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Slavery and Violence in Gaming

Today, on the recommendation of a friend of mine, I purchased Struggles of Empires. As often happens when a game comes highly recommended, I bought it with only a vague idea of what it was about. I knew that it was a strategy board game that broadly dealt with the European powers during the age of imperialism.

I opened the box up when I got home and read the rules. It turns out that the game simulates the wars and power struggles that occurred between seven European powers during the Eighteenth Century. One of the major components of the game is the fight for colonies throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Enslavement is an integral part of the game.

I don't mean this in an abstract way, like how in Puerto Rico you're importing "colonists" to work on your plantations, who happen to be represented by little brown discs. I mean that enslaving is something that you can (and, to be successful, should) choose to do. The game is played over a series of rounds, and on a player's turn he or she may choose among the following actions: Pass, Buy a Tile, Build an Army Unit, Move Units, Launch an Attack, Colonize, or Enslave.

This raises a lot of interesting points to thinkg about. To start: by being as open about slavery as Struggles of Empires is, is it, in a way, better and more honest about slavery than other, similar games? I've played plenty of Age of Imperialism simulation games, but all of them heretofore have politely skirted around the slavery issue. I mentioned Puerto Rico. Is it better to play a game where you import "colonists," or to play the same game, with the same theme, where you are being honest and importing slaves?

But there's another issue I'm somewhat more interested in. Every time the manual for the game mentioned enslavement I got skeezed out. I'll have a tough time playing this with people because the idea of playing someone who consciously chooses to enslave others is really discomfiting to me.

Why should this be? I think it helps to draw a comparison to video games. I can pick up a first person shooter and kill others without a moment's hesitation. Why do I not have a problem playing violent video games, while I do have a problem playing a board game where I enslave others?

One possible explanation is that violence and killing can be justified, under some circumstances, while I can't really conceive of a justification for slavery. I suppose, but it's not enough that violence can be justified, it also matters whether specific violence is justified. In most video games it is; you're a soldier in war time, you're killing in self defence, etc. But it isn't always. I will confess to having played Grand Theft Auto games without much in the way of moral pangs, and there's essentially no attempt to justify the violence in those games. I don't think justifiability is enough.

Is it desensitization? I think that's another big element. I've seen a lot of violence depicted in various media, and have myself controlled the violence in video games. But there aren't a huge number of depictions of slavery to begin with, and what depictions there are all tend to be couched in a narrative that indicates the indisputable evil of the institution. Moreover, there simply aren't a lot of opportunities to simulate slavery. As mentioned above, the subject is generally skirted in board games, and there aren't a lot of slave master simulation video games, thankfully.

I also wonder if, in a more general sense, I think of enslavement as a worse crime than murder. Part of this ties into the justifiability issue; there's never a good reason to enslave another. Maybe it's also a personal love of liberty. I'm not sure, if asked to make a choice, whether I would rather be dead or a slave, but I think I might rather choose death.

A Genealogy of Gamers

I found this interesting post via Kotaku. It's an attempt to classify gamers and gaming styles into different types. The author, Christ Bateman, identifies nine types of gamers, but allows that the list is only tentative and could expand or contract. Further, he implies in his self-description at the end that the categories are not intended to be exclusive and that gamers can be classified as hybrid types.

I find the list fascinating, and am now inclined to read up on some of the theoretical material that he mentions at the start of the article and that I didn't really understand. Some of the categories definitely struck a chord with me as accurate descriptions of the way I approach certain games, while others that didn't necessarily describe what I experience echoed the sentiments I've heard from others in describing games.

What I find most interesting is that, while I would describe myself as a hybrid of several of the player types, I seldom think of myself as fitting more than one type for any given game. Thus, certain strategy and RPG games I will play as a Manager, where I'm less interested in the game itself than I am in the way that the game is constructed. But other RPGs, particularly Final Fantasy and similar Japanese RPGs, I experience as a Wanderer. When I play those games I'm more interested in the plot than I am in the actual gameplay, which I tend to view as an inconvenience on the road to more plot.

