09/16/2004: "Punches, 'puters and purpose."
Watching the Olympics, I'm reminded of one of my own brief forays into exercise: two years spent learning Tai Chi Chuan, a Chinese martial art I bought into physically, mentally and financially.
During my study I ended up buying soft-soled martial arts shoes, kickboxing trousers, metal and wooden sabres and books on the art's applications and concepts. The latter had diagrams explaining combat, photographs of women defending themselves with umbrellas and poems that gave practitioners insight into the art's strategies and spiritual aspects.
These books, which were not available in many shops, conferred a sense of legitimacy. Also, having a kit, using a set of items necessary for practice, made me feel I was preparing for something. That I was on a mission. As if I had a Job to do. I suppose it’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando felt loading his guns and strapping a bandolier across his chest.
You know what I'm talking about. It's the sensation you get screwing your pool cue together, walking around the table and sizing up your opponent; the half-time water bottle that staves off dehydration and keeps you focused; lacing up your boots before a football match and making sure they're on properly.
Although seemingly trivial, without this paraphernalia we'd be impoverished. These tools, these props, draw us deeper into context and make our experience more vivid. It is a pity that the majority of gamers, though possessed of equipment and gadgets specific to their pastime, won't have access to situations – and their related objects - that can submerge them in the same way.
I realise that as computer technology and AI advances, the ability for games to suspend our disbelief will too, but they are only parts of what’s needed for us to be in the field while at our desks. Discussion about all the possible things that could facilitate that sensation are beyond this piece, so I'll only talk about those I’m familiar with, their setting and some related ideas.
I used to play in regular Battlefield 1942 tournaments. Each one ran for six weeks and players were divided into Axis and Allied armies. Each army had a command structure. If I outranked a team-mate I could tell him what to do and vice versa.
Matches ran for 12 hours: early evening to early morning. I could go to bed with my team losing and awake to find we'd won. Conversely, I could step away while we were powering through the enemy, only to return some hours later to a pummelling. Losing was stressful but engrossing.
When joining I used put on my headset, adjust its microphone’s position, load the game and join Team Speak. Moving into my company channel, I'd get a comms check and a status report on the battle. Concurrently, I'd review the pre-match strategy posted in my side's private forums and think if it needed changing.
As this was happening I'd listen to my team-mates calling out orders and requesting back-up against the soundscape of the battle itself.
Everything I did gave me feedback about the game world, sucking me further into it. Sitting down and adjusting my headphones was enough to lock me in to that mindset; my Commando moment. When talking on Team Speak about what I needed to do, my room would fade into nothingness around me. When that need became action, when I got on to a server and was part of a team, of energy, direction and momentum, the game would have me completely.
My computer didn't have a powerful processor or a great soundcard. Its graphics card needed replacing and I didn't have an optical mouse. The drama I was in wasn't striking because of its theatre or costumes, nor the actors upon the stage with me. It was powerful, intimidating and absorbing because of their conflux - and more.
Making notes about a map we'd be playing made me think about battles days before I'd fight. Attending practices did the same. Pre-match discussion and post-match introspection gave the encounters reality. Being concerned about the score made them nerve wracking. Making sure the players were OK made them important.
Being involved with all these scattered elements, reeling in these parts that were found on-line, off-line in, in voice, text and imagery, is what made the game real for me. I wasn't just playing. It'd had gone beyond that. I'd invested time in the tournament. I'd done it for something greater than myself. With each instance that I booted my computer to play, I was in danger of losing everything I'd worked for.
This tangibility of impending doom heightened the experience. A sense of loss, a true sense of loss, not something that we can cast aside with flippant comments about save games, or Boss patterns, was crucial to giving me a sense of purpose.
Of course potential loss alone didn't make the tournament great, nor was it exclusively responsible for purpose; that comes with being given goals that have weight and impact. Targets and ‘Key Performance Indicators’ affecting us beyond the screen upon which they’re seen and achieved.
Yet those goals would have meant nothing without their having a history; some emotional component that meant I wanted to fulfil them, not just that I had to in order to progress my in-game character.
In Battlefield 1942, that history came from veteran players and their tales of always being on the Axis or Allied side. It would be fanciful to say the tournament had its own mythos, but it's not too far off the mark. Good players and leaders that had left were discussed in almost reverential tones. Strategies or field-command styles that had been successful before would be used again, but improved.
Reading about these people, getting a chance to influence them, to emulate them, to try and surpass them, felt not only like I was joining a community, but that I was joining a current. It electrified me and swept me along. It engendered loyalty and hatred that I'd rarely seen on-line and never thought I'd ever feel over a computer game. That I succumbed to them is embarrassing and almost incomprehensible - but I did. Battlefield turned me from a player into a hater – how do we get all titles to involve us so?
The tournament I played in had a limited-period win condition (six weeks to win) and human opponents. 'Normal' games have timed-levels and 'AI'. If we can make players feel they only have, say, “14 hours to save the earth,” but stretch in-game hours over tens of real -time ones, we might get some of the urgency I felt in the tournament. Likewise, if we can get NPCs to fight well and, more importantly, make human mistakes and make us believe in a cause they're espousing (and its history), we'll have enough of a facsimile of the emotional, holistic, multiplayer experience.
Of course one could argue that software solutions are easy – that what's tricky is physical interaction. Steel Battalion did a good job of using a prop – its controller – to create a more immersive experience than most games, but few people had the money for it. So what else is can we do if we can't have controller bundles?
Perhaps we could code a title so players with joysticks connected to their computer use those to interact with certain parts of the game instead of their mice. Or, as in Rainbow Six and Unreal 2K4, voice activated commands. We could also have desktop based tools and applications to be used before and after or even (Alt-Tab crashes permitting) during the game. They'd affect the game world, but have a different interface and design to the meat of the title.
Done properly it needn't be distracting and, again, would be a slightly different way of interacting and keeping us in within the game's pull without necessarily being in the game proper.
What else can we do? Well, reading manuals is enjoyable – but finding things out for ourselves, having to think about them, is fun. Perhaps manuals could be referred to throughout the life of the game, not only as reminders of how to play, but as part of the gameplay itself.
As I had my battle strategies to look at every week, there could be moments in the game when we have to go back to the installation CD and investigate, or root around, a Flash -driven manual. We're at the computer, we're playing the game, but using a different set of tools and using our mind in a different way.
Wouldn't all of these things make a game real for us? They are a continuation of the things that made Battlefield great for me, after all. If we could have games with these tools, wouldn't they have the potential to remove use from the mundanity of reality? Wouldn't it be wonderful if a game could provide us with that rarest of moments, when existence makes contact with purpose? I hope so. I really do.
This piece was first posted during the Olympics.