Friday, 13 December 2013

Getting Shot At In All My Guises

I'm used to being shot at in games. I'm intimate with it, with the experience of viewing myself through the sights of a gun, with depressing a trigger that brings release and relief from being and wholeness for both the bullet and the me the bullet interrupts. Being subject and object holds no fear for me, as whichever is destroyed I know that I will continue. I remember my sister complaining that her boyfriend sat around in front of her just playing games where he shot Germans without realising that it might upset her but I knew the problem was deeper than that. We're always killing someone in games, it's just something I learned to be down with because I like playing them. Killing myself, or at least my great grand parents, on a regular basis just made things a whole lot more honest. It humanised everything else I've ever killed.

Of course, we don't really kill Germans in our computer games any more, if we ever did. As the atrocities fade into history, the stock Nazi villains that populated early shooters have developed an armour of camp and irrelevance. Too many other players have caught up with me and can see themselves, or someone like them, in the ordinary soldiers. Duty now calls upon you to kill brown people instead, for the most part, (the rhetoric of culpability remains, shorn of any shred of the justificatory logic it might have held) so I've been dodging that particular bullet for a number of years. Except that they aren't people at all, they're Terrorists, who are like Nazis but without the sexy uniforms. They're an ideology wrapped up in flesh for you to try to wipe out: you can't shoot an idea, but maybe if you can trap it in a fragile mind you have a chance of deleting it once and for all. Every repeated instance.

(But ideologies don't work like that anyway. They are external to the minds that they touch upon and change, like the protagonist in Geist they are unaffected by the death of the host. Execution and war become punishment; punishment for every German's culpability in the holocaust whether they were a Nazi or not. It's a ritual, but one that's hidden from the player - referencing the one reason the war was worth prosecuting would fundamentally spoil the fun of prosecuting it again and again and again. My favourite, personalised, example of the disinterest displayed in the true horror of Nazism is Call of Duty's General Heinrich Amsel. In a game that slavishly recreates the weapons that mechanised death no-one researched the names of the villains. Heinrich Amsel would never have fought for the Nazis, he would have been obliterated by them, because Amsel is a German-Jewish surname. So it goes.)

This is all a preamble to what was to be my main point but maybe isn't any more: why I don't feel that there's anything wrong when I gun down the mentally ill in games. I mean, I do think that there's something wrong, something massively wrong, it's just that I'm used to it. I can't always feel the disgust that I know I probably should. I'm far too used to it.

The mentally ill make for good villains, across all media in fact. You see, we just don't stop, we don't know how. We can't listen to reason, so the question of the appropriateness of force is taken away from you, the protagonist. We make things easy as well, because ultimately, we want to die. Not the clean, pure death urge of the hero either, who stakes his life on the promise of a better world; we just want to be put out of our misery.

It's bullshit, of course. Stigmatising bullshit at that, coming from the same root formulation of moral innateness that allows us to bomb civilians because they look like our enemies and fuelled by a desire to have new villains as uncontroversially evil as the Nazis until recently have been able to be. But I've seen it again and again. Its in the cutscene where a defeated enemy attacks again, justifying the final blow. It's on the choice tree that pops up when an antagonist's eyes clear, reason returns and he begs for an end; and I've provided it. In horror games where the horror is that your mind may not be your own so you obliterate any evidence of what you may become. The mad are both cause and victim of the evil that threatens you.

Even cures are worthless, the popular anti-psych message about medication is that it turns you into a zombie: unfeeling and unaffected; effectively unable to contribute in a meaningful way any more. And, well, the good thing about zombies is how fun they are to kill, how many you can wade through without any feeling of remorse. They are better off dead; both the victim and the cause of the evil that threatens you.

It should stop, though. We need to be able to tell the difference between madness and malice. We need to be able to show the difference between madness and malice, because ideologies spread in a way that madness doesn't. But the secret I know is that we'll always need enemies to populate our fantasies of opposition, and my complicity in this narrative power structure is as unavoidable as my complicity in global inequality. But then, if there's one thing I've learnt from my ancestry it's that an awareness and acceptance of your past is vital for the work of doing things better in the future.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Little bit of Housekeeping

First up, I'd like to point out the tabs at the top of the page. Yesterday I set up a new one to go alongside the Further Reading page as a resource listing Games that feature madness either mechanically or thematically. I intend to keep adding to both these lists and will gladly take suggestions for titles I've missed. The games page doesn't have links because primarily because choosing a definitive resource on each title seems somewhat too subjective, but again I'd be willing to put something in if enough people shout.

Secondly, it's in the further reading tab, but if you found my take on Depression Quest interesting then you might also like this take by The Orts. I don't agree with everything it says, especially the slight anti-psychiatry stance that seems to push the, in my mind false, dichotomy between treating mental distress as illness and treating it as a part of your inviolable self. But it does say a lot of stuff that I agree with, and that I would say myself, and it does so more eloquently and more academically than I'm capable of.

Thirdly, the latest issue of the as-always excellent Memory Insufficient is on Disability and Games History. Of the three essays two are primarily focused on issues of mental health, while the third encompasses it in its overview of disability as a concept, and so the issue will be of particular interest to anyone who reads this blog. A couple of confessions: editor Zoya Street's article on sanity rules in D&D does reference this blog, and I did intend to write a piece for this issue but couldn't get an angle I was happy with sorted out in time for the deadline.

(I was planning on taking a look at how the merit and flaw system popularised in the World of Darkness games deals with disability by both quantifying it but also systematically compensating for it by allowing players to buy unrelated bonuses but I didn't get much father than 'that's really quite reductive' which is pretty un-interesting really, because roleplaying rules literally are attempts to reduce complex realities into a system.)

I have a few brief responses to the articles in the issue which I'll lay out here. I though it was interesting that in general all the essays worked within a conceptual framework in which the DSM and psychiatry are essentially synonymous. This is a common position and a useful shorthand, especially for some of the points being made about medicalization and normativity but, as I discussed here, I think things are more complicated than that and I sometimes worry that this shorthand can become a self-limiting axiom. I don't think this impacts on what the articles have to say in any significant sense, and I may also be reading it in wrongly, but I think as a critical position it might be worth bearing in mind.

I have to admit that I've never played with the rules from Unearthed Arcana, so as far as I was aware the only sanity system in D&D was that developed for Ravenloft. I will have to read into it some more. In some ways that just goes to show how large D&D is as an entity, as well as the scope of its ambition as a system. (Are there any sanity rules for the explicitly universal systems like GURPS or Rifts/Palladium? There must be, although I've only ever read the core rulebooks for either of those.)

Zoya Street's take on D&D is probably harsher than mine, I was quite pleased to be described as 'even-handed' as I sometimes worry I get too polemical, but I suppose my problem is that I've always thought D&D to be self-evidently a terrible system. That's not to say I don't enjoy it as a game, just that in some ways that enjoyment was hard won and involved a lot of ignoring the really stupid bits. The article also reminded me of the tribalism in RPG circles, where people are wedded not only to systems, but to the primacy of those systems' representational models.

D&D, and AD&D especially, is never going to describe anything realistically, or allow you to play or explore any concepts in a realistic manner, because as a project it is about imposing the D&D mathematical model onto those concepts and not the other way around. While this is not to say that it shouldn't be called out for doing so, which is something Street does very well, I suppose my position is that it can only be understood in the light of this dynamic. One day James Wallis will finally publish FRUP and I'll be able to point at it and go 'look, this is what you have done - this is the world your slavish rules-lawyering has implied.' Until then you'll just have to take my word for it.

And finally, I recently wrote a piece for The Ontological Geek about horror in roleplaying games. I looked at where horror is located and how game systems, including sanity systems, can mediate and generate that horror. It isn't strictly about mental illness but I hope that my rule-happy readers will find it interesting. The Ontological Geek is running a horror month at the minute and I heartily recommend having a look at what is coming out of that.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Depression Quest and the Physicality of Mental Illness

Trigger warning, this is about depression in quite a visceral sense.

