Video Games and the Suspension of Disbelief

First off, I’ve been rather stressed out lately. I haven’t been writing here as much as I’d like to, probably because I am not in optimal condition to digest and interpret matters which I take rather seriously. Therefore, I’m going to take a break (even if for but a post) from major examinations of philosophy and society to talk about something that I usually derive great pleasure from: video games.
This is not a post that will attempt to establish that video games are art. I am no expert when it comes to art, and I am not the sort that could attempt to establish and support such a thesis. I have a pretty liberal idea of what constitutes “art” in any case, and my line of thinking is similar to this quote from Man on Fire: “A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” To me, video games can be art, there is an art to warfare (“The Art of War”), writing is an art form, and so on.
Generally, there is not nearly so much controversy when one asserts that writing/literature is art, and I am going to apply the idea of “suspension of disbelief” to a discussion about video games. I once fancied myself a writer and wanted to pursue being a novelist, so I understand more about the art of writing than I do about other art forms. I’ve also been playing video games for years and years, so combining ideas from both seems rather natural.
The main thesis is that once that suspension of disbelief is broken, a gamer stops playing a game – much like a reader would stop reading a book.
Initial Concerns – Interface
I believe it is fair to boil down the idea of “suspension of disbelief” in literature to the idea that the reader must buy into the writer’s world, that even though the reader knows what’s going on is fiction, they choose to suspend their disbelief and behave as though what they were reading was not fiction, to get into the mood. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, and it does not necessarily mean a writer need be overly concerned with realism or describing the mechanics of their fictional (and sometimes fantastic) universes; but if a reader will not suspend their disbelief, it is unlikely they will continue reading. Therefore, it’s a critical concern. When it comes to a video game and for the purpose of my analysis, “suspension of disbelief” refers to the gamer’s willingness to continue playing a video game despite objections the gamer may have to the various stages of game play – from interface, to mechanics, to immersion.
Video games are a unique medium with a unique interface. Generally, one needn’t worry about interface concerns when it comes to writing – we are all very used to interfacing with books and the written word. Not many surprises there – black ink on white paper, read from left to right and top to bottom, usually in book form…you get the idea. With a video game, however, we don’t interface this way, even though the ability to read may be crucial to enjoying the game. There are many other factors, and the interface may be a big enough hurdle that some people give up before they’ve even began playing (stereotypical example: old people).
I agree with a lot of what David Sirlin has to say about interface. Here’s a quote from one of his interviews (responding to why he thinks designers make a lot of mistakes with interface):

I think there are many reasons that all contribute to that. One of them is that game designers like to think about system or story―big ideas. And that [interface] is not big ideas. It’s mundane and boring and not sexy to care about. And yet you can end up with this great story that’s written in children’s handwriting. It’s ridiculous. It’s that extra level of polish that we as an industry need to care about more.

