Friday, May 4, 2012
Between the Law & Gamification series, MMO Judiciary, Kill Screen postings, the GWJ posts, and System Narrative posts I think I've gone through this topic pretty thoroughly. After seeing the modelling article flopped on reddit I decided maybe it was time to take a step back and reflect a bit. When it comes to rule theory and video games, I think games are a lot more useful to rule theory than vice-versa.
I base this just on the common assertion that what I'm writing about is usually obvious to people or that I'm taking simple ideas and dressing them up in fancy words. This is true in some ways, if rule modelling (for example) is something you only know from the perspective of game design then these concepts are pretty simple. In computer software, all rules are automatically enforced. Approaching the rule from a binary perspective is the most efficient method and the idea of choice or costs is not really an issue. A choice in a video game is really just a question of whether or not the person does it. Issues like who, why, what if they don't like it, how do we change it, or by whose authority are irrelevant in single-player games. Or in an MMO's case, minimal problems for the developer.
This is formalism. Pure formalism really, so much so that it is probably better labelled as 'game' or some other concept legal philosophy has yet to really address. Normally when you say formalism you're talking about a rule system where the rules are taken literally and this is true in video games. Yet the idea of a perfect formal system, one where all choices are expected and accounted for, is really a fantasy. A world where there are no hard cases or if there is one, the entire system breaks down. As a lawyer, I take for granted that there will always be messy, complex perspective and people involved in any system.
When I first started digging into this topic about a year ago, it began with the question of why this subject wasn't really addressed more in-depth. Legal philosophy has always acknowledged games for their capacity to illustrate complex ideas in rules. Two people fighting over what's correct in chess. What's the difference between writing down the rules for reference and treating that written text as the source of authority? What makes that tactic unfair and that one acceptable if they are still obeying the rules? I can capture this notion through the example of a game fairly quickly, as opposed to delving into banking law or something equally byzantine.
Games, by their nature, deify complexity. They selectively arrange the portions of complexity that are gratifying to master and hail the player for their capacity to overcome it. The players are taught everything they need to know and conversely, the rulemaker knows everything that could happen in their system. In such a space, there is no reason to be afraid of rules. Which is really the emotion that makes my job possible.
I'd like to close on an anecdote about the development of the tort law to illustrate my point. This is the legal mechanism by which if you get injured and someone else is responsible, you can sue them for damages. This did not exist until the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that point, most injuries were generally considered to be your own damn fault. The very rare scenarios where someone else was responsible could be handled by squeezing the lawsuit into some other area, criminal assault or nuisance for example.
What changed was that machines have a bad habit of blowing up. Railroads, steamboats, and factories maimed and killed people in large quantities. You can't really tell someone that it's their fault the steamboat they were riding to New Orleans exploded. So tort law was invented. What was once simple and taken for granted suddenly got a lot more complicated.
So it is with video games at the moment. While everyone awaits their Citizen Kane or Art Gallery or...whatever the hell it is people are going on about now, the lawyer is more interested in something else entirely. I am waiting for them to get more complicated.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
A Link to the Past is 20 years old. I’ve been re-playing it every couple of years since its release. Waking up on a rainy night to rescue Princess Zelda. Collecting scattered heart containers, poking around strange dungeons, and rushing along to the next item which will open up more of the world. The music that fills your head and starts creeping out in a hum when you’re doing busy-work. The lush green and blue of Light World contrasting the browns and greys of Dark World. The game’s memories are almost more important than the actual play experience at this point.
Whenever someone replays A Link to the Past there are two distinct versions of the game in existence. The one inside their head and the one in front of them. The one inside their head is called a model. We make models out of systems constantly. Take something like the economy, a person is simplifying a gigantic social system, cutting out issues irrelevant to them, and boiling things down to the simpler version of the problem. It is how we deal with complexity.
