Just as the US military is able to use games as a recruitment and training tool, so too oppositional groups use the potential of games to offer a powerful way of creating counter-propaganda, write Jon Dovey and Helen W. Kennedy in ‘Game Cultures: Computer games as new media’ (www.tatamcgrawhill.com).
The authors mention, as example, the Australian game ‘Escape from Woomera,’ in which the player encounters a graphic representation of the infamous detention centre for asylum seekers established in the South Australian desert. “The avatar informs us at once he is going crazy in the prison conditions. There must be a way out, which we set out to discover. The game uses pull down dialogue menus between the characters, rather than fast-paced explosive FPS (first person shooter) action, as we collaborate with our fellow inmates in order to find the resources to make a breakout attempt.”
One learns from the book that in 2001-02, the conditions in the actual Woomera camp had become a national scandal in Australia, with frequent hunger strikes and famously a mass breakout in 2002. What the authors find remarkable is that the game development team was awarded a A$15,000 grant from the Australia Council to support the production, as a recognition by the far-sighted arts funding body that games design should be developed in the same way as other art and media practices, especially if critical voices and localised industries are to develop.
The authors concede that as a result of the highly gendered culture which surrounds computer games playing, FPS games are often seen as the most masculine and the most challenging genre. Which explains why, as the book notes, “It created a tremendous stir when Stevie Case – aka KillCreek – a young female game player from Kansas, defeated John Romero in a series of Quake Death Marches in 1998. He was so impressed by her that he created a web shrine to celebrate her prowess.”
It should help to know from the book that female ‘quakers’ feel that the gaming community was at fault for having excluded them in the first place. They assert a right to belong and to be catered for within the gaming culture, the authors aver. “The design decision to include the choice of a female avatar in Quake 2 is said to have resulted from female Quake players creating female avatar skins.”
For starters, ‘skinning’ is the art of creating the images that get wrapped around player character models in 3D games, as the book cites from www.chiq.net. “These images are what give the mesh a solid, realistic look. A good analogy is if you think of the skin as the paper that goes around the bamboo frame (mesh) of a Chinese lantern. You paint what you want on the paper and the game wraps it around the frame for you based on the mapping the model has with it.”
An important section in the book is about the piracy vs open systems debate. The authors narrate how domestic electronic media technologies created an implicit conflict between the producers of hardware that make media easy to reproduce and the producers of media software, and intellectual property. The result, as they continue, was the massive expansion of the business of copyright policing, and then the ‘very different system of copyright, usually referred to as shareware or open source.’
The convergence of a shareware ethos with diffusion of digital distribution/ production systems has created an entirely unprecedented legal response, state Dovey and Kennedy. Adding that game software are now distributed on the assumption that players will want to customise them and create their own versions, the authors remind that up until very recently all such activity would have been viewed as piracy.
“Now, however, we see the evolution of a production system that accommodates the pirate in us all by understanding our ‘configurative practice’ as brand loyalty. Thus all media software start to approach the conditions of ‘open systems.’”
Under the hood
If you are familiar with gaming terms, you may perhaps know that ‘modding’ – derived from ‘modification’ – refers to any alteration by players of a game. This may range from customising characters to the creation of entirely new games using pre-existent game engines, as the book’s glossary elaborates.
Even before the advent of online gaming, the player communities’ tendency to want to ‘tinker under the hood’ manifested itself with total conversion mods like ‘Castle Smurfenstein,’ a game that replaced the Nazi enemies of the original Apple II version of Castle Wolfenstein with Smurfs from the TV cartoon, the authors trace.
They refer to the revolt of players against Ultima – a game that championed the virtues of compassion, valour, honesty and justice – as an example of the shifting balance of power between authors and users. “An online revolt of Ultima subscribers eventually spilled over into real life when players organised a class action against the producers on the basis of poor software and poor support for players. The case was thrown out by a judge, who stated that its success ‘would kill online gaming if consumers were allowed this power.’”
However, an interesting fallout of the revolt was that the game publishers realised the potential to leverage the power of players through the cultivation of online fan communities that could be recruited for beta testing, level editing, and modding.
Game modders provide the industry with free research and development of new ideas and sometimes whole new titles, the authors point out. “The work of creating mods, maps, and skins also extends the life of a game, and this life becomes revenue when the tools to do it are only available with licensed versions.”
A vivid description of the complex technical, legal and cultural interplay between players, player/ creators, and developers is quoted from Sue Morris’ account of the steps she goes through to play Quake III Arena, thus: “The Gamespy server which she uses to access the game engine was originally developed by Joe Powell, a Quake gamer, but is now a commercial portal; it uses voice software developed by gamers using venture capital. The latest update is downloaded from another portal developed by gamers in 1996 to organise LAN tournaments. In turn this update includes anti-cheat software originally developed by a team of gamers but now commercially deployed by a range of online game companies.”
And there is more – such as that Sue finds a local server running games that may either be commercial or enthusiast-run; chooses to play a readymade avatar or goes for a skin made by another gamer; and customises configurations to optimise the game, based on tips from online player community forums.
Worthy of serious study in the book is the section on ‘fan art,’ where the authors explore the player communities that form cooperatively for supporting game-play through the swapping of cheats and making available game walkthroughs, often as the first step in the introduction to a player community.
Cheating itself can be seen as a player’s creative response to the limitations of the rule set imposed by the game, the authors argue. “Extensive social networks are founded on the exchange of information that will aid a player’s progress through a game, producing masses of ‘cheats and tips’ material in, for instance, the many give-away booklets made available with gaming magazines.”
Dovey and Kennedy are of the view that cheating is currently an under-researched area which can have much to reveal about players’ attitudes towards rules, because ‘much play theory is predicated on the notion of a demarcated zone within which particular rules operate…’
“After the supercomputer won at the grand chess tournament, we took it to the party HQ.”
“To forecast the vote-bank numbers?”
“No, to compute the optimal alliance equations… But, alas, it crashed!”