GAME REVIEW: PLUG AND PLAY

plug-playDeveloper Intent: The Origin of Plug and PlayPlug and Playoriginated as a short, surreal film of the same name. The artist and animator, Michael Frei, created the entire piece on a touch screen device, using his “right index finger” to draw each asset, lending the entire work a rather unique aesthetic that is minimal and a little crude (Frei qtd. in Cameron). After releasing Plug and Play (the film), Frei collaborated with coder and designer Mario von Rickenbach, and Etter Studios to create its game-like counterpart.

From the start, Frei intended to turn his short into game, though he released the former much earlier. The idea came to him when he observed that very few people watched his previous film, Not About Us, through to its entirety, and that they often skipped around the video.  “That kind of was something that had an impression on me, and I started to think of how I could tell a story in a way that people could take advantage of the interactive possibilities,” he stated (qtd. in Rougeau). Translating Plug and Play into a game—an inherently interactive medium—would engage the viewer in a different way, and in a way he hoped would retain their interest from start to finish. The game’s publisher, Etter Studios, later expanded on this point, stating:

The idea was to give the viewers, who are all so eager to jump around the narrative, more control over his movie. At the same time he wanted to have more control over the way the audience experiences the film by not allowing to skip the narrative without interacting with it and therefore become part of it (qtd. in Visnjic).

Thus, the game-like elements of Plug and Playreally exist to keep players engaged with the work by way of immersion.  As a player, you are meant to feel like you have some influence over the world and its strange inhabitants as you push, pull, and tap (or click if you are playing on PC) through each scenario.

A Procedural “Artgame”

Plug and Play is an unusual little game that, really, is hardly a game at all—at least not in the conventional sense. There are no power ups or upgrades; no stages to progress through, or scores to keep track of; no strategy involved; and no coherent narrative, offering instead a series of interactive scenarios in its place. The official description for Plug and Playrefers to it as a “surreal play with plugs” and “interactive animation” rather than a game per se. Perhaps this is because the focus is not so much on the gameplay as it on delivering a particular experience to the player, and it is an experience that is all at once humorous, unsettling, and grotesque.

In How to do Things with Videogames, author Ian Bogost describes this style of game as procedural. Procedural games are part of a larger movement called “Artgames.” Artgames distinguish themselves from “game art” in that they are meant to be played, while the latter are not since they often prepared for exhibition in a gallery space. A major characteristic of the procedural style is the use of rhetoric to produce an experience for the player. Bogost writes:

In artgames…a procedural rhetoric does not argue a position but rather characterizes an idea. These games say something about how an experience of the world works, how it feels to experience or to be subjected to some sort of situation: marriage, mortality, regret, confusion, and so forth. Proceduralist games are oriented toward introspection over both immediate gratification…and external action…The goal of the proceduralist designer is to cause the player to reflect on one or more themes during or after play… (14).

Plug and Playdefinitely attempts to make the player reflect on his or his experience, and a quick survey of the online comments regarding the game makes this quite clear. Many people question if the game is merely “weird for the sake of weird” as the animated comedy, The Simpsons puts it, or if there is some deeper meaning behind the all the peculiarity. Regardless, players often end their session with the question, “what the heck does this mean?” There a few interpretations found online, most dealing with the relationship between love, communication, and technology. However, like most art, there is no definitive answer. When asked about the meaning of Plug and Play, Frei responded, “It’s really up to the viewer.” He continues to say that, “when it comes to someone’s interpretation there are grey areas. It depends on how the player treats the game” (qtd. in Cameron).  Bogost echoes a similar sentiment, stating that proceduralist artgames invite the player to “project one’s own experiences and ideas” onto the game, and that while such games “pose questions about life and simulate specific experiences in responses” those “experiences rarely point players towards definitive answers” (14).

Frei and Bogost’s comments appear to fit within a larger framework of postmodernist thought in regards to art. Postmodernism argues that meaning is not inherent in a work of art, but is created through a viewer’s subjective interaction and experience with the piece. This is why people may come away from the same painting, sculpture and so on, with a different interpretation of what it means. As time passes and cultures and people change, so does the meaning one ascribes to a piece of art. Thus, postmodernism rejects the idea that there is some universal meaning for a single work of art, or that art itself can be strictly defined as it too changes with taste and context. Bogost alludes to this when he writes, quite declaratively, that “Art changes” (11). Perhaps, then, players should instead be asking, “what the heck does this mean to me?” I would like to take a few moments to describe my own experience with Plug and Play, and while I myself do not have a definitive answer as to what the game means, I do have some observations I would like to share.

