For Your Reading Enjoyment

So I fell across this article while browsing the Interwebs. There are some thoughts and themes there that I’d love to expand and talk more about, but it’s late, and I’ve got exams tomorrow – random web article exegesis will have to wait.

Until then, have a read of the article, it’s well worth your time.

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Worship through gaming?

Yesterday I posted the following questions on both my Facebook wall, and my Twitter feed:

Is it possible that playing/making a video game could be considered an act of worship? and, is it possible for a video game to stir or invoke a feeling of worship in the same way a painting/picture or a song can?

It was a question that had been on my mind for a big part of the day – having come to mind during a discussion of worship (and the variety of things that my church does to create an atmosphere where people can worship God) during the creative ministries team (band, painters, dancers, and other creatives) practice.

My opinion* is that games have the potential to evoke a sense of worship – after all, people have made games designed to evoke a variety of different questions and feelings, with differing levels of success – but I haven’t come across one that does at this point (I’d like to at some point in my life though – get on it Christian Game Developers!). The question of whether playing a game can be an act of worship is much more complicated to answer. On a simple level, worship is the total surrender of every aspect of a Christian’s life to God – everything we think, do, say, etc, etc. So the comment given by my friend Craig – “Considering that ‘true’ worship is how we conduct all of our lives, it then depends whether or not you would consider playing that video game a Godly event or not.” – is something that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. As it is, I’m not sure where I stand on that – many games released probably aren’t the best things to expose to a mind that seeks to put God first, and there’s the whole escapism thing, and the addiction/compulsion issue, both of which complicate the matter further.

I believe that a Christian Developer^ working on a game who dedicates their passion for the project at hand, and the work they put into it, to God’s glory is performing an act of worship – much as in the same way a Christian painter worships God as they paint, or a Christian musician worships through practice and performance – and I believe that a game made with the intention of bringing players to a place of worship can be as effective (if not more) as a painting or a song made with the same intentions.  As for whether a Christian Gamer can worship through playing games, well, I cannot give an answer – there are too many questions to consider at this point. Maybe someone with more experience behind them, and a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, will provide an answer – maybe if no-one does, I’ll come back in a few decades with a true answer to the question.

Until then, feel free to debate it in the comments.

*Which could be taken with a grain of salt, I’m sure that people smarter and better informed than I am will argue these questions in years to come with much more authority.

^Christian denoting the developer’s faith, not the game that they are necessarily working on

Video Game Ethics Part 2

While writing Part one of this series I realised that I have more to say on this than I thought. Sorry that Part Two has been so long in coming, between wanting to make sure of everything I wanted to say about this, and having other things to write last week, it’s taken a while. In any case, the continued thesis on the way Ethics play out in Video Games

Talking about Ethics in Video Games is always hard, since some games give you an incredible amount of freedom to make your own choices, while others restrict you to pretty much just shooting/stabbing enemies in linear corridors. The things that I said about Fallout: New Vegas (and I’m given to understand, the Fallout Series in general) aren’t true about the Assassins Creed Series – and that has the potential to undermine everything I have to say on this topic. Most of the examples I would prefer to draw upon (being familiar with them from personal experience) when I discuss the way in which games can provide space for a broad range of ethical or moral are from a single genre (RPGs). Many of the other games I’ve played either have events with the potential to be significant moral choices already made as part of the story they are telling (which is worse if the player doesn’t even have control of the character at this point, but non-interactive storytelling in an interactive medium is a topic I don’t want to get into right now), or characters who have interesting moral and ethical perspectives, and some amazing character arcs, while the player character is a cardboard cutout with little to no personality of their own. Not to say that either of those cannot be good games – two examples that come to mind would be the Assassins Creed games for the former, and Starcraft and Warcraft 3* for the latter – but they don’t offer much in the way of player choice concerning the ethical decisions of their character(s).

Even among the examples of ethical or moral choice that I could give there are differences. Mass Effect had both a ‘good’ and an ‘evil’ slider, both of which increased based on the actions of the player – since both only went up, the results of both sliders showed how you acted (which another blogger so wonderfully explained in this post – it’s closer to the end). The KotOR games both featured an alignment slider (from light-side to dark-side – being a Star Wars game) that went up or down based on the player’s actions, with bonuses given when a character had a high score at either end of the scale – making any real choice other than ‘am I going to use heal or lightning more this play-through’ impossible. Compare both of these to my post about New Vegas, which is a good indicator of both the more recent Fallout games, as well as The Elder Scrolls games (which were made by the same developer). I don’t have a major problem with any of these games as games, all of them offered me good choices which I did sit and think about, but I think that we are still waiting for a game that does this perfectly (or, at least, well enough that it doesn’t feel that I have too much freedom, or that my choices boil down to being either either a complete doormat or a complete jerk – since swapping cripples me from a gameplay perspective)

What I’m saying is that games as a medium could do more to explore the ethics and morality of the player, as well as generally . There are some good examples where players are free to express themselves – I spent a thousand words talking about one of them two weeks ago – but I honestly would like to see more games that allow the player to make these sorts of decisions. I’d like to play more games that offer me a choice which causes me to sit and consider exactly what I really think and believe about a subject, and make a decision based on how I would react to being in that position (on any of the sides involved). I’d like to be so drawn into the world that I can make choices that I already have firm opinions on easily and quickly, without being concerned for how this will affect my ‘morality slider’, and whether it will cripple me in the future.

