Monday, 31 January 2011

Agency and Intelligence in computer games

This man is stupid but free

I just wrote this in my essay for this term:

Implicit in the prevalent labelling of computer games as interactive media is the idea that the players* have agency, because through their interaction they are able to influence the content of the media that they consume. However, the Final Fantasy series, in spite of its huge popularity, is often criticised for not being genuinely interactive. Final Fantasy games are usually linear in structure, with only one possible plotline, only one legitimate course of action, and often only one effective tactic in any given battle. The game will not progress without the action of the players, but the players' actions are dictated by the rules of the game - the players have no real choices to make and therefore have no real influence on the content of their gaming experience.

The personalities and behaviour of the playable characters are never significantly altered by the decisions of the players. While the players can sometimes choose during dialogue scenes what the playable character should say next, the core content of the conversation never changes, and the plot continues unaffected by the decision the player made. The appearance of the playable characters is also not under the players' control, except for carried weapons. For this reason, playable characters in the Final Fantasy series cannot be construed as avatars of the players. However, without the intervention of the players, characters will not progress in the game. Furthermore, characters will not become stronger unless the players choose to spend time levelling up by fighting small-scale battles over and over again for prolonged periods of time, as well as acquiring and equipping the best weapons and armour.

Due to the lack of agency on the part of the players, the relationship between the players and the characters cannot be described as simply, `the players control the characters'. At best, the relationship is one of guidance. In some ways this resembles the concept of shido (guidance) in Japanese education; children are seen as dependent on teachers for their own progress towards self-reliance. Teachers earn the respect of children by working together with them, so their authority exists with the consent of children in an essentially egalitarian relationship. Japanese educators such as Arai Ikuo and the Japan Teachers' Union have often argued that that it is only due to the equality of this relationship that they are able to enable the growth of independence in their students. Similarly, the content of Final Fantasy games focuses on the concerns and progress of the playable characters, and the narrative often possesses strong themes of personal growth and life's journey. The role of the players is to enable the playable characters to progress on their journey.

This woman is intelligent but not free

One thing I probably won't do in my essay is compare Final Fantasy games with Dwarf Fortress. I'll do that here instead. Dwarf Fortress players have much more agency. They have control over the direction and strategy of the game, down to small details such as which stone to use to build this square of tiled floor, all the way up to 'what am I even doing here anyway?' Dwarves occasionally act out, reminding you of their agency by, for example, entering a fey mood and occupying a workshop for weeks on end. They also have a 'private life,' that is not under your jurisdicion - you can't tell them what to eat or who to fall in love with. If they become unhappy they won't do your bidding with as much relish, and they may slack off altogether, but that almost never happens. Most of the time, their significant actions in the game are under your control. You're irrefutably in charge.

Although Final Fantasy characters have more agency than Dwarf Fortress characters, they have much less intelligence. Final Fantasy characters are programmed to tread one pre-determined path and follow one set of actions throughout the game. Dwarf Fortress characters have their own thoughts and feelings, and form their own decisions in response to ever-changing situations and opportunities.

At this point I crash into a problem of definitions - I'm thinking of agency in Gell's sense that objects have agency because they have influence in the world of human experience, but usually agency has been construed in opposition to structure. Final Fantasy characters' lack of intelligence by implication limits their agency because they don't make real decisions - they blindly follow the predetermined plot. But if Tidus and I are two agents struggling to work together at making the FFX storyline move forward, Tidus has more agency than I do because I have to act through him but I don't get to choose how he acts. Which is part of the reason why he is so bloody annoying. My dwarves cannot help but do what they're told, so long as their surroundings provide sufficient happy thoughts.

Dwarves are basically slaves. I've felt uncomfortable about this for as long as I've been playing. I'm forcing intelligent actors to give up their agency to me in exchange for food, shelter, security and small luxuries like a fine bed. Final Fantasy characters are stupid people who cannot think for themselves but are 'free' in the sense that my gameplay exists solely to enable them to pursue their single-minded goals.

