This week I’m going to delve back into my ideas around Transgression.  To recap a bit, transgression is the breaking of a boundary, usually a moral or social one.  Sins, therefor, are transgressions and we’ll be looking at some of the commandments this week.  I’m not a Christian, though I was raised as one, and well, it’s pretty ingrained in my culture.  If you’re not commenting on Plato you’re probably commenting on Christianity, so I’ll be using it a bit to frame my discussions this week.

No worries, any moralizing I may do won’t really be particularly Christian.

Transgression is important because it takes us out of society for a moment, and allows us to be outsiders.  Video games are important because they let us act, and transgress, in an environment where it has been made safe to do so.  The worst thing that will happen by our in-game transgressions is that we’ll lose our progress.

Yes, it’s possible to do things which are really wrong, or even illegal, in multi-player games, that’s not what I’m talking about here. In particular I want to talk about the ways that games are programmed to allow, or even require, transgression. Games where being bad is actually the point and purpose of the experience.  We can transgress in minor ways — there’s a DS game where you play as a bus driver. I am not one, so i’m transgressing, as it were, on my role as an internet blogger computer programmer writer person. That’s a fine definition and thought for a more rarefied discussion, so this week (and in general) I’m going to stick with more blatant and resonating transgressions.

But just as important as those blatant transgressions are, the fact that games make it safe to transgress sets us up for the duality that creates a liminal space. It is wrong to steal, but in the context of this game, it’s right to steal — it’s what I must do, to play the game.  Thus, I’m now in a new space, with new rules, breaking society’s boundary, but existing within the new boundaries of the game. It is wrong in society to steal, but wrong in my game to get caught doing it.

This week we’ll be looking at three things we’re told we’re not supposed to do, and the games that center around doing them.  Tomorrow, since we’ve mentioned already: stealing.

I think some of it is nostalgia.  Some of it is the nature of games to build on what came before. Some of it is certainly the hit driven nature of games, that forces repetition.  Too many games I’ve been playing this year echo an older game that I find I’d rather be playing.

Dragon Age has me wanting to play Oblivion, which makes me want Morrowind.  I played Prototype, and more than anything, the moving around Manhattan made me want to play Spider-Man 2 so much, we tracked down a copy (thankfully backwardly compatible on the 360), and I played, and spending much time just web-slinging around the city.

BioShock has been doing this to me lately, although in a different way.  It feels almost tinny to me, as though it’s an echo and reflection of something and the fidelity isn’t quite right.  I’m having difficulty finding the wonderfulness that the net has assured me is there.  I was replaying it recently as I’d gotten the disk from Girl, partly because of the immanent arrival of BioShock 2, and also because the VGC played it.  I missed their playthrough (and want to hear their podcast), when I read Michael Abbot’s recent piece on the game.

I’m not good at shooters, especially on the console.  I have BioShock for the PC, my key is missing, and well, it’s designed for the 360 anyway.  I wanted to get through it, and experience this environment that is so lauded.  Perhaps my expectations are too high now, and it’s certain that my playthrough is jaded, as I know the secret of the Crying Game.

My initial impressions of BioShock? First, the plane crash, and fall to the water.  Why are there droplets of water on my screen? This was my reaction the first time I played this, close to when the game came out, and again, every time I play it.  It jars me out.

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I’ve done some thinking since I wrote yesterday’s post about frustration in Dragon Age.   I think my analysis was wrong, actually.  It’s not really about play style.  I like run in and bash them on the head games, I like sneaky games. I like tactical games (and the Mage in WoW is a tactical class, for all her firepower).  It’s not even about dying repeatedly.  I had to return Demons’ Souls as it was a daily rental, but it’s in my GameFly queue.  And I never got out of the first dungeon, there.

The truth (and I think I’ve written about this before, on the long gone site) is that I like games that make me feel competent.  Player frustration is the exact opposite of this feeling for me.  I only played Demons’ Souls for a few hours, but in those same few hours with Dragon Age (which I’ve subsequently spent more time with) I was frustrated with it.  With Demons’ Souls, I felt like I learned something every time I died, or knew what my mistake was.  I was running a gauntlet, getting better at it each try.  I would succeed each time, and always knew why I failed.

