piling up

playful appropriation of gamespace
Quake 3 Arena pile-up
[HP] just sent me a screenshot of an avatar-tower done in ‘Quake 3 Arena’ (Q3A—check out the movie-collection at planetquake3 for footage of more like this, for example the 57 Player Q3 Tower [.avi | 35,2MB]). [HP]’s only accompanying line-of-text was “roxooxoxoxorz”, roughly meaning: “that rocks like hell&mdash’nough said!” The tight to-the-pointness of his commentary gives me the opportunity to post my unfinished thoughts on ‘playful appropriation of gamespace’:

Although it was published already in 1999 the so-called first-person-shooter Q3A still is very popular today (in 2005), both on the Internet and at LAN-parties. The underlying narrative of this game is very similar to that of a boxing-match: The player is thrown into an arena where she encounters one or more (up to 63) other players. The task is to ‘frag‘ as many other players as possible until the ‘frag-limit’ (which is negotiated prior to every match by the participating players) is reached. That is the gist of the story, but the whole game is far more complex: On the strategical level you have to learn the geography of each map by heart—that encompasses the architecture/topography and the ‘landmarks’: which level-items (weapons, ammunition, shields, and a diversity of power-ups) are going to appear when and where and so on. There is no use in bursting through a level headlessly and panic-stricken. Instead you have to navigate along strategic patterns—on every disturbance you have to continuously improvise and alter this patterns. On the tactical level you need a stock of running patterns which have to be chosen and changed ad-lib, too. Only if your tactical movements are almost unpredictable there is a chance of not being hit and avoiding damage. The same is true for choosing, aiming, and firing your weapon. Running, jumping, turning around, switching weapons, aiming and firing the latter … all this has to be done in threedimensional gamespace and in realtime. And it has to be executed quickly and very precisely, because Q3A is a stunningly fast game, there is no time for much reflection. The named skills have to be internalized, instantly available directly from the subconscious—just like a piano player has not to actively think about which key to hit next. One can have opposite opinions about the development and acquisition of this skills: Is it adaptation to, or appropriation of the gamespace? An argument in favour of the former would be that this skills are indispensable for ‘survival and success’ in the world of Q3A—that means for having a chance to reach the goal of the game and win. But some players have developed skills which are not indispensable for successfully playing Q3A. Quite to the contrary: some of those skills are downright useless, even counterproductive in contest-situations.

The Meta Baron doing an early mortar-shell-jump

Adequate examples for the playful appropriation without altering the gamespace are the ‘rocket-jump’ and the ‘plasma-lift’—both being Q3A-skills. When doing the rocket-jump or its variations like the grenade-jump, the player makes use of the shock wave of one or more nearby exploding projectiles to propel the avatar aka player character into the air. In the first album of the graphic novel around P.I. John Difool, “The Black Incal” by Moebius aka Jean Giraud and Alexandro Jodorowsky (Jodorowsky, Moebius & Chaland 1981:43)—an early piece of cyberpunk, a character called the “Meta Baron” already does exactly this, as you can see above.

The plasma-lift or -climb is an even more artistic, if anything equilibristic feat. The basic version requires the player to face a wall as close as possible, choose the plasma gun, aim it to a point near the own feet, but still on the wall, and then jump, ‘lean’ forward ‘into’ the wall, press, and hold down fire simultaneously (it took me a while to figure that out, but now it works, is great fun, and elates me big time). This allows the avatar to climb up a wall vertically, or slide along it horicontally or diagonally, riding the recoil-wave of the plasma-gun’s continuous spitting of projectiles—until getting stoked … or fragged by the own weapon. The advanced version is crashing into a wall in mid-flight and continuing by doing the plasma-climb. Don’t ask me how the guys get that coordinated.

Both skills have close to no value in Q3A competition-play context, because executing this tricks simply costs too much of the player character’s ‘shields’ and ‘health’. The rocket-jump is very seldomly seen in contest-situations, the plasma-lift virtually never. To a certain extent acquiring this skills is an end in itself. On the other hand mastering this special skills means a tremendous boost of the player’s overall skill of finding her way around in Q3A-gamespace, of becoming familiar to its qualities. So learning this skills indeed has some, albeit indirect benefit for the player’s ability in contest-playing, too.

The game’s greats (and greatest) of course master all of this and much more, which permits them to show off incredible sequences of Q3A-tricking—see new gods. I showed one or two Q3A-tricking-movies to some fellow-anthropologists. They were impressed by the aesthetics of the gamespace and to a certain extent by the dramaturgy of the movies. Everyone was amazed by the high standard of the production values of those clips, as they could imagine how much expertise, time and dedication it needs to create movies like that. Especially the visual anthropologists were fond of that. But nobody was impressed by the incredible skills demonstrated by the players whose avatars starred in the clips. For everyone it just was animated characters jumping and flying around on a computer-screen. My colleagues could not imagine what it takes to move and act like that in Q3A gamespace. You have to be enculturated/socialized into the realms of games like Q3A—or at least have to have understood quite a bit of them—to be able to embrace ingame stunts. And this is not possible without a minimum of shared experience. Hence I again emphatically second Aki Järvinen’s opinion, which reflects a part of the anthropological approach: “I respect many kinds of approaches to the study of games and players, just as long as the researchers play games themselves.” (games without frontiers)

Another breed of equilibristic stunts are the Q3A player tower records. This means the attempt to stack as many player characters as possible on top of one another, as depicted far above. Already in, or: not before 2003 “Polish quakers first have made a q3 tower which is 64 players high. They’ve reached the maximum capacity of a Quake3 server. No higher tower is possible to build using Quake3. This has been the third Polish attempt of reaching 64 players for the last few months and it has ended with success after 115 minutes of trying. It’s worth to notice that the server was full just five minutes after it had been raised. […] There will be no more records, the Polish one is definitely the ultimate.” And the online-fanhood cheered. (planetquake3.net—from there you can download the video-proof) Without altering the game in the sense of reworking, a completely new kind of competition has been created on top of it. Just by envisioning and then negotiating a new goal and a new set of rules—as with speed runs. And more is done, and can be thought of, like stacking-up-objects competitions and records in ‘Half Life 2’ (HL2), or the infamous HL2-running-through-the-game-with-the-suitcase-from-the-railway-station-contest which unfortunately suffered an untimely death because of three-dimensional teleporter-malfunction (in German—this story is as hilarious as insightful, I promise to translate it into English soon—given that KerLeone grants permission).

In all the above examples the gamespace itself is not altered by the players like in gamemodding, but appropriated by the acquisition of skills, which requires the investment of substantial amounts of time spent ‘inside’ the gamespace. The players are plumbing the depths of the possibilities particular gamespaces provide. With gamemodding a deeper level is explored—not merely the gamespace, but the potentials of the game-engine itself. Nice examples are Q3A mods like soccer and basketball, tremendously popular at LAN-parties. And the song remains:

Where has all the violence gone … ?