Stanford conference puts games under the spotlight

All-day event pairs industry players and academics; ponders the importance of story in a medium called “an art form” as grand as the movies.


STANFORD, CA--When people hear about conferences devoted to computer and console games, they most often think of panels discussing the latest developments in hardware, game design, and marketing. The last thing they would expect would be university professors giving scholarly presentations about the capabilities of the medium as a form of art.

This past Friday at Stanford University, members of the game industry and the academic community gathered to hear various presentations which took place during Story Engines, a day-long conference presented in conjunction with the current exhibition, “Fictional Worlds, Virtual Experiences,” at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus. An uncommon gathering, Story Engines was devoted to exploring the place of storytelling within video games.

"Video games are becoming a revolutionary force in pop culture," stated conference chair Tim Lenoir of Stanford University. "They are at the same place as movies, as an art form in their own right."

The morning's first session, titled "Keeping it Real: Performance and Realism," aimed to discuss how games and gameplay can simulate realism, even to the point where the line between gaming and reality becomes blurred.

Henry Lowood, Professor and Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections for Stanford University Libraries (Lowood also teaches a course on the history of computer game design at Stanford), discussed historical and military simulations, focusing on realism and playability of these genres.

Lowood explained that history is a type of narrative that is written by historians trying to analyze and explain the significance of events within the context of the time in which it occurred. However, stated Lowood, the concept of history was rooted in storytelling, first defined as a "story" of the past that is related to others. The issue with identifying and interposing events in history, continues Lowood, becomes whether or not history itself is based on fact or is rooted in story.

Lowood then addressed how viewing the experience affects the way through which the participant experiences history. Showing pictures from D-Day and moving into a discussion of Saving Private Ryan, Lowood demonstrated that each medium immersed the participant in varying degrees, evoking different feelings and reactions based on the medium.

He then showed the opening cinematic of Medal of Honor, which shows an opening very similar to that of Saving Private Ryan (in fact, both the game and the movie used the opening line "I'll see you on the beach"), which then places the observer on the beach to begin the battle.

"It's not just a remediation, a film, or a spectacle," said Lowood. "This is an interactive simulation, where a virtual weapon is forced into you hand and you are placed in the scene." You become a participant in history, reenacting what occurred on the beach of Normandy over 50 years ago.

"Games such as Firefight and America's Army demonstrate how commercialism and militarism are at crossroads," explained Lowood. "There's a flow of information from the commercial game to the military, and likewise there is information from the military flowing to the commercial side."

The central conflict of historic simulation, however, is how to incorporate the history within the game, the non-game elements with the game elements. "One of the neglected topics of computer game design is the dichotomy of realism and playability." Lowood jokingly referred to it as a "Red vs. Blue" type struggle, referring to the popular machinima series.

"History and simulation start at the same point," stated Lowood. "But as you widen the possibilities in one area, you shrink the possibility in others." Lowood implies that there is no simple resolution between making an accurate historical representation and making a easily playable game.

Lowood explained that even with the advent of military simulation board games, every rule and component was laid out to the player at the start, increasing the complexity of the simulation and making it harder to play. Using Squad Leader as an extreme example, Lowood said that players were required to micromanage to the point where "sewer emergency charts" and "kindling condition charts" were required to play the game.

Due to this level of complexity, Lowood suggests that games should attempt to let the rules and the data drive the simulation, but that they should be abstracted away to let the player worry about playing while the game worries about the rules. "The text narrows the possibilities, but once handed to the player they expand."

Lowood also discussed how computer games are encyclopedic in nature, allowing for a wealth of information to be stored within the games. Lowood continues by suggesting that historians can contribute to the construction of accurate historical simulations by providing the input data and rules for the model. Once the rules and model are established, the game designers can focus on the gameplay of the project without forcing the players to become weighed down with too many details regarding the minute aspects of the simulation.

After Lowood, Jane McGonigal, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley studying network enabled gameplay, presented viewpoints about "Everyday Play in Everyday Spaces."

She opened the discussion with a story about a simple iron rod gate, one which people would walk by every day. One day, however, a team of individuals, armed with a digital camera, a cellphone, string, and tape, used the gate as the stage for a game. The image shown to the audience showed two of the teammates reenacting a spider about to attack its captured prey in its "web" of string and tape wrapped around the gate.

This situation was an example of an emerging trend of pervasive play, using everyday spaces and technologies in novel ways. Games such as Can you see me now?, The Big Urban Game, and Flash Mob, all share the characteristics of using common spaces to create mixed and augmented realities for games.

Using both mobile and embedded technologies, players are encouraged to explore their surroundings, searching to find new, innovative ways to interact with their non-virtual realities, given only simple instructions to follow.

Another development in networked play is "immersive play." Here, novel technology is employed in everyday ways as players try to achieve the goal of the mission. "This type of play," stated McGonigal, "is unbounded, unframed, and open-ended, in service of achieving a massive goal." Games such as The Beast, Majestic, and Search4e would use technology to plunge you into your very own mystery that must be solved, deeming this situation as "unfiction." Web sites, strange e-mails, streaming videos, and even phone calls to your house would thrust the players into the world of the game, spurring them on to unravel the secret behind the game.

"[Pervasive and immersive] games both share elements of everyday elements and are both digitally enabled," stated McGonigal. These games are carried out under the public eye, either with a live audience (as with pervasive play) or a mediated one (as with immersive play.)

