What do words really mean?

In Ian Bogosts’ How to Talk About Video Games, the author spent a chapter focusing on a controversy that came from a game that deals with words. Scribblenauts allows the player to simply write a word, and a functional object appears on the screen that can be used to conquer the games’ challenges. When typed in the game, the word “Sambo,” often referring to “blackness” and the 1930s character in The Little Black Sambo, produces a watermelon-looking fruit. This clearly created generated some outrage.

Ironically, the word “sambo” actually has Spanish roots and represents a watermelon-looking plant. Interestingly enough, the maker of Scribblenauts didn’t even know what the word meant, yet, somehow this seemingly stereotypical slur made its way into the game.

What I like about Bogosts’ chapter is that he does not draw a simple conclusion from these findings. It’d be easy to say: “the game-maker was ignorant, and this term shouldn’t have even been used.” But Bogost argues that this controversy was the whole point of Scribblenauts; it’s a game designed to make us question what we already know or don’t know about words, and subsequently, we can draw new conclusions or alter the way we use them in our writing and our speech. Confusion like this opens doors to new conversations and uncomfortable, but necessary, dialogue that will help us try to make progress. In this sense, Bogost argues that the game was a complete success.

Bogost makes reference to a speech by Barack Obama in 2008 that was successful not because it solved anything about racial issues, but because it simply recognized the mess that exists and demonstrated the need to try something new rather than continuing to place blame and become separate. This takes us far out of context in terms of Scribblenauts, but it also shows how a silly little game can have such powerful undertones. Bogost takes what we know about Scribblenauts and challenges us to think about the game in a new light: it is not solely about words and their meanings, but also about questioning what we know and striving to rethink their uses in different contexts.

Freedom to Steal Cars

Video games are not jobs. Gonzalo Frasca notes that too many games force us to be “errand-boys” who simply fulfill tasks that the game maker has created, and in a sense, he’s right. I’ve played my fair share of first person shooter games (Fallout, Call of Duty, etc.), and I always tend to get bored whenever the bland tasks kept coming my way. But I have not played Grand Theft Auto, the game that Frasca focuses on in his article.

What separates GTA (at least some of the earlier versions) from other violent video games is that it gives you the freedom to do whatever the hell you want. There aren’t many “mandatory” quests that require the player to do obligatory tasks, and even when the player has to travel somewhere, he or she makes a game out of it (usually in the form of stealing automobiles and running from the cops during the trip).

This is vital because it has the opportunity of keeping the player engaged for longer periods of time. When you have a job to do in a video game, it can seem too life-like, almost as if you were going to work for the day. In fact, the author actually relates this obligatory nature to a boring mailroom job he had. No one wants to play at work, and GTA is an exciting game because it allows complete freedom and total play. In a world of violence and harm, the character can do non-conventional things like steal, kill, and destruct. Basically, anything that you wouldn’t see yourself doing in real life would be an acceptable and normal thing to do in GTA.

Now this does beg the question as to whether or not a free-form, do whatever, video game has the capability of keeping a gamer interested for longer periods of time (if that’s even the final goal). I haven’t ever played a game that lacks some kind of storyline, and I wonder if the lack of direction would lead me to be bored and feeling empty with a game like GTA. It’s probably fun for most people to steal a car in a video game and drive around hurting people, but aren’t there marginal returns on that satisfaction? The freedom sounds great, but I’d probably need a decent amount of direction after some time. It’s kind of like being away from school on summer break; almost every student will admit that he or she is ready to get back to class when August rolls around.

So while this liberty has to be relieving for some time, I wonder how sustainable that is. I’d be curious to see if someone like me (I consider myself organized and structured in the way I live my life), would actually come to like a game with a distinct, rigid plot line more than a game like GTA that provides abundant choices and the freedom to experiment.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Sim Sin City: Some Thoughts about Grand Theft Auto 3.” Game Studies 3.2 (2003): n. pag. Dec. 2003. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0302/frasca/>.

Zombie Attack

As a 5th grader, I managed to get my hands on Call of Duty World at War, one of the goriest games I’ve ever played. The storyline was incredible; I fought my way through World War II as a solider in the U.S. army and eventually became a hero at the end of the plot. Sure, that was fun and all, but it was like a page straight out of the history books. What really sparked my interest was the bonus game that unlocked once the storyline was complete: Nazi Zombies.

Each player is stuck in an abandoned building and must survive as many waves of zombies as possible with limited weapons, ammo, and war perks. The game would start with an eerie screech in the distance, and as you waited for the zombies to start breaking in, you’d hear life-like grunts and growls. They’d begin breaking down the barriers and charging toward your character. It was creepy, and it seemed as if every time I turned my character around, there’d be a zombie right behind me, growling in my face and trying to kill me.