14646690_907705032707389_1698953361_oThe game opens with two irregularly long fingers awkwardly inching towards one another. Try as they may, the fingers continually miss their mark, ending up either over or under one another. They do this repeatedly until the player intervenes and adjusts their trajectory, finally allowing the fingertips to touch. The scene is set to vocal choir music that, in combination with the imagery, evokes Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, a famous fresco that adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The painting is part of a larger work that illustrates the biblical story of Genesis. The references to that particular painting, as well as the prominent use of fingers, both in game and as a development tool (recall that Frei drew much of the game’s assets on a touch screen with his finger), seem to suggest that by using your own finger (at least on mobile versions of the game) to interact with the world, you assume the role of a “god-like” figure. Unlike most other games, you do not take control of a surrogate character, instead you act more like an omnipresent, yet active observer who helps set certain events into motion by tapping around. The mechanic has a similar feel to older point and click adventures.

While your actions allow you to interact with the virtual world, you quickly begin to realize that your control over the direction of the game is rather limited, maybe even illusory. For example, there are two points in the game where a pair of little plug people begin to converse about their relationship. You have the ability to choose how one character will respond to the other, and your decisions either prolong the conversation or cut it short. However, the segment always ends with the pair splitting. Try as you may, you cannot convince them that they truly love or know one another. The game also has no qualms about interrupting you mid action, or making you wait through certain segments. Finally, no matter your course of play, the ending is always the same, and not all that different from the film version. This realization make your actions—your “god-like” powers—seem rather insignificant, futile even. It almost feels as if Frei has duped you into sitting through the whole little oddity, without any payoff. At least, at first. While Frei and Rickenbach designed the game with the intent to make you, the player, sit through the whole thing, they were simultaneously designing an experience. Playing the game is different than watching the film precisely because you feel you have some agency over the world, even if that agency is rather superficial. The narrative does not progress without your interaction, thus you feel somewhat responsible for what occurs in game.

14646631_907705009374058_1310315712_oThere does seem to be some merit in the whole love, communication and technology interpretation that others have presented. There is an overall feeling that the game is saying something about the nature of human relationships.  The plugs and sockets appear to stand in for the two sexes, male and female, respectively. In the mechanical and manufacturing trades, connecters and fasteners are described as having two parts, a female and male end. The female end is the one that receives and holds the male end, so in the case of Plug and Play, one could interpret the plugs as being male, and sockets as female. Of course, such a view is highly gendered and points to a larger issue in mechanical and manufacturing naming conventions. However, putting that aside, it is interesting that the artist would use the interaction between mechanical and electrical parts as a metaphor for human relationships.

Perhaps it is a commentary on the rather mechanical way people may communicate with one another, and I do not mean just through technological devices. I definitely recall in person conversations that were rather robotic, in the sense that each of us gave automatic responses simply because we were trained to reply to each other in a certain way. Such conversations were devoid of any real human connection since they lacked any genuine emotional investment. Furthermore, although we were talking, we did not necessarily hear one another. Hence the interaction between the little plug people. They talk to one another in computer generated voices, but never truly reach an understanding. Instead their conversation goes in circles, bringing them nowhere, but apart.

14677903_907704919374067_471786680_oAccording to Bogost, the use of metaphor and vignette is another common characteristic of procedural artgames. This is true of Plug and Play, which uses both in the place of a coherent narrative. There is not a clear progression of any logical story. Instead, the game presents the player with a series of loosely related vignettes that show how the plug people interact.  The game also takes a minimalist approach in both its design and aesthetic, which, according to Bogost, reduces “the player’s obsession with decoration” that could “underscore the experience of processes” (15). In other words, the simplicity keeps the focus on the experience of playing the game, rather than on any extraneous distractions.

Throwaways?

In the chapter Throwaways, Bogost describes casual games as those which one may play for a short period of time before putting aside. However, he also implies that casual games have a degree of “dispensability.” Those that are “easy to learn, hard to master,” like Bejewelled, may consist of short play sessions, but require a greater time investment if one is to get good at the game, thus encouraging the player to continually revisit it. Then there are games that are played once, and almost never revisited. The example Bogost provides is newsgames, which developers create in response to notable world events. Some newsgames may offer insightful commentary on an event, while others simply capitalize on the media attention, without really contributing anything meaningful to the discussion. While both games are unlikely to be replayed, the latter is more likely to be disposed of and forgotten (96-102).

Plug and Play is labelled as a casual game and was developed for release on not just the PC, but also IOS and Android devices—the domain of casual games. Yet, it is hard to place where exactly Plug and Play falls on Bogost’s dispensability scale. There is nothing to master, and although the sheer oddity of the game might encourage a replay or two, there is no real reason to continue playing for a long period of time. That being said, I do not think Plug and Play is as dispensable as the newsgames Bogost describes. It leaves an impression on the player that has lasting power, at least for me it did. Long before I downloaded the app on my phone, I recalled watching a short play through of it online. At the time, I sort of disregarded the game, but I never forgot it.

When I ask myself why, I think it is because the game functions a lot like contemporary art. One of the most salient things my drawing professor ever told me was that, “the artist is like the poke on Facebook,” in the sense that he or she is “the disturbing factor that brings you out of habit.” By this she meant that the artist, and by extension art, often attempts to penetrate codes of normalcy, and get the viewer to question the status quo. As an artgame, I think Plug and Playachieves a very similar effect. It does so by playing with convention. It presents itself as a game, but hardly plays like one. It confronts the player with a plethora of confusing imagery, leaving him or her unsure, confused, laughing, but most of all, curious.  When asked in an interview how they wanted the game to make people feel, Rickenbach stated that he and Frei “hoped that the players [would] discover a wide range of feelings they didn’t know before” (qtd. in Cameron). I would agree that Plug and Play, at the very least, succeeds in achieving this end.

Works Cited

Bogost Ian. How to Do Things with Video Games. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Cameron, Phill. “Road to the IGF: Mario Von Rickenbach’s Plug and Play.” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games, 6 February 2015, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/235274/. Accessed 9 October, 2013.

Rougeau, Michael. “MAKING PLUG & PLAY, A GAME THAT’S PRETTY MUCH ABOUT DICKS.” Animal, 19 February 2015, animalnewyork.com/2015/making-plug-play-game-thats-pretty-much-dicks/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2016.

Visnjic, Filip. “Plug & Play—“Nothing less than love.” Creative Applications Network, 2 February, 2015, http://www.creativeapplications.net/unity-3d/plug-play-nothing-less-than-love/. Accessed 9 October, 2016.

Intellectual Production 6

Seasons of Love

Our group decided to incorporate the week’s readings in two ways: first, in the form of direct text references, and second, in the application of our slogan.

Reference 1:

In winter café scene, Bogost tells the player “remember sweetie, all play means something and you mean something to me.” The line is a reference to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.

Reference 2:

In the spring beach scene, depending on the player’s choice, Bogost either says:

  • “Baby you know what my friends Adams and Rollings say, online games are hard…persistent worlds are the hardest …but loving you is the easiest thing in the world”
  • OR “They say online games are hard, persistent worlds are the hardest, but loving you is just as hard”

These lines reference Rollings’ and Adams’ Game Concepts, where they state “Multi-player games are harder to design than single-player ones; online games are harder still, and persistent worlds are the hardest of all.” Persistent worlds refer to Multi-player online role playing games. More specifically, they include “permanent environments that players can play in, retaining the state of their avatar from one session to another.” Rollings and Adams state that they are harder to design for because their creators must take into account more variables, the most significant of which is the mass number of players involved in the game.

Design Concepts

Slogan: Subvert Tradition, Design for Diversity

This slogan is based off Mary Flanagan’s “Critical Play Game Design Model,” introduced in Designing for Critical Play. This critical model is a reformed version of what Flanagan calls the “Traditional Iterative Game Model,” which she argues no longer holds in today’s play culture. Critical play, she contends, “demands a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversities, a refocusing on the appreciation of the subversion.”

In our own game, Seasons of Love, our slogan became one of the guiding principles behind our design philosophy. For example, we attempted to “Design for Diversity” by making the player character’s identity as open as possible. The script is written in such a way that avoids making direct reference to the player’s age, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity. This “blank slate” approach was meant to allow for greater immersion and inclusion, since almost anyone can project their own image onto the player character. Often, the usual target audience for the dating sim/visual novel genre are heterosexual women. Thus, it is quite common for developers to create female avatars, as they often assume the player is a girl. However, in doing so, they ignore and exclude players who do not identify as such. When creating Seasons of Love, we wanted to avoid alienating players, so we left the identity of the main character much more open to interpretation.

