I’m trying to work out my ethics application at the moment, so I thought I’d test my instructions on one of my friends. Yes, he’d be biased; no, I’m not using it for the main study. I just wanted to see what sort of video he would create based on the instructions I gave him, and what information I could gather from it.
In this, I’m going to call him Paladin, and Paladin chose to play Mount and Blade: Warband. While he recorded two videos for me on this game, he played different avatars in each one, so this blog post will be on the first video only that went for 10 minutes (the first video is to show the character creation and introduction to the game, where the second video is showing gameplay of his most recent save file). In this video, his avatar was Shizuka.
I’ve not played Mount and Blade before, so any vagueness about the description of game play is because I’m limited by this one source. Screenshots are watermarked across the top with a web address due to the free recording software used.
I was a bit confused at first, as my instructions asked for the participant to introduce me to their favourite or main avatar, and yet Paladin took me to the character creation screen, but it soon became clear why he did this. Character creation was not just about aesthetics, statisticss and fight style, but rather the player would develop the whole back story for the character.
First, Paladin declared he was making a female character – which in most games I play is an aesthetic choice or only affects the lovers you can take (Alistair *sigh*). However, in Mount and Blade the choice of gender is almost like a difficulty ranking. Paladin explained that it is easiest to be a male noble, and that
Women and commoners can have the same goals, but it’s a lot more challenging. I know … men, even if you are common- birth, you can eventually win the love of a woman, but you have to learn love songs and win tournaments for them, and, you know, sneak off and see them in the night and that sort of stuff, but females you are pretty much screwed unless you have a lot of (uh, what is it called) like, a reputation as a badass, and people will accept you into the family.
After making this choice, the game takes you through various screens, asking you to select your avatar’s background story, who your avatar’s father was, how your avatar spent her/his early life, what she/he did as a young adult, and why she/he became an adventurer. This affects the avatar’s starting statistics (strength, agility, charisma and intelligence), and more. For example, at the young adult screen, one of the options Paladin pointed out was university student, which he said would give the avatar more intelligence. He chose:
Your father was: a hunter
You spent your early life as a: street urchin
As a young adult, you became: a game poacher
You became an adventurer because of: the loss of a loved one (which Paladin audibly ‘aww’d at in sympathy).
So as well as choosing to play a female, the more difficult to play, Paladin seemed to choose a rather hard life for his character, who struggled to survive from the very moment she was born and paid little heed to the laws of the land. The descriptions that followed each of his decisions elaborated his avatar’s identity, as shown here.
At the statistics screen – as you would expect – Paladin made decisions based on what would be most helpful during gameplay. Some of these statistics were already improved due to what he had chosen during the background story choices, such as his avatar’s archery ability.
Although the attributes and proficiencies relate to his avatar’s own abilities, Paladin described the skills column as affecting both his avatar’s personal abilities and how the avatar relates to the world. Part of the game is building your own army, so he chose the leadership skill. He also pointed to the trainer skill as important, as you recruit peasants into your army and build them up as well, although not to the same detailed level as the avatar.
Paladin also expressed interest in being balanced with his skills, choosing both archery skills (power draw) and melee skills (power strike). As his background story dictated put points into the archery ability, he used the rest of his weapon points in one handed weapons.
The way the game is designed, the player seems to spend little time actually within their own avatar. Paladin did mention that the graphics were lacking because the game was quite older, so perhaps the lack of time in avatar is also partially due to a lower computer requirement that is the norm for games released in the past year – it would not have been able to handle a lot of first person. Instead, there appear to be three main modes during play, as well as the menu screen.
These are the times when the player enters the avatar, which Paladin says can be done with first or third person view. This includes combat as well as approaching other NPC’s, such as for a quest in the second frame.
The next three frames are from an event where Shizuka engages in combat with a group of six looters. At this stage, she has gained two recruits through the villages she has visited. Shizuka is situated upon her horse for this (and the horse has a separate health bar from herself, as you can see in the lower right of the screen).
First, Paladin moves Shizuka over the battlefield looking for the looter group, then rides at them while shooting arrows. Paladin admits he is a ‘noob’, and so likely is missing all these shots.
When Shizuka has reached the enemy, Paladin swaps to her one handed axe to engage the looters in melee combat. Paladin explains that while Shizuka is killing most of the looters, with her recruits still running to catch up to the fighting, the experience gained is actually shared among all the participants. The recruits will still gain experience and potentially level up, even though they will not engage in much of the actual fighting.
At this stage, Shizuka has killed 5 of the 6 enemies. The last looter left alive Paladin decides to leave to the peasant recruits (with the circles over them). However, this takes a bit of time, so Paladin helps them a little by shooting at close range.
Throughout the fight, it is curious that Paladin himself contributed to the scene, by making sound effects when Shizuka swung her axe. While the recruits are taking time trying to kill the last looter, Paladin says “come on” under his breath as Shizuka moves in to assist them.and calling out “He’s a runner” when the last looter alive tried to run.
These scenes are for non-combat interaction with NPC’s. The first still is from after she approaches the merchant in the above section and clicks on him to engage with him. The merchant offers a fairly detailed backstory before offering the actual quest. Paladin chooses to skip past this dialogue very quickly.
The second diegetic screen is when Shizuka approaches a village. This provides diegetic information about the village, as well as non-diegetic information, her reputation within the town signified numerically. There are numerous actions to take upon the town, most of which it is assumed would affect her reputation (pretty sure that taking hostile action would be unappreciated by the townsfolk :P).
Unlike in some games, the world map is also an interaction screen. The first screen shows a wide look at part of the world. Each of the names indicate a place (with the largeness of the text depending on the size and populace of the city or village), coloured to show the various factions. Shizuka starts in Praven, so the red represents the kingdom of Swadia. The map can be zoomed in, and the visuals of each of the places represent the defences and population, as Paladin explains.
In the second screen, though it is hard to make out, Shizuka is travelling across the plains from Praven to the village of Azgad. When she approaches the village, Paladin gets the diegetic screen I showed in the previous section. There are others who also travel across the land in this overhead view. After stopping by the village to pick up another recruit, Paladin sees a group of looters (cursor is hovered over them here to get the details about who they are and what they are doing) whom he approaches to attack. The are other heroes, those commanding their own army, that can be seen in this view as well, including from her own faction that she does not control. Paladin does not mention if this is a single player or multi-player game, I assume that groups like looters are always controlled by the computer, and other commanders can be played by other players but aren’t in this case.~
Graphical User Interface/Menus
This menu provides for a mixture of non-diegetic information for the player’s use. I say non-diegetic because while this screen shows characters, locations, factions and quests, and it is stylised in the way of suiting the game world, it provides more practical information specifically for the player. It can be assumed that Shizuka knows what she is doing (the quest) and has knowledge about the world, but not that she is actively looking at it for a reminder like Paladin is. Also notable is that this background information is in the same menu as the game log out button, which is definitely non-diegetic.
The loot screen I would also call non-diegetic (it is not actually like Shizuka is looking at a graph of what dropped, what she’s wearing, and what she has in her inventory). It is still in the same style as the diegetic world, the fonts used, the pretty sliders and swirls, but although we can probably imagine Shizuka rifling through the bodies and removing the shoes off the corpses, this is designed for the player.
I want to bring up the term min-maxing here – this describes the practice of creating the best character one can by minimising the least desired or important traits and maximising the desired ones. While Paladin did select his statistics purely for mechanic reasons, if he was truly min-maxing, I believe the story he chose at the start would have been different. While his main background story improved his avatar’s archery ability, during gameplay he expressed that he wasn’t very good at using archery from horseback (during the looter fight sequence, he called himself a noob at horse-back archery, which either means new to the game or bad at something in the game, but as he said he was probably missing each shot, he probably meant the latter).
If, as some identification theory says, he was building himself as a character in the world, why would he pick abilities that he-the-player is not himself good at? Something like self-presence assumes that the player feels that the avatar IS themselves in the game, but the way Paladin talked showed that he was aware that he and the character are two separate beings, with separate abilities. This is much more in line with James Gee’s identity theory. Gee puts forward three types of identifications in games: virtual identity, real identity and projective identity.
- The virtual identity is Paladin’s avatar, Shizuka, and her acting within the world. Although Paladin made, developed and is directing Shizuka, she exists in another world and Paladin is only partly responsible for her failures and successes. This is Paladin as Shizuka (as Gee fashions the expression with the emphasis on the avatar).
- The real identity is Paladin himself, a nonvirtual person playing a computer game, or Paladin as Shizuka. In the real world, Paladin has many nonvirtual identities: he is a musician, he is a fan of anime, he enjoys cooking, he builds models for Dungeons and Dragons. Those identities only become relevant as they affect/are filtered through his identity playing Mount and Blade. Perhaps it was his identity that plays Dungeons and Dragons as to why he chose Shizuka to be from Swadia?
- The projective identity is the combination of both, both projecting his values and desires onto Shizuka, as well as seeing her as his project in the making defined by what he wants her to become within the constraints of the game world. This is Paladin as Shizuka – Gee explains that the as is italicised to indicate the stress is on the interface and interaction between the real world person and virtual character. Gee explain:
“The kind of person I want Bead Bead [his Half-Elf avatar in Arcanum] to be, the kind of history I want her to have, the kind of person and history I am trying to build in and through her is what I mean by a projective identity. Since these aspirations are my desires for Bead Bead, the projective identity is both mine and hers, and it is a space in which I can transcend both her limitations and my own.” (pg 56, What Video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy)