game’s rendition of the marshes engages the player’s thirst for adventure, both the novel and the film provide the audience with an enduring emotional connection, stemming from a persistent atmosphere of loneliness, a setting which highlights the plight of travelers in the marshes, and the use of central characters filled with a haunting fear of the unknown. While the memories of virtual victories eventually grow faint, the passions excited by novels and films grab hold of the audience and refuse to let go, ensuring that the magic of the stories, as well as the lessons they teach, will never fade with the passage of time.

In the game, the first item that the player notices is the convenient map residing in the top right-hand corner of the computer screen. Whenever the player doubts his sense of direction in an area akin to the Midgewater Marshes, he can simply look to the map and follow an unambiguous little arrow towards his quest’s goal. If moused over, it will even reveal how far away the goal lies. The dense fog becomes all but irrelevant, for the player’s eyes watch the arrow, not the ground before his feet.

In contrast, the novel depicts Frodo and his companions slogging through the marshy waters alone and arrowless, forever wondering where and when their dangerous travels will come to an end.  How can a gamer develop a sense of Frodo’s terror when the player can never be lost? One is never truly alone, for one can always turn to the handy arrow and make off swiftly towards home. This lack of fear and loneliness prevents the player from truly appreciating how it feels to wander the spider-infested marshes alone, despite the fact that his avatar traverses those same bogs. The action is the same, yet the feeling is vastly different. The game is forever leading you gently by the hand, while the novel and its cinematic counterpart drag you blindfolded into the gloom of the unknown.

If it is clear that the game’s helpful features bar it from evoking raw emotion, how then does the novel differ? The secret lies within Tolkien’s ability to not only relay the action, as the game does, but to relay the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters’ endless interpretations of the two. As the hobbits struggle to follow Aragorn through the bug-infested marshes, Tolkien provides the reader with a glimpse of their agony by commenting that “the hobbits [are] nearly frantic” as they hear the eerie cries of the swamp beasts, the Neekerbreekers. He describes their exceedingly unpleasant night, a sleepless one thanks to these unseen, yet not unheard monsters. This fear of the unknown permeates the Midgewater section of the novel, giving the reader a taste of how it feels to be alone and hunted in such a dismal place.

Here one discovers the true difference between the player’s avatar and the hobbits of the book. In the game, you play the part of a hero, a hunter. You blaze a trail through the marshes, destroying hordes of Neekerbreekers and taking trophies from the fallen beasts. You fear nothing, and why would you? Forever helpful, the game supplies a detailed analysis of your opponents’ strengths, even color coding them based on the probable victor of a theoretical battle.

In the novel, the likelihood of success versus defeat is not so clear. There, Frodo and his companions are not the hunters, but the cornered prey. They struggle to travel through the shadows, desperate to avoid the eyes of the Black Riders and their power-hungry master. No helpful floating names identify the whereabouts of their enemies; no color coded rings attempt to gauge their power. Thus, the reader experiences the terror of the hunted in a way that the player cannot hope to comprehend, for one medium provides an intricate world of fear and uncertainty, while the other merely depicts the action, like a rough pencil sketch devoid of color.

Like its written companion, the film is also able to draw out emotions in its audience that are beyond the scope of the online universe. While briefly touching on the fear of the hobbits, the cinematic version of the marsh scene elects to focus on the guide, Aragorn, and the pain he feels for a love left behind.  As the hobbits attempt to sleep amidst the cries of nighttime animals, the ranger softly sings the tale of an elf maiden who fell in love with a mortal, letting his voice carry through the lonely darkness of the swamp. Though his young charges do not know it, the haunting song, which ends in the maiden’s death, reflects Aragorn’s own love for the elf Arwen, as well as his fear that their love will destroy her.

