I like the tired, almost fatalistic tone of Charles Herold’s New York Times review of Halo 3; it’s an unusually self-reflexive piece of videogame criticism. “It doesn’t really matter what reviewers say,” Herold writes with more than a hint of a cynical sigh. “Halo 3 is not just a game: it is a phenomenon fueled by obsessed fans, slick advertising and excessive press coverage (of which I find myself a part).”

Wisely, Herold approaches this newest version of Bungie’s blockbuster series less as a chapter or sequel than as an upgrade. The gist of his review — a line repeated twice, like a mantra — is that “Halo 3 is Halo 2 with somewhat better graphics.” The game’s strengths, he asserts, are in its enhancements to the multiplayer experience, an experience that I consider indistinguishable from the “obsessed fans” and “excessive press coverage” that Herold cites. That is to say, Halo 3 is as much a social game, in its way, as World of Warcraft or Second Life.

Before fans of those elaborate MMORPGs object, let me stipulate that Halo and other shooters involve very different aesthetics of play and intellectual engagement. Movement and communication in deathmatch are channeled and intensified by tactical exigence; interactions are of necessity fast and brutal, and the only economies one deals in are those of weapons and ammo. Foundational dynamics of avatarial immersion and what I have elsewhere called “spectatorial play” are, of course, present in Halo, as they are in any other videogame. But the MMORPG and the FPS deathmatch remain two distinct branches of ludic evolution.

What’s interesting to me about Halo 3‘s huge, immediate, predictable success is that it casts into sharp relief a vast preexisting social base of gamers who sit ready with their XBox 360s to spend hours, days, weeks, and months hunting and blasting each other in the virtual arenas provided by this latest upgrade: a package of new spatialities to explore and master. This base is as loyal as the most devout religious faith, the most engaged political party. (Indeed, I suspect that today’s online gaming audiences, which merge the pragmatics of commercial technology with the mysticism of avatarial transubstantiation, will be looked back upon by future historians as the first true hybridizations of the secular and religious communities.)

It’s too easy to say that Halo differs from something like World of Warcraft in its bloodiness and speed, its apparent simplicity (or primitiveness). I think the more profound distinction lies in the fact that Halo has colonized social spaces beyond those of the MMORPG, something that became clear to me a couple of years ago when I taught a course in videogame ethnography at Indiana University. Many of my students played only Halo and sports games like Madden; these players would never go near EverQuest, for example, because only “hardcore” gamers — the real geeks — played that. Halo, in other words, succeeds as a game because it has gone mainstream, become something one can mention without embarrassment. It nestles much more closely and comfortably into the crenellations and capillaries of real-world social dynamics; it is, in this sense, the norm.

4 thoughts on “Upgrades

  1. Someone talking about HALO! AMAZING!

    Its amazing how an entire contingent of game scholars can mass neglect gigantic titles like Halo, because Second Life and other such silliness takes up all their time.

    We need more Big Game Criticism Bob; One could even say that consoles are neglected — how often does anyone actually talk about console games? Not often enough!

  2. You know, David, it’s funny: I haven’t played much Halo myself — I got about 40% of the way through the PC version, since I’m one of those sticks-in-the-mud who can’t abide console controllers for FPS action — then drifted away after finding myself stalled at some interminable firefight. I love the look of Halo, as I love all of Bungie’s game designs. In terms of gameplay, though, it never grabbed me.

    But I agree with you that the Halo franchise’s very popularity and “massiness” seems to have placed it out of bounds of serious game research. Why is that? Do we neglect Halo because it seems derivative or plays to the lowest common denominator? (Note that I don’t necessarily agree with this charge.) Or is it something more insidious, the weirdly inflated ego — and comcomitant exclusionary tactics — of the marginalized? Videogame players are a subset of media culture, videogame scholars an even smaller professional subculture. Are we uncomfortable engaging with a megacommunity of gamers who don’t conform to our notions of “acceptable noncomformity,” i.e. the stereotypical frat-boy console owner with his baseball cap turned backwards?

  3. Halo is one of those games that reveals the weakness in strongly formalist “ludological” approaches to games, I think. In formal terms, there’s nothing interesting at all about it. A lot of gamers who criticize Halo 3 are perfectly right that it’s a completely ordinary shooter in game-mechanical, structural terms.

    But the popularity of the game isn’t just the result of forceful marketing. I think on one hand it shows that some games have the audiences that they do because of a sudden convergence of platform, one or two key features, ease of use, and aesthetics. So the original Halo topped Unreal Tournament in the gaming zeitgeist partly because it was console rather than PC, partly because it was so well-packaged, partly because it added some interesting things to the mix of Quake/Doom style multiplayer shooters (vehicles in particular, though UT also did that).

    But it’s also presentation. When they’re in extreme mode, the formalists and ludologists argue that the content, meaning, etc. of a game matter very little. Even Juul in Half-Real tries to some extent to diminish the significance of meaning, content, etc.–but that’s really what gives Halo its edge. UT was pure game, no narrative elements, no content beyond the action of play. Halo has slick cinematics, a strong (if sometimes derivative) narrative, and so on. Clearly if all other things are more or less equal, that matters. The same way that World of Warcraft‘s visual aesthetics matter to its success.

    There is some serious game research on first-person shooters in general, and on the kinds of sociality that is embedded within multiplayer shooters…

  4. Tim, I think you’re dead on with your critique of “strong” ludological approaches, which so often reduce games to abstract structures of rules and outcomes, aporia and epiphany, neglecting the other factors that (over)determine a given title’s success or failure.

    For me, the “content, meaning, etc” of a game like Halo are inextricably bound to its graphics — in several senses. First and most obviously, there’s the visual “envelope” in which ludic structures are experienced by the player; a webwork or texture of signs, graphics impart to games their very signification. Two games otherwise identical in their ludological dynamics can “mean” radically different things depending on what shapes, surfaces, and sounds are plugged into them; The Simpsons Hit & Run on one hand, Grand Theft Auto on the other. A game where you’re shooting Bug-Eyed Monsters is not the same as one where you’re shooting terrorists — or Blackwater security guards — or penguins — or high schoolers, despite the fact that their underlying mechanics of play might be indistinguishable.

    The other way in which graphics fall outside ludological schema is in their linkage to larger patterns of culture and commerce. Surely it is meaningful that, as processors improve, storage prices drop, and HD displays become the norm, the same basic game structures get reinvented in new layers of graphic sophistication. The entire gaming industry (for better or worse) is about developing games in conversation with graphics technology, putting today’s bells and whistles to work on tried and true formulae. Just as Shakespeare can be staged in infinite variations of mise-en-scene — saying unique things to unique audiences every time — so can a game like Halo “mean” something fresh and original to its players, despite the fact that — from a certain point of view — it’s the same old same old.

    Finally there’s the issue of intertextual (or “intergraphical”) ties to other areas of cultural production: games mimic, rework, and comment on their surrounding texts in live-action cinema, animation, special effects, television, and advertising. (I think, for example, of Max Payne‘s employment of “bullet time” from The Matrix, a graphic swipe that directly shapes gameplay; of Halo‘s repurposing of Larry Niven’s Ringworld as a structuring conceit of its diegesis; of the stylized cartoonish avatars in Team Fortress 2, so central to that game’s roleplay and tactical specialization.)

    I have yet to see a piece of ludological analysis take graphics squarely into account, either in terms of signification and meaning, or as a factor in understanding games’ place in culture.

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