Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A post for Xenia: Simulation and an apologetic explanation of Super Columbine Massacre RPG

This post is going to try and do a couple of things. Firstly, it’s a (very) short summary of the first half of Gonzalo Frasca’s essay “Simulation vs. Narrative”. Secondly, after explaining the ideas contained in Frasca’s paper, I hope to convince my good friend Xenia (the wife of one of my best friends, and a genuine friend of mine in her own right) that the videogame Super Columbine Massacre RPG is not the result of a sick and perverted mind, but instead a serious and thoughtful attempt to come to grips with the whole, messy, horrible situation. Thirdly, I’m going to try and apply a couple of Frasca’s ideas to the videogame Oblivion and suggest an explanation for why another of my good friends, Michael Abbot over at The Brainy Gamer, didn’t enjoy Oblivion as much as he should have (or maybe if I’m being more honest, could have. In the interest of Full Disclosure: I really like Oblivion in all it’s half-baked glory.)

Frasca opens his paper saying that “So far, the traditional –and most popular– research approach from both the industry and the academy has been to consider video games as extensions of drama and narrative.[1]” Frasca also states that:

Representation is such a powerful and ubiquitous form that it has become transparent to our civilization. …This is especially true with a particular form of structuring representation: narrative[2]

He argues that by its ubiquity it has become almost transparent to us and that we actually have a very hard time accepting “that there is an alternative to representation and narrative: simulation.[3]” Frasca provides some very excellent examples of where simulation is present outside of computation: in children’s play, when a toy plane becomes a plane (even a story is created about the plane, the game is still simulating a plane) as well as in Governmental legislation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly makes something a simulation? Frasca says that

to simulate is to model a (source) system through a different system which maintains to somebody some of the behaviors of the original system.[4]

Returning to our examples of a child at play – the toy plane is modelling the behaviour of a real plane – while it may not actually fly, when the child is whooshing it though the air, to him or her it may as well be. The ‘to somebody’ part of Frasca’s definition in this case is obviously the child – someone not engaged in the simulation (which incidentally may be running only in his or her head, but might also equally be shared by a playmate) the toy remains only that - a toy. To contrast this idea and demonstrate its difference from narrative – Frasca says that

A film about a plane landing is a narrative: an observer could interpret it in different ways (i.e. “it’s a normal landing” or “it’s an emergency landing”) but she cannot manipulate it and influence on how the plane will land since film sequences are fixed and unalterable. On the other hand, the flight simulator allows the player to perform actions that will modify the behavior of the system in a way that is similar to the behavior of the actual plane.[5]

The previous example of the government legislator is somewhat different again, and it shows that the notion of authorship of simulation is quite different to authorships of narrative. A government legislator when writing a new series of laws or by-laws is not explicitly authoring the story of the single working mother who may now be safe from exploitation by her boss as a result of the new law, and yet that story may indeed arise from it. Instead, the law maker is authoring rules as part of the society’s system and the stories (or narratives) that arise from the rules remain a largely unknown consequent.

To return to the point about the difficulty in acknowledging the difference of simulation from narrative, Frasca says that

To an external observer, the sequence of signs produced by both the film and the simulation could look exactly the same. This is what many supporters of the narrative paradigm fail to understand: their semiotic sequences might be identical, but simulation cannot be understood just through its output.[6]

That is, a flight simulator cannot be judged and evaluated as a simulation by simply watching it run – the experience of controlling the simulation is entirely different from the one of watching it – and this is an extremely important point as it has implications for videogame representations.

To turn my attention to the second point, many people when told of the existence of a Super Columbine Massacre RPG game are shocked, disgusted or even outraged, and I think largely because, as a society, we have little to no experience with having to deal with shocking images and situations unless it is presented as a narrative. The disconnect between a persons actions and a persons beliefs, cognitive dissonance even, is perhaps not possible outside of simulations like videogames. When reading a book about the holocaust, one does not feel complicit in the actions of the Nazi’s at Auschwitz, even when recounted in a novel from a personal perspective.

So let me ask you this: A person would be less likely to respond like the one mentioned above if it was instead a thoughtful, reasoned novel that attempted to examine and explain the tragedy of the columbine high school massacre, correct? Well, perhaps someone would, and that would be a valid reaction, potentially based in a general unease with trying to identify with the two killers – Eric and Dylan. But the objection would likely not be to the fact that there was a book about it, but rather the content of the book. So why then, does just the idea of a videogame about the events of Tuesday, April 20th 1999 provoke such consternation?

