Andrew Ho's Works

Game Designer, Producer, Voiceover Arist

Game Design as a Cultural Practice

Second Life and EVE Online: Two Very Different Sandboxes

Gender Role Reversal in Japanese RPGs

Romance and Chess: Medieval Battleground of the Sexes

Second Life and EVE Online: Two Very Different Sandboxes

Virtual worlds with social interactions have been around for almost as long as the idea of computer games, with even modern day MMOGs carrying on trends and conventions that began in arcahic MUDs. As of relatively lately however, several subgenres of MMOGs have evolved, some of which can arguably be called social and creative tools rather than any game in a traditional sense. For the purpose of comparison then, I’ll write about CCP’s EVE Online (EVE) which I’m fairly acquainted with aside from getting blown up a number of times, and Second Life (SL), a virtual world chock full of anime fans, cyber hippies and furries, at the very worst. Although many of the reading sources have to do with gender, EVE would fall into Fullerton’s sights given its theme of science-fiction and warfare (Fullerton, pg 3) while SL appeals to a variety of demographics and both genders.

First and foremost, a common element that these games share is the creation of content, albeit both EVE and SL do these in very different ways. EVE allows players to harvest, research, craft, trade and customize a dizzying variety of objects, ranging from weapons and equipment, up to giant space stations and mining rigs. All of these however are put in by the designers, which SL one-ups by allowing players to build pretty much anything they want. The latter example can be done simply for art’s sake, but both worlds have economies that are driven almost entirely by players. A contrasting element here however is the reason why players create their own content. While SL content creation is done for either economic reasons or artistic license, EVE has some narrative qualities in addition to its mostly sandbox-type gameplay. Reynir Harðarson, a lead game designer at CCP, stated back in September that EVE was basically ‘30% theme park, 70% sandbox’ sort of game, with players taking active roles in corporations and organizations to achieve wide-spanning goals. The stylings and setting of EVE, despite its sandbox-type gameplay, do set it within the realm of a ‘theme park game’, much like other MMOGs (Pearce, pg 200). In addition to simply working together, corporations and players can create their own ‘quests’ for other players to perform and earn rewards, with the users generating a narrative component in the game as well as an economic one.

However, EVE does differ from SL in this realm in that it has an actual player-driven government. Even though EVE has game masters (GMs) to enforce some order over the players, this government works as a way for players to communicate directly with the developers, whereas players in SL are left pretty much to their own devices. This manner of players being allowed to take a real-life role in the governance of the game, in addition to real-life relationships and socializing that may occur, is one of the multilayered ways that EVE develops community (Taylor, 2003 pg 23).

In a sense, the direction that CCP is taking to griefing is quite opposite to the aftermath of the Mr. Bungle incident in LambdaMOO (Dibbell). Although GMs are given a great deal of power with which to keep EVE players in check, there have still been occasions where entire fleets and corporations have been stolen or destroyed due to the subversive actions of some players. Also there was an incident where a dissatisfied CEO of a corporation gave almost all of the corporations belongings to a rival corporation before disbanding the group. More than simply destroying belongings and holdings, such actions have the power to destroy the identity of a close-knit group of players, setting them back many hours of work and socializing. While the player-run council does not actually have any power to enforce laws in the game, and such behavior seems to be an intrinsic risk that players will encounter, there is little in the way of making specific rules or guidelines to prevent this sort of griefing.

Expanding further on interactions within these particular worlds, there are a number of marked differences between SL and EVE, as well as certain similarities. In SL, groups and organizations are created and joined by members for practically any reason, whether it’s due to similar interests, economic gain or just to have fun. Players also far more involved with their particular avatars, identifying closer with the character model they’ve created and customized, as SL’s design is built almost exclusively toward social interaction and an immersive identity. The three main themes that Taylor introduces are present, being immersion, identity and social responsibility and legitimacy, both of which are present in SL and EVE alike to some point (Taylor, 2003 pg. 28).

In contrast, the only sign of your avatar in EVE is through a pre-rendered portrait in a window and the ship that they are flying. While viewable, customizable avatars are in the works for EVE, such a feature is far off for the time being. However, there is more of a narrative element present since player avatars belong to certain factions, which are divided further into subfactions and more so with family histories, all of which contribute to the way that players will be perceived by others and their general goals. A player that chooses to be from a long line of warriors within the theocratic society will more likely be involved in combat, while a player from a trading background will likely perform more crafting and mining. Corporations may seldom be created due to similar real-life interests, but provide far more power and gain to players involved, encouraging many players on the server to join up to be part of more far-reaching goals and endeavors.

