I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Game Camp for Grownups

Axiom Verge
A group of academic colleagues charged me with creating a series of video gaming sessions. Their goal is to understand the merit of games as cultural artifacts, and of game design and analysis as academic fields.

I'm treating this project as you might if someone asked for a master class about any area of study or hobby, such as "what's the deal with 19th century novels?" or "why are you so into cooking?"

My role is a mixture of evangelist, educator, ... and someone trying to justify my discipline to friends working with more traditional media.


The average age of this group is 50 years, and most members have not played a game in decades (or in some cases, at all). The group is only available for a few sessions. So, we're starting from zero. I can't survey all genres, mechanics, or even what I'd consider the video game canon. I also can't rely excessively on themes and skills carrying over between sessions because not everyone can attend each.

Pac Man Championship Edition DX+
This group is local to Williams College. However, I'm writing this article on our process for several reasons.

My recent courses and books have benefited from reader feedback to early drafts on this blog. I look forward to the conversations this will project initiate.

I also offer the game camp as a framework for others who might want to refine and repeat the experience for their own groups. The more that teachers share their planning materials, the easier and better it is for all of us and our students.

Finally, this is an experiment of sorts. Scientists should document their experiments, and to keep us objective, ideally set out the methodology and hypotheses before they are are tweaked during iteration due to intermediate results.

Ground Rules

The Last of Us: Remastered
These are the same rules applied to assigned games for students in my courses. There are really just two guidelines to ensure that everyone gets as much as possible from the experience: respect games as you should assigned novels or films, and respect other players as you should other students.

The specific rules implementing those are:

  • You must play each game for at least two hours.  Most games spend the first half-hour just teaching you the mechanics and introducing the world of the game. For players new to video games, that "half hour" can stretch a lot longer. You need to push through that so that you've gotten to the game proper and not just done the equivalent of reading the dust cover. 
    • For some VR experiences, or in the case of physical illness from the stimulus, you should obviously stop before the two hour point.
    • For single-player games, you may also take turns with partners for a two-hour session as long as you are in control for at least 45 minutes across your turns. Those turns should not be consecutive.
  • You must try hard to succeed. Games are supposed to be challenging and you are expected to fail a lot at first, and then learn and begin to succeed. It is natural to feel embarrassed or frustrated in the beginning. Don't make a joke about your performance and then give up. Channel those feelings into trying harder.
    Mario Kart 64
  • You must read the assigned articles or videos, which I specifically chose to be short, and then discuss the game with another person who has played it. It is easy to miss to point of why a game is interesting when focused solely on trying to play it in a short session.
  • Support and cheer on other players in a way that strictly enhances their accomplishment and challenge. Specifically: don't tell others what to do very often, and don't ever take the controller out of their hands. I've been observing groups of new players for a decade as a scientist. In about eight out of ten groups of all ages and cultures, males attempt to socially dominate females when playing games, often unconsciously or with noble intentions of helping. It isn't entirely their fault--the males often do that to each other as well, but the females are often too polite to tell them to back off. Bottom line: if you're male and playing with females, I recommend that you sit on your hands and limit your comments to strictly compliments...that's what I do.

Firewatch
I require students to re-play games that they're already familiar with, but for this group it is reasonable to skip a session if you're experienced with a game in the interest of time so that you can play more new games. Note that Pac Man is not equivalent to Pac Man Championship Edition for this purpose.

The Games

My goals in choosing these games are:
  1. survey the breadth of video game experiences
  2. provide one or two deep experiences, which also requires first building certain playing skills
  3. ensure that at least one game actually appeals to each person, so that the players see how it feels to become attached and enjoy the experience as well as gaining academic familiarity
I'm not trying to demonstrate the greatest games, advance a particular theory of games, or favor games that resonate with academics. The games I chose are critically lauded, but they are also all successful commercial products.

The games below are listed in the order that they'll be offered. I include some backups for each that accomplish more-or-less the same thing. I discuss the significance of the games marked with asterisks below.

