Video Games: Interactivity and Connectivity

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Essay on Video games

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  • Video Games: Interactivity and Connectivity

    By: Sean OReilly

    The video game is a new media form which provides for some of the greatest

    levels of interactivity a user of new media can experience. Interactivity, as David

    Marshall argues is where the audience as participants completed (sic) the form and its

    meaning. The act of playing the game is interactive in that the player manipulates the

    character or environment onscreen with a controller or joystick, putting them beyond the

    role of a passive audience member in the most literal sense. This is a very simple way of

    defining interactivity in video games; because, on a more complex level, the audience as

    a participant not only participates in the simple and narrow pre-programmed actions of

    the character, but also completes the narrative and narrative meaning with his/her

    actions or decisions in game.

    Not only do video games inherently involve deep levels of interactivity, but with

    the advent of completely online computer gaming and the ability of next generation

    consoles (such as the Playstation 3 and XBOX 360) to access the web, they allow for a

    connectivity never before reached in gaming. Of connectivity, Marshall argues, which in

    this case I appropriate for the technology of online gaming, that the technology has

    produced astounding possibilities of connection between people that break down the

    apparent isolation of experience produced by personalized media. The ability to play

  • and communicate online with others represents a radical innovation of the technology,

    because prior to games to being played online, they were the isolating personalized media

    Marshall mentions in the previous quote. And with the advent of this technology allowing

    video games to connect to the web, allows players to connect and a results, as Marshall

    States in new formations of collectivity. Meaning, the connectivity provided by online

    gaming provides new avenues, methods, and forms of creating a collective or

    community. Marshall also argues that these new formations of collectivity develop new

    kinds of communities and connections that are challenging many formerly stable

    dimensions of contemporary culture. In the end, this means the connections online

    gamers make construct a world that they can inhabit and exist outside of the dominant

    ideologies of a culture. And as another possibility the communities and individual gamers

    can use these connections and community to attempt to disrupt those dominant

    ideologies.

    Video games as a new media technology, as Marshall argues of the technological

    apparatus of new media surround, mediate and become part of our identity and

    relationship to the world. The interactivity and connectivity above are how video games

    do this, if the gamers primary connections and community are in the games themselves

    and in the online connections, then this process of mediating and becoming part of

    identity can be said to be taking place. The technology surrounds by providing a deep

    level of interactivity both in action and the ideological process of making meaning, by

    giving the audience member/producer so much to do that they cannot help but be

    enveloped. Through the process of meaning making, and through choice (or the illusion

    of choice) in narrative games, it mediates and becomes part of the identity through the

  • ideological processes of identification and interpolation, and in the connective nature of

    open ended online games. (For example, World of Warcraft) The process of creating

    community and forming a new identity both in game and as a member of this community

    the technology also mediates and becomes part of the identity and relationship to the

    world, in an extreme becoming the relationship the player has with the world at large.

    Interactivity and Character Customization

    A game which is illustrates this notion of interactivity and the audience in the role

    of producer pertaining to the completion of the form and meaning of the New Media text

    is the 2007 game Mass Effect. The game was developed by the software company

    BioWare and published by Microsoft Game Studios for the XBOX 360, which is a

    product of Microsoft. The game is in the Space Opera genre and is a third person

    perspective Role Playing Game (or, RPG). The player as a default takes the role of

    veteran Soldier Commander John Shepard; however the player has the option to

    customize the character. The player can change the physical appearance of Shepard,

    including his gender and appearance. The customization goes deeper than this however,

    as the player can customize the characters military training, abilities, background, and

    history from a long set of options. This customization is where the interactivity begins.

    The player is able to take on the role of producer and create the character beyond the

    default mode set forth by the developers. Though it is from a finite set of options, the

    player takes on the role of producers and completes the character development started by

    the game makers. Players can choose from six different character classes each containing

    different skill sets, the choice being based on their preferred style of play. This will also

  • change the players experience of the game as certain ancillary missions are determined

    by the characters chosen abilities and class. More interestingly, the player has the

    opportunity to customize the game characters back-story. The player can choose where

    Commander Shepard was born (Space, Earth, Colony on another planet), his war record

    (one can be a war hero, a lone survivor of a horrible battle, or a ruthless cutthroat soldier).

    These details will have an effect on the game and how the Non Playable Characters (Or,

    NPCs) will address you during the game. The gamer is empowered to produce a distinct

    and unique experience by completing the form the character will take.

    However, the development of the character at the beginning of the game is not the

    only way in which the game is interactive. Perhaps the most interesting development that

    BioWare has made is the inclusion of a system of morality that is central to the plot and

    determined by the players actions. As with previous BioWare titles such as the Star

    Wars titles Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, the player through his or her

    actions may decide to be good or evil. In the case of the Star Wars titles there is a

    very clear distinction between the two, the Dark Side and Light Side of the force as any

    fan of the Star Wars films is aware. This is a distinct trait of BioWares games, that every

    decision, choosing an action (or inaction) in a given situation and the responses in

    conversations with NPCs is assigned a moral value. And at points in the games, the moral

    leanings of the character (and by extension, the player) will determine how and in some

    cases which NPCs will interact with the player, the direction the story takes, what

    abilities can or cannot be gained by the player. Every BioWare game has multiple

    endings which are based on several factors, being several major decisions the player must

  • make (whether or not to save certain characters, kill others), and the moral leaning of the

    character at the end of the game. As previously mentioned, with the Star Wars titles the

    distinction between good and evil is clear, but at the same time there is no wrong

    ending. What sets Mass Effect apart and makes it a uniquely interactive experience is that

    this distinction is not so clear, and making a moral decision one way or the other will not

    negative a previous moral decision, as was the case with previous BioWare releases. The

    way the player decides the moral bend of Commander Shepard is mostly done through

    conversational responses with various NPCs in the game. Each time the player engages in

    dialogue with the games characters, they are given six response options. Depending on

    the choices the player makes, Shepard will be given points toward either the Paragon or

    Renegade moral bend. The player can not negate previous moral decisions, and the

    ending is based on which side of the spectrum the player has chosen as well as a few key

    decisions during the climax of the story.

