Game on! The history and theory of MMOs
Hi, I’m Jay Clayton, and this is Cheeryble. He’s an avatar of Jay Clayton, and these are more avatars that have been a big part of my life over the last few years. Cheeryble and I would like to welcome you to “Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative”.
Firstly an aside.
For those of you who are new to my MOOC texts let me just say a few words. These are not my texts but those of the lecturer of the particular MOOC. In this case those of Jay Clayton. Using the course text file I reformat it, take out repetitions or ‘erms’ and add pictures where I can. If there are any strange terms I link them to some kind of explanation. Then I re-read whilst listening to the videos correcting all word recognition software errors, such as ‘weird guard’ to rear guard’. For ease of translation I sometimes shorten sentences or alter sentence structure.
Why do I do this? Firstly; writing helps me to absorb the course more fully. Secondly; I hope that the translation facility on my blog will help those whose English is a second language. Google translation is not the best but it is getting better. On other courses some hard of hearing people found the notes useful also. Finally; I use these notes to draw attention to my charities that are found at the bottom of my transcripts.
In the course videos there are a number of clips of Jay’s game-playing I have not embedded them in these course notes. Any errors are my own; let me know if you find any so that I can make corrections.
So here is the transcript for week one
Over the next few weeks we’re going to be exploring the cultural context of video games. This course is designed to introduce you to some useful tools for thinking about games. We will explore some fundamental concepts in narrative theory. Learn a bit about media studies and look in to the history and theory behind online games.
Along the way, we’ll read some great works of literature like Tolkien‘s Fellowship of the Ring and poems by classic English writers such as Edmund Spencer, John Keats, Tennyson, and Browning. What these authors share is an investment in the ancient tradition of the quest romance. And this shared legacy is the key to why Tolkien has inspired so many readers, and given birth to an entire genre of fantasy and literature. Not to mention an immensely popular mode of online games. This mode is the massively multiplayer online role playing game, sometimes called an MMORPG, or MMO for short.
We’re going to use Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine’s popular MMO, as our main example. Lord of the Rings Online has an enormous advantage over other games on the market. It is based on a great novel, which was made into a great movie, before becoming a great MMO. Using Lord of the Rings enables us to demonstrate the value of what might be called “multimodal analysis”, the comparison of a narrative across a number of media. In this case the three media of book, movie, and video game. There are lots of other games we could have chosen. The most obvious candidate is World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is the most popular online game in the world today and there are other cool MMO’s that have large followings. They include Guild Wars, Star Wars the Old Republic, Age of Conan, Eve Online or an older MMO, Dark Ages of Camelot which still maintains a loyal following.
But Lord of the Rings Online is perfect for our course. The game is free to play. I hope you’ll join me by downloading the game and creating your own character. Those of you who are interested in pursuing the distinction track will need to play the game. This requires access to a computer. To download the game and an internet connection fast enough to play it. Those who choose not to play will still be able to understand the lectures and participate in the course.
The videos for this class will be a little different from some other Coursera classes. We’re going to use three kinds of videos. There will be lectures, like the one you’re watching now, and there will be in-game sessions. The third format will be class room seminars with some students here at Vanderbilt. These seminars take place at the Curb Centre which I direct. The Curb Centre is a national policy centre devoted to fostering arts and creativity, both on campus, and around the country. I think many of you will enjoy seeing how we run a literature seminar at Vanderbilt. I hope some of you will appreciate watching students of varied experience with gaming encounter Lord of the Rings online. None of them have played LOTRO before, and a couple of them are completely new to the world of gaming.
We’ll check in on the classroom now. Let me introduce you to the students in class.
Hi my name is Don and I’ve been a lifelong gamer. So one of reasons I’m in this class is to gain a critical vocabulary for one of my life long passions.
Hi my name is Blaine and most of my experienced with gaming comes from examining how adolescents learned from them in and outside of school. I’m not a gamer myself. But I’m really looking forward to delving into LOTRO, as a gamer.
Hello my name is Killian and when I was very young, there could be nothing better, than a video game that captured the Lord of the Rings world. I failed in trying to do that myself. But I’m here to figure out what’s gone into doing it.