I’m not sure exactly how to wrap this up, but if you feel the same way, or if you have an opinion on any of this stuff, feel free to jump in and comment, see if we can get a discussion going……

*Which have no player character, since both of which are story driven, character based Strategy Games (The player is simply the giant hand which order the armies around, and nothing more).

Video Game Ethics Part 1

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’s been one that has been intermittently on my mind depending on what game I’m currently working my way through. I’m currently playing something that’s brought this topic to mind quite strongly – Fallout: New Vegas – so now is as good a time as any to talk about the way that someone’s sense of ethics applies to games. I’m primarily going to talk about my own experiences with this, but I will go into some of the observations I’ve made watching others play games, and into some of the more cliche aspects of the way that players generally act within the worlds provided to them by games. But first, I want to set the scene for New Vegas, as – since it’s the game that’s re-sparked the desire to talk about this – I’ll be framing a fair bit of the discussion around it.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in an alternate reality where culturally the world never left the ‘vibe’ of the 1950’s, but advanced scientifically at a rapid rate. Set in the year 2281 – over 200 years after the ‘Great War’, which left America (and by implication the rest of the world) scarred by the aftermath of the nuclear warheads that dominated the final hours of the war, leaving a wasteland in it’s wake – the player character wanders the open world that the game provides, learning to deal with the residual radiation, the scarcity of food, and the brutality of the societies that have sprung up in the aftermath (humans having survived in fallout shelters called ‘vaults’) in the wasteland surrounding Las Vegas (which, through the machinations of one of it’s leaders, survived the bombs). I could speak about the setting and various aspects of the game for the entire blog post, but I’ll just post this link to a wiki page for anyone interested in finding out more.

Since it’s a Role-playing Game (RPG), New Vegas allows you to create a character of your own, and shape them into whatever you want them to be over the course of the game. You start with no affiliations to any of the factions in the world (either major or minor), and very few skills and abilities. Over the course of the game, your decisions shape the world around you for good or ill, and by the end of the game you have brought one of the three main factions into complete control over Vegas and the Mojave – or destroyed them all, leaving total anarchy with you as the most dangerous person of them all. You meet a lot of people, some of whom will try to kill you, some of whom will help you if you stay friendly with them (or do something for them), and some who are happier to leave you be (as long as you give them the same courtesy). You are free to do whatever you wish to – most of the NPCs in this world are killable, anything that can be carried is there to take. There is a justice system (if it can be called that), but it requires someone seeing you commit a crime (theft or murder primarily), and it results in everybody in the area (or in the wider faction, if your relationship with them is poor enough) turning hostile and trying to kill you – which if you’ve spent any time leveling any combat skill isn’t too much of a hassle for the player if they know what they’re doing (as somewhat demonstrated here and here), and especially once they’ve passed the half-way point of the game.

A lot of people I know would criticize a game that gives anyone this kind of freedom – to essentially be a sociopath with little consequences (the lack of places to sell items and buy ammo would be the only…..oh wait, there’s an unkillable merchant who will sell you stuff no matter what….never mind) – and there are certainly people who would play using that mentality. I can’t talk about them, however, since I have never felt comfortable playing that way, and there aren’t many people who actually own up to that sort of play-style anyway. There is one person I know of who played through a previous Fallout game without killing a single creature (with the exception of the one you need to for the combat tutorial), which he documented here – it wasn’t a completely non-violent play-through (which I don’t think it would be possible to do), but his character’s hands ended up being completely unsullied by blood, human or otherwise.

My personal play-style involves putting myself into the characters shoes, and making decisions the way that I would if I was in that situation. I only kill human characters if they attack me first, or if combat is otherwise unavoidable – companion characters are problematic (one of them attacks members of the faction they hate on sight, others run off to attack anything hostile that they detect, even if the hostiles haven’t seen us yet), and it’s always a possibility that I could fail a skill check that avoids fighting. I’ve sided with the main faction that is the least questionable about their methods (when they get around to actually doing things, they’re bureaucratic to a fault). My character does steal occasionally, but only rarely is it truly theft (i.e. the owners are still alive), and there are some fairly decent reasons to do what the game considers theft (i.e. After stumbling upon a base owned by a faction that hated me – the one in direct opposition to the main faction I have joined – they all attacked me, and I felt that taking their equipment – which in all fairness, they weren’t using anymore – was fair in exchange for all the grief they had given me). I help others with their problems rather than just demand that they give me what I want – or take it by force or theft (both of which can be possible solutions to problems). In short, I carry my own ideas and concepts of what is wrong or right – which in themselves are informed by my relationship with Christ – into the game with me – slightly modified to match the setting, but there all the same.