We attempted to “Subvert Tradition” by playing with the conventions of the dating sim/visual novel genre in general. Seasons of Love, is, at its core, parody. It is meant to highlight the over the top, near ridiculous nature of many of these kinds of games. The writing and visuals are overly dramatic and rather cheesy, and meant to make the player laugh at silliness of it all. The ending of the game, which jokingly asks the player to “purchase” the final chapter, is yet another jab at the way modern games have begun integrating lucrative pay walls, which try to monetize play and capitalise on the player’s enjoyment. While Seasons of Love is more parody than satire, the game does attempt to get players to think just a little bit more critically about this particular genre, mainly through humour.

Humour was such an important aspect of our design philosophy, not only because it is fun, but because it is a great tool for communication. It is a way of opening people up, a way of getting them talking about more serious issues, such as what it means to have preset genders on avatars, or why dating sims/visual novels–games which are often targeted towards girls–predominately feature themes of heterosexual love and romance.

Intellectual Production 5

In Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital, Lisa Nakamura discusses race first, in intersection with gender and sexuality, and second, in relation to the difficulty settings in a videogame. She contends that if real life were analogous to a videogame, white heterosexual males would be “playing” on the easiest setting, while queer women of colour would be “playing” on the hardest. In other words, gamers who play on easy automatically receive structural benefits that make the game less challenging than for those who play on hard, much like how privilege operates in the “real world,” benefiting and favouring certain groups—namely the white heterosexual male—over others. Furthermore, recipients of such benefits are often unaware that they are even “playing” on “easy” until the difficulty is ramped up. The idea originates from popular science fiction author John Scalzi, who wrote a short blog post entitled Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting That There Is. Nakamura discusses how Scalzi uses gaming rhetoric and his own authoritative position as a “white male geek” to talk about wider structural systems of oppression.

Nakamura frames Scalzi’s discussion of race within a larger power structure of gaming culture, which privileges what she calls “geek masculinity.”  As a white male who engages in “geek” culture, Scalzi has access to capital that someone like Aisha Tyler—a woman gamer of colour—does not, which allows him to legitimize his position within the gaming community. Unlike Tyler, Scalzi never has to prove he is a gamer, and his word is taken seriously, simply because gaming culture tends to privilege those who demonstrate this geek masculinity. Gaming space, Nakamura insists, is part of the “white spatial imaginary,” which has historically excluded women and people of colour, so it is not surprising that Tyler’s credibility is challenged while Scalzi’s is not. However, Nakamura notes how Scalzi uses this capital and his advantageous position to engage “dudes” (white heterosexual male gamers) in a critical discussion of what it means to be privileged. Scalzi is tactful, avoiding direct use of the word privilege, employing instead gaming rhetoric, a language that his target audience understands and is responsive to. Furthermore, by using the analogy of difficultly settings, Scalzi avoids placing personal blame on any one individual for the privileges they experience.

What Nakamura’s article makes clear is that certain voices are heard while other are not, for example in the case of Scalzi and Tyler. The exclusion of certain voices is the result of larger power structures at play— like the white spatial imaginary—which permeate all aspects of society, including gaming culture. Nakamura argues that it is not enough to acknowledge the partiality of gaming culture. It is much more important that people begin to critically analyse the reasons behind this partiality, and its resulting consequences, much like what Scalzi does in his own blog post.

Intellectual Production 4

Understanding GamerGate and the Backlash  against Activism

Note: comic reads left to right

But seeing someone as a final boss, almost by definition, means you do not apprehend them as a person. The final boss is entirely ludic essence, not a flesh and blood being like the player; they exist solely at the whim of the player, who switches their console or computer off at will, taking the boss’ life with them with the touch of a button…Nowhere in this model is there really any room for humanity, anything outside the inherently objectifying role of “boss.” In short, gamified activism is an efficient way of ensuring the dehumanisation of targets.

When internet users fail to apprehend one another as persons, or to accept the reality of their virtual environment, it makes it all the easier for anti-social behaviour to take hold and easier to suspend any ethical constraints on that behaviour. “It’s just a game” takes on a sinister meaning when looked at in this light, but matters get more complicated…


What I have called the Möbius strip of reality and unreality comes into play here: though we have been socialised to see the internet as unreal, we enact meaningful social behaviour there and develop strong emotional attachments in spite of the conceit of unreality (Cross, 2014). We create and guard “territories” online that we implicitly treat as real, but in their defence we may engage in actions that are only ethically credible because we act as if the perceived invaders are not actual people, just pixels. Real when it is convenient, unreal when it is not.

–Katherine Cross

Intellectual Production 1

 

Mircoecology and Theoretical Framework

Mircoecology is an extension of the Media Ecological Approach, which proposes that it is more valuable to study the properties of a given media, and the effects it exerts on society, rather than the content, or message, it conveys. The approach originates with cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan, who famously stated that “the medium is the message.” Generally, media ecology is concerned with how different “technologies work individually and together to create an environment for communication and perception.” Bogost, however, identifies two weaknesses of the traditional Media Ecological Approach. First, he contends that while the medium is important, so is the message. That is to say, studying the properties of a given medium is not enough, one must also look at the situations in which a certain medium is used. Second, the media approach focuses on the global ecosystem and how technologies change life overall. Thus, it tends to look only at the big picture and can fall victim to technological spectacularism. Microecology addresses these weaknesses.

Bogost states that like media ecology, mircoecology “seeks to reveal the impact of a medium’s properties on society,” but “through a more specialized, focused attention to a single medium.” In other words, microecology is more focused; it attempts to examine the smaller components that comprise the global ecosystem. He writes:

Keeping with the biological metaphor, the individual range of functions afforded by a particular medium’s properties could be compared to a microhabitat, a small, specialized environment within a larger ecosystem…the dedicated media ecologist must be concerned not only with the overall ecosystem but also with the distinctive functions of its components.

The point is not to assess the value of a given medium, but rather to document its varied uses.  To “understand the relevance of a medium,” Bogost contends one must “[look] at the variety of things it does.” This means exploring the entire spectrum of a medium’s applications, including both the spectacular and mundane—the latter of which microecology is particularly suited. Such an approach provides a deeper, more nuanced analysis than just whether a certain medium, such as videogames, is “good” or bad.” Thus, the framework Bogost offers to analyse videogames is one of microanalysis, achieved through his use of mircoecology.

How to do Things with Videogames is an exercise in microecology, where Bogost examines one component of the current media environment—videogames—in all its detail. Videogames are themselves a “microhabitat” consisting of a range of functions, from art and music to reverence and electioneering, which Bogost analyses throughout the text. For example, in the chapter Empathy, he looks at how rhetoric and game design are used in Darfur Is Dying to invoke player empathy for those who live less privileged lives.  The game does so by 1) putting the player in a position of powerlessness, which is unusual for most videogames and 2) using game mechanics to reinforce the message, for instance by disallowing players to attack their “enemies” and by making stealth a weakness, not strength as it often is in other games.

Bogost concludes that media does not always result in dramatic changes to the way people live. Change, at times, occurs in small increments or in mundane ways, which often goes unnoticed in day to day life. However, this does not mean this particular medium is inconsequential, rather its influenced is felt more subtly.   Videogames may be such a medium, which is way a microecological and microanalytic framework for analysing them has its merits.

Throwaways

Three main points:

  1. “Casual games” are those which one may play for a short period of time before putting aside. They are often low commitment, easy to learn, and consist of short play sessions. However, Bogost argues that “casual” can be a bit of a misnomer since many games labelled as such can be as entertaining and time consuming as “hardcore” games. For example, Bejewelled consists of short play sessions, but requires a greater time investment if one is to get good at the game, thus encouraging the player to continually revisit it.
  2. What makes games casual is their informality, rather than their simplicity. Casual games do not have to adhere so strictly to the same conventions expected of hardcore games. Bogost gives the analogy of casual Fridays, whereby employees are allowed to dress informally while still performing their expected duties. These types of causal games usually demand a high total playtime and commitment in the long run, even if play sessions are themselves short.
  3. Low commitment casual games are relatively new territory. In contrast to high commitment casual games like Bejeweled, such games are played only once and never touched again. For example, the game Zidane Head-butt was not designed for multiple plays sessions. It is truly low commitment in the sense that it does not require, even encourage, a player to experience it more than once.

Quote: “casual games are games that players use and toss aside, one-play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again” (96)

Question: What value, if any, is there in low commitment casual games?