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.

References

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.

Game Mods: Labor and Value

Steam Workshop Revolt

Last week, Valve made the shocking (though not altogether unanticipated) move toward allowing modders to sell mods through Steam Workshop.  This experiment lasted less than a week before it was abandoned in the face of widespread criticism and general discontent among Steam users.  I don’t feel the need to attempt a complete history of the turmoil, as a number of people have already done an excellent job of recording some of the key events that took place during those few days.  However, since a fair amount of my research surrounds the practice of videogame modding, I thought that I would share my perspectives on a few points that stood out to me – primarily concerning the themes of labor and value.

One of the earliest and most influential academic studies on the value of modding is Hector Postigo’s work with games like Battlefield 1942.  Just looking at large-scale, high-quality mods like the “Homefront” mod, Postigo estimates that were the original development studios to produce this same content themselves (say, as DLC), the cost could be as much as 50 percent of the original development costs1.  Considering that the development costs of some of the most popular games for modding stretch into the tens of millions of dollars, this is no trivial matter.

Hammer EditorEven if you disagree on some of the particulars of how Postigo calculates his figures, one thing is clear – mods have value (and probably a lot of value).  The question, then, is who benefits from the value that is being created through modding labor?  Developers clearly benefit, as mods extend the lifespan of a product, generate good will toward the company, and in some cases, can even drive sales when people are more interested in playing the mod than the vanilla game itself2. Mods also serve as a testing ground for ideas that could be incorporated into later commercial products.  The modding community can also serve as a source of feedback, beta-testers, or even potential employees.

Players also benefit substantially from modding.  While the addition of free content is a fairly obvious perk, it is significant not just for the fact that it is additional content, but that it is often a very different kind of content than developers can create.  One example is the “FinnWars” mod by Iceflake Studio.  While the Finn Wars are a point of great interest for Finnish people, such a small and specific audience makes it an unlikely subject for a large studio to address.  Modding allows for content to be created for groups that might be underserviced or marginalized by the mainstream industry.

The benefits that modders gain from their own work is a somewhat more complicated issue.  As I have discussed elsewhere, while modding can be means of entry into the videogame industry, the lack of wages and general uncertainty of future employment puts modding a step below even the most exploitative internship.  Additionally, while modders generally forfeit the rights to their work when they accept the modding EULA, they frequently come up against the intellectual property rights of others.  They are also subject to the whims of the game developers whose game they mod, and have little recourse if their game is rendered obsolete or unplayable by a patch or an expansion3.

There are certainly other motivations for modding.  Many modders simply see it as an enjoyable hobby, and in that sense, it does not disappoint.  Modding can be a lot of fun, and provides a new way for players to interact with the games they love on a deeper level.  That said, it’s not a fair comparison to look at modding as just another hobby.  Pressing flowers and building model ships can also be rewarding despite the effort involved, but if my pressed flowers started making millions of dollars, you can bet that I would expect some share of the profits.

In the current economic model of game modding, large amounts of modder labor creates a valuable product which disproportionately benefits others.  In this sense, modding is very exploitative, though aspects like the voluntary nature of the labor and complex relationship with employment in the videogame industry make it difficult to compare directly to other forms of economic exploitation.  Regardless, if mods have value, their creators deserve to benefit from it.

It was into this milieu that Valve brought its new system for paid mods.  It’s hard to overstate the significance of this change, as it was the first real system in which modders could directly receive monetary compensation for their work.  Acting as an intermediary, Valve was able to secure revenue sharing agreements with publishers and developers – something that would have been almost impossible for any group of modders on their own.

Steam Mod CommentsThere were, of course, a number of issues with Valve’s system.  The profits from paid mods were divided between Valve, the developers of the original game, and the creators of the mods.  In this arrangement, however, the modders only received 25 percent of the profits, which I believe once again undervalues their contributions to the final product.  Also, as Bethesda pointed out, their hefty 45 percent cut of mod sales is less than one percent of their revenue from Steam, hardly worth twisting the arms of their own modders who’d rather mod than work more hours at their day job.

There is also the issue of collaboration and sharing in the mod community.  While modders can work in structured teams, they also work in ad hoc collaborations, build upon the work of past modders, and make tools that benefit the whole community.  These kinds of complex systems of labor and production are certainly not incompatible with money (few things are), but introducing money into such systems is not a simple transition.  In fact, it only took a few hours before a paid mod was taken down due to incorporating elements from another free mod.  In retrospect, that particular problem could have been avoided were it not for Valve’s non-disclosure agreements preventing any kind of arrangement between the two modders (NDAs are part of a much bigger problem with the videogame industry), but Valve still lacks a policy to effectively deal with the larger issue of mod ownership.

Both of these issues are important and it’s crucial to address them properly, lest paid mods just become a slightly different way of exploiting modders.  Still, I think that the benefits of paid modding justify having these conversations.  Not being able to help people as much as you would like is a poor reason not to help them at all, and while some very valid criticism of the system has been made, the most vocal opposition were players who simply didn’t want to change the status quo.  For those interested in a more in-depth analysis of these arguments, Lars Doucet has posted an excellent analysis of the major points on his blog.

Skyrim Protest ModAlthough the disproportionate and abusive public backlash ultimately forced Valve to discontinue the program, there are a few things that we can take away from the fiasco.  While most of the protest occurred through the usual means – spam comments, forum posts, social media rants – the paid mod debate also saw the rise of protest mods like “Extra Apple” (a mod costing $35 to add a single apple to the game) and “Protest Sign,” which shot to the top of the Steam Workshop during that weekend.  Arguing that your fellow modders don’t deserve to be paid may not be the most altruistic of messages, but regardless, it set a precedent for the use of mods as political speech.

It is also significant that while Valve abandoned the mod store for the time being, many modders and other players still support the idea.  These voices are by far the minority (or are at least less outspoken), but show that there is a community for the kind of modding ecosystem that Valve envisioned.  As for those vocally opposed to paid mods, as Markus “Notch” Persson pointed out on Twitter, one of the reasons he sold Mojang was due to the outrage over not allowing paid mods in Minecraft.  No matter what Valve does, they can’t please everyone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if Valve and Bethesda never manage to relaunch paid mods on Steam, their experiment has shown that it is possible.  Game developers and modders can come to an agreement over rights and profits, overcoming the once insurmountable legal and economic barriers that kept modders as second-class developers.  There are still plenty of details that must be worked out, but now there is a clear example of how to begin.  Even though Valve’s paid mods may have been a failure, we can never look at modding the same way again.

 

References

1. Of Mods and Modders. Hector Postigo.
2. Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar. Valve.
3. Between a Mod and a Hard Place. Peter Christiansen. Game Mods: Design, Theory, and Criticism.

Minecraft Geology: Science Communication and Videogames

Minecraft Geologist

If you’ve read any of my posts over at Play the Past, then you probably know that I’m quite interested in science communication and its relationship to videogames.  Science communication is a very broad field, dealing with any communication between scientists and non-scientists (and occasionally even scientists communicating with each other).  One of the most visible forms of science communication in relationship to mass media is the idea of “debunking” science myths.  This can range from rather lighthearted treatments like an episode of Mythbusters to a peer-reviewed article in a major academic journal like Nature1. While most people are media savvy enough not to take television and movies at face value, media depictions of science can influence us in subtle ways, such as the alleged “CSI effect,” in which jurors who watch crime dramas have unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence or unwarranted confidence in unproven (or even fictional) forensic procedures2.  As such, scientists are often quite passionate about debunking misleading depictions of science in the media…except maybe when it comes to videogames.

While television and movies are often subject to quite detailed scrutiny by scientists, I rarely see the same kind of fervor related to videogames.  In fact, I’m giving a presentation at FDG 2015 in a few weeks about this very subject.  Imagine, then, how excited I was to discover yesterday that Geoscience Australia had recently created an educational poster3 to teach kids about some of the inaccuracies in Minecraft geology.  Not surprisingly, most of the responses I’ve seen to the poster have ranged from sarcastic and dismissive to irritated and defensive.  Many are along the lines of “oh dear, we must stop the children from running outside and punching trees!”  There are, of course, many fantastic elements in Minecraft, none of which seem likely to have deleterious effects in the vein of the CSI effect.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of reasons that I think Geoscience Australia is making a very wise move in engaging with Minecraft, though there is certainly room for improvement.

This past January, I was on a panel about videogames at the Salt Lake ComicCon.  One of the last questions from the audience was about what game you would suggest for someone who had never played a videogame before.  I suggested Minecraft, but unfortunately had no time to elaborate on the reasoning behind my choice.  The reason I consider Minecraft to be a good game for someone with little experience is the fact that the game structure lends itself to learning.  As Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir have noted, the kind of play that Minecraft enables is similar in many ways to the kinds of progressive play-based pedagogies advocated by 19th educators like Friedrich Fröbel and Maria Montessori.  Whereas their methods called for supervising adults to guide and direct children’s play to meet educational goals, Fanning and Mir argue that the structure and constraints of the game, as well as the abundance of wikis and other external materials, allow Minecraft to achieve similar goals both inside and outside the classroom4.

Minecraft CastleIn keeping with Fanning and Mir (and not coincidentally in the same book), I have argued that Minecraft is structured in such a way as to encourage players (including adult players) to engage more deeply with the game.  While any well-designed game is educational in the sense that it at least teaches new players how to play, deeper forms of engagement such as modding are usually far beyond the average player’s skill set.  Minecraft, on the other hand, offers different forms of engagement in a graduated series of steps.  The most basic task in the game, gathering resources like wood and food, is fairly straightforward and not dissimilar to mechanics found in other games.  The crafting system adds much more complexity to the game, often requiring the player to familiarize herself with crafting recipes through the use of wikis or forums.  Tools created through crafting can then be used to shape the game environment, allowing the player to construct vast structures and mechanisms.  The most complicated mechanisms require an understanding of redstone, which can be used to create incredibly intricate systems of virtual circuits, giving the player a huge amount of control over what happens in the game world.  From there, making the jump to actual modding is almost trivial (some redstone devices are far more complicated than the average mod).  Thus, Minecraft doesn’t just create a path to guide the player through to the last level, but to guide the player toward a deep technical understanding of the game itself5.

Minecraft RedstoneSince Minecraft is a game that naturally lends itself toward educational purposes, it makes a lot of sense for Geoscience Australia to focus their efforts there instead of on other games like Skyrim (although other people have looked at geology in Skyrim, and it’s fascinating).  From what I can tell, their poster is actually based on a physical Minecraft exhibit on display at their Education Centre in Canberra, complete with actual chunks of obsidian, diamond ore, and such.  While you can schedule field trips to tour their Education Centre in person, teachers are also able to download educational materials, including their Minecraft poster, which is a condensed version of their physical exhibit.  Those who read this poster carefully will notice an asterisk leading them to a very important line:  “For the purposes of this poster, some of the statements have been generalized.”

Judging by the placement of the asterisks, this statement is probably meant to refer to specific portions of the text that had to be shortened from the full exhibit descriptions, however, they inadvertently get at a much more significant issue.  The information on the poster had to be generalized to fit the medium – a poster has different constraints than a physical exhibit.  This doesn’t just mean less space, but also the transition from three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional images.  This leads to the rather ironic fact that while the poster emphasizes that obsidian is not purple, the photograph of obsidian that appears on the poster is actually a brighter shade of purple than the version from Minecraft.  A photograph taken with flat lighting might have been able to get rid of the purple highlights, but wouldn’t be able to communicate the glassy sheen that distinguishes obsidian from other black stones.  A picture can’t fully capture the experience of seeing an actual piece of obsidian, so we must settle for a representation.

Obsidian ComparisonLike all media, videogames have their own affordances and constraints.  In order to effectively critique a media artifact, you need to understand and adapt to them.  The lighting system used by Minecraft can’t generate the specular highlights that identify a glass-like material, so the texture and luster of obsidian is represented by jagged purple marks on the surface of the block that suggest sharp edges reflecting the surrounding light (not unlike the photo on the poster).  The block doesn’t look exactly like real obsidian, but a solid black cube wouldn’t really look like obsidian, either.  Arguing the point would be almost as pedantic as pointing out that rocks do not naturally form in perfect one meter cubes.

While the Geoscience Australia poster makes some significant and interesting points, there is definitely a strong vein of debunking zeal that runs through it.  The words “no” and “not” are sprinkled liberally throughout the layout, written in bold just in case you didn’t notice them.  In general, it makes for a much less interesting and less engaging poster.  Of course it is true that “diamonds are not used for armor,” but merely stating that fact doesn’t really teach kids anything interesting or useful about diamonds.  A more useful approach than simply smacking the game a few times with the debunking hammer is to compare and contrast real-world geology with the virtual-world geology of Minecraft, as in this infographic from the Mining Examiner.  Once again, the whole point is that the portrayal of diamonds in Minecraft is different from the way diamonds work in the real world, but it demonstrates this by comparing information from both sources, creating a much better starting point for discussion than simply saying “no.”

Although there are a number of points that I would have done differently, I think Geoscience Australia made a smart move in looking at the portrayal of geology in Minecraft.  While most people won’t have the opportunity to take an actual geology class until high school or college, kids playing Minecraft are being exposed to concepts like metal ores, magma flows, and erosion, and they’re being exposed to them in an intriguing, interactive setting.  Although there is certainly a potential for misinformation, the potential for inspiring curiosity and excitement is far greater.

 

References

1. Wacky, weird and scientifically illiterate. John Durant. Nature.
2. The CSI Effect on Real Crime Labs. Sheila L. Stephens. The New England Law Review.
3. The Geology of Minecraft. L. I. Davis. Geoscience Australia.
4. Progressive Pedagogy. Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir. Understanding Minecraft.
5. Players, Modders, and Hackers. Peter Christiansen. Understanding Minecraft.

Old Weird Games: Princess Maker 2

Princess Maker Street DuelLast week at GDC, Leigh Alexander announced the reboot of Offworld, the videogame offshoot of Boing Boing.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the site’s first articles was on Princess Maker 2, an obscure game most people (including most developers I know) have never heard of.  This hardly surprising, because while the series was quite successful in Japan, only the second game was ever translated into English and the localization project ultimately fell apart before the game was officially released.  Thus, the only thing that remains of the English version of Princess Maker 2 is a leaked version of the mostly completed game.

Princess Maker HouseworkFor most Americans encountering the game for the first time, the experience is likely to be bizarre.  It is set in a fantasy world modeled after a Medieval European city as imagined by Japanese developers for a Japanese audience.  There is a strange collision of cultural tropes and social mores that could be uncomfortable for some players.  The game juxtaposes Catholic nuns with Roman(ish) gods and Slavic house spirits.  While the level of violence in the game is fairly tame compared to North American games (Princess Maker 2 was released the same year as Doom), the fact that the game deals with sexuality at all was rather scandalous for the time.  Coincidentally, had the game actually been released in North America, it would have hit the shelves at roughly the same time that US Senators were calling Night Trap, a game where the sexual content consisted of a girl in a nightgown, “sick” and “disgusting.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the game is the fact that the player is put in the roll of the protagonist’s adoptive father.  You don’t actually play as the princess, but as the titular princess maker.  The player is not invited to identify with the girl on screen as much as think of her as a very complicated Pokémon or virtual pet.  As Kim Nguyen points out, this can get creepy really fast, depending on how you as the player-dad decide to shape your daughter.  By taking away direct player control of the aspiring princess and instead routing that control through an unseen male caretaker, it becomes very difficult to avoid a certain degree of voyeurism and objectification as you silently watch your daughter obediently perform any task you put on her monthly schedule.

While this dominant reading of Princess Maker 2 (if I may put on my Stuart Hall hat for a moment) reflects the patriarchal nature of the relations of production and knowledge frameworks involved in the creation of the game, it is certainly not the only possible reading.  Indeed, as Hall notes, one of the most significant political moments is when these dominant ways of understanding media messages begin to give way to oppositional readings that consciously push back against the dominant-hegemonic understanding.1

Princess Maker GraveyardAlthough my own reading of Princess Maker certainly contrasts with the dominant reading, I hesitate to call it oppositional, at least in the way Hall uses the term.  My counter-reading of the game came not from my critical perspective as an academic, but from my very uncritical perspective as a teenager.  I learned about Princess Maker from a metalhead friend of mine (who also introduced me to games such as Ultima) and was intrigued by the idea of a game that followed a female protagonist who went about doing traditionally feminine things.  Approaching it as I would any Western game, I made two broad assumptions about Princess Maker.  First, I assumed that any game with the word “princess” in the title was created with girls as the intended audience.  Second, I assumed that the character in the middle of the screen that I looked at most of the game was supposed to be my avatar.  While I read the opening narrative about being an injured warrior gifted with a daughter from the heavens, I incorrectly assumed that the father figure was meant as a diegetic way of delivering information or implementing certain game mechanics, much like Deckard Cain in Diablo or the Zerg Overmind in Starcraft (this role is actually performed by Cube, the family butler).  As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t playing as a retired war hero – I was a magical ten year old girl and I was going to grow up to be a princess!

On my first attempt at playing the game (not counting several times I mismanaged my funds and starved to death), I did my best to play the game as I believed it was meant to be played.  I spent a lot of time teaching my daughter (for the sake of consistency, I’ll try to avoid slipping into the first person) art and decorum while giving her lots of free time to keep her stress levels down.  When she turned fourteen, she developed a rivalry with a dancer in town and became determined to beat her at the harvest festival dance competition.  Although my daughter was an amazing artist, she wasn’t particularly good at dancing.  Rather than encouraging her to stick with her art skills, I decided to support her new dancing obsession.  She lost horribly to her rival the first year, so I was determined to help her win before her eighteenth birthday.

Princess Maker SalonFor the next few years, we focused on making her the perfect dancer.  A dancer needed artistic skill, constitution, and charisma.  She stopped working for the mason (which lowered her charisma) and started working at the salon instead.  All our spare cash went to buying her more dance lessons. As her final competition approached, I saved up some money to buy her a nice silk dress instead of the old cotton one she had worn for years.  Unfortunately, the dress didn’t fit.  I put her on a strict diet and just in time for the competition, she was able to finally able to fit into her new dress.  As I recall, she was able to finally beat her rival that year, but didn’t quite manage to take first place in the competition.

After she left the house, she became an assistant dance instructor.  Although she was incredibly skilled at dancing, all the dieting had made her kind of weak and frail, so she was never really able to make it as a professional dancer.  She was disappointed.  I was disappointed.  Even the gods were disappointed.  It sucked.

That was the last time I listened to what the game wanted me to do.

The next time I played, I gave my daughter a healthy, robust diet right from the start.  Although not the most lady-like jobs, she worked on the local farm and as a lumberjack.  Once again, she became rivals with the dancer, but I decided to enter her in the painting contest instead of the dance party.  Although she was initially upset, her disappointment faded when she took first place in the art competition.  I used the prize money to buy her a well-rounded education, while saving a little for us to go on the occasional vacation.  She learned to navigate the intrigue of the royal court and went adventuring beyond the city walls.  The game kept giving me subtle and not-so-subtle hints that my daughter was too chubby, but this time, I ignored them.

Princess Maker Dance PartyWhen her final harvest festival came around, I finally let her compete in the dance competition.  The only dress in the shop that would fit her was the slightly frumpy cotton dress, but she had a stronger constitution than any man in the kingdom (she had, after all, won the combat tournament the year before).  She may not have been the thinnest or the most feminine dancer in the competition, but she blew everyone else away with her technique.  She easily won the competition, more than tripling the score of the nearest competitor.

In the end, she didn’t stick with dance, but became a professional writer instead.  Not only did she have a successful career, she ended up marrying the prince!  Yes, my adventurous, husky, wood-chopping, poet daughter had become a princess.  I certainly don’t think this was exactly how the developers envisioned the game being played.  After all, who creates art assets for half a dozen dresses that no one can fit into?  Still, with the hundreds of different mechanics and statistics that the developers had woven together, this was one of the possibilities that they had enabled.