I know what it feels like to be depressed from my own past experience. As much as anything that means I have an understanding of the physiological effects as well as the mental, which can be important because, as a mental illness, it is often discussed in purely mental terms. 

But those physical effects can be horrible, almost indescribably so. It isn't just the lethargy and the headaches, in some manner similar to the experience of a bad cold, but the curious fear that accompanies them. Colds come and then they go, following a familiar and understandable self-limiting pattern. They are grim and they can vary in severity but they make sense and have an end that can be anticipated while the physical symptoms of depression merely persist. And the longer they persist the more the anxiety over that persistence becomes a physical thing in itself; a gnawing in the gut that feels like maybe you ate something wrong and oh god what if you might get sick for real and...

I imagine that this is similar to many other chronic illnesses, which I am aware have the capacity to feedback into mental illness. I also am certain that other mental illnesses have their own set of physical symptoms which I have never felt and will probably never know. It is interesting that I am better able to imagine the mental state of someone with mania than I am the physical feeling of it and it fascinates me, in part because the physicality of my own depression is a huge part of the way I understand it.

I said I know what it feels like to be depressed because what I realise is that I don't know what it feels like to become depressed. I can imagine that it must be terrifying on that purely physical level because there's no frame of reference for why your body suddenly feels the way that it does - it can be terrifying for me and I know that it's coming and that it will, eventually, pass.

Those games which do model mental illness seem for the most part to be focused on its onset - on the shift-point between sanity and madness. Once the illnesses are contracted, and they are contracted, imposed into the sanctity of a character's  mental cradle by the agencies in the external world, they become modifiers on play rather than lived and vital experiences. Or worse, they signify the end of playability.

But mental illnesses are progressive, not binary. Those acquired later in life do not snap into being, fully-formed in the sufferer's mind, but are wrought out of experience and predisposition. Of course, to make a secret list of the illnesses your character might develop would be a curious exercise, and to roll your winnings on the genetic lottery on a random table at the point of phenotype expression is functionally, if not teleologically, the same action as rolling at birth.

It makes me wonder what a game would have to do to actually embody the experience of being mad - to genuinely get at at the phsysicality of it without resorting to glitch or distortion, to showing things which aren't there when it's already in a world that isn't there and anyway can't we just get over the idea that hallucination is the be-all and end-all of being mad?

One game which makes a stab at this is Depression Quest. It's a good stab, and I like the core idea of having, in a choose-your-own-adventure, greyed-out choices. It says that the core of being depressed is knowing that there are things you could do, but nevertheless being unable to do them. Unfortunately the rest of it lets it down.

Really, it's doomed from the name onwards. The idea that depression is a quest already suggests that it has a win-condition, that no matter how many times the authors tell you that it is something you must learn to live with fundamentally they view it as something that can be beaten. And that it can be beaten by the sufferer. For some people that may be the case, but unfortunately the game clearly isn't talking about an isolated episode of depression as experienced by an otherwise healthy person, it's talking about the chronic kind. The kind I've got. The kind that isn't a game.

It's odd for me to say that because, perhaps unsurprisingly, I've gamified my own depression. When I was sixteen, and heavily self-harming, I sat in a park at night somewhere near Three Bridges and I made a deal with myself that if I was to commit suicide then I would have lost the game I was playing. I didn't know what the win condition was back then, I still don't, but that was a clear loss. It helped. It gave me a point of power and control and it's kept me going. But some of the worst mistakes I've made have been to, even unconsciously, project that system onto other suffering people, because it has seriously fucked up my relationship with them.

That's the problem with systems. Unlike events, for which you can disclaim universality, systems imply their applicability to all situations. Depression Quest allows that it doesn't describe every depressed person's experience, but it implies that it models it. Ignoring the use of static and glitch as signifiers, they may be tired but they are at least uncontroversially deployed, the first thing you notice when you load up the game, especially if you are used to playing games, are the three gauges at the bottom of the screen. Again, suddenly, there's a win condition, and it's when those gauges say the right things.

It almost doesn't matter that those gauges represent a hopelessly proscriptive view of what depression is and how it should be managed. The fact that they are there at all is enough to imply that failure in this game of coping is the fault of the player, the very thinking the game aims to subvert with it's greyed-out choices. It isn't the case that you can't try these options because you are unwell, it's because you rejected meds and meds always help. If you'd gone to the therapist you'd get to have sex with your girlfriend and enjoy it, but you didn't, so fuck you. You're just not thinking about your illness in the right way, because if you were you'd know how to fix it.

I should be clear, I think medication is wonderful if you get the right stuff, but because we don't know exactly how these illnesses work it is always a compromise. I think therapy can be an incredibly useful tool, but it can also become a very expensive sideshow, even more addictive than the supposed addictiveness of the drugs, and again it depends on so many factors I can't even begin to explain them here.

I stated earlier that I wondered what a game that truly embodied the experience of being mad was like but I'm not sure I actually want to know. I was imagining things like haptic feedback on controllers that flooded your limbs with dull current. Characters that controlled sluggishly, like you were pushing them through treacle. All those similes we employ, writ large on the screen. The thing is, I'm not sure I want to know, really. I wanted to love Depression Quest's core mechanic, but I ended up hating the execution. 

I still think that the best expressions of what it is to be depressed come through in Douglas Adams' adventure games. It's in the loneliness of Starship Titanic or the sheer bloody-minded hostility of the world in Hitch-hiker, but the systems of those games are not the vehicle for that expression. I want someone to show me a system that works as well as that, and I admire that people are trying, but I can't not point it out when those noble failures look like propagating further harm.

Monday, 30 September 2013

On Categorisations and Diagnoses

Welcome to another brief theory post, or at least as brief as I can make it. This time I’m looking at some of the theory and debate surrounding both the use of and the very existence of, diagnostic labels in mental health. Taken along with these two other theory posts this should constitute a very basic grounding in my approach. In addition, there are links to further reading and resources in the tabs at the top of the page, although it doesn't constitute a complete beginner's overview.

We're used to the idea of mental illness as a set of discrete conditions, any of which a person will either have or not have at any given point in their life. Alongside this there is the perception that, in the main, what arguments there are in psychiatry are over whether these individual conditions actually constitute illnesses rather than states of healthy being that happen to differ from current societal norms. Perhaps the most famous example here would be the classification of homosexuality, eventually removed in its entirety from the DSM in 1986 after spending 6 years in limbo as a disorder only if you didn't want to be gay. As much as anything the process by which this was changed highlights many of the difficulties inherent in attempting to systematise scientifically within a culturally created, political space.

In addition to these major reversals, non-academics may also be aware of the process of shifting boundaries and diagnoses within conditions as our knowledge of them is increasingly refined. Often this aspect of science is hidden in popular culture in favour of the twin fallacies of 'scientific fact' and the idea of science-as-discovery. Science as it is actually done is about teams of people gradually refining concepts through falsification, rather than individuals generating knowledge through genius and insight, but the shadow of logical positivism looms large over our culture. In spite of this, an example of this kind of change and refinement within mental health that more people might be aware of, as it has surfaced into popular understanding, is the move from the term 'manic-depression' to the more nuanced 'bipolar disorder', slotting it into a larger structure of understanding about mood and mood disorders.

This categorical method is however a relatively new way of thinking about madness, which as surviving uses of the word attest, has long been a much more amorphous concept. This is not to say that historically we had no concept of differences in the ways in which people could be mad, just that previous systems tended to view madness as a monolithic constant, the sufferers of which displayed various symptoms depending on circumstance and constitution. In other words, it was the fact that you were mad that was first and foremost of importance, and the manner in which you were so that was secondary. The big shift therefore was to separate madness into madnesses, i.e. to treat individual illnesses or conditions as distinct on a conceptual level. Henceforth, it was not enough to consider someone as mad and then to discern the cause and quality of their madness, but rather a case of studying symptoms and gauging whether they were sufficient to diagnose a specific disorder.

