Update

So I have a very empathetic, dark, game that I have been working on for the past couple of weeks. It was made in twine and I am hoping for more feedback before making changes, I have looked at what was talked about last week meeting and would like to hear more opinions about the game and what I should or shouldn’t change.

The Last Good Man in Town progress 1

Work for this has been slow due to outside events (family and a research paper).

However, I’m gotten great feedback from relatives and have been working on adding extra content for Shawn, Gary’s (the character you control) son.

I’m also thinking of revisiting my points system for bonus endings and would love feed on the back end of it since I feel that despite having options for dialogue and earning up to three bonus endings, there can be more done.

Current build has been cleaned up for typos, has a ‘tutorial’ introduction (requested by non-gaming family members) and added background images. It’ll be interesting to see how this influences how people experience the game.

Progress Update

After digesting the information and help I received in class, I am happy to report that I am now back on track for the creation of my game. Last class I found out that it wasn’t working at all, thematically or physically, but I’m happy with where it’s at now. It’s still pretty barebones, and I need to clarify some design choices, but the whole idea and concept is there, and I can’t wait to have people test it out later.

Wilke_MassEffect2Analysis

Janelle Wilke

EDT 460

Ingram-Goble

October 24, 2014

 

Analysis of Mass Effect 2: Gender, Ideology & Learning Principles

 

Overview

This critique will delve into my personal playthrough of Mass Effect 2, providing background on my experience with the series as a whole, and how having played through the series before affects my comprehension. It will also touch on topics of gender, ideology, and learning principles that are found in the writings of Cassell, Bogost, and Gee, respectively. Finally, it will provide connections as to how these topics affected my gameplay experience, while offering that my overall experience with Mass Effect may have altered my perception of these topics within the game.

The Mass Effect trilogy is a series that transcends itself, creating a massive culture that includes -among other things- cosplayers, artists and videographers; all of whom get to share their experiences that allow for this game to live on in the real world. This fandom is an earnest one, wishing to get the best experience from this series. In fact, after Mass Effect 3’s huge ending upset, the outcry of the dedicated fandom was enough to earn results from the developers and fans alike. A free ‘Extended Cut’ DLC was offered to provide more “satisfying” conclusions, and one fan even developed their own ending for others to encode into their game!

Each game in the trilogy can be played on its own, at the player’s risk of not learning full background on the motivations of the characters nor fully understanding the game lore. When I first played Mass Effect 2 (two years ago), I did not have access to the first game and instead watched it in its entirety online so that I would have a clear understanding of the story. This time, it is important to note that I have become involved in the culture of the series. I have played each of the games, started getting involved with the multiplayer community, and always look for art and cosplays of my favorite characters at Phoenix Comicon. In some ways, my investment in the series makes me something of an expert on the game’s background and lore. But I have discovered that by not entering the play field with a fresh eye meant that the gender, ideological and learning implications that can be found within the game were a bit more difficult to detect.

So began my playthrough. In Mass Effect 2, you play as Commander Shepard: a distinguished soldier who is charged to lead a team on a suicide mission to fight a hostile alien species that is abducting colonies of humans. In order to be successful in this mission, you must gather teammates and make decisions that can increase their capability of surviving the mission. At the beginning, I elected to play as the female Commander Shepard, rather than male. In the past, I was able to enjoy the gameplay much more, playing as “FemShep.” Perhaps this was based on the simple fact that it was easier for me, as a female, to put myself in her shoes. Shepard would feel more like me. I enjoyed being able to customize her appearance to my liking, and choose what combat style she specialized in. The controls took a bit of time to comfortably settle into, as there were some differences between the multiplayer and this game. But it was nowhere near the frustrating difficulty of my first playthrough (I had never played a “shooter” prior to Mass Effect 2). Eventually I fell into my usual sway. Despite playing for the first time on the highest difficulty, I was still doing better than my initial playthrough.

