Old Weird Games: Captain Blood

Captain Blood DuplicateMany early videogames were inspired by technological innovations.  Advances in natural language processing led Will Crowther to create Colossal Cave Adventure1 and John Carmack’s smooth-scrolling PC engine would inspire the future developers of Id Software to create the side-scrolling Commander Keen series2.  Such connections are probably unsurprising to most people, as both games seem like natural ways to explore their respective technologies.  When talking about a game that began as an algorithm to procedurally generate fractal landscapes, however, I doubt that creating an open world adventure game full of dialoge-based translation puzzles would be the first thing that most people would expect.  Of course, Captain Blood isn’t really the kind of game that fits nicely with most peoples expectations.  Released in Europe in 1988 as L’Arche du Captain Blood, the game was notable not only for pushing the graphical capabilities of the Atari ST computer,  but for blending together an eclectic assortment of game mechanics that makes it a memorable experience, to say the least.

To those familiar with videogame history, the development of Captain Blood is reminiscent in many ways of that of Doom, which would follow five years later.  As with the case of Id and Doom, the development of Captain Blood began with the meeting of two talented developers, each with a skill set that complimented the other.  In this case, it was the cinematic storytelling of Philippe Ulrich, one of the co-founders of ERE Informatique, and the low-level graphics programming of Didier Bouchon.  Although it never reached the same level of commercial success as Wolfenstein or Doom, Captain Blood was, at the time, by far the most successful game ever developed in France3.  Also like Id, the developers at ERE were known for their outrageous promotional events, several of which involved making sacrifices to their fictional god of programmers, Exxos (after whom they would eventually rename their studio).  These included such theatrics as decapitating latex aliens with an axe and smashing an Amstrad PC in the middle of the Champs-Élysées3.

Captain Blood Destroy PlanetThe most conspicuous point of departure between the two studios is the place of narrative in the design process.  While the explicitly narrative elements of Doom consist of little more than the single screens of dense text that await the player at the end of each episode, the story of Captain Blood begins with a seven chapter novella included in the box.  Although the story of Captain Blood is still the same kind of nihilistic macho fantasy that appeals to angsty teenage boys, it takes a very different approach.  In Doom, the player can run around killing and destroying everything in the game because everything of value has already been ruined – the only humans you meet have been turned into bloodthirsty zombies and even the environment around you has been twisted and corrupted.  In Captain Blood, you encounter dozens of different aliens, each with their own distinct speech patterns, personality, and relationships.  You are also given the ability to casually nuke their entire civilizations from orbit.  While such decisions should probably give the player pause, she is insulated from emotional attachment with these characters through the framing fiction of the game.  Blood never speaks to any other creature in person, but rather sends biomechanical drones down to the surface of the planet while he remains safely on his starship.  If you read the lengthy backstory before booting up the game, you learn that Blood is in turn merely the avatar of a computer programmer that was sucked into his own game.  Thus, when the player destroys an entire planet in Captain Blood, she is merely playing as a programmer, who is playing as a cyborg, who is watching through a drone as it kills people who are, themselves, a fiction within a fiction.  Since the core of the game is all about communication and relationships, I actually find the protective layers of proxies within proxies to shield the player from becoming too immersed in the game world to be one of the weaknesses of the overall experience.  Although allowing Blood (and therefore, the player) to have a more real connection with other characters in the game might have taken the fun out of joyriding around the galaxy committing genocide, it would have made the decisions made throughout the game seem more consequential.

The objective of the game is for Captain Blood to track down and eliminate five clones of himself that were created during a hyperspace accident.  These clones can’t simply be killed from orbit, as each possesses some of Blood’s “vital fluids,” which he needs to survive.  Thus, each clone must be lured aboard Blood’s ship where it can be disintegrated and its “fluids” extracted.  His only lead at the beginning of the game is a single inhabited planet.  From there, Blood must begin gathering more clues, following one lead to the next and until each of the clones has been found.