The concept of diagnosis is an important one, because as madness has shifted into mental illness, (and as an important part of this work has been an attempt to shift it from a predominantly moral to a corporeal judgement) there has been a shift from the dismissal of those afflicted and their ostracising from society* towards the desire of the unwell to have their specific illnesses recognised and, in a more general sense, a desire for legitimacy. (This could also be understood as a shift in the perception of the mad from objects to subjects.)

Diagnosis is both an emotional and a practical need. As an example, In the USA where access to medicine is controlled by insurance companies the DSM is** in many cases the arbiter of that access. Medicine on an industrial scale is necessarily bureaucratic. Even without this people often find it easier to cope with a problem that they can name than they can with one that is unknown, while it is easier to prove to others that what you are suffering from is real when you can point to it in a book. Despite this, the case remains that many people still regard mental illnesses as not really real illnesses - or that they should be possible to defeat with strength of mind alone.

I mentioned in the previous paragraph that the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, has become, in a very practical way, the arbiter of what is and isn't an illness. As is often the way with such tools, through use and convention it has also become for many people the underpinning of the thing it describes rather than a schema for understanding it, emulating the manner in which some people approach dictionaries, positioning them as controllers of rather than guides to, language. This mechanism of social construction of truth can be difficult to pare away from any actual underlying truth that may or may not exist in reality. Especially as the methodology behind it, as delineated by Kraeplin in the 1880s, was originally directed at classification, at finding the thing as it is rather than the thing as it appears to be and can be usefully dealt with. (The methodology is also one which has a currently high cultural capital for generating truth, even when misapplied - it seems very scientific, because it is logical, but logic requires true premises to produce truth and those are not always easy to evaluate.)

There are then two main oppositional positions to the heavily diagnostic, discrete conditions, model that from the aforementioned position currently dominates psychiatry. First are the anti-psychiatrists, the most prominent of whom include RD Laing and Thomas Szasz. Although they do so from often differing positions anti-psychiatrists argue in general against the very idea of mental illness, and more specifically against the various measures (drug therapy and incarceration primarily) employed by psychiatry to treat them. There are a great many flavours of anti-psychiatry, from new-age types, magicians, natural living adherents, Scientologists, anti-pharmaceutical campaigners and the 'common-sense' argument to Laing's stress of the beauty of and Szasz's stress of the autonomy of all minds. The arguments here are varied but tend to resolve down to a defence of the sanctity of minds qua minds - i.e. that to say what is normal or correct behaviour or functioning for a mind and crucially what is abnormal is an act of supreme arrogance.

There are certainly serious arguments in favour of these views, especially with regards to the medicalisation of things like homosexuality, and the way in which certain drug companies have behaved incredibly unethically when it comes to treatments that may not actually work or that have required new diagnoses in order to be prescribed. In addition there is the muddying factor of psychoanalysis, which is a system that deliberately works by making normal functions abnormal. Psychoanalysis was heavily influential on psychology and psychiatry for a relatively short, but very public period and the fact that many people conflate psychoanalysis with psychiatry I think overstates the (already present, but not overwhelmingly so) tendency of the latter to medicalise things that are actually in the realm of normal behaviour.

The other dissenting position is in some ways similar to the earlier conception of madness I discussed briefly at the beginning (in that it views madness as a set of interrelated states which we can fall into and out of over the course of our lives), while in others it differs significantly. It, in essence, holds that mental illness is real; is disruptive to people; is measurable both physiologically and psychologically; and is demonstrably a functioning of the mind outside of identifiable norms. However, in addition it holds that it is subjectively experienced and crucially is located on a series of overlapping spectra and is an emergent property of the interaction between mind, physiology and environment.

It is from this sort of position that techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy stem, which attempt to treat the mind as a psychological instead of a physiological entity, and as a tool rather than as the person concurrent with that mind. Although that is not to say that an approach like this would rule out the kind of therapies disavowed by anti-psychiatrists the focus would rather be on treating symptoms rather than the conditions of orthodox diagnosis. A current move by one version of this position towards orthodoxy is described by this article, detailing the US National Institute for Mental Health's proposals for a replacement to the DSM, the RDoC.

So there you have it - very briefly and grossly oversimplified, the three(ish) main positions on what madness actually is and the axes on which they differ. Crucially, they don't necessarily need to be mutually exclusive, at least on certain dimensions. It is for example entirely possible for a rigid diagnostic system to be both empowering and limiting at once, just as it is possible for certain functions or behaviours of the mind to be acceptable and normal for one person, but destructive and unpleasant for another. (I tend towards the third position personally, which is probably apparent in the way this post is written, as I believe it to be a more integrated approach.)

As a general bit of housekeeping, I will be referring to these concepts and positions a fair bit in future posts. The main point to take away however is that while on an everyday level we feel happy to refer to psychiatric disorders in a very definitive way, similar to how we refer to physical conditions, and while this may in fact be a necessary part of talking about, socially constructing and understanding these concepts, it is entirely possible that it is more complicated than all that. In addition, people's positions on the status of diagnosis can be political, philosophical and sociological as much as they can be a scientific opinion, while the science itself is still far from consensus.

* Foucault, in Madness and Civilisation, talks a lot about the way madness and leprosy were conceptually similar, with the idea of asylums for the mentally ill developing from established mechanisms for dealing with lepers.
** Or was, as other diagnostic manuals are gaining traction in use.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

A Journey to the Inside of your Mind

The dream sequence is one of those perennial media techniques that creators seem to think doesn't look as lazy to consumers as it actually is. They're wrong, of course, and most savvy audience members are able to spot the fake-out a mile off. This isn't to say that they can't be artfully created, or cleverly integrated into the texture of the plot, just that as a general rule they aren't. I'd blame magic realism except I like it too much to do so, but I suspect that at least part of the problem is that more conventionally structured works often look upon its techniques with a hungry eye and a lack of understanding. Sharks attracted by the scent of bloody metaphor leaking into the fathomless ocean of prose.

In general, a dream sequence doesn't have to signify mental unrest or madness. Yet one of the primary cinematic languages of dreams is derived in main from the techniques of portraying visually a disturbed mind, first delineated in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with it's unnatural camera angles and impossible geometries. In turn this has further informed cultural constructions of madness, which already had a reputation for being a dream-like state in which the mad were trapped and unable to awake, generating an idea of madness as a predominantly visual, or at least sensual, experience. Still, in the majority of fictional forms dreams have for a much longer time been a place of revelation - a way of advancing the plot by disguising exposition as mystical insight. And then disguising it further by making it all rather symbolic.

This needs to be handled with care of course; as with anything which takes agency away from characters it can end up stopping you from caring about those characters. The single worst plotline it is possible to write is the one which starts with the protagonist having a dream compelling them to action and ends in a deus ex machina*. But, we can't argue too much with the classics, because really vision quests are as old as religion and they're not really what I wanted to look at here.

Within games you do get the occasional bit of expositionary dreaming, but in many ways this is just another flavour of the endless task of getting the player(s) on to the next bit of action. As with all cut scenes, flavour text or DM rail-roading it can be done in a more or less satisfactory way, but it lies firmly within the imposed narration of the game rather than the shared space created during play.  What I'm more interested in just now is something that is unique to the way games work, and how this affects depictions of dream worlds.

Games are heavily predicated on player agency. I know that there are arguments about how much agency players actually have (especially in video games where there are technical limits imposed on action) or should have (in the case of heavily narrative games), but there are very few games which still manage to be games and don't at least allow the player some choice over what to do. Dreams, on the other hand are most notable for the lack of agency we experience when we are caught up in them. It's true that some people claim to be able to lucid dream** but they're basically just a bit better at having fantasies than the rest of us in my opinion.