This class is based on a first year writing seminar I co-taught with Matt Hall for three years at Vanderbilt. The first one I ever taught was Myst, the mysterious adventure game that was one of the first games to aspire to the status of art. It had something like 25,000 images and 66 minutes of video. In the years to come, I’ve played a variety of video games. When Lord of the Rings Online came along, I jumped at the chance to play my character in Middle Earth. I’ve maxed out a couple of characters in LOTRO. Cherryble is my tank, and Quilp is a healer, and I’ve got six or seven other characters at various levels. But, I’ve never been a truly hard-core gamer. I’m the leader of the kinship call Vicarious Universe. But most of us enjoy the social dimension of the game as much as raiding. We prefer to explore the rich narrative world to engaging in a player versus player combat in the limited PVP area in LOTRO.
That means that there may be hundreds of people taking this course who are more experienced gamers than I am. There are people with years of game design experience enrolled as well. I encourage all of you bring your many and varied skills to the class, and to participate actively in the forums. I welcome your assistance in teaching others to understand and love the world of online games. In parting, let me say, I can’t wait to share this exciting journey with you all.
Games as Culture
We’re all familiar with phrases like “Gaming culture”, and the “Gaming world”. These phrases suggest that the game world has its own subculture. And of course, it does. In fact, it has dozens of subcultures that range from professional gamers to silicon valley entrepreneurs, to kids in their parents’ basement, to workers employed in the gaming industry, to grown adults who form the majority of the population in MMO’s, to casual gamers who play “Angry Birds” on their mobile phone or Solitaire on their laptop. But it’s not as common to talk about games in our larger literary and artistic culture. It’s still less common to think about our literary and artistic cultures presence in the games we play.
Games are deeply enmeshed in our culture and not just our popular culture. They are complex cultural objects with roots that reach back to literary and artistic traditions dating from Homer. Like virtually all of today’s culture, they mix high and low traditions. They draw on romance conventions shared by Dante, Spencer, and Mallory, and they fuse these motifs with references to reality TV and Michael Jackson, the Simpsons, and animated cartoons.
Some very smart game people have written about games as art. I’m thinking of Ian Bogost and Tom Bissell among others. But my point is that it’s important to come to terms with games as culture, games as a critical part of 21st century culture along films and novels, music, performance and art. The fact is, games contain elements of all those modes and they combine them in challenging new ways.
The usual way of claiming that games matter is to talk about how popular they are. The statistics are surprising to me. 69% of all heads of households play games, 97% of young people; I guess that’s not entirely surprising to me. But 40% of gamers are women and the average gamer is 35 years old. So these statistics go against many stereotypes that people have of the typical gamer.
Another way of emphasizing that games matter is to talk about the enormous economic impact they have.
$20-billion-a-year juggernaut, surpassing movie, music, and DVD sales combined
is how one critic puts it.
A third reason that games matter is that our society pours enormous intellectual and creative energies into producing games. It’s a fantastically interdisciplinary undertaking. Computer scientists, programmers, and mathematicians join hands with writers, artists, composers, musicians, actors, directors, producers, and countless more people to bring today’s biggest games to the market. These are important reasons to pay attention to the gaming industry, but they’re not the only reasons that matter. We need to be thinking about how these new creative channels revise and extend older cultural forms and how ancient literary and artistic traditions live on in today’s imagination.
Games increasingly attract the attention of museums in the serious medium. The New York Times now regularly reviews video games, and there have been a number of high-profile museum, gallery and theatrical performances dedicated to gaming in recent years. EMP Museum in Seattle mounted a show on the history of video gaming in the summer of 2013. The Brick Theatre put on a month-long series of plays devoted to video games. In the same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, in New York City added seven more games to its existing design collection of 14 games.
These are just a few of the reasons that made it seem important to me to begin studying video games in today’s culture. I suspect you can think of many other reasons on your own.
Gameplay: Epic Quest Line Book 1.
This is the inn where Frodo, Sam, Mary and Pippin spend the night and meet a mysterious ranger named Strider. In this session, we’re going to look at the first book of the Epic Quest Line.
The Epic Quest sequence is the chief way in the Lord of the Rings Online fills you in on the game’s back story. The Fellowship has set out on its own journey towards Mordor, and you are left behind.
But new dangers are arising from the north from Angmar where rumour has it the witch king has returned. Your job is to form a rear guard for the fellowship to protect The Shire and Bree, Rivendell, and other lands of the free people from attack by this new menace.