A unique feature of the game is the ability to select choices throughout, allowing Shepard to respond a certain way to a situation. While you are always given the choice to remain neutral, you are encouraged to select Paragon responses (which are idealistic and by-the-book) or Renegade responses (more authoritarian and results-seeking) to see more effective results as you play. I found myself selecting the Paragon options, as I always have. There were times where I tried the Renegade responses, but found myself being really displeased by the results. For instance, within the first couple hours of play, you have to collect a potential teammate by infiltrating a group of gangs. One gang member that you interact with is trying to fix a gunship. The game gives you the option to kill him via electrocution (resulting in the gunship having fewer shields when you fight it later on). Although he was technically a “bad guy,” it felt so wrong of me to electrocute him that I actually wound up replaying that part, sparing him (opting for a slightly more difficult battle against the gunship). This instance will later tie into my study of Gee’s Identity Principle.

Attempting to keep a sharp eye out, I noticed one small instance of in-game sexism in my playthrough. In order to infiltrate the gangs, you must get hired on as a freelancer. Playing as female Shepard, the recruiter will question your capabilities, calling you “sweet” and telling you the “strippers’ quarters are that way.” This is one of very few instances where a non-teammate will have a sex-differentiated dialogue with your character. Because this game is meant to take place in the future (in the year 2185), I thought it was an interesting design choice to include insults based on the sex of the character. It made me wonder if the developers were suggesting that sexism will still exist in the future, or if the gender biases of today have colored their decisions as to how the main character could be insulted by non-teammates. Other than this small instance, I had found the representation of gender to be very balanced. However, this perception is one that has been clouded by my having played through the whole series, and factoring in changes that had been made along the way (found particularly in the last game of the trilogy).

To start, we know that Commander Shepard can be either male or female, any (human) race, and be of any sexual orientation, all of which can be determined by the player. An interesting note is that I played as female Shepard in my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2, despite watching a playthrough of Mass Effect [1] featuring male Shepard on YouTube, since it was not available for PlayStation 3 at the time. I felt comfortable doing this because the game was designed to allow anyone to have nearly the same exact play options when it comes to character development and decisions. Even the male and female voice actors essentially have the same dialogue scripts. The only differences come into play when interacting with other characters; namely, your teammates. For instance, you may choose to pursue a romantic interest in the game. Male and female Shepard have different options of who they may pursue, depending on the sexual preferences of the various characters. Your teammates may also only divulge certain information about themselves, depending on whether Shepard is male or female (usually based on their romantic interest in you). And, as expressed before, there is occasionally varied dialogue from non-teammates that relies on Shepard’s sex. Aside from that, Shepard’s influence -as both a soldier and a leader- is exactly the same regardless of the chosen gender. Because the virtual identity that I connected to bore little to no imbalances, I had almost completely forgotten a tremendous aspect of design that had boggled me during my first playthrough of the game. That is, all but two non-human species had zero female representation. And of those that did have female representation, one was an all-female race: the Asari. They served as the alien eye-candy of the series, holding roles as pole-dancers, seductresses and receptionists (though plenty were soldiers). I failed to notice this in my initial analysis of the game because I had played through the final game, which provided more female representation for the species that had once lacked them. The lack of females in the other races was not because they were a single-gendered species like the Asari; but rather, the developers only afforded their efforts into making the males of the species, saying that it would take much longer to create models for both genders of every single species. This is where Justine Cassell’s article, Genderizing HCI, has ground. Throughout the article she provides studies and specific examples of games that are “genderized,” or tailored to suit one gender over the other. So despite an overall balanced experience as Commander Shepard, the evidence still points to the idea that BioWare -the game’s developer- had planned on a mostly-male audience. Oddly enough, the effort put into allowing the player a choice of gender for their main character was enough for the series to gain a sizeable female following. One that clearly had to be catered to by the third game, where all of the females started making appearances.

Another concept that was easy for me to overlook was that of ideology. Ideology is a strong influence of plot and perception within video games. Some developers will use this method heavy-handedly, while others will use a more subtle approach. Mass Effect 2 can be both subtle and obvious in its use, which can be noted within the first few hours of gameplay.

First, to provide background, players will either know or become aware that there is a notable political presence in the Mass Effect universe. This presence is called the “Council,” an assemblance of one member of each prestigious race in a galaxy of numerous aliens, where humanity is a newcomer. The other Council races are wary of humans, not sure if they are responsible enough to hold such a vital role in the galactic community so early on. Because most aliens tend to focus on the stigmas of humanity, nearly all humans within the game hold a grudge against the other alien species and develop the belief that humanity should stand alone and above the alien races. This idea is reinforced when human colonies begin vanishing (taken by a hostile alien race) and the Council refuses to get involved, even suggesting that the human colonies brought it upon themselves by populating worlds that are on the fringes of Terminus Space –which is not under Council jurisdiction, and is presumed dangerous. Ultimately, this background reinforces a frame of mind where you are compelled to stand as pro-human, and perhaps anti-alien, as you are constantly placed in the position of the disrespected underdog.

