Friday, June 5, 2009

Gaming the system

In which we see that it's what --
and who -- we
don't see that matters

The Felix Chronicles, #32

Rick is writing his final Civil War research paper on an Xbox game, which he has hooked up to the classroom Smart Board and is playing in front of his classmates. Not exactly an orthodox
topic for an academic essay, but I see a real workshop opportunity here, both in terms of engaging him in something he's passionate about, and in raising intellectual issues in places and in ways they might not otherwise get raised.

But we're not off to a promising start.

"Those graphics suck," Eddie points out as Rick puts a sniper in his sights and fires away.

"And the
lack of interactivity is really lame," Aaron adds. "What happens if you go off into the woods there?"

"You can't," Rick says. "It doesn't let you."

"That is lame," Darius notes. "You gotta wonder about the developers here. Did they pour all the resources into marketing? I could have probably done this on my two year old MacBook Pro!"

Hmmm.Darius has said
virtually nothing all semester. Here he sounds like a management consultant critiquing an entire product line. But this isn't quite what I had in mind -- and while the class as a whole is engaged at the moment, I suspect we're going to start losing altitude soon.

"So how would you compare this game with comparable games out there are the market, Rick?"
I ask.

Somewhat surprisingly, it's Darius who answers for him. "There's no comparable Civil War product," he says, "except for Blue/Gray Field Command. In that game you're a four-star general trying to supervise overall strategy."

"Well that's interesting," I reply. "Here you're an individual soldier performing a localized mission."

"That's right," Rick says. "You sometimes complete the mission only to be informed that your side has actually lost the battle."

"That in itself says a lot," I note. "This game is more like The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming lost at Chancellorsville, while the game Darius is talking about is more like The Killer Angels, Lee and Longstreet debating whether to engage at Gettysburg. Am I right Caroline and Zack?"

Caroline, who's working on Red Badge, and Zack, who's doing Killer Angels (actually the lousy film version, called Gettysburg) nod. But that's all they do. I'm disappointed. I thought this would open things up a bit.

Aaron still has his eyes on the screen, tracking Rick's movements. "I see your job is now to clear that barn over to the left. So you can get a change in mission halfway through?"

"Yeah. This happens a lot when you play 'Easy.' In 'Medium' and 'Hard' you'll typically take longer or get killed before you execute the original orders."

"Don't tell me you actually get yourself killed in this game," Darius says.

"Of course he does," Aaron says. "I swear to God it took three weeks for Rick to steal his first car on Grand Theft Auto at my place after I first got it.

I see Chantel roll her eyes. I decide to seize on this.

"Oh," I say with mock solemnity, "So you're also appalled at Rick's ineptitude at Grand Theft Auto? Well tell me, Chantel, how long did it take you to steal your first car when you played it on your Xbox?"

Chantel smiles wryly, recognizing that I'm not serious. "Actually, I don't have an Xbox."

"Don't have an Xbox? Wow. Why, that means you can't play this game or Grand Theft Auto!" Laughter.

I shift my gaze sharply. "Caroline: How 'bout you? How long did it take -- "

"I don't have an Xbox, either."

"And you, Tanya?"

She shakes her head, smiling. "Nope."

I soun
d desperate: "Christina?"

"I don't have one either," she says. "I steal my little brother's to play Space Invaders."

A roar of laughter.

"Well thank God for that. For a minute there I was beginning to worry we were going to have a problem with gender bias there. But I guess you've saved us from that, huh, Christina?"

"I guess so," she says, smiling.

"You g
et my point, though," I say to the class as a whole, as a few kids nod. "One way of being to figure out what's going on with a document -- or, in this case, a game -- is to ask who it's likely to appeal to. And who it isn't. In this case, it appears the game in question has a strong appeal to boys, though our statistical sample is admittedly small."

"Actually, I'd say the appeal here is mostly young boys," Rick says. "The level of play is fairly simple compared with some others I've played."

"Yeah. And also it's less violent. I'm afraid of Grand Theft Auto 4," Christina says. "My mother won't allow my brother to get it."

"And this one is endorsed by the History Channel," Rick notes.

"Okay," I say. "I think we're beginning to get somewhere. One way Rick will be able to develop his argument in his essay
will be to focus on this question of audience. But we can ask a similar question about content -- we can ask what's not there."

I pause for dramatic effect.

"I guess it's time for me to share a little secret with you, gang. You see, I've decided to quit my day job and become a video game designer myself. I've come up with something I think you'll find interesting. It's called Contraband." I adopt the voice of a movie preview announcer:

You are an officer on the Underground Railroad. In your hands is the awesome responsibility of saving human lives and striking a blow for liberty. Your mission: to blaze a path for a group of escaped slaves as they make their way from an Tennessee plantation across the Ohio River to a secret station outside Cincinnati. One wrong move and they're back in bondage -- and you're back in jail for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Will you take the challenge?

"Whaddya think? How long you think it will take to ship a million units?" Lots of smiles. Darius is shaking his head, as if I'm an incorrigible child.

"Why not, Darius? Isn't this a good idea?"

"Sorry, M
r. Cullen. I think you should stick with your day job."

"But why?"

"Because nothing really happens."

"What do you mean nothing really happens? You have to think hard! You have to evade capture! You have to endure racial insults!"

Hearty laughter at that. (Maybe a little too hearty?)

"All right, Darius, I'll keep my day job. But I hope, Rick, and the rest of the class get my point here. Which is that sometimes figuring out what you don't have means figuring out what you don't have. It's often what isn't talked about that can be as revealing as what is."

I look up at the clock. "One thing we don't have, today at least, is more time. Caroline: You're on tomorrow, yes?"

"Yup. I'm showing a clip from Glory."

"Excellent. See you all then. Oh -- and one other thing."

A few faces look up expectantly from closing books and backpacks.

"Anybody know where Kermit was today? Field trip? Sudden illness?"

g heads. "Uh -- I think he may be sick," Darius says.

Kermit missed class yesterday, too, and missed the exam we had last week. This morning I saw him playing frisbee on the lower field with his buddies. I make the appropriate notation on my attendance sheet. This isn't going to be pleasant -- tedium, for me, aggravation for Kermit, and, in all likelihood, anger for his parents, who will be getting an e-mail from me later today. In high school, at least, gaming the system tends to catch up with you.