I posted a blog piece called “Transgression and Kink” at my NSFW blog.  I’m linking it here, to tie it in with the transgression and liminality posts I’ve made here.  It’s not here because 1) it’s more personal, and 2) it’s about sexual practices.  It’s not explicit in anyway, but it felt like it belonged over there, and not here.

If you want to read it, go for it. I’ve turned comments off on this post, since they really belong over there.

I’ve had Overlord 2 for a while, but hadn’t played it (as it lived at Girl’s house for some time). I recently borrowed it, and began playing it.  This isn’t strictly a First Impressions post, but I’m about that far into the game.

Girl and I played the first game fairly differently.  One of her favorite things to do was to farm the first villiage by going and killing everyone in it, and looting all the houses.  I, however, played without killing anyone.  I was going, both by predilection and GamerScore, for the achievement of being “good”.  She enjoyed the loot.

Overlord II promised a more evil morality system, where you were basically evil and it was more a question of how you were evil, not if you were.  Not being evil in the first game made some sense, after the reveal of the ending.  Being completely evil in this game also makes sense, given the prologue.

Fairly early in the game, you return to the town that ejected and rejected you. At first it’s unaccessible, controlled by the Empire, the primary enemy of the game. As soon as you get to the outskirts, you’re given a quick tutorial on the morality system.  You can dominate or destroy the villagers.  To destroy them you hit them with your magic spell until they die.  To dominate them you hit them with the spell until they start taking damage, and then you stop.  The latter converts them into a loyal follower/slave/whatever.  (Not minion, minions are something different.)

To teach how to do this, the game requires you to dominate three villagers, and then to destroy three.  It seemed to me, again, that dominating was the less evil decision, so I made that choice.  Part of this reasoning had to do with Girl’s dissatisfaction with destruction.  In Overlord I, the destroyed village repopulated itself. In Overlord II there’s persistence of state for your villagers.  Once you kill them, they are dead.  Once you dominate them, they are dominated — until you kill them.  My desire to keep things open, lent itself to the domination path.

Last night, I went to work on my quest to properly dominate Nordeberg.

I ran out of mana pretty quickly, as my first few attempts had villagers running from me.  I got a few done, however, a pitiful handful of villagers, and nowhere near the 100 I needed. I was tired, and stopped, and went back to my castle to save and take a break.

When I returned the villagers I had mastered were still dominated, and had sparky blue things around their head.  They worked at anvils, or digging mines.  I barely noticed it, though, as it really was only five or six.  I started doing the rest of the villagers, using my minions to trap them a bit, and zap them.  They started with a catty comment about how I had treated the first real villain (by dominating instead of killing him, as he’s largely useless).

That quickly changed to a “Thank you for sparing me!” or “Know that if I die, it will be in your service, Lord!”  The latter made me chuckle in Evony-inspired humor.  Later conversions offered to love me forever, or a promise to become a cog in my well oiled machine. I had gotten up to around a quarter of the remaining villagers — most of the ones walking around outside, and I saw something different than when I first arrived.

Villagers that walked around, did so hunched over.  They exclaimed, “I am so tired!”  There were a lot of people working in the mine and in the blacksmith. I picked up the money and equipped my minions and started in on the houses. When un-dominated villagers came out, I dominated them, and went to the next house.  Soon I had close to 50 villagers dominated — as many as I could find; there were sections of the town I couldn’t get to yet.

But the town was different. I mean, besides being on fire. It will filled with despondent people.

“Why didn’t you just kill me fast, instead of slow?” cried out one woman.

“I think I’m in love with you,” said another woman.

“I think I’ll just go in the corner and die,” said a man.

“We always knew you were one of us,” said another man.

Back and forth from despair to adulation. These were broken people, and I had broken them.  They shuffled about, working themselves to the bone, and they hated themselves.  But they loved me, or said they did (and the voice acting made me believe in it)

I started to think that maybe it would have been more merciful to have killed them.  I wasn’t sparing them, I was forcing them into my plans and by my power.  I felt actually evil.