    The plot of Mass Effect actually contains many familiar genre elements and many

    of the themes often explored in Science Fiction. The game involves mankind joining the

    intergalactic community because of the discovery of ancient alien technology allowing

    human beings to travel beyond the solar system and colonize much of the Milky Way.

    And through the use of ancient artifacts called Mass Relays, are able to travel across

    the galaxy (similar to the plot of Star Trek, where any race of sentient life that discovers

    Hyperspace travel is welcome to join the intergalactic federation of planets). At the

    beginning of the game the player must save a human colony which has uncovered more

    ancient alien technology from destruction by a traitor of another species, who happens to

    be an elite soldier in the employ of the ruling council of the galaxy. The rest of the

  • games plot involves hunting down this traitor, named Saren, and in the end uncovering

    an ancient race of sentient machines bent on destroying all biological life forms. The

    main enemy of the game then becomes a member of this ancient machine race in the form

    a Ship called the Sovereign. At the climax of the story, a large battle ensues between the

    entire alliance of mankind and the other alien life forms against the machines. At this

    point in the game, both the final choice made by the player and the characters moral

    leanings will determine the outcome of this battle. The player can decide to defend the

    governing body of the galaxy from attack to go on the offensive against the main enemy,

    the ship Sovereign. If the player helps the governing council, the ending is that mankind

    gains an equal place in the intergalactic community. If the player decides to attack and

    not bother with the council, it is destroyed though mankind wins out and establishes itself

    as the ruling force in the known universe. Both endings are potentially satisfying, but this

    is where the notion of interactivity is strongest. The player must decide for themselves

    whether the choices they made are correct, as no judgment is passed on the player based

    on the possible endings. The player, as the audience/participant in Marshalls definition,

    has the ultimate role in completing the form (what ending scenario occurs) and meaning

    (whether or not the ending is satisfying/ the morally correct set of choices leading to the

    morally correct ending). It also may not matter to the player if they made moral decisions

    and got the right ending. In this way, this New Media form puts the player in the roll of

    producer. This New Media text and New Media culture as a whole in this manner

    empowers the audience as a participant, and so surrounds, mediates and becomes part of

    our identity and relationship to the world. It surrounds the player with the interactivity

    by giving them choice and immersing them in the game, and it mediates/ becomes part of

  • their identity by relating to them this sense of moral power and the power of being in role

    of participant/ producer in that culture.

    Connectivity in Online Gaming

    The other important aspect of video games as new media and a part of new media

    cultures is the notion of connectivity and collectivization outside of the traditional stable

    forms. New media technologies have the ability to erase the barriers of distance and

    create an immediacy of response that fosters these new forms of collectivization. A prime

    example of this trait in video games is the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing

    Game (or, MMORPG) World of Warcraft. The game was released by Blizzard

    entertainment in 2004. The game is played only online, with no single player option

    available. There is no traditional narrative structure and the games world is a large and

    open-ended. The player also has the notion of choice in choosing between the factions

    that exist in this world; the alliance which consists of what we could consider the good

    beings, namely Humans and Elves, and the Horde which consists of Ogres and Goblins.

    Again, there is the choice of a moral outlook without judgment, empowering the player to

    embrace whichever faction they please as a level of interactivity. There are also warrior

    classes and abilities which are highly customizable in the creation of a unique character.

    Once the player has signed up (it is a subscription service) and begins to play, the

    player can choose their own adventure and travel throughout the world at their own peril

    as they attempt to gain experience points and advancing in level, becoming stronger and

    stronger. There are places the player can go in which there are quests, usually it is a castle

    or cave or dungeon where an enemy exists to kill for treasure and more experience. In

  • performing these quests, and to avoid being killed by players, it is a necessity to connect

    to other people. The player must communicate and join or create a party to fight the

    larger monsters and attack other parties in order to function with greater safety and, on a

    basic level, to have more fun. In the game, there are guilds a player can join, which are

    large collectives of players who share expertise and treasure, trade items in game with

    one another, and go perform the quests and tasks that exist in game. This notion on

    connectivity is expansive, as players have the ability to speak to one another through the

    computers microphone or specialty game headsets. This is where the idea that a

    community can exists outside the more traditional or stable forms, because open and

    expansive nature of the games world allows connections to built between players

    regardless of age, sex, location, socio-economic class, so long as the player has access to

    the game and a good enough connection to the internet to run the game smoothly. This

    notion of access is what Marshall refers to as the digital divide, it is the idea that there

    is a clear separation between those who have access to these things (as well as the

    disposable income to afford the monthly subscription fee), and have the knowledge and

    ability to use the technology correctly. For those who do, there is literally a whole world

    in which to function. And so, there is a real strong sense of community for players. This

    is how MMORPGs embody the idea that the technological apparatus surrounds, mediates

    and becomes part of the identity. The player becomes a member of the new media

    culture, and a member of both the gamer community and of the World of Warcraft

    community. The ability to build strong connections and share ideas with complete

    freedom it provides the illusion of access to everywhere and leaves the structure of the

    gatekeepers compromised, as Marshall argues in both cases. In this way, it...

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