The answer is far from as simple as I am proposing, as numerous other legitimate, real factors come into play, however I am of the inclination that it is because many people do not have the requisite experience with simulation, and indeed with engaging seriously with simulational media, that is required to accept and understand the reasoning behind creating something like Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Frasca says that indeed ‘Video games imply an enormous paradigm shift for our culture because they represent the first complex simulational media for the masses’[7]. I guess what I would like every reader to understand is that, far from being designed for the glorification of the shooters themselves, the game is part of what can be described as the ‘the search for rationale’ in much the same way as any book or film about the subject, however instead of employing a narrative to make his point, the creator Danny Ledone decided to use a simulation – and that leaves people without the experience in disconnecting their actions in a simulation from their beliefs, quite understandably uneasy.

Sadly, I personally feel that, while an excellent effort and a great start, Super Columbine Massacre RPG does not succeed in its efforts but not through any fault of the medium. Without getting into an in depth critique of the game, it suffers from much of the same failings as many big budget videogames, such as Oblivion, which I have written about on the blog previously. Let me explain by saying that, if we take Frasca’s view, and that games are indeed simulations, then the vast majority of the source systems videogames are modelling (and I cannot stress this point enough) are narratives! Super Columbine Massacre RPG deploys Role Playing Game tropes and contentions but fails to escape the trap of trying to model a linear, progressive narrative story.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is similarly an RPG and I believe falls into exactly the same trap. My good friend from the other side of the planet, Michael Abbott, failed to find Oblivion enjoyable for a number of reasons, among which the fact that he ‘just got bored’ and stopped enjoying the game. I propose that, similar to Super Columbine, Oblivion tried to render, intentionally or not, a narrative as their source simulation; however, I also believe that they had a conflicting desire to simulate a world (a distinctly non narrative thing)– a fact that is evident in much of the free-form structure of the game. If the developers of Oblivion had of concentrated on modelling a consistent world and, dare I suggest, left out entirely the narrative elements like the main storyline instead focussing on emergent possibilities – perhaps by finetuning the ‘Radiant AI’ system which gave each non-player character such things as motivations, desires and habits and then made them go about their business to satisfy these conditions – then I genuinely think the game would have been both extremely different and more attractive to some certain players. Now, I’m not 100% confident of this evaluation, but based on comments made by Michael and others, such as that ‘the NPC’s were very boring’ (a valid assessment – they were very generic) then perhaps by dropping the (I suggest crippling) overarching need to model a narrative, Oblivion would have been significantly better – there would still have been significant challenges to overcome to realise this ideal, but overall I think the point still stands.

In summing up, let me return, once again to Frasca who points to suggestions by proponents of Interactive Narrative that “Aristotelian closure” is the source of ‘the user’s pleasure’[8]. He says that ‘The biggest fallacy of “interactive narrative” is that it pretends to give freedom to the player while maintaining narrative coherence’[9]. Frasca says that instead

the gratification for [participants in simulation] is not the one of the professional actor but rather the one of the child who plays make-believe. The child is constantly adapting fantasy to different changes, without the grown-ups obsession with closure.[10]

As an interesting comparison, think of the difference between something like Hamlet and your typical game of Theatresports – the former is a narrative, and any attempts to incorporate interactivity would probably compromise its narrative coherence, whereas the latter, if constrained by a script, loses all of the charm and attractiveness derived from its spontaneity. The difference between simulation and narrative is a wide and often mis-understood (even at times mischaracterised) chasm, but one which remains largely uncharted. Let’s start today – I’m game, are you?

[1] Frasca, ‘Simulation vs. Narrative: Introduction to Ludology’ in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, Eds., The Video Game Theory Reader, p.221, also available as a PDF at: http://www.ludology.org/articles/VGT_final.pdf

[2] Ibid., p.222-223

[3] Ibid., p.223

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.224

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.229

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


xenchik said...

Okay, where do I start? I actually have the post open in another tab so I can refer to it as I comment.

1) I agree, to a point, about your comparison of narratives and simulations. However I think that you appear to be looking at it as something slightly too black and white - in the context of a videogame, it is vital to remember that it is almost always part narrative and part simulation. How much of each differs according to the game, of course, but in the case of most RPGs for example, there is a strong narrative with a great deal of simulation. That is, the player has a heck of a lot more control over certain prescribed aspects of the narrative than they do in, say, a movie.