That's not everyone's opinion though, and there is a strong faction arguing that the dream-world is a real place, or semi-real, or something coherent at least; a place where actions can have consequences, where rules, even if not the normal rules, can apply and where, just maybe, causes can have effects outside of the dream itself. The mechanism of this might be one of many; the dream being part of the larger spirit world is the classic model, but Freudian, and then Jungian, psychoanalysis has added a version with the veneer of scientific respectability to the lexicon, however unwarranted that respectability may be.

the Psychoanalytic model is worth studying here for another reason, namely to start answering the question you may have been asking; why are we talking about dreams in a blog interested in mental illness? the short answer is that a common misconception about madness, and a common depiction of it (as hinted at earlier), is that it is a waking dream. The experience of madness is often equated with that of dreaming, focusing on the supposed lack of structure and causality experienced in the two states. This is despite the fact that in madness if anything is irrational it is the subject while in a dream irrationality lies within the objects and surroundings. Psychoanalysis only compounds this by suggesting that the contents of dreams are important signifiers of waking dysfunction, and that the key to treating and healing that dysfunction can be found within those dreams.

Madness is constructed as being trapped in the dream, then, and clearly something must be trapping us, either an external force or an aspect of ourselves. Well, if there is something trapping us then clearly we need to face it and defeat it, for the alternative is either coma and death or, well, madness. Or at least such a perfect facsimile of madness that to an external observer there is no need to distinguish and the one can quietly replace the other. This is an important point about cultural constructions of madness, actually, as it is one of the mechanisms by which the mad can be blamed for being mad: it may not be their fault for being trapped in the dream, or the spirit world or whatever, but it is if they lack the strength to escape; in fact it's just the old willpower 'try not being depressed' canard but with a spiritualist or psychoanalytic flavour depending on taste.

Hence, the video game playable dream sequence, where the protagonist journeys to the centre if their dream and slays the evil that lurks their using the exact same moveset they posess in the waking world. I hate playable dream sequences***. In addition to the sense that you achieve nothing, because it's a step removed even from the game world, I've always felt that dream sequences really highlight the lack of options available to the player as well as the limits of the technology representing those options. It's all very well to tell me that I'm in an imaginary space where anything can happen, where the rules are different and dream logic applies, but when that resolves down to the same gameplay as every other segment then it's hard to maintain any suspension of disbelief.

Oh, how do I hate you? let me list the ways. [Spoilers]. The big daddy of them all has to be Dragon Age: Origins, purely for length. You fall asleep and navigate the fade, which is an extended sequence of door based puzzles and smashing things with your sword. Bonus points go for meeting people in the fade who have given up because they aren't strong enough - those guys need to buck up yeah? We all have problems. The thing I found really odd about this section is that it hints that in the fade willpower is important, much more so than physical strength, but all challenges were still resolved with the same stats as before. There was such scope for making the mage of the party a badass while turning the fighter into a wimp, but it was completely ignored. The rules are completely different, and yet somehow completely the same.

The two Batman Arkham games have dream sequences as well, as you might expect in a game heavily invested in concepts of madness and institutionalisation. When Scarecrow gets to you in Arkham Asylum the whole world collapses into a morass of shifting geography which has the potential to be much more than it is. I can buy the idea that Batman has just the right tools to traverse the physical locations in Arkham, part of Batman's legend is that he is always prepared, even down to carrying shark repellent bat-spray, but the idea that Scarecrow creates a shattered mental geography that is yet designed for the same tools again felt like a disappointment. Not to mention the skeleton warriors who act suspiciously like the thugs in the rest of the game (although it is suggested in the final sequence that Batman is actually fighting inmates, I don't recall that in the previous segments). The one good thing I do have to say about those sequences is the way Batman defeats Scarecrow is to my mind perfect: by shining the bat-signal in his face, effectively asserting his own madness over that of the Scarecrow’s.

I didn't get too far into American McGee's Alice when I did play it, but as a game which takes place entirely within the mind of its protagonist I think it highlights a lot of the problems I've discussed. It repeatedly tries to tell you that the world is shifting, illogical and doesn't make sense, and yet it has to make sense in order to be playable. In fact, it makes the exact same boring, linear sense as any other FPS, being a series of combats linked by corridors. That these corridors look different is no matter, because they function exactly the same as any other game's.

I could go on, or cite more examples, but really I think that's the crux of my point: this isn't a dream, and this isn't madness, it's just a palette swap, a different location. to my mind, the best dream worlds in games are not the ones which try to be about the look of the world, but the ones which use it for narrative power instead. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening springs immediately to mind here. Yes, he defeats the evil at the centre of the dream by hitting it with a sword, but the strangeness of the dream itself is revealed slowly, not hammered down your throat. It is also, notably, a story about self discovery rather than one about the oppression of the mind. And I crucially think that that is the most important step to making dreams fun again, and rescuing them from Freud's pathologising; dreaming is ultimately part of our mental processes for understanding the world, not a hidden well of all the worst things that have ever happened to us. they can be fun or they can be horrible or they can be just weird, but they are natural, and that is the most important thing.

*And then they wake up and it was all a dream anyway.

**I once made myself have the same dream two nights in a row, I died at the end both times and woke up shattered so I don't really know why I bothered.

*** I love a good narrative dream sequence though, I'm not going to lie. Inception, for instance, is a thoroughly stupid but beautiful movie.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

A Brief Overview of Sanity Mechanics

As they are among the more representational mediums, and the more personally focused, both video games and tabletop role-playing games have a history of attempting to not only depict but to model mental illness. This is only right and understandable as this is what these games do; they take aspects of reality and model them in a way that allows us to experience them in a vicarious manner with more or less realism or slant depending on the design goals of the game

This process always involves some abstraction. In wargames berserk or otherwise uncontrollable troop types (whether through madness or stubbornness) are a common feature, especially in more fantastic rather than historical games. Usually each turn whether the troop obeys orders or follows its own whims is randomly determined, the reasoning behind this generally irrelevant. What those whims boil down to is also generally quite abstracted, as having to follow complex algorithms to determine the behaviour of troops that don't follow orders can break the flow of the game; the game is modelling combat rather than motivation after all. Similarly there will often be some level of fear response modelled, but this will usually be a part of a general morale mechanic as again we want to know whether a unit does what you want them to, not particularly what's going on in their minds at the same time.

When you start modelling individuals rather than groups motivation matters more, as does response to stimuli. Roleplaying itself, as a ruleset at least, developed amongst other things out of an attempt to model the actions of strategically important individuals like sappers within the context of wargames, although it quickly surpassed these beginnings. While early adventuring games focused generally on physical challenges, popularising the hit-point system as a way of conceptualising overall physical resilience, they tended to either sublimate mental resistance into the same pool or go for the all-or-nothing 'saving throw vs. x' approach (both of which are still present to this day).

Time now for a small digression on hit points. They often get a bad rap; as a storytelling tool they are ugly and confusing and mechanically there are a few glitches inherent at some of the extreme ends, as anyone who's had their Level 1 Fighter killed by a badger can attest to. The truth is they are an abstraction and a particularly numerical one at that but their elegance and continual popularity lie not in the way they model reality but the way they make the game play. It's all about the bookkeeping. I could probably write an entire article about the different ways of conceptualising hit point damage, but really that's down to how you tell the story in your game, from a practical point of view hit points are just easier to track than damage charts and less intrusive into the game than wound penalties. They aren't appropriate in every situation, but they are still functional in most.

It wasn't long before the burgeoning hobby started diversifying, with the horror-based game Call of Cthulhu introducing a separate pool of mental hit points termed 'sanity points'. Call of Cthulhu was not really modelling real life so much as modelling the books of Lovecraft, where contact with the Great Old Ones, their minions and their ilk eventually leaves characters either dead or insane; in this case insanity being a sort of catch-all debilitating  state of mental degeneracy. In this context, terminology aside, sanity points are a really neat system, maintaining the same basic tension of 'this is how much further you can go before your character is unplayable anymore' that hit points provide but adding a second track to manage. Now going to the library can be as dangerous as entering a dungeon.