Sometimes, however, bad interface choices are defended by fans of certain games, claiming that they add elements of “tension” or “excitement” to the game. One example is with Resident Evil 5, where you can’t pause the game to manage your inventory and you only get a limited number of spaces. Fans claim this creates tension in a firefight. This is analogous to claiming that using an illegible or cryptic font style in a novel adds tension to a fight scene. Why would you ever think it is a good idea to make it harder to interface with your product? Stellar ideas are the ones that are easily accessed and still brilliant, not ones that are hidden away under layers of bad interface choices.
However, interface is certainly a matter of “suspension of disbelief.” Different people have different tolerances when it comes to clunky interface design, and may choose to play a game with frustrating controls so long as the game has something else to offer – is lots of fun, deeply engaging, tells a great story, whatever the case may be. Having a good interface is never a bad thing, but having a poor interface isn’t necessarily deal breaking either. It contributes overall to the suspension of disbelief, and interface ranks at different levels of importance for different gamers.
Intermediate Concerns – Mechanics
One of the earliest reasons, I would argue, that games ever caught on in the first place is that people found them to be a lot of fun. This is primarily due to game mechanics – a great game design that is executed well. This is a meaty subject that fuels a lot of thinking and debating, and is usually the major topic of concern for those who talk about “game design.” You’ll see Sirlin talk about mechanics all the time. Mechanics factor into suspension of disbelief insofar as one may give up playing a game if one does not like the mechanics of that game. Like interface, objections over mechanics may not yet be enough to break a gamer’s suspension of disbelief – particularly in games that are more about immersion. This is more true of seasoned gamers than it is newbies, who may have bowed out already at the interface stage. (The analogy to literature holds true, still – an early reader, such as a middle schooler, is not going to want to read War and Peace, despite any literary merit it has. The early reader hasn’t mastered the interface in the same way an adult reader may have – such as having a large enough vocabulary or long enough attention span – and may be more prone to appreciating style rather than substance.)
If I ever got into reviewing video games, I would forego the conventional wisdom that arbitrarily assigns scores to arbitrary facets of a game (look at any game review site and you’ll likely find this breakdown: Graphics – 9, Sound – 8, Story – 7, Gameplay – 10, Tilt – 7 Overall 8…just for example) and instead focus solely on interface, mechanics and immersion. Assigning arbitrary scores here would not make much sense either, and I would talk merely about the things done correctly or incorrectly in each of these categories, perhaps suggesting how much time one could expect to spend with a game (while acknowledging that ten hours spent with one game may be more fulfilling than one hundred with another, for various reasons)…but I’m getting off topic.
Mechanics basically boils down to concern over whether or not the game is pleasurable to play. Is there enough challenge, and is the game challenging in a way that is fair or in a way that is cheap? If it is strategy focused, does it have depth and allow for creative use of game assets, or is it shallow and affords the player only canned strategies? If it’s about action, is it fast and furious or light and, well, boring? Again, there are a ton of things that factor into game mechanics, and no game will ever have the perfect formula (I define the perfect formula as being one that succeeds so brilliantly you would never need to play any other game ever again – and furthermore, all people would agree that it is the perfect game). There is the possibility that you may find the perfect game for you, but I highly doubt it. I thought I had found such games, but I also found that after a significant investment of time, I eventually grew bored and turned to other games.
Certain genres of video games are designed to rely on mechanics more than are other video games. Examples would include action games, fighting games, or platforming games. People don’t generally play these games because they tell a great story or otherwise immerse a player in a fantastic game world (escapism). People generally play these games because they are fun to play, because the game mechanics are smartly designed and satisfying to learn. Interface is usually important in primarily mechanical games, though not necessarily so – some interfaces are hard to learn initially but can be wielded with impunity after a certain amount of investment, at which point the mechanics can shine through. Likewise, immersive factors can be ignored – a game that initially looks or sounds ‘ugly’ will still attract a large audience if the mechanics are highly refined.
Advanced Concerns – Immersion
As games have evolved, so too have their reasons for being played. It is hard to call any 8-bit game a pleasure to visually behold, but nowadays, games can be very visually enticing. In about two decades, games went from the visuals offered in the first picture (left) to the visuals offered in the second (below, right). This is from the same series of video games (Final Fantasy I and Final Fantasy XIII, for the non gaming audience – an in depth analysis tracking the growth of this series can be found here) depicting the same mechanics (a battle sequence). Even the first screenshot is worlds ahead of the earliest video games, especially in the same genre – some were purely text-based adventures akin to a “choose your own adventure” novel! Visuals are just one area where games have improved, however. Increased technology has allowed for better visuals, more realistic sounds and more memory (allowing for things like, initially, more text, and later, more video and audio data storage – all contributing factors to ‘better stories’). The “old guard” of video game reviewers have understood that people like shiny things, and thus given consideration to the artistic and technical merits of graphics. They’ve considered the artistic and technical merits of a video game’s sound-scape, and even discussed the artistic and technical merits of a game’s story. No large game review outlet that I have seen has successfully weaved these seemingly disparate elements together into a single cohesive theory, however. I doubt very much that a person will play a game for very long that is merely very pretty but has no other merits, or merely sounds very good without any other merits, or has a great story without any other merits. The reason all of the things discussed in this paragraph matter is because they all contribute to a game’s immersion.
For this discussion, however, a game’s immersion is a high-level factor of consideration for a gamer’s suspension of disbelief. It is possible that a gamer may play a game that is hard to control (poor interface), and not very fun (poor mechanics) if the game is superbly immersive. Some games get by on their immersion alone, offering convoluted or clunky interfaces and stale mechanics but satiating a gamer’s desire to escape to another realm (see also: World of Warcraft).
To a certain extent, a game must pass a gamer’s bare minimum for interface and mechanical checks – if an interface is simply too cumbersome or mechanics are simply too boring or disengaging, a gamer isn’t going to stick around to get immersed – no matter how beautiful the graphics, how fitting the music or how wonderfully penned and executed the story. Furthermore, some gamers plain won’t give a shit about the immersion at all! Then there are the types of gamers who may be able to forgive poor interface and poor mechanics, but who won’t be able to be immersed in a game which is of a genre they dislike. For example, I think Braid is an amazingly well designed game, but if a gamer does not enjoy platforming or puzzle games, it is unlikely they will be able to play and appreciate Braid. (More on Braid later – Braid was originally going to be the subject of this post, but I thought a more general discussion of video games would serve me well here).
I am a fan of trying to communicate and explain things in ways that people can understand. The goal here was to communicate my thoughts on why people play games and why they may bow out of the process at various stages. It all starts with interface and whether or not a person will agree to play the game, basically. After that, the next hurdle is mechanical – is the game fun or otherwise enjoyable to play? If a game succeeds brilliantly on its mechanics alone, that may be enough to keep gamers coming back for more. If not, the game needs to be immersive – it needs to draw the gamer in and keep them coming back in order to be a part of a fully realized alternative game world.
I hope this was not a complete waste of time for either the non-gaming or gaming members of my reading audience. Expect a post on Braid next.