*Note: I put players in the plural to acknowledge that 'single-player' games are often experienced and played by two or more people - one holding the controller, others watching the game.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Representation is chunky and clunky

I've been thinking lately about simulation and representation and stuff in all sorts of ways. One thing that has struck me is the way that science fiction shows used to make the surface appearance of future technologies extra clunky, chunky and cumbersome in order to make them look at once more familiar to the viewer and at the same time more technical and unfriendly. A complex surface appearance is a placeholding sign for the imagined internal physical contents of fictional technological objects. By making an object look easier to deconstruct with a screwdriver, attention is drawn away from the fact that if you were to take these objects apart you'd find nothing inside. It's funny now to watch Star Trek because the laptop computers and datapads they use are far bulkier and fussier in appearance than the ones we use today, but I don't think this is just an act of foolishness and shortsightedness on the part of the set designers. The process of miniaturisation in consumer electronics was already well underway when Captain Janeway first sat in front of her huge, plastic machine with a cup of black coffee... did I remember rightly that she claims that replicated coffee doesn't taste as good? That's a whole other blog entry right there... the replicators on the set of Voyager are also hilariously overburdened with buttons for something that operates via voice recognition, and even voice recognition is too cumbersome a way for a machine to interface with a decision that is governed to a greater or lesser extent by personal habits and nutritional chemistry (at this point I realise that my science speak is terrible :,( ). I think all this buttoning-up of appliances is a deliberate attempt at representation. Even though the claimed referent doesn't exist yet, what was really being represented is present-day technology, which at the time was bulky and button-laden.

In 2009, the year of the iPhone 3G, along came the dollhouse chair, with its smooth, modernist stylings and relative scarcity of buttons. The dollhouse chair has its own canonical design story. Originally many wires and sticky pads were needed to connect it to an active - still used when the technician wants to demonstrate their domination and psychological invasion by means of the sign of physical invasion. But then Topher Brink, the awkward yet somehow enigmatic user-friendly science guy (swoon) comes along and declares that all these wires are unnecessary and can be replaced by some sort of ultraviolet light or something. I dunno, I wasn't paying attention to the science speak. As technology gets more miniaturised and individual appliances take on more functions, their designs become less intrusive. In consumer electronics these designs are deliberately multivalent, best expressed in the iPhone, which doesn't look like anything in particular because it can do almost anything at all. In science fiction, rather than having multiple purposes, clean, designed objects have one purpose that is only embodied for the duration of the relevant activity. Following this, the purpose fades away, leaving an empty space with no particular use inscribed onto it. What better example than the dollhouse chair, which routinely fills people with purpose and then empties them again, telling them simply to 'be their best.' Now here I am in 2011, trying to be my best in a polysemic, multivalent environment where I can no longer just push the right buttons and get moving towards my 'home,' like Janeway. At least the coffee is good.

Desktop wallpaper 22.1.11

Here's another desktop wallpaper. This one's made of fabric from the V&A collection. Enjoy!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Pretty Wallpaper

My usual sources for beautiful desktop wallpapers aren't serving me well at the moment, so I'm doing my own thing for a while and I thought I might as well share. This wallpaper is made up of silk ribbon images (mentioned on Black*Eiffel) and a Pema Chödron quote. More as and when!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Dissecting Love Actually

Dissecting Love Actually

My boyfriend finally agreed to watch Love Actually with me last night. It's one of my favourite films, it always makes me cry several times, and I was looking forward to initiating him into the wonderful world of crying at films. Unfortunately he found it profoundly morally and intellectually offensive, primarily for its unswerving loyalty to the Rapunzel myth of females as beautiful yet inactive beings with no moral obligations or individual agency, and men as only worthy so long as they work their asses off and suffer deep emotional pain for the sake of these dainty, near-magical beings. Worst of all, the film is far more interested in infatuation (and sex) than in loving relationships. So here's a breakdown of what was wrong with every sub-plot of Love Actually and how the stories should have gone. Look here to jog your memory of the original storylines.

Juliet, Peter and Mark
It's the classic moral infraction - you've fallen in love with your best mate's girl. Worse still, you're the best man at their wedding. So what else is there to do but provide a surprise brass band just to make the lady smile? Well, you could videotape her dashing grin so that you can enjoy it over and over again in the privacy of your own trendy art studio (not voyeuristic or erotic at all of course).