While I’m talking about being competent, I’m not really talking about a power fantasy.  I don’t have to be super strong or in charge. I just want to be good at something, and have that something be what I’m doing in the game.  Mirror’s Edge was good at this, and would have been much better if it were built like a racing game instead of some absurd conspiracy plot.  Sure, you have a little tutorial at the beginning, but Faith is already competent, she doesn’t gain any abilities throughout the game, just more elaborate and difficult maze-races to work through.  I’m not becoming more powerful, but I am getting better, and I mostly feel competent while I do it.

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I’m having some real difficulty with Dragon Age: Origins.

I feel like I want to play it.  There’s — not peer pressure, but a sense from my peers that they liked this game.  From people with whom I’ve had detailed discussions about games we both liked.  In other words, people whose tastes I felt were very similar to mine.  These people love Dragon Age: Origins.  I’m very near the end of my patience.

One character, my Rogue ( a Human Noble), is stalled out in the first fighting area which comes immediately after her origin — in other words, the first bit of common question. I’d done that with my Human Mage, who very nearly got stalled out fighting the Ogre, in what is essentially the first area after the one my Rogue is in.  She is slightly beyond that, but not much, the experience with that fight is making me hesitant to want to continue, and now that I’m faced with too many choices, my natural hesitancy kicks in, and I rolled a new character.

I like a damage-dealing character.  The slogan for my Mage Zhenette (a standard name for my Mage characters) from WoW is “DPS is healing you don’t have to do.” Its a play style that involves doing lots of damage to enemies before they get to you, and minimizes the importance of defense. My WoW mage is a very tactical character, and the play is characterized by bursts of action and then downtime. I have a rogue on WoW,too, and she was a damage dealer, and a bit harder for me — as her damage was more over time, and required different tactical skills to accomplish, but the idea was much the same: do enough damage to avoid getting hit.

My play style in Torchlight is similar: run in clicking on things until they are dead.  I ususally remember to renew my buffs between battles, but not always — and yes, I can tell when I forget.  Just give me the biggest damage weapons and spells, and I’ll be on my way.  Armor is okay, too, but it’s secondary, or tertiary. I’ve got a pet in that game that more or less takes care of itself, although I think it ran away a couple of times. I never remember to heal it, so I learned a spell that heals us both, and that seems to work okay.  If playing Torchlight required keeping my pet buffed and healed, then I’d just quit, as I’m just not going to remember to do all that.  Make it so I have to manager it’s targets, too, and I’d probably leave.

Torchlight doesn’t have a lot more going for it than the explore/kill/loot cycle.  It’s frenetic and clicky and has a very basic, ignorable story.  Thankfully, they got the combat right, and I’m cool with it.  But I’d be pulling my hair out with DA:O’s combat if I had any to pull. (Goatee not an option, per the wives.)

Here’s the thing: both of my origin stories were awesome. I played the Mage one 1.5 times, and the Human Noble one.  I”m told these aren’t even necessarily the best origins.  I left those areas feeling like a kick-butt character, off to help kick-butt in other areas.  I knew it would be hard, but I was there to take names and chew bubblegum. My mage didn’t die in her origin, although my Rogue did once, my dog saving the day that time. {And so my Rogue, unlike myself, has a fondness for the thing.}  But I still felt like I could focus on my character and do some damage, and the stuff around me — the pet and my Mom, they did their part.

Then I’m dumped in the wilderness and it’s a different game. Alistair is the only one who isn’t constantly dying.  The Mage does slightly better than the Rogue, since she’s got a healing spell, when she has mana to cast it. My rogue has a bridge she just can’t get across.  Every time she sets foot on the far side, death is there, taking her back to the Fade.  Not fun.

Now, I’m not always upset about dying.  My WoW mage spent an inordinate amount of time either running from fights (WoW Mage Survival Tactic #1) or running back to fights.  It’s okay, I was a mage, I was going to die. Of course, Death in WoW or Torchlight is only a temporary state.  In DA:O, it’s a reload-last-save.  That fact taught me that there was a Quick Save option in Dragon Age, something I haven’t used since the last FPS I played.  There I expect some death and re-trying.  (And some is okay), so I reload and try again. I played that bridge scene 6 times Saturday night, all with the same result.