In A Link to the Past, I don’t walk around memorizing the solution to every puzzle. I walk around with a basic model of what things can interact with what. The hammer knocks down posts. The glove lets me pick up rocks. Modeling is a descriptive exercise, we want to get to the gist of what matters with as little information as possible that is still an accurate prediction of the world. Hammer hits pegs. Rocks block the path. Game-playing is a normative exercise, I am applying the model and tweaking it based on the feedback as I play. Can I pick this thing up? No, so what about this? How do I hit these pegs in the right order to open a portal? Should I go get fairies before I enter this dungeon? My health is low, do I drink a potion? By playing, the game is ironing out the discrepancies in my model and adjusting its broad rules to individual situations.
Like the game, the model is a construct of rules. Jeffrey M. Lipshaw points out in his essay Models and Games that games have ‘thingness’ – an independent reality – and models have ‘aboutness’ – they map onto something. A model is me saying I can pick up rocks with my glove. The game is different because it has a reality where that may or may not be true. Is it the rock in Section 4, X.pos 59, Y.pos 123, variable 9? Have you met the glove condition and proximity conditions? Then yes, you can pick it up. There is a definitive answer to the question about picking up THIS particular rock in the game. In the model, there is only the broad concept, the actual answers vary.
A good example of this concept in action is after I bought Zora’s flippers. I knew I could go to a bunch of places that I hadn’t before. I suddenly found myself really annoyed at how few bombs and arrows I could carry. I didn’t consciously know that the Flippers gave me access to the upgrade pool. My model of the game, after years of re-playing, was tuned just enough to know it was time to go deal with my ammo limit. This happened consistently, from suddenly knowing it was time to upgrade my sword to collecting the magic medallions. I didn’t know the actual technical information about where to go and what to do. I just knew I needed to do something.
The purpose behind creating such a distinction in rules is that if there is sufficient complexity, models look just like games, and sometimes games can serve as models. Because models look like games, we may come to believe they are real – that the models have thingness rather than aboutness. What if in A Link to the Past the model in your head is not a generic principle of, “Pick up rocks when you have the glove.” What if your model consists of memorizing every rock that has a secret under it? That approach starts to look like the player has memorized the game itself rather than just a simplified model.
This is the crux of interacting with any system: the personal experiences and observation of the individual as they are used to build the broad, generic model that tells us how to operate. You are always filling in the gaps of your knowledge through active participation, through thingness. The more the system confirms or corroborates my model, the less I have to pay attention. I just know things and react accordingly. The issue is when people start acting this way in real life. And they have a bad habit of doing so when their model is so complex that they think they can start predicting everything.
Lipshaw’s article is about the problem of people acting on models that are gamelike without really being aware of it. They are relying on misguided reactions and assuming they are correct because of the models in their head. These models were built from interacting with problematic legal or economic systems that did not reward the most efficient behavior. Lipshaw is concerned with financial markets and specific areas of business law, but in many ways he’s talking about the same modeling process that goes on in video games. Except, as Lipshaw warns, if a lawyer or banker is using the wrong model they can do a lot of damage. Federal regulations that incentivize goals that are destructive in the long-term or legal systems that assign victory states when nothing has really been resolved are his chief examples.
As I replayed A Link to the Past I was startled by how much my intuitions had been created by the game itself. I’ve played dozens and dozens of games besides this one. Many of them filled with even more secrets and hidden areas. Yet I still knew when it was time to go get major upgrades like clockwork. It was like I was sensing that something intrinsically wasn’t right but not on any conscious level. That instinct did not come from anywhere but the game. There is no natural force in my life that makes my subconscious think I should be wearing a blue tunic when I’m in the Ice Palace. There is nothing that makes me look at a hammer and think about posts outside the world of Hyrule. Yet I have internalized this information with the rest of my subconscious fears and desires. And it has stayed with me my entire life. The model of the game has become more real than the game itself.
Sunday, January 29, 2012
This post is a part of a larger series about the kinds of stories video games tell. It is not the only kind they tell, but it is one the medium is uniquely good at because of the nature of games.
Oh, and spoilers.
Throughout this systems narrative project I have said The Wire is a prime example of a popular system narrative. There have been precursors to its form, like the police procedural or a complex spy thriller, but there are few stories focused so strongly on system rather than character. I figured it was time I went into that a little bit more.