Enhanced by the gloom of the surrounding marshes, the mixture of heartbreak and longing exuded by Aragorn grows to fill the audience, as well, and thus the pain of a single man becomes the pain of an entire crowd. This miracle of empathy simply cannot exist in the game world, where both written and visible emotions are brushed aside by the importance of the central adventure. Amidst the endless stream of quests to be fulfilled, the player cannot waste precious time on a woeful tale of lost love, nor a quiet song in the nighttime of the marsh. Though the powerful scene fits perfectly into the fabric of the movie, filling its viewers with both love and despair, it has no place in the realm of gaming, where emotions are a frivolity distracting from a player’s ultimate goal.

Though computer games currently lack the potential for emotional investment, this by no means suggests that the Lord of the Rings game is irrelevant to Tolkien’s fantasy world. Rather, the game was simply not engineered for the same purposes as its written and filmed counterparts. Whereas these forms of storytelling reach one’s imagination by means of the heart, the game is meant to feed on a player’s desire for adventure, entrancing one’s mind with events that are visually rather than emotionally stimulating. The online universe calls to those who desire battles and balrogs, not subtlety and suspense. The very reason the game cannot compare to the novel or film is the reason why it succeeds brilliantly in fulfilling its own purpose: to entertain, engage, and challenge its players.

While one may lament for marshes drained of their mystery or beautifully written characters depicted as static NPCs, you cannot deny that the game achieves the goal for which it was created. It brings the player into Tolkien’s world and weaves him into the story, filling him with excitement, anticipation, and a thirst for what lies ahead. Where the game falls short, where plot becomes side note and battle becomes routine, the novel and film are there to pick up the slack, adding life and color to supplement the game’s limited storytelling abilities. If the game were an outline, written in dull greys and blacks, the others would be vibrant dyes; whereas the game alone would be a poor excuse for the real story, the mixture of all three creates a tale that is beautiful to behold.

In the end, though, why does any of it matter? Whether boxed, leather-bound, or projected on a screen, are they all not just different forms of entertainment? Not quite. Though games, books, and movies all have a component of pleasure, the latter two occasionally provide a more permanent benefit. Of course, the flash of swords and the cry of an angry cave troll, whether heard or imagined, will always bring excitement. Without the thrills, who would pay for the ticket or purchase the book? Yet every once in a while, a novel or film comes along, and it does not just amuse—it teaches.

Like the words of Gandalf resonating in the reader’s mind, or Aragorn’s soft voice echoing in the darkness of the theater, the story begins to take on a life of its own, entrancing the audience with joy and fear, love and hatred. Aragorn’s pain becomes the pain of all who have ever loved; Frodo’s fear belongs to any who have ever felt afraid. When Frodo laments over his bad fortune, wishing that evil had never touched his doorstep, Gandalf’s famous next words are spoken not only to him, but to us: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Suddenly, the story is real, and the battle is our own. We feel Gandalf’s words in our very bones, and they return to us, lovingly, whenever we feel despair looming near. While the crashing excitement of adventure must always fade into silence, the softer passions of the novel remain attached to the heart like a living organism, a symbiotic being that retains life while we do the same. And long after the last pages have been turned, Tolkien’s words remain, echoing like a song in the night, growing soft, but never quite fading away.

 

–The Humblebug

Gaming or Playing?

How many people do you know that consider themselves to be hardcore gamers?  Maybe 5? 10? Any more than that and you’re in a pretty big gaming club, or you’re just a very social MMORPG player. But now consider how many people you know that play video games, even if only a few times a year. That’s a lot more people, isn’t it?

So what is really the difference between the hardcore gamer and the once-a-month player? I will argue that, other than the obvious inequalities in the amount of time spent and likely the skill level (and the severity of Vitamin D deficiency), there is not much difference at all.

When someone turns on a video game, they might play “just for fun” or to “kill some time” or whatever else they can come up with. But once they start playing, they want to win: to get to the next level, to beat the current high score, or to improve their online rankings or develop a new, more effective strategy. In essence, no one continues to play a game only “to play.” They want to win, whether they play once a month or 7 hours a day.