That bothers me.

I didn’t expect that from this game, honestly.  It was one of a couple of surprises (the other made me laugh.)  I’m looking forward to completing it, and yes, I plan to stay on this path to its no doubt bitter end.

There is a lot to say about sexuality in video games, from character models to treating romantic partners like vending machines.  The transgression series is primarily interested in player action though, so this post is about sexual actions the player can take.   This is a much smaller subset of actions in games, and I share with Damon Brown (author of Porn and Pong) the concern that games haven’t quite figured out a good way of representing sexual actions.

It occasionally astounds me that we have so many games where killing and murder are rampant, but in which sex and relationships are an afterthought or a non-thought.  Then I turn on the television and watch it for a while; things aren’t that different there.  I get that the “games are for kids” meme is still very strong, but I”m happy to have M-rated games.  I’m not surprised that AO-ratings are death knell just like NC-17 is for movies, and I wish it were otherwise.

This series is largely about taking societally unacceptable actions and encapsulating them in game mechanics, to allow the player to experience something liminal, something they wouldn’t do in the real world.  Most people aren’t going to break into a house and rob it, or kill legions of enemies — or even murder a few people.  In some ways, though, almost any sex (even societally acceptable forms of it) falls into a transgression if it allows the player to perform it as an action.

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When I first thought about writing the transgression posts on killing, Assassin’s Creed was foremost on my mind. In the games you play as an assassin (first Altair, and later Ezio), who is discovering a plot by Templars to control humanity.  The assassins are cast as people who love peace and freedom, and use assassination as their tool to manipulate history.

As such, you as the player have a wide palette of verbs with which to both move stealthily and to kill.  Stealthy killing is rewarded in the game by virtue of avoiding “non-social” actions.  You aren’t seen, so you don’t raise an alarm.  This is similar to Thief and the games based around thievery that I wrote about yesterday, but it obviously brings things up a notch.  You aren’t just taking valuables, you’re taking lives. And often just because the person is in your way, or would hamper your larger meta-goals.  The assassins may have decent motives, but you don’t just assassinate big targets, but lowly, anonymous ones — and en masse, at that.

Interestingly, the stealthy killing option is often a backstab.  A quick walk up and a hidden knife, and the killed person slumps to the floor.  It’s the way you kill 90% of the time in Assassin’s Creed, yet almost no promotional shots show it.  The gameplay video for AC2 had some of that, but none of the stills.  In fact, the still above — a wallpaper that I assume is official (it certainly seems professional enough) is the only time you can see Altair or Ezio attacking someone from behind.  Even then, he’s not stealthy, and is facing a bigger fight with the guy on the right.

This points to me something odd.  It’s an acknowledgement by the makers of the game — or at least their marketers — that there’s something uncomfortable about what the game allows you to do.  Killing people just doing their jobs — keeping you off the roofs of Venice, as opposed to aliens or more dehumanized enemies.  There no expressed discomfort as in Uncharted 2, it’s just something Ezio does. Admittedly most of those murders are optional, but I found them necessary in order to enjoy the free movement of the parkour.

That certainly supports the control vs freedom narrative underlying Assassin’s Creed, but it’s interesting that denying someone else’s freedom (by killing them) is condoned by a freedom-loving group. And that the marketing at Ubisoft recognizes it, and downplays it in their advertising says that perhaps they too are uncomfortable with it.  Personally, I look forward to games without killing in them at all (but which still have humans in conflict in them — Tetris is not what I’m talking about here).

Still, all of this dichotomy sets the player up outside of normal society, giving him a liminal space to play in.  Given that gamers often feel like they chafe under society’s rules and judgement, and want the freedom to do as they will, we readily project ourselves onto our avatar in the Assassin’s Creed games.  We don the role of competent killer and climber, and go out to do those things.  Sure, there’s some sort of labyrinthine plot there, but that’s not the core of the game fun.  We are murderers, and we are ruthlessly efficient at it, and while there are certain high-up targets whose hands are not clean, we take out guards and mercenaries who are, for the most part, just doing their jobs.

