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How to Play a Video Game
By Pippin Barr
Awa PressCopyright © 2011 Pippin Barr
All rights reserved.
At the age of four I entered an ancient tomb, set on discovering the fabulous treasure hidden in its depths. I now know that tomb-raiding is questionable, ethically speaking, but back then I didn't care. My parents had brought home an Apple IIe, one of the first personal computers available in New Zealand, and with it came a game called Aztec.
I cannot recall much about my early childhood, but Aztec has stayed with me. I remember battles with cobras, lions, and even an octopus. I had to look up the game's list of creatures just now to make sure I was remembering right. An octopus in an Aztec tomb? But yes, it was there. There were Aztecs too, of course, and they weren't happy with me at all.
Aztec was an intense experience for a small child, but what really appealed to me then, and still appeals to me now, is that the game let me be someone else somewhere else. Suddenly I was a tomb-raider, planting dynamite, shooting snakes, and evading that most cinematic of traps, the ever-lowering ceiling. It may not surprise you that almost three decades later I still play video games – a lot of video games. I play every day. I play on my Xbox 360, my laptop, my iPod. I play at home, I play on the bus, and I play on the way to work.
Oh yeah, I also play video games because it's my job. I teach video game design at a university in Copenhagen. The place where I work is called the Center for Computer Games Research. No kidding. In a spectacular building of air and glass I work with some of the people who are the smartest in the world when it comes to studying what video games are, what they mean, and what they could be in the future. It's a surreal and wonderful experience seeing a bunch of the best and brightest sitting around the lunchroom talking about the finer points of World of Warcraft or their best score in the latest iPhone game.
When I'm not teaching about video games I spend most of my time thinking about them and making them. My latest effort is a recreation of a performance artwork, 'The Artist Is Present', by Marina Abramovic. In the original work, performed at New York's Museum of Modern Art, visitors could, one by one, sit across from Abramovic and silently look into her eyes for as long as they pleased. In my game version you can replicate this experience. The museum is open only when the real one is – 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. New York time – and closed on Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. As in the real artwork, a lot of people want to see Abramovic so you have to wait in line. When I played recently it took me five hours to get to the front of the queue.
The game caused a modest sensation on the internet. In one week it had over 90,000 visits, was featured by such publications as The Village Voice and The Huffington Post, and mentioned on Twitter by the Museum of Modern Art and Paris's Pompidou Centre.
So to recap, my days consist of playing games, talking about games, teaching games, thinking about games, writing about games, and making games. Terrible, I know. How did I get here?
From Aztec on, games became a normal part of my life. They were just there, neither central nor peripheral but merely something I did, like reading, or watching movies, or playing cricket with a tennis ball at the local schoolyard. For me and my friends they provided an important separate sphere of life where we were in control, and not just of the characters in the games but of the experience itself, from the technology to the new situations in which it placed us.
I vividly recall the intensity of the social rituals surrounding the games. These rituals were a part of our growing adulthood. After stepping through a wall of heat and jangling sounds at a local arcade, we entered a domain where we could come into our own. We changed our money at the counter into glorious five-high stacks of twenty cent pieces, walked thoughtfully around the room looking at the cabinets, each its own world, or perhaps rushed immediately to a favourite game, thumb and index finger warming our first coins with a rhythmic rubbing. If you wanted to play a game with someone, who would usually be a complete stranger, you observed the ritual of placing your coins at the base of the screen, indicating you would join in at the next opportunity, either to compete or collaborate.
One of my fondest memories is of going with my best friend Kris to a local video store to rent a Sega Mega Drive for the night. Even the word 'rent' felt like a medal of maturity. We walked the store's aisles, making the weighty decision as to which three games we would play. Old favourites such as Golden Axe? Perhaps that weird-looking new one enticingly called ToeJam & Earl? Taking our selections to the counter we'd receive the cartridges and game system in a special nylon bag that bristled with Velcro straps to hold everything in place. Masters of technology, we would return to Kris's house, eat fish and chips, and play late into the night, sometimes swapping the controls back and forth, sometimes playing together as a team. When we finally went to bed there'd be dents in our thumbs from pressing the buttons with so much passion. Next morning we'd get up early to play for the last few hours before the games had to go back to the shop.