Tetris*
Accessible, robust, and minimalist gaming. Anyone can pick this up instantly and everyone finds it compelling. It teaches basic gaming literacy in a no-frills fashion, and the design has proved remarkably ageless.
Super Mario Bros.
A carefully-designed learning curve, tight controls, and instant action. The ideal introduction to platforming conventions while still rewarding skill and persistence. The only game on this list that is here for historical reasons as well as contemporary play, SMB arguably was the first modern video game, with large levels, graded mechanic introduction, boss battles, and even nonlinear maps.
Inside*
Playdead's new masterpiece of combining platforming and narrative for an experience that fully embraces interaction as a storytelling medium. This takes what SMB introduced to its logical conclusion, leveraging linear gameplay. The puzzle difficulty and twitch levels are tuned just right to engage both casual and more experienced players. 
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX+
Classic arcade feel with modern conventions and indie sensibility. Even more than Tetris, this rewards quick reflexes and strategic planning and presents short sessions that demand "let's play one more round."
MarioKart 64* [multiplayer], any other Mario Kart, Blur
The ideal introduction to competitive play. On a racetrack, you can't get lost and miss the action. The controls are simple and the gameplay is heavily stabilized to work for mixed skill levels, but there are still plenty of map secrets and control techniques for advanced players.
Axiom Verge [PC], Metroid Zero Mission, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Legend of Zelda
"Metroidvania" games embrace traversal and make RPG elements accessible. Their sense of atmosphere and loneliness is powerful and matched with the thrill of discovery. These games are also relatively hard, but in a fair way.
Firewatch, Her Story, Gone Home, ADR1FT
Blurring the line between "game" and linear narratives forms, taking on adult themes, and foregrounding character...even though there actually are no characters explicitly depicted.
Monaco* [4-player couch multiplayer]
Introduction to cooperative play. A brilliant reintepretation of Pac Man with light RPG elements. It shows the power of visual abstraction. Monaco is a perfect example of how to translate genre entertainment (here, heist movies) to a new medium. It captures all of the progressive (i.e., linear narrative) elements in an elegant way by allowing them to emerge naturally from the mechanics and level designs.
Aperture Robot Repair [Vive], Core Calibration Slingshot
Compelling VR presence, irony and contextual humor. "Presence" is a technical term for the mind and senses reacting to virtual stimuli in a physical way.
The Night Jar, Papa Sangre II
No graphics can ever be as good as the imagination, and shockingly, no element of video game technology is truly required.
Audio Shield [Vive], Guitar Hero 2, Rock Band 5
Modern rhythm games with physical identity. GH2 achieves a funny kind of presence even in 2D; putting a rhythm game in VR merges flow and presence (I can't wait for RB5 VR!)
The Last of Us Remastered [single player], Uncharted 4, Uncharted 2
Naughty Dog consistently delivers emotionally powerful experiences through completely generic characters, plots, and settings. They demonstrate that classic character and story theory works for games, but that games are about living the story and so innovation must be on the feel side, not plot cleverness. These are also the most cinematic games available, with interesting aggressive camera work, lighting, costume changes, and set pieces. TLUR is also like being punched in the gut (emotionally, at least as a parent) for hours. Although it telegraphs every twist and emotional moment, that dread and anticipation actually heightens the experience.
Portal 2* [single player, PC], Portal
A masterpiece. Technically excellent, sharp design, great writing, great characters, the best example of environmental storytelling...and excellently paced. Portal 2 improved the learning curve for novice players and deepened the story from Portal, so it narrowly edges out its predecessor. 
XCOM [XCOM2 preferred, but any version, single player], Age of Empires III, Rymdkapsel
These are the most accessible RTS games, yet they all retain tight design and depth. XCOM clearly stands out from the pack for its sheer darkness, storyline, and mixture of mechanics. This is as close as accessible games get to the layered complexity of a novel. This also shows how progressive and emergent elements can coexist without one dominating; XCOM is like Groundhog Day after the first playthrough. It is also the rare truly hardcore game that is open to novice and casual players. XCOM 2 takes everything great about the original and doubles down on it.
The Stanley Parable*, The Magic Circle
Post-modern gaming at its finest and most accessible. The game stands on its own, but with some background in other games it creates a metacritical space and mixes scathing and loving references in equal measure, like The Player and Total Recall do for Hollywood. 

I strongly recommend playing Portal 2 and XCOM 2 by yourself instead of with partners. Identifying with the world of the game and solving problems solely by yourself is part of the experience for those games. 

Audioshield
For the other single-player games, I recommend playing with a partner and taking turns having control on ~15 minute intervals (there are usually natural swapping points). Playing with someone else usually enhances the experience. It also makes it a little easier to get through some tougher parts...clears up some confusion for people who don't have a lot of gaming background. 

