Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Good Tutorials

I was a little surprised to not find too many sources on this one while googling around. I realize there are probably a couple of essays that I missed, but you'd think something like explaining how your game works to a total stranger would be a pretty refined concept amongst game developers. If Nintendo got ahead by bucking the trend and making games easier to play, it stands to reason this revolves around the game being conceptually easier to understand. Wii Sports for bowling is just "Press B to swing, let go of B to let go of the ball." The tutorial is literally just two sentences. So presuming you're selling a much more complicated and nuanced game, it's pretty obvious you need to make sure your tutorial is engaging and fun to work through.

Which makes the bizarre array of tutorials out there a little puzzling. You have everything from GRAW's lengthy lecture series, Fallout 3's slow growth process, to Persona 4's noxious inability to shut up and let you play.

It's a diverse topic and there are numerous games I didn't include. I picked examples of two open world games (Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2) and contrast their tutorials. I also take a game like Beyond Good & Evil whose tutorial works by mostly being self-evident. Then I just kinda rattle off a bunch of other conceptual examples.

The point being, the first 15 minutes of a game are probably the most important.

Bonus: you can start to see the stress of exams getting to me as my grammatical errors start to increase.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Battlestar Galactica vs The Sopranos

Mostly a discussion of plot arcs, spoilers abound.

Finally finished up BSG and was a little bit surprised to see them exhibiting the same plot arc pattern as The Sopranos for their ending. They picked up the story from the first season, killed off all the loose threads that were unrelated, and punched in the original ending they would've made if the show hadn't dragged out. The mixed response that the ending has been generating can mostly be attributed to the fact that the series had seemingly moved away from its original themes of technophobia. This is pretty much the exact same thing The Sopranos did.

The average TV show typically starts off very coherent and with a definitive narrative going on. They get to the end of the season fully prepared for the entire show to end or continue, find out if they're getting their contract renewed, then they start writing again. The consequence of this pattern is that drama necessitates consequences and that means killing off main characters. You get your contract renewed and suddenly you've got to accept that a lot of the people who helped drive your plot have been killed off.

The seams of this work can be seen in The Sopranos at about Season 3 after Paulie is killed. The uncertainty and drama he created was now gone and they had to fill the void. So the show introduced new characters like the hitman from Italy or the Catholic Priest. The basic plot arc of the show, that Tony is a sociopath who will kill anyone for the sake of the business who also has mother issues, is constantly played out with these people. The final season is just an exercise in repeating these themes, instead of Paulie it's Christopher etc. The point being that when you continually drag out a show's length well beyond what the original plot arc can sustain, writers typically repeat themselves by introducing new characters and playing out the drama all over again.

BSG, by the nature of its own story, had to be careful with adding characters out of the blue. It doesn't really make sense for a total stranger to just suddenly appear for these people after all. The show's greatest moments in Season 2 (the best overall in my opinion) and parts of 3 come from their incorporation of secondary characters into the story. Galen's wife, the one with awful bangs, goes from being that random peppy engineering girl to having a full blown story. The president's assistant, who was technically a replacement for the original actor, gets the same treatment. The show was impressive because instead of just recycling narrative and adding characters it actually had to progress, it had to evolve and move into new themes.

Which is ultimately what shoots the ending in the foot. The themes of technophobia, not relying on technology, and mistrusting the machines were all but abandoned by the show by Season 3. The Cylon society was no longer alien to us, we understood most everything about it by Season 3. The machines themselves had proven that like people, some are good and some are bad. The hybrid plot arc had blissfully been dropped and political themes were once again addressed in the 2/3 of Season 4.

And yet the last few episodes are a long parade of ideas and staples from the first season. That guy from Quantum Leap explains that he will hate humanity forever no matter what, demonized and unsympathetic in a way the show has not presented a Cylon in ages. Boomer proceeds to do every manner of awful thing before her tiny moment of redemption. Baltar and Caprica are once again seeing versions of themselves. Hell, Tigh is back with his wife.

The Cylon baby plot arc is killed off. Tigh and Caprica's relationship is killed off. Lucy Lawless is nowhere to be found. Kara and Lee are back to their sexual tension now that Sam is taking a permanent bubble bath. The President's cancer is back. They even had Dee kill herself to tidy those elements. The show is so intent to wrap up loose ends and get back on message that it doesn't seem to realize that the message changed a while ago.