Ethics and Leadership, Part 1

Long, Rambling Preamble

Others argue that (good) morality is a chiefly male enterprise, and it is something I’ve always concerned myself with. Growing up without much of a father figure (save my brother, who had his own problems) made developing a good sense of morality and ethics trickier than it otherwise could have been. Yet even at a young age, I still tried to work out some kind of code – without the help of a religion. And before you get too critical of some of the sophistry evident in those earlier posts of mine, keep in mind I was then a sophomore in high school, with the incessant emotional abuse of my mother and heart wrenching nonsense of my first girlfriend providing constant background noise. Again – without a father figure. At best, I had video games and random internet friends to study under. What were you doing when you were 16?

If I seemed a little pre-occupied with partying back then, it was because I’d seen my brother completely ruin his life due to an indulgence in alcoholism and drug addiction (that began with innocuous partying in high-school – he’s still recovering, at age 29), and my girlfriend of the time (who I had convinced myself I loved dearly) was stringently pro-partying. You’ll notice after the break-up and prophetic-though-emotionally-tinged revelations that followed, I rarely, if ever, wrote about partying again.

The take-away point from all of the above is this: before enlisting in the Marine Corps, my personal ethics had congealed around a simple idea I’d developed with one of my best friends. Together, we determined that there was no higher purpose in life than trying to improve oneself, and the best method for improvement was total honesty. As writers, we were fans of brevity and trying to pack a big idea in a small space. Below is how we phrased our ethics:

Self improvement is the only priority; honesty is merely the best way to achieve it.

I suppose “self-improvement” is rather vague, but we took it to mean becoming stronger, smarter, inflicting less damage on the world and causing greater good, among other things. And honesty meant total honesty – critical honesty – none of this politically-correct coddling horseshit. If I found fault in myself or others, honesty demanded that such faults be addressed and corrected. Regular introspection and self-reflection were thus necessary requirements for self-improvement. Things like integrity, accountability, resolve, respect for logic and rationality, and so on, naturally folded into our conception.

But it isn’t easy ‘going-it-alone,’ if you will. Isolation seems to have a distinct effect on the mind, and I believe the mind naturally seeks to commiserate with like-minded individuals in order to cope with that isolation. Unfortunately for me, it is notoriously hard to find people above self-indulgence and consumerism in the general American populace. I used to wonder why that was, but now I know I was just looking in all the wrong places. I wanted something more, some allies in the fight against decadence and mindless consumerism. Someone else always says it best, and in this case, that someone else was me, albeit a year or two ago (from my memoirs):

American living was so completely unsatisfying to me. Why bother going to college, when all one can hope to do is make more money and buy more things? Where was the virtue in that? Our ancestors fought and died for freedom, liberty, for a noble and beautiful idea, in order to change the world forever. We fought and died for the latest electronic gadget and the prettiest estate. What was the fucking point in life?

Success in American culture was based on a disgusting infatuation with value – value defined not by intrinsic quality, but by how much money something could generate. “Good” music was not necessarily well composed, performed, or emotionally stirring – “good” music generated a lot of sales. Good writing was not necessarily perceptive, striking, or emotionally stirring – good writing generated a lot of sales. Anything “good” was something which generated a lot of sales. Even in public debate, be it the lunch table or on the internet, followed this notion – disputes over whether or not something was “good” often boiled down to how successful that particular thing was commercially.

Military service seemed like the only place I could escape this ubiquitous lust for wealth. Here were the men and women who still believed in freedom and liberty, in giving up their lives for something greater than themselves. Here were the men and women of noble character and virtue, fighting to protect those who were too weak to protect themselves. Politicians be damned. Even if you were tossed into a war you didn’t agree with, you could still fight to make sure the Marine to the left and the right of you had a chance to go home to his or her family and his or her loved ones. Selflessness – a necessary trait for anyone in the military, perhaps THE necessary trait.

