Fireside this week! I’m back home now from PDXCON2022 so it is back to work. I know there have been a number of requests to know if the historians panel with Eleanor Janega and myself was recorded; it was and the recording is set to be uploaded shortly, but there are a number of turning wheels there. When it appears, I will let you all know!
For this week’s musing, I wanted to talk in a less carefully organized way about how to ‘read’ the meaning encoded into the mechanics of games. This is something I discussed only very briefly in my PDXCON talk (since that was directed more at an audience of players than at historians interested in methodology) but I though it might be interesting to talk about how I think on this. A caveat at the front that because my training didn’t focus much on reception studies and because I’ve only really started to back my way into games analysis, my own reading of other scholars doing this sort of analysis is not very deep, so it is possible I am doing some wheel-reinventing here.1
The tricky thing with assessing mechanics-driven games is that the experience they provide is not the same for everyone who experiences, far beyond the sort of reader-induced subjectivity of a narrative text. So there is no one ‘golden’ playthrough through which all of the meaning may be assessed, yet at the same time I have argued that we can draw out meaning from the mechanics and the experiences they tend to produce.
That said my first ‘rule’ as it were is that the experience is paramount, which is to say that the thing which matters most is the way the player experiences all of the mechanics and content together. The extreme example of this principle would be cut content: yes it is in the game files, but unlike, say, an appendix in a book, players aren’t going to experience it so it doesn’t usually ‘count’ for an analysis. Even for ‘live’ content and mechanics, one needs to always have in mind what proportion of the players of the game will actually experience it. A lot of games feature play-modes and pathways that were planned for but intended for only a few players or to exist mostly as alternatives to give the most common path extra meaning (the most frequent use of this are ‘evil’ options chosen by only a small minority of players which nevertheless give the majority of player’s ‘good’ path more meaning by offering a fully developed alternative).
I should note that I don’t think, in most cases, this is an unfair standard to hold the work of game developers to. Good developers are very aware of what content is more or less likely to get experienced and many modern games with online features actively feed metrics back to developers (e.g. “how many players got that ending” or “beat that boss“) As I argued with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, hiding certain elements of long games in areas few players will reach is a development choice: both something fair to critique and also something that clearly bears on the median or typical player experience.
That in turn impacts how I go about experiencing a game in order to critique it. For fairly single-path narrative experiences one can generally just play the game, but for more mechanics-driven games with greater variability in outcome I think it is also helpful to immerse one’s self a bit in the community of the game if possible in order to get a sense of what outcomes and playstyles are common. Ideally a scholar might try to get access to those developer-harvested metrics (but good luck with that), but in their absence the community or even better global achievement statistics (Steam makes these available) can give a sense of the typical playthrough. For instance about 38% of players on Steam reach the final boss in Elden Ring (fairly high for a game so long); 75% beat the first major boss. Strikingly there, the ‘Age of the Stars’ ending – despite being arguably the most complex and difficult to obtain – is by far the most common; 26% of players (so more than two thirds of the 38% that finish the game) have this ending, compared to just 13% with the ‘Lord of Frenzied Flame’ ending and 19% with the ‘Elden Lord’ endings (a package of four endings which share an achievement).
If I’m thinking about the meaning in Elden Ring – which I think frankly would be even better served by being discussed by myth-and-literature scholars than by historians – I have to be thinking about it in terms of a game where only about half of players that make a solid investment reach the end, but of that half, two-thirds aim for an achieve a complex, difficult ending with a very different tone than the others. You could almost pie-chart the player end-states thus when thinking about the experience of the game: half don’t finish, a third or so get the ‘Age of the Stars’ ending in at least one playthrough and the remaining 17% experience only the more tonally downcast endings (in practice given the structure of the game I suspect most of that 17% only experience the Elden Lord endings, because that’s what happens if you do the bare minimum to reach the end of the game).
When thinking about the actual mechanics, it’s important to think both in terms of how they both describe the game world (which in a historical game is ‘the past’) and also how they motivate player actions. To again take a deceptively simple example, a game with falling damage is both attesting to a realistic depiction of gravity but also pushing players to be cautious around long drops: the mechanic both describes the world and also pushes the player towards certain actions. This duality struck me most vividly when I was thinking about the function of EUIV‘s anarchic political system: it both attempts to describe the past (that is, it contends that the early modern period was a violent episode of interstate anarchy) but also motivates player behavior (pushing them towards conquest).
‘Pushes’ on players come in a range of intensities. Explicit win and loss states are the strongest sort of player-motivations, but there are a lot of more subtle ways for mechanics to shape player behavior that needs to be considered. Consider a choice which moves the player closer to a ‘win-state’ but also locks out large amounts of content – is that an encouraged action? Perhaps counter-intuitively, no; that’s the road to the ‘bad ending’ in most multiple ending games (e.g. the ‘Age of Fracture’ ending in Elden Ring; there’s a reason most players that complete the game do so with the far more complex and difficult ‘Age of Stars’ ending). Getting to see all of the content is often itself a reward and thus a motivation for player behavior. Likewise becoming more powerful, even if it doesn’t lead directly to a win-state, is often a fairly strong motivator, though some games play with this: the classic example being the story-framed ‘evil’ choice resulting in somewhat more ‘power’ than the story-framed ‘good’ choice (a tactic that largely just exists to give the good choice most players will take moral resonance, which is why a large amount of content is typically not hidden behind these choices).
All of this can be tricky, but it is important to avoid mistaking what the player can do compared to what the player is encouraged to do. You can play a Grand Theft Auto game as a good citizen who never breaks traffic laws, but doing so will block progress in the plot; the game pushes you towards violent, destructive play. On the flip-side, you can play Skyrim like it’s Grand Theft (Middle) Ages, but you will lock out a ton of content and the game’s systems push back against this style of play.2 It is more useful to think in terms of ‘motivation,’ or ‘pushes and nudges’ than the more common language of ‘intended play’ because of course if the game is able to respond to your actions at all it is because the developers on some level ‘intended’ your play to be possible. Killing every NPC you meet in a FromSoft game is thus ‘intended’ play but because it locks out much more content than it reveals, I’d argue it is mostly discouraged play as well.
At the same time in most games these mechanics are intended to represent something about the world being described and so it is useful for try to understand what is being represented and how. Often the answer is obvious but in some cases one needs to plumb some of the more complex mechanical interactions. A good example of this are EUIV‘s institutions; it would be easy enough to assume that an institution like ‘the Printing Press’ just represents the emergence of modern moveable-type printers and move on; it is their connection with the technology system and the technology system’s connection to military power that reveals institutions as the means that EUIV attempts to explain the military revolution and the great divergence. At the same time it is important to appreciate the level of abstraction involved in such mechanics; complex things are often simplified heavily in game mechanics.
Of course none of these frameworks are a replacement for simply playing the game; at the same time they are helpful in playing a game with an open eye to how the mechanics of the game itself convey part of its meaning.
On to this week’s recommendations!
I can’t offer my normal recommendations for updates on the War in Ukraine, because events right now are moving fairly quickly, with Ukrainian offensives in both Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts apparently finding meaningful success. Anything I posted here would probably be dated by the time you saw it. I’d suggest keeping an eye out for Michael Kofman to make an appearance on the War on the Rocks podcast. The best place to try to keep track of what is confirmed is probably the ISW’s Russian campaign assessments (which despite their name give a sense of both parties, though prioritize Russia to avoid compromising Ukrainian operational security). If you’re on twitter, look for @KofmanMichael, @RALee85, and @Nrg8000 along with the folks they’re citing and retweeting and you won’t be led astray. But I should be careful to stress at this point that the fog of war is thick and we know relatively little for certain.
Meanwhile in the land of Classics, Pasts Imperfect after a bit of a hiatus earlier in the year continues to deliver updates on all sorts of wonderful antiquity related content available to the public. Of particular note for me was their highlighting of the tweet below by Carol Drinkwater on a Roman fort exposed because of sinking water levels in Spain. The view of the fort and its layout, complete with the partially visible ‘playing card‘ shape is fantastic, but of course the climate-change fueled drought that revealed it is also deeply concerning.
For this week’s book recommendation, I am going to recommend R.H. Spector, At War At Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century (2001), particularly as a good modern introduction both to some of the key events of 20th century naval warfare but also the key concepts and tensions which animate the discussion of modern navies and naval warfare. The tension is, in many ways, signaled in the title: this is a book about sailors and naval combat. A persistent tension in military history is between those who focus on metal and those who focus on ‘meat and minds,’ which is to say the human element. In land warfare, the human approach seems to have been dominant for decades, especially since a ‘war and society’ lens tends to understand materiel superiority as a consequence of social structures and popular will. But naval warfare has long been a field where metal was at its strongest; a ship’s crew cannot flee in terror (though a captain might lose their nerve and retreat) nor can they charge with more boldness than the engines allow.
Nevertheless the human factor matters in naval warfare as well and Spector does a good job bringing this out, arguing for a balance between human concerns and the concerns of the metal, though of course technical explanations still intrude when relevant – and they are frequently relevant. Spector brings out this human element very well, particularly in the repeated focus on how institutional structures and cultures produced officers and sailors who then acted in accordance with the values and culture of those institutions for better and for worse. The reader will quickly recognize the repeated patterns of closed, elite naval hierarchies reinforced by conformity-inducing training and narrow recruitment pools struggling to adapt to naval warfare that increasingly demanded both non-elite technical expertise but also operated on a much greater scale with a greater degree of decision-making needing to be delegated down to junior officers and petty officers.
Spector has structured this approach as a series of case studies focused on particular battles or events, connecting the shaping institutions at the beginning of a chapter to the outcome of the event towards the end. The battles so treated are mostly ones to be expected: Tsushima, Jutland, Leyte, with some that may be less familiar like the British evacuation of Crete or the Flight 655 shootdown in 1988. The book is clearly written for a popular audience, though it does feature (end)notes. Importantly, it is clearly written and doesn’t require a mountain of prior experience with naval terminology to make sense of. As a result the book is both an argument for a more human-centered approach to naval warfare and a solid toehold for those looking to push into some of the more resolutely technical and ‘metal-oriented’ areas of the field.
- Which seems a good time to offer a reminder that these Fireside posts are musings, not something very carefully polished and long-considered.
- This is a good example, by the way of how small changes in mechanics can make for big changes in tone. GTA‘s ‘alert’ level (stars) clears fairly quickly if you evade pursuit, encouraging the player to do whatever crime they will and then escape. By contrast Skyrim‘s bounties do not clear over time; with a few odd exceptions once you have one you are stuck with it until it is paid. That means that just carrying large bounties all the time ends up being a very limited playstyle as most quest NPCs are in cities where guards will make things permanently difficult for a player with a bounty. Thus despite having superficially similar crime/bounty/witness systems, the subtle changes cause each game’s system to incentivize radically different play.