I don't think the ending was atrocious or stupid and I still heartily recommend the show to anyone whose curious. But after years of following the show's exploits I think one of the things people enjoyed was that it maintained its narrative integrity in ways that something like The Sopranos didn't manage. Even the third season, which used flashbacks to explain character relationships a little too often, at least used the same characters to repeat their motifs. It was just a shame to see them reign all that back in for the sake of a video montage of Japanese Dancing robots. "There's too much confusion / I can't get no relief" may have been taken a little too literally in the final season of BSG.

Still got nothing on The Wire or Cowboy Bebop though.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Halo Wars

Ended up liking this game in the end but knocking it for some fairly unforgivable flaws. They've overhauled the entire RTS genre to be trimmer and faster, delivering the same experience in half the time. People may gripe about this, these are games that one is used to consuming slowly after all. But honestly ever since S. Korea introduced their playing style to these games I think this was inevitable. The initial reaction of designers after Starcraft turned into a zerg rush finger twitch was to find ways to slow everything down. Warcraft III adds more crap for you to manage, Dawn of War relies more heavily on squad tactics, but none of the new RTS titles bother to go in the other direction.

That direction being to just say "F*** it" and make a game that's a massive race to build the best mob and then throwing them at one another. Single player ended up feeling a bit flat, Covenant needs a campaign, and the controls need a way to hot key units.

But the multiplayer has an enormous amount of potential.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kane & Lynch

I always felt badly for this game. The screaming army of brats that rose to defend Gerstmann may have had good inte-, you know what, I doubt they were thinking much of anything. At what point was someone going to point out that developer and publisher are not always the same thing? That the people who work in PR have always treated the people who work at game magazines like shit? You have all of these people trying to justify a critic's opinion panning a game by screaming that it sucks and none of them stop to realize that the developer is not responsible for getting him fired. But they're the ones who are going to suffer.

Disagreeing with a critic is nothing new. But in this case it was particularly irritating because although the game has flaws, several of the negatives Gerstman brought up are precisely what makes the game so great. These are awful people, who do awful things, and they pay for this horribly. It's a hard boiled crime game that was ahead of the next-gen pack by saying that no, not every game has to be about melodrama and good triumphing.

I incorporated it into the ZA essays, defended it on a Brainy Gamer podcast, and now I'm giving it one more spin.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Video Games and Dreams - 2

In the last essay we outlined a scientific foundation for the argument that games are waking dream simulators based on both psychological research and several definitions provided by Carl Jung. The purpose of this is both to develop a new perspective of video games and to explore various ways they could generate new emotions beyond the basic nightmare conquests they currently provide. For this essay, we are going to go into greater detail about mandalas and how video games can be approached in a similar manner.

The thing about mandalas is that there isn’t really a technical way to put them into words. Since it is a representation of the unconscious, that which is unknown to the conscious mind, you get a bit of variation from people. I explained it as a thought process by which a person achieves a meditative state. One website, mandalazones, defines it as, “an unconscious state in which all opposites come together and are united, where the polar aspects of the cosmos and the individual can become one.” Wikipedia explains that it is a generic term for a chart or graph that represents the cosmos metaphysically. Jung believed that it was a fully realized representation of the unconscious. A Celtic Cross could be considered a mandala just as much as a Muslim Mosque. Intrinsic to most of the definitions is the concept that the mandala is about a unification or coming together of principles. The Celtic Cross represents the interlocking nature of the trinity while the Mosque is a series of precise geometric unities that are considered divine. Mapping the galaxy as one means showing the elegance of the stars and their movements, showing one that represents your unconscious means showing all of the elements of your being coming together.

In terms of video games, the mandala is the game experience. It is game design, art, sound, controls, and playtime all coming together to become a coherent experience.

In much the same way that describing a game to someone can sound odd or not really capture the essence of it, a mandala on its symbolic surface doesn’t really say a whole lot. While doing an extensive study of one particular patient Jung lists off several mandalic symbols: a snake encircling the dreamer, observing a blue flower, or kicking a red ball. To go in-depth on just one: the snake mandalic symbol was composed of several elements. Snakes typically induce circular movement or action in the dreamer. This necessitates that there is a central element or focus to this circular action, something that the dreamer is revolving around which is not focused on themselves. This central element in the dream is the message the unconscious is attempting to communicate with the conscious mind through the mandalic experience. As Jung puts it, the unconscious is attempting to get the conscious mind to realize something and it must rely on this strange language of dreams and mandalas to do it.

