Class Warfare: Videogame Classes, Narrative, and Choice

I Heart Class Warfare - Occupy Wall Street Protest - 8 Oct 2011 - Zuccotti Park - NYC - USA - BlackBerry Photo

Class Warfare in action

Inspired by the recent call for papers of the North American Victorian Studies Association, which asks for research examining “classes and classification,” I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the notion of classes is enacted in videogame narratives. Recently, a friend of mine who has not played videogames in several years decided to try Skyrim, and while the idea is familiar to longtime fans of the Elder Scrolls series, he was impressed by the fact that the game does not force you to choose a class at the very beginning. Unlike many other RPGs and MMOs, in which a player’s class significantly influences (and often restricts) his or her choices throughout the game, Skyrim’s model allows the player’s actions to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

Class Selection and Narrative Limitation

In many ways, classes have become one of the most common staples of videogames, not only because they were prominent in pen-and-paper RPGs, but also because they offer a convenient way to structure narrative. Take, for example, Star Wars The Old Republic, an MMO that sold itself as a game that would reintroduce narrative as a central component to online gaming. While my experiences playing TOR were satisfactory, there were always those red, translucent barriers blocking doorways in certain buildings. Beyond those barriers were portions of the game limited to players of other classes; and while it makes sense that the game would create these kinds of sectioned areas to funnel players of the correct class into the correct areas, it was suggestive of a limitation.

Mary Barton

What if this had been an early attempt at choose your own adventure?

It was as if Elizabeth Gaskell required her readers to decide, before beginning to read Mary Barton, whether they wanted to enjoy a novel critiquing the crippling inequity in industrial Britain, a murder mystery, or a love triangle between a girl and two young men (a la The Notebook: one wealthy, another her childhood (but poorer) friend (yes, I know, I just compared Elizabeth Gaskell to Nicholas Sparks)). What if, depending on the reader’s choice, certain portions of the novel would then be sealed, unless you agreed to go back to the beginning and start again, this time with a different choice?

Lisa Dusenberry, a friend and colleague who is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech, has developed the concept of a “reader-player” to describe participants in and consumers of children’s literature that isn’t “restricted to a single medium, single source text, and/or a single method of reader interaction” [1]. Her term is useful because it aptly suggests that players experience the narratives of videogames across a variety of media. At the same time, the close connection between reading and playing only exacerbates the disconnect that a videogame creates when particular avenues of narrative exploration are deliberately closed to the player. Of course, many (if not all) videogames are designed around the notion that the player might not experience all of the content on their first playthrough. As early as Super Mario Bros., secret tricks and areas offered new exploratory and (minimally) narrative possibilities. But the best games offer these alternatives in a way that doesn’t impress upon the player that their experience is somehow incomplete.

Choose your class...there's no going back

Choose your class…there’s no going back

The Possibility of (Illusory) Narrative Freedom

Yet with the class selection systems of many games, the game makes it only too clear that your choices will place you into a particular category from which you are rarely allowed to deviate. This argument has been raised recently with the changes between the skill trees in Diablo II and Diablo III; where Diablo II locked players into their choices, Diablo III has allowed more freedom and customization. Opinions on this change vary, but even Diablo III’s options exist under the aegis of a class choice; you may be able to change your character’s abilities, but that character is still limited to being a barbarian, monk, or wizard. The necessity of this choice suggests a longtime difficult with videogames: are they primarily a narrative medium or something more fundamental. As in chess, it seems silly to expect that all the pieces (or characters) could have the same movement (or class) options. So how should videogames negotiate their narrative and gaming aspects in the context of class choice?

The word “class” is itself fraught with all kinds of social, cultural, and political baggage. And while it may seem that the term is somehow shed of these undertones in the context of videogames, I would suggest that in many ways character classes create systems of inequity that have ramifications for how a videogame’s world is presented to players. I was an early purchaser of the first Guild Wars in 2005, and the game appealed to me initially because it had a strong narrative component. Indeed, the entire game world was dramatically altered between the introductory quests and the bulk of the game. But what was fascinating about the way that the class system in that game impacted my experience as a player focused on the Guild War’s heavy reliance on an instanced mission system. In these missions, up to six players could team up to tackle a particular part of the game’s narrative campaign, but in many of the cities, which served as hubs where players could meet up with and join other groups, a resounding refrain continually graced the community chat window. “GLF Monk!!!” In Guild Wars, monks were the healer class, and for whatever reason the game’s player economy, in those early days, was largely bereft of a sufficient number of monks. Especially in more difficult missions, where a healer was essential, an inability to find a monk could dash a group’s hopes of completing the narrative.