As you progress through the game following the Epic Quest Line, you will go on a journey into new areas of Middle Earth and discover the Lone Lands, the North Downs, the Trollshaws, where Bilbo had his run in with the three trolls. You’ll go up into Angmar itself and the mines of Moria.
Let me take a moment to reflect on how the Epic Quest Line relates to other quests in The Lord of the Ring. The Epic Quests are the core of the games framing narrative but they don’t look or function any differently from ordinary, everyday quests of which there are hundreds and hundreds. In addition, they are entirely optional. You don’t have to do the epic quests that don’t interest you. This means that the main narrative incline of the game is not essential to the player’s experience. Tom Bissell makes a point about the generally poor quality of narrative in games.
A game with an involving story and poor gameplay cannot be considered a successful game, whereas a game with superb gameplay and a laughable story can see its spine bend from the weight of many accolades.
The Epic Quest Line in the Lord of the Rings is not laughable, it’s interesting and it gets steadily better but the fact that it’s optional sends you a clear message about the priorities of the game. Here we are at “Strider”, the players with me are the other students in the class. Strider gives us a quest. You read the dialogue box and you click accept. Of course, lots of players just click accept without bothering to read the text. This quest is an example of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman called an “embedded narrative”. Embedded narrative is pre-generated narrative content that exist prior to a player’s interaction with the game. That term is better than the term “framed narrative”, but which applies to a lot of games, because here you see the narrative embedded in the experience of playing the game rather than before or after great events just framing them.
Going back to the Epic Quest, I think you’ll agree that it’s a fairly clunky way to tell a story. It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with this method. It’s completely static, inert. Tom Bissell could be describing this very kind of dialogue box when he writes,
The more explanation there is, the thought appears to go, the more story has been generated. This would be a profound misunderstanding of story for any form of narrative art.
Salen and Zimmerman identify another type of narrative in gameplay. They called this “emergent narrative”. They write,
Emergent narrative arises from the set of rules governing interaction with the game system…. Most moment-to-moment narrative play in a game is emergent as player choice leads to unpredictable narrative experiences.
There’s an abundance of emergent narrative in LOTRO. Every time you do something with your friends, you have the potential to create your own emergent narratives. And you can choose how much you want to explore and create private stories, have parties, play music, do things other than follow the straight line of the Epic Quest. And that’s what Salen and Zimmerman mean when they call it emergent; it emerges from your play.
Our fellowship has been battling gangs of unruly ruffians. This is a rudimentary example of emergent narrative because the players have some control over the course of the action, so we can determine the outcome of this battle. If we all die then we have to start over again and that it is sets the narrative back and you have to play it through it a second time. But this is also an example of how little narrative choice actually exists. We can only proceed along a single path. Our actions cannot affect the course of the story, all we can do is fail to defeat the enemies and start over or kill them all and see what happens in the embedded frame narrative. By the end of this sequence, you get a glimpse of Nazgul but you don’t fight with him, not at such a low-level. You wouldn’t last a second. But you do get to battle Nazgul at higher levels in the game, something that will nearly overcome your character with dread.
In Chapter two you’re sent to speak with another character, an NPC (which stands for Non-Player Character). Here’s another, a suburb of Bree called Comb. In Chapter three is another instance, again involving combat with the Blackwoldes. They’re a gang of ruffians that are aligned with Angmar. In this instance, you go into a cave, the former headquarters of the gang. Their old leader, as you’ll discover, has been murdered and he has been replaced by a representative of the Witch King of Angmar.
Chapter Four sends you running back to the Prancing Pony to report to Strider with the news that the Blackwolds have been broken up but that their leader escaped. This is what might be called an errand quest, a quest that has you go tell someone something that’s happened or carry something that you’ve looted back to the quest-giver. All this running back and forth has the function of getting you to understand the geography of Bree. It fills in some of the background to the game, giving a rationale for what you and your kindred are doing back in Bree-land when the Fellowship has gone on toward Rivendell, and ultimately, Mordor. But it gets rather tiring, and holds limited narrative interest.