Turning this into video game terminology, each dream is a level. Each one has various elements of design that induce behavior, visuals that mean something, and they all culminate in communicating a final message to the subject that is crossing from their unconscious to the conscious. In Jung’s case, the dreamer ended up achieving a personal revelation about himself. This was shown in a dream about travelling to the center of the universe and watching this giant golden…clock thing move in perfect unity while angels were singing. It is here that we run into our first hiccup with comparing games and dreams: the ultimate conclusion of the individual’s dreams is personal. Even Jung admits that he does not really understand what the clock means or why the dreamer found it so profound. He points out that the mandala cannot be an archetype because in his case studies that final psychological breakthrough, the merging of the unconscious and conscious, is different for each person. Whereas the archetype is a dream mechanic or game design that we all have the same reaction to, the mandala is something inherently unique. In much the same way, the individual’s ultimate game experience is left to similar circumstances.

The rules which govern this process are mechanically similar to games. Jeremy Taylor, who is a Unitarian Minister with over twenty years of experience in dream therapy, has a wealth of observations on how dreams work to communicate. In his book Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill he mentions several repeating themes he has seen in group work. There is a correlation in dreams between color and emotion, “The more aware the dreamer is of the colors in his/her dreams, the more likely it is that the dreamer is consciously aware of his/her emotional life, and the emotional lives of others, when awake.” Taylor explains that this is typically seen in men who claim to only dream in black & white who repress their emotions. In games this can be seen when the game is attempting to pull the player away from becoming emotionally involved and instead focus on combat or tactics. The richness of your color palette in a game subconsciously makes people more invested and emotionally aware than in a grey or brown game. Contrast Call of Duty to Fl0wer and you can see the correlation in games generating emotions in the player.

When Jung is explaining the mechanics of the mandala he goes into what he alluded to with the snake dream: there is a central goal and the mandalic activity is one amongst three others surrounding this center. The center is the golden clock epiphany that the mandalas are trying to induce in the dreamer. Jung points out that with his patients there are almost always four mandalic experiences per person or recurring dream types. There are occasional cases where a person will have three or five, but one of the mandalas will often be fighting with another one to get attention in the dreamer due to some psychosis. Video games have an equally bizarre relationship with quaternaries. Jesper Juul, when talking about making Bejeweled 2, notes a funny discovery they had about puzzle games. People don’t like hexagons for some reason. They only like to play matching games when the blocks move in 4 directions. Jung’s mandalic rule applies here because the game, resonating with our unconscious, cannot get us to think beyond 4 activities or possible movements at one time. Taylor confirms this when he notes that the average dream contains at most 4 active characters that can be remembered. Anything higher and the dreamer begins to forget information.

This brings us back to the entire question of what exactly our minds are absorbing when we play games. Koster’s ‘Theory of Fun’ argues that we are enjoying mastering rules and life skills applicable to life. Bogost’s ‘Procedural Rhetoric’ argues that a message is being communicated by our interaction with a series of rules. What a comparison between dreams and games declares is that you are inducing a subconscious message through your game experience that, when successful, is realized by the conscious mind.

This process, the unconscious message merging with the conscious mind through dreams, is called individuation. Consciousness, as Jung defines it, is the act of moving away from nature. Whether you want to get biblical about the ‘Fruit of knowledge’ or just biological about the evolutionary needs of a species, “Everything in us that still belongs to nature shrinks away from a problem, for its name is doubt, and wherever doubt holds sway there is uncertainty and the possibility of divergent ways. Consciousness is now called upon to do that which nature has always done for her children – namely, to give a certain, unquestionable, and unequivocal decision.” In this sense the unconscious is then our instincts, an invisible guiding principle about what we should do. Jung says this is technically unknowable to the conscious mind, because then it becomes conscious and has crossed over into a decision we are making. The ultimate goal, for Jung and with his patients, was to get people to accept this part of themselves. The animal instincts, the conscious mind, the repressed memories…people are typically fragmented and he believed that a healthy individual must instead unify these elements. For Taylor, his dream therapy was about getting people to accept parts of themselves in order to overcome deeper psychosis. He explains, “These ugly, scary, dark, powerful, sexy, violent, irresponsible, dangerous dream figures are vitally alive parts of my own authentic being, and you know what – they aren’t so horrible after all.”

