John “Kaseido” McKnight recently wrote about a proposed ‘achievement’ system for Second Life which, some believe, might help shift online world demographics from a niche, free-form crowd to the lucrative gamer market. So soon after The Internet Crashed had posted an interview with Gary Ballard, this idea had me musing on notions of genre and medium again. I hope to draw a divide where social achievements can and cannot enrich a digital experience, but by doing so I must first separate MMO games from their ‘offline’ predecessors.
A Trio of Media
“MMO’s [sic.] need to be thought of as a medium, not a genre of video games. You take an experiment like Second Life and put it up against a refined, Skinner-box profit machine like World of Warcraft and you’ll see two very different experiences. Both have elements of game, but such widely varying goals that they can’t be considered in the same genre at all. You have to view them as two examples of different genres within the medium of an online multiplayer experience.”
Gary Ballard, for The Internet Crashed
Ballard’s point is a potent one, which Kaseido seized upon too – that although MMOs and games share much in common, it is almost always impossible to win an MMO, and so they are ultimately for play. The only time an MMO defies this is in player vs. player combat, when strict deathmatch rulings and the enclosure of an arena ensure that all play is taken outside the game’s normal flow. A single-player game may instead be completed once its story is run or a series of puzzles is finished.
I consider massively-multiplayer online games to be a medium of their own, separated from the likes of console games and other smaller, online titles. The constraints and opportunities which are made available to a community-driven game are too many to let us treat such work as we would game with fewer or only one player. I currently classify these media by their chief intent: social interaction, gaming within rules, and playing.
- ‘Console’ games, typically free of social input (save for multiplayer modes), may feature ‘game’ or ‘play’. Examples would include Half-Life 2 (game) and LittleBigPlanet (play);
- Online worlds feature no overarching goals save whatever the user brings to their own spontaneous play;
- MMOs occupy a middle-ground, since they feature directed gameplay delivered in a freeform fashion – players are allowed to embrace or disregard quests and challenges at their own discretion, and may in fact ‘level up’ without any heed paid to these features. They are also encouraged to share this experience in a social environment.
It is these differences in function and reach which I think demand careful attention when suggesting new features like achievements. The system as we understand it is, as Kaseido says, a relatively new phenomenon, though ‘offline’ achievements have featured in console games for decades. Hosting these accomplishments in an online environment has allowed players to create ‘game passports’, detailing their exploits and granting them bragging rights.
I’ve not really dealt with serious games before, on this blog or elsewhere, but an idea has struck me and I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it. Many such games deal with political ideas through education or simulation. There are very few which deal with social issues, possibly because they are a complex matter. Some such issues do appear in more generalised games, however:
Half-Life 2 deals with repression, both in its cyberpunk storyline and a thoroughly disadvantageous few minutes of play at its start. I’m sure most people will remember the City 17 station ‘metro cop’ who knocks a can to Freeman’s feet. In the mocking tone of one holding the high ground, he orders Freeman to pick it up. The player has the option to throw it back in his face, but Freeman is unarmed and easily bludgeoned with a cattle prod for his insolence. This short encounter sets the tone for a whole game about overcoming dictatorial power.
Beyond Good & Evil has a more political angle, exposing the perils of state-controlled media in a fantastical setting. Protagonist and freelance photojournalist Jade falls foul of the military during a vicious alien attack and winds up with a rebel network, out to expose far more than the government is letting on. Who’s really behind the Domz attacks, and why are innocents being abducted from the streets?
Of course, this is no less than what film is capable of dealing with, and film has the power to highlight more personal issues. What if games were tackle ideas like betrayal, love and social injustice head-on?