Around the time I started going to high school, I developed a more unusual passion: I became a fan of American football. Specifically, I became a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. This started almost completely at random: I saw some NFL scores on my grandmother's TV and decided there and then this was my sport. And since the Cowboys had won their game, they were my team. While I enjoy cricket, rugby and other traditional New Zealand sports, I still bleed the silver and blue of the Dallas Cowboys. This has not been easy: other than their glory years in the early '90s, the Cowboys have been one of the most consistently disappointing teams in existence.
American football and video games became tightly intertwined. With the NFL not exactly a household name in New Zealand, I relied heavily on video games to get my football fix. The reigning champ was Madden NFL. At one point I bought the yearly edition every year for ten straight years. I still buy it, although lately I've started missing every now and then.
The relationship between the real Dallas Cowboys and my video game version is complex. For one thing, in video game football you can rewrite history and imagine a glorious future. Could the Dallas Cowboys win this year's Super Bowl? Why yes. And the next ... and the next? Yes. The Cowboys win! Even when the real Cowboys are suffering bitter defeat on television, I can change the channel and make them win big in Madden NFL.
This has, over time, led to some superstitious behaviour. I have become obsessed with playing a simulated version of the Cowboys' next match in order to 'help' them win the real game. I set up elaborate rules for these games to ensure they're valid: no cheating, no cheap shots, no saved games, no restarting. I do my part for the team, playing in deadly earnest.
As video games became increasingly sophisticated, my relationship with them began to take on a more serious note. In 2001 numerous games altered my perception of what could be done in the medium. In Grand Theft Auto III I could exist in a city that was both my personal domain and yet pleasingly indifferent to my presence. It felt more authentic than any virtual world I had seen before. In ICO I caught myself getting genuinely emotional about the fate of my character and my role in shaping events. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty I relished the deeply postmodern approach, complete with fake death screens and an odd fracturing of the 'fourth wall', taken by the designer, Hideo Kojima.
Then one day something happened that would change my life. I was sitting in a café in Wellington talking to my academic mentor, Sky Marsen, about what to study for my PhD. I would have to focus on this topic for the next three or more years so it was a major decision. I was thinking of looking at how the programs we use on our computers – Microsoft Word and Excel, for example – secretly influence us, and 'tell' us the correct ways to work with them.
Sky listened and then, like a bolt from the blue, she said, 'Why not video games?' I managed to carry on the conversation, but part of me was struck dumb by the audaciousness of doing a PhD on games. Could I actually do something like that? Or would my supervisors laugh in my face?
In the end I did spend the next three years studying games, talking to people who played them, and trying to understand how it is that games communicate the 'right' things to do within their worlds. By the end I had finished my dissertation on 'video game values' and graduated: I was a Doctor of Video Games. After a stint in Canada working on unusual kinds of games that operate on large-scale multi-touch surfaces – think of a giant iPhone – or use the way you're walking around to tell you a unique story, I moved to Copenhagen with my wife, who just happens to be also an expert in video games.
Teaching game design to students is a privileged position: I get to see the potential of video games unfolding in real time. Each semester my students produce remarkable games that I could never have imagined. In the past year a student has made a space ship shooting game in which, in order to succeed, the player makes music, building ever more complex and interesting loops, which in turn improve their space ship's capability. Imagine if Space Invaders were a musical instrument and you'll get some of the idea. Another student has produced a game in which the objective is to help a virtual plant grow by showing it various colours via a computer's camera. Rather than sitting still in front of the game, you have to take it with you into the environment, finding the colours the plant needs: the blue on a guy's T-shirt, the green of your lunchtime salad, the red of a passing car.
You may be thinking, 'Music with a spaceship? Growing a plant with colour? Isn't this all a bit silly? A bit pointless?' It can be tempting to feel that video games are trivial, a frivolous waste of time. Naturally, I don't think so. These games give us worlds to explore, victories to seize, experiments to conduct. They draw us closer to our friends, whether we play in the same room, across a network, or entirely separately. And they make us part of an enormous community of people across the world.
Video games are now a major international industry, with the biggest games out-earning the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Call of Duty: Black Ops sold over five million copies on its first day. World of Warcraft has more than five million inhabitants, a population larger than several real-world nations.