So this post went a little long (over 1000 words), and I’m not quite finished taking about what I wanted to say…..looks like this will be part one of two then. Next week I’ll talk a bit more broadly about this, move away from just the one game….until then, God bless.

Character Battle Royale

I’d like to talk about a game that a friend (who also loves video games) and I came up with a couple of weeks ago. Essentially, we pit two Video Game characters together in a verbal battle royal – basically calling each characters action in a turn based battle to the death.

In previous games we’ve generally used characters that we have created ourselves (so a character from any game with a custom character creation or stat building feature – mostly RPGs) and we’ve always drawn from RPGs or stat-building games, mostly beacuse those games offer a wider variety of skills and abilities to draw from, but I don’t see why a pre-defined character couldn’t be used as long as they are pitted against something similar (i.e. pitting Ezio Auditore [Assassins Creed] against The Lone Wanderer [Fallout 3] probably wouldn’t work, while pitting Ezio against Gordon Freeman [Half Life] probably could – and would be absolutely awesome!).

To start a match, you simply need to say which game you’re pulling a character from. Character strength can be completly variable – but having the max level and/or best equiptment for your character is advisable unless you want to cripple yourself for a more interesting match. However, it’s against the rules to have a character that breaks the rules that define the gameworld the character hails from (i.e. you cannot have a character from KotOR that possesses all of the force powers and feats – it’s impossible in the gameworld – or a Fallout character with perks that don’t match up with their skills and attributes – a non stealth character with the ninja perk is impossible to come by). You don’t immediately need to list every aspect of your characters skills and equipment – but you will need to keep track of what skills/abilities you’ve already used (so you don’t get caught out breaking the rules of the game).

To compensate for the differences in damage levels between games (i.e. Final Fantasy characters have very high health and damage (often over a couple of thousand for both), while my characters in Fallout are lucky to top 500 HP), damage roughly scales to fit the target (so a hit from a 2000 damage weapon from the FF character will do less than 100 to the Fallout character, and vice versa). Attacks and skills based on a probability system (the percentage to hit system in Fallout’s VATS system, or the modified DnD rules that KotOR is based on) that system roughly carries over (my friend and I agreed pretty much on just averaging the probability as simply as we could – but if you really want to get the dice out, feel free).

Other than these few guidelines, the game pretty much plays out like a complicated game of chess. Each player takes turns calling out a move (and explaining it if necessary), either as a defense against the last move that your opponent made (which cancels or reduces their last attack), or as an answering offensive move. Generally the win goes to the player who is the most imaginative (using a combination of the Metal Blaster and the Mysterious Stranger [Fallout 3] to take down a completely defensive player was my best win), and the one with the best grasp of their character’s abilities, and their opponent’s weaknesses (my friend using a Final Fantasy spell to lock my Jedi Guardian [a KotOR class that’s terrible with a lightsaber] into a basic saber attack was inspired).

I don’t know if I get any serious gamers reading this (at least, they never comment if they do), but I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing this with some of my friends, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, feel free to give it a go.

An R18+ Rating for Video Games in Australia?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about politics (which is a shame, cause I actually enjoy following what’s happening in Australian Politics), but this is an issue that has been knocking around for a long time, and finally it seems to be getting somewhere.

Between this video, and the tweets of my local minister (who is surprisingly interested in informing people about how this debate is going – still waiting on a reply to some of my responses though….), I’m really looking forward to the possibility of playing games that have – for a variety of reasons – either been cut down or completely banned from selling in Australia. I want to share a few more thoughts about the debate in general, and the video specifically tonight. Again, this post won’t replace the second part of my Who Am I? Series – I should have that written up and published sometime in the next few days – but it’s something that I have at times been incredibly passionate about, and while I can no longer get as riled up about it as I once could, it’s great to see a conclusion on the horizon.

On a broad level, this issue doesn’t affect Australian Gamers at all – if people are that desperate to get their hands on a (proper) copy of the game, they can easily import it – customs only stops banned games/movies/entertainment at the gates if they can prove intent to distribute (i.e. more than a couple of copies) – so getting their hands on stuff that cannot be sold here isn’t a big issue. In fact, it’s often easier and cheaper to just import or use digital distribution for all of your games, as the pricing system for games in Australia is incredibly bad (Big budget games start out at $60 US in America – compared to $80-$120 in Australia when the currency is going incredibly strong), so it’s not that big an issue for Australian Gamers. What this is a major issue for is the Australian Games industry, and for the retail businesses that sell Video Games.

