Research Projects Next Semester

So, next semester starts today and I figured that I would describe my two research projects that will be controlling my life for the next few months.  In this post, I will describe the premise of each projects, and I will try to explain why I want to do each project.  Additionally, I will talk about what I have already done for each project.

The two projects I have are:

1. Difficulty as it Relates to Narrative in Games

and

2.
Player Taxonomies: Sifting Through Why and How People Play Videogames

Both are working titles. The first is a project related to stories and play and how they can work together in games. The second is a psychological look at how players play games.

Difficulty as it Relates to Narrative in Games

Last semester, I made a game called For the Love of Salt: A Prelude. This was an attempt to tie narrative to difficulty. For more information about that, see the post.  It was, in essence, a failure.  I outline there why I feel it was a failure and this led me to the project at hand.  Difficulty as it Relates to Narrative in games is an attempt to do the research that was missing from For the Love of Salt.  The project will attempt to look at narrative from a mechanics standpoint, specifically noting how narrative can be affected by difficulty.

The goal of the project is two-fold. First, it offers a way of examining games with a new lens, that of seeing how the narrative affects the mechanics of the game.  In this case, I will show, by example, how to examine a game to understand how its narrative affects the game’s difficulty, and vice versa.

Second, this project will provide designers with a concept of how to use narrative as a mechanic.  As this project is specifically about difficulty, the project will attempt to convey how a narrative can be used at part of the difficulty.

Both of these goals will be achieved by looking at both existing literature on difficulty as well as games that exemplify these ideas (or fall just short).  The result will, hopefully, be a scholarly article that may become published in the not-too-distant future.

The reasons I want to do this project are already outlined here. Further, I enjoy story in my games, but I hate the way that story is often disseminated.  Many games try to tell a story by means of cinematic sequences and scripted events.  By this I mean they take control away from the player and show the player what is going on.  Games also like to rely on exposition to tell their story, telling the player what the story is through lines of dialogue and writing. I am not trying to shun or shame these techniques.  They have so far served the games industry well. Rather, I am saying that these techniques may not always be the best way to do storytelling in a game.

Compare writing, cinema, and games.  Writing tells the person interacting with it what is going on. Cinema shows.  In writing, the adage is “show, don’t tell.”  Even though the primary function of (creative) writing is to tell the reader what is going on, the goal of the writer is, generally, to write in such a way that the reader can envision it. That is, to make it show as much as possible. Some people call this word painting: painting pictures with words.  Cinema is not my field.  The primary function should be to show the viewer what is happening. It seems as though the goal of cinematography is to try and make the viewer experience the events. Perhaps the adage could be “evoke, don’t show.”

This brings us to games.  The primary function of a game is to provide an experience.  We interact with the game and affect the immediate section of time.  But this is just the aim of cinema (it seems to me).  What is the aim of games? What is beyond evoking an experience? What are we missing by all the showing and telling that games do?  These are the kinds of questions I want to breach with this project.

Player Taxonomies: Sifting Through Why and How People Play Videogames

Player Taxonomies is a project that has come a long way from nowhere. It started two years ago as my admissions essay, specifically in reaction to Richard Bartle’s essay “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs”.  I was annoyed that I don’t fit well in the model that Bartle created regarding the ways in which players play (online) games (and what they find appealing).  I was going to, originally, propose a new type of player, the builder, as players who play games with a desire to create something.  The project became too large and I put it on hiatus.  Last semester, I picked the concept up again.  The project evolved from the self-centered problem of my not fitting in to the model.  Instead, it became the project it is now, about how players play games and what that means for game designers and researchers.

To be more specific, the project will look at a number of player types models. It will compare them and funnel them into a unified model, which is designed after the Myers-Briggs model of personality traits.  This new, unified model will then be compared to the Myers-Briggs model to determine personality traits that are not met by the model, highlighting areas where games could evolve or capture more players (alternately, where the model falls short to games that address those personalities).

But why?  Why would I go through all this (synthesis at this level can really tax the brain).  The answer lies in genre.  Genre is a classifier applied to games with a collection of similar mechanics.  The first-person shooter [FPS] genre is defined by having a player embody a character in which the player sees the game through the character’s eyes, and the character kills enemies (usually by shooting with a weapon).  A game like Half-Life is an FPS game, it belongs to that genre.  This can get confusing, though.  Consider a game like Fallout 3.  In Fallout 3, a player sees the world through the eyes of the main character, and very often kills enemies by shooting them with guns.  In Fallout 3, though, the player takes on a role in an evolving story and needs to pay attention to statistics like strength and charisma.  The main character also gains arbitrary levels of experience, which make that character stronger. These are defining mechanics of another genre, the role-playing game [RPG].  The problem with Fallout 3 is, is it an FPS or an RPG?  GameStop places the game as an RPG.  IGN says that it is an Action RPG, suggesting that the game is both in the Action genre (of which FPS is a subset) and the RPG genre.  Fallout 3 defies traditional genres and cannot be easily defined by genre.

The reason why is that genre is a tool used by marketing. Game designers cannot use genre effectively as the games they produce these days do not fit neatly into genres.  What designers need is a tool that transcends genre.  A criticism I have for genre is that they are based upon emergence of mechanics.  Games with defining mechanics emerged and defined genres, but the genres did not change to meet those needs.  More and more categories and descriptors were added over time to explain outlying categories.  The categories pay attention to the mechanics alone, but they do not pay attention to the players that play them.  As an example, I personally hate FPS games, but I play Fallout 3 as an FPS game, taking a first person role and shooting enemies to kill them. I love Fallout 3. Genre cannot explain how I can hate a category and still enjoy games in that category.

With this project, I do not intend to derail marketing from using genre (although I feel that genre is broken with the complexity of modern games).  Instead, I want to give designers and researchers a tool to be able to explain why I do not enjoy FPS games but enjoy Fallout 3.  Designers can use this tool to better understand their game’s audience, potentially reaching more players and not alienating the players that seek out the game.  Researchers can use this to understand the depth and breadth of a game, as well as understanding the personalities that flock to a particular game.

These are the two projects that I will be working on over the coming semester.  They are likely to consume more time than I would prefer, but they are projects very dear to me.  I hope to report often on these projects over the next few months.  Wish me luck!

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