Category: ‘Games’

Procedural abstraction and representation

[Art,Games] (02.25.10, 12:18 pm)

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting a show at the Phillips gallery featuring the abstract works of Georgia O’Keeffe. I adore O’Keeffe for her art, particularly her use of lines and colors, but this exhibition focused on the relationship between the abstract and the representational. These particular paintings exist on the edge between abstract compositions and depictions of flowers, bones, or landscapes. O’Keeffe is known for rebelling against the characteristics of realism in art, and claiming that “There is nothing less real than realism.” Instead, it is the abstract that most closely is connected to how we think of the world and understand it in our minds. Abstraction is the process of distilling a representation into its purest, simplest meanings. Realism does not convey experience; it conveys instead a rendition, an imposition of noise where there should be clarity. Realism detracts from the artist’s interpretation of meaning from a subject by chaining the representation to the object. O’Keeffe manages to do this without essentializing: her paintings of a jack-in-the-pulpit are not a claim that the images represent the true essence of the flower, but that they suggest her own experience of the flower, distilled.

Because I’m interested in games, this post necessarily has to connect somehow, and that is in procedural abstraction and representation. Games and simulations are abstractions of the world. Instead of depicting images, they depict processes. There is plenty of writing about the inappropriateness of realism for simulations, but one thing that can be learned from O’Keeffe is the role of the artist in the abstraction itself. The practice of abstraction is cognitive, gradual, and immensely personal. While O’Keeffe’s role in her art has been to transform objects into representations which are abstracted, personal, and artistically evocative, it is the role of the designer to derive rules in simulations which create dynamics and aesthetics that form a good experience for the player.

There are several dimensions for exploration here: O’Keeffe made several series in which she abstracted an image more and more until it became something that is far removed from its original subject, but still recognizable. An interesting exercise would be to simulate a system was with many rules so that it is realistic, and then gradually remove them until the system became more abstracted, but still recognizable. What kind of effect would such a series of systems have for a player? How would the designer make the choices of what rules to remove while reducing and abstracting gradually? A second exercise is to consider O’Keeffe’s artistic evocation of sexuality in her paintings of flowers. What would it mean to design a simulation which was abstractly representative, but also evocative of something else?

The Sims 3

[Games,Research] (08.26.09, 3:24 pm)

Generally, my point of interest is in comparison to other Sims games. My interest here is not the way it plays exactly, but the changes in the simulation. These changes are primarily the new systems of character traits and moodlets. These are promising from the perspective of useful character simulation.

I don’t mean to suggest that I want to adopt the mechanics and model that are used in The Sims 3, but rather, I mean to illustrate that these mechanics solve a major problem in simulating agents that are believable as characters. Sims characters have always been only somewhat believable. The characters are dolls: they are not characters, but rather they are objects from which we can interpret characters. The work here lies in the player’s imagination.

My problem with The Sims has always been that it is very difficult to create fundamentally different characters. In both the Sims 1 and 2, characters were differentiated in that they had several numeric stats. These are: sloppy/neat, shy/outgoing, lazy/active, serious/playful, and grouchy/nice. The Sims 2 expanded this by adding another layer on top of this model, which is aspirations and fears. It was thus possible to create several conceptually interesting characters, such as a very shy person who aspires to popularity. However, with an intention to create a specific character, or create characters referenced from fiction, the system of statistics is awkward.

Furthermore, the statistical model itself is difficult to apply to other domains. The example I tend to consider in these situations is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Considering the main cast of characters, we can come up with values for them in the sloppy/neat sorts of parameters. However, we cannot distinguish exactly what it is that makes Mr. Collins horrible in these statistics. A possibility would be to extend the statistical model, and for instance, have numeric statistics that represent the spectrum of differences between the characters: for instance, there might be an axis of gentlemanliness, one of stuffiness, or rakishness, but these are clumsy and artificial. What’s worse is that these parametric systems create dangerous middle zones: what does it mean to be halfway between rakish and gentlemanly? Most frustratingly, it conceals and muddles the complex relationship between the inner and surface lives and natures of the characters.

While the mechanics present in The Sims 3 does not provide a solution to this problem, it offers a pleasing shift in perspective. The trait system offers several traits that sims can possess. Each sim may have 5 traits, plus a lifetime aspiration. Traits may be things indicated by the earlier sliding-value system. For instance, a character may be neat or a slob. But the trait system also distinguishes between several more subtle social qualities. A character could be flirty, friendly, or charismatic. Each trait represents something slightly different. These give more detail and subtlety to characterization. There are also other sorts of social traits, which guide how the characters might act in social contexts. My favorite of these is “inappropriate” which causes (permits, really) sims to do things that are socially inappropriate.