With SL being an entirely sandbox-type virtual world and EVE being a mostly-sandbox sort of MMOG, the approach that the developers take for both worlds have their fair share of similarities and differences. There are arguments as to the difference between multiplayer games and virtual worlds which will likely not be answered in the near future, but I would like to imagine that even spaces like SL, designed entirely toward social interactions and creativity, occupy a space very close to a game given its virtual nature and how games have traditionally been multiplayer.

 

Bibliography

Dibbell, Julian. (1993/1998). A Rape in Cyberspace.

Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (2007). A Game of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space. In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia. 1-11.

Pearce, C. (2007). “Narrative Environments from Disneyland to World of Warcraft.” In Space, Time, Play: Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level. 1-6.

Taylor, T.L. (2003). Intentional Bodies: Virtual Environments and the Designers Who Shape Them. International Journal of Engineering Education Vol. 19, No. 1. 25-34.

Taylor, T.L. (2003). Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming. Convergence, Vol. 9, No. 1, 21-46.

Gender Role Reversal in Japanese RPGs

Representation of gender in video games is undoubtedly a topic of particular interest in the sphere of Western video game studies. Whether one looks back at classic examples of outrage like Custer’s Revenge or modern day cases withDead or Alive: Extreme Volleyball, the idealization of the male and female genders in video games is especially pronounced and a perhaps problematic trend. However, through my experience in playing video games that originate from outside of the Western civilization, I have found that Japanese video games offer an odd, enigmatic take on gender representation. In particular, I will focus on the wildly-popular Final Fantasy series, from VII on up through the latest installation as to describe and analyze a more recent trend.

Japanese role-playing games as a whole tend to be very dramatic, structured and linear in their narratives, aside from having set a trend for multiple endings to a story. These stories are mostly character-driven as well and often bring a multitude of characters into the mix whether they are playable characters, secondary characters or villains. What I’ve found in a multitude of Japanese games I’ve played, female characters are represented in a variety of ways that have similarities to Western representations. Yuna, a summoner and magic-user from Final Fantasy X for instance, goes from a quiet, reserved character wearing a long, conservative dress to wearing a far skimpier mini-skirt and top in the sequel FF-X2, while also packing two guns. Falling into a similar trap with Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, the idea of ‘Barbie kicking butt’ (Fullerton, pg.3) would backfire and be more likely to attract male players than female players. Tifa Lockhart from Final Fantasy VII, although an accomplished martial artist and strong as a bull, fights with little more than a white, well-filled tank-top and mini skirt on.

Japanese mass media, such as in manga and anime alike, has a tendency to objectify its female characters as much as it empowers them. Female characters taking the lead role is common in many stories, if not moreso than their male counterparts, yet there is another odd tendency to be found in the Japanese culture that finds its way into games. As Japan is undergoing a sort of gender revolution within the country, with women increasingly holding off on marriage and child birth until a later age and female audiences becoming more pronounced, male characters now often find themselves in a reversed role of sexual object and ideal.

Ever since the Final Fantasy series took on a more ‘realistic’ look starting from VII, almost all the lead characters have been male. On top of that, they are often represented as young, leanly-muscled men with long or exotic hairstyles and a decidedly ‘pretty’ look. While this is perhaps coincidence, one only has to attend a cosplaying event or browse the internet to realize that female gamers (and even girls who don’t play games) have an overwhelming tendency to dote over these more feminine, idealized male characters as male games would drool over a scantly-clad Night Elf cosplayer.

In stark contrast to the Western ideal of a male lead, who is often heavily-muscled, ugly and coarse in many ways while taking part in a heavily action-oriented game, Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy also have action elements involved, though they tend to revolve more around intricate stories and settings along with unique battle mechanics. Character development is key in these games, and I have certainly found a share of older women gamers that not only are aware of the idealized male characters in the Final Fantasy series, but fawn over them in a similar manner to their younger compatriots (Pearce, pg.12). The idolization of male characters has been a part of fandom in many genres and forms, such as the advent of slash fiction and the incredible popularity of yaoi in the vein of Japanese culture, both of which depict often male characters in homoerotic situations and most of which are written by heterosexual females.