However, just as hit points can lack subtlety in interpretation, leading to characters who are essentially bullet-proof until they are suddenly dead so too can sanity gauges. On the physical damage front games have employed all manner of embellishments, from critical hit charts to permanent wounds, as a way of fleshing out that thin line between life and death. In games where one of the key innovations is continuity of individuals (as opposed to wargames where individuals are generally undifferentiated) then many have taken the position that losing one fight should not necessarily mean losing the game. This is where the idea of permanent mental disability as a punishment for, or at least a result of, failure emerges. It does so not, I believe, out of a desire to stigmatise or even make a point about how mental illness functions, but out of design choices based on modular thinking: this system works here so we can use the same mechanic here rather than try to introduce something new.

Essentially, if we're being generous, sanity mechanics like this are roughly modelling, or attempting to model, something along the lines of PTSD. But games love random tables and variety and so the urge has often been there to put in various different psychiatric disorders as possible consequences of failed saving throws or dropping below zero sanity or what have you, no matter what the real-world triggers and predictors for such conditions might actually be. As designers have started to realise that this lumping-together of conditions is not always very accurate we've since started to see discrete disorders either as pre-selectable traits or as specific responses to certain stimuli, alongside the continuation of a mental-resilience based model.

Video games, meanwhile, have long used the hit point abstraction as the underpinning of their damage mechanics for much the same reason: that it makes the coding easier. However, while in roleplaying it is possible to  visualise the depletion of hit points not so much as actual wounds but as loss of stamina, damage to equipment and a general sense of using up your will or ability to go on, the intensely visual nature of video games tends to suggest that each blow that lands actually lands. This dissonance has of course got worse as graphics have got better.

When video games have attempted to portray madness through mechanics rather than narration it is no wonder that in general they have followed the sanity point model, for the same reasons that they tend to use hit points for health. Where they have differed from tabletop games is in the effects that depletion of these sanity meters have. Again the key is the visual nature of the games as well as the success they enjoy in hiding the workings of the algorithms from their players. 

Zero sanity usually means a game over, either via catatonia, unplayable mania or or sometimes even the suggestion of suicide, and the decent into madness by necessity therefore is played out in the lower reaches of the sanity gauge. While a tabletop game might introduce madness through penalties or behaviour guides after the resolution of the traumatic event - after the failed saving throw indicates the final loss of control - in a visual game where the convention is to reset after failure the madness is often introduced as a feedback loop in that process of failing and presented through visual clues. In this way madness is presented and coded as glitch and hallucination in its entirety: to be mad is to see what isn't there, or maybe to see what is there and what others cannot or will not see.

Ultimately all of these approaches can be interesting, both mechanically and representationally, but they can also come with often unintended semantic baggage, implying things that are damaging and just untrue about the processes of mental health. they can also just be crass. I will leave you with the video games ur-example. Every sanity effect in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, one of the first games to specifically model sanity loss as a visual phenomena based on a sanity point mechanic. It's just... crass really.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Let's Go Back to College: Some background and a discussion of Community S2 Ep14 - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

I'd like to make it clear that it's not all doom and gloom here, and that I will be looking at approaches to mental illness that I think can be both valid and constructive at some point or another. In fact, part of what might best be termed the thesis of the book I am writing and which this blog is supporting is that there are certain overlaps in the way that we talk about madness and the way that we talk about gaming and that this adds an extra layer of interest and meaning to the way in which games approach and model mental illness.

It's just that gaming is also a part of the popular media, and popular media on a whole is really very bad at representing mental illness either accurately or compassionately. This shouldn't be surprising, as popular media is really not very good at depicting a whole lot of things (gender, race, emotional development, learning new skills, how people actually talk to one another). This is because, rather than build a new language of representation from the ground up, in the majority of cases an instance of media will be more or less reliant on the language of representation as extant. Even where it is more thoughtful, pasting in standard signifiers, or tropes, as a shorthand in less 'important' representations allows a piece of work to concentrate fully on the themes it would like to explore.

This is why procedural detective stories often make extensive use of 'mad' killers. Not having to spend time delineating a motive gives the story more space to explore the mechanics of investigation. They are able to do this because previous instances of popular media have already established the idea that psychosis is a sufficient predictor for violence and it is expected that the media consumer will be aware of this, having seen previous examples that have spelled the link out. Of course, this process blunts any nuance that might (although it may well not) have been in those previous depictions and perpetuates to further depictions the even flatter shorthand that all psychotic individuals are violent. This is a fairly basic form of memetic propagation of stereotype and you should be able to see something similar in any number of damaging and stifling or just plain limiting depictions of any group that can in any way be conceived of as a group.

While a lot of media is content to unquestioningly reabsorb the same assumptions in the name of expedience there are, I think, three main ways in which this sort of representational smoothing can be resisted. The first is to start from scratch, building a new representational language through rigorous direct observation filtered through a specific aesthetic , but this is unlikely to be popular at least at first because you will be asking your audience to do almost as much work as you are.

The second, and most common, is for creators to work generally within the current language, but to challenge those shortcuts and givens which they see as particularly untrue. Crucially, this means that a given work may well contain plenty of tropes either seemingly or actually unquestioningly as a way of expediting the storytelling around the sections of greater reflection. I am a massive fan of the show Elementary, for example, and one of the things I love about it is that it explores male/female friendships in a properly nuanced way without resorting to standard romanticising or sexual tension tropes. However, in order to have the space to do this and also present a compelling mystery every week it has more than once fallen back on the trope of madness proxying as a sort of un-parseable evil and although I'm not happy about that I can live with it.

That these new approaches to old representations may themselves fall back into the general language of popular culture is just an indication of how popular culture works and explains the curious dissonance we get from watching shows we ourselves may have had no problems with at the point at which they first aired but twenty years down the line feel just horribly offensive. It's not that, in the majority of cases, our essential decency as human beings has changed (although some of us may have done work to understand our own internal biasis as a personal exercise) but that the language of representation has changed around us (hopefully progressively, and hopefully, yes, changing our opinions about previously marginalised groups in the process).

And finally, the third approach is not so much an attempt to rewrite the language of representation, but rather to point out its failings from within by subverting and remixing it. This is where Community comes in, as it is an exemplar of this approach. Almost everything Community says or does is a reference or a trope; every character is, or at least began as, a bundle of stereotypes and yet through this they are given a freedom of expression and depth that comes from a relentless expression of '...yes, and they are also people.' It's a fine line, one that is only really possible within the magic realist confines of a very genre-savvy sitcom, and one that as the show's fourth season shows it is also very easy to over-step. However, when it works it is glorious because it is able to make you question the received language of representation whilst simultaneously utilising it to create incredibly densely packed stories that are still easy enough to follow.

Community touches upon the separation of the game world (i.e. the universe and all its rules and connections that is encompassed by and exists only for the duration of a game as it is played) from the real world in a number of episodes. It has a major arc exploring the the overlap between fantasy and reality, which although not necessarily restricted to gaming as such is heavily invested in the concept of play. It has had to date not one but three paintball episodes and, while the paintball episode of any given show will by virtue of its very structure examine the limit and transition between the real and the game world, Community's do so consistently, repeatedly and enthusiastically.

I won't say any more for now on the ideological cross-pollination between (concepts of) degraded or distorted ideas of reality in game-playing and mental dysfunction as I am if not writing a whole book then at least writing whole chapters on this sort of thing. But I will recommend one episode of Community that, if you are reading this blog, you will almost certainly get. The episode is Season 2, Episode 14 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and it is great. It gets both gaming and mental distress (in this case the sadness and loneliness that both stem from and feed into depression) right and examines the way in which the former can be a part of the way in which one mediates the latter.