However, as you delve into the realm of Mass Effect 2, numerous elements come into play to contest the anti-alien frame of mind. First, is the group that Commander Shepard works for to deal with the hostile threat. This group -Cerberus- is infamous for its domineering tactics and harsh experiments. Shepard has some history opposing the group, but you as the player may decide whether you have tension or compatibility with the group during your temporary alliance. While the player is always welcome to agree with Cerberus and its tactics, the game has much in way of contesting this (anti-alien) mindset. Again, the fact that the human-centric Cerberus has a disturbing past is the first among these reasons, providing negative reinforcement by painting them as a group of extremists.

Another form of contestation is in the brief interactions you have in the Mass Effect universe. For instance, on the Citadel (where many varieties of species reside peacefully, along with housing the Council and Embassies) you can speak with shop owners to get supplies. How they interact with you is quite heavily dependant on whether you sacrificed human ships in the first game to save the Council, with the alternative of letting them perish. I remembered in my first playthrough, one shop owner berated me for the death of the original Council. Although he still allowed me to purchase goods, he did so with disdain. In my current playthrough, I had Shepard save the Council in the previous game, and that same shop owner spoke with me in adoration, beyond pleased that I came to his store. Naturally, the second reaction made me feel much better than the first, enforcing goodwill toward alien cooperation.

Finally, the strongest form of contestation is the team of allies you collect for your suicide mission. This team is who you build relationships with, whether they are friendships, romantic pursuits, or rivalries. Nearly all members are skeptical of Cerberus, but they respect and are willing to help Shepard. The relationships comprise a huge part of gameplay experience, in attempt to build emotional connections with the player. If those connections are successful and the interactions are meaningful, then the player can be influenced by the opinions of the other characters. Because your closest relationships are with your alien allies, you develop sympathy and understanding toward their cultures, seeing the value in each of them. Furthermore, as you progress through the game, working with alien allies establishes the idea that the greatest successes can come from the cooperation of different species.

Now, to draw real-world parallels. By now you may notice that while Mass Effect 2 always gives you the freedom of choice and beliefs, nearly all positive reinforcement stems from the idea of intercultural cooperation. In fact, this concept drives the entire series, providing the most pleasing outcomes when your decisions align with a pursuit of cooperation. The underlying ideology is decidedly liberal, painting multiculturalism in a positive light. Those who may oppose this ideology may call it naïve or idealistic, as opposed to realistic, while believers say that the cooperation of differing cultures will bring out the best in each; a gratifying strength that can overcome any obstacle (suicide missions and alien invasions included). Meanwhile, although the game suggests it is perfectly natural to view situations through a conservative scope -because other cultures are not helping while yours is in need, and the group you work for is the only one willing to go out and do something to help humanity- the game pushes you to contest this frame of mind. For instance, nearly any time you make a humanity-first decision or are uncooperative with other species (“cultures”), they appear as Renegade options, implying you are being something of a “bad guy” or “bully” when making those selections. Renegade options most often provide the most unfavorable results, providing contestation toward a conservative mindset.

Finally, by having the opportunity to play again, I am able to reflect on the learning style and experience it offers to players. Of James Paul Gee’s 36 Learning Principles, the Identity Principle is what truly immerses players into the Mass Effect universe. When the Identity Principle is employed, it will allow the player to make “real choices” in the game environment that will affect the identity of his/her virtual character, and offer them the chance to reflect on their own character in the real world. What makes Mass Effect a distinguishing series is the fact that one can decide on certain dialogues and actions that not only determine the overall personality of the main character, but can affect the relationships and fates of your teammates and outcomes of certain in-game missions. Some players use this as an opportunity to test their own judgements as a leader, and react in the ways they can most easily perceive themselves. Others use this opportunity to respond in ways they normally would/could not, in order to see the consequences, positive or negative. During or after play, learners can reflect on their choices. The game can give people an understanding of their real-world identity, as well as provide insights on how they would like their identity to evolve, based on their feelings toward the consequences of their virtual identity. Recall my personal reflection on electrocuting the gang member. Even though the game is not real life, and I could play however I pleased, I felt that my identity was tied to Shepard’s. Thus the decisions I made as Shepard had to be ones I personally felt comfortable with. However, if I wanted to see certain consequences of a different personality, I could always connect with other gamers via YouTube, conventions, or even in-person, which is something remarkable for this game. It has become something real for people.

In conclusion, I can say with certainty that the most impressive thing about this game (and the series) is the culture that has stemmed from it, where people have changed, connected and become involved in one another’s lives. It has become something where the producers of the game look to its fanbase for direction in its proceedings. And although the analysis has allowed me to break through the cultural fog to see some shortcomings, idiosyncrasies, and implications, I have to commend the creators for investing in player choice. I think these are steps in the right direction to make games that are relevant and meaningful to a greater variety of people.

References

 

Bogost, Ian. “Videogames and Ideological Frames.” Popular Communication 4(3) (2006): 165-83. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Article.

 

Cassell, Justine. “Genderizing HCI.” E15-315 (2002). MIT Media Lab. Article.


Gee, James Paul, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, (2003). Palgrave Macmillan

Spec Ops: The Line

Eric Tang

EDT 460

Ingram-Goble

October, 5, 2014

Critical Analysis: Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter developed by Yager Development and published by 2k Games. At face value, the game looks like your generic shooter game, you play as a white American male Commander leading a band of brothers through the game killing all those who try to stop you from reaching your goal. What is unique about this title is that the game is actually designed to raise awareness about post traumatic stress disorder that many of our veterans face when they return home from war. The PTSD-related ideologies represented are deep and one can often look past the hidden messages placed throughout the game on their first walkthrough. The first 30 minute of gameplay is intentionally designed to feel like generic “call of duty” scenarios before pulling off the covers to reveal the true theme of the game. Gee’s principles of explicit information on-demand and just-in-time principle, “psychosocial moratorium” principle, situated meaning principle, and design principle are used to teach the player about the ideology of the game.

The explicit information on-demand and just-in-time principle was used to comfortably introduce the game to the player. The game introduces the control in  a cliche fashion, showing the buttons used on screen and introducing them when they are needed to be learnt. Once the player has accomplished these “mini” objective, the buttons are no longer shown. These functionalities vary from moving the player around to taking shelter behind objects to stay clear of enemy fire. This principle is particularly important because it setups the player to expect the game to be just like any other shooting game. Once the expectation is created, the game begins to slowly break down the 4th wall and begins to deliver the core message of the game directly to the player about PTSD by making the gameplay exhibit PTSD symptoms.

Psychosocial Moratorium principle was drawn by designers to allow the player to have options, or so they would think. Very early on in the game, you are approached by a band of armed men right after your team discovered a dead American soldier. As you hide behind cover talking to these armed men you are given the option to shoot them immediately or if you were to wait your comrade would suggest that you shoot at the windows (filled with sand) above the men to neutralize them. Options like these are rare in most shooter games can be found throughout the game giving the player the sense of having the freedom of choice.

Although subtle, the situated meaning principle is implied by the designers to deliver the game’s core message. If the player were to pay close attention, the men clearly stated that they were on a humanitarian mission to evacuate civilians. This is brought up a few times in the first mission as your comrades are hesitant to comply to your orders of shooting armed men who are clearly the refugees you were sent to save. Earlier in the game, before you encounter any men you hear John Conrad’s voice in a megaphone( the commander you are trying to search for). This should begin to smell fishy for the player as in that particular moment in the game. Your team is on high alert thinking that they are being followed. The fact that no one mentioned John Conrad’s voice should hint to the player that it may be just some kind of hallucination (PTSD symptom). When you decide to change the mission into a rescue mission, your comrades questioned your decision citing that it is going against orders. But you stubbornly march toward the city away ignoring your comrades’ warning. As you begin to enter the city, graffitis along the buildings display the thoughts of people stranded in the city. “God”, “water please”, “help”, and “liar” are spraypainted throughout the inside of buildings suggesting that the social order has collapse within the city which may point to the PTSD theme the game is conveying.