Whereas girls were disadvantaged to boys in previous generations for a number of reasons, such as girls being culturally restricted to more feminine activities and being excluded from ‘boy’ activities such as games, territory and paternal rebellion, that is not so much the case these days (Jenkins, 344). Female gamers in themselves are bucking many cultural expectations by way of their mere existence, and that is expounded upon by the act of fantasizing about ideal male characters in an overt manner rather than simply gazing quietly from afar. While it may seem unusual in many ways today, I am hardly stating this case as a bad thing.

Overt attempts to market to a female gaming market such as Brenda Laurel’s Purple Moon attempted to do will continue to be made, but as she states in Utopian Entrepreneur, ‘short changing research always turns out to have been the wrong idea.’ (Laurel, pg.38) Simply creating pretty male characters in video games is a successful in drawing in female gamers, but may not be a sustainable model in the long run. It may not even be the best way to appeal to female gamers since it’s simply what male gamers like in female characters. It is nevertheless an interesting switch on cultural expectations for the genders when it comes to video games, and Japanese role-playing games are a prime example of this odd conundrum.

Romance and Chess: Medieval Battleground of the Sexes
In Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen, chess is often discussed in way of its history, cultural impact and empowerment of women (though often paradoxical, considering the era), one chapter that I found particularly interesting was Chapter 8, Chess and the Cult of Love. While chess had a significant impact on the roles of women once the game found its way to an audience of aristocracy and nobility, it had an equally intriguing hand in the birth of the notion of courtly love and chivalry. Where chess had before been seen as a game to test one’s skills at conquest and intellect, it soon became an object of interaction among couples and lovers in an entirely different sort of game.
The rise of chess being a romantic symbol is closely tied with the rise of the troubadour, entertainers who were often singers, poets and storytellers who sought to perform for noble and wealthy courts. Skilled troubadours also were often experienced chess players, and through their songs and poems of courtship and romance, brought about the idea of chess as a romantic instrument once they began to involve chess terms and roles in their repertoires. Some classic stories from this period include the game of chess, at least in some version of Tristan and Iseut, and The Romance of Lancelot of the Lake (Yalom, p.128-130). An interesting thought to note outside of Yalom’s material is that the idea of romantic love, much like chess, was a controversial idea at best within the Catholic Church and Muslim beliefs as well at the time.

As women and men alike in the nobility began playing chess for a pleasant diversion as well as to test their intellect, it became almost expected of some noblewomen to be experienced chess players and mixed-gender games became more commonplace, possibly in part to the rise of the queen piece in chess (Yalom, p.126). This served as a way for the genders to mingle in an acceptable manner, and as a place where a man and woman could play on equal terms. Yet according to Yalom, a romantic ideal that arose was that in the game of chess, where players competed as equals, a lovely woman could have an advantage over a male competitor by way of her advantage in the ‘game of love’, presumably referring to the romantic notion that a chivalric man would do most anything for the affections of his beloved (Yalom, p.127). This was the opposite case in some Western literature that included Arab women as chess experts, in which case the women often found themselves beguiled by a Christian knight and lost on account of being distracted by their charm (Yalom, p.131-133). A key text that promoted the relationship between chess and romance was Le Livre des Eschez Amoureux Moralisés (The Edifying Book of Erotic Chess), in which the author Evrart de Conty lays out a very long text, both in poem and prose, on the nature of both the game of love and chess.

The notion of linking a game like chess to the idea of romantic love, both of which became important aspects of culture in medieval Europe, seems particularly interesting to me because of how unlikely such a pairing would normally occur in the present day. Few other games can have anything to do with a lofty idea like romance between the players. It occurs to me that both chess and romantic love are alike in the sense that both were considered tumultuous at best when they were on the rise within the culture of medieval Europe, yet merely frowned upon at most as outright bans or denunciations would unpopular. As chess soon became an outlet for lovers to interact with one another, at first in affairs that could be considered adulterous or immoral at first, it became a way for couples to play in a domesticated, civil manner instead of the more erotic encounters described in the tales of troubadours (Yalom, p.146-147).