I’ve been working on it for a week.  More on this tomorrow.

My Goddess Daughter evidently didn’t get the memo that the only thing she should bring home from school was refrigerator art, so all of us wound up catching the stomach flu she shared so well. (Momma always taught me to share, after all.)  The good news is that I had a day off for MLK Jr Day, the bad news is I spent it sleeping.  At least I’m not losing pay for a holiday my temp service doesn’t pay for (although my “real” employer treats it as a paid holiday).  I had hoped to do some writing today, and get some game playing in.

I did get some of the latter done, I admit, but it was pretty lightweight.  I started BioShock up in Easy mode — evidently I’ve not played BioShock under my XBOX360 profile (I played it at Girl’s house under a different profile, and I own a PC copy that I never got very far in).  I’m not feeling very invested in it — I certainly know the coming reveal already, but every time I play BioShock, it makes me miss SHODAN.

I have an embarrassment of riches here, on the PC.  I spent around $80 over Christmas on the Steam Sale, and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games (some of which were purchased over the past year), none of which I’ve gotten very far in.  I have several big RPGs: Fallout 3, Dragon Age:Origins, Morrowind:GOTY (my third(?) purchase of that game!), Eschalon:Book 1, Mr. Robot, Witcher:Enhanced Edition, Sacred 2, Torchlight, Hinterlands, and StarWars:KOTOR.  I also picked up a NWM2 module on someone else’s sale, I’m not even sure I can install Neverwinter Nights at this point (I have my keys, but do I remember any of the other DRMific info?).  And that, my friends, is just the list of RPG or strong RPG-elements games.  I bought the Indie pack, I’ve got some FPSs, I’ve got some RTSs, and a pleasant handful of Adventures (Loom!, the Space Quest collection!)

Now I hate it when games do that thing where they give me too many choices.  It’s one reason I only play Final Fantasy games with a guidebook in my lap. I’m given too many choices without any idea what the consequences of my choices are.  Several times in the past week, I’ve sat down at my computer looked over my list of games (over half are installed) and ponder what I’m going to play.  Then I go over to FaceBook and play TikiFarm for a few minutes, then hit Kongregate up for a Tower Defense game.  It’s just easier than deciding.

Given that the much-vaunted first quarter releases have few things I care about, I’d hoped to write some about the games from Steam, but I’m just not playing them.  It’s kind of funny, really. I have enough games to keep me busy for a year, and I can’t focus enough to play one.  I’ll admit I’m trying very hard with Dragon Age, but I’ll write a bit about that tomorrow.  It’s still instructive, though, even if things are occasionally frustrating.

By virtue of the magic circle, all games can be said to exist within a liminal space.  But liminality is a mental state, you have to have the buy-in of the player to get them into the space.  It requires that choice to transgress out of their normal space and into the new one.  Otherwise they are standing on the the border and never truly in both places.

I suspect different games will do this with varying efficacy. While we may take on a liminiality when playing any game, some games are much more successful at it.  Appointment-gaming games don’t feel strong in this area, although the person who obsesses about their FarmVille crops even when not in the game may feel differently than I do.   I think these days the games that make me feel most in a space are the RockBand style games.  I don’t just play the game, but become a rock star for a moment, being the idolized musician I never managed on the trombone.

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A liminal space is an other space, one which exists within the world, and separate from them.  I’m interested in these spaces and much of what I practice and am attracted to are about being in them.  In a pagan ritual, we “cast a circle” which creates a space in the world and separate from it.  We did something similar in the Methodist church I grew up in, starting the rituals with the lighting of candles, and by doing it the same way every time.  I’ve often done that in my BDSM practice as well, in order to get myself and my partner into the roles and head space we wanted to be in.

It creates a bubble of space where we exist differently.  Many times this space transgresses on normal reality, existing outside of society’s rules, yet we join a new society with it’s own rules.  We can argue about whether these spaces and societies are objectively real, or only exist in our minds (and I’ve had many of these conversations with Priests and Priestesses of my church), but I don’t think it  really matters. The important thing to me is how we feel in these spaces, who we are and who we become.

