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The Re-Org October 8, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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So I’ve been incredibly sporadic in blogging here and at my other blog. It’s time for a change.

I originally envisioned “faithgames” as a specific, topical blog that people could subscribe to or visit who were interested in just this one crossing of topics, and who would rather not read about other stuff I happen to be thinking about or working on. I thought, you know, maybe that would actually make for a wider audience or something.

This could’ve made sense if there were a group of people who wanted to contribute on this topic, but instead it’s been this fragment of what I’m thinking about and working on. Since I’m the only one blogging, it seems kind of counter productive to split up my thoughts into “this category that I can blog here about” and “this other category that I can blog somewhere else about”. And I don’t think the specialized-audience thing has really taken off anyway, judging by the blog’s stats.

So! For the time being, I’m putting this blog in stasis. Stuff I feel like writing will end up at http://joshg.wordpress.com, and I’ll possibly wrap in my scattered homepage contents at http://thoughtlost.org into that as well eventually. Or I’ll just make the thoughtlost.org domain an alias for my other wordpress site. Or something.

Anyway, if you’re an RSS type like myself, I encourage you to subscribe to the feed at joshg.wordpress.com in lieu of this one. It’ll continue to discuss games, game design, faith issues, as well as new media, art, poetry, programming, and whatever the heck else I end up wrapping into what I currently call my “profession”.

NYT on Halo 3 used in evangelical youth programs October 8, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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What a weird article.

Not once does anyone in the article ask the obvious question – “Why Halo?” If the violence of the game is a concern, why don’t they simply play something else? A church I used to attend had video games in their youth drop-in area, but they deliberately avoided M-rated titles. People still had lots of fun. This was in Canada, so the usual choice was a hockey game, but surely a football game would have the same effect south of the border. But I guess too many of us evangelicals have bought into the idea that we need to ride the hype bandwagons to be “relevant” to kids, instead of teaching them to step back and think critically. Bleah.

The repeated use of “Thou shalt not kill” was also just weird. Talk about what morals the game is passing on, or whether we should be exposing kids to more media violence. Don’t try to clumsily equate killing sci-fi aliens in a game with a literal act of murder. I guess it’s true that the game may be passing on morals and values which encourage violent response, but I don’t see that as a given. Are you even killing humans in Halo 3? I guess in deathmatch mode probably; I haven’t played a Halo game yet, I’ve been too distracted defending the intelligence. (No, TF2 probably shouldn’t be used in youth outreach programs either.)

I’m still a little muddled when it comes to how I want to respond to an article like this. Part of me wants to ask if this would be just as controversial if the youth group was being taken out for a game of laser tag* or paintball**, which are arguably more realistic experiences of gunfighting (especially paintball). I’ve taken in enough gamer culture over the years that it’s hard for me to drop the defensiveness that rises up when it feels like video games are being scapegoated.

But I do believe there are reasons why we should be concerned by what messages and values violent games are bringing to kids. I just don’t think that the outside-perspective analysis given by sources like this NYT article capture the depth of the issues.

For a better example of what I’d like to see more of, in Hartmut Gieselmann’s recent paper, “Ordinary Gamers – The Vanishing Violence in War Games and Its Influence on Male Gamers”:

But when you take a closer look at war games, you will realize that the violent scenes that are shown there are not nearly as gruesome as in fictional games featuring monsters and vampires.

…violence will only be recognized as entertaining for the gamer… when he (much more than 90 Percent of war gamers are male) can draw a strict line between the real world and the non real gaming world – otherwise he would be scared by what he sees and stop feeling comfortable.

…By just pointing at the most violent games, critics overlook that war games have a much greater impact on gamers’ opinions and their world views because they do not show the actual violence.

Which is more dangerous in the hands of our children – fantasy-setting violence which jars the senses, or toned down violence depicted in real-world settings which numbs us to the ugly reality of real warfare? (Answering “both” is fine; it’d be an improvement over most critics and watchdog groups who fixate only on the most bloody games.)

I clearly can’t end this in a way which wraps up my thoughts into a coherent conclusion, because I don’t yet have one. How about I just end off by saying, anyone who buys Halo 3 for a youth group and hands it uncritically to 12-year-olds that I know and care about will probably get a scowl and a talking-to from me. Grrr!
*which is awesome, by the way.

**which, when I played for the first time about four months ago, hurt like heck and left a still-visible mark on my body. Also the masks fog up in the first 30 seconds which is lame. My ideal solution: outdoor laser tag.

Left Behind Games threatening defamation lawsuits against critical web sites October 5, 2007

Posted by joshg in evil, Left Behind.
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This is really, really disappointing.