Captain Blood SinoxThe most interesting aspect of the game from a design perspective is the UPCOM interface that is used to communicate with other characters.  This translation system, which consists of 120 symbolic icons, serves a number of important functions.  First, it serves the diegetic function of allowing the player to communicate with aliens without giving them an inexplicable understanding of  human languages (although this purpose becomes redundant with the framing of the galaxy as existing within another computer program).  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it frames the limitations of the conversation not as a limitation of the game system, but as a limitation of the diegetic system the through which the characters are interacting.  This was one of Ulrich’s primary motivations in developing the system:

I wanted to be an example and to invent new stuff that stood out … I wanted to impress the player. I wanted the extra-terrestrials to be alive in the computer. When playing The Hobbit I hated the stereotyped answers such as “I don’t understand” or “what is your name?”. The challenge was to make it intelligent. The incredible thing is that the aliens answered all questions, were funny and never repeated the same thing twice.1

UPCOM differs from other conversation systems like the keywords in Ultima VII or the menu-based dialogue trees of modern RPGs in subtle, but important ways.  Because both the aliens and the player are subject to the same constraints, Captain Blood avoids the artificiality that you get in games where NPCs can go on talking for paragraphs while the main character is only able to offer single-word responses.  The abstract nature of the UPCOM symbols gives the illusion that the aliens you communicate with are intelligent creatures that are struggling to use the system just as you are.

The UPCOM interface is also one of the most effective ways in which the game characterizes the often bizarre alien creatures that inhabit the game world.  Different species use different subsets of UPCOM icons in order to represent their language.  The number of icons available to each species becomes an indicator of their intelligence and eloquence of speech.  The less restrictive nature of the system (the full UPCOM set provides nearly a trillion different possible combinations) allows for a wide variety of conversation topics.  While some messages require a precise word order (most often with passwords, coordinates, or names), usually the mere mention of a word or phrase is enough to start a conversation.  The player’s goal is usually to prompt the character to reveal a piece of information or issue some kind of quest, but most characters will try to say something relevant to whatever you ask them.  These responses are often little more than repeating a simple maxim, such as “bad not good,” but even such canned responses vary from species to species, giving the player some sense of distinct cultures.  The Izwal value science and learning and dislike violence.  The Buggol are obsessed with politics, with certain individuals being prone to bursting into long, prepared speeches.  The paranoid schemer Yukas tends to misinterpret simple statements as veiled threats.  By limiting the conversation to a finite set of possible topics, it enables characters to say something about almost everything, in contrast to a Zork-style text parser which must keep commands very formulaic to avoid paralyzing the player with boundless freedom of choice.

Captain Blood Teleporting BuggolWhile its puzzle-like dialogue system was decidedly innovative, Captain Blood is perhaps better known for its prohibitive difficulty.  This is evident as soon as the game begins and the player realizes that there are no menus.  All the controls and commands within the game are represented diegetically as ambiguously labeled buttons on the Gigeresque console of Blood’s techno-organic ship.  Even the cursor is represented by the captain’s own withered cybernetic hand.  While this certainly makes the game seem more immersive (which, again, seems to conflict with the goal of its convoluted backstory), it sets up a fairly steep learning curve.  Despite stepping into the role of a vindictive, godlike sociopath, I think I killed far more people by mistakenly hitting the wrong button than I ever did on purpose.

The bulk of the game’s difficulty can be attributed to the conversation puzzles themselves.  Some of this was due to the intentional ambiguity of the UPCOM symbols, particularly when they were used figuratively, as in the case of names.  While a few key characters and places possess their own individual symbols in the UPCOM language, most names are simply made up of other symbols.  This leads to names like the Migrax warrior “Missile Brave”, the Sinox scientist “Brain Radioactivity,” and the charmingly named Planet “Kill You.”  With the limited list of UPCOM logograms, it becomes difficult to know that someone is referring to the Migrax “Missile Brave” and not simply trying to convey that the Migrax as a species are not afraid of missiles.

Captain Blood MigraxThe more significant issue with the design of the dialogue puzzles is much more subtle.  While the back-and-forth nature of the conversations is difficult in itself, some information will only be divulged under specific circumstances, the details of which are usually unknown to the player.  In some cases, a character will offer to divulge information after a quest or mission of some kind – often transporting them to a different location or killing one of their enemies.  Other times, there is a similar stipulation that is never stated.  Some characters won’t talk unless you bully them by abducting them and stranding them on a different planet.  Some won’t talk if a certain character is still alive.  Some characters won’t even appear to the player unless certain conditions are met, giving the illusion of an uninhabited planet.  Perhaps most frustrating of all, some characters will only reveal certain clues after a certain amount of time has passed in game, giving no clue to the player that they have something more to say nor letting her know when they’re ready to talk.