To me, this is the difference between gaming and playing: working toward a goal. As long as someone picks up a controller or stares down a computer screen with the intent of beating some challenge or goal, they are gaming. They are trying to win, to be successful. If they were merely playing, this attempt to beat something would not be present. It would be like playing Call of Duty and not keeping the score in an online match. Players would simply repeat the same tasks over and over again with no goal or challenge in mind, like children playing with sparklers on the 4th of July. There is no goal to watching something give off sparks, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

To sum it all up, gamers play to win and players play to be entertained. So the next time you’re crushing your buddy in HALO, and he says something to the tune of “I’m just playing, don’t be so serious” or whatever lame excuse he comes up with, remind him that if he wasn’t trying to beat you, he wouldn’t care that he was being beat.

Game on, gamers.
blankster

You can be a Titan but not an orc: My friend’s attitudes about gaming.

After a long week of school, my friends and I would find ourselves at one of our houses and we would turn on the ps3 (or xbox or wii) and play some madden. We would take turns playing each other, one vs. one, the spectator’s yelling what they would have done differently, their approval, their disappointment.  When asked Saturday night what we did Friday after school, we would say “we just chilled—played madden.” This was regular. This was cool.

But if one Friday, like usual, my friends and I were at one of our houses and instead of turning on the ps3 (or xbox or wii) I said “lets play World of Warcraft today instead.” I would have received blank stares from half of my friends pretending not to know what WOW was, and “what are we, losers?” from the other half.

There is a unexplained social stigma in my group of friends (and many 19 year olds that I know) of MMORPG’s (massively multiplayer online role playing games.) The spectrum of video games and their “social standing” within my group of friends, with sports and console first person shooters on one end, and MMORPG games on the other, looks like this:

There is an association of MMORPG games and what is considered uncool, or nerdy. I’ve heard comments describing WOW ranging from “only losers play” to “why don’t they want to play in the real world” and “Its the game with magic, right? Are they seven?”

And I always have to wonder what is so different about sport games and FPS games? How many GTA players have ever killed someone and stolen a car? How many Madden players will play in the NFL? How many Halo players will become a cyborg and fight aliens?

There is a trend in the spectrum: as games incorporate more fantasy elements with larger multiplayer options, they slowly creep from the cool end of the spectrum to the nerdy end of the spectrum.

However, not is all lost for us fantasy enthusiasts. More fantasy based movies, novels and games are attracting larger audiences: the Lord of The Rings movie trilogy grossed $2.9 billion world wide, George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire book series was given an “A-” by Entertainment Weekly (very mainstream), has an HBO show based off of it named after the first book, A Game of Thrones, and is sold in the prestigious Rand Bookstore, and World of Warcraft has over 11 million users. Fantasy as a genre is slowly becoming more mainstream and therefore accepted. As this happens, the stigma of MMORPG games will fade and all their players can “just chill” as well.

 