Interestingly for Community, which usually takes us fully into the fantasy world (see the stop motion and video game episodes in particular), this episode is rigorously set in reality. This enables it to say that what is really transformative about playing roleplaying games is that you are simultaneously sitting about with your mates and yet also inhabiting a different world with them - a transgressive space where you can do and say and explore things and thoughts and emotions ordinarily unavailable to you. It concludes that the best games (of D&D) are the ones that let us test the limits of of quite who we are and how we feel within the relative protective skin of the game-world, not just the ones where we kill the most monsters. It is also a rather lovely ode to the joy of social gaming and is chock-full of in-jokes for role-players of a certain ilk.

So yeah: you should watch Community anyway, but watch that episode even if you don't and you will hopefully get a bit of an understanding of some of the ideas I will be talking about as this blog goes on.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

L.A. Noire: How You can Destroy your Game by Not Thinking About What it Says

Spoilers ahead.
There is a lot to disappoint in L.A. Noire: it was one of the most hyped games of 2011 after all. You could discuss the insecure vacillation between the linear adventure and sandbox forms; the problematic use of period depictions of racism and sexism in a game where the lead character is a cypher for 21st century values; or even the fact that it doesn't really feel like much like noir, despite the name on the box. Many players have taken the critical position that the core of the game, the investigation and interview mechanic, fails to achieve its stated aim. I too would agree with this happily, although I still enjoyed the game nevertheless. For my money it’s an efficient example of the inventory-management mystery-adventure genre, just with the addition of realistic gurning and facial tics, and I really liked the sense of methodically working a case that, at its best, the game luxuriates in.
So where is my problem? For me the way in which L.A. Noire disappoints most frustratingly, and most interestingly for the purposes of this blog, is in its introduction and use of mental illness within the story and how this unnecessarily impacts on not just that story but the gameplay itself. This is not to say that I wasn’t disappointed by the aspects mentioned above, and I will be touching on those in the following discussion to an extent as well. I will also be spoiling pretty much everything there is to spoil, so you have been warned.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

After the End

(Trigger warnings for discussion of depression and suicide)

Depression is a poison, seeping through the landscape of our lives. It is a blanket; a cloak of darkness, spread out, growing, blocking out the sun. Depression boils up from the tunnels beneath the surface, where it has riddled the bedrock, ruined the structure and invited collapse. It is chaos, jealous and defiant of order and hungering only for destruction, for a world where nothing is worth striving for.

I seem to have a lot of metaphors for depression, but none of them really work. None of them are the truth of how depression functions, merely a convenient package that gives some semblance of a neat explanatory idea that you can take away and think that you know about a thing. This isn't surprising, it's what metaphors are. This isn't surprising, again, as none of these are really my own, nor are they really metaphors for depression. These are all among the metaphors for evil of popular fantasy fiction, and they are further the ones that give form to many RPGs where evil must be something you can hope to confront with violence.

They don't work because evil doesn't work like that, but they also don't work because the things they compare evil too don't work the way they are purported to. What of the poison that hijacks your heart, forcing it to propagate agony and death ever faster through the system? Of course, there is no place for that within the pacing of a story that requires that there always be space to pursue side-quests. And there is no place for that within an illness that undermines the basis of your existence. There is a qualitative difference between wanting to die and wanting to be dead. The former suggests a desire for active participation remains.

Specifically, evil is not a thing. It is not a team or a side, or even, much as I love AD&D's tables, an alignment. It is maybe, at best, an emergent property; a series of actions. Possibly it is an attitude, a predisposition, maybe, but that is dangerous territory. Depression isn't emergent, it's where you start and that is something that goes for for all mental illness, morally, experientially, speaking*. There is a long history that equates evil with the mentally unwell and that erroneous link is only strengthened when you believe illness to be action or evil to be ingrained.

The heroic character wants to die. Maybe they want to live more, but they clearly want to die as well. Their deaths, enacted a thousand times, in often ignoble circumstances far outweigh their lives and their successes. An unheroic end at the hands of a bandit in some hidden cave will not even inspire rebellion and legend, it will not contribute to the overthrow of an oppressive regime. There are a thousand alternate universes where the evil is never halted. A thousand other universes where our lives made no difference.

Here is the crux of what I wanted to write about in this entry. It is something that has been nagging me ever since I articulated my relationship with choice during the playing of CRPGs in the last post. The question of what happens after the end, whatever end that may be, of the game. After every end implied by every choice. Because the mechanics of choice in one of these games speaks to a darker truth of the experience of depression, one that can't be packaged up as a simple elegant comparison, because it is neither simple nor elegant. It is brutal and it is formed of the destruction of complexity.

What I was trying to say about depression (at least depression as it pertains to me) in the first paragraph is that it extends beyond the depressed. We are actors in a network and depression not only affects our actions, but the way that we view them. To be told that your choices will change the world is not news to the depressed, because we already know it. But here's why it is hell: I'm not talking about the big picture, the end game and the final scroll-text saying what happened next and who got married or what, I'm talking about the choice tree itself.

Every single choice you make is a destruction of possibility, and in an RPG, every single choice is on you as the other actors are all automata. What an act of sheer brutality against the future a game like that is! Forget your shooters, where your part is as scripted as the enemies': there is no truth in the violence there. Death is binary, it is the truncated and difficult life that your actions, your very presence, has created that really hurts. The CRPG is a broken Nietzsche simulator, a systematic representation of the will to power misunderstood and run rampant. It is also what it feels like to be depressed.

The heroic character wants to die, but they strive for a death, at least, that makes a change. A death that imposes their will on the world as indelibly as their life has done. I don't want to die, I want to be dead. I want my impact to cease; the sum of it to date to be erased. Of course that can never happen and so to die would be a waste of the time I've spent so far. I might as well rectify the situation such as it is and do what I can. Curiously enough, or maybe not considering who I purport to be, the deal I made with myself many years ago (the one I will never renege on and which has stayed my hand ever since, even in the worst of moments) is couched and phrased in the terms of a game. If I die, I lose. I want to see that final screen. It is why I find it so hard not to complete those games I have started and why I find it so sad when I do.

There is a way out, of course, because this form of depression betrays an arrogance born of self-obsession and uncontrollable reflection. Real people are not scripted, but players themselves, and they have the capcity to make choices. The RPG speaks to my darkest fear that everything I do destroys the options of others but that assumes their options stem from me. Our lives are networks, and we impact on each other, sometimes catastrophically. Our actions have consequences, but the choices of others have to be held to be as important as our own.

Nietzsche would hate me for that.

*I know that neurobiologically there is evidence to say that mental illness is emergent but I am not talking neurobiology here. It would be a category error to believe that insight into mechanism necessarily informs and provides directly mapped insight into expression. However paradoxical it may seem, there may be no one discrete cause for a phenomenon but the phenomenon itself remains a discrete cause on further events.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Stress and RPGs

This is a slightly more personal post, so it's a bit more about feelings than analysis, so I hope you're ok with that.

I don't, on the whole, cope with stress very well.

When the stressful situation is sudden and intense I cower and freeze even as I watch things happen that I know I have the power to oppose. I am bigger and stronger than a lot of people (and as a child my dad was... notorious within my neighbourhood) but to an extent that never helped, as for most of the time growing up no-one ever really tried to fight me and so the wall between anticipation and action remained steady and strong and it was one I was less and less inclined to break myself. This is a physical explanation, but it applies to and I think informs all conflicts I find myself in the middle of. Without pre-warning in which to prepare myself then no matter what my instincts or intellect tell me I should do, I find that action is tantalisingly out of my grasp.