Chapter five turns out to be another errand quest. You have to run all the way back to Buckland and talk to another Ranger named Lenglinn. Chapter six, it’s a relatively mindless, kill quest. A kill quest is an assignment to go out and kill a certain number of beasts or a certain number of enemies. In this case you have to kill some birds called in Crebain, and then you report back to Lakeland for your reward.
Chapter seven is a defend quest. You have to defend a character. When you reach Crickhollow you are attacked by more of these angry birds, these Crebain and you must defend a terrified Freddie Bulgur from their aerial assault.
Chapter eight is yet another kind of quest, what you might call an exploration quest. You have to find Tom Bombadil’s house in the Old Forest, and ask for his help. It’s hard to find Tom Bombadil, and that fit’s really well with the story of the Lord of the Rings because the Old Forest is a really confusing place. I have to say, the game designers did a great job in making it difficult to find your way through the Old forest. The map of the Old forest doesn’t really help you enough and you continually find yourself running up against walls of trees. The trees seem to herd you down toward the creek, which, if you remember that scene from the book, is exactly what happened to Frodo and his friends. They found themselves continually pushed by the malevolent force that they sensed inside the trees, down towards the creek, where eventually they encounter old man willow.
Eventually we do reach Tom Bombadil’s house. In the novel, Tom is a merry figure who few knew about and who fewer still understood. He’s far older than Gandalf the wizard and he’s more puzzling. He seems to be almost a pure emanation of nature. He’s benevolent to all, but does not seem concerned with the problems that beset the rest of Middle Earth. The game handles Tom rather differently from the book, as you will see, and the movie leaves him out entirely. In the game, Tom sends us to the Barrow Downs to find a minor boss, the Crebain master who’s been sending all these birds out to bother us. And you’re asked to kill him. But when we report back to Tom to tell him that we’ve done the deed, Tom reveals that we might need to journey deep into the one of the major instances of the first stage of the game, this is the Barrow cave, Ostrin Graff. It’s the climax of book one.
So for chapter eleven, we enter the cave, and as you can see, this is a difficult, mysterious looking cavern. Work your way down through winding tunnels. If you take any of these side paths that I skip in this video you continually find yourself beset by enemies, Dourhand dwarves and skeleton like creatures that are called Wights. There you see another conversation between a Nazgûl and his minions. Once again you don’t fight either of the high level bosses. But, “Token Horn” is a higher level than this quest, he’s a level 33 character, and so he doesn’t have a bit of trouble with the two Wights, he dispatches them quite easily. Doing so causes a rather dramatic ending. the ceiling falls in on us. We are not going to get out when, all of a sudden, who should show up but Tom Bombadil. Tom will take us out into the sunlight.
In this session, I want to introduce you to one of the most important concepts in media studies: the idea of remediation. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin introduced the concept of remediation in their book by that name. It’s titled Remediation: Understanding New Media. This is an important book in media studies. They define remediation as “the representation of one medium in another”. Remediation is their name for what happens when you take the features of one medium and put them into another medium. You can think of countless examples.
Here’s an example of remediation that I got from a great scholar of Victorian Literature, a friend of mine named Garrett Stewart. It’s a painting from 1851, a Victorian painting by Charles Allston Collins. It’s called Convent Thoughts, and in it you see a nun in the garden of her convent evidently, and she’s holding a book in her hand. So, that’s a basic example of art remediating a book, literature. And let me show you a close up of the book that she’s holding. In the book you see a kind of illuminated manuscript page with a scene of Christ on the cross with words and decorative illustrations around the edges, so that if you are able to look closely at the image on your right, you notice that the book there is what she is meditating on. One is to understand that her thoughts in the convent garden are thoughts of Christ and then you look back on the left, you see the full, picture of her in the garden and you notice she’s picking a white flower, a lily, traditionally a symbol of Christ, of purity, of virginity, of dedicating yourself to God.
Here’s a different, kind of remediation. This is moving forward into the 20th century. This is the logo that ran at the beginning of all those great RKO movies. RKO Studio was a Hollywood studio in the 30’s and 40’s that produced many classic films like the original King Kong of 1933 and one of the great American movies of all time, Citizen Kane in 1941. It was prominent for its musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But before every movie, you would have this image in the credits of a radio tower broadcasting its signals across the world. And here’s a movie then, remediating an image of a previous medium, radio. That it was aiming both to imitate through sound but really just a plant.