The design of the game was the most important principle as it is the most obvious hint the developer give to the player about the PTSD-theme. As you progress through the game, the loading cutscenes change from pro-military propaganda to messages directed toward the player asking if he/she is doing more harm than good, the colorful American Flags are replaced by skulls and building debris illustrating the mental breakdown of the main character. Even the level design suggest that the player is spiraling deeper into his/her PTSD as the levels force the player to continue to go down holes. If you were to step back and realize how much you have been descending, it would be impossible as the surrounding landscape is a flat desert. Advertisements displaying faces show no eyes and as you progress through the game, these images are slowly replaced by skulls or with their eyes “bleed” out in black ink. Although this is my speculation, I think the designers are showing how blind either the player or character is becoming to his efforts of becoming a hero. Periodically you justify brutal action to take out enemy troops at the expense of harming innocent civilians. His PTSD is taking full control of the character preventing him from seeing the true reality of his actions and is shown first-hand to the player as he/she cannot tell what is real and what is only an illusion. When you are searching for the remaining enemy survivors, you can locate them by listening to their dialogs. Their conversations suggest that they do not want to engage the player but are forced to in order to defending themselves. In most games, enemies are not given a personality and are only seen as evil entities. But in this game, the enemies have casual dialog with each other and fight as if they’re defending themselves rather than attacking for some organized military order.

The principles shown throughout the game would seem to support my initial assumption that the game is another run and gun military shooter. Once the game begins to introduce PTSD elements, it quickly becomes obvious that the shooting mechanic is actually meant to support the PTSD themes in the game (through shooting hallucinations and harming innocent lives) . I can understand why the designers decided to do this because the topic of PTSD is something that people like to avoid discussing this mental issue as it is one of the many tragic outcomes of war. By intentionally making the game feel like any other shooter, it allows the designer to slowly introduce the subject to the player without having the player realize their character has PTSD. If the game started out with the theme displayed clearly, Many people would drop the controller and walk away as most gamers would not understand the hallucinations or would not wish to explore the inner psyche of a PTSD victim.

Obviously I have a lot of insight on this game since I have already beaten the game, I will even admit that in my first playthrough I missed many hints and only at the end did I begin to understand the message. During my first playthrough, I was expecting the game to be another first person shooter, and in the first hour of the game, it would seem like I was right, As the stages progress, more enemies and types of enemies increased. Tips and hints were displayed above the player about using new weapons to help aid me overcome the latest obstacle. In fact, after 30 minutes of running and gunning people I had already forgotten that my mission was to rescue survivors. I was tricked into playing this heroic role of trying to save Conrad’s troops from the “evil” rebels. I was tricked by my character, I was tricked by myself.

This whole idea of wanting to be the hero of the game stems from the perceived notion that players want to be the hero when they play games like these. They want to rise victorious over your opponent and show that you were the best, typically requiring you to kill everything in your sight. And this need also plays a role in recruiting young men and women to join the armed forces. I am not saying their reasons are not honorable and I have complete respect for our military men and women. But many of our military ads try convincing potential recruits that they can be a hero. They claim that you’ll be the hero both at home and abroad by helping oppressed civilians and kill evil men that want to destroy America. Hardly do these ads ever talk about the causation of the political instability in the particular region and simply point that these groups want to destroy America because they “hate” our freedom.

And as I traversed through these levels, I never once asked myself if my actions were right. I just assumed they were right because I saw myself as the hero of the game. I never once saw these rebels as the refugees I was sent there to save. I did not know the horrors they have experienced living in a city abandon by the world, a city where Conrad’s own men have gone rogue and now control the inhabitants of the city.

