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Column: The Gaming Doctrine

The Gaming Doctrine: Turning Over Tables in the Chain World Temple

June 1, 2011 8:00 PM |

chainworld.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - why Chain World should have been kept off of eBay, and what it has to do with games in general.]

Chain World was a good idea.

It wasn't marketable and it wasn't going to change the world. It wasn't even an entirely revolutionary idea: it was, in fact, a modified version of Minecraft. In a GDC presentation, creator Jason Rohrer anticipated Chain World would take on a life of its own as, one after another, players made their mark on a place that continued through time.

They would then pass that world on to someone else, via a USB stick, and that person would then explore what was left and create something for the next player. Down the line it would go, until the end of time, or at least until no one was able to run the thing anymore. It was the most brilliant of the several entries in the 2011 GDC Game Design Challenge because of its simplicity, its ability to be carried out, and the possibilities that were set forth as a result.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: The Gods of Goo

April 21, 2011 12:00 PM |

worldofgoo.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - a personal meditation on the implications of deity in 2D Boy's World of Goo.]

We all have authority figures. Some of us have as few as possible. Bosses, teachers, parents and elected officials are enough for us. But some people – people like me – choose to have even more. Most prominently, some of us choose to believe in an unknown force, commonly known as God, which guides us both directly and indirectly through life.

It’s a belief that keeps me living purposefully, that makes sense of the world, and that gives me hope for the future. But sometimes I wonder if this belief places me squarely in the midst of a cruel game, wherein I am merely a pawn, used for the sadistic purposes of a cruel God.

The Accidental, Thoughtless God

We start World of Goo with a strong sense of power. We have complete control over the goo balls that live in the world. They grunt and squeak thankfully as we connect and divide them, building structure after structure. They are excited to see what's next, through that pipe that hangs overhead at the end of each level. They are at the whims of whoever comes along to control them. They trust in us.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: (Virtual) Reality is (Just as) Broken

March 18, 2011 12:00 PM |

freeman.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how games bring out the worst in us - and why that's a good thing.]

Video games don't lack for portrayals of heroes. It seems like every other game puts us in control of a brave and heroic protagonist, bent on facing off against an unmistakably evil oppressor. We take joy in power fantasies because we are convinced in our own mind that we're doing the right thing. We save the princess, kill the bad guy, and set the captives free. If only there were more heroes like us.

You're welcome, world.

But how often do we sincerely feel the weight of doing something heroic in a videogame? How often have we taken pride in a courageous act, felt happy for those who we have saved, or felt the satisfaction of bringing justice to an unjust situation? Forget crying: how often have we raised our head high while playing a video game?

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: The Coming Bulletstorm

January 26, 2011 12:00 AM |

[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how People Can Fly and Epic's Bulletstorm crosses ethical lines never before crossed, and what that means for the industry.]

We kind of asked for it. After the last couple of years in which many video game enthusiasts did everything they could to drive home the mediums' artistic validity, and after lauding blatantly flawed games simply because they did something that spoke to the human condition (and rightfully so), it only makes sense that it would come to this.

After all of the rants about the immaturity of the industry, the calls to higher standards, and the comparisons to other mediums, this sort of thing just seems inevitable.

From its unveiling at E3, we knew Bulletstorm would be something special. Claiming that the glut of military shooters had gotten to be a bit much, they sought to solve this problem by producing a pulp sci-fi shooter with a crucial gameplay conceit: creative killing.

Using incredibly large guns, an electric leash, a giant boot and the surrounding environment, players would use their creativity to come up with unique new ways of destroying their enemies.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: A Tale of Two Crucifixions

December 21, 2010 12:00 AM |

[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch columnby Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - an examination of two instances of crucifixion in recent bestselling games, and the impact they can have on the player. Warning: minor spoilers for Fallout: New Vegas and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood within.]

Every culture has its ways of putting one another to death. Some are more humane than others, but no execution technique is quite as horrifying as the crucifixion.

While most cultures today tend to attempt a “humane” death for those who are deemed to deserve such a penalty, the crucifixion was inflicted on criminals particularly because it was inhumane.

It was known, not just for its incredibly painful and slow nature, but also because of the amount of shame the act brought onto the barely clothed recipient of such a death. It’s this highly-unpleasant cultural practice that Christianity maintains as the centerpiece of its religion. And now, this practice is a primary factor in two recent blockbuster video games.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: Morality Shock

November 16, 2010 12:00 AM |

ryan.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how games can use their power to actively involve the player in order to challenge their moral assumptions.]

It goes something like this: You are the hero. They are the villains. You, as hero, are tasked with putting a stop to the villains and ridding the world of evil (inasmuch as the created world allows). This simple goal sums up the basic thrust of ethical consideration within the video game world.