Here’s another example of remediation. This is a picture of a screen from CNN, which you’ll notice is laid out as a remediated version of a newspaper. It’s really clear when you look at it side by side with the USA Today. You see how they both have the same kind of headline style, the same spacing of columns and the inclusion of pictures. They both even have adopted the banner headline across the top. So you see CNN News, CNN.com piggybacking on the layout of a newspaper like USA Today. Well, you might also reflect that USA Today is perhaps piggybacking on the design of a web page. It’s hard to tell which is remediating which. They’re both exchanging graphic and visual features back and forth between these distinct media.
It’s images like these last ones of CNN and USA Today that lead Bolter and Grusin to argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media. But Bolter and Grusin also acknowledge that remediation is not a new idea at all. It’s been going on since art began.
Here’s (right) an illuminated medieval manuscript that remediates architectural design elements in the det
ails of the margin. So, you might say that a book is remediating architecture or was it often the other way around?
Here’s an engraving by a 20th century artist John Willis Clark. The remediation I want you to notice is triple here. It’s an image, an engraving of a book, and inside the book is an illustration. So, that each of them is remediating the prior medium.
But, sometimes music can return the favour. Here are two bars from the Promenade of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, his great musical piece for piano in 1874, one that Ravel later orchestrated.
An example of the way film remediates TV is the 1998 movie Pleasantville. Two teenagers are transported back in time, but not merely back in time but into their own TV show, from the 1950s called Pleasantville, they’re actually sucked into a television.
With all of these examples of remediation in front of you how are we going to sort them out, how are we going to categorize them or make sense of what’s going on when remediation occurs? Bolter and Grusin want to classify four different types of remediation. The first type of remediation they speak of is remediation that is “faithful and transparent” to the previous medium. Think of all the movies you’ve seen of classic novels. Many times you’ll walk out of the theatre, and you’ll say to yourself, that was so perfect, they got it just right. Perhaps they were filming War and Peace and they really nailed the characters, the setting, the atmosphere, the mood. Everything just seemed right, so much so that you felt like you were having a real transcription of the book. Well, that’s just a simple attempt to translate the book into a movie.
The next type they discuss is a remediation that seems to “improve on” the previous medium. Think about what High Fidelity Records did for recording industries. There was greater fidelity; audio engineers were forever working to make their remediation of the live symphony orchestra into a more vibrant sound or digital television more vivid colours they brought to you so that you could see every detail. That’s a kind of remediation that aims, through technology, simply to improve on the previous version.
A third classification of types of remediation might be a kind of “aggressive mediation” that refashions a prior medium. In this kind of remediation there’s often an element of critique. There’s the implication that the new medium is framing the older medium in a way that makes you aware of its deficiencies. Perhaps it will suggest that the older medium was outdated, that the older medium was an old technology, and that it was quaint. Think of movies where you’ve seen sepia toned photographs. It will often be used to set a mood, to set nostalgia sometimes or the good old days. But clearly focusing in on that sepia, that aged photographic technique as a way of aggressively remediating.
The final categorization that Bolter and Grusin offer is what they call the “absorbing and repurposing” it. This is when a medium takes an older story form and puts it wholesale into a new medium. You might think of online games in these terms. Online games often will take the story and completely absorb it, and enter and give it to you in such a way, that you lose sight entirely of the original story and are just caught up in, swept up in the new medium.
We’ll be talking about the process of remediation for the rest of our course. It’s really one of the fundamental concepts that organizes the material we’re going to be studying. It affects every aspect of our relationship to the transformation that occurs as we move across media from book, to film, to online game.
Types of Video and Computer Game
Countless books on gaming begin with the problem of definition. This is one of the really troubling questions in the growing field of game studies.
Salem and Zimmerman in their massive book, Rules of Play Game Design Fundamentals, have a chart that compares eight prominent definitions of game with their own definition. They measure these various definitions in terms of 15 different features, such as whether theorists emphasize the presence of rules (say) or competition. Whether they see games as orientated toward a goal or outcome, or whether the theorists emphasizes that games are voluntary activities which occur in a safe space, what Huizinga called the magic circle, and thus are not subject to the pressures and concerns of ordinary life, and other definitions, I’m not going to go through them all.