Transgression sets us apart from the world, and joining brings us into another place.  The easiest way to do this is to enter the magic circle of a game.  Games are particularly nice as the rules inside are usually quite defined, and often clear.  Certainly the ones inside video games are at least rigid.  This is comfortable in it’s own way, and when you can also step outside your role as a accountant or computer programmer, receptionist or clerk and be some sort of kickass somebody, that’s nice too.

To belabor my terminology, we’re transgressing our role in our society-sanctioned life and taking on an unsanctioned one inside a game.  In modern games (ones developed during the current generation of consoles) I think that there is a direct relationship between how unsanctioned that in-game role is and  how “hardcore” the game is considered.   I don’t think it’s causal, but rather a good bit of marketing.   A lot of the causal PC games that I’ve played — the ones with interspersed stories, anyway — the story is about success in a small business and/or romance.  There’s no world saving or conquering, and no real violence either.

But in the more hardcore styled games there is violence, world saving and conquering.  But what’s more is that the players’ role is much less heroic for all of that.  We have these disaffected anti-heroes set on a revenge plot against some large faceless enemy.  Our heroes are outcasts, opportunists, thieves and assassins.  I think this maps to the emotions the hardcore market is feeling about games.  They are starting to feel like outcasts — or want to feel that way, as it’s part of their identity.

In fact, I think games have a great opportunity here to let us feel what it’s like to be in an Other space, being something Other than what we have, by bringing us in and letting us join the liminal space.  Or, perhaps,  even by making it difficult to join that space where the game is trying to get across a feeling of difficulty or prejudice.  Obviously not all these ideas are going to fly in the AAA space, but I think we’re at a point where there are other options to the artist-game designer.

No post today, it’s just my way of making Thursdays a little worse.  Sorry about that.

I did put up a new post on the erotica blog, though, also about Thursdays.  It’s not safe for work, which is why it’s on the erotica blog.

Tomorrow we return to Liminality, Games, and other stuff what enters my mind and manages to escape.

Here’s a thought that occurred to me as I was writing yesterday’s post.

If Tetris came out today, it’d be a casual game.

So, why isn’t it considered a casual game? It’s success on the Game Boy was a lot like other Nintendo successes since then, many of which have garnered them derision for pandering to a larger market (do people complain to Coca-Cola when they come out with a new flavor or drink that might expand their market?) Well, I think the simple answer is that there was no need for differentiation.  People who owned Game Boys were gamers, and gamers were that transgressive group of enthusiasts who played and enjoyed video games.

People tend to stick with the hobbies they do in the teens and early twenties.  People who did model railroad in the early 70s still do model railroading today.  I saw it at origins once, there were three groups of gamers: miniature war gamers, pen and paper RPGers, and CCG (primarily Magic:The Gathering) players.  There was a noticeable age difference between each group.  These games have a set market and group, which is gradually aging, but it’s doing it all as a group.

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Transgression in its primary sense is the violation of a moral law or duty.  It can also be more generally defined as “the action of going beyond or overstepping some boundary or limit”, according to one of The Free Dictionary.com’s sources.  The primary sense, therefore, is a specific case where the boundaries and limits are imposed on us by society.

This interests me because first, I’m a geek, and second I’m a member of many sub-groups which define themselves (or are externally defined) by how they transgress from society.   Geeks by nature seek edge conditions. It lets them know the space they live in and, well, the most interesting stuff is at the edges. As a programmer, I spend most of my time dealing with edge-cases, so finding the borders, and knowing where they are is important to me.  Also important is  knowing when to cross those borders and under what circumstances.  In other words, knowing when to transgress.

At some point my geekiness started getting applied to the social rules and norms around me.  I know that as a high school student, I devoured books in an effort to understand the social rules we live by.  I was too embarrassed to admit I might not know those rules, so I had to find them from a source where I wouldn’t be exposed to ridicule or shame.  As a result I taught myself some odd rules, between Tolkien and Heinlein, and everything in between.

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