What is our conscious relationship with the game design mandala? It is still a kind of individuation, an unconscious message being transmitted to the conscious mind. Except now the mandala is an artificial construct, an alien symbol and mode of behavior that we are adopting. This is not to be confused with changing a person’s mind or brainwashing them. The unconscious is not malleable. Jung argues, “It is and remains beyond the reach of subjective arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can be neither improved upon nor perverted, where we can listen but may not meddle.” In other words, you cannot change someone’s mind through this process.

This is not to say that observing or absorbing an alien mandala is not without benefit. Taylor explains that working alone with your dreams is both difficult and can end with self-deception. In each of his groups a person recounts their dream and the other members respond by saying “If that were my dream…” then explaining how they would relate to those symbols and what it would mean to them. By having a person discuss the alien dream, the subject is often able to gain insight beyond their immediate reactions and self-deception. In many cases these realizations, this individuation with the unconscious, will occur for the person applying the alien dream to themselves as well. It gives them a new perspective on their own dreams and helps them make more sense. The video game is then an alien dream, one in which Taylor’s therapeutic device of pretending the dream is your own is made literal.

What is the language of this communication? How can we borrow from it in order to make our artificial dream still resonate and be received by the conscious mind? Here we encounter yet another hiccup: mandalic symbols are just as customized to the dreamer as their final message. Jung explains, ““All that can be ascertained at present about the symbolism of the mandala is that it portrays an autonomous psychic fact, characterized by a phenomenology (Ed. – the idea that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness) and not of anything independent of human consciousness which is always repeating itself and is everywhere the same….the compelling force necessary for this projection always lies in some situation where the individual no longer knows how to help himself in any other way.” The video game must then provide all of these things independently and introduce the subject to them. It must create both a compelling force in the person, possibly through plot or relying on a pre-existing notion such as being successful, followed by a means to attain this status.

But if the symbols of the mandala are individually created, what can a game use to communicate to a larger group of people? It is here that we must begin to rely on archetypes and mythological figures. Taylor explains how his group work is able to be so universal, ““The language of the dream is our original native tongue, a common language shared by all human beings…this universal, cross-cultural, common language of the dream is also shared by the world’s mythology and religious texts and rituals.” This is the reason why dream groups work: someone can hear your dream, apply it to themselves, and create understanding for both participants. In the last essay I described an archetype as the equivalent of a game design and that still holds true. They are inherently blank or malleable activities, people, symbols, or situations that produce a predictable response in people. Jung explains the archetypes this way, “They are, so to speak, the psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type...in each of these images there is a little piece of human psychology and human fate, a remnant of the joys and sorrows that have been repeated countless times in our ancestral history, and on the average follow ever the same course.” The wise old man that represents wisdom and intellect, the female figure that we constantly pursue, or the emotions we feel when asked to protect someone. These archetypes, these universal dream symbols, are the means by which a video game can communicate with us.

Which is what the next essay will be about. The topic of archetypes is still large but blissfully requires a much smaller leap of faith from the reader. These are things that can be named, defined, and categorized for your scrutiny. There are also literally countless archetypes in the human mind, just as there are no doubt countless game designs. When the series is complete it will be condensed like the Bangs and Kael pieces and posted on Popmatters while taking into account your feedback. Thank you for your time.

Edit: To make you life easier, here is Part 3.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pauline Kael Finale

Most of you will have read the four essays that I compiled into a nice, fit essay for Popmatters. The language was cleaned up and the main points refined. Popmatters has a very diverse audience who would have otherwise never seen it or realized they can relate a great deal to what's going on in our own medium.

Let's give her one more dance.

On another note, I had a bit of a temper tantrum on twitter when major news sites seemed reluctant to tear into the journalists and politicians blaming the tragedy in Germany on video games. I appreciate the consequences of seeming rude in the wake of such a terrible event, but are the vote-grubbing politicians and click starving newspapers any better? Normally the major sites are rockstars about tackling these ludicrous claims but it was weirdly quiet on this one.