I want to see the story told from Juliet's point of view. If I'm her, and I'm watching the beautiful, flattering and ever so slightly invasive video that he's made of me, and he's stood charmingly silent and honorable, ashamed for being a bad friend but unrepentant of his love infatuation for me, I'm going to wonder, maybe only for a minute, maybe for the rest of my life... did I marry the right man? Mark had the imagination and initiative to hire out a brass band, for no other reason than to make me happy, 'with no hope or agenda', while all my husband Peter ever does is stand around looking goofy but smug. In fact, not only is Mark clever, moral and unabashedly loving, he's depicted in the film as positively saintly. Strictly observing the self-denying protestant morality this country thrives on, Mark stoically bears all the pain of ill-fated infatuation without a peep for his own needs - his heart may be 'wasted' for loving her for eternity, but his soul is exalted, as indicated by the angelic chorus of 'silent night' that he plays to conceal his guilty secret from her husband.

Juliet is nothing in this story but an object of affection. Her lack of agency is so profound that she is granted the license to kiss him with no guilt or repercussions - it's merely the natural, programmed response to an admission of affection, not the willful act of a self-aware human being wavering from a life-long contract she has only recently signed. If this film had any justice or conscience, Juliet would have recognised the saint-like perfection of the man pouring out his heart to her, ended her marriage while it was still young, and spent the rest of her life with the better man. Instead she stays with her husband, not out of marital fidelity but because if Mark got the girl, where would be the noble self-sacrifice?

John and Judy
Two people spend an inordinate amount of time naked, pretending to have sex with each other, and eventually the man works up the courage to ask the woman on a date. She says yes, because women are programmed to say yes to any proposal even if it comes from an awkward, flaccid ginger guy. The story is boring, but I'd like to leave it as it is because it's a) funny and b) ironic that while most romantic films are laced with brief, superfluous sex scenes that add nothing to the plot, this one shows people filming brief, superfluous sex scenes that add nothing to the plot.

Jamie and Aurelia
This story starts with Jamie's brother having sex with his girlfriend. The repercussions of this are never really covered. Rather than confront his brother or his girlfriend directly about their atrocious behaviour, Jamie retreats to the south of France for a while, and is slightly rude to his family at large on Christmas day. In fact, we never get to know his girlfriend. Presumably she just cheated on him because that's what women do. Being cheated on by a woman is basically as tragic as your house getting flooded - it's just a natural disaster, no use blaming anyone for it. At the end of the story he marries a Portuguese girl he has never held a conversation with. As the audience we're okay with this, because we've already seen her naked and our stupid monkey brains are hard-wired to confuse nudity with intimacy. Aurelia accepts his proposal, presumably because women are hard-wired to accept marriage proposals.

Jamie could have started off strong by punching his brother and kicking his still-naked, cheating girlfriend out of the house. The next day, when he's calmed down, she comes over, begging him to forgive her and take her back. He says he needs time to think about it, and goes on his writer's retreat. While there he has a fabulous time with Aurelia naked in the lake, and immortalises their fling by writing a sexy scene about her in his crime story. Satisfied that his brother has not, in fact, out-manned him, he can happily trot back to London to rekindle his relationship with his girlfriend. Aurelia learns English and comes to find him in London a few months later - they talk over some coffee, the same spark is there, but now they can actually hold a conversation. Jamie learns how much they have in common, how great they could be as a couple, how unlikely she is to sleep with his brother. Following this he can gently break it off with his girlfriend and spend the rest of his life with Aurelia.

Harry, Karen and Mia
Here's a puzzle: how do you cast Alan Rickman in your film without making him a satanic villain figure? Answer: cast him alongside a slutty secretary. For everyone knows, the only thing more ungodly and evil in this world than Alan Rickman is an attractive, single woman. To underscore this point, she wears devil horns at the office Christmas party. The only independent woman in this movie is portrayed as a selfish home-wrecker. Even her name screams, 'Me, me, me... Mia.' As a secretary trying to sleep with the boss, or failing that, wangle free jewellery out of him, she is the only character who is self-consciously seeking money through romance. I say self-consciously, but Aurelia and Natalie both get a rags-to-riches, Cinderella-style boost from their love lives, and Aurelia has very little other information to go on when accepting Jamie's marriage proposal - she's just more poker-faced about her hustling than Mia. Meanwhile, when Karen confronts her husband about his cruel and disloyal distribution of shiny, golden things, she asks him, 'If you were in my situation, would you stay, knowing that things would always be a little bit worse?' The obvious answer is yes. Her choice is between repairing a marriage with injured trust, and becoming a single mother who has to fight in court over every other child support payout. And she does stay with him, but we don't get to find out how they work at their marriage - all we see is her continuing to be passive aggressive and angry with Harry a month down the line. Harry looks sad and maligned, as he has looked all through the film, because he does love Karen, and he values her love for him (ergo, Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas). The only thing Mia could play for was sex and money - Karen's problem is not love, actually, but trust.