My experience with Final Fantasy X is a good example of two different way of approaching the same game. As you know, Bob, modern Final Fantasy games tend to be rigidly linear until the very end, at which point a vast array of entirely optional side-quests open up. At this point you have two options: Spend 100 hours trying to force your way through the final dungeon and complete the game with a barely-powerful-enough party, or spend 100 hours playing underwater soccer and hunting for treasures on giant chickens, thereby acquiring skills that make your party so powerful that it can blast through the final dungeon in minutes.

When I reached the end of Final Fantasy X I was primarily interested in seeing the end of the story. Thus, in the hopes that I would get lucky and break through that last boss without spending hours on underwater soccer, I tried to muscle through the last boss without any side questing. It took about a dozen attempts, but eventually I got lucky and finished the game. Some time thereafter my roommate played through FFX. He got to the end game and immediately started in on all the side quests, the soccer, the arena battles, the optional bosses that are 100 times more powerful than the final boss, the insane game where you have to dodge random lightning bolts 100 times in a row. Eventually he got everything, maxed out all of the characters, beat every optional boss... and quit. He never went through the motions of actually finishing the game, even though the ultimate battle of good versus evil would have only lasted two hits: Him hitting the boss and the boss hitting the floor. For him, the plot was entirely inconsequential. The meat of the game was the actual gameplay and the collecting element at the end.

What I really like about this article is that it puts into words something I've noticed before but never really articulated: the variety of ways that different players interact with a game. What's always struck me as interesting is the way that two people, similar enough to like video games and even similar enough to like the same game, can like that game for entirely different reasons and can approach it from opposite angles. When I played FFX I played it in Wanderer mode; my roommate played it in Hoarder mode.

What's also fascinating is that not only does a given game trigger different play styles in different players, but that the same player might have different play styles activated by different games. Building on my example: I enjoyed FFX as a Wanderer while my roommate enjoyed it as a Hoarder. But it wouldn't be accurate to say that that's because I AM a Wanderer and he IS a Hoarder. When I played through Zelda: Twilight Princess I became obsessed with completion, to the point where I finished the 100-level bonus dungeon in order to get a power-up that I didn't really need to finish the game. For whatever reason Zelda triggered my Hoarder type, where Final Fantasy X triggered my Wanderer type.

It would be interesting to see, if you had a gestalt game that can be reasonably approached from different angles, if it is possible to step back, recognize the different angles, and force yourself to make a gestalt switch. Could I go back and play FFX and appreciate it as a Hoarder? Can I dynamically alter my experience of a game as I'm playing it? Could I, for instance, play half-way through Xenosaga and then say to myself, "Well, this plot is utterly vapid. I'll resolve to go make myself a sandwich while the players talk and focus exclusively on the character development/collection aspects of the game" and turn it from a bad Wanderer experience into a good Hoarder experience?

In terms of how I would describe myself according to the types listed, I would say I'm mostly a Wanderer or Manager. I occasionally have my Hoarding instincts awoken by just the right game, and I also tend to unfortunately Hoardish tendences when playing Real Time Strategy games. Certain puzzle games put me in Zoner mode, as well as some side-scrolling shooters like Gradius V. Interestingly, while I tend not to be a Conqueror generally I enter that mode when I play old video games. Perhaps I'm reverting to a previous type that I identify with the games of my childhood. Finally, while the list is focused on video gamers I find that I'm a Participant when it comes to board games. I'm less interested in winning board games than I am in being around people who are enjoying a game.


I have a pseudo-philosophical question: what makes something a Game? That is, for a given set of activities what criteria would you use to distinguish whether those activities are a Game or Not A Game?

Let me start by narrowing the discussion so as to eliminate sophistry. First, I'm not looking for a hard-and-fast single criteria the presence of which makes something a Game and the absence of which makes something Not A Game. I'm willing to say from the beginning that there are probably multiple elements that create Gameness, and that something we call a Game may not have all of them, and another thing we call Not A Game may have some of them. Similarly, I'm not interested in the Sorites Paradox. I'm willing to accept shades of gray and don't care to have a discussion about how much of Criterion X something has to have before it has a binary switch from Not A Game to Game.