The fact that the player never knows who’s holding out on her becomes problematic if she takes the characters’ quests at face value.  In most games, quests are fairly straightforward.  Although some quests are optional, each one is rewarded and generally gets the player closer to victory.  In Captain Blood, however, quests often contradict one another as various factions try to eliminate one another.  Likewise, many characters lie, and hard-earned information occasionally ends up being worthless in the end.  Naively completing every mission will quickly end up killing characters with information necessary for completing the game, leaving the player stranded and confused.

The idea of unreliable information from NPCs is actually something I enjoy exploring.  The first time I remember this happening in a game was during one of the Hong Kong missions in Deus Ex.  Although the character who issued the quest was highly suspicious, RPG genre conventions convinced me that the objective was genuine.  The difference in Deus Ex is that as soon as I tried to complete the dubious quest, alarms went off, guards rushed in, and I knew that I’d been played.  In Captain Blood, there was no way to know if the planet I had just destroyed or the alien I had just disintegrated was holding some important clue that was necessary to completing the game.  It was often just as hard to determine if the reward for my grisly work would lead me toward my goal or simply into another dead end.  In a rather subversive twist, it would seem (after starting over countless times) that the best approach to playing the game is simply to holster your world destroying bioweapons and try to spread as little death and destruction as possible.

Captain Blood CanyonThe ambiguous trial-and-error aspect of the game served to compound some of its other shortcomings.  The landing sequences, which were where Bouchon’s work on the game began, are still visually interesting twenty-five years later, but quickly become repetitive.  They are similar in many ways to the space combat sequences in Star Control II, another epic adventure game that was built around an arcade-like action sequence.  Although the action sequences in Star Control appear even more frequently, they constantly introduce new ships and new weapons.  Captain Blood breaks the repetition early on by adding missile bases to most inhabited planets, forcing the player to fly low over the landscape, but this remains the pattern for the rest of the game.  While adding more variety in planetary defenses may have been overly ambitious for the Atari ST, it would have served both to keep the landing sequences interesting and to give the ship’s scanners an actual purpose.  As it is, the landing sequences make exploring new planets an arduous task, which is not usually what you want in an open-world game.

Despite the success of Captain Blood and the developers’ plans to expand on their ideas with an even more involved sequel4, Exxos would be a short-lived studio.  Exxos, like Id, would clash with its publishers over profits and royalties, but in the case of Exxos, the publishers would win.  Some lackluster sequels would eventually be produced, but none would prove as innovative as the original.

Captain Blood is certainly one of the more obscure games from which I draw inspiration, but I’m still surprised at how original it seems after twenty-five years and how relevant it is to contemporary game design problems.   Not that Skyrim or Fallout would be improved by adding a complicated system of logograms every time you try to speak to someone, but it’s interesting to think what these sorts of systems might have become if they had been iterated upon as much as the ideas from Doom.



1. Replay: The History of Videogames.  Tristan Donovan.
2. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. David Kushner.
3. La saga des jeux vidéo. Daniel Ichbiah.
4. Le retour des héros. Tilt (March 1988).

Terraforming in the South China Sea

DredgingOne of the things that I find most fascinating and engaging about videogames is their capacity to serve as interactive thought experiments.  Games can be ways of making explicit (or more often implicit) arguments, ways of trying to understand the past, or even ways of getting players to reflect upon the present.  As such, I tend to enjoy games that experiment with new mechanics and new ways of looking at existing problems.  In an industry that tends to focus on polish and incremental improvement, this isn’t always as common as you might think.  While genre conventions help to create specialized systems of meaning, allowing players’ skill at one game transfer to another and thereby target existing audiences, they also canonize certain mechanics to the exclusion of others.  For this reason, despite greatly enjoying highly polished modern games like Civilization V or Mario Kart 8, I frequently find myself playing quirky indie games or old DOS games on a more regular basis.

One of the games that I’m constantly turning to as an example (both here and at Play the Past) is Master of Orion, a turn-based strategy game released in 1993.  Although almost certainly influenced to some degree by earlier strategy games like Civilization (not to mention being highly influential to many later games), the original Master of Orion was created before many of the conventions of the genre were firmly established.  For example, Master of Orion eschews the standard Civ-style tech tree, one of the most fundamental elements of the genre, for its own unique technology system.  Although less intuitive for many players, this system is, in many ways, a much more interesting way of thinking about technological development.