The best way to highlight the ins and outs of the show’s style and system is by comparing it to another show, Breaking Bad, which deals with similar subject matter in a very different way. This isn’t an argument over which is better, just a way to talk about how system narratives work. I’ve watched every season of The Wire twice. I’ve watched the first three seasons of Breaking Bad once.
The biggest characteristic of a system narrative is that the characters don’t really change personally, they move around the system into different positions and relationships with one another. McNulty in The Wire is roughly the same person in Season 1 as he is in Season 5. When he’s outside of Homicide or not working a detail, he’s calmer and sober. When he gets placed in that environment, he gets angry and drunk. That compulsion hasn’t really been resolved at the end of the show, he’s just more aware of it. McNulty has chosen to take himself out of that position for his own well-being. This observation applies for the majority of characters, even Bubbles and his recovery from addiction. Bubbles is affected by the events of his life to change, he’s not different in the sense that he is a different person.
In stark contrast is Walter White. At the beginning of Season 1 in Breaking Bad he retains his sympathies and conflicts. At the end of the pilot he is so paranoid and apologetic that he is contemplating suicide for his actions. By the end of Season 3 he has killed either directly or inadvertently 5 people and distributed pounds of meth throughout the Southwest. He has become addicted to the danger and empowerment of being a drug dealer. This is very clearly a character arc.
What McNulty or Bubbles undergo acts like a character arc. It’s not that system narratives don’t have arcs, it’s that characters moving around a system is depicted differently than focusing on an individual. In Season 3, after the detail has failed to bust Stringer Bell or Proposition Joe for almost a year, the detail is switched to an easier target. McNulty, being the asshole that he is, ignores orders and continues to pursue Stringer Bell. We see him try to flip D’s girlfriend Donnette by telling her D was probably murdered. We see String getting angry with Donette a while later, we see D’s mother Brianne hearing the news, eventually confronting McNulty, and then realizing the truth when she confronts String. The act of one individual reverberates out into the others. There are so many examples of this happening in The Wire that on a fundamental level it’s what the show is about.
Compare this to Breaking Bad. Each episode has an individual crisis, whether it’s finding a new supplier, finding a place to safely cook meth, or getting stuck out in the desert because the lab camper broke down. At the center of these crises is Walter White himself. We see him hiding things from his wife, reacting to Jessie, figuring out some kind of chemistry solution, or reacting to the struggle of dealing with meth. Most of this information is conveyed in that episode, he is on to a new set of issues an episode later. There are exceptions to this, like Walt’s decision to expand their territory playing out across multiple episodes when their friend dies. But it’s still at best two or three reverberations playing out as the catalyst for another series of moments where Walt is the central focus. In The Wire, McNulty is only present for two or three scenes of the 7 or 8 his initial actions stir up.
These two approaches to telling a story are adept at conveying different sorts of information. The intricacies of actually being a drug dealer are never really discussed in Breaking Bad. Walt is handed sacks of cash for pure meth, it’s never explained that people are cutting it and making far more money than what they’re paying. Meth cooking montages are stylish music videos. During Season 2’s brief portrayal of dealing meth we see one robbery, one arrest, and one murder by a rival gang. None of these characters are particularly significant and most have only a handful of scenes. You get the drama of dealing drugs but you don’t really have any idea of how it actually works. Instead you see how it impacts a small group of people’s lives.
Contrast that to The Wire where by the end of show you have an intricate understanding of all the issues that go into selling drugs, along with how bureaucracies work, the shipping industry, etc. None of the characters dealing with these issues are anonymous. People at every level of the drug game are depicted in numerous scenes. The same goes for Police, whether it’s beat cops or homicide. Season 3 introduces how the bureaucracy affects the Police and Season 4 shows how the urban environments often puts people in impossible situations. It’s for this reason The Wire does not really have an individual main character as its protagonist. McNulty hardly makes up the bulk of the show and he’s absent for the majority of Season 4. The diverse cast and the time dedicated to showing the impact of various actions means that The Wire is ultimately about the system of relationships between these people.