GreenEggsAndSam

Team 7: Castle Joyous Plains

by: Calvin Patimeteeporn, Breon Guarino, and Aneel Henry

Book 3, Canto 1 Stanzas 20 – 30

From the forest, the PC is thrown into the midst of a small village in the plains surrounding Castle Joyous. Though the path to Castle Joyous is, indeed present, the road is blocked with construction, leaving the player at the hands of the villagers, who are in desperate need of assistance. It would seem as if the Lady of Castle Joyous, has neglected the villagers’ cries for help and has left the town completely isolated. Those townspeople with weak minds and souls have already left the town for the hedonistic castle of Lady Malecasta, leaving a handful of loyal and chaste villagers to deal with the problems. With no one to rely on, the town has fallen to a destitute state, being attacked by both wolves and bandits alike that emerge from the forest at night.
As the player enters the town past a rundown barn and two already abandoned watchtowers, the player witnesses the ruins of a once busy town square. A worried innkeeper is fretting over his dwindling food supplies that are continuously being pilfered by a wolf pack that has taken residence in an area of the forest near the town. Meanwhile, a small group of villagers are holding a meeting at the town well, discussing the bandit situation. While these villagers face these pressing matters, the rest of the village also holds a fair share of menial tasks that the townspeople cannot do alone. A small girl has lost her chickens around the town square and a young boy wishes that he could retrieve his family heirloom from one of the bandits.
While the menial tasks are up to the player to decide, the wolf and bandit situation, however cannot be left alone. Something must be done. Will the player pilfer the innkeeper’s store and blame it on the “undefeatable” wolves or will the player banish the wolves once and for all? Will the player help the bandits destroy and loot the entire village or will the player remain good and repel their advances? Regardless of choice, it would appear that after these events the road opens to Castle Joyous, allowing the player to move forward of his or her journey.
However, the player encounters a struggle between the six knights of the castle and a sole, brave knight, Redcrosse. The player must now defeat four of the six knights in order to gain entry to the next part of the journey, and gain access to the hedonistic castle that is Castle Joyous.

Main Quests:
1. The Road is Blocked (part 1)
•The player encounters road construction that obstructs the player from reaching the castle.
•The player must complete Quest 2 to proceed

2. A. The Wolves that Bite and Bandits That Catch!
•The player must talk to both the Innkeeper and the villagers meeting by the well

B1. The Wolves of the Forest
•In the forthcoming night, the player must confront the wolves that plague the Innkeeper
-Option A: Defeat the wolf pack that comes to raid the Inn’s storage (Chaste).
-Option B: Pilfer all the Inn’s store and lie to the Innkeeper and blame it on the wolves (Unchaste).

B2. Traveling Bandits
•In the forthcoming night, the player must confront the bandits.
-Option A: Kill all bandits that dare set foot in the town, expelling them forever from the village (Chaste).
-Option B: Join the bandits and raid and loot the entire town. Nothing escapes your wrath (Unchaste).

3. The Road is Blocked (part 2)
•After the Quest 2, the road is cleared and the player can move on.

4. Redcrosse and the Knights
•The player encounters Redcrosse and must defeat 4 of the 6 knights that are attacking them.
•The player is allowed entry to Castle Joyous.

Side Quests:
1. The Chickens
•The player talks to a young girl who seems to have lost her chickens.
•The player must collect all three chickens that are running around the village.
-Option A: Give back the chickens to the small girl (Chaste)
-Option B: Demand payment who in the end gives up a rare gem that has been passed down her family for years (Unchaste).

2. Lost Heirloom
•The player talks to a young boy in the square.
•The player must find and locate the heirloom which happens to be in the hands of a lone bandit near the village.
•Player must defeat the bandit.
-Option A: Return the heirloom to the boy (Chaste).
-Option B: Pretend you did not find the heirloom and keep it for yourself (Unchaste).

NPCs:
The Innkeeper: A worried middle-aged man in commoner clothing. Owns and operates the Inn which is plagued by wolves nightly.
The Villagers: A group of emaciated townsfolk with tattered clothing who are concerned about the future of their village with the pressing matter of bandits.
The Small Girl: A young girl with dirty and torn clothing who has lost all of her chickens.
The Small Boy: A young boy with dirty and tattered clothing with no other desire than to reclaim his family’s honor by having their stolen heirloom back in his hands.
Lone Bandit: A lone bandit in bandit attire, furs and ragged clothing. Though weak, he still poses somewhat of a threat. He has stolen the boy’s family heirloom.
Bandits: Gang of bandits dressed in furs and very aggressive. They raid the towns every night or so.
Wolf Pack: A group of 6 or so wolves that raid the Inn’s store nightly.
Redcrosse: A brave knight who refuses to succumb to Lady Malecasta’s knights and needs the player’s help to defeat them.
The Six Knights: Black knights of the Lady of the castle. Aggressive and intent on serving her.