When the stress is a slow-burn, pressure rather than a blow, I do better in the sense of reaction, but maybe worse in the sense of the toll. What I mean by this is that I respond, I do what needs to be done at the time that it needs to be done by, but it grinds me down and closes out my view. This kind of stress is functionally analogous in many, but not all ways, to bouts of depression. A main difference with depression is that there is no end point, no goal in sight, to make the ground out responses to stimuli a meaningful exchange. You get nothing in return.

I had been quite stressed of late, as I was preparing for a module exam in my accountancy course, although I have taken it now, enabling me to actually do other things like think about writing. I have also been playing The Witcher 2, a hilariously 'adult' RPG in the western style which never knowingly misses the opportunity to give you a badly rendered opportunistic or voyeuristic sex scene with all the eroticism of the old British 'Confessions of...' sex comedies. That's not why I'm playing it, mind, I just really needed to get that off my chest.

When I'm stressed like this, as well as when I'm depressed, I often go in for a CRPG like the Witcher for a number of reasons. One of the effects of the closing down of mental space - imagine it as if you have no peripheral vision, but it's not just vision, it's everything to do with the way you think - is that I can't concentrate on as many stories, or on as deep stories as I might like. In general we're talking one or two long-running TV shows and that's it. I can't do novels, the words just slide off my brain without making an impression or worse, if I'm studying, the very act of picking something up that isn't a text book fills me with guilt.

And yet, I still crave narrative. This is where RPGs fit in, because they are just swimming with narrative. A big old soupy mess of it, with less depth than a paddling pool, but oh so much of it lolloped out at you as and when you want to take it. And below this oil slick of unreconstructed tropage there is the hidden narrative of the player, where you can decide back stories and motivations for yourself and away from the speculation of other media consumers - as although they may have played the game they won't have played your version of the game.

RPGs are not about challenge. Their combat systems are very rarely as deep as they think they are and the entire mechanic emphasises grind rather than skill. Occasionally an element of tactical thinking is required, but even then it often boils down to finding a way to split large groups of enemies down into manageable chunks before mechanically grinding them into a red and twitching mess of manageable chunks for the digitised carrion the coders have included as a stab at dark and serious set dressing. As I said, you're not forcing yourself to learn a whole new mode of play when you pick one up which makes it ideal for those times when you can't.

What RPGs are about is choice, or more specifically an illusion of choice. When the time comes you don't choose to  fight, but more importantly you don't freeze either - you don't choose not to. There is always that glorious moment of glitch as the game shifts from exploration mode to combat mode, as idle animations shift and everyone draws their weapons. I love that moment because it has a certainty of purpose that I can never have myself. No action-game protagonist has ever questioned the legitimacy of action as a response to a threat to their view of how the world ought to be - othrewise they wouldn't be in an action game, they'd be in The Walking Dead*.

They are also about the choices you make in conversation trees, which is again an illusion of control, but a great one. Conversation choices, in a well designed modern RPG, will not fundamentally alter the outcome of the game-as-game. You will still face off against the final boss and achieve some form of victory. Yes, the form of the victory or the form of the world you leave behind may well be different depending on your choices, but this is all narrative and emotion. There is often a best-possible-ending, but even that is subjective. What if your best ending is the one where everyone dies?

But these curtailed choices are what make the games for me, and what make them ideal for those dark periods of stress and depression. When I'm down in the dumps, with what can only be described as a tunnel consciousness, then those are the time that I don't feel I have any choices whatsoever. It is the managing of choice in a CRPG that gives me a view of the possibilities in real life as it reminds me that there are options, and that they do have an effect, but it combines it with a comforting fiction that no matter what you choose it won't be deleteriously bad. It is also nice to get to play with choice in a controlled environment, and what am I doing gaming if I don't like playing with things in a controlled and essentially consequence-less environment?

*I loved that game so hard, but seriously - never play it when you're in the kind of mood where you might be thinking about questioning your life choices. Unless you enjoy being a wreck for the rest of the day.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Divine Knowledge: The Victory of Joan of Arc

I haven't actually played The Victory of Joan of Arc. I want to, but this month I bought Relic, and then the Deadzone Kickstarter happened and basically my gaming budget got eaten up for a while. What this means is that I can't tell you exactly how and to what extent the concepts under discussion manifest in actual gameplay, but can only analyse their existence within the rules, which are available here. While the intention of the mechanics of a rule-set and the instances of their interpretation in actual play may vary, sometimes wildly, in focus, for my current purposes intention is the most important aspect for analysis.

Turning Point Simulations is a specialist historical wargames publisher producing a range of games based on specific key battles. They produce the kind of tight, detailed games that model specific situations and then leave it up to the player to make strategic choices within those confines - differing from the more open rules of, say, skirmish games which model individuals or groups of individuals and ask the player to manage and direct these in the hope that their larger strategy will be realised. The use of randomness is generally much larger as the scale of the battle becomes smaller. It is much more likely that an individual soldier will be unable or unwilling to complete a task than it is for an entire battalion, hence the tendency for skirmish games to be very dice heavy. When you get to the larger scale, where strategy is much more central to the model, randomness tends to be confined and constrained in it's influence as well as its extent. This means not only fewer dice, but also limits to the impact of those rolls, limiting the effects to essentially surprise reversal of fortunes, or the uncertainty of risky manoeuvres.

In this framework you can see that making an event random, especially making one truly random as opposed to a stacked set of probabilities, has a certain semantic power. That is to say that it has a meaning attached to it; in fact it is imbued with meaning by the context of the game and the design decisions made when the game's reality-model was devised.

In general, randomness in game design is about taking things out of the players' control. There is a big question in terms of games-as-games as to how much randomness should be included. This often includes questions about reliability of simulations as well as player enjoyment, participation and skill and is a fascinating and rich area of study and discussion, but isn't what I'm going to look at here. What I'm interested in is games-as-representations. Randomness within player actions obviously indicates what is out of their control, but it also suggests what is not pre-ordained; i.e. that which does not (or in the case of historical simulations, did not) have to happen. Applying this to the story of Joan of Arc points to what I think are some very interesting conclusions about madness and divine inspiration.

Joan of Arc considered herself divinely inspired, and considered her victories proof  that she was an agent of God's will. Although it is easier to trace destiny and teleology in completed events it remains pretty undisputed that she had a positive effect for France on the breaking of the Siege of Orléans. If this effect was the result of special knowledge one would normally expect it to be modelled by providing the French with a strategically optimal path, or by weighting the game in their favour, but this is not the case.

Instead, Joan's voices are modelled in the game as a random events table. This does two things; firstly it suggests that her instructions were not direct from God, a position supported (regardless of your religious view on the matter) by evidence that the French prevailed despite their commanders ignoring her advice on a number of occasions, basically using her as a figurehead rather than a tactician. Secondly it suggests that her instructions were unreasoned, as even if the reasoning she employed was inscrutable or so heavily dense or obfuscated as to be functionally unknowable you would still expect them to be modelled as absolute.

The game suggests (although interestingly not explicitly), and then attempts to model, Joan of Arc as mad, in a sort of general sense; and this is unsurprising as it is the usual modern reading of hearing voices. But, by modelling this madness as randomness it enacts and embodies a common view of madness as essentially unknowable and capricious - as reacting not to what is there but to something else or by some hidden mechanism. It suggests that voices, even when not divine, are still essentially external and uncontrolled rather than a mechanism of the internal processing and presentation of ideas and conclusions, despite evidence that there are large numbers of people for whom voices do not equate to either mental distress or a psychiatric diagnosis.

Having said all of this however, it would be remiss of me not to mention a final possible reading: that Joan of Arc is being modelled as an unknowable and uncontrollable force to the French commanders. That is to say that, as a headstrong leader with her own ideas she was not always interested in following the proper chain of command, and in fact that tactical challenge is what immediately interested me in the game - just a little extra unpredictability to keep the players on their toes. But, while that still looks to be the way the game functions, I think that the implications remain as above. Joan of Arc is the title character, the leader who's decisions the player is most closely being asked to pit themselves against, which ultimately is the main draw of historical games such as this: the ever present question, 'could you do better than Napoleon?'