The traits system also defines how sims respond to the world around them. In a simple example: a sim who is neat will get more pleasure out of being clean than a slob, but a slob will not mind dirty surroundings as much as a neat sim. These differences are manifested mechanically through moodlets. Moodlets last some period of time, and usually have a positive or negative effect on a single mood variable. The character’s overall mood is thus the sum of a base value and all of the sim’s moodlets. What is more, an NPC might respond favorably or unfavorably to the actions of a player controlled sim. The NPC behavior is controlled by their own traits and moodlets, which are usually opaque to the player. This creates a very simplified resemblance of an inner-life.

One could imagine a more robust authoring system whereby it is possible to author new types of traits, moodlets, and all of these other details, which could be authored modularly. So, with the earlier example, it would be possible to create a Mr. Darcy by having traits of “gentleman,” “proud,” and “shy.” Austen has a trend wherein in each of her books there is a “talky” character, which could be manifested as a trait. Similar sorts of traits could be attributed to every character. This solves the issue of ambiguous in-between values, and also opens up a method for thinking about the characters not just in Austen’s works, but in other character-driven story worlds. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that the Sims 3 mechanics are exactly what I want to use, as, after all, Mr. Darcy changes considerably over the course of Pride and Prejudice, and the system as described is not capable of representing complex relationships, but it is a good system to keep in mind.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorElectronic Arts
TitleThe Sims 3
Tagsai, games, simulation, social simulation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Scanned notes

[Games,General,Research,Talks] (02.16.09, 11:12 pm)

I’m in the habit of writing up pages of notes that are often difficult to transcribe into pure text form. Usually I keep these around with me as references until my thinking or work on whatever project has matured enough that the notes aren’t relevant anymore. I have a bunch of pages like this in my notebook. Right now with the simulating fictional worlds project, I am trying to come up with a preliminary system of classes and work out what their relationships to each other will be programmatically. Also I want to know what the major processes , interactions, and flowcharts are going to look like. Posted here is an early step.

How a situation is composed

How a situation is composed

Situation Cycle

Situation cycle. It looks like we might need more general classification of frame that encompasses both situations and other social codes.

Conversation cycle and context

Conversation cycle and context


[Games,General] (11.20.08, 11:40 am)

Normally I don’t spend much time with political games. I like the idea of political games in principle, but it is frequently difficult for me to really get into them. A few days ago, I stumbled on Ian Bogost’s post about Molleindustria‘s new game Oiligarchy.

The idea behind Oiligarchy is that the player is in control of the oil industry. Not just one part of it, but all of it, the whole thing. Early on, the player is responsible for exploring and building: looking for reservoirs and whatnot. However, over time, domestic reservoirs begin to reduce in output, and demand increases, so the player must look elsewhere for oil. The player can drill for oil in Venezuela, Nigeria, Alaska, and Iraq, and each of these have reaching political implications. The game keeps track of many ongoing variables, such as domestic stability, environmentalism, as well as other events and factors. It is oddly fun to play, and each play through can lead to one of four potential endings.

The most fascinating thing about the game is the postmortem written by the developers. It explains in very explicit terms the model at the core of the simulation, which is the Hubbert peak theory, and the political implications of the model. All of the events in the game are based on either real events or theories, and most of them come with citations. I find the explict focus on the model, specifically the way that it manifests and is ever present within gameplay to be very impressive. This careful exploration and critical approach to models is precisely what I want to encourage in my work about adaptation.

While the model is transparent and visible, it is also integral, so it would not, for instance, be easy for someone to try out their own model within the context of the game. Molleindustria did release their source code, though, so someone could presumably try. This is an aesthetic of openness which is becoming more prevalent in games, and that is a very good thing. Sid Meier’s Civilization is a game that I usually criticize for its colonialist  and expansionist approach to history, but even the fourth installment of the series comes with extensive modding capabilities, including the ability to swap out the core of the game code.

Nile Online

[Games,General] (11.11.08, 11:31 am)

I’ve become totally addicted to this game. It’s made by Tilted Mill, which is the wonderful studio responsible for Pharaoh, Caesar, Sim City Societies, and many other delightful city building games. Nile Online is very fascinating conceptually. It is a broswer-based casual MMOG. Contrary to many browser-based MMOGs, it is not implemented using Java or Flash, but rather PHP delivering dynamic HTML with Ajax. It is casual because player actions are implemented over time. Creating a building in the beginning may take 15 minutes, but later on, upgrading it to a higher level may take 6 hours.

The primary mechanic of the game is trade. Players can trade with each other, but much of the trading is unchecked, so it relies on trust and communication (via an in-game email/scroll system). One could probably say that it is about economies, but the way that the economy is implemented in game, it relies on issues of time and distance that make it unlike many contemporary economic games which are much more instantaneous. It’s a lot of fun.