What I am interested in are what criteria we would use to distinguish a Game from something that isn't a game. Multiple people playing the game? Play over a limited time with a defined endpoint? Winners and Losers? Rules? Some means of measuring the quality of a player's performance? Conflict?

The question get more interesting the more I think about it, because while a lot of criteria go into a game there are some that seem more important than others and there's also a sense in which the absense of one of the criteria can be compensated for by the presence of another. Example: Solitaire. Solitaire lacks multiple players, yet it's still what we'd call a game. A player sorting through a deck of cards and organizing cards by suit and rank value would not be playing a game, as far as most people are concerned. But a player who is trying to accomplish that same goal by following certain strict rules regulating card placement is said to be playing a game.

I would say that, as a criterion, Multiple Players is very weak. It isn't sufficient (Any number of activities can involve multiple people without being called a Game) and it isn't necessary (solitaire, numerous video games, etc.). Still, it's a sort of buttress to something's gameness; I would say I'm vaguely more likely to want to call something a Game if it involves multiple people than I am if it doesn't. Rules of conduct I would call a more important criterion; it's hard to think of anything we would call a game that doesn't involves some form of rules (even things like Fluxx, Mini-Mao and 1000 Blank White Cards offer a basic structure of rules to order play even as they allow extraordinary fluidity in terms of the creation of new rules). At the same time, rules can't be enough on their own because there are a lot of things that have rules but that we would never call games. Winning/Losing/Measurement of Performance strikes me as another important aspect of gameness, though I'd allow that you can have something that's a game without it.

Thoughts? Additional criteria? And here's a question: Right now I'm having a difficult time with the example of trials at law. That is, a trial has strict rules, multiple players, hard-and-fast winners and losers, competition, and it occurs over a strictly defined period with an end point (it might be a long time coming, but all trials end eventually). So why isn't a trial a game?

Oh, shit.


Slow-motion Disaster

Right now there's an eBay listing for an incredible bundle of video game consoles, games, and peripherals. The entry is here. It includes a brand new, unopened Playstation 3, an XBox 360, an XBOx, a GameCube, a Dreamcast, a PS1, a Nintendo 64, a Super Nintendo, an NES, two Nintendo DSes (both DS Phat and DS Lite), a PSP, two GBAs (regular and SP), a Game Boy Pocket, a Game Boy Color, a Game Boy Printer, a Sega Game Gear, a Neo Geo Pocket, and a Virtual Boy. It also includes a rather large inventory of games for each of those systems. The bidding starts at $25,000, and if you purchase it for the Buy It New price of $75,000 he'll throw in a brand-new Wii.

This collection is the result of a lifetime of video gaming on the sellers part. So why is he unloading it? "Well, the only reason I'm considering selling this collection is to have enough money to buy my girlfriend of 3 years the engagement ring she deserves this Holiday. I hope to surprise her on Christmas Day with the perfect ring and proposal (and having some extra money to help pay for the wedding wouldn't hurt either). So really, when you think about it, not only are you getting so many videogames ... but you're also investing in a love that will flourish for a lifetime."

Wow. I mean, that certainly dedication, but this seems like a really... unwise choice to make. I could understand cleaning out your collection of games you don't like much or don't play anymore to raise some money. But this is selling off his entire hobby, that he's been engaged in for probably about 20 years. Still, I can see it being rational to cut off all ties to video gaming if he'a taken a look at things, decided he really has completely lost interest in video games, and is certain he's not going to regain it again.

But the circumstantial evidence makes me really doubt that that has happened. Look at what's on offer. The Playstation 3 is noted as unopened. The XBox 360 is not. The 360 came out last Christmas, so he was in the market for (expensive) new consoles within the last year. He also bought the $500 version of the 360, the choice of the more hardcore gamer. And he's offering 16 360 games in the lot, including Gears of War, which came out only about a month ago. Unless he bought GoW exclusively to sweeten the pot for this sale (which seems unlikely, given the magnitude of the collection), that means he was still very much into video games as of a month ago at the earliest. So his decision to expunge the hobby from his life seems to have come quite recently.