Defining what a game is, of course, a very important issue, but I don’t want to worry too much about the problem. In this course, we’re out to catch a different sort of fish. I’m content with a rough and ready definition that says something like a game is a voluntary activity with a set of rules that lead to a goal or outcome. It’s generally pursued with the object of having fun. That’s certainly the reason I like to play games. It often involves competition, and, sometimes, but not always, it has winners and losers. I do agree with Huizinga, the influential theorist of play, that games create a magic circle, a protected space, where our fun is insulated from the pressures of everyday life.
Games go back to the dawn of time, and they can be played without any external props whatsoever. Think of children playing shoot-’em-up games with using their fingers as the cowboy’s pistol But dividing the vast field of games up into a few broad categories will be helpful. In this session, I’m going to divide the vast realm of games into six categories: physical games, board games, pen and paper games, arcade games, computer games, and mobile games.
Physical games are often played on a field like in football, and that applies to U.S. American football or the football that the rest of the world plays. Or like ping-pong, the table represents a magic circle that you play on when you are engaged in the physical activity of your game. It has winners and losers. It has a defined goal or outcome.
Board games are played on a physical board where players take turns instead. I’ve got a picture here of the classic Monopoly, but chess or checkers, other examples of board games.
Pen and paper games is a genre that became very important in the development of MMOs. “Dungeons and Dragons” is the archetypal pen and paper game. It’s one where a dungeon master sits and designs an entire fantasy world for his or her friends, and people take turns rolling their dice to find out the outcomes of the moves that they have selected to make. It takes place entirely in the imagination of the players, though it can grow so complicated that people use pen and paper to keep track of all their moves and the developments of the game.
The real subject of our course is video games, and the first category of computer games to gain wide commercial success was the arcade game. It had its heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. Games like Pong and Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. They made the fortunes of companies like Nintendo and Atari, and there’s this fabulous movie that I often teach in my seminars at Vanderbilt, King Of Kongs: A Fist Full Of Quarters. I recommend it to you if you’d like to get a taste of what that arcade gaming world was like back in its heyday.
Long before arcades came along, there were video games made for computers. Tennis for Two was created in 1958 by William Higinbotham of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. It was a really primitive game, and some people deny it the status of a computer game because it was really just a green dot on a screen that looked a lot like an oscilloscope. The net in the Tennis for Two was represented just by a block in the centre of the screen. Steve Russell at MIT created Spacewar! in 1961. That game went on to inspire many later games for the computer.
Today, the world of computer gaming should be subdivided between console games and PC games. Within these two platforms, there are a number of genres of games, but these are the two preeminent machines or platforms for playing electronic games in our current world. Text-based RPG’s, first person shooters, real-time strategy games, social building games, sandbox games, sports games, and simulation games are the categories that I’m going to go over under the rubric of computer games. You could sub-divide the field in many ways, and these are somewhat arbitrary divisions, but I think they capture the majority of the major categories of gaming, the major genres of gaming within today’s world.
The first text-based RPG was Adventure, a game that was created in 1975 and followed shortly thereafter by Zork. Both of them were completely entrancing games for computer nerds of, of the time. You played them on a blank screen, and entered answers to questions that the game asked you, and only by finding keys and opening the proper rooms could you advance. First person shooter games are among the most popular games today. I’ve listed a few of the more prominent ones, but there, there’s a host of these games. They’re characterized by the camera being in the player’s head so that you see what the protagonist of the game sees.
Real-time strategy games are games that take place in real-time and generally involve resource management and territory management, sometimes unit placement. Warcraft was an influential one in 1994 and it had two sequels of Age of Empires in 1997. I spent many of long night playing Age of Empires, it was one of the games, along with Civilization, that first got me in trouble with my family for spending too much time on the, the computer.
Sandbox games is another popular genre of video gaming. Minecraft is a relatively recent entry, but it is taking YouTube by storm. People, do play throughs of Minecraft and have great audiences that can watch them for hours. Another kind of Sandbox game is The Sims. It has some of the characteristics of a strategy game, while it simulates everyday life in the developed world. You can create your own character, build your own house, and just live in the world of the Sims. You will notice, though, that I’m not going to discuss Second Life in this course. Second Life is sandbox, a platform, but it’s hardly what I would characterize as a game. It’s really a platform that is used by people who enjoy it as a glorified chat room. A lot of e-commerce takes place in Second Life, as does a fair amount of educational programming, but it doesn’t have the other kind of elements of gaming that draw me to the genre of online games. Particularly, it doesn’t have any narrative.
