‘Charming and Open’ with Adventure Rules

I always enjoy the collaborative nature of writing in this format, a chance to work with others, to form and shape your opinions and viewpoints based on an exchange of knowledge and ideas as opposed to the polarised positioning of debate so prevalent in the public discourse. Over the last year I have take part in a few of these collaborations, from my first entry in the Blogger Blitz with a proposition centred around true love as demonstrated in Mass Effect to an attempt to define the Ocarina of Time as a literary classic. Wherever you look in this community there seems a genuine will and drive to succeed as a collective common goal, to work together to grow as a writing community but also to just come together and enjoy debating and challenging each others thoughts and opinions.

A new collaboration for me this month comes courtesy of Robert at the Adventure Rules page with a fascinating proposition using a dungeons and dragons character trope in his Charming and Open writing challenge, the basic premise framed around a characteristic of the bard in role playing games who freely exchanges knowledge with others in return for that same transparency. In short, its a form of ask me anything with one author posing a question to be answered in a form of a blog post and then in return receiving a posed question back to answer. It’s a productive and positive form of working together, stretching your literary and creative muscles in an imaginative and unexpected way.

Having browsed the comments section on the original post and some of the questions being posed to each other, there are some great topics coming up I will try to update and link to as and when they are posted by their respective authors. My question to the author revolved around societal divisions and a preference to direct or abstraction representation in media. For me, an equally compelling and self reflecting question to ponder as I reflect back on over two decades of gaming from its relative infancy in the 16 bit era to the present day multi million dollar industry that exists today. The industry has changed in that period, not always of its own accord or by its own drive, so without further delay let’s address the question at hand.

Have you ever played a game that changed your thinking on a subject? If so, what game was it, and if not, why do you think that is?

I’ve been giving consideration to the agency gaming has on our morality and perceptions. We like to consider ourselves, learned creatures, people of rational thought and construct whose opinion is largely based on objective reasoning over subjective, emotional stimulus. To give weight and fair process in answering this question involves challenging ingrained opinions and rational thought on a subject matter, removing all hubris and ego from the discussion and arriving at a fair conclusion. This, personally, is based on the fundamental premise of the question as posed, whether a game has the agency to change my thinking on a subject matter and if not, what is the reasoning behind that. For the purpose of clarity, as a beginning I cannot in all honesty give a specific game that has had any real impact on my perceptions and objective thought. In contrast, I can name many titles that have an effect on my subjective base, for better and for worse. Games and gaming, fundamentally, are designed by definition to elicit a sense of joy for our amusement, they appeal and manipulate the subjective aspect of our reasoning and thought. Equally, through design, it can be noted this software is very much designed to specifically target and manipulate in its purest form different aspects of our psychology as users, take for instance open world gaming such as Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs or Mafia 3 which can be observed to alter our emotions based on an ecological response, how we respond to the virtual environment in a similar fashion to the real world outside. In contrast, a narrative structured gaming experience along a predetermined or passively manipulative trajectory can elicit a stronger emotional resonance based on us projecting ourselves about the virtual avatars under our control.

Jonathan Frome at the University of Georgia published a paper entitled ‘Eight Ways Video Games Generate Emotion’ based on the impact this software has on our emotional state. If you take the very term ‘thinking’ as an abstract notion, you could observe video games have had a substantial impact on my thought processes with the conflict between stated objectives of the various parties that go into producing these games. To expand on this thought process, the level developers who are crafting these environments for example, designed specifically to target our ecological emotive state, the ‘immersion factor’ so to speak and the level of which we are so consumed with the world before us we lose perspective to a certain extent. For example in Alien Isolation, how the presentation of the final experience was designed very much in a way to create resonance to the past, a manipulation of our memories of that period of time and how we felt to strengthen the bond to the game. Indeed, it was rightly praised for its visual aesthetic and the connectivity between the movies and the game itself. Equally however, given the design of the Alien itself, you were largely confined, in part to a role of observation, cowering in a locking, behind a cabinet and watching as it stalked you with dispassion and menace. The game created a perfect example of observatory horror, eliciting strong negative emotions through the sensation of fear and dread, unable to take credible action to remove that feeling, in keeping with the first film of the franchine. This perhaps is the closest I could form an answer on how gaming or a specific game has changed my way of thinking, it has been designed to such an extent to change my emotive state of mind and that’s a powerful tool to give to anyone.