PlanetologyThe science fiction setting of Master of Orion is also a major factor in its departure from other strategy games.  While games based on historical settings have to worry about conforming to players’ expectations and understandings of history (or risk provoking endless Internet arguments over whether or not a spearman should be able to destroy a tank), games set in a hypothetical future allow a great deal more creativity on such matters.  The upside is that this lack of context enables innovative solutions, such as Master of Orion’s technology system.  The downside is that while fantastic elements like Gatling lasers and terraforming are fun, they are rarely have relevance to the present.

Of course, sometimes the present surprises you.

In 1990, China finished construction of a single two-story building on Fiery Cross Reef, a coral reef in the South China Sea that lies about 1,300 km south of the Chinese mainland.  The tiny outpost had taken several years to complete and remained nearly unchanged for almost a quarter of a century. In late 2014, however, China began a massive land reclamation project, dredging up sand from the nearby sea floor and dumping it onto the reef, which until that point had remained almost completely submerged at high tide.  In less than a year, Fiery Cross had gone from a few tiny rocks to the largest island in the Spratly Island archipelago.  With multiple cement factories, a large harbor, and numerous other support buildings, it is now an important hub facilitating the construction of several other Chinese “artificial islands.”

Fiery Cross ReefWhile China certainly isn’t the first to engage in land reclamation in the South China Sea (Vietnam, for instance, had been increasing the size of West Reef and Sand Cay for several years), the scope of their operation far surpasses that of any other nation in the region.  Perhaps more troubling to other claimants in the Spratlys, however, is the nature of China’s operations.  Whereas other nations have made small increases to islands that were already occupied and had substantial permanent structures, China is creating massive islands out of completely (or almost completely) submerged reefs.  By occupying territory that was previously considered uninhabitable (or at least legally unclaimable), China has grabbed a number of strategically important locations and made any attempt at drawing international borders considerably more difficult.

This unconventional form of expansionism is unprecedented, especially in peacetime.  China has previously asserted its territorial clams in the nearby Paracel Islands, but this took the form of more traditional military force.  In contrast, China’s recent expansion into the Spratly Islands has thus far been non-violent, relying on technological means to expand their territory.

Orion StarmapAlthough this situation has no obvious parallels in recent military history, this situation should seem very familiar to anyone who has played Master of Orion.  It also highlights one of the unique game mechanics that sets Master of Orion apart from more conventional strategy games.  In games like Civilization, the expansion phase occurs at the very beginning of the game.  Once a player has pushed her borders out until they meet those of her neighbors, there is no other way to push those borders further short of force.  This zero-sum game is how we normally think of international politics.  In Master of Orion, however, most players only possess the technological ability to colonize half of the planet types at the start of the game.  In order to colonize these more hostile planets, players must develop more advanced planetology techniques.  This means that players spend much of the game with uninhabitable planets sitting idle in strategic locations or even within their own borders.  Thus, a player with an edge in planetology technology can swoop in and colonize a planet that had essentially been worthless to the other factions, terraforming it into a valuable strategic location.

SpratlysSo if we use Master of Orion as a way to think about the Spratly Islands in the same way that we use Civilization or even Chess to think about more traditional confrontations, what kinds of conclusions might we draw?  Perhaps the most obvious effect of such aggressive planet (or island) grabbing is an extreme strain on diplomatic relations, which has already been seen as perhaps the most immediate effect of China’s island building campaign.  In Master of Orion, this situation is usually only aggravated with the movement of ships and personnel throughout the disputed territory.  I also think that it’s probably safe to say that the situation in the South China Sea will likewise become even more complicated once the airstrips and defensive positions on their islands are completed and the movement of ships, planes, and troops begins to increase.  It’s also difficult to see a peaceful resolution to this tension unless one side decides to abandon their position in the island chain completely.

Eco RestorationAnother issue that is often overlooked in the Spratly island conflict is ecology.  In Master of Orion, ecology is a major focus of the game.  Ecology is one of the five areas in which planets can spend resources and of the six fields of research available to the player, one, planetology, is almost exclusively focused on ecological issues such as waste cleanup and terraforming.  While a player has the option to ignore ecological concerns and channel those resources toward military or industrial projects, such trade-offs are rarely beneficial, even in the short term.  Industrialized planets can generate massive amounts of pollution, and the buildup of this industrial waste can reduce the habitability of a planet, even killing off its population if the pollution becomes too extreme.  For this reason, focusing research on planetology is just as important to the player as researching weapons or propulsion.  A healthy empire requires healthy planets.