Sports games are, of course, one of the most popular categories of online games. John Madden’s Football is based on American football, and FIFA is based on the game that Americans call soccer.
Simulation games, such as race car games or this picture I have here, of a pilot simulator are popular genres, and in recent years, there’s become a fast growing market for mobile games. Tetris was the first one. It was designed for a mobile phone and is really quite primitive compared to the multimedia games that dominate the market today. Perhaps, probably the most popular one currently is Angry Birds.
Of course, I will end the category that has inspired this course, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. I have behind me an image of a Zerg from the Dark Ages of Camelot. Zergs are when a massive group, bigger than a fellowship, gathers together to go campaigning in DAOC. You could create Zergs of 100 or more players and work together to defeat a monster, or to go into RVR combat, and in the next video, I’ll spend a little more time discussing the history of video games with an eye to demonstrating the close linkage between the computer and the genre of the video game.
A Brief History of Games
In this session, I’m going to use a chronology that my former colleague and, great friend, Matthew Jett Hall, created. Matt Hall was head of ITS at Vanderbilt University until a couple of years ago. He has worked for Bank of America and Microsoft in the past. Thus he combines first-hand knowledge of business culture, with a keen understanding of IT, and a love of gaming. Matt and I co-taught a course called Worlds of Worldcraft Digital narrative and Virtual Reality, for three years. He made this chronology in 2010 and I updated it to 2013.
I want to draw your attention to several pivotal moments in the history of gaming which will help us understand the close relationship between, video games, and the business, and technology of computers. Let’s begin with, the founding of Parker Brothers back in 1883. Parker Brothers was one of the first game, companies producing board games in the 19th century. Only a few years later you would begin to get the influential science fiction of H.G. Wells and of course, Jules Verne had been publishing even earlier than that. So gaming, as an activity in our culture, came into an existence side by side, with science fiction.
By 1909, the TV had been invented and other critical advances in electronic media. Things like, the colour TV, movies with sound, and early analogue computers, were all conceived and created, before World War II. But it was not until near the end of the war and in the 1950’s that the digital computer proper came into being. Note a crucial date, 1954, the year J.R.R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring. This was the same year as one of IBM’s pioneering machines the IBM 650 went into production. The IBM 650 is sometimes thought of as the world’s first mass-produced computer. It was only a few short years before scientists and engineers were making games for their computers. I think it’s remarkable that one of the first things that scientists thought to do with this powerful, new invention was to play video games. In 1958, Tennis for Two was created, and SPACEWAR in 1962.
The 1970’s and 80’s, were the great period of arcade games, and home gaming machines. Zero in on 1972. Atari is founded and Al Alcorn creates Pong and Magnavox demonstrates the Odyssey gaming machine. 1974 saw another important milestone, the commercial launch of Dungeons and Dragons. This was a fantasy role-playing game that did more than anything else to bring Tolkien to the gaming world. It also laid the conceptual underpinnings for the random roll generators, the structure of combat in most MMOs.
Shortly thereafter you will see Microsoft founded and the debut of Colossal Cave Adventure, usually called simply adventure. It, together with Zork and Ultima in 1979 would have enormous influence on MMOs. In the next couple of years, companies like Apple and RadioShack produced machines for the home market and the phenomenon of MUDS, multi-user dungeons, which were like vast chat rooms also shaped the gaming world. The chatrooms that were developed in those early MMOs and MUDs set the precedent for people using MMOs as social realms for just talking, as well as playing. Improvements in gaming machines and new games follow fast and furious. Two games that would have enormous impact on MMOs were Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy.
The last two decades of gaming has been crowded with events too numerous to discuss in this session. So I want to, to zero in on a few important moments in these decades. The first moment is the year of 1997 when Ultima Online was created. That’s arguably the first. MMO and you still meet, many a gamer who will proudly tell you that he started by playing Ultima online. People in my kinship, in LOTRO, date back to friendships made in Ultima online.
The next year, Everequest brought even greater popularity to the online gaming world. After that came, Dark Ages of Camelot in 2001, and two enormously successful science fiction game, Star Wars Galