This game gets added to the small list of games I have managed to complete, so it enters the hallowed halls alongside Baldur’s Gate 2, Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich and Halo. It’s a short, horror/comedy game apparently based on a comic book from Penny Arcade, and is completely hilarious from the opening moment. The premise of the game is very simple – the character’s house was squished by a huge robot, and having nothing better to do I join up with two strange men from the Startling Developments Detective Agency to hunt down the robot and get revenge for the destruction of my home. Subsequent investigation reveals that the robot is part of some kind of war between the Gods, or an end-time prophecy of some sort, and I, of course, have to stop it. Fortunately, Tycho Brahe from the Startling Developments Detective Agency did a degree in Apocalyptics, so he can see what’s coming; and his dodgy niece Anne-Claire is a technical genius, who can help with the investigations, so all is well.

The game has an excellent, smutty adult sense of humour, with a lot of swearing and some distinctly adult themes. Pretty early on you run into a couple of perverted robots, which have a strange sexual fascination with oranges and attack you with a distinctly urinatory style; later on you advance your mission by doing tasks for a Professor of Urinology, whose dream is to piss on the town’s Ferris wheel. This is all made even cuter by the vaguely 1920s style of the gaming environment, and the decidedly suspicious interactions of the heroes, as well as their dodgy comic book representation. But the stand out qualities of the game for me came about a third of the way through, when I had to kill my first group of mimes. Because, you see, the mimes are attempting to call forth their dark mime god, whose silence will settle upon the earth like a velvet cloak. They must be stopped! You can see them in the picture below, which sadly doesn’t show the moment when one of the mimes attacks you by attempting to throw an invisible boulder at you. But it’s okay! Because I had my invisible boxes, which can be used to trap mimes while I prepare for battle…

Who can say they haven't always wanted to do this?

The combat is handled in a turn-based system which runs very smoothly and cutely, but it also has some basic gaming interaction tools built in – you can block attacks by hitting the space bar at just the right moment (which varies depending on the attacker) and the heroes’ special attacks run on little keyboard games, with better performance producing more damage. There’s also a wide variety of items to use that act as buffs and are regularly replenished, and various helper characters you can call on (in the picture you can see a cat, whose specialty attack, “Grooming(or dooming?)” is to lick his own balls at your opponents, for 1 point of damage).

The game has only one significant side adventure that I could detect, and I couldn’t work out how to go on it so I’m not sure if it really existed or if the hints about it were waiting on episode 2 (it has four episodes). This means the story is essentially very linear, with the heroes going from clue to clue until the game finishes. Character creation, too, is very static  – you basically choose your appearance and everything else proceeds without your input. However, the shortness of the game, freshness of the plot, and general all-around smuttiness more than made up for this. This game is an excellent little romp through a twisted and weird small town, and it involves killing mimes. My verdict: Excellent!

Over at Terra Nova there is news of the release of a study conducted with the help of Sony, which is essentially a large survey of MMO users’ role-playing style, their attitude towards the game, mental health and degree of social exclusion. It’s an interesting attempt to characterise the qualities of MMO players by their degree of interest in role-playing and their sociodemographic and personal profile, and the first study of its kind to use data from the underlying game database. I have some problems with the statistics (outlined after my rant, below) which maybe will be clarified when the final version of the paper is released, but I have bigger problems with the interpretation of the results, and the view that the researchers at Terra Nova are taking of role-players as compared to the “non” role players in the survey.

Specifically, in the summary of the paper, the first author Dmitri Williams states that

Role players come much more often from offline marginalized groups, suggesting that some may engage in the practice to find acceptance or a safe outlet for their identity.

Role players engage in the practice for a number of reasons, but the standout one tended to be for creativity. Escapism was present, but was rarely the main reason.

which suggests a reasonably balanced view of gamers’ reasons for playing in the second paragraph (escapism is rarely the main reason) but a very blunt and anachronistic explanation in the first paragraph. It seems to assume that there is a higher level of escapism in these marginalised groups, which is supported only by a tautological hypothesis. The authors argue that marginalized groups would be more likely to role-play than the non-marginalised, because role-playing is a form of escapism, or a safe outlet for their identity. Having found this statistical difference, they conclude that escapism must be the reason for this higher representation. But the original hypothesis is untested. I see no realistic or reasonable link between marginalization and greater role-playing. It’s not like you get to be gay in an MMO, or your blackness becomes more acceptable, or your non-christian religion. You get to be an elf, or a magician. That there should be a relationship between taking another role in a computer world and being dissatisfied with your role in the real world is a highly dubious claim. The truth of this claim needs to be established before the next postulate can be finalised.

However, the claims get a little more disturbing in a subsequent piece on RMT (Real Money Transactions) by a non-author of the paper, Castronova, who states that this paper

shows pretty clearly that players who desire strong refuge from reality, the sincere role-players, are a distinct minority. My arguments were delivered with a background assumption that very large numbers of people were scrambling over themselves to get out of the real world. Not so. That doesn’t make the arguments wrong, it just indicates that any plea for the right to live in a deep fantasy is less socially resonant than I thought… I’m an advocate for a minority, a somewhat disturbed one at that according to Williams, Kennedy, and Moore.

So Castronova’s assumption is that role-playing is about escapism, and plain and simple – people want to “get out of the real world”. Note in this paragraph Castronova doesn’t change his view that role-playing is about escapism, he just discovers that most people in MMOs don’t role-play much and therefore aren’t doing it for escapism. He goes on to use the loaded language of the claim that they are a “disturbed [minority] at that.” Judging the loonies is always a good look in academia, I find.

My problem with this is that, as far as I can tell, all media are a form of escapism. You can’t run around claiming that only 5% of people who watch movies do it for escapism – they all do! So what’s different about MMOs? Why should it only be some select group of extreme role-players who are doing it for the escapism? Couldn’t it be that everyone is doing the game as a type of escapism, and role-players just have a different style? A style more suited to minorities, apparently, but so what? The assumption underlying the paper and Castronova’s further comments are that those people at the “low” end of the role-playing spectrum, grinding out the levels and the monsters, are not doing it for escapism. I’m sorry, but no matter what style of play you have, when you pay by the month to engage for hours in a computer game where you play an elf, orc or rogue, you’re in it for the escapism. The rest of it is just about style.

So no, role-players are not a “disturbed” minority (at that!) who want to escape reality. They are a small subgroup of a large number of people who play a game as a form of escapism, and do it with a particular slightly pretentious style.

Problems with the statistics of the paper are:

  • they claim the survey is a “stratified random sample” taken on 4 strata (4 different servers) but there is no evidence in the analysis that the stratified random sample has been taken into account
  • They don’t report a response rate for the overall survey or the servers. Maybe “marginalized” heavy role-players were more likely to answer the survey than the non-marginalized heavy role-players?
  • The differences in the groups are in some instances very small and only significant due to the large numbers in the survey, and Cohen’s D statistics don’t really give any additional weight to the results (there are significant problems with the use of these kinds of stats in my experience). Consider the loneliness scale: high role-players differ from the low ones by 2 points on a scale of 4 to 80 (about 2.5%), which is not a big difference no matter how significant it might be. It appears that there was only 1 woman in the High RP group (out of 300 or so people!) but the gender difference between this group and the medium RP Group was statistically significant! These are large-sample anomalies
  • There is no multiple regression analysis, so no adjustment for confounders. Given the supposedly significant demographic differences between groups, it might be wise to have done this. Particularly, adjustment for the 7 categories of education, and for social marginalisation, might have removed the mental health differences between groups
  • Mental health appears to be estimated by a form of self-report. This is always a dubious measure.

So the stats could probably have been better explored…