While China’s island building will make these locations more useful for military and civilian purposes, the process not only buries the former reefs under thick layers of sand and concrete, but also fills the surrounding waters with the thick sediment that accompanies the dredging process.  Considering the great biodiversity present in the reefs of the Spratly Islands, the ecological damage could have devastating long-term effects on marine life in the Spratlys and in surrounding regions.  This directly impacts many Southeast Asian countries that depend heavily on fish from the South China Sea to feed their populations.  Since one of the primary benefits for China of laying permanent claim to the Spratly Islands would be the extension of their Exclusive Economic Zone, which would grant them exclusive rights over natural resources like fish and oil, even a successful takeover of the region could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory if measures aren’t taken to protect biodiversity and restore reef habitats.

Of course, looking at the Spratly Islands conflict through the lens of Master of Orion is only one way of looking at it, but it’s a different way of looking at the situation than we would get through many modern games.  It’s also one reason why I enjoy games that depart from the standard design formula and do things differently.  They give us new ways of thinking about the world and a broader vocabulary with which to discuss it.

South China Sea photographs from Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

The Post-Apocalyptic Landscape of Splatoon

Splatoon Post-Apocalyptic


A few weeks ago, I was finally able to see Mad Max: Fury Road, the most recent installment of George Miller’s long-running dystopian movie franchise. I went in with significantly higher expectations than I would normally have for a Mad Max movie, but even with that, I was not disappointed. Miller managed to take the distinctive post-apocalyptic aesthetic which he largely shaped through his earlier movies, and managed to tell a very different kind of story, while still embracing the absurdity and excess that made his earlier movies into cult classics.

I’ve also been immersed in another post-apocalyptic setting for the last few weeks – the world of Nintendo’s new multiplayer shooter, Splatoon. For anyone who knows me, this should be no surprise, as games about squid people living in post-apocalyptic ruins are kind of my thing. Of course, this is not necessarily how the game’s setting appears when you first pick it up. The brightly colored city of Inkopolis hardly seems different than other Nintendo settings like Dream Land or the Mushroom Kingdom. Like Planet of the Apes, Splatoon employs the familiar trope of the “Future as Past,” where a primitive social structure is ironically juxtaposed with the post-apocalyptic setting of the story, the latter generally being withheld from the audience1. In this case, however, the future is not modeled after stone age nomads or feudal estates, but a hyper-consumeristic 21st century metropolis.

Splatoon PlazaSpecifically, the city of Inkopolis is a caricature of modern Tokyo, complete with its own versions of Tokyo Tower and Shibuya Crossing. Although some areas like Bluefin Depot offer glimpses of a flooded world where towering cities creep to the edge of the remaining dry land, the world of Splatoon seems remarkably bright and happy, especially when compared to the wastelands of Mad Max. If, however, we look at Splatoon in the broader context of Japanese disaster movies, this stylistic dissonance makes much more sense.

In Western media, the city itself is often viewed as an object of suspicion. In films from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the city is portrayed as an impersonal dehumanizing force. The ubiquitous visual imagery of the bombed-out city in Western post-apocalyptic cinema can be seen as the deserved fate for these symbols of civilization’s hubris. In Japanese film, however, this is not the case. As Donald Richie argues, the primacy of one’s home city or furusato in Japanese culture meant that the city itself never became demonized because it was never given the same cultural importance as it was in the West. As such, it is not the cities that must atone for the sins of civilization, but the people. Tokyo’s frequent destruction in movies like Godzilla, then, is more a matter of convenience. The city is not the target of the attack, but merely the best location for disposing of large numbers of people2.

In this sense, the world of Splatoon is a uniquely Japanese vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Although the cityscapes of modern civilization remain, the human race has been completely destroyed – a fact that is withheld from the player not just until the end of the game, but until she has collected certain Sunken Scrolls:

Though academic circles warn of rising sea levels, the policy makers pay them no heed. At this rate, human civilization may be lost beneath the tide. Will even this furry fellow [a cat] be consumed by the raging ocean?