Between Star Wars The Old Republic and Guild Wars, it becomes clear how much power character classes can wield over a players experience of a narrative. Obvious restrictions on content based on an initial (and somewhat contextless) class decision fostered a conflictedness within the player. Ignorance may be bliss, but obligatory ignorance often grates, particularly in a narrative medium that often revels in possibility. “Class warfare” suggests the inner-turmoil that players experience as they realize how a game’s narrative is restricted, but it also can point to how particular classes become more or less valued within the game’s social economy. So how might games arrive at a possibility of creating different kinds of experiences for players without relying on classes as a restrictive narrative method?

A game that navigates these difficulties quite well in the single-player realm is The Cave. While players are required to choose only three of the eight initial characters available, the narrative seamlessly weaves the stories of your chosen characters together. Additionally, The Cave, while labeling the characters in a way reminiscent of a class structure, invests their characters with a sense of being that extends beyond their labels. Returning to my friend’s first impressions of Skyrim, I was impressed by his exuberant realization that the game in no way forced him to choose a certain class of character. And perhaps games that eschew classes and classification actually proffer a greater sense of narrative immersion and possibility to their players. On the other hand, in games where class selection are an essential part of the game design, perhaps developers can look to The Cave as a prototype of the kind of game that effectively masks the narrative limitations that class selection necessitates. [2]

[1] Dusenberry, Lisa. “Reader-Players: The 39 Clues, Cathy’s Book, and the Nintendo DS.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.4 (2010): 443-49.

[2] Reader’s might note that this article seems to posit a conflict between online and single-player videogames. While I agree that my examples do fall along those lines, I would suggest that there is nothing inherent in online games that requires them to adopt a class structure. While it was a commercial failure, Cyan’s short-lived Uru experimented with an online world in which players were not assigned any kind of class limitation.

Teaching Beowulf and Returning to Skyrim

The hall in Whiterun, one of the main cities of Skyrim.

The hall in Whiterun, one of the main cities of Skyrim.

Last year, I wrote an article on why my wife and I had stopped playing Bethesda’s 2012 hit, Skyrim. Part of our difficulty then was related to our decision to create a female character, and after my earlier article came out, my wife admitted that it was a little unsettling when male NPCs leered at or expressed interest in our character. So we completed the Winterhold quests for the mage’s college, but not much else, and then other games supplanted Skyrim in our routine.

Recently I’ve returned to Skyrim, and my decision was largely due to a conversation I had in the British literature survey course that I’m teaching this semester. After we had finished our discussion for the day, a student approached me and asked if I had heard of this game called Skyrim. Always excited to talk video games with students, I gabbed for a few minutes about not finishing it and why. He nodded and then reminded me that the mountain retreat for a group of monk-like sages in the game is called “High Hrothgar,” an obvious reference to the king who is saved by Beowulf in the first two parts of the poem. That single observation, presented in the context of teaching Beowulf helped me to reconsider how I approached playing Skyrim, and it helped me realize that my expectations for the game were faulty.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

To understand how my expectations were flawed, I should point out that the British literature survey course at most universities is divided into two halves, the first covering beginnings to about 1750, and the second from 1750 to present. In the first half, Beowulf is a staple text that introduces students to many of the components of early medieval cultural practices and poetic narrative style. Students who have read Tolkien’s work often notice how “similar this is to The Lord of the Rings.” While medievalists might groan at the phrasing, the reality is that for many students in university literature classes, Tolkien’s work is a more familiar reference than his source material. But of course, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is still quite different from the middle earth that students encounter in Beowulf. There are harmonies between the two, of course, but the world that Beowulf inhabits is far more vexed than Tolkien’s creation. The Middle-Earth of hobbits and orcs and elves has far less moral ambiguity; Sauron is wicked and the ring must be destroyed. Yes, there are some who are tempted by the ring’s power, but as readers we are never left in doubt that destruction is the ring’s proper end. (And lest I incur the wrath of Tolkien scholars, I do not mean to belittle Tolkien’s vast imagination and literary achievement.) Now, astute readers of Beowulf know that the story seems to be similarly simple: a demonic beast attacks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, and Beowulf kills it. The beast’s mother attacks the hall, and Beowulf kills it. Later, an older Beowulf’s kingdom is attacked by a dragon, and he kills it. But under the surface, the text contains is far murkier and uncertain than this simple narrative summary might suggest.