Certainly the fear aspect made me feel as if I was actually in a room full of the undead. It was tough to tell myself that it was just a game because I controlled the fate of my own character; if I did nothing, he got eaten alive, if I fought back, I lived to see another round of zombies. But that was the thing; the game never ended. Once I got past the 15th level, the zombies in the 16th level got stronger and harder to kill. This was a never-ending process, and it was that matter that got me so into the game. How far could I go? What level could I reach?

Once I managed to survive 45 levels of this game; to put this in perspective, the game ended up lasting somewhere between 4 and 5 hours.  But no way would I ever stop knowing that I was breaking new ground with each new level. Coming “out” of that game, I had a headache and felt like I was still “in the game.” I’d close my eyes and see myself running around the map, killing zombies and fighting for my life. I definitely didn’t plan on playing for 4-5 hours, but I never would’ve stopped if I didn’t end up losing.

The Studying State Fair

While attempting to define “play” in his book Play Matters, Miguel Sicart notes that it is often “carnivalesque.” This means that we can almost turn the world upside down to make sense of something. Upon camping out on the 2nd floor of the Davidson College Union for 30 minutes, I saw something similar; the Union, a place normally used for studying, can actually become a carnivalesque scene where play is created.

I noticed that students made studying like a carnival. Almost every student I saw had his or her headphones in; some were the plain white Apple earbuds, but others were the colorful Bose or Beats. Even if a student was reading a textbook, he or she always had a computer open to play a game, to listen to music, or to indulge in some other distraction.

The interior appearance of the Union added to this carnival. There were large purple posters hanging from railings. There were countless flyers with large letters, varied colors, and winding question marks posted sporadically on columns and bulletin boards. Empty tables had left-over napkins and spilled salt; chairs were left pulled out. It was disorderly; it was the opposite of a neat and structured study space.

There was also constant laughter and chatter. Scott Van Pelt of SportsCenter talked aloud on the T.V. in the corner of the room. Kids had loud and obnoxious conversations as they walked out of the Davis Cafe. Four kids with open homework sat down and had a normal conversation like they didn’t even have any work to do. I even saw a boy flirting with a girl; whenever he had something funny to say, he’d raise his voice and the girl would laugh at the same level. This was no silent library.

Finally, I noticed the little things that students did to make themselves more comfortable. One girl used a chair as a footrest. Another sat on the floor and used the base of a couch as a backrest. One kid put his backpack down on the table and used it as a pillow for a quick power nap. All of these little things create a twisted version of studying. Everyday objects were used in abnormal ways that are counter to what you’d expect.

This scene was a paradox; students “tried” to focus on schoolwork while also surrounding themselves with numerous forms of entertainment. The Union (when viewed as a study space) is like taking a library, shooting it with a paintball gun, infusing it with live rock music, and hitting it in the face with a whipped cream pie. It was anything but quiet and it was anything but focused.

Pre-Pubescents Picking Presidents?

One of my favorite memories as a child was voting for the next  president of the United States. Of course, in first grade I was nowhere near old enough to actually vote, but my teacher set up a game that allowed our class of 20 to decide who’d be running our country. The game was simple; my teacher created a little booth, she’d add slips of paper with two voting options, and one-by-one, my peers and I would file in and cast our votes by checking a box next to the candidate we “liked.”

My vote couldn’t have meant anything; I was more concerned with who my babysitter would be than who the next president would be. In fact, I had barely heard of either candidates before entering the booth.

Surprisingly, the mock election resulted in one candidate beating the other by a landslide. If every kid was like me and had little or no information on who to vote for, why would the results be so one-sided? When my friend came up to me and showed me the $5 his mom gave him for voting for a certain candidate, I realized what was going on: parents, whether intended or not, have a profound political stamp on their children at a young age.

Whether we heard our parents say good things about one candidate or were literally bribed to choose one over the other, our decisions were ultimately made easier; we could’ve taken a more playful approach and have decided to defy our parents (that’s always fun when you’re in elementary school), but instead, we voted how they’d vote. We displayed the values of our families and community through the context of an election.

In doing so, it seemed that all the fun was sucked out of the game. As kids with no relevant knowledge of the subject, it would’ve been amusing to see the winner generated by pure chance. But in this game, political activity overruled autotelic play.

Miguel Sicart, in his book Play Matters, notes that actions have double-meanings in both a “play activity and with political meaning,” and for that reason, they’re “heavy with meaning” (Sicart 80). Our voting tendencies proved that our game had been taken way out of its own context and into the lives of our parents. In essence, our votes actually had meaning, and the game was no longer just a playful experiment.