Death of the Player

Players are overrated.

Within conventional wisdom of designing and critiquing games lies the assumption that the player is paramount. Much of criticism writes to inform players, games are designed with the player in forefront of the developer’s mind. There is even the idea games are completed by players, that without players, there is no game.

I want to propose that not only do games and play exist without players, but sometimes, it is preferable to purposefully make them auxiliary or absent from craft and interpretation. Just to be clear, I don’t think there should be a blanket destruction of player-centric experiences. Rather, we are quick to use ‘death of the author’ arguments because of the cultural history behind it, and so why not at least consider the death of the player?

My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.

As a little window to a fictional world, Encyclopedia Fuck Me doesn’t have the player’s needs in mind. You either submitted to its logic or left. This is different from games that have a brutal, ‘masocore’ difficulty, because they make themselves known and welcome to players wanting that experience. They allow players room to be themselves and eventually dominate the game. There is no room for domination in Encyclopedia Fuck Me, because that’s the game’s role. Recently at the Queerness and Games conference, Jack Halberstam talked about escaping the tyranny of agency in games. He made a point that agency is always coded and designed into games, given to players by the developers. There is no such thing as agency in games. Agency is a lotus and we’ve all been asleep. I think The Stanley Parable strives for us to look at this issue, asking why we continue down this narrative of player agency. Can’t we still be taken through experiences without our every whim thought of and satisfied?

Play- and player-centric design are usually interchangeable terms, but I’d like to make a stronger distinction between them. My main quibble with player-centric design is the fetishized iterative process, where you take a prototype and get players to playtest it. Sometimes, this is useful; if it’s very important to you that someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing, playtesting is a method to achieve that. When I made Mainichi, I released it without any playtesting and iteration. Because players have a tendency to want agency and a positive trajectory, their input would have been useless to me. As well, the game was made for a friend to understand something. I couldn’t playtest the game with them and then ‘release’ it after. It would be like asking your crush to read and edit the love note you want to pass to them one day. With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.

This becomes even more important when we consider social politics, especially the kind that comes along with gamers. Gamers are trained to expect certain things from games, like explicit rules, goals, visual quality, and of course, agency. To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system. A bestowed agency. Many games that emphasize personal experience as design tools come from creators who are marginalized identities. Instead of the qualities listed above, their lives are more often community-reliant, without power, and restricted. It’s about survival. If these games were playtested, they would, most surely, get feedback about not having clear enough avenues to control and victory. It would be whitewashing a particular experience that doesn’t really get light or validation in our current landscape.

I experienced this recently with my game EAT. I made it for my partner who wanted to know more about my financial struggles and how there wasn’t a simple fix for it. EAT is very hostile towards players, because impoverished life is hostile. Much of my feedback wanted me to edit the game so people could actually play it. This was a misnomer; people could very easily play it, their life would just become a lot more strenuous. Because you can’t experience being poorer without being inconvenienced. You can look at EAT and see how it generates play, and not actually play it. It’s an experience that might just need a mental understanding to succeed. This reminds me of an anecdote I remember Brenda Romero describing about Train. She said a person went to go play it, but with just looking at it, understood what it was all about and refused to play. Instead, Brenda thanked her for playing, because the actual act of physically interacting wasn’t necessary. The player isn’t needed for play, the player is more someone who can perceive play. I know that EAT is painful to play, and most won’t do it, but that act alone should communicate something to those who encounter it. It’s demanding because that’s what’s needed to have that experience; how do you have a ‘fun’ experience of being poor while a non-white, queer woman who’s a student? How is agency and the player’s wants important when the system that impoverishes doesn’t care of the person’s feelings? Giving someone the agency to ‘solve’ the game is like positing one person can game the system and vanquish poverty in reality.

What I hope for now is to see more projects that are purposefully iterative and noniterative. To not take the iterative process as a given, to consider alternatives to player-centric design. Sometimes, it’s about us, not them. Sometimes, it’s about the experience, and not their sedation. I don’t want to drug people with their own chemicals, rather, encourage them to step outside of themselves and connect with what I have to say, as separate people.

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Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

Mainichi

This is an experiment in sharing a personal experience through a game system. It helps communicate daily occurances that happen in my life, exploring the difficulty in expressing these feelings in words. As well, it stands as a commentary of how we currently use game design for broad strokes of universal experiences instead of the hyper-personal, and often exclude minority voices. Mainichi was made in RPG Maker VX, an under-served program in terms of accessibility. My goal was to make a game on my own that didn’t require programming and used community resources. I want to make games that feasibly anyone can do on their own. The only special skill I needed for this project was simple graphic editing.

Exhibits
IndieCade Official Selection
Museum of Design Atlanta
Allied Media Conference – Imagining Better Futures Through Play

Download Mainichi For Windows Here
and for Mac here.

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