It isn't about getting FOX news to apologize for being liars or the Times for not checking their facts. Craig Anderson will continue to publish sloppy, unorthodox, and politically motivated psychological studies. Jack Thompson will continue to write laws that either don't do anything or that violate the first amendment.

This is about reminding us, the gamers, that we're not taking this sitting down.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Protest Games & Life Without Interweb

Got a twofer for ya.

This week's BPM is on protest games by taking 3 examples and talking about the pros and cons of their approach. PETA's Mama Kills uses shock and an audience with short attention spans. Global Conflicts discusses sweatshop factories, which is a very complex issue, and finds ways to still keep people chugging through the information. But in the end, the McDonald's Game is still the gold standard. Don't show me these business practices are corrupt, have me run one and realize this for myself.

These games are going to keep getting more prevalent as activist groups realize how many people will play them.

On a totally unrelated note, I did a last minute assignment with The Escapist. They were doing an issue about going without the internet and I volunteered to go five days without it. In a blast of hubris after that whole vapor culture idea of mine, I realized that producing something on the last minute is indeed a skill worth mastering. There may be a deficit of time consuming work and research with blogs, but you've got to learn how to walk before you can run.

Thank God their editors were able to make some sense out of the stuff I sent them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Retro Game Challenge

This is starting to make the grassroots rounds and I'm all for it. My fifth 9/10 has been clawed out of my grubbing hands.

Like being a virgin, touched for the very first time.

My Spring Break is over and I'm now looking at the final 6 weeks of work before exams. Or Death March, as I like to call it. I've got to produce a ton of copy, get a legal paper written, and generally keep up the illusion that I'm not a tense wreck. My Red Bull and coffee intake is going to be increasing steadily as each day goes by and I work myself into an argumentative, constantly criticizing, and generally militant bastard.

I'm sorry in advance for the inevitable chaos this causes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ZA Critique: Psychonauts

Well, it's Psychonauts. We all knew this day was coming and since it's turning into Jung Month for me it seems appropriate to talk about his role in the game. Found a podcast where Schafer himself talks about how most of the game's ideas came from a psychology class and applied some loose dream symbolism to the game's structure. Also went into the one hiccup in the entire game and how it came about.

Definitely at least play it up to the Milkman level.

On another note, all this chatter about Rapelay inspired me to remind everyone that we do occasionally do fun and kinky stuff with sex & games.

And finally, having watched the Watchmen, the movie was utter shit. The only decent parts of the film were because even Snyder couldn't ruin the brilliance of the source material. It was otherwise a giant glorification of violence and corny happy endings. Not everything needs to be made into a movie.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Half-Life 2 Critique

The damn problem with overlapping Jungian dream analysis and games is that the systems match, it’s just they rely on different resources. Jung would typically read through 400 or so dreams from a single person, often written with no knowledge by the patient that Jung would be examining them, and then single out of that batch 30 or so that displayed archetypal tendencies. Then he kind of…ping pongs the individual dream off this massive amount of knowledge he had on religion, myth and the occult. So he would figure out what was going on in the dream by finding connections through myths and religions until he could see a commonality. So the physical action for baptism, let’s say, involves immersion in water. You see that in a dream, minus the context and maybe involving talking pink elephants, and then connect that to other themes.

So the first brick wall I’m facing is that I don’t have Jung’s education in myth and religion. I’m not really sure anyone does. He’ll stop and say, “Look, this is a baptism archetype. It relates back to ancient greek mythology about cleansing, this is the religious pattern for it and this is how we dream about purging.” The thing he’s pointing at, however, is usually something like a golden skull slurping up Jell-O pudding. As soon as you try to nail the archetype down though, for example another golden skull but this time slurping diet Coke, it doesn’t mean that at all. I’m being facetious but the point is that the content isn’t really relevant, it’s the form and what it induces in the patient. It all still charmingly fits my original hypothesis that archetypes and game design work the same way, a jewel in Zelda is not the same thing as a jewel in Bejeweled obviously, but f*** all if it does me any good. I know what a chaos archetype is and I understand how it’s working in Bejeweled, but explaining to someone that the reason you obsessively play the game is because the Greeks believed the world began with chaos before order was applied and we subconsciously mirror this through our own mind by constantly applying order to the universe doesn’t help anyone. You say that to a room full of gamers and developers.