Thus, where Miller’s wasteland shows a future with humanity devoid of cities, Splatoon’s Inkopolis imagines cities without humanity.

Splatoon ZapfishThere are, however, other ways in which Splatoon much more closely resembles Western post-apocalypse stories like Mad Max. The theme of resource scarcity forcing survivors into conflict runs throughout both worlds. In Splatoon, the coin of the realm is not gasoline, but bioelectric energy in the form of Zapfish – electric catfish that have evolved or been bred to generate enough energy to power the vast Inkling cities. The single-player storyline begins as the Octarians, who were banished from the “civilized” surface world, steal a number of Zapfish from Inkopolis, including the Great Zapfish that powers Inkopolis Tower. The player then takes on the role of the unlikely hero in retrieving the Zapfish from the Octarian’s network of subterranean domes.

As the player explores the Octarian domes, she will encounter much more familiar post-apocalyptic scenery. Unlike the Inkling cities, which are modern and vibrant, the Octarian domes appear to be filled with and partially constructed from the ruins of human civilization. Floating bridges, dolosse, Ferris wheels, and carousel animals float about, presumably as a result of the anti-gravity technology the Octarians use in their flying saucers. Though in many ways more technologically advanced than the dominant Inkling civilization, the Octarians are a society in decline.  The infrastructure of their domes is aging and crumbling and their society is plagued by energy shortages.

Splatoon Octoling EliteThe Octarians themselves also fit well into established literary and filmic tropes, filling the role of the mysterious and dangerous underground villains, like the mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes or the Morlocks from H. G. Welles The Time Machine. The Octarians’ most deadly soldiers, the Octolings, are perhaps the closest to Miller’s Mad Max aesthetic, donning goggles and armor made of black leather and shiny chrome.

Like Mad Max: Fury Road, Splatoon is interesting not just in the way that it exemplifies existing post-apocalyptic tropes, but in how it plays with and often subverts many of these tropes. As Mick Broderick points out, post-apocalyptic tales often have a strong conservative theme running through their core. They articulate a desire for nuclear Armageddon to annihilate the post-modern burdens of civilization, forcing us to return to a nostalgically yearned-for agrarian life. The “good” people in such settings are those who rebuild society through a return to conservative regimes of patriarchy, monogamy, and often racial and cultural homogeneity. They are shown in sharp contrast to “bad” people, those who nihilistically consume or destroy what little remains of the old world1.

By subverting these dichotomies, Miller creates a very different kind of villain in the character of Immortan Joe. Unlike the Humungous of The Road Warrior, Joe and his War Boys aren’t simply wandering marauders, destorying with no thought of the future. They pump water and grow crops and engage in commerce. Immortan Joe’s villainy isn’t in wanton destruction, but in the use of wealth and violence to enforce social inequality.

Splatoon, unlike many other Nintendo franchises, also resists clear dichotomies between good and evil. Although the Inklings are the protagonists of the game, their culture relishes the kind of excess normally reserved for villains. They are described as creatures that live for nothing but “battle and fashion,” with their culture revolving around what is essentially ritualized gladiatorial combat. Rather than extolling the moral aspect of returning to a simpler life, Splatoon revels in the frenetic excess of Inkling culture. Inkopolis is not an agrarian millennial utopia, but a pluralistic cosmopolitan hub. It’s a different vision of the apocalypse than we normally see, and one that I hope Nintendo continues to take in new and interesting directions.

Splatoon Octo Bridge

There are certainly other similarities between the worlds of Splatoon and Mad Max that I could bring up. Both feature guns made out of re-purposed gasoline pumps. Both feature the protagonist battling a warrior-musician in a crazy helmet, riding atop his own personal mobile speaker system. Perhaps most importantly, both are amazing, genre-defying works that are difficult to do justice to in a single blog post, so I encourage you to go check them out for yourself.



1. Mick Broderick. Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster.
2. Donald Richie. Attitudes Toward Tokyo on Film.

Virtual Biopower: The Case for Thanatogaming

Gold FarmingAcademic conferences are always slightly surreal experiences for me.  I’m currently in Monterey, getting to present some of my work to my colleagues in the videogame research community.  Many of them I’ve met before, though often these meetings are purely through online interactions.  As such, going to a conference in a new location and seeing people face to face who you’ve only known as a virtual avatar can feel almost like stepping inside a videogame.

