It feels like the First Person Shooter (FPS, and I do include 3rd person shooters too) is starting to show its limits. It might be controversial to say that the FPS genre has run out of steam but I’m not precluding that there is a market for shooters. I just see that as the gaming market matures and the technology behind it matures as well that the plain old FPS is starts to seem a bit limited, a bit shallow. What started as a game mechanic to best utilise limited technology is now being shown as limited by technology that’s advanced far enough to leave the concept in its wake.
The place of ethics in computer gaming is a topic I’ve been keen to cover for some time. While ‘moral panic’ has been a frequent occurrence in various attacks on the gaming industry and some high profile games in particular (Mass Effect sex scenes anyone?) ethics in gaming seem to have escaped much focus. This could be because morals invoke the religious right and FOX News while ethics require slightly more frontal lobe to process or engage with, but it feels like the time is ripe to examine gaming and the ethical experimentation it encourages. Computer games provide a fantastic psychological sandbox because unlike almost all other forms of entertainment media they are both participative and interactive. This allows and encourages some interesting psychological processes to be explored through them.
Some games provide a deeper ethical sandbox than others. In most first person shooters the player is forced along a path where they have little impact except to continue the story and you are simply killing or being killed. Roleplaying games (RPG’s) present a broader opportunity to observe human ethics unfettered by societal constraint, sanction or judgement. RPG’s have always offered the most obvious demonstration of ethics in gaming but only since they started embodying consequence has this gained much depth or interest. When your chaotic evil monk in Neverwinter Nights got the same ending as your lawful good paladin, choice in dealing with non player characters felt irrelevant except insofar as how you perceived your character. More recent games (Mass Effect leading the charge) have implemented lasting consequence making ethics in gaming deeper and more impactful. For the purposes of this article I’m focusing around the expression of ethics in single player gaming though multiplayer provides an interesting counterpart to be explored at a later date. Continue reading
Looking back over the catalogue of MMORPGs which have come out since World of Warcraft spawned the genre there are only a tiny handful which have sparked any interest for me. Of those I haven’t played one. I used to think it was because I wasn’t a social gamer, then I realised that I really enjoy online gaming. The reason was that nothing with the possible exception of Eve Online has managed to make a remotely convincing departure from the mindset of singleplayer narrative and non-persistent multiplayer online.
I’ll confess at this point, I’m a gamer who considers narrative to be a fairly important part of any game. I do love a good story based game if the writing is good and even just if the story is a strong one, but I’ve realised something in the last few years of gaming. As I replayed Crysis, Bioshock or the oldschool Call of Duty games (past Modern Warfare I lost interest) I found their kind of narrative storytelling immersive but lacking in real connection. It’s only the ability of games to allow for emergent narrative that really allows gamers to connect both with a game and their character. When you think about it this is pretty natural, emergent gameplay can constitute the only opportunity to create your own narrative for your character rather than following a path determined by the writers. I have spent a lot of time playing open world games like GTA and the STALKER series and while there is some ability to create your own story in these, it’s limited to the gaps inbetween the game’s ongoing narrative for you to try. In setting up even a primitive open world producers give gamers the ability to go forth and create their own adventures but always within limits. You will always have to go back to the story mission to progress the game and the game is defined by that narrative progress. Even in a traditional roleplaying game there is conflict between the investment of players in their character’s narrative and it being predestined by being someone else’s imagination, unchangeable from the few choices you are given no matter how compelling. Reactions to Mass Effect 3 demonstrated the impact of this cognitive dissonance on a spectacular scale. Playing three games and creating what often felt like your own truly unique universe from your decisions only to be confronted by an ending which only grazed the surface of the character you had become and the universe you crafted was a frustrating experience for many. But what does this have to do with MMO gaming?