The other issue is that obviously a game isn’t built like a dream or religious ceremony. I’m not blasting through a warehouse in Max Payne to show the constant packaging of violence that makes up the whole of the game’s experience. I’m in a warehouse because the assets are easy to make and it drags out the length of the game. So even once I’m done with figuring out how to replicate Jung’s archetype identification system I’m going to have to replace the huge myth template with video games themselves. I didn’t really think of them as archetypes before but I’m starting to realize I was already doing this all along, like pointing out how the Myst archetype of realizing your actions spill into the real world is present in Manhunt 2. Two totally alien games, same archetype going on. Unless there are a bounty of people who are as crazy as I am and actually trying to identify these things I’m stuck with what I’ve produced thus far and what I will add in the future. So…I just have to keep writing about old games.

At least this is all going somewhere.

Oh yeah, I wrote a giant essay about Half-Life 2.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Games & Film: The Wizard

I was trying to figure out an article that I could write that would be both interesting, easier on my free time, and maybe even fun for people to read. I love giant theory pieces as much as the ne-, probably more than I should, so I wanted to think up a new series that would do as good a job at attracting people as the ZA series has. But as exams ratchet up the pressure and my summer job looks like it's going to suck up most of my time soon, I've got to find ways to produce something that's less research heavy.

And then a delightful notion occurred to me. A dark, cruel and twisted notion. What is the one thing most gamers don't like that has to do with video games? Their movie adaptations! And these days there seems to be buckets of them.

Essays would mostly still be on stuff out on DVD, more specifically Netflix, and would focus where the movie and game diverge. For this first one, which is an experiment to gauge how much people like this idea, I opted for something slightly different. Just to give you a feel for the tone, I did The Wizard for this experimental one.

Did I mention there would be snark?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Video Games and Dreams - 1

One of the quickest ways to innovate in a stagnate field or find new ideas is to overlap it with another, alien medium. In physics when a problem cannot be solved with quantum mechanics, another field such as string theory might have answers. They are not always perfect matches, often overlapping two totally different mediums results in some jarring and disconnect. But in those portions where the grooves and moments do fit, you can gain insight that you otherwise would not see. Using this basis, we are going to overlap the study of dreams and their analysis with video games. What, precisely, is a game experience? How does that relate to a dream experience?

Before we enter the metaphysical analysis, let’s start with the science.

I outlined in a separate post what began this study, the notion that if Joseph Campbell is an accurate description of Monkey Island then that means Carl Jung’s principles are an accurate description as well. Which means dreams and the subconscious are at work. Much to my shock, there are psychologists who are willing to study things about games besides whether or not they make you violent. For example, advances in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have revealed that a kind of hand-eye coordination therapy known as E.M.R.D. erodes the neural pathways that cause pain in the subject and replaces them with mechanical responses. It does not even take a tiny leap in logic to realize that this is basically what a game does. It also explains the bizarre discrepancies in soldiers returning from war. Certain ones have a great deal of trouble recovering from their trauma, others do not require any assistance at all. A study by a man named Van den Bulck found that both film and books are statistically more likely to give children nightmares than video games. The hypothesis is that typically in the game the child is at least in control and not overwhelmed by the monsters they are seeing. Another study, more relevant to our discussion, discovered that gamers have a higher frequency of lucid dreams than normal people. As a consequence, people who play video games habitually also have far less nightmares or psychological disturbance in their sleep. The content of games: dragons or zombies etc., typically also enters people’s subconscious at a much higher rate than film or books. What if we were putting something more useful in there such as a language skill or math? The psychologist who ran this study, Jayne Gackenbach, was kind enough to send me her research and papers on the topic. She could always use more data, and it would be an immense help to her cause if you would fill out this survey offered here.