For most of these games, I recommend using a controller. This is especially true for XCOM, which at first appears to favor using a mouse. For Portal 2, use the mouse and keyboard. It doesn't matter what input you use for The Stanley Parable, but I found mouse and keyboard easier.

There are thirteen games on the list, which is way too much time to ask of the group. I probably need to get the list down to five sessions. It already pains me to have cut Wing Commander III, GTA: Chinatown Wars, LIMBO, Papa & YoSkyrim, Minecraft, Shadow of the ColossusHarvest MoonHalf-Life 1 [single player], Jet Grind RadioSpelunkyLeft 4 Dead 2 [multiplayer], and many, many more games to better capture the breadth of the medium.

Portal 2
The games marked with asterisks are the ones that I recommend to those player who can make only five sessions. Maybe those will be the only five that I offer, if nobody is available for more.

The problem in cutting to just them is that all of these games stand on their own, but stand much better together. Imagine if Moby Dick was the only book that you'd ever read...it would still be great, but you'd be unable to appreciate its literary context and lack the experience to tease out why it is so great.

For example, I'm prepared to argue for Portal 2 as the greatest video game of all time (I'm prepared to make that argument for other games, though too!) It would be a shame to hit it as your first game using first-person controls or first puzzle game, however. I've seen smart players lost for an hour in the 5-minute introductory sequence of Portal 2 because they didn't understand the basic conventions of the game due to lack of gaming experience.

Why [These] Games?

Super Mario Bros.
Video games are a popular, commercial art (there are fine art games; but I'm not teaching them to this group). They are also a folk art via modding, game jams, and the less polished side of indie development, but we aren't going in that direction with this group.

I chose games that proved themselves under the brutal constraints of the market. Like serialized novels, Shakespearian plays, and feature films, an audience voted with their wallets that these are undeniably engaging works.

Games need not be "fun" any more than Hamlet has to be fun, but they must engage the player's mind and emotions. They also must be entertaining, again, sometimes in the way that a tragedy or drama is entertaining. They can, of course, be entertaining and engaging in the manner of a summer blockbuster as well.

There are different kinds of value in different games. We admire Super Mario Bros. for its mechanics, controls, and level design; The Stanley Parable for its sardonic humor and reflective insights; The Last of Us for its set pieces and heart-strings; Portal 2 for its puzzles and learning curve, but also its environmental storytelling; Aperture Robot Repair for its technical excellence, and so on.

Games are about relationships and choices, not narratives. They prefer generic settings and narratives to immediately establish a familiar context within which to explore dynamics and choices. That said, what makes some games interesting is that they reach for the narrative ring anyway. Firewatch and Uncharted are about being inside the story, not the genius of the story. Part of Portal 2's greatness is that it contains excellent performances and narrative even though the mechanics are traversal puzzles. Make no mistake, however: while narrative and characters can elevate a game, all of these games work as games first. Overemphasizing their narratives would be like evaluating a novel based on its illustrations or a play based on its scenery. Those just aren't the strength or the point of those media.

Games particularly excel at creating flow and inspiring fiero. Flow is that sense of being in the moment, where you're in tune with the environment and lose track of time, interacting at an intelligent but almost subconscious level. Most people enter flow when reading fiction or watching television. Anyone expert in a complex field enters flow when working, whether a professional athlete, novelist, or mathematician.

Fiero is the sense of accomplishment when you've achieved something challenging through practice and skill. When you punch your fist in the air and shout "yes!" (even if it is vicarious success, as at a sporting event...which is really a game!), that's fiero. While over-the-top action movies sometimes accomplish a light sense of fiero, no other media can inspire this emotion as intensely as games.

The Stanley Parable
Games respond to each other and build on mechanics and themes. You need a certain amount of coverage to appreciate this.

For the games above, Pac-Man Championship Edition revisits the design of Pac-Man as if it had been invented today. Monaco then answers the question, "what would multiplayer Pac-Man be?" (In late 2016, Bandai will try its own multiplayer Pac-Man; I'm happy with Monaco)

Axiom Verge is a direct and reverential response to Metroid, but also to platformers back to Super Mario Bros.

The Stanley Parable primarily criticizes games that are not on my list...but it also questions the lack of free will and corresponding value of success of a game like Portal 2 even as it adopts its framework.

I believe the above selection of games support these points, and that the ground rules will lead the players to be able to debate subtler issues in games.

I look forward to this experiment and appreciate my colleagues' collective interest!



Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.