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Are You The Character Or Are You God?

Join me into my very amateur foray into game psychology. When was the last time you played a bad game and you had to make it fun? Do we play as the characters or as gods?

 
When consuming any media, our brains decide how much of our personality is invested. In games, chances are you are either the master or a slave to the narrative.

I’ve been watching how I play games as of late. Like a lot of you I have a 9-to-5 job and personally, nothing makes a better pixellated punching bag than a soon to be sniped skull in a round of Bad Company 2 or Team Fortress 2 multiplayer mayhem. This week I decided to buck that trend and playBioShock for the first time. Saving the review of the game for a later date, I’m noticing a stark difference in how I’ve consciously decided to play the game. Not only this, but the role I’ve decided to play in games differs from RPGs, RTSs and so forth. With this small revelation, I look at other media I consume and how it effects me. I look at the quality of games and debate whether I’m making the game fun or otherwise. Maybe you’ve noticed something strange in how you play games as well?

I know I’m very late to the party, so excuse me if this appears as praise fodder for many the many fans of BioShock. Something strange happened while in the world of BioShock’s Rapture. Instead of rooting for this first-person character I was manipulating via my PS3 controller, I decided to inhabit this character. I have a nasty habit of playing a game with some form of God complex. Where in a game like Plants vs. Zombies, I feel like this ‘all seeing eye’ that has control over the zombies invading my lawn and the very plants I’m spawning as a defense shield. BioShock forced me to humor the idea of, “What if this happened to you?” as opposed to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Metroid: Prime where the stories are scripted in a manner that nudges the player, “Look what’s happening to this character.”
 
The Half-Life series serves as a prime example of how playing as Gordan Freeman is a wholly different experience than playing withGordan Freeman. [Bad choice of words]
A similar experience could be had when playing a Half-Life 2 as I’ve [recently] had with BioShock. The point I am trying to emphasize is that games of this kind intentionally [and possibly unintentionally] illuminate this option we consciously [or subconsciously] choose. Are we choosing to ominously push these meticulously designed avatars just to see what plot twist is thrown at our face -- via another face? I’m assuming seeing as I haven’t taken up the psychology of gaming full-time, deducing how one is effected varies. So what’s the difference of how a game affects a player, if they so choose to detach themselves from the character by treating them as a board game piece or a pawn?

There is something I’ve noticed in the evolution of games that I played as a youth. You may have noticed already. As a child, playing a game like Bulls vs. Blazers, I felt as if I was controlling Micheal Jordan. I had his speed, talent and 16-bit modeled physique at my disposal. This allowed me to score 70 points a game -- the A.I. in the Genesis version left a lot to be desired. However, as a gamer in my late-20s, I receive no pleasure in a game like NCAA ‘10 -- playing as a team that isn’t my alma mater. Even then, over time, this style of play becomes old. It is, at this point that I noticed in games [franchises] like FIFA,MaddenUFC: Undisputed and sports games in general that the ‘Create-A-Player’ mode is either pushed to the forefront of the game experience or it substitutes the single-player mode altogether [story modes and achievements].

Because playing as a god means putting elephants and humans in a puke-inducing rollercoaster together.
Now this feeling of playing as God or a God-type has clearly existed since the days of SimCity and Roller Coaster Tycoon. But what happens when the rules aren’t explicitly spelled out to the gamer? What happens when the player bounces back and forth between being the character and being the piece mover? I’m sure there is a psychoanalytical word for how a player rations out their personal consciousness [wholly and partially] when playing games [board & video] and especially when reading books. Its hard for me to gauge how much of current game development thinks about how a player will be immersed in a world -- much like how an author can’t guess if a reader will read their story in a specified manner. This is either what makes gaming fun and versatile as well as rote and stale.

Beyond Good & Evil is a great example as to how I was able to bounce between feeling like I was the character [Jade]. Though she is of a different gender, the writing establishes her as a well liked [and sometimes feared] character. I like that! Conversely, I can remove myself from this position, because Jade has a personality and feelings about what she’s doing. Something lacking in video game character development today [even Mario has a drive guys]. Navigating this staff wielding heroine through chapters [levels] of an unfolding story, I feel compelled to not only experience this tale, but to experience it as it effects Jade. Both styles of play differ, but amount to one unique experience. But is this a conscious effort?

If you're one of the fortunate that imagine themselves immersed in the Mario universe, you may want to steer clear of boats with cannons and most sea creatures.
For me, since I’m using myself as the test subject, everything depends on writing and in some cases its not in a players benefit to imagine one way or the other. If you imagine yourself in a terrible game with a trite story, embodying an uninteresting character, you may want to throw yourself off a bridge or eject the game from your life -- which ever comes first. Be that as it may, playing in a detached manner may actually make a terrible game fun. When playing a game like the Super Mario Bros. for the NES, its probably best to imagine yourself helping Mario. I mean who wants to keep getting hit by those damn Hammer Brothers?

Insert an open world experience of any kind and think about the moments when you honestly tried to obey social norms [speed limits, fighting the impulse to not hit a hooker, etc.]. Now think about a long dialogue segment in Grand Theft Auto IV and how easy it was to constantly jump, punch, and shoot while someone is trying to have a serious conversation with you. You are now creating a game within a game. When playing the abysmally plotted Quantum Theory, I invented a drinking game. Every time a meatneck says something seemingly cool [or brotastic] you drink a shot. This isn’t a commonality, nor would I want it to be. Drink responsibly kids. I get the impression that most game designers and publishers don’t want me to create new rules for their games. Why?

Sometimes games are uninspiring. Maybe you made an illadvised purchase and are stuck with a crap game for a couple months. How do you make a sub-par game fun? [Protip: Create a drinking game]
First and third-person perspective seem to have its grip on game designers creative throats. It stands as the go-to mechanic as far as player-world immersion. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a lot of creativity to be had with these design devices. Couple this with the inclusion of motion controls and 3D-based media in this generation. As far as game design has come in the recent decades there is still this fight between a developer and publisher with confining the player to how they interact with the game. True, a 16-button controller is a barrier and I’d argue any controller is a barrier, but when you simplify the stories, the characters and the way the two mesh, how can we [as gamers] NOT make up our own rules?

This article isn’t meant to berate game designers and crap on the direction of game development. Its a mental note. Next time you plug more hours into your favorite RPG or sit down for a couple rounds of FPS multiplayer action -- think about how you’re playing. Are you making this game fun or is it a dual effort on the part of the game maker and your creative brain?

***via the Brog***

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