From the industry perspective, it allows developers here to branch out into games that can more fully explore aspects of life or the human condition (something that I’m eager for all games developers to do), and allow for those games to be released here. From a retail side, it means that more games will be bought in Australia, with Australian Dollars, and the economy will continue to do whatever it is that economies do when people buy things locally. The number of people who, upon hearing that a game is getting released with an MA rating only after the developers/publishers agreed to cut certain content from their game, cancel their pre-orders with (or their plans to buy the game from) companies like EB games, and find themselves an uncensored import version is significant, which means that the amount of potential profit lost for the Australian retail companies on those games is significant (I think – I’m not sure about the inner financial workings of the games retail industry).

As for the video itself, I found some of those figures to be incredible – I’m not sure about where they got some of them, but that’s not the point. 9 out of 10 homes having at least one gaming device, Women making up nearly half of the total number of people that play games, and the average age being in the early 30’s (5-10 years older than I was expecting), over 58 thousand submissions to an inquiry looking at what people thought about an R18+ rating for video games. These are not insignificant figures – this is a hobby that many people are engaged with, and one that a large portion of people are passionate about to the point where they will get involved with the putting of a reform to Parliament in whatever way they can. For the portion of society that doesn’t play video games: you cannot ignore the social phenomenon that gaming has become in the last few decades. For the various Christians that I know condemn video games as violent and dangerous to society: Don’t just write us or our hobby off, there are a lot of us, many of whom you’re potentially pushing away from ever hearing and accepting the words you know to be true. And for those of you who are Australian Gamers: Here’s to a swift resolution to this reform, and to a bright future.

What I’ve Learnt Through Gaming

Before I begin this post, I want to announce that I will be doing my best to update this blog weekly (most likely on Tuesdays or Wednesdays at this point – subject to change), and I want you – my readers – to help keep me on track. I’ve had a backlog of drafts and post ideas for a while now, and I want to do something about it – I figure making myself accountable to you all in regards to regular blogging is a good way to get some of those finished and available for people to read (turns out I need a stick as well as a carrot – even for things I enjoy doing……). And now, this week’s post:

I’ve written before on the potential Video Games have to be a tool for learning, but over the past week, I’ve been particularly hit by the realisation that playing my online games (Tribal Wars and The West) has either taught me, or reinforced for me, quite a few different life lessons. I thought I’d list  some of them here for your enjoyment and reflection. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what all games have taught me – being only about 2 games in particular, and only a few  skills from those games – but just something to think about.

The most major of the lessons Tribal Wars and The West have taught me are concerned with what people look for in the workplace. In one of the servers I am a part of on The West, I joined the town I am a part of as a general member – I was happy to help out in any way that I could (both within the town, and in the alliance of towns we are a part of), but other than that, I didn’t have any responsibility. Over time, still being generally just out to help wherever I can, and communicating with anyone from my group that I can, I have been given more and more responsibility, not just within my town, but within the alliance my town is a part of – to the point where I have recently been appointed as a leader in my town, and one of the voting members of the alliance council. I know this has been a more rapid rise than would occur within ‘Real Life’ (not the best term in my opinion, but good shorthand for life outside of the game), but the principles are generally the same – being open to helping wherever possible, and being eager to learn and help others can often lead to more responsibility within any area of life.

Further than that, over the years I have been playing both of these games, I’ve been part of groups that have had good organisation and leadership skills; groups with bad leadership, but good organisation; groups with charismatic leaders, and terrible organisation; and groups with bad organisation and leadership. I’ve learnt to cope with all of these situations, and even thrive under a few of them. I’ve also been a part of running groups of both large amounts of people (in the case of the group previously mentioned, almost 100 people), and smaller groups (less than 20 people), with varied success at both. These are management skills, and experiences that I can call on again if I am ever in a similar situation. Tribal Wars has a lot of strategy involved, as much of the game revolves around building a village, and using the various soldiers that the village can train in order to both defend the territory I already hold, and taking the territory of rivals in my area. Because of this I am no stranger to making what can often be hard decisions about what works best given the current situation (which can often be in conflict with my natural tendencies – which is towards defense, and a strong economy), with both a short term, and a long term goal in mind.

There are more things that I have learnt throughout my experiences with both of these games, and with many different games in general, but I don’t want this post to get any longer – it already seems to be looking like an extended resume, and I’d hate for it to get any longer……

So have any of you learnt anything meaningful from playing a video game? Has it just been something trivial? Have you not learnt anything (or haven’t played enough to see any learning happen)? Do you have any thoughts of the subject? Is this (either the topic, or the asking questions at the end of a post) something you’d like me to do again?