As I continued through the game, I began to notice something fishy was happening with the environment, in one case I was gunning down enemies to the sound of a happy rock song playing on the radio. It felt so strange because the song just didn’t fit with the moment in the game. This audio cue encourages the player to start picking up that the game is not what the player imagines. This is shown through the images found throughout the game. All images of people had their eyes covered up, and eventually were painted over, symbolizing that the player was blind to see the reality of the whole situation in Dubai. In one particular instance, the player was forced to move slowly by some images of nicely painted skeletons wearing clothes. At first glance, I thought nothing of it and merely saw it as a painting, but then on my second playthrough I thought to myself. How often would you see a nicely painted skeleton in a war torn city? Where graffiti is blastered everywhere, how can this image exist. Is this image really real? And then it hit me, these images of skeletons much like the eyes in ads being painted over are just my own vision and it got me thinking about how people with PTSD must see reality. How can I believe anything shown in the game if what I’m seeing could be fake? This game gave me a first-hand experience with PTSD symptom where I was believing everything I saw without questioning it. And only when I had already beaten the game and was explained what the true theme was did I realize most of everyone was an illusion. It blew my mind, looking back through my entire journey of my gameplay to see how many hints I missed. But then it had me realize that in most cases, people with PTSD do not realize that they even have it. Obviously I will not mention what was told to me at the end of the game, but the one thing I will say is that the game was not talking to the character, but to me the player.

This game has a very deep meaning behind it and to players who are not willing to question their action can easily miss the purpose of the game even when they beat the game. In fact, this may be one of the few games that I believe should be rated mature because the topic involves a lot of self-reflection as the player. Even with the ending, the theme of the game can still be misunderstood by a player who merely wants to play a shooter. And even as I’m writing this, I wonder what other details I may have overlooked. The game divides the genders into two categories. The game had no women soldiers, in fact the only time women and children were seen was when the player had to attack enemies around them harming them collaterally. The women are viewed as defenseless and innocent and were used to make the player feel guilt for his/her action. These action by the player draw a parallels between the use of drones in the middle east. As an American, I am constantly told that what we’re doing in the middle east is right and we’re liberating those people from tyranny. But the game suggest that there are many consequences of our involvement like accidently killing innocent people. From a western pro-democratic point of view, this particular scene in the game makes me question about our actions and if we’re doing more harm then good. And while I cannot speak as someone from the Middle East region, I am curious about how they see this game, do they see it as the reality of their region or do they view this as another barbaric game made by westerns to show how violate their region is.

While all of Bogost’s ideological frames can be used to analyze in Spec Ops,the game play I experienced is most usefully analyzed through the frame of reinforcement. Typically a special operative commander would have ways to communicate with HQ when they’re executing a rescue mission in a city. The fact that you are not given access to HQ enhances the player’s fantasy of being the lone hero that saves the day. In most cases, the commander would have contacted HQ after encountering dead American soldiers and by then they would be given proper orders. In the game, your player simply changes to mission to saving American soldiers. This lack of centralize commands gives the player more command over his/her destiny. The choices given throughout the game is also very limiting as there are only two kinds of choices, a passive one or an aggressive one both leading to the same conclusion in order to keep a linear storyline. When you first encounter the combatants you are given the option to shoot first, or wait and hear what your partner suggest which is to shoot the glass of a bus above the combatants to cover them in sand. Whether you choose to shoot them or the glass the result is that the combatants are dead, you are not able to talk to them about what has happened and you are not able to search their bodies for clues. These lacks of options forces the player to see these armed enemies as a means to an end. Another instance is when you are forced to choose whether or not to shoot the kidnapper as he’s threatening the hostage. Whether or not you decide to shoot him, after a given amount of time your partner will kill him for you. Therefore you are not able to interrogate the kidnapper. In most cases you would shoot in non-lethal areas but the game gives you no choices and you again, are forced to kill enemies. This is also true for the execution feature placed in the game. Whenever you shoot an enemy in a non-lethal area the enemy will go down and crawl  around. If you leave the enemy alone, he will be able to get back up after a given time and will shoot at you. Therefore the game gives you two options. The first is to shoot the enemy as he is squirming around, the other option is to execute him. While the execution feature does save you bullies, you can see the player inhumanly execute the enemy. Nowhere does the game allow you to talk to the enemy or try disarming him. You are only given one choice, which is to kill everyone who stands in your way. In the real world, you try saving the enemy if possible because you can gain vital intelligence that can help you on your mission. In the game, you cannot ask for information reinforcing your player’s motif of being the lone rambo-like hero.

Spec Ops: The Line gives a rare spin to a big but very generic genre, it look into how one’s perspective can augment reality and can show the dark sides of war and conflict. It is one of the few games that blew me away when I finished playing and has left me reflecting on what I have experienced and has had me questioning how one’s own view, goals and perspective can alter the reality and environment around you.