Needless to say, I think this is all a very bad idea, and not just from the perspective of a video game player. Making a sacrifice for your significant other can be fine, but making an enormous, outsized sacrifice for your significant other could lead to a lot of resentment down the line. What happens after Christmas, after the glow from the incredibly selfless gift that he made has worn off and life continues with his fiancee (and, eventually, wife)? What happens when he wakes up and realizes that perhaps he wasn't ready to give up on video games after all? I obviously don't know him, and don't know how he'll react, but it seems like there'd be a high probability of getting extremely resentful over it. There would, I think, be a great tendency to link the marriage and the fiancee to the loss of video games, and to place her as being responsible for it.

I obviously don't know him, don't know her, don't know anything about their relationship. For all I know, this is a very smart and mature move to make and will lead only to happiness down the line. Still, I would argue that in general one should be cautious about making large, possibly unneccessary sacrifices in the name of romantic gestures.

More Songs About Video Games and Food

A few items that may be of some interest:

Through the internet, I've just learned about a fascinating easter egg. There is a simple little song that shows up in a good number of games created by Nintendo, spanning at least 14 years. What the games all have in common is that their music was composed by a man named Kazumi Totaka. Hence, the song has been nicknamed Totaka's Song.

What's interesting about Totaka's Song is that it isn't a motif, a theme that worms its way into the games's soundtracks. Rather, the song is hidden in the games, generally in its original 8-bit form. Finding it could mean clicking somewhere where you're not supposed to click, or going to a certain screen and waiting for 3-5 minutes until the song starts playing. The song has been found in nearly every game that Totaka has worked on (and people are still searching for it in the games that he has worked on where it hasn't been uncovered yet).

I learned about the song through the blog, where they've made three videos now setting explaining the song's history and demonstrating it in various games. The first video can be found here and follow-up videos can be found here and here. The latest piece of the puzzle is that Totaka did the music for Wii Sports, the Wii's pack-in game in America. I'm now struggling to restrain myself from loading it up and sitting on all the various menu screens for 5 minutes at a time in the hopes of hearing it. Though, really, that would be a somewhat passive activity. I could probably do it while studying. Hmmmmm....

This morning I woke up with a strong urge to eat a tomatillo. Fortunately, I have some tomatillos on my windowsill in the kitchen, so I ate one. It was like eating a slightly-sour, green plum with no pit, and without the hardness of flesh one associates with a sour plum.

For those who are fans of 2D platformers, and especially those who are fans of 2D platformers that can be played on their computers, free of charge, using the arrow keys, Nintendo has created a winter-themed platformer called Mission in Snowdriftlad. You play a snowman in a bellhop hat making his way through a platformer world, avoiding the usual gamut of strange, cartoony creatures who don't like you for some reason. It's also a sort of advent calendar, with a new level being added every day through Christmas Eve. It's quite well made for a free on-line game, and you win various wallpapers, MP3s, and other such for finishing levels. Also, ads for Nintendo games appear in a side-window, so that's the corporate angle to the game. Still, fun, free, and computerized if that's your thing.

*Grumble Grumble*

The Virtual Console is one of the more insidious features of the Nintendo Wii (about which I will post more once I no longer have 5 finals to take in the span of a week and a half). The VC, as it is known on the street, is a very sophisticated complex of emulators built into the firmware of the Wii, coupled with user-friendly front-end for purchasing and downloading content from Nintendo.