I haven’t been a fan of Left Behind Games, primarily since I wasn’t a fan of the Left Behind series to begin with. However, I’ve made a very deliberate point of trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, see beyond my usual theological and cultural pet peeves and find out what their game has to contribute.

Their PR comment spam campaign bothered me and insulted me. They mass-posted comments on blogs found through Google searching for anyone writing about Left Behind Games which insinuated that the writers of said blogs were writing about something they hadn’t tried for themselves, and which ended up being posted on this very blog attached to a response I wrote to playing the demo.

And now this. Thankfully I haven’t received one of these letters; I guess their lawyer decided not to use as liberal a Google search to find targets. (Insert “liberal” joke here.) But a tactic like this made by a game company that’s trying to represent Christianity and evangelize to the game-playing community is just outrageous.

I can’t find words which do justice to how much this completely misses the point.

Loading… August 2, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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Oh, and by the way there’s a new journal out from the Canadian Game Studies Association.  Loading… is a free-access journal with topics across the full range of game studies.  Just register a user name and log in and you’ll be able to give it a read.

I highly recommend Kevin Schut’s “Continuity and Discontinuity: An Experiment in Comparing Narratives Across Media” which looks at how mythically-styled narrative makes the transition to the medium of digital games.  I’ve spoken with Kevin lately, and his Media Ecology perspective on how mythic and spiritual topics change as they move into games has given me a better perspective on what I’ve sort of kind of been saying before – that getting meaningful faith and spirituality concepts into digital games can be really hard to do well given the nature of games themselves.

Getting it August 2, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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A quick point to something I just dropped on my general game design blog which is somewhat relevant.

I’m still debating why I keep these things separate when I now have three or four different blogs and/or web spaces that I’m only touching once every month or three. I think if I can figure out how to just create separate news feeds for different topics, I’ll centralize all this faithgames / game design / poetry / whatever else stuff onto one website and just make sure it’s easy for you to ignore categories you don’t care about.

Alternately, I’m open to the possibility of making this a group blog and keeping it as a separate entity. If you’re interested or actively working in combining faith topics and games in some way that you feel like sharing with the world, feel free to drop me a note.

Designing for the tools on hand June 2, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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Quick thought; I’ve often approached this from the perspective of looking for faith-related themes and trying to see how they can be expressed through the methods of game design.  But what about coming at it from the opposite direction as well?  Perhaps it’s equally important to begin by considering major elements of game design, and then explore how they relate to belief and religion and faith.

One off the top of my head is the idea of achievement.  Games, when designed well, are a powerful way to create a sense of achievement in the player.  With that as our starting point, what can we discover as we move towards expressing religious and spiritual thought?

For religions with an explicit sense of achievement through concepts such as reincarnation, there’s a strong and immediate connection.  However, for beliefs which de-emphasize achievement things can get tricky.  I believe there might be things worth deconstructing and exploring even there, though.

For example, say I start with an understanding of Christianity in which there is less emphasis on achievement when compared to sin and forgiveness which cannot be earned but only given as a gift.  Obviously at this point, a traditional game structure is going to have a hard time relating; games need a goal that you work towards, and nobody wants to play a game in which you simply ask, “Can I win now?” and the rules then say, “Okay!”  But is this an endpoint, or is this a conflict which can be explored?

Perhaps the expectation of achievement in a game can be used to shed light on the modern tendency to place notions of achievement within Christianity, despite what it teaches; for example, the expectation that only those who are some sort of spiritual “elite” will experience the miraculous, or the converse notion that a Christian claiming to experience something supernatural must inherently be claiming to be “more spiritual” than someone who doesn’t share that experience.

There might not be a lot there in that particular example, but I thought I’d get this posted somewhere so that I’m forced to remember to think about it later.  Reversing the design process is the key idea that I ought to remember to keep in mind, but I can’t stand writing about how something should be done without at least giving an example of what that could look like.

Vancouver IGS May 16, 2007

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Just a quick note to any who may be interested but aren’t checking both blogs I’m writing here, I wrote up a quick summary of my favorite parts of the Vancouver International Game Summit that happened a couple weeks ago.

I should probably just combine the two blogs at some point. I had it in my head to keep this blog specific to the theme and put general game design thoughts elsewhere. But since I post to the game design blog even less frequently than here I’m not sure how much anyone would even notice the change.

Hocking interview explores moral choice May 14, 2007

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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Gamasutra interviews Clint Hocking, mostly discussing the motivator of exploration within games but they eventually get to my favorite topic:

To try and teach someone a specific set of values in games is trickier because what games ought to do, in my opinion, is present the entire space of the problem. Instead of saying, “You should be honest,” it should say, “This is what honesty means” through the mechanics. This is what happens when you tell the truth or you tell a lie–instead of trying to make a game that says “Lying is bad and honesty is good.”