This is the reason I frequently bring up Princess Maker 2 in game design classes.  Although I run the risk of being that hipster guy who is always talking about unreleased Japanese games that you’ve probably never played, Princess Maker manages to interconnect its mechanics in ways that most games don’t, transcending the common dichotomies between masculine and feminine traits.  The sensitivity you learn working at a hair salon can help you sense magical creatures or hide from undead warriors.  The conversation skills you pick up waiting tables at a bar might help you talk your way out of a dangerous fight, while the physique you build chopping wood can make you a strong, athletic dancer.

Princess Maker GlacierThis overabundance of attributes also allows Princess Maker to subvert a number of problematic tropes that are common in RPGs.  In your standard Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG, you take control of a heroic warrior who is still considered heroic despite the fact that he spends most of his time roaming the land, killing things and taking their stuff.  While there are often plenty of diegetic reasons to avoid combat, procedurally, murder and theft are unequivocally positive activities.  Princess Maker allows the player to do some adventuring and dungeon crawling, but killing monsters, even evil demons, gives your player sin, one of the most negative attributes you can have.  You can certainly still play your character D&D style, accumulating a small fortune by slaughtering the local fauna, but people will treat you like the bloodthirsty barbarian you are.  Although the sin mechanic is still bit of a heavy-handed way of addressing the problem, it is much less so than enforcing the player’s heroic ethic through the more common Zelda-style unkillable NPCs.  Instead, it makes stealth and diplomacy much more attractive strategies for adventuring and turns violence (of which there is still plenty) into the last resort that we would expect it to be for our heroic protagonist.  It also doesn’t disallow the option of playing as a ruthless bandit who attacks merchants on the road to fund her lavish lifestyle.

I think Princess Maker 2 is can be a valuable game for designers, but I also think it can be a valuable game for girls.  While there are plenty of significant issues with the design of the game, it’s important to remember that media texts like games are not closed ideological systems, but inherently polysemic constructions that reflect the contradictions of their production.2 Videogames, like other media artifacts, are sites of negotiation, interpretation, and resistance, and I think there are a lot of reasons that games like Princess Maker are worth fighting for.

Princess Maker StatsAlong with more well-known games from the 1990s like Doom and Quake, Princess Maker 2 was also a contemporary of Barbie Fashion Designer. The game, which was an unexpected success with young girls, spawned countless other “Pink Games” hoping to cash in on this new and mysterious non-male demographic. While there are certainly good things to be said for creating a game for an underserved and marginalized group, Barbie Fashion Designer was (not surprisingly) very problematic in its depiction of gender norms. Additionally, as Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins point out, it “restricts the potential for appropriative and resistant play, facilitating the creation of ‘miniskirts and wedding dresses’ but not of the work clothes needed to create ‘Barbie Auto Mechanic or Barbie Police Officer.'”3 Although a successful American localization of Princess Maker 2 might have provoked the same kind of moral panic created by Night Trap, Princess Maker succeeds in precisely the way that Barbie Fashion Designer fails.  Although the game defines a certain feminine ideal and reinforces this ideal through points systems and in-game messages, it gives the player a remarkable ability to reinterpret and resist that ideal.  Your daughter could marry the prince, or she could remain single.  She could grow up to be a dancer, the minister of state, a bandit, or a dominatrix.  I doubt that any Barbie game will ever give the player such latitude.

I think Alexander sums it up best in the last line of her article.  “There’s something very special about this genre in general, and how it lies at the intersection of many players’ desire to have control with their desire to give care.”  Princess Maker 2 is a game fraught with contradictions.  It can be both deeply satisfying and deeply unsettling.  I’m excited to look into Long Live the Queen, which follows in the traditions of child-raising sims like Princess Maker, but removes the problematic unseen father figure and lets the player play as the princess herself.  I hope, though, that this won’t be the extent of Princess Maker’s legacy.  With it’s rich system of interconnected mechanics and incorporation, however problematic, of many more feminine themes, Princess Maker is a worthwhile game for any designer to study.

 

References

1. Encoding/Decoding. Stuart Hall.
2. Feminist Media Studies. Liesbet van Zoonen
3. Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. From Barbie To Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.