Games

©2008 2DBoy, World of Goo courtesy of IGN.com
Gameplay in this course will officially start with World of Goo, a critically acclaimed, award-winning indie game created by 2D Boy (distributed through WiiWare, Steam and the company website). Rated E, and designed for a broad audience, World of Goo is a unique, physics-based puzzle game that invites the player to come up with innovative solutions to a series of construction/spatial conundrums. The game revolves around the Goo balls: delicious, pseudo-anthropomorphized creatures who serve as a sort of natural resource that is being exploited by the World of Goo Corporation to produce a variety of consumer goods. As the player moves through the game, they learn more (but never everything) about this strange industrial relationship, uncovering a clever critique of consumer culture as they go. The graphics are cartoony, slick, quirky and at times incredibly gorgeous. The soundtrack is one of the best I've ever heard - haunting and sweeping, it adds a surprising amount of gravitas to the Goo-based silliness.

I selected this game as a wonderful example of accessible, child-friendly design that really embodies the spirit of "E for Everyone."  The game operates as several levels, melding a clever, critical sub-text with a straightforward yet challenging set of gameplay mechanics. I love the sense of anticipation that is built throughout - the sense that something bigger is happening, or will soon happen, even though the game is essentially fragmented into a series of fairly distinct puzzles. This layering provides scaffolding for players to delve deeper, to tap into the experiential elements, which makes finding a successful solution all the more gratifying.



©2007 LucasArts/Traveller'sTales, Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga
The second example of noteworthy child-friendly design that we'll be exploring in this workshop is Lego: Star Wars The Complete Saga. This particular title is actually a compilation of a series of highly successful games produced by TT Games and LucasArts around - you guessed it - the Star Wars movies, featuring Lego's extensive line of Star Wars toys. The series has been around since 2005 (I believe), and has inspired a number of similar pairings over the years, including Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Batman, and now Lego Harry Potter. The games are clearly cross-promotional - generating market synergy for both the associated media properties and (even more directly) the Lego's ever-expanding catalogue of licensed kits. In so doing, however, they also generate transmedia intertextuality. In fact, the games have thus far been pretty consistent in their adoption of a pretty reflexive, tongue-in-cheek approach to retelling the source stories. The point here seems to be to create narrative openings by adapting known storylines and characters into more ambiguous, referential rather than literal translations, metaphorical, and fragmented (at least potentially) narrativized spaces. This arguably facilitates the process through which players insert themselves into the story through reinterpretation, appropriation and transgression, etc.

Apart from all of that, the games are also really user-friendly when it comes to interface design, game mechanics, learning the controls and gameplay. The Lego Star Wars games in particular have a wonderful fluidity to them. Much of the gameplay revolves around smashing things, solving puzzles, exploring the space (to find hidden objects, secrets, etc.) and repeatedly dying/reviving. There are very few consequences to this game - you can die over and over in a spectacular explosion of Lego pieces, only to reappear moments later. You can switch between characters, reconfigure characters by swapping their Lego pieces, and play at building objects, vehicles and puzzle solutions. On the console systems the game also allows for cooperative play. Once you've played through the story mode, you can revisit levels, assuming the role of a variety of different characters ("bad guys" included). The game emphasizes exploration and trial and error (particularly since there are so few real consequences to your errors) - there are a multitude of hidden rooms, new ways of experiencing the game levels, and a seemingly endless assortment of objects to find and collect.