In its entirety it’s safe to presume the basis of the original question however is an appeal to the objective rational side of ourselves, our formed, learned opinion on a subject matter and whether the narrative or design has altered our perceptions on an issue. That is a more challenging notion to dissect in truth, in part as we as a society have become more attuned to our emotional state and aware of the stimulus that effects and manipulates our emotions. The notion however a form of media has the power and merit to alter our objective reasoning, in a more sinister fashion or indeed in any way shape or form is a challenging concept to consider. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is growing calls to investigate political and electoral manipulation from foreign agencies, the usual cited villain of the piece Russia critiqued in its ability to manipulate public opinion to serve its purpose. Is there merit to this concern? arguably the same algorithms that could manipulate an election result through targeted campaign media on social media platforms, editorial content decisions on mass media for instance affecting our objective thought through the selected exposure to certain facts or content could rationale be contrasted to how studios and developers manipulate the emotive side of our psyche. The oft, sighted example of a game that had an impact on people’s thinking was the infamous white phosphorus scene in Spec Ops, described on PC Gamer in 2014 and indeed from my own observable experience of the game, it was a harrowing moment as you realise the error of your actions has resulted in large scale civilian death. The game, in its entirety is almost an abject lesson in the futility of war and conflict, each step challenging your moral convictions as it becomes less a conflict of right and wrong and further down a path of the lesser of two evils.

The use of this chemical weapon has come into the spotlight with its inclusion as a multiplayer achievement in the recent Call of Duty, a ‘perk’ for using the chemical to complete a kill streak. Opinions have changed in the last five years, or perhaps the method of its implementation. Where in Spec Ops it was used to very much highlight the horror of war and the atrocity of the use of this chemical, in Call of Duty, a form of ordnance that is effective in its implementation. Opinion is divided on its inclusion, sources such as the military times drawing to the point any virtual game that allows you to knife and murder an opponent at close range, a very visceral, narratively engaging act whilst balking at the notion of using a digital chemical agent is somewhat contradictory in the condemnation. Equally, as reported at VG 24/7 it does draw attention to the fact for the horrors of this compound, it has been neutered somewhat to act more as a gaming mechanic as opposed to an observation on the horrors of war. Whether there was a legitimate fear the graphical prowess of the current generation consoles and graphics capability would recreate burn wounds and injuries as a result of inhalation were seemingly unfounded. It would appear, as presumed, it was an alternate form of weaponry, and from a subjective standpoint, we have been using flamethrowers in war games for over a decade now, the moral umbrage to using phosphorous games to choke and burn someone from within in contrast to the passively acceptable practise of burning someone alive is baffling. It’s a mechanic which had the potential to change my opinion on its use and indeed on a broader scale war and conflict in general. Why I wouldn’t say it did, purely for the notion of ecological emotive dissonance, for the horrors I witnessed in Spec Ops, I was aware I was in my flat, my senses beyond my sight provided a disconnect to the game before me. At its best, all it could hope for was to manipulate my emotive state, but using the flight or fight impulse I was aware I was safe and could therefore pull back from my connection to the experience.

Games can have and are designed to some extent to serve in an educatory capacity, there is a growing prevailing trend, especially in the current socio-political ideological environment to ensure narrative structured games are designed around current social trends to educate a large user base on these issues. DONTNOD, creators of the Life is Strange series recently announced their latest software for release next year featuring a transgender character developed through consultation with the advocacy organization Glaad. The furore over the release of Battlefield 5 was based, in part on the inclusion of women in a contextual, historical setting though opposition to this of course was met with condemnation by advocacy groups and news sites who critiqued reservation to the gender inclusion as a representation of the worst, traits of the gaming community who opposed this. Whatever personal truths and views you hold on personal and wider societal issues, when the objective truth and personal opinion are merged into one and the same, to identify a key area where yours has been fundamentally changed is a difficult realisation to come to. Not least, in the current polarised climate of modern society where any admission of error or misjudgement is met with indignation and calls to be erased at best from the digital platforms but at worst can have a very real detriment on your personal life away from the computer. For the purpose of transparency, I have long maintained a position of the centrist attempting to walk the virtuous path so to speak and base and form my opinion on a balance of rational thought and subjective values of right and wrong. I tend to adopt more traditional values and virtues however attempt to maintain an open mind and spirit.