Which is to say: The Wii can play absolutely perfect renditions of games for the NES, the SNES, the N64, the Sega Genesis, and the TurboGrafx16. You can purchase games for the Virtual Console through Nintendo's on-line store, which you access directly from your Wii. You easily click through a couple of menus, select a game, and download it to your system. From them on, the game is available right on the front page when you boot up the Wii; no need to insert or remove discs, just turn on the Wii, point to the game you want to play, hit the A button, and suddenly you're playing a rendition of the game that is essentially indistinguishable from playing the game on the original console. The only way it differs from the original experience is that, first, you'll be playing on a Wii-compatible controller (the Wii remote, the Wii classic controller (looks like an SNES pad with a pair of analog sticks on the bottom), or a Gamecube controller) and second the graphics have been altered to actually work on a modern television set. If you've tried hooking up an old console to an HDTV (and who among us hasn't?) you'll discover that the results are quite gruesome. VC-emulated games are modified to look the same on a High Definition television as they did on an analog TV coming out of the original console. So, the only alterations are designed to make the experience more authentic than it would be with direct emulation.

What's insidious about the system is that you now have a library of classic games available through your Wii, ready to be purchased at any time, day or night. You can wake up at 3 in the morning, decide you feel like playing Mario 64, stagger to the living room in your underpants, and five minutes later (and $10 poorer), you can be playing the game. Normally, when making a purchse, you're faced with a trade-off between physical effort and instant gratification. If you want a game/book/whatever right now, you have to throw on clothes and trek to a store during normal business hours. If you want the convenience of internet shopping, you have to wait for the item to ship to you. The VC provides easy access and instant gratification. The only reason I still have money for rent is that the library is currently fairly modest; only 25 games are available, and not many of them are A-grade. Still, Nintendo has promised to add at least 4 new games for download every Monday at noon, and thus far they've kept that promise. By this time next year, the Virtual Console will have at least 200 games available for download.

With this as background, Friday night at 4 AM I found myself entering my credit card number into the Wii to purchase $20-worth of games. The next day I found myself at the post office shipping a package, only to discover that my credit card no longer resided in my wallet. Apparently I'd left it in the living room after making my purchase, even though I explicitly told myself to remember to put it back as I took it out the night before.

I spent the last couple of hours scouring my room and the living room for my card, but no success so far. Unfortunately, between when I lost it and when I began searching for it in earnest both my roommate and I have independently taken stabs at cleaning up the living room. I haven't seen my roommate since he did his part of the clean-up, so I haven't been able to ask if he saw the card and put it anywhere. I just hope that neither of us unwittingly threw it out.

It isn't the end of the world; I still have my debit card, and prefer to pay in cash in any case. One practicaly upshot, though: So long as I don't have my credit card, I can't blow any more money on Virtual Console games.


For those who have heard good things about the computer game Civilization, but who have heretofore held out on purchasing a copy for themselves, perhaps bewildered by the variety of Civilization options available, a fantastic opportunity has presented itself. The set includes Civilizations I through IV, plus all the expansions released for Civilizations II and III. Moreover, Chronicles comes with a book detailing the design process and evolution of the Civilization series, a DVD on the making of Civilization IV, and (and this may be the greatest pack-in bonus I have ever seen in a video game) a complete 250-card table top Civilization card game.

This is a product that I profoundly do not need. See the list of Civilization titles along the right side of the screen? I purchased every single one of them. And each one was bought at or near the release date, at full retail price. And I still have all of them, sitting here next to me in the drawer of my desk. And yet the fullness, the totality of this collection compells me to purchase it. And the card game! My God, the card game!

Though actually, the collection isn't entirely complete. There's an expansion that was just released for Civilization IV that isn't included. I'm very, very tempted to buy said expansion, which would be entirely silly of me. You may recall that I was very excited about the release of Civ IV some months ago. And then I was oddly silent. This is because, unbeknownst to me, my poor laptop is too pathetic to run it. So Civ IV has sat, despondent, on my shelf. I periodically glance at it sheepishly, only to watch it roll its eyes and look away. I hang my head in shame at my poor computer's impotence. And now I'm considering buying an expansion to a game my computer won't run. But! Civ IV: Warlords has so many amazing features! With Warlords, now when you conquer an enemy nation rather than destroying them you'll have the option of making them your vassal state! The mere possibility of theoretically being able to advance my hypothetical Civ IV game with that capability is more than worth the $30 for the expansion, isn't it?

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