One of the first things Gackenbach points out is that the kinds of dreams people who play video games have typically come from meditation. Although often associated with more spiritual aspirations, meditation in the modern age is simply a state you put your brain into. This can be done through sound waves, deep breathing or rhythm exercises. In the case of games, I pointed out in the previous post that what is probably occurring is the same thing as a mandala or meditation circle. A mandala is a series of thought points that center around yourself that are all linked together in a web or circle. The idea is that you can induce meditation by progressing through each point on the circle, which varies and is often personal. For example, one point will be think about happiness, then loss, then material goods, then fear, then joy, and so on while constantly returning to yourself as the focus. A game design functions in a similar manner: leveling up, killing enemies, death, dodging, health. You move around from subject to subject while always coming back to the issue of yourself. There is nothing mystical or religious about these activities, they are both simply patterns of thought that put your brain into a scientifically recognizable state where your subconscious is more active. Gackenbach muses in her paper, “Video game associations are simply practice. If one is spending several hours a day in a technologically created alternative reality (VR) is it really any surprise that when presented with another alternative reality (i.e., dreams), that gamers easily recognize it for its true state?” What has been discovered is that games are possibly inducing a meditative state in the player that causes similar brain function and activity to when they are dreaming. They may in fact be waking dream simulators.

The immediate knee jerk reaction to something like this is to presume that the violence in games is being beamed directly into our heads and warping our minds. Then again, none of us act out the strange things we do in our dreams so the notion of their being spill over is just as ludicrous as ever under this hypothesis. So why are so many video games violent? The answer, be it zombie or soldiers attacking us, is that we are recreating nightmares. Nightmare in this context is defined as a dream where you have low control (lucidness) and you are engaged with life threatening circumstance. Gackenbach cites a theory by a fellow named Revonsuo who claims that dreams are a way for people to simulate threatening situations so they will be able to handle them should they literally occur. Dreams also will reflect events in the real world, making the person re-experience the event until it is mastered. A traumatic event can then be resolved in a much more ideal manner in dreams, usually not dying or putting oneself at literal risk. What is happening when we play a video game is that we simply become accustomed to dealing with our nightmares. We enjoy this because we are naturally inclined to develop better skills for handling adrenaline, threats, and coping with fear in general. A recent psychological study by Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson demonstrated that games can make gamers numb to helping others when placed in excitable situations. This is still correct under the dream idea, except now we're arguing that people who play games simply remain calm and think rationally during crisis situations.

And that’s where the science ends. If Professors like Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson are truly committed to helping people and the study of games, it would be refreshing if they investigated the therapeutic or educational potential of the medium for once. We can only hope their benefactors give them the grant money necessary to find something new to say about a medium that now competes with film, is installed in millions of homes around the world, and is not going anywhere.

So what have we got? Games induce a meditative state similar to how a mandala works by having the brain bop around a series of thoughts that all relate back to the player. Our conduct in the game then somehow feeds back into our subconscious and dreams, allowing us to become more competent dreamers. The leap we have made is that they then must essentially be simulating waking dreams to our brain. Dream analysis is a highly subjective field because everything occurring in them relates directly back to the individual. The things you see in your dreams have been placed there by your subconscious which come from your unique experiences. So individual items, such as a glass of water or your father talking to you, are typically not something a total stranger will understand or be able to define. What dream analysis does instead is analyze the mechanics of dreams.

Going back to the Joseph Campbell essay on Monkey Island, what I was pointing out was that the game is full of archetypes. Jung, who worked with dreams extensively, defines an archetype as a contentless form or activity that channels certain emotions and behavior that then produce probable outcomes. I compared Governor Marley to the untouchable virgin queen archetype. She is a person that we pursue and madly love but can never have. In the context of mythology (or the linear narrative of the game) the hero has a very typical reaction to the archetype. He falls in love with her and pursues her, usually causing himself a great deal of trouble. Jung outlined a variety of archetypes that typically exist in any person’s subconscious or psyche. There is the archetype of the Anima or the woman figure in a man’s psyche, for women masculinity is manifested in the Animus archetype. These are very broad and enormous to the mind but it narrows rapidly as you begin to apply the principle to myth and fiction. There is the old man archetype, the source of wisdom in our dreams. The armored knight, the witch, and any other pattern you see repeating in stories. The content, what they look like or say, is not really important and is subjective. Instead it is their mechanical function in the dream or story that identifies them as an archetype. What Jung argued when it came to dreams was that we all share these archetypes and that they all work the same way in our minds. The reason so many people like Star Wars, for example, is that we all respond to those archetypes and enjoy how they play out in the story.

