Extra Credits - Because Games Matter

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Extra Credits is a series of 5 minute videos on video games as art, and it is superb. Its target audience is video game aficionados, developers, and critics, and if you like video games, I highly recommend it.

Some of the episodes are historical. For instance, there are, broadly speaking, two types of role playing games: western RPGs (incorporating more action and choice) and Japanese RPGs (incorporating simple mechanics and linear stories, but rich narratives). Extra Credits dived into this difference, discussed how it arose, and what the future is for those two subgenres.

Some of the episodes are on gaming culture. There is a lot of attention given to toxic and hateful players in online video games, and not enough game developers are incorporating identity (eg, gender, race, and socioeconomic status) into their games, not to mention issues of cultural preservation. Extra Credits goes into these problems and how to help.

What I like most about the series is its focus on literary elements in games. Some of these take a general literary tool and discuss how it applies to games. For instance, there were two episodes on Campbell's Hero's Journey and how games can use it well or poorly.   They have also gone over some things that have caused me to feel ire like how most video games (and most fantasy novels I've read, for that matter) focus on violent combat (one of many reasons that I'm excited about Torment: Tides of Numenera, which is supposed to have a non-violent option). The best, though, are the ones unique to video games. Many media can use the written word, music, and images, but what makes games unique is interactivity.  

In that line, Extra Credits has a couple of episodes on mechanics as metaphor.  A video game's mechanics is how you play it -- in Dance Dance Revolution, the mechanic is putting your foot on the right pad in time with the music; in Tetris, the mechanic is lining up the pieces so that they form rows.  A video game can be good absent engaging mechanics.  In fact, my favorite games as a kid, the Final Fantasy games (along with the JRPG genre in general) have fairly weak mechanics (you select your choice from a list, whether in dialog or in combat), and my favorite game to date, Planescape: Torment, is similarly weak.  Yes, there is the appeal of making numbers go up (by getting more experience points, money, or powerful items), but the actual gameplay of those games can feel like a grind.  Other games have mechanics that are disconnected from any meaning inherent in the game.  In many early games that had rich mechanics, like Mario, the story was fairly thin, and even more recent games that are fairly well done don't often have mechanics that feel intricately connected to the narrative aspects of the game.

Games that truly take advantage of the medium are ones where the game mechanic itself tells a story.  Extra Credits uses a game called Loneliness to demonstrate this.  You can play the full game in your web browser in 5 minutes, and I recommend you do so now.  The actions that you, the player, take in the game inform the narrative of the game and your perceptions of that narrative.  One of the best examples of this, and one of my favorite games (though it was a fairly short experience) is The Stanley Parable (I wrote about earlier).  The Stanley Parable is able to incorporate game mechanics into the narrative so effectively because it's a game about video games, so it breaks down the fourth wall fairly often.  The parable tells you that pushing a particular button or taking a particular action will have bad narrative consequences (eg, your character in the game will die), but taking that action is the only way to advance the game.  You, as a player, are confronted with the narrative implications of your actions.

Many games that are socially meaningful use this to great effect.  One example is the Redistricting Game.  Gerrymandering is a really important issue, but it's also really complicated.  The Redistricting Game aims to teach the player about gerrymandering by forcing the player to be the gerrymanderer -- you draw the district lines to make your favored candidate win.  Tying the narrative to the gameplay mechanics makes the game engaging, but it also makes the game educational because it gives you an intuitive understanding of how to gerrymander and just how messed up it is.  The Sweatshop Game is similar.  It gives the player a goal of making doodads cheaply and efficiently, and gives the player the power to abuse or take care of their workers (though the game does so in a way that glosses over any meaningful moral choices by making happy and healthy workers more productive and ignoring the broader social context of consumers, ethical distancing, and how, logistically, to take care of workers).

I think that games would be better if more of them took care to tie mechanics into narrative.  Games would also be better if more game developers watched Extra Credits and paid attention to the issues that their episodes bring up.

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