In a film with justice, Mia would have overplayed her hand with Harry, who would have ended up feeling angry and manipulated and firing her. In a film with strong female characters, Karen would have responded to seeing Mia dancing with Harry at the Christmas party by stepping over and proposing a threesome, thereby exerting her sexual dominance and her position as the alpha female.

David and Natalie
A newly-elected prime-minister called David - oh, the foreboding - prances around 10 Downing Street and falls in love with the tea lady. This one is only vaguely problematic - the main problem is that, due to the nature of the British media, it's really quite irresponsible not to keep your relationship a secret. If she didn't like one ex-boyfriend calling her chubby, she's not going to respond well to the tabloids. Nevertheless, this is a really nice story because the honorable prime minister chooses to pursue a relationship rather than a fling with the pretty tea lady. Unfortunately, no party would get in if the leader wasn't married. I'd like to see the story reworked with David as the chancellor running for party leadership when the PM declares he's retiring. His ratings are low until his burgeoning relationship with the tea lady is revealed at the nativity play in an adorable and amusing moment that captures the imagination of the party grass roots. Following his rise to power as the prime minister he marries Natalie, who proceeds to tell the seedy journalists that if they don't like her thighs they can all go fuck themselves.

Daniel; Sam and Joanna
Sam's mother has just died, but he insists that the reason he's so depressed and withdrawn is that he's in love with an American girl. Rather than worry about this textbook case of erotic transference, bereaved stepfather Daniel encourages the crush. The main purpose of this story seems to be to underscore the Rapunzel myth in which men work their asses off for women who do nothing all day - an intensive two-week crash course in playing the drums and breaking the law by bypassing airport security in a post 9/11 setting are only examples of the pains men must go to just to see a girl let her hair down. In real life, Sam would have spent at least an hour or two in a police station after Joanna bluntly responded to his surprise arrival with, 'what are you doing here?' In a good story, if Joanna really did like Sam back, she could have bloody well told him this before she left for America, leaving a couple of weeks for them to earn enough money for Sam to get a return ticket to visit her when she moves away, an fun-filled, romantic and action-packed couple of weeks which they spend busking in Covent Garden.

Sarah, Karl and Michael
Two coworkers who have been infatuated with each other for over two years almost have sex but then don't because Sarah has to be with her mentally ill brother. Karl is so swelteringly gorgeous that it would turn anybody's brain into bad Israeli halloumi. Sarah, another self-sacrificing saint, is briefly rewarded for her moral virtue in a tender tryst with the sexiest man in the film, but the moral virtue for which she is rewarded must not be undermined by the reward itself - she can't actually have him because she is angelic and noble and must sacrifice her own happiness for someone else, regardless of whether or not it's the best solution for everyone concerned.

If Karl really is in love with her, there are two obvious answers to their problem. If Sarah's brother really does need her to be available on the phone 24/7, he could grow up and learn to be patient, understanding and supportive. Chances are, the amount of pain it would cause her brother if she didn't always answer the phone is much less than the pain she is causing herself by limiting her own happiness for his sake. Sarah needs Karl to open her eyes and guide her to get some help from the rest of her family. This kind of life-changing help and support is what love actually is, rather than the blind infatuation that led to their first ill-fated tryst.

Guy goes to America and has an orgy with sexy American girls. A fine fantasy that has nothing to do with love and bears no relation to reality. It would have been much more interesting if he suddenly realised that his obsession with having sex with women is nothing more than self-denial - he's actually in love with his best friend.

Billy Mack and Joe
As for the rock star who declares his love for his best friend... rock on. However, it's a shame that Joe doesn't have a mind of his own and never objects to being publicly humiliated by Billy. In the world of Love Actually, he's basically a woman. Given that this is the case, he could at least have made Billy work for his companionship - he could have turned down the beer and porn and demanded jewellery. Or he could have grown a pair and found himself a woman. They're programmed to kiss you if you admit your undying love for them, so it's really not that hard to get one.

This interesting critique covers some of the same points made here and is worth a read :)