As a text Beowulf does have moments of moral and religious confusion. The characters of the story live in a pagan world and follow pagan religious traditions, but they also seem to praise something like the Christian God, perhaps a result of a later monastic transcriptionist inserting more overt Christian themes into the text. Additionally, Unferth, a character not dissimilar to Tolkien’s “Wormtongue” at first chides Beowulf for his apparent pride and grandstanding. In this first encounter, Beowulf offers a strong rebuttal to Unferth’s goading, suggesting that while he has accomplished many great deeds, Unferth has done little to being himself acclaim. But unlike Wormtongue, Unferth is not consigned to villainy after this encounter; indeed, later in the story, he offers his sword to Beowulf, who thanks him graciously for the gift. In Beowulf, it would seem that human characters who at first seem wicked, are not forever disgraced.

Beowulf’s world is not a place of grand castles and high chivalry; Beowulf inhabits a place where moors and darkness lurk just on the edges of human civilization. Around every crag and crevice new danger might lies in wait, and unlike The Lord of the Rings, there is no Gandalf to show the way or save the day. And this was my realization about Skyrim: it is a game set in Beowulf’s world, not in Bilbo’s. After the previous entry in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, I had come to Skyrim expecting another world of high fantasy. I was taken aback by the harsh and stark landscapes of Skyrim. My return to Skyrim has been ongoing through several hours of gameplay so far, and with this new framework for understanding the kind of world players were meant to inhabit, the experience has been far more gratifying and rewarding.

Anne Frank and Trauma as Interactive Experience

AnneFrank_dHontThis week there were some reports about a prototype video game from a German game developer that puts players into the life of Anne Frank’s family while they are in hiding from the Nazis. The concept is striking particularly because the designer is reported as saying that the game isn’t “really about having fun.” While I’m not opposed to having fun in video games, the notion of a game whose purpose is decidedly not about having fun is intriguing.

What’s particularly fascinating about the game as it’s described, is that it doesn’t conclude with a prurient endgame in which the player sees the family hauled off to concentration camps. Instead, it offers players the opportunity to live through a single day in the life of a family in hiding. As such, the future, well-known and inevitable, hovers at the margins of the experience. The possibility of such a game raises questions about trauma and how it can or should be represented as part of an interactive medium like video games. In this particular example, the physical trauma of being arrested and taken away is sublimated into the quotidian decisions that might occur during a single day. But what about more overt representations of trauma?

Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider have been noted for their representations of traumatic incidents. But ostensibly those games, unlike the Anne Frank game, are about having fun. How do games navigate the division between wanting to offer players an enjoyable experience while also trying to represent traumatic events? I would suggest that such an effort is either doomed to failure, or that the pursuit of fun in the game will undermine the traumatic moments. Conan O’Brien’s popular non-review of Tomb Raider offers a perfect example of this; during the game players must navigate a raging river full of perilous branches and downed trees, one wrong turn and Lara Croft ends up impaled through the head by a sharp stake. The death scene is awful and shocking, but ultimately players will have to get past the traumatic death animation and successfully navigate the river. As such, the trauma of the imagery starts to diminish as players’ focus is drawn to surpassing the obstacles. (This particular moment occurs around the 5:43 mark in the video.)

One game that succeeds in offering a gripping portrayal of trauma for players does so by moving the trauma into a fantastic scenario: TellTale’s The Walking Dead. An essential but subtle way that TellTale helped players to experience the game’s zombie scenario as traumatic was with its distribution method. Unlike most games, which are released all at once, TellTale employs a method of releasing games in chapters over a period of months. This style of release, which recalls the days of serialized novel publication in the nineteenth century, prolongs the game’s experience over an extended period of time. The way that this impacts a player’s decision-making is that The Walking Dead was designed to take all of a player’s decisions into account throughout the game, effectively offering each player a unique experience tailored to their choices. The difficulty, though, when playing as each chapter is released, is that remembering precisely what decisions one made six weeks ago can prove challenging.