This isn’t a post about the military failing to live up to my hopelessly high ideals. On the contrary, this is a post about Marine Corps ethics, which are surprisingly robust and cogent. Then again, the Marine Corps has produced stellar heroes like Major General Smedley Butler, Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Sergeant Major Dan Daly, and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, to name a few. (MRAs and feminists alike might note the lack of female exemplars. Sorry – none come to mind, except for Opha Mae Johnson, who we remember merely for being the first female Marine.) Oh, while we’re at it, why not throw in Colonel John Ripley, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, and a personal favorite of mine from more recent times, Captain Nathaniel Fick (read or watch Generation Kill to understand why I admire him)? This list is by no means exhaustive, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that the Marine Corps has a lot of intelligent and well-reasoned things to say about ethical behavior and leadership.

So, Marine Corps Ethics

The Marine Corps, like myself, tries to distill ethical behavior down to the absolute simplest ideas it can. The backbone of Marine Corps ethics revolves around a set of three values – called the Core Values – that are taught to every Marine during basic training. If you’ve ever known a Marine, you probably know them already – they are Honor, Courage, and Commitment. Those three words conjure the essence of the Marine Corps – the fabled “esprit de corps” – the much talked about “brotherhood” of the Marine Corps. Let’s take a closer look at the Core Values.
HONOR is the idea that Marines must possess the ultimate sense of gallantry in service to the United States of America, and embody responsibility to duty above self, including, but not limited to:

  • INTEGRITY: Demonstrating the highest standards of consistent adherence to right, legal, and ethical conduct
  • RESPONSIBILITY: Personally accepting the consequences for decisions and actions. Coaching right decisions of subordinates. A chain is only as strong as the weakest individual link, but a battalion of Marines is more like a cable. Together we are stronger than any individual strand, but one strand may hold us together in a crisis if it’s strong enough. One Marine taking responsibility for a crisis may save the day.
  • HONESTY: Telling the truth. Overt honesty in word and action and clarifying possible misunderstanding or misrepresentation caused by silence or inaction when you should speak up. Respecting other’s property and demonstrating fairness in all actions. Marines do not lie, cheat, or steal.
  • TRADITION: Demonstrating respect for the customs, courtesies, and traditions developed over many years for good reason, which produce a common Marine Corps history and identity. Respect for the heritage and traditions of others, especially those we encounter in duty around the world.

At first, one may be inclined to think that respecting tradition for tradition’s sake is a fallacy, and such a reader would be correct. Note, however, that the Corps compels obedience to traditions that have been “developed over many years for good reason.” The Corps has a keen interest in adopting and maintaining only those traditions which make sense or serve some useful purpose, generally speaking. Most Marines will be able to explain the origins of their uniforms and certain customs to you, as most are emblems of former battles or serve to honor former heroes – try asking a soldier (Army) why his uniform is the way it is or why he acts the way he does and see what sort of response you get.

So, who would be a paragon of honor? In the opinion of this Marine, Smedley Butler fits the bill. Like all of the examples I mentioned above, he could easily be a paragon of all three Core Values, but I chose him for honor for a specific reason. He certainly served his nation with gallantry, but his personal integrity, responsibility, and honesty were peerless. There is a well known example from his time as a younger officer – then Major Butler exposed himself to enemy sniper fire in order to direct the fire of his own men to the snipers’ nests. He was awarded a Medal of Honor for this action – which, tellingly, he then tried to refuse! He claimed he was merely doing his job and had done nothing spectacular to earn the award. Later, in his post military career, he would warn of the burgeoning military-industrial complex decades before Eisenhower gave it a name – demonstrating again his integrity and honesty.

COURAGE is the moral, mental and physical strength to resist opposition, face danger, endure hardship, including, but not limited to:

  • SELF-DISCIPLINE: Marines hold themselves responsible for their own actions and others responsible for their actions. Marines are committed to maintaining physical, moral, and mental health, to fitness and exercise, and to life-long learning.
  • PATRIOTISM: Devotion to and defense of one’s country. The freely chosen, informed willingness to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
  • LOYALTY: Steady reliability to do one’s duty in service to the United States of America, the United States Marine Corps, one’s command, one’s fellow Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, citizens, oneself and to one’s family.
  • VALOR: Boldness and determination in facing danger in battle, and the daily commitment to excellence and honesty in actions small and large.