©2004 Her Interactive, Nancy Drew: Curse of Blackmoor Manor

The “girls games movement” is often linked to the surprising success of Barbie Fashion Designer, a computer game released in 1996 targeted very specifically at girls that at the time set a new sales record for PC games, selling half a million copies in its first two months. As Brenda Laurel writes (p.4), the game’s success “stimulated a retail feeding frenzy.” Start-ups were launched, new titles were introduced, and the industry did all it could to replicate Barbie’s sales figures. For the most part, the new girls games market was predominated by “pink games”…a term that refers to a strategy often used when designing technologies for women or girls, that of taking an existing artefact and slapping on some pink paint (or limiting re-design to mainly aesthetic changes). It also refers to the fact that so many of these games’ boxes, cartridges and contents were, in fact, pink. Many of these games used pre-existing game engines and code, which were modified to accommodate girl-coded aesthetics, as well as "girls’ purported inclinations" (De Castell and Bryson, 1999, p.245) (think "sugar, spice and everything nice" gender essentialism). However, during this period, a number of innovative games for girls were also produced—including Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew games, which have won various awards and have at times held the title of top-selling PC adventure game series. While these games didn't stray all THAT far from the "pink game" framework, they did introduce some important new elements into the gaming landscape.


The game you will be playing this week is a mid-2000s title from the Nancy Drew mystery computer game series Nancy Drew: The Curse of Blackmoor Manor. (The plot is explained in the first few minutes of gameplay, so I won't bother summarizing it here). The game is typical of the series as a whole, which has changed surprisingly little since its first installment in 1998. The game follows a relatively non-linear format: there's a relative amount of flexibility in terms of the order in which certain components of the mystery can be solved; you can skip ahead certain parts and get back to them later; you have relative freedom of movement in the house, and can decide who to talk to when (at least to a certain extent). The mystery is solved by gathering intel and collecting clues, which you find by interviewing people, checking the "web," exploring Blackmoor Manor, reading books and solving a series of fairly challenging puzzles. The game is played from a first-person perspective, and is largely point-and-click. The graphics, environment, voice acting and GUI are somewhat rudimentary, but if you allow yourself to get past those mechanical issues, the story inside is quite compelling. For those of you familiar with the Nancy Drew series (books or games), you'll recognize some of the characters and conventions. For others, spend your time within this game thinking about the mix of traditional (e.g. text, dialogue) and game-specific modes of storytelling, as well as the ways in which "story" itself can become the primary purpose (or goal) of gameplay. The little girls I've talked to about these games have described them as hard at first, sometimes scary, but really fun once you figure out the puzzles.




©2008 Maxis/EA, Spore Creature Creator
An innovative game about evolution and consequences, Spore is one of those titles that defies categorization. The game changes dramatically from beginning to end - not only in terms of the characters (creatures), action and storyline, but also in terms of the game mechanics. In the process of guiding your creature through a series of evolutionary stages from microscopic organism to futuristic space traveller, you (the player) are led through a series of gameplay genres...starting with the most basic 2D platformer (move right, move left, eat food, avoid becoming food), to a slightly more complex experience of exploring a 3D environment (your own cartoony, alien planet) and engaging in rudimentary turn-based role-play, to a Civilization-style strategy game, to an introductory version of a Sims-style simulation game, to.....a build it yourself, social network game, and who knows what will happen next? Since its release in 2008, Spore has been both celebrated and dismissed--with some critics marvelling at the customization tools and child-friendly gameplay design, while others bemoaned the lack of depth and nuance (and lack of "real," as in game-changing consequences to the in-game decisions players are asked to make throughout). Either way, the player community mushroomed to 3 million within the first year, and continues to draw in new players and public attention. Spore has now become a series of sorts, with 7 games (available on multiple platforms) and at least one add-on "parts" pack. Next up will be Darkspore: a more mature, darker, sophisticated action RPG (role-playing game) with many Spore-like elements, is slated for release next month.

From the get-go, Spore was marketed and perceived (by game critics, researchers, etc.) as a game with a lot of educational potential. The companies behind Spore, EA and Maxis, were quite innovative in the way they established links with academic researchers, educators, after-school computer clubs and - above all - with the players themselves. They have an outreach department set up to liaise with these various groups, are involved in a variety of publicly-funded youth initiatives (example), and provide pretty heavy support for a notably vibrant online community. The community in turn does a lot to sustain the educational goals behind the game - both by using the game (and its code) in innovative new ways, as well as elaborating on the linkages between educational theories, scientific theories and Spore. For instance, there is an ongoing thread on The Sporum (the official Spore forum) on the topic of "Science and Spore" that currently contains over 125,000 messages...and counting. The developers are also trying to foster more involved forms of user-generated content and original applications - they provide a number of tools in the form of a web-based Spore API (application programming interface), as well as a database of creations (apps) that players have made so far (along with reference sheets and sample code). They've also made a number of "playable prototypes" available to the public for download, testing and play. The Spore API can also be (and has been) used for research purposes, for instance through the creation of apps/tools that facilitate navigation through the growing data set of user-creations, data visualizations and new ways of organizing and categorizing the vast amount of information being generated by the users.



©2008 Rockstar Games, Bully: The Scholarship Edition

First released in 2006 by Rockstar, the makers of the notorious Grand Theft Auto series, Bully became the centre of controversy long before its release. As Clive Thompson explains, a single sentence describing the plot of the game was enough to attract an enormous amount of negative attention - with school boards "proactively banning" the title and anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson (no relation to Clive, as far as I know) singling the title out for some of his most extreme (and ultimately self-destructive) soapboxing yet. Thompson wasn't just trying to ban the game in Florida, but actually block its release. Although a number of similar videogame controversies unfolded around this time - with various US states establishing and overruling new legislation aimed at regulating the sale of games to minors in accordance with ESRB ratings - the Hot Coffee controversy (in which Rockstar was also involved) - the release of an indie game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG - it was the hoopla around Bully that (I believe) best illustrates the reactionary, hyper-conservative discourses that were at play in so many of these cases. Wild claims were made about the game before anyone had seen it. Thompson's charges were infused with various forms of determinism, right-wing "morality," and homophobia (as seen in his reactions to the fact that the game's male protagonist could attract and kiss other male characters). The debate shifted from an issue of regulating sales to one of outright censorship. A lot of people who had previously sympathized with the idea of enforcing ESRB ratings now found themselves worrying much more about free speech/expression. Jack Thompson kept up his increasingly rabid and incoherent attacks on videogames, until he was eventually disbarred in 2008.

The game itself follows a similar format established in Rockstar's previous hits, such as GTA: San Andreas (more recently reproduced in Red Dead Redemption), which is often described in the game design community as a "sandbox" or "open-world" game. The story is pretty basic - you assume the identity of a teenaged boy who has a knack for getting into trouble. Your parents (mother, new step-father) have shipped you off to boarding school (maybe not for the first time), and you clearly feel neglected and unwanted. You arrive at your new school, Bullworth Academy, to a hostile faculty, an aggressive (think Lord of the Flies) student body with a dense social hierarchy, and an impossibly hectic schedule filled to the brim with mundane tasks assigned by totally disengaged teachers. You learn that survival at this school means dealing with constant bully attacks while finding a way to navigate the many (extremely stereotypical) cliques. After a few hours of this, all I wanted to do was get as far away from school as possible, and explore the game's relatively expansive environment, where you can complete sub-missions and at least try to stay out of trouble. The version of the game you'll be playing, Bully: The Scholarship Edition, is a re-release that contains a few extra missions and characters - otherwise, it's the exact same game.

Here's an excerpt from a review I wrote back in 2007 of the original Bully for Playstation 2:
So far my in-game-days have been focused on keeping up with classes (which are much too easy to skip), trying not to get pounded too often (which is really tough, since everyone is out to get me), and slowly building up my "cred" amongst the various, violent boys' cliques around school. While you can minimize the violence you choose to engage in, it's impossible to get by without getting scrappy. In my first run through of the very first mission it took me about 0.2 seconds to resort to violence after a growing gang of older boys jumped me on my way in. The characters themselves provide (both explicitly and implicitly) interesting commentary on some pretty heavy social issues and the stresses associated with being a teenaged boy. This is a game about trying to fit in amongst a population of frustrated and alienated--yet highly affluent--youth, where social status reigns supreme and random acts of bullying and aggression all too easily lead to more serious forms of violence.