2) While I also agree with the viewpoint that we are shocked about the existence of a Super Columbine RPG because as a society we are conditioned to be disgusted with socially deviant behaviours such as extreme violence. However I think here too, that you may be being a little too broad with your generalisations of why we are shocked at this particular game. I do not believe that one of the major reasons is our discomfort and/or unfamiliarity with the subject matter presented in a certain medium. I also don't agree with what you conjecture about "cognitive dissonance". If I were reading a novel told from the first person perspective (I did this, I thought that) and told from the perspective of a Nazi at Auschwitz, about torture, murder and war atrocities, then yes, I probably would be horrified. Perhaps it is too broad a generalisation also, but many people do not enjoy the sensation of being inside a psychopath's head, with their thoughts, feelings and intentions being translated into their own inner language. It is like standing in front of a projector, and having colours and images overlaid on top of your own clothes and skin. You are not wearing these images, but they engulf you, and cause you to see your own self differently, if only for the limited time until you step away. No matter how limited the exposure to such overwhelming stimuli, one cannot help but be affected by it, whether in a small way or a large.

So, what I mean by this is, no matter whether it is book, a movie or a videogame, I feel that if told from a personal enough perspective, it would affect the reader/viewer/player in a way that can feel unhealthy and uncomfortable, if the story being told were heinous enough.

3) Which brings me to my next point: I feel that the existence of an RPG based on the Columbine Massacre is horrifying, not because of the subject matter, which as you quite correctly point out is a part of our earthly history and must be examined, explored and studied, if only so that the same mistake is not repeated (no comment). However, this explains the existence of books/films/media *about* the subject matter. It does not explain satisfactorily, at least to me, why a game - a medium primarily used as, and indeed defined as, a form of entertainment and amusement - must be played, putting the player in the position, and mindset, of two psychotic murderers. Examining the sequence of events, deconstructing the method and reasoning behind the events of the day - all reasonable pursuits, for those who are willing. However the fact that anyone would choose to take the controls of a story in which so many people's lives were stolen, and more destroyed, I simply cannot fathom. The study of, and the participation in, an even are two very different things. Even you cannot fail to see that some people will be seeing this not as a study of the event, but as an opportunity to take part in one of the most heinous crimes in America's history. The game is open to interpretation, and gross misuse, and therefore discretion should be employed where distribution and access is concerned. The fact that it is not, demonstrates to me at least that it should be banned. Like Henson. You know exactly what I mean. (As in, I don;t care how arty/entertaining it is, it depicts crime. Should therefore also be illegal. Actually sums up my feelings perfectly.)

To sum up ... I do not believe it is our inexperience with the medium that dictates our shock and disgust at the existence of such a "game". It is, in fact, more likely our unwillingness to "take the wheel" in the mind of a psycho. It makes us too implicit for comfort in the unfolding of events which must inevitably - and most expectedly - take place.

That said, if you don't like it, don't play it. I do however retain the right to judge *you* for playing it. Psycho. :P

And 4) On a more technical level ... of course the game doesn't satisfy your expectation (or desire) for a true simulation, without so much narrative. that's because, it actually happened. If you were to write a book or make a movie about, say, the 2008 presidential race, you would have Obama as the candidate in the end, because that's the way it happened. And it's the same with a game on a historical subject. You *could* have it happen another way, but then it wouldn't be an accurate representation of the event. You coud have it not be, and still have a great game ... but really, an RPG about 2 psycho killers (I can't stress this point enough ;) who get a hold of their grandpa's guns ... go into the school where they hate everyone ... and then, walk out and go home ... well, doesn't sound particularly stimulating.

Hope I've not been too disruptive.

Ben Abraham said...

Well thanks for the comment! (My brother pointed out to me, and I agree, that's the longest comment I've ever seen!)

I think I maybe didn't express it well enough (I did write the whole post just this afternoon, after all) so I'll try and explain why I thought "inexperience" with 'simulation' is a factor in why we react the way we do about Super Columbine.