Gaming as a pastime is an entirely artificial contrivance, that when studied objectively break down in terms of the emotional and psychological resonance to the user, and at a base objective level rational thought under scrutiny. My thinking around combat and warfare is largely unchanged irrespective of hours spent playing Battlefield and Call of Duty, for all the ‘realism’ and so called ‘fetishism’ in games such as Breakpoint, any emotive connection to the environment that could serve to educate is erased entirely with a respawned character, restorative health after being shot, game mechanics that break immersion and fails to act to change my mind on the horrors of war or the necessity of the armed forces. Gender representation and roles in society, I’ve lived and grown up in a society attempting to ‘smash the patriarchy’, a noble if misguided attempt to achieve gender balance and equality by creating conflict between the genders. But equally, games and software that present modern gender ideology and morality into historical setting and construct is a baffling representation of history. Perhaps it’s true, perhaps we only learned of the predominant male heroes of ancient Greece by living in a ‘patriarchy’ and Kassandra in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is in fact a true reflection of society in that period. I’m open to the notion history has been curated and shaped to suit a particular ideology, though to date I haven’t been shown or seen the evidence to change my opinion or thinking on that. I talked at length on racial injustice and representation, focused mainly around Mafia 3 last week, there is certainly an area here to change your thinking and general awareness of history and historical representation although as said in that article, I don’t feel that specific game did a great service to that era in a setting where so much real history was taking place and transforming American society.

There are of course a number of opinions and subject matters I give thought to, those were used to illustrate a point, given a push to use emotional manipulative practise to shape the framework of the narrative on the user I do find myself pulling back from the gaming experience, disengaging with contentious dialogue and ideologies that present themselves where perhaps they shouldn’t or don’t deserve to be. I’ve found myself in the last year actually gaining more enjoyment from the smaller independent titles, Firewatch could easily be my game of the year, a relatively short title but one that had a such a gorgeous environment to play in really captured the ‘spirit’ of that part of America in digitized form. Objectively, it didn’t change my way of thinking towards isolationism and talking to strangers on shortwave radio, I tend to believe I probably have my opinions aligned correctly there. Equally, every open world game I’ve played this year, whilst a technical marvel to some degree haven’t pushed a particularly strong or memorable perception changing moment or character that I could look to and say they changed my mind. Of course there are many, many games out there I haven’t played or tried that could have that perception changing impact, I don’t review these games professionally or consistently to any great degree, its an enjoyable pastime and there in for me lies perhaps the main reason why for all the games I’ve enjoyed and played there hasn’t been one that has changed my way of thinking, I view and play games for the simple pleasure they bring, if I learn a fact from history in Civilization, the strengths of a rough gem in Football Manager or the locations of the CCTV camera’s in Goldeneye and how best to avoid detection, it brings a momentary measure of satisfaction but any tangible pleasures I obtain away from the digital platforms.

I will conclude with an aside, a small observation that still holds true to this day. I was fortunate to experience the transition from the 16 bit to the 64 bit consoles in my youth, the evolution of graphical prowess from playing the likes of Sonic on the Mega Drive to Ocarina of Time was a quantum leap in terms of ability and performance. With that evolution came the tri grip controller for Nintendo’s leap into the 3D world. I don’t recall any great challenges stepping up onto this platform and to this day it holds dear memories for me, especially the multiplayer maps in Goldeneye with my school friends, it really was a right of passage and forged some enduring memories. In recent history, along with some of my close friends from that period in my life, we returned to try and play Goldeneye using the original controller and set up, attempting to recapture some of that element of our youth on a lazy gaming Saturday afternoon. We loaded up the temple map, I was Bond, mentally preparing the memory muscles in my hands to go forth and shoot bad guys. And for the life of me, I struggled move, I physically couldn’t work out how to use the controller or move my character which had been a fluidic motion a decade ago. My brain and controller usage has become so attuned to the modern inputs with camera control mechanic and dual sticks for instance, having a single stick on the N64 controller broke me. So there we are, as a conciliatory effort, has a game changed my way of thinking on a subject? arguably no and I would argue this is primarily around the use of manipulation on the users emotions and mindset to create ‘immersion’. However, I really couldn’t go back to a single stick controller given the almost perfection in design, so my mind has been changed, by necessity, but still a change.

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