Even open world games that contain a variety of morally opaque battles, conversations and side-quests still require an adherence to a larger, morally transparent storyline.

Traditionally, this means that the emotional and intellectual resonance that is experienced at the end of the game is little more than a simple justification and pat on the back for saving the world, the girl, or yourself. Recently, though, this has started to change.

A Changing Ethical Landscape

In Modern Warfare 2, you are a soldier with a simple goal to follow orders. In Bioshock, you are given few choices other than carrying out the objectives of a mysterious voice. Red Dead Redemption places the focus solely on John Marston’s drive to see his family, at the cost of all else. Braid tasks the player with seeking out a lost significant other, equating her with a helpless princess.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: Gaming and Confronting Our Humanity

October 20, 2010 12:00 AM |

braidhumanity.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how games can make us acutely aware of our own humanity.]

Why do we play? What seems to many a waste of time often captures the attention and devotion of a significant portion of humanity. Sports, board games, playground games, and video games all require a commitment to ignore life’s more pressing matters for imaginary stakes that only seem to matter in the moment. Play is a deception we submit ourselves to for a time. But what’s the point?

The easy and oft-repeated answer is that it serves as a sort of escapism from the pressures of everyday life. Thus the apparent counter-productive nature of play: we often indulge ourselves with it when things most require our attention. On an individual level, this seems perfectly reasonable and even honorable, especially in the moment.

Play makes us feel better about ourselves and puts us in the position to make better decisions under less stress afterwards. Still, to those watching from the outside, play is often simply a coping mechanism that is most often a detriment to real life. When it comes to gaming for the sake of escapism, they’re not always wrong.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: Red Dead Religion

September 12, 2010 12:00 PM |

[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead Redemption addresses the religious sphere -- and perhaps falls short.]

Though it wasn't apparent from the media blitz for Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's latest opus was just as much about religion and religious people as it was about rustling cattle and bringing outlaws to justice. We all know the tendency of video game hype: play up the superficial plot points and the various groundbreaking game play features. We also know that religion is the one subject that PR departments know better than to acknowledge.

And yet, the subject is front and center in Red Dead Redemption, as both subject and subtext. Throughout John Marston’s journey, not only are we confronted with a number of religious points of view and beliefs, but we are also given clues about Marston’s own religious journey. It’s this pilgrimage that is most masterfully crafted.

Because our main character is relatively understated and enigmatic, we are given plenty of opportunities to project our own thoughts and assumptions into Marston’s head. Though we are provided with a small amount of guidance, at least for the first part of the game, we are left to make our own judgments about the various types of belief we are confronted with in Marston’s world.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: Evil in Games

August 15, 2010 12:00 PM |

jackal.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how a better portrayal of enemies and evil within the game world can improve the overall quality of a game.]

You've got to fight someone. That's been the de facto mantra of console-dominant video game scene since the days of Mario, and it speaks volumes about the nature of games and their focus. They are just as much about their enemies as they are about their heroes, and they give us opportunities to think through one profound question: what would a person have to do to become my enemy? In other words, what makes me need to kill, hurt, maim, or attack a person or thing? What makes them evil, and is it enough?

The uncomfortable undercurrent of that line of questioning is the assumption that fighting something inevitably solves the problem. It's a claim that few of us would be comfortable with when made explicit, though our culture makes it implicitly on a constant, unrelenting basis. Political campaign speeches, action film climaxes, television season finales, and video game combat systems all exist primarily because of this assertion.

We know better. We know that violence often begets violence, that revenge is often empty, that killing a human being should be a last resort rather than one option among many. And yet, these things resonate with us because we want to believe that solving our problems could be that simple.

We want to convince ourselves that some binary solution, however unpleasant and destructive, might solve our problems, the problems of our loved ones, and even the problems of the entire world. It's a foolish desire, but it's the reason these games resonate so much with us. When we are presented with people to kill or dispatch in some way, we frolic in a playground of combat possibilities.

COLUMN: The Gaming Doctrine: Is Death Cheap?

July 16, 2010 12:00 AM |

[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - a consideration of whether death in games can ever be treated with serious in light of a repetitive player death mechanic.]

Of those who consider video games a regular hobby, there is an experience that can be considered universal: dying, over and over again. Whether we find ourselves in an evil dungeon, space, or a desert, the primary gaming experience can be summed up by death.

At least, it can be summed up by a kind of death. Video game death stands apart from real death, not only because it's an artificial concept within the artificial construct of a video game world, but because it represents a fresh start rather than the end of the road. Within the video game, death is an opportunity for the player and an automatic reset button for the game world.