I can't really argue with your distaste for "getting inside the mind of a killer" - be it Nazi Murder Camp soldier or Eric and Dylan. I think I mentioned that a bit, maybe not expressly - it's actually not usually something I enjoy, either. But also conversely to your point - there are PLENTY of people who *do* desire to get inside exactly these kind of people's minds, for whatever reason. It is my understanding that much of the pleasure in 'horror' type experiences (think the SAW movies and their ilk) comes from exactly this same kind of detached audience evaluation of the characters, mixed with a liberal does of voyeurism as well. (I'm probably not doing it justice, but oh well).

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that to be able to do the SAME THING with a videogame (a simulation like Manhunt or Super Columbine, rather than narrative like SAW) requires a TOTALLY different kind of detachment - and one that, I would argue, we don't really have. And it requires a different kind of "detachment" because only in a simulation can you *be* the killers - even in a novel or film depicted from the first person perspective, you are not actually flipping the switch to gas the Jews. Perhaps more importantly, you aren't making the *choice* to flip the switch. (Whether you even get a choice leads into a deeper discussion about the role of the author in simulations, which is outside the scope of this post, but which much interesting stuff has been written by people like Gonzalo Frasca and Ian Bogost).

I guess I'm looking for a generation with the experience or a mindset or critical framework that allows a person to perform an action knowingly in a fictional/virtual world and be able to objectively interrogate it for designer/authorial intent. And for them to treat it LIKE a simulation, not like a narrative that they just happen to have control over.

Does that make sense? I guess I'm lamenting that it's generally acceptable to watch SAW (even if it's not your cup of tea) but it's NOT acceptable to read the simulation that is Super Columbine.

Tom Kim said...

Hi Ben-

Tom Kim from the Gamasutra Podcast here. I recently interviewed Danny Ledonne about his reasons for creating SCMRPG and got some interesting responses. I hope to get that interview edited and posted some time soon.

Also, I invite you to visit http://www.playingcolumbine.com and order a copy of Danny's documentary about the fallout from creating and releasing his game.

The interview and the documentary might not directly address some of your thoughts regarding the defense of the title, but I would hope it would provide some insight into the reasons why Danny chose to make the game in the first place. Though I think I stuck the question to him much more directly in my interview. ;)



Ben Abraham said...

Wow, thanks for stopping by Tom!

Many people have said it already, but it's wonderful to have your exceptional interviews back on the air! And I'll definitely be listening to your new one with Danny Ledonne then.

I really do wish I could buy myself a copy of the DVD, but at the moment I don't have the spare cash for it, so I'll just have to wait until it gets the major distribution deal that it surely will.

Thanks again for dropping by, Tom, to know that my little blog can be read by someone as distinguished as yourself is great encouragement!

Kirk Battle said...

Interesting essays, both yours and the other one. I'm always fascinated by the variety of ideas people come up with when trying to explain what a writer, designer... the creator needs to do when making a video game. How do you explain the shift from linear narrative that so many people are stuck on to the huge options of player input?

If I'm reading you right...the basic idea is that instead of making a bunch of events to experience the creator should instead be creating a bunch of reactions to the player.


Ben Abraham said...

Thanks for having a read, L.B. I'm a big fan of your work. =)

You're pretty much right with your assessment. I guess I don't want to be pigeon-holed into saying that *all* games should be like this, but that this is the kind of game I haven't really seen yet.

I've gotten glimpses of it, here and there, for instance in Oblivion despite all the problems people have noted with it, as well as in Half Life 2 and Portal.

The latter examples may strike some people as odd because they are both usually described as straight ahead 'narrative' games. You never can go back to the train station at the beginning of HL2, can you? I guess where I really appreciate what Valve have done is in the quality of the source engine and the general (I can't think of a word other than) robustness to the world.

You chuck stuff around and it can get in the way later, in HL2. You can solve many of the Portal puzzles in about 100 different ways. Valve have constricted the world down to a tight narrative corridor and then filled that world in so convincingly that it makes me ache to get outside it! I've just got to wait for them to actually *make* the outside bit!

Michael Abbott said...

Thanks for this very interesting and provocative post, Ben. I'll only briefly add something I've been thinking about a lot recently.

I'm against linear narratives. Except the ones that grip me, surprise me, and make me care. I'm also against simulations. Except the ones that truly make me forget the clumsy mechanics of simulation.

I think it's often the barriers that separate us from the intended experiences. Narratives that don't succeed and simulations that don't succeed nearly always stumble on the same predictable set of problems inherent in each. And so we develop theories that surmise one is preferable to the other. In Frasca's case, I think he sees the simulation obstacles as easier to overcome than the narrative ones. I think I have the opposite opinion, but I couldn't possibly prove I'm right.