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tomb Raider: Diary of a Madman

First things first, I absolutely loved Tomb Raider. It looks beautiful, the gameplay is very tight and the narrative and writing are exceptional. A few things about it didn't necessarily work, as is to be expected in any creative work, but there is one note which jarred especially with me. It's a minor one, it is entirely possible to complete the game without even noticing it, but that doesn't mean that it should be ignored.

So, there are spoilers ahead, mainly to do with theme. I've tried to keep major revelations to a minimum.

Madness and Play, Chapter 2, Excerpt

This is an unedited, abridged excerpt from the first draft of the second chapter of the book I'm writing. This is an early version of some of the arguments but gives you an idea of both the style of writing I'm initially looking at and the themes I'm investigating.

There is a curious confluence of ideas between gaming and madness streaming down the years of theory and concept, although not one strong enough to be necessarily formalised. It is not that madness describes a game-world, or that to play games is to be mad, but it is certain that both have been and can be described as worlds separate to that of reality. The history of madness is a history of enforced confinement and separation, and the developing idea of the madness itself being a disconnection between the afflicted person’s perceptions of what is real and what is truly there. The player of games meanwhile willingly enters, just for a while, a space where the rules are defined, different to and cushioned from the rules that govern the outer world.

In his history Madness and Civilisation Foucault traces the idea of madness, from pre-classical times where he posits a mental world of almost pre-fall wholeness: one in which overwhelming passions and mystical insight instead of dysfunction and folly marked out differences. In this world the main othered group, to be kept separate and outside, was the leprous; but with time the mad and the leprous became conceptually mixed. (This in itself is only a very surface reading of the first chapter of Foucault’s book.) From that point on the path madness follows is one of disease, disorder and vagrancy, ladened with meanings that are not itself but always, from the great conceptual shift of the classical period, to be confined.

At times it has been the fact of physical confinement, often predicated out of political or humanitarian ideals as in the hôpitals of the new French republic or the Asylums of Victorian England, that has suggested a deeper fundamental separation to theorists of the mind. Elsewhere in history it has been the study of the mad, of what they say and do and believe, and the fears thereof amongst the sane, that have promoted the need to keep them apart. Just think even now how loaded with political power the phrase ‘care in the community’ has become and you won’t laugh so much at our ancestors who thought that a madness that resided in imbalances of vapours could pervade through a malignant air and infect those nearby.

Foucault’s longstanding message that the things that we do shape the way we think and talk about concepts comes through as his history races ever closer to the present and theory and action reinforce one another until madness is truly defined as a separate way of thought, until madness is defined and codified and treated not as an alternate way of being but as dysfunction and nothing else.

Whether or not you agree with the way in which we currently conceptualise mental illness is, at this point, immaterial. While Foucault’s argument is powerful and his analysis compelling it is by no means a given that the modern view of madness is entirely socially constructed, and in fact a counter argument is that the focus pulling effect has been towards a real truth, one which was discovered incrementally and through a great many experiments: crude at first and often disastrous for those whose lives were experimented with, but essentially self-correcting and progressive.

Despite societal changes, certain tropes and stigmas remain common, and surface even in the most recent iterations of popular culture, which includes game design. The strength of the representation is cemented further when viewed within some certain works of art. Lady Macbeth’s psychosis and paranoia is confined within one of the greatest works in English language, if we are not going to be rid of this powerful psychodrama from our culture for the sake of its inherent sexism then I don’t think that its conflation of villainy and madness is going to convince us either, and maybe it shouldn’t even do so as there is a certain validity there. However, the plaudits rightly showered on the play, and its creator’s central place in what for many is and should be the core of our culture, provide its depictions with a legitimacy that goes beyond their narrative use. Shakespeare is art, and art is truth. Not every popular depiction is necessarily able to be so heralded unchallenged, but the syllogism remains in the background, while the depictions in all media foreground themselves and repeat, in entertainment’s lazy way, across a hundred iterations of the same essential stories, until they acquire a form of accepted truth that is as easy to leave unquestioned as was art’s before it.

So where does gaming sit within this history of popular culture? We tend to talk about it, and I will be doing so too in this book, as a bit of a monolith, as gaming culture. But gaming and games are spread out across activities and people and concepts; an anti-entropic climb from children playing make-believe, to family boardgames, to sports, to gambling to the people who call themselves ‘gamers’ and play with esoteric, highly organized rulesets.

Even non-games are called games, because they have something fundamental in common: there is the Tarot, with its cards and rules; there is politics or street crime, with their levels and layers and fronting; and there is Hip-Hop, with playful unrealities, avatars and contests of skill. But what is it that binds these all together, that binds them to some of the earliest conceptions of what makes a game a game, rather than just a pastime? I would say that it is the sense of there being another world, a game-world, in which all this takes place in.

Even when it is so close to reality as to be indistinguishable, for a person to conceptualise that they are playing a game they have to believe that the rules are in some way different to those of reality. The purest game worlds are those which are truly separate, where although we can win or lose we do not bring our win or our loss outside, only the memory of it – the experience of which can teach us important lessons about victory and defeat in the real world, as well as strategy and forward thinking and so on. We can also take with us the emotions – the joy of victory and the sadness of defeat, and the skills and sometimes the spoils of the game.

There is often a snobbery, with (often older) games like chess being considered ‘better’ and ‘purer’ than other games. There have always been crazes and fashions in gaming, and games that have been considered dangerous to mind or spirit, addictions that have destroyed lives as surely as there have been escape routes that have saved them. Even as games were being theorised as teaching tools they were also being theorised as dangerous illusions. Unrealities that simulate reality, that can easily confuse and ensnare the weak minded.

And eventually the two worlds under our microscope interact. Like any art form with any representational expression games of all forms have attempted to depict the mad and the unwell and to place them within the framework of a larger understanding; be that of war, or crime or the entirety of life as we experience it depending on the game's theme and scope. This is exactly as you should expect, and as a primarily popular form those depictions have tended to follow the patterns laid down in the rest of popular culture, which makes popular culture a good place to start looking for an overview of mental illness tropes.

Tropes, memes and other ways of streamlining the processing and re-presentation of meaning develop over time; spinning out of complex ideas and eventually coming to stand for those ideas. This is not an essentially deleterious process, as it can allow for something to stand for more than it is, so that a single idea can carry layers of meaning accreted through history or encoded at the time of its first usage. However, it can also allow for lazy, construction-kit storytelling, where each piece is fitted together because it works to do so, but without examining the inner workings of the pieces. It can also allow for lazy, prejudiced thinking, because what is a prejudice other than a trope; a black-box that short-circuits a mental flowchart snapping through to make decision making less burdensome.

Madness is sometimes used as a shorthand – both in popular language and in terms of the moral structure of games – for deviancy or sub-humanness or necessary death. Sometimes games give you moral choices about how you deal with the mad (Bioware etc.), sometimes a moral choice is displayed, but given to the character and played out in cut-scene (so you might finish the boss fight but rather than a death animation the character is shown wrestling with, or giving, mercy – or allowing the mad boss to kill themselves, or at least be the agent of their own death so avoiding ultimate responsibility for their death in true Disney villain style), and sometimes the need for death is given a moral imperative – either by the protagonist ‘I’m putting you down’, the antagonist ‘please stop the voices!’ or the situation - where the mad character will not stop attacking until they die, even if they don’t intend harm.

How do popular ideas of madness integrate themselves into the structures of games, and is this different fundamentally, or merely texturally, to the rest of popular culture and representational mediums? How do games deal with the issues unique to gaming? Should gamers, both players and designers, have any specific cause to be more heavily invested or understanding of these issues? These are questions that I hope to answer over the course of this book.