Of course, in 2015, this is hardly a unique phenomenon.  It’s not just academic relationships that often begin online, but business relationships, romantic relationships, and relationships simply built around a common interest.  As such, it is hopefully unsurprising to say that the actions we take in virtual worlds have material consequences in the real world.  Perhaps equally unsurprising is the fact that these new forms of relationships create new systems of power – systems that we often find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with.

Last fall, I presented a paper at a conference of the Digital Games Research Association that dealt with some of these issues of power and politics in virtual spaces.  This paper built off my previous work on the subject of thanatogaming.  As I discussed in a previous post a few years ago, thanatogaming is the application of thanatopolitics in the context of videogames and virtual worlds.  It’s a way for us to play with the meaning of death without having to physically die ourselves.  As a form of thanatopolitics, it is also a direct response to biopower, specifically the expansion of biopolitics into virtual spaces.  As such, in order to understand why we need thanatogaming, we need to understand how videogames are biopolitical.

Biopolitics is what Michel Foucault has used to describe the shift in politics away from the traditional forms of governing people as individual bodies and toward governing them as “collective bodies” – demographics, statistics, and man-as-species.  Rather than simply governing people, biopower seeks to govern “life”1.  Like videogames, biopolitics can be understood as being procedural in nature.  Just as videogames must reduce a player’s abilities down to data and statistics like health points and strength levels in order to operationalize them, so too must the biopolitical State in order to govern the masses.  Abstract concepts like “public health” that touch millions of different people’s lives in complex and nuanced ways must be quantified and reduced to manageable statistics in order to be controlled and regulated by the State.  The development of computer technology – and by extension, videogames – was in part driven by the need for better mechanisms to process and control this data.

The modern videogame industry is still very much intertwined with the biopolitical State.  Companies wield the power of the State in order to control patents and copyrights, which give technological mechanisms of control like DRM the power to influence and control the way that we interact with the media we consume.  As our virtual lives become an ever more important part of our real lives, it becomes critical that we recognize and understand these forms of biopolitical control2.

So how do we get people to approach the idea of virtual biopower?  It’s difficult to deal with something that is both a very subtle part of our lives and a fairly complex topic.  Unfortunately for those of us in academia, the best way to raise public awareness is rarely a seventeen-page conference paper.  Complex treatises on biopolitics and Foucault are also not well suited to public service announcements.  If we want to reach a broad audience, we need a medium that is both rich in content, while remaining accessible.

What we need is a comic book.IRL Book

In particular, I’m thinking about Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s graphic novel In Real Life, a story about a girl in a small town trying to reconcile her life inside an online game with her life in the physical world.  The book follows a teenage girl named Anda as she is introduced to an MMORPG modeled off of games like World of Warcraft and Everquest.  The central conflict of the book centers on the practice of Gold Farming – low-wage workers earning in-game currency that can then be sold to wealthy players for real-world money.  Anda is hired by a guildmate to help her kill gold farmers, only to end up befriending one of them.

Gold farming is a contentious issue among both players and publishers.  Buying gold or other in-game items rather than earning them normally is considered by many players to be cheating, while gold farmers are seen as nuisances for constantly taking easily obtained resources.  Companies like Blizzard, who owns and operates World of Warcraft, are likewise motivated to combat gold farming as it can both drive away players who disapprove of the practice, and allow those who use it to play through the game more quickly.  As such, gold farmers are both harassed by other players and hunted down by Blizzard and its employees, who have the power to close their accounts.  In this sense, the virtual world of Azeroth behaves very much like Foucault’s biopolitical State, albeit with dramatically more panoptic forms of surveillance and control.

IRL Killing FarmersIronically, as Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter point out in their book, Games of Empire, the gold farmers that Blizzard tries to keep out of World of Warcraft are often actual Chinese farmers, displaced by their government.  As displaced people are recruited to work in gold farms, we see a mass migration from rural areas to cities, and from cities to the online worlds of commercial MMOs.  We also see the intersection between the real-world biopower of the Chinese State and the virtual-world biopower of Blizzard, both of which have a very real effect on the lives of the people who live and work within their respective domains3.