That’s what literature can do by creating characters who are very rich and detailed and tell a lie and regret it for the rest of the novel and watch how their who lives fall apart. A game I don’t think should do that. A game I think should give the player all the mechanics that surround that and figure out for himself whether telling the truth or lying is right or wrong.

I’m pretty sure I agree with his insight here, despite being a little confused initially by how he distinguishes the effects of the novel and the game. Yes, the novel chooses what the character believes about the consequences of their actions – the regret is authored. A game design won’t be able to explicitly force regret or guilt for immoral actions, but this doesn’t mean a game system dealing with moral choice must (or should) be neutral in how it portrays the consequences. As he says, the designer gives the player the mechanics that surround a moral choice, and the player then has the freedom to learn what they will from those mechanics.

(a whole lot of my thoughts on this after the break) (more…)

Critical Simulation stuff April 22, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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I’ve been working my way through First Person, a collection of essays on new media, games, and related goodness. A chapter which I meant to blog about immediately after reading was Gonzalo Frasca’s “Videogames of the Oppressed“.

Unfortunately one point which he briefly mentioned got under my skin so deeply that I wanted to read his full thesis which this paper was based on before trying to respond. Since his thesis is, well, thesis-sized and my attention span is limited I haven’t gotten that far yet. So rather than nitpick on the ability of games to make moral statements, I’ll come back to that at some other time so that I can get on with the business of recommending the rest of the paper.

I love his concept of creating an open forum where people modify each other’s game designs as a method of communicating different points of view on a problem or situation. It would be great if someone would set up such a website, where games that were uploaded would have source included and allow people to upload modified games that would be referenced by the site to the original. On the other hand, aside from some of the cross-referencing features it’s possible that such a discussion forum could be created on an existing online community such as the art-focused CodeTree or the relatively open games portal Kongregate.

Anyway, if you’re interested in ideas of games as critical simulation, go give Frasca’s paper a read, and the rest of the section on Critical Simulation is worthwhile as well.

The Escapist on faith and philosophy in games April 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, Judaism, mainstream games.
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The newest issue of online gaming publication The Escapist focuses on religion and philosophy within gaming. The articles vary from thought-provoking to curious to strangely silly. The two articles that I found the most worth reading were “Jesus was not a gamer” by Joe Blancato, and “A Lack of Faith: Why Christian Games are Doomed to Fail” by Lara Crigger.

“Jesus was not a gamer” pokes a bit at the tendency we have to pray to whatever god/God we know of for help in winning games, and then dives into a survey of how religion and games have mixed historically around the world. The article gives some fascinating examples. I finally have some clue as to what a dreidl is, and while I had heard of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet before, I didn’t realize that the rules had actually been reconstructed. (The article links to a Flash version of the game, but at the time of writing this it seems to be down.)

Interestingly, Blancato looks for a gaming connection to Christianity and finds that there seems to be none. He attributes it at least partially to Christianity’s underground beginnings, but isn’t that the exact circumstances in which he says that Judaism invented the dreidl? I don’t know how deeply the two situations are parallel, though, so maybe I’m misunderstanding.

“A Lack of Faith” is, initially, a pretty harsh criticism of the current state of Christian games. But looking past the nasty subtitle and the Left Behind: Eternal Forces abuse, Crigger actually dives into what I believe to be a fundamental challenge for Christian games, or faith-based games in general. Are Christian games willing and able to create a deep and meaningful look at what it means to have a crisis of faith? The article takes a close look at the story of Job as an example of what a truly challenging faith story looks like, and holds that up as a measure. Ultimately, Crigger is advocating what (I think) I’ve been trying to cheer on via this blog all along – for games to create a deeper and more meaningful representation of what faith is, how it turns your life inside out.

One thing I’d mention is that I think the article doesn’t do justice to just how hard that goal might be to achieve, especially in a Christian context. Crigger brings up this core question from the look at Job:

If by being good, you can entirely avoid misfortune, what distinguishes righteousness from commerce, a mere business transaction between you and God?

Certainly struggling with this question is what makes the book of Job so challenging. Unfortunately, in a slightly different light it’s also what makes creating a compelling Christian faith story so challenging as well. Both game rules and computer systems are excellent at creating representations of predictable, mathematical relationships. But if we try to embody a story of faith with a living and incalculable God in the rules of a game, how do we distinguish righteousness from commerce? How do we keep our representation of prayers from being “mere business transaction(s)” in an economy of game mechanics?