It's true, though, that video games can sometimes put up seemingly impassable barriers – a nightmare of fast moving colours combined with a confusing cacophony of noises. You are expected to move your hands and fingers in an unfamiliar range of patterns and combinations. And there are now so many different ways to play games – from mobile phones to televisions to wristwatches – it can be hard to know where to begin. Worse, there are so many games in existence. Who knows which are the best ones to play, or even how to start them up? And what happens when you do start a game and it makes its impossible demands?
A couple of days ago I returned to Aztec, looking to relive my glory days of childhood. On starting the game I was upset to discover I couldn't work out how to walk. By randomly hitting keys I managed to stride in one direction but I couldn't stop or turn around. Then I hit a wall and fell down. Then I got up, walked into the same wall and fell down again. Then a cougar ate me.
Aztec is really hard. Although I went and looked up some instructions, and at least figured out how to walk in a straight line, I didn't make much progress. I fell down a hole, died of spider bites, and was blown up by a bomb hidden in a pile of trash. Games are not generally good at empathy. Aztec's only comment on my struggles was: 'You did not make it.' Or once: 'You were blown up.' It would have been a lot more fun if someone had been sitting next to me giving me a helping hand, pointing out what I was missing, and perhaps sympathising with my plight. Cue this book. Let's get started.CHAPTER 2
It's 1958 and William Higinbotham has a problem. It's time for the annual open day at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York State, where he works as a physicist. Members of the public are coming to see science in action and he's worried the traditional static exhibits won't exactly dazzle them. Working with the equipment he has to hand – an oscilloscope usually intended to display electrical currents as wave forms on a screen and a computer designed to calculate trajectories for a brain – Higinbotham creates a game. Tennis for Two allows players to hit a virtual ball on the screen back and forth over a virtual net by using dials to control invisible rackets. Despite its primitive nature, Tennis for Two turns out to be an unprecedented success, capturing the minds of the visitors, who – although no one realises it at the time – are among the first video game players in history.
It's an appealing story but only one of many: finding the genesis of video games is a bit of a wild goose chase. There are many options for a 'first video game', depending on what you think the words actually mean. Computers played chess and tic-tac-toe before Tennis for Two came along, and some people question whether a game that uses an oscilloscope and an analogue computer should count as a 'proper' video game.
Quibbles aside, the realisation that computers and related technologies could be used not just for calculating missile trajectories and solving other serious and weighty problems but for having fun changed entertainment forever. Computers – devoted to calculation – could take care of many elements of game-playing that could be a pain. They could, for example, make sure the rules were being followed and keep track of the score. While there are people who relish a good argument over rules and scoring (possibly descending into fisticuffs), most of us would rather just play.
As well as patiently keeping track of the state of play, computers could do much more: as in more earnest applications, they could simulate playing environments. In Tennis for Two it was the computer that decided how the ball should move in the air, what it should do when it hit a racket or the net, and what should happen when somebody missed. In a sense, the computer was tennis.
In no time, video games had spread across the world and entered the lives of almost everyone on the planet in an explosion of creativity, daring and business acumen that could not be contained. The creation of video games became one of the most desirable jobs for programmers and hardware designers everywhere.
Programming games on computers involves solving some of the most challenging and interesting problems imaginable. How do you get the computer to display graphics fast enough to keep up with fast-paced play? How can you make a machine play a good game of chess? And what about getting it to bleep and bloop at the right times? Along with achieving such noble feats, programmers can't help being playful. For a long time the first task of any novice programmer has been to make the computer say, 'Hello world!'
From the earliest computer systems, people with access to computers have inevitably been drawn to making games. The earliest digital game was called Spacewar!. Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Witaenem, members of the made-up 'Hingham Institute' at MIT, found themselves with access to the latest and greatest computer out there – the PDP-1. Feeling the need to push the system to its limits, they met to consider what would be the coolest possible thing they could make with it, and came up with an idea for a game of duelling spaceships. After a slow start, Steve Russell wrote code and in 1962 the game was born. In Spacewar! two or more players controlled spaceships on a screen, firing missiles at their opponents while navigating, using their thrusters, around a central star. Although now ancient history, Spacewar! contained many of the elements that are still popular in video games today: an urgent situation; the need for quick reflexes and spatial thinking; competition – and even, in team-based play, cooperation; and a simulated world. It was combative, but it was also beautiful.
Excerpted from How to Play a Video Game by Pippin Barr. Copyright © 2011 Pippin Barr. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
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