In Real Life illustrates these complex connections between the physical and virtual worlds by means of the friendship between Anda and Raymond, a young gold farmer from China.  The virtual conflicts that Raymond and his coworkers experience parallel the traditional labor disputes encountered by Anda’s father, which also allows the reader to ground concepts of virtual power structures in familiar frameworks.  Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book as contrasted with most approaches to teaching biopolitics is that it doesn’t shy away from complexity and intersectionality.  Anda’s story isn’t just a parable about labor and economics, but a rich narrative dealing with gender, identity, race, and community, and it does all this while still remaining accessible even to teenagers.

In Real Life doesn’t set out to be a lesson in biopolitics, though Doctorow does make his message about economics explicit in the introduction.  Nevertheless, the book takes complex themes that run throughout my research and puts them into a context that people can relate to.  I think I should start making comics a much more common tool in my teaching approach.


1. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France. Michel Foucault.
2. Thanatogaming: Death, Videogames and the Biopolitical State. Peter Christiansen.
3. Games of Empire. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter.

No Whales: Toward Sustainable Mobile Economics

Mario 2 Whale


Last week, during Nintendo’s Financial Results Briefing, company president Satoru Iwata was asked about how Nintendo planned to monetize their upcoming ventures into mobile games, specifically if they were planning on analyzing existing games as they designed their own.  Iwata acknowledged that the most successful and common strategy in the Japanese mobile market (which seems very similar to North American mobile strategies) is to go after the small percentage of players who will be willing to spend massive amounts of money on in-app purchases – the so-called “whales.” However, he noted that while Nintendo understands very well how the mobile market currently works, the company was not going to follow suit.  “I don’t think that we would be able to entertain hundreds of millions of consumers all around the world or to produce large and long-lasting achievements.”

Going against years of conventional wisdom isn’t easy, even for an established company like Nintendo, as some industry veterans have already pointed out.  In the current state of the mobile market, whales account for half of all in-app revenue.  It’s not terribly surprising, then, that this tiny segment of players occupies a large amount of developers attention – like high rollers at an upscale casino.  Unlike high rollers, however, whales are not necessarily well-to-do patricians, but are often average wage-earners.  As Mike Rose noted in an in-depth examination of free-to-play games, many of the people who spend heavily on in-app purchases can’t really afford to do so, often spending rent and food money on these games.  As one interviewee pointed out, “Free-to-play games aren’t after everyone for a few dollars — they’re after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands.”

While any business model that relies on extracting the maximum amount of profit from those who are least able to afford it is certainly on dubious ethical ground, there is also another issue – economic sustainability.  Gambling in general takes a much higher toll on the poor than it does on the rich, but in my experience, casinos are generally more focused on getting more people in the doors than they are at trying to make sure that a few people leave with their pockets empty (though they often do that part quite well, too).  In the realm of free-to-play design, however, the focus is always on the smallest, most lucrative part of their audience.  In conferences and presentations on mobile games I’ve attended in the past, the primary concern is how to keep whales spending money.  In this model, having a negative effect on your players is not just an unfortunate side-effect, it’s necessary to remain profitable.

Aside from the obvious ethical issues, this business model has a number of weaknesses.  Developers must walk a fine line between neglecting their whales (not giving them enough opportunities to spend money) and overburdening them (allowing them to spend until they run into severe financial trouble).  The exploitative nature of this model also generates a significant negative reaction against both free-to-play games and the videogame industry in general.  Even Apple, whose app store earns significantly more from free-to-play games than other kinds, has begun pushing back against this business model by highlighting games with no microtransactions at all.

Mobile MariopAlthough many experts remain skeptical of Nintendo’s dismissal of established mobile gaming wisdom, there are several good reasons for this move.  Perhaps most important is avoiding the negative stigma that has been attached to the free-to-play games in the past.  Iwata also suggests the value in seeking a “wide and small” strategy, rather than the typical “narrow and large” goal of mobile games.  This is similar in many ways to the much criticized aim of the Nintendo Wii, which proved to be the company’s biggest success in years.

It should be noted that while Iwata said that Nintendo would be looking to find its own way in the mobile market, he hasn’t said that the company would actively prevent or discourage whales, only that they wouldn’t be building their entire strategy around them like other mobile developers.  In any case, I hope that Nintendo’s entry into the market changes the way that developers think about monetization.  I doubt that free-to-play games will be going away anytime soon, but I hope that developers will at the very least start to shift their focus away from finding new ways of exploiting whales and move toward creating a product that makes money without placing the financial burden on one small group.