The trick is doing it - whatever "it" is - exceptionally well. So well, that we forget about simulation, narrative, ludology, representation, etc. while we're immersed in the experience. I hope we never lose touch with the importance of that.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Michael, thanks for stopping by. =)

I have to respectfully disagree on this point.

I guess what I find compelling about Frasca's argument is that he never rules out modelling the simulation on a narrative, and which I like because it goes a long way towards bridging the gap between the two sides of the (now somewhat defunct, really) Narratology/Ludology argument.

Frasca acknowledges that there are "elements that games do share with stories" but emphasises that his own idea of an ideal theory of games "claims they are not held together by a narrative structure."

By way of illustrating my point, can you think of a game that is just narrative? Imagine Half-Life 2 without the "simulation" elements, like physics, health representations, or player input and agency. I can't comprehend what a game like this would conceivably look like other than one giant long Machinima piece. (Or maybe MGS4 from what I hear! =P)

Conversely, if we instead took the narrative out of any game, like Peggle or HL2, we still have a game - one devoid of meaning and context perhaps, but it's still a game.

I think this has potential because you still need the narrative (hence spanning the divide) for the game to make any sense, even if the narrative is simply "hit all pegs for high score".

Bah! This comments thread has gone on for too long. I really should just summarise it all in a new post. I seem to recall a certain other blogger saying something about 'when the response to the response gets longer than the post it's probably time to edit'. ;-)

Ben Abraham said...

I also probably should add that this is all really to do with forming a method for critical analysis, and that, as you say, if game dev's can prove the idea wrong, more power to them!

Michael Abbott said...

I think I see your point (and Frasca's) about the necessity of simulation, and I think it's generally true.

But the player always has agency and will often do things to emphasize one experience over another, regardless of what the designer intends or the way a game is built. I think games often offer a kind of meta-narrative that continues with the player, even absent any simulation experience.

Around and in between gameplay, and especially when the player isn't playing the game, the narrative lives on and can grow richer, with no simulation input, in the mind of the gamer. It may sound silly, but MGS4 is doing this to me now. I'm not thinking about my controller or my weapon inventory, but a couple of nights ago I dreamed about the game in a way that put me right inside it, interacting with the characters. This seems to me a full extension of the narrative experience, and I think it qualifies as one that is "just narrative" in form.

So, yes, the simulation aspects of MGS4 are essential, but they can also be left behind in the mind of an imaginative player.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

I liked many of your points here. My one point of difference (which I think is much like Michael Abbot's) is that I don't think the right step is to abandon narrative. I think that (with some justification) you identify "narrative" with "linear gameplay"-- that is, a game's "narrative" is the series of choices the game forces on you in service of presenting a certain sequence of events that tells a story.

But to a certain extent the new possibilities for gameplay offered by extremely open-ended and thickly detailed games like oblivion does not mark a departure from narrative but a shift in the locus of storytelling. The real interesting story in oblivion is the one the player tells to himself using the tools at offered by the game's designers.

When I would ask my roommate what she did in the game since I last saw her, she did not usually talk about the B-grade fantasy plot that makes up the central narrative, but about exploring the world and picking among the different routes the world: "I went to Chorrol and I cleaned out a goblin fort and then I spent a while wandering around and trying to discover wayshrines, etc. etc." I think that (unexpectedly )this personal-narrative-creation aspect also applies to multiplayer games like Halo 3; the fun of that game is making a narrative about your triumph over your foes. (which you can then record, like a film.)

I think the challenge in modern game is being able to tell a narrative with a degree of subtlety and depth offered in other media without sacrificing the essentially participatory and free-wheeling aspect of personal creation that you get with an open-ended video game such as oblivion.

MGS4 is a perfect example of aiming for the former by sacrificing the latter-- it tries for a thematically ambitious story by taking control of that story out of the player's hands. Talk about a relentless and self-defeating drive for closure!

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Iroquois, thanks for stopping by.

I guess I've probably moderated my views a bit since I first started thinking about this and wrote this post, because I tend to agree with all that you're saying.

I really like your comparison to Halo 3 - I think that the whole Halo series does more than most people tend to give it credit for. Probably why I'm centring my Thesis on the music of Halo. =P