Thursday, April 8, 2010

S.03 Liveness in Gaming

I found some of Tara McPherson’s analyses about the internet in “Liveness, Mobility, and the Web” interesting in the context of how they can be applied to gaming. One of the principal discrepancies between online multiplayer and conventional offline gaming is the presence of what McPherson calls “liveness”.

Many online games such as Habbo and Second Life have no clear ultimate objective (i.e. it is impossible to “finish” the game). Games such as World of Warcraft or Runescape—often defined as “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs)—may have quests and objectives, but players are free to follow them or not. In other words, these open world games are conducive to the breaking of the rules and of the narrative. The space created in these games therefore has an inherent sense of anarchy and unpredictability.

McPherson writes that “unlike television which parades its presence before us, the Web structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, a liveness which we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the movement”. Multiplayer online games empower players in a way that offline games do not because they allow players to modify the structure/landscape of the game in real-time; In the Pictionary-style game Inklink, a player will never encounter the same drawings or interactions more than once because the people playing are constantly changing.

I find it very interesting that recently many offline games have been trying to emulate this idea of “unique” gameplay—a gameplay in which we are directly responsible for different, distinctive outcomes. For example, in the 2008 game Spore, the user controls the evolution and development of a species starting from the microbial stage and ending when the species is an advanced civilization. The player can guide the development of the species in various ways. For example, eating a lot of weaker microbes in the cell level (as opposed to eating plants) causes the species to evolve as a carnivore. How the creature evolves affects the gameplay in the next level and allows it to evolve further in certain directions. There is even a “History” button which a user can click to see what evolutionary paths the species has taken (see a screenshot at Because the user has so many possible choices during gameplay, each new game he/she starts will be completely unique and inimitable.

I think this trend of offline games which allow players to decide the outcome of the narrative (or avoiding a strong sensation of narrative in the first place) has certainly been influenced by the online gaming culture and its emphasis on “liveness”.

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