So what does it mean when a dream simulation is using archetypes on us? We’re not asleep, we know it isn’t real, and we are in control of our behavior no matter what conduct the archetype/game design is inducing in us. Jung did not live long enough to ever see video games but he tells a story in his autobiography about a very peculiar waking dream. He writes, “Being awake means perceiving reality. The dream therefore represented a situation equivalent to reality, in which it created a kind of wakened state. In this sort of dream, as opposed to ordinary dreams, the unconscious seems bent on conveying a powerful impression of reality to the dreamer, an impression which is emphasized by repetition. The sources of such realities are known to be physical sensation on the one hand, and archetypal figures on the other.” In other words, Jung is explaining that a waking dream typically generates a sense of reality in people through three elements: repetition, archetypes, and physicality.

Where does this link to games? Raph Koster in his book a Theory of Fun defines the pleasure of games as learning by overcoming challenges. Much like the nightmare mastery theory, the principle foundation of Koster’s book is that all of the various types of fun that we enjoy in games comes from mastering them. Where the waking dream simulation argument steps in is that these are not representations of reality as Koster argues, but rather something in our subconscious. If, as Koster argues, games are abstract representations of reality, then it is equally easy to say that a dream is also an abstract representation of reality. He goes on to note that most of the things games teach are going straight into the subconscious, just as dreams do. He writes, “Fun, as I define it, is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes…fun is contextual.” He explains that the destiny of all games, of all genres, is to eventually become boring to a player because they will master it and then no longer have any use for it. We will make all the correct decisions and know precisely what to do. As Koster notes near the end, we have yet to reach a point with video game design that focuses on the end-user experience as opposed to the challenges and puzzles that generate the experience. Koster explains that all most games do now is create power fantasies. In the context of what the dream theory is proposing, all we do is create nightmare simulators.

Going back to Jung’s definition of the waking dream, Koster defines the art and setting of a game as the dressing, explaining how the core mechanics of a game can be manipulated into being about anything. This is very similar to how the archetype works in a dream. They are a mechanic, not a specific thing. Jung explains that the most common mistake is to classify it as an unconscious idea instead of a form. He explains in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, “The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a possibility of representation which is given a priori (language). The representations themselves are not inherited, only the forms, and in that respect they correspond in every way to the instincts, which are also determined in form only.” The person giving quests, the healer, the mid-boss or the final boss serve a very similar function. In dreams that variation is based on the individual’s personal experiences, in games that variation comes from the designers themselves. Both game design and archetype are inherently empty until they are filled with something. Games simulate physical sensation by having artificial forms of feedback that symbolize physicality. We have a health bar that decreases as we’re hit. The controller often rumbles as well. Our hands must interact with controls to produce an effect, also generating some kind of physical stimulus. Finally, most games involve a massive amount of repetition to pound their meaning into your head. In this way, video games easily fit into Jung’s definition of a waking dream.

As Koster notes in his book, we know how to simulate control and gaining power. The archetypes to do this are all quite accessible: monsters, bosses or people in distress. What Koster complains about is figuring out how to create a game that does something besides this. Looking at game design in a void and relying on our cultural conditioning to see them as challenges, it’s easy to see why this is what we constantly come up with. But when we see the overlap with dream analysis, there are a wealth of archetypes and dream structures we can apply that will potentially induce greater emotions in people. Flip through the shitstorm that Leigh Alexander endured for arguing that Flower is overrated and you realize that this is a very difficult issue in gaming culture. We can all agree about our nightmares and the ways we handle them, but when it comes to games generating sorrow or happiness? Whether it’s Flower or Braid, we are still struggling to find the game designs and mechanics that generate new emotions in us. Perhaps dreams have the answer.

Research for this piece is proving to be far more vast than I expected. The second essay will be a closer breakdown of archetypes and applying these to games. Specific examples from games will be taken and what dream theory says about them will be explained. I need a better understanding of Carl Jung by reading his collected works and a more coherent understanding of modern dream analysis as well. Both books on this subject are large and will take me a while to read, but the second part of the series will be posted when it’s ready. As always, your feedback will be incorporated into my own understanding and application of these ideas. Thank you.

Edit: To make your life easier, here is part 2.