Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Gamer Types

This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

Tom Bissell, prizewinning author of Extra Lives, a non-academic look at videogames through the eyes of a critic, just may be the definition of an immoral gamer. In Fallout 2 he murdered everyone he could with a baseball bat. Later, he “made time” to nuke the town of Megaton. In Mass Effect, when given the option, he mercilessly gunned down an unarmed Dr. Saleon and extirpated the entire rachni species on Noveria. In Prince of Persia, when faced with the decision of turning back time to restore his love interest, Elika, to life, also restoring the apocalyptic evil she died to destroy, he chose to do so. And in the game Left for Dead, he freely admits to cowering in a safe house while watching a ruthless horde of sinister zombies tear apart his helpless on-line teammates. So why is that when confronted with Manhunt, a game that eagerly promotes this violent abjuration and forces the player into immoral behavior, can Bissell only endure a single hour before turning it off and spending “another hour performing an exorcism on [his] Playstation 2”? The answer may lie in what kind of player Bissell is.

To discuss game design intelligibly we must first resolve the conflict of what exactly we are discussing. This is because games take on such pluralistic meaning in our modern lexicon. “Games that lovers play,” means something entirely different than “Games that politicians play.” Game designer Gonzalo Frasca points out that English is the only language that distinguishes the terms play and game, which can both be used as a noun and a verb. This can make discussion about whether we are gaming or playing rather difficult since they take on different subtexts. Jonas Heide Smith, author of Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction applied these variations of “playing” to separate player models to distinguish what needs are served by games in different players. He concludes that there are four player models:

  1. The Susceptible Player Model: Here the player is seen as having her post-game behavior influenced predictably by certain features of a game.
  2. The Selective Player Model: Here the player is seen as making a reflected choice between media in general, and specific types of works (i.e. games) in particular based on personal preference and needs.
  3. The Active Player Model: Here the player is seen as actively engaged with the game or gamespace in ways often not prescribed or predicted by the game designers.
  4. The Rational Player Model: Here the player is seen as an entity optimizing her outcome with the game as defined by the objective goals. (23-24)

While no player is likely to work within the constraints of a single model, players will invariantly lean towards certain aspects of each. For instance, players who, as Miguel Sicart, author of The Ethics of Computer Games explains, “have not developed the interpretational tools that are used when developing the player’s virtues,” would primarily fall under the Susceptible Player Model, since games then become ethical simulators which may translate into unethical behavior. This is the majority of assumed player models for studies that show positive correlations between violent video games and violent behavior. Often, players are seen as zombies before the television screen, being fed information by serial killer training devices. Even Tom Bissell, a literary champion of videogames, believes that players by and large fall under this category, trained not to become malicious automatons, but to accept unintelligent narrative as a natural derivative of intelligent game design. The establishment of this precedent, according to Bissell, is Resident Evil.

The problem of intelligent narrative is important because narrative is a key component in translating a game into moral value. However, a distinction must be made between the two types of narrative videogames are composed of: the “ludonarrative,” which is that narrative that arrives within the interactive portion of the game, and the “framed narrative” in which the game uses cut scenes or text in order to set up a situation. Bissell’s primary concern with Resident Evil, a game that works like a haunted house gallery where a team of S.T.A.R (a fictional SWAT) agents is sent to investigate a zombie outbreak, is the framed narrative. A complex framed narrative is not necessary to achieve moral literature; what is important is the “ludonarrative,” that is the design of what the players actually do. While morality is left out of Resident Evil’s ludonarrative, our next blog post will demonstrate that a number of games with similarly shallow framed narratives have much deeper ludonarratives, which is the primary concern of game designers.