I would like to talk about a controversial subject: the “bad things” that can be done in video games. I’m talking about drugs, excessive drinking, thievery, intimidation, violence, and other taboo activities that can be done in real life, but that bring with them negative consequences that are often unescapable. For decades critics have bemoaned the presence of such activities in video games. They decree that being able to do these things in games encourages players to do such activities in real life, and therefore their presence in video games is abhorrent. No good can come of this, and so these activities should be removed from video games. With that said, allow me to play devil’s advocate.
A few years ago I was going through a difficult time in my life. After a particularly trying day at the office I wanted nothing more than to go out and drink a lot. The toxic environment of my workplace, low self-esteem, strained relationships, anxiety; I wanted to forget it all. But it was a Wednesday, and I knew that if I indulged in these urges I would not be able to perform my best at work the next day. So I did the next best thing: I made a new character in Skyrim, an Orc named Virag Gra-Doner. Virag was the virtual embodiment of the cocktail of turmoil I was feeling, and via her I did the things that would have gotten me into trouble in real life. Virag drank to excess, did all the drugs, served fresh sass to her employer, and did pretty much anything else that would fall under the category of “questionable life choices.” The experience of role-playing as Virag was so relieving that I continued playing as her for several more weeks. During this time something interesting happened: Virag began to get her life together. I would start playing with the intention of getting drunk and into trouble, but would be drawn to bask in the beauty of the game world over escaping from a dreary prison cell. Instead of insulting an NPC yet again, I was curious what their reaction would be if I was nice. Virag had evolved from her original purpose as a vessel for my angst; she had become a way for me to see how choices influence our experience of the world.
I do not speak for all gamers nor do I claim that my experiences are representative of everyone who has ever done questionable activities in video games. That said, I do not believe that I am alone in utilizing video games in the manner described above. Games can allow us to do things that are not possible in real life. Sometimes these things take the form of defeating great evils, forming formidable civilizations, or amassing vast fortunes. While these are pleasant opportunities, sometimes it is more cathartic and insightful to vent then to run through a field of daises.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda, MD: Bethesda Game Studios, 2011. Video Game.
While reading chapter 7 of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop I was struck by the diversity of things that can be prototyped. According to Fullerton, a prototype is a working model that allows for testing of the feasibility of an idea. (203) In relation to video games, physical prototyping is often used prior to programing to fine tune gameplay mechanics. This led me to wonder how far the label “gameplay mechanic” could be applied.
Is movement a gameplay mechanic? I think it depends on the game. In some old school arcade games movement requires simply the push of a joystick in the desired direction, and its only purpose is to get to the next enemy. However, in games like those of the Assassin’s Creed series players have to evade enemies by running, climbing, and jumping. To successfully do this requires more skill, as players must manage speed, direction, and route accessibility (e.g. am I jumping for a handhold, or will I fall to my death?). Even arcade games are not immune to this phenomenon. In the original Donkey Kong arcade game one of the gameplay mechanics was to avoid projectiles by moving away from them. If movement was not a part of gameplay, then it would be near impossible to miss the projectiles and win the game. Arguably, my earlier example of using movement to get to an enemy also counts, but to a lesser extent. It is also worth mentioning that many video game tutorials include instruction on how to move the player character around.
Overall, I would say movement counts as a gameplay mechanic. Is it always a main gameplay mechanic? No. In both contemporary and earlier video games movement is an aspect of gameplay, but sometimes there are other mechanics that have a bigger impact. While some may think this is a drawback as it makes it more difficult to categorize what is and is not a gameplay mechanic, I disagree. The fluid nature of the importance of mechanics I feel is a sign of how wonderfully diverse and creative games are.
Donkey Kong. Nintendo, 1981. Arcade Game.
Fullerton, Tracy. “Chapter 7: Prototyping” Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.
In preparation for the ending of season 1 of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, I have been searching for something to fill the Eldritch hole that is about to be in my life. While it is definitely more humorous than traditional Lovecraftian media, The Call of Karen seemed interesting enough for me to give it a try. Although there are several technical drawbacks, which is to be expected of an indie free to play game on Steam, The Call of Karen contains several endearing and entertaining features.
Despite the ever-approaching menace of a Cthulhu-esque entity, The Call of Karen is mostly a comedy. The player’s avatar is a 1950’s housewife named Karen who must carry out various mundane household tasks, all while a sinister presence infiltrates her home. However, it is not the supernatural scares that get Karen down, instead it is society’s underappreciation of her role as a homemaker. This is displayed several times early in the game, primarily through Karen’s underwhelmed and disgruntled reactions to things she hears on the radio.
In addition to Karen’s lack of concern for the approaching evil, there are also several small touches to the environment that add humor. For example, one of the books the player is tasked with putting away is titled “Your Nuclear Family: no not that kind of nuclear” and is written by a Jane Strangelove. In this one game object alone there are numerous references (i.e. the perfect white-cisgender suburban family, reliance on nuclear power, and arguably the best satire of the Cold War ever made) that reflect the post-World War II aesthetic that permeates the game. I could have easily spent the entire duration of my gameplay examining each object for Easter eggs. This is something that I feel is important for games to have, but is not present as much as it should. Not only does it help with worldbuilding and immersion, but it also shows that the creators of the game cared enough to add such little details. It gave me the sense that the developers enjoyed working on and really cared about the game. This is something I rarely feel when playing video games, but that I hope to instill in the games I make in the future.
The Call of Karen. Worcester, MA: Trumbus Games, 2020. Video Game.
While reading Chapter 1 of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, I was pleasantly surprised with how she described the role of a game designer. Being a textbook, I was expecting a technical description of the various duties a game designer carries out. Instead, I found it focused not so much on what a game designer does, but on how they should do it. Fullerton advises aspiring game designers take a playcentric approach. This approach puts emphasis on playtesting, which should begin early in the development process so feedback can be taken into consideration before the project gets too far along. (Fullerton) Overall, I agree with Fullerton’s recommendation of using a playcentric approach and the emphasis she puts on holistic teamwork. However, the chapter is not without flaws.
One critique I have of Chapter 1 is it does not go into the specifics of what it takes to execute a playcentric approach. For example, who should be the playtesters? My initial thought was playtesters should be members of the demographic that are most likely to buy the game. Identifying that demographic, however, is not clear cut. Many gamers play multiple genres, and the gaming community is increasingly diverse. Singling out only one group would be logistically difficult and possibly hinder large scale commercial success. An argument could even be made for using playtesters who prefer other games or were picked randomly, as this could help tap into new markets. Who the playtesters are will have some influence on their feedback. Consider what would happen if someone who had never played an FPS was a playtester for a new Call of Duty title, or someone who has never used a console playtested an Xbox exclusive. With the significant role playtester feedback has in a playcentric approach, the selection of playtesters is important.
Chapter 1’s advice to future game designers is good, but it could have gone into more detail. That said, I am hopeful in later chapters Fullerton will expand on what has been presented.
This post is based on Chapter 1 of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games by Tracy Fullerton.
Fullerton, Tracy. “Chapter 1: The Role of the Game Designer.” Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.