Tomorrow we talk about some of those games, where we don’t kill anyone at all.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t forcing our will on them though.  Is it worse than killing them, though? I don’t know the answer to that, but we dicusss it tomorrow as we look at sex in games with “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”.

Here’s an interesting thing about today’s commandment.  The proper translation of it is probably “You must not commit murder.”  Murder is different than killing, even if humans are your target in both places.  The current Catholic Church (according to Wikipedia) translates this commandment as one against killing, which is a broader term than murder.

The idea is that you don’t murder your enemies in battle, you kill them.  Murdering is reserved for those of your group: members of your village, tribe or country.  Killing is something you do to Others.  Killing, ultimately, is somehow more morally acceptable because it is done to things less human than you are.  Murdering is the killing of humans.  So we cast our enemies as inhuman, so we can kill them without being murderers.

The first killing that I remember in video games was Space Invaders.   There’s nothing much more Othered than aliens, especially ones bent on your destruction.  Killing became a staple of games, every shooter everywhere, was essentially about killing.  We’v fought aliens and zombies, robots and Nazis.  And in most of these games, our enemies wind up being othered in some way.

The Border House has an interesting series on how this othering becomes racism in some cases.  I think we’re so used to “if it moves, kill it” type gameplay that we can miss this sort of thing entirely.

We’ve largely become inured to killing in games, it’s what we do, right?

In fact, I’d argue that it’s so ingrained in American culture, and the culture of gaming that just having enemies to kill isn’t enough to be transgressive, no matter what our religions or beliefs might want us to believe.  The othering of our enemies is so powerful that it’s no longer transgressive.  Add that to the list of culturally acceptable enemies, and we never really step outside of our society.  It’s kind of clear why this happens: a game were you were really a murderer is going to get a media frenzy unlike anything more than sex in a game.

Even games which are edgier, like Manhunt, for instance, skirt this somewhat.  In Manhunt you have to kill, and kill dramatically or be killed.  That sets the stakes and moves it somewhat from murder to killing (as survival is one of those moral outs our society accepts.)  Even so, it certainly got the moral outrage of the Jack Thompsons of the world, and with some reason.

Even so, in my picture search, this was the most visceral image I could find, and look at our enemy.  He’s got a mask on — a skull mask.  He’s been genericized to be an unknown bully, and one who looks kind of dangerous anyway.  It’s okay to kill him, to choke him with a bat, even.  He’s just some random inhuman thing, anyway.

Manhunt, at least gets us out of society and into a liminal space.  The setting does that, certainly, being one that’s so contra-society.  It’s a visceral game, that could have been better.  Perhaps Manhunt 2 did it even more with it’s logic, but I admit I’ve not played that one. I didn’t play a lot of Manhunt, either, but enough to get the feel for the game.

Of course there are mainstream games which have cast the player in the role of an assassin with or without any good reason to be one.  Oblivion comes to mind here.  The player has to go out of their way to kill a named NPC (and then another one) to join the Dark Brotherhood.  Then the player goes on a series of missions where they are told to kill people.  There’ s no justification as to why — it’s what you do, after all.  Some of the people you kill may even be fairly nice.

Then, to drive home the point, Oblivion has you kill off your new family.  There’s no doubt in your mind that it is murder.  There was none in my mind when I killed M’raaj Dar and Antoinetta Marie, that I was killing friends and family.  And that wasn’t killing anymore, it was truly murder.  It made for one of the most evocative sequences in the game, because for once, the player was pulled fully into the world, and into a space where they were something different.  It’s unfortunate the game wasn’t able to do that more often — but I think transgression analysis can explain why it was largely unsuccessful. (And that’s the topic for a different post).

Are there games that really made you feel like a murderer? That encapsulated that feeling for you? How different is that for you than the generic killing in most games — and is that a problem, really?

Tomorrow, a bit more on killing.