The biggest thing The Wire can’t do is depict silent evidence. In systems this is just the idea of unknown elements, the multitude of absences or possible outcomes that did not happen for whatever reason. An example would be something like assuming Harry Potter is the best fantasy book about wizards. There are so many variables in play like books that never got much attention, books that have never been written, or old books we’ve forgotten. What if someone else had been in J.K. Rowling’s position? Silent evidence is just a way of saying unknowable variables because there’s no solid answer to that question.
In a show about numerous relationships that works by showing the impact of people’s actions, The Wire has no way of talking about things it can’t depict. This is most prominent in Season 5. David Simon has said that his ultimate message was to show how the media ends up ignoring what’s important. They go with a bullshit, made-up story about a serial killer rather than talk about Clay Davis’s corruption. This presumably leads to Clay Davis being able to fool a group of jurors into thinking he is innocent. The issue is we’re never shown this. We just have to assume that’s what would happen. Because the show is so busy showing so many other connections and reverberations in the system, all of the newspaper’s actions seem meaningless. This is because they ultimately are in a systems narrative, if your character is affecting no change in others, then they aren’t really a part of the system.
Silent evidence also gives the show trouble in its basic characterizations. I know how all of these characters work and interact together, but I don’t really know a lot about them as individuals. To borrow the Red Letter Media Test, without using their job, appearance, or clothing, how easy is it to describe a character from The Wire? More importantly, how much does that description do them any justice? In Breaking Bad you can describe Season 2 Walt as a guy frustrated with his life who has become hooked on being the best at something. That’s not all of it, but it covers a lot of ground. It’s easy for me to describe McNulty as an asshole or that the FBI profile of him is hilariously accurate. But that doesn’t really describe why he’s important or admirable in the show. For example, I didn’t realize what a jerk McNulty was to his co-workers, particularly in Season 3, until I rewatched the show and caught the details.
Breaking Bad, with its devotion to Walter White, has no problem depicting silent evidence. Long shots of Skyler wondering where Walt is, him missing the birth of his daughter, or the tiny domestic moments that show his marriage falling apart all make you aware of what he’s doing. With so much time devoted to his character we are much more acutely aware of what his actions, in isolation, are doing to others. The question of “but for Walt’s meth dealing, his marriage would be intact” is not really open to debate even though it is never shown. In The Wire, we don’t really know if Clay Davis would have gotten off the hook if the newspaper had been talking about him. The show doesn’t really have a way to talk about this because it’s about things that didn’t happen. In many ways the absence IS a character, like a person in the room sucking the life out of Skyler and driving her away.
The difference can best be summarized by the plane crash at the end of Season 2. His family is in ruins, Walt is responsible for 3 people’s deaths, he has helped produce a lethal drug to thousands, and all he has to show for it is money and an empty house. Rather than show all this by depicting and developing all the characters necessary to show the systemic damage, a tragic airplane accident occurs. It’s a metaphor, a way to represent all the damage that has occurred succinctly and in one episode. The Wire, on the other hand, just shows all this happening episode by episode with its large cast.
David Simon described his approach to writing The Wire as trying to appeal to the people actually involved in this world. The average reader, as an outsider, is encouraged to actually engage with the realities rather than just a brief visit. He compares it to spending a month in Paris as opposed to riding around on a tour bus. Simon even made this point literally in Treme when a tour bus stopped and stared at a local funeral dance. Breaking Bad, as a character driven story, is a tour bus of the meth world with an excellent tour guide.
Early in Season 3, Lester asks McNulty how he thinks it will all end. If he really believes everyone will think he was right and congratulate him when he finally catches Stringer. Lester warns him that he won’t find any satisfaction if that is all he has in his life. In Breaking Bad, we all know that there will be a distinct ending. It will be sharp and well-written, but the story of these individual characters must come to an end eventually. As the ending montage of The Wire plainly shows, in system narratives that never really happens.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
My New Years Resolution was to write out a systemic process for saving money. I am, by nature, a tight fisted bastard. This covers everything from avoiding going out to dinner with large groups so I don’t get stiffed on the check to leaving my cards at home when I go out to a bar. I’m also a single guy with no attachments living in a very cheap apartment, so this method will not work for everyone.