As such, a player’s individual memory starts to play a role in how the adventure unfolds, and this checkered recollection is precisely indicative of the way that people in traumatic situations recall events. Unlike what we might expect, memory of traumatic events is typically spotty and uncertain. This is why, unfortunately, a rape victim’s recollections of her assault might be unstable in the face of cross-examination. The critical theorist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it this way:

“If the victim were able to report her painful and humiliating experience in a clear manner, with all the data arranged in a consistent order, this very quality would make us suspicious of the truth. The problem here is part of the solution: the very factual deficiencies of the traumatised subject’s report on her experience bear witness to the truthfulness of her report, since they signal that the reported content ‘contaminated’ the manner of reporting it” (Violence [2008], 4).

In this way, The Walking Dead, in its original distribution method, makes perfect recollection of the details of its traumatic events unlikely. And while now that the game is entirely released, and playing from beginning to end in one fell swoop is possible, players will more likely experience the uncertainty of a traumatic scenario more faithfully under the conditions that were present in the game’s original release schedule. [Note: The Walking Dead does undermine this somewhat by giving players a display of their decisions at the end of each chapter, but because subsequent chapters don't offer clear reminders of each decision, particular recollections can still be foggy.]

The Anne Frank game deals with trauma by keeping at the margins of experience, and The Walking Dead represents it by incorporating the degradation of memory into its distribution design. In both cases the reality and recollection of the trauma is occluded by the way the game builds trauma into its structure. Any beneficial representation of trauma in video games has to contend with these necessities: trauma isn’t fun and it creates broken and fragmented memories. The fact that these games offer a faithful method of interactive trauma suggests that as a medium, video games can connect us to trauma in a way that uniquely recreates aspects of the experience.

Attending Academic Conferences

Part of the (disturbing) monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro (d. 1659)

Part of the (disturbing) monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro (d. 1659)

The Professionalization Workshop in Venice concluded today, but I am just getting around to putting up my first post on the workshop itself. I’m very pleased that this post is actually being hosted at The Journal of Victorian Culture Online. In this post, I discuss some of the strategies and ideas that the workshop provided on attending conferences.

Also, I was able to view my first church the other day, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It is a beautiful building, but I wanted to share this one photograph, which shows only a portion of a much larger monument. There is clearly a great deal of significance being offered in the imagery, and I wish I knew more about it. Alas, I haven’t been able to find much about the monument’s meaning, beyond discovering who it was built for.

36 Hours of Travel

Where this post was written.

Where this post was written.

My journey to Italy was a long one; about 36 hours from the time I woke up to leave Florida to the time I laid down to sleep in Venice. Driving to the airport at four in the morning gave me the chance to get some valuable info on the state of alien contact with humans via an early morning radio broadcast (in case you were wondering, the galactic federation has decided to operate in secrecy until we have a united earth government; and in 1996 they banned the species responsible for alien abductions from continuing the practice).

I was flying on Lufthansa to Europe, so I got to hear a lot of German, but as a first time international traveler it was surprising to see how much American culture gets exported (or at least advertised) to Europe. Obviously a lot is different, but I found it noteworthy how much was similar. Beyond that my trip mostly consisted of sitting around in airports, but I was able to read a good chunk of David Copperfield before my mind turned to complete mush.

The view from San Servolo

The view from San Servolo

Getting to Venice was much more painless than I had imagined it would be. Upon arriving it became clear to me that the pigeons here get a lot of handouts; they are HUGE. (As I write this, one is sitting in a tree directly above me, which has me a little concerned.) I took the vaporetto up the grand canal to St. Mark’s Basilica, which I didn’t really pause to admire, since I was on hour 35 of no sleep at that point. But it was lovely to be on the water and just stand still for a while, without frantically trying to take pictures of everything. (Hence no pictures of the canal.) One thing that movies filmed in Venice don’t communicate very well is how busy the canals really are; they city is vibrantly alive, not sedately sinking into the ocean.

And then I was on the boat to San Servolo and Venice International University, where the conference is being held. The island is lovely, everything is in bloom, and there are plenty of quiet bowers for reading in between sessions. I was able to meet my dissertation director, who is participating in the professionalization workshop, we had dinner and then I slept. Sweet, sweet sleep; I didn’t wake at all until the sun came blazing into the room at 5:30 in the morning.

Pro-traveling tip: Staying up for 36 hours straight is a great way to avoid jet-lag.

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