The rain it raineth on the just
and on the unjust fella.
But chiefly on the just, because
the unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
–Lord Bowen

It was fifteen or so years ago, and my roommates, Ginger and Jason, and I were talking about role playing games.  We’d recently discussed the recent announcement that someone was making a graphical MUD based on the Ultima licesne and I confessed to never having played Ultima.  “They’re all great,” Ginger told me. “Except for 4.  Don’t play that one.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was doubtful I’d play it. I had some Martian one that had good cache amongst my friends, and it had come with Ultima 7.

Jason laughed, and took a drag on his ever-present cigarette.  “It’s the quest for the Avatar,” he said. “You have to be moral.”

Ginger nodded, “If you steal anything you lose.  And there’s all that stuff to pick up, everywhere. Don’t put it there if I can’t pick it up!”

‘”It’s there to make sure there’s a choice,” Jason said, contradicting her. He was her fiance so he could do that.

We were still a few years out before we had Thief to play, but were already thinking about morality in games, and about stealing.  On the one hand, we have the idea that everything in chests is there for us to take, as the player. After all, we’re the most important person (or group) in the whole world. Everything in it exists for us, so if we can take it, it is ours.  In one sense, it was always ours, as it wouldn’t have existed without us.

Some of the chests in Dragon Age: Origins still feel that way. I mean, here you are in this refugee-laden city, people don’t have what they need: food, water, money. But it’s right here, in these chests.  The ones no one opened until you got there.  The game fiction makes no sense unless you assume it’s there for you to take.  That sort of thing doesn’t really feel like stealing. I mean, it’s a chest, and your a PC, you evolved together in righteous selection.

Some games, though, exert non-player ownership over some items. Oblivion changes your cursor to red, when you hover over a chest that belongs to someone else.  You know right away when you’re stealing.  You can even see what you stole when you look at it in your inventory.  Right next to the cabbage you picked out of someone’s garden (not stolen!) is the one with the red hand on it, the one you got out of the chest in the armor store.  A regular merchant will buy one lettuce and not the other, since even they can tell a stolen lettuce from one that wasn’t. And the guards will confiscate it if they catch you.

Detailed like that it approaches silliness — and pushing anything to it’s edges can be like that.  But here we begin to see what enforces the liminal space — it’s the approbation within the game itself that defines the act as stealing.  In a lot of ways it is more fun to steal from a chest than just to loot it.  It’s more fun to wander about knowing you can get caught.  There are several ways to launder your stolen items: use them (lettuces can be used to make potions) or, sell them to a fence, and buy it back.  It’s an extra step, but if you get caught breaking the law then the items are forfeit.  The more items you have the bigger the risk.

And thus stealing implies some sort of stealth gameplay.  You need to sneak during your stealing, you need to be at risk of being caught.  Otherwise you’re just in a random dungeon picking up loot — only it’s someone’s house.  Getting caught in a game means possibly getting killed, which is why the titular character from the Thief games is such a bad fighter.  The punishment for getting caught is a harder problem of fighting a battle — one you’re probably going to lose.

The risk, of course, is good, as it sets you outside the boundaries in the game world — letting it stand in for our society.  Your character, the thief, then steps into his own circle, where he is competent and an outsider.  There are still rules which bound his existence — in Thief the harder levels of difficulty won’t allow you to kill someone, establishing Garret as a thief, and not an assassin.  And here you are, as the player, two levels in, and hugging shadow, pulled into the liminal space where you can steal with impunity, and not feel the guilt — nor do harm to your fellow man or risk jail or censure for doing so.

I think there’s an interesting question of why we would want to do that sort of thing — it’s obvious to me that many people do want it.  What need, I wonder, does it fulfill in us to steal from others, or commit the other sins I’ll be discussing this week? I feel there is an answer, even if I’m not sure of it now. Perhaps you can help me decipher it.

Please feel free to comment here on your ideas (or write your own blog posts, and link to these.)  If thievery doesn’t get to you, though, I can with near certainty promise that you’ve committed tomorrow’s sin in a game.

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.

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.

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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