Panel Report: The Psychology of Game Overs

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

Justin and I led a panel regarding the use of loss in video games, which was more or less split into two min-panels. My part took a bit of a psychological approach, and asked the readers this fundamental question: “Why is it that, in a video game, you can lose a thousand times and still want to carry on, when real life losses make you feel discouraged?”

The first point I mentioned was that video games, in their inherent nature, are typically pattern-recognition-based in some way, leading most players to feel personally responsible for their loss. Contrary to popular belief, feeling responsible for loss typically can be more encouraging than otherwise. Using a study done by Jesper Juul as a reference, I explained how most players prefer games where their losses are their own fault, rather than because of some luck-based element. What seems to happen is that, when the brain feels responsible for loss, the loss becomes more in control — and therefore much more reassuring. The player will look back at the loss and say, “This time, I know when to jump,” or “This time, I know that Bubbleman’s gun is useless against this boss.” And both of these result in one other thought: “I know something I didn’t know before. This time, I will get it.”

But it’s more than just personal responsibility that encourages players; sometimes, the game makes something Jane McGonigal coined in Reality is Broken as “Fun Failure.” Sometimes games make funny noises or cut scenes when we lose. Games like Donkey Kong Country Returns make the characters reward our incompetence with primates screaming in agony, while games like Rock Band make the musician throw his instrument in a fit of rage while the crowd boos and heckles. Little rewards like this make failure a more active experience than passive failures of real life; we lose, and something happens — often things that please us through comic relief, like little rewards for trying. When this happens, it’s easy to make failure a little less serious and a little more lighthearted.

From there, I discussed how games have clear, tangible goals with constant verification. Tutorials, plot, character motivations, and instructions tell a gamer exactly how to win or lose. And beyond that, we have little bits of progress that make the most step-by-step instructions in real life seem like huge steps; achievements, trophies, level ups, save points, and bosses all give us ways to slowly check and gauge our progress. For example, you can fail a boss, but level up a few more times to guesstimate how close you are to beating it the next time.

All of this leads to answering the topical question in the first paragraph in one way: compared to reality, video games are all around more encouraging. Pattern recognition and personal responsibility convince us we can change what isn’t working. Lighthearted rewards ensure that failure is more than a passive, painful experience. And clear goals, combined with little notes of progress, give games both more direction and constant affirmation. If more of reality worked like this — like the job application process that is often all or nothing, passive after a certain point, and lacking any clear direction of what went wrong in many cases — the world would be just as ambitious, if not more so, in everyday scenarios.

Panel Report: A Feminist View of Klingons

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!
We were the first panel of the morning and it took us a little while to get started, but pretty soon about nine people were out in the audience – more would trickle in later. I was a little apprehensive about sitting down in the massive panel room one, especially as our modest turnout was dwarfed even more by the venue. But the people who showed up were all obviously interested in one or both aspects of our topic – they seemed to be all either Trekkies or feminists, and we decided to just jump in.

After a brief introduction where we talked about who the ACP is and what it is we do, I started by observing how Star Trek uses different monocultures like the Klingons, the Ferengi, and the Romulans, to tell stories about the human condition – basically a reiteration of some of the points in this article. In the particular case of the Klingons, the monoculture is one of hypermasculinity – that is to say, the Klingons represent what it is to be a “real man” in our society, at least according to the sociopolitical constructs of the patriarchy. I asked the fundamental question of the panel, which was, looking at the Klingons in this light, what insights does Star Trek have about gender politics?
Following this, Gillian took the mic for a while and briefly defined a few terms – the patriarchy, the male gaze, etc. – that we thought would be useful to our audience over the course of the discussion. Over the next forty-five minutes we would find our audience surprisingly well-versed on this topic, but it was still important to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Our discussion was structured primarily around two characters – Worf, from Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and B’Elanna Torres, from Star Trek: Voyager. At one point a quick poll of the audience revealed that most of them favored Voyager of the three shows, a statistic which surprised me somewhat but steered the B’Elanna part of the discussion more into the spotlight than we had perhaps planned. Still we started off talking about Worf, and his struggle between his warrior heritage and the culture who had raised him, the utopian Federation, which stresses diplomatic solutions and non-violent conflict resolution. The outline at this point had us discussing Worf’s relationship with his son, but the audience seemed more engaged with the fundamental struggle between Klingon and Starfleet morality, so we talked about that for a while before venturing into B’Elanna territory.
Many aspects of B’Elanna’s character generated a spirited discussion, and it was here that the feminist element of the panel really took the spotlight. We talked about her as a metaphor for women in positions of power, drawing comparisons to Hillary Clinton at one point, and how that was influenced by her warrior heritage. We also talked about her relationship with Tom Paris and the ways in which that it confirmed and challenged traditional male/female power structures. This led us into a discussion which was nowhere in our outline, about the various fully Klingon characters on the show (Lursa and B’Etor, Grilka) and how they did and did not uphold the sexual double standard. This took us into totally new and exciting territory as we talked about whether the sexual double standard would even exist in such a hyper-masculine culture. I have to credit our audience with starting us down this train of thought, which never occurred to me during my preparation for the panel.
After a brief digression about the believability of institutionalized misogyny in Klingon culture given the rest of what we know about them, we found ourselves dissecting the very idea of a monoculture, especially one composed entirely of warriors. One audience member quoted Terry Pratchett, saying of the old Klingon adage that “Today is a good day for someone else to die” is a much more effective mantra for a militaristic culture. This brought us back around to the idea that perhaps both the masculine and the feminine are required for a productive society.
All in all I think the panel was a great opportunity for a group of Star Trek fans to talk about their passion in a new and hopefully more analytical context, and I think everyone had a great deal of fun. The level of articulate and insightful audience participation was really heartening and I hope to be invited back for Revoluticon 2013.

Panel Report: TRON

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

I co-hosted a panel at Revoluticon on the Disney sci-fi classic TRON and its sequel, TRON: Legacy, with Anime Punch staff member Louie Bluhm. We were also joined by Lawrence Eng, who studied anime fandom in the US for his doctorate and is a die-hard TRON fan as well. After a conversation with the audience about the series in general and our likes and dislikes, we discussed the films’ religious themes; primarily, Users being viewed as creator deities, and Programs’ reverence for the Users as the ones who brought them into being. We examined how Programs are made in Users’ own image (for example, how Tron takes on the physical appearance of his User, Alan) and how a lot of the Users’ spirit is translated into the Programs they write, affecting the Programs’ relationships with each other, personalities, and spiritual beliefs, bringing humanity into technology. Another point of discussion was the ISOs, or Isomorphic Algorithms, which are Programs that evolve on the Grid in TRON: Legacy instead of being created by a specific User, and their spiritual beliefs, noting that even though they do not have a direct Creator, per se, they (or, at least, Quorra) still view Kevin Flynn as such.

We then looked at the two villains of the films, the MCP from TRON and Clu from TRON: Legacy, and the differences in their motivations. We noted that both viewed themselves as better and more capable than their Users. The MCP views itself as more intelligent and capable than its User because said User has allowed it to grow beyond his control and do what it wants. However, Clu believes that Flynn betrayed him; Flynn programmed him to help him create and maintain the “perfect system,” which, in Clu’s mind, meant something stable and unchanging. When the ISOs evolved spontaneously, Flynn viewed them as a miracle, but Clu viewed them as a chaotic threat to the perfection he was maintaining. This difference in opinion drove Clu to reject Flynn as his User.

Finally, we discussed the future of computer technology, what concepts from the TRON films are relevant today, and the blurring line between organic reality and technological cyberspace. This discussion actually continued in an overflow panel room after our initial time was up! We panelists enjoyed the insightful and passionate discussion that transpired, and it was wonderful to talk about TRON with other fans.