Both forms also take in-game elements and juxtaposition them with non-game elements. This juxtapositioning has the effect of, as McGonigal puts it, "blurring the line between story and reality."

McGonigal believes that it is this aspect and effect of network games that creates more of the hostility and negative press generated towards this genre. McGonigal deems these networked games that makes non-players nervous as "perversive play" (a combination of pervasive and immersive.)

Many of the critics of perversive play feel that the games are too sprawling, persuasive, and realistic. McGonigal closed her presentation by making the point that these opinions bring up interesting ideas and questions about the degree to which a person fully accepts the story as reality while playing within these genres.

The first session of the afternoon focused on the role that communities and non player-characters contribute to the construction of stories and play, and add to the richness of experience within computer and video games.

Kevin O'Hara of Sony Online Entertainment, who serves as Community Manager of the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies, talked about his experiences of designing and managing a persistent virtual world, and how he sees the ways in which various players interact and construct a fictional community from those interactions.

"The motto of Star Wars Galaxies is 'Live the Saga'," stated O'Hara, "and we try to encourage that in the game." Instead of winners and losers, O'Hara explained that the creators of the game wanted to construct a virtual environment where players could choose the role they wished to play. One might want to be the hero in the game, but Galaxies also allows player to assume supporting roles, such as medics, artisans, or even just entertainers.

The purpose of providing these different roles, explained O'Hara, was to create interdependency among the different characters and force players to have to interaction with one another. "We have good reasons why we have you interact with others," he said.

Sometimes a character needs a tool or a service of another character in order to complete a task. Other times a task may be too difficult for one player to accomplish alone, so other players are required to complete it. The overall goal, however, is for players to build and develop relationships with other characters, which compels them to continue playing. "It only takes a few months for the content to become old," stated O'Hara, "but it is the friends that you make in the game that makes you want to continue to play."

In addition to community building, O'Hara stressed the importance of player interaction in developing content and stories for the virtual world. O'Hara explains that, while there is a live events team that creates monthly story lines, it is not a very cost effective way of creating fiction on-the-fly. Instead, Sony tries to leverage the community aspect of the game to encourage players to create the content for the game themselves.

In the game, players are allowed to create their own events, including bike races and grand openings. Even legal marriages have been celebrated within the game. "It's a little strange," admits O'Hara, "but it's real to them."

This led into another important aspect of the game according to O'Hara: Interactive Non-fiction. The stories that matter to the players are not the background stories or the stories created by the game designers, but rather are the stories that the players take away from their experience in the virtual world. "It's not a narrative when it happens, but it's their story when it's over."

The goal of Galaxies’ content managers is not to provide stories to the players, but instead to provide the tools and the forum through which players can interact and communicate with one another--to develop their own stories and events to share and contribute to the game.

Following O'Hara was Katherine Isbister, a communications professor at Stanford University, whose presentation centered on effective character design in virtual settings.

Her main thesis posited that while movies and novels each engage the audience and foster varying degrees of emotion, computer games engage players in a completely different way. "Computer games represent an active description of what's happening, with your fingers moving and your mind racing." Isbister suggested that cognitive perception, kinesthetic participation, and social interaction and participation are new elements that audiences are experiencing with this new medium.

Based on her experience playing computer games, she has come to discover and analyze the various aspects that compose player-characters and non player-characters (NPC's) within games--and the ways NPC scripting can influence the gamers’ emotional experience.

In terms of player-characters, Isbister states that, under a psychological interpretation, there are four different aspects of player-characters within the context of the game: visceral, cognitive, fantasy, and social.

Using Max Payne as a concrete example, Isbister demonstrated how these elements come together in creating an engaging and intriguing character. Viscerally speaking, the gameplay elements (i.e. fighting and shooting) are natural, and the controls are smooth for Payne. From a cognitive perspective, Payne uses clues and hints in his surroundings and gleaned off of dead bodies to help him progress in the game. The fantasy element comes from the premise of his family being murdered and him becoming the central figure of the ensuing investigation. Finally, the social aspect of Payne focuses on how he is transformed from a trusting individual to a very suspicious character.

As Isbister transitioned to talk about NPCs, she started off by admitting that these elements of the game are often annoying and interferring. Then she explained how NPCs can be designed so that they actually enhance and augment the game. "[NPCs] should help us to synch our emotions during the game," explained Isbister. "The designers who care about [player-controlled characters] put in emotions and interactions [that NPCs trigger] that [result in] meaningful social roles."

Using Pikmin as an example, Isbister stated how the various Pikmin in the game create a better experience for the player. "They are loyal, cheerful, obedient, responsive to commands, and celebratory when you are successful." The Pikmin are accurate reflectors of the players' moods and motives. Because the NPCs match the audience's expectations of the game, the entire experience of the game is improved.

In concluding her presentation, Isbister made some modest character design suggestions for game designers. "For player-characters, [they] need to make choices that will work together on all levels." Isbister believes that everyone from programmers to graphic artists should work together in developing and creating the experience, so that all of the elements can be successfully integrated. With NPCs, Isbister encourages designers to use social cues in addition to functional rules to organize design choices, and base those decisions on what the players' expectations of the game would be.

The “Fictional Worlds, Virtual Experiences” exhibit continues through March 28, 2004.

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