Meanwhile: When did Open Office 3 come out? Sun really needs to figure out how to cultivate popular enthusiasm and support! Maybe I’ll give some sort of review later after I get it installed. It’s a great project, but needs more publicity for it to get recognized. I don’t want them to advertise. I hate advertisements passionately. But they could see about getting their product reviewed on blogs or on tech news sites.

Mechanics and Tabletop RPGs

[Games,Research] (04.08.08, 11:55 pm)

We had a longtime friend of ours come by and visit today, which went respectably well. He has graduated from his arduous job at the pizza place and is now intending to take up snowboarding (or something). Said friend is also been a lifelong gamer and was one of the shadow agents whose operations led me to discover gaming. Having spent extensive time in the “académie”, I’ve also gotten to know the Ludologists, the Narrativists, and now, Miashara. It feels like the stars have been aligned to make something really awesome happen. Unfortunately, it may take some time for that to amount to anything, so I grilled him about gaming and where he sees the relation of stories and systems. (more…)

Morality in games (part 3: another way)

[Games,General] (01.24.08, 12:11 pm)

Continuing to the third part in this series, I want to introduce a system for handling morality that makes sense for complex situations. My goal is to come up with something procedural, intuitive enough to design for, and something that can handle even the most perverse of moral situations. Because every domain is different and has different moral and value systems, it makes sense that each game or story world will have a different set of statistics and parameters.

The reward for this is an analysis (keeping up with contemporary film and theatre) of Sweeney Todd, to be covered in the next post. The analysis will break down the cast into a spectrum of dimensions that demonstrates quite clearly that, far from being poles, good and evil are spread and intermingle in a complex swamp and neither is really possible to achieve without a helping of the other. Special thanks to Audrey , the domain expert, who helped me get this system and the analysis worked out. (more…)

Morality in games (part 2: theories)

[Games,General] (12.29.07, 9:29 pm)

So, in an earlier post I described some of the morality systems that games have when they present the player with choices of a supposedly moral nature. The primary issue that I am criticizing is the “karmic” system where choices serve to advance the player on some Cartesian axis or grid where each point represents a moral position. Here I’ll make an overview of a variety of systems, and hopefully describe a few ways to get around this quandary and have meaningful choices that are still playable. (more…)

Morality in games (part 1: griping)

[Games,General] (12.10.07, 7:43 pm)

This has always been something of a pet peeve for me. Many computer roleplaying games have developed a desire recently to employ the computer’s power of logic towards more than just fancy graphics and combat systems to create moral universes in which players make seemingly relevant moral choices in the game world. I got thinking of this when Evan was recently playing Mass Effect, Bioware’s newest extremely high budget sci-fi RPG shooter.

I have not actually played the game, and my gripes with it are not indicative of its quality in gameplay, but rather the disturbing trend in moral choices in a long line of games of which it is merely an example. The issue I have is of the moral systems developed in games stemming from Dungeons and Dragons to Neverwinter Nights, to its many successors, to Bioshock, to Fable, to Mass Effect, and doubtless to many more to come.

The issue I have is with the “Good” to “Evil” alignment system. Moral choices are made on a karmic scale. You start off as “neutral” and doing various “good” things pushes you toward the good side of the spectrum, where doing various “bad” things pushes you toward the evil side of the spectrum. Generally, I really hate karma systems, since they ultimately resolve into nonsensical unrealistic duals and feeble conceptions of the opposing choices. Karma systems generally fail except when they are done well, presenting choices that actually have moral quandaries, where neither choice is good nor evil.

The reason why karmic systems tend to fail (as complex systems) is because of the fact that there is no such thing as an essentially good action or an essentially evil one. This is illustrated in an example Audrey has excellently described as the “eat the baby” versus “don’t eat the baby” moral decision. The essence of this is that at some point, the intrepid player comes across a baby in a basket in his or her travels. The player is faced with the daunting moral dilemma: take the baby to the nearest lost baby depot, or eat said baby. Dilemmas like these simply do not exist in any interesting or realistic moral universe.

The idea of a good/evil scale treats good and evil as concrete absolutes. When was the last time you were faced with a decision in which you were weighing your choices in terms of objective good versus evil? Real moral choices relate to value systems or selfish versus altruistic behavior. These choices are not absolutes, but also are different depending on cultural or social context. No one (realistically) ever sees themselves as intentionally “being evil” but rather everyone operates according to highly rationalized decision making systems. Interesting villains often are sympathetic because their moral systems may resemble our own in all but a few key aspects. Their choices and our choices are informed by similar forces of what is the good or correct or morally just course of action.

Games do have the potential to express deeper quandaries, but they must move beyond karmic axis systems in order for these to express deep  and challenging moral questions.