In effect, the Marine Corps idea of Courage could be summed up as “doing the right thing,” regardless of circumstance or personal expense/danger/peril. Marines are often reminded that being a good Marine means “doing the right thing, even when no one is looking” and this is essentially a matter of having the courage to do said right things. Sometimes it takes courage to report the discrepancies of your buddies, for instance – but if everyone in the Marine Corps lacked such courage, and valued friendship over duty, discipline would quickly erode and have a precipitous effect throughout the rest of our operations! As is outlined in our General Orders, a Marine knows no friends in the line of duty.

Paragon of courage? None other than Chesty Puller, of course. My own words would do him shame, so here’s one of his many telling quotes: “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!” MRAs may find something to like in this quote: “Our Country won’t go on forever, if we stay soft as we are now. There won’t be any AMERICA because some foreign soldier will invade us and take our women and breed a heartier race!” But he wasn’t just bark. Take a look at some of his bite, as evidenced through one of his MANY award citations:

Fighting continuously in sub-zero weather against a vastly outnumbering hostile force, Colonel Puller drove off repeated and fanatical enemy attacks upon his Regimental defense sector and supply points. Although the area was frequently covered by grazing machine-gun fire and intense artillery and mortar fire, he coolly moved along his troops to insure their correct tactical employment, reinforced the lines as the situation demanded, and successfully defended the perimeter, keeping open the main supply routes for the movement of the Division. During the attack from Koto-ri to Hungnam, he expertly utilized his Regiment as the Division rear guard, repelling two fierce enemy assaults which severely threatened the security of the unit, and personally supervised the care and prompt evacuation of all casualties. By his unflagging determination, he served to inspire his men to heroic efforts in defense of their positions and assured the safety of much valuable equipment which would otherwise have been lost to the enemy. His skilled leadership, superb courage and valiant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds reflect the highest credit upon Colonel Puller and the United States Naval Service.

COMMITMENT is the promise or pledge to complete a worthy goal by worthy means which requires identification with that goal and demonstrated actions to support that goal, including, but not limited to:

  • COMPETENCE: Maintaining, and improving one’s skill level to support the team. Commitment to growing toward a standard of excellence second to none.
  • TEAMWORK: Individual effort in support of other team members in accomplishing the team’s mission. Marines take care of their own. All worthwhile accomplishments are the result of team effort.
  • SELFLESSNESS: Marines take care of their subordinates, their families, their fellow Marines before themselves. The welfare of our country and our Corps is more important than our individual welfare.
  • CONCERN FOR PEOPLE: The Marine Corps is the custodian of this nation’s future, her young people. We exist to defend the nation, but just as importantly, we are in the business of creating honorable citizens. Everyone is of value, regardless of race, nation of origin, religion, or gender. Concern includes a commitment to improving the level of education, skill, self-esteem, and quality of life for Marines and their families. On the battlefield, a Marine is fiercest of all warriors and the most benevolent of conquerors.

Emphasis in the Marine Corps, from day one, is on the triumph of teamwork over individualism. You can’t turn shit into gold, unfortunately, and as the youth of our nation decline in moral character, the Marine Corps can only do so much to undo the 18 years of poor training that many potential enlistees “receive” as a result of poor social circumstances. Still, for those that are willing to learn, or looking for something more in life, the Marine Corps provides excellent guidance.

Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone is my paragon of commitment. After being awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Guadalcanal (where his 15-man unit was decimated to two men, who still managed to hold off 3,000 Japanese troops), he was shipped back to the States to go on a sort of public relations tour for war bonds. Generally, Medal of Honor recipients are not allowed to go back to combat, but Gunnery Sergeant Basilone was committed to the defense of the nation and the unit of Marines he had left behind on the front lines. He returned to active combat duty and gave his life in the battle of Iwo Jima, one of America’s (and the Marine Corps) bloodiest battles. (Anecdotally, my grandfather, who retired from the Marine Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel, survived Iwo Jima.)

Parting Thoughts

The bulk of this post comes from work I had done previously in preparing to teach an ethics course at my command. I pored over order after order, assembling the best and what I felt was the easiest to understand information about ethics. I relied on materials that are used to prepare company grade officers for taking command of their units, and tried to make that information as accessible to junior enlisted Marines as possible. I think it is accessible to a wider audience as well.

I think it’s pretty easy to see why Marine Corps ethics and values resonate with me – my insistence on honesty and self-improvement are part of the building blocks of ideal Marine behavior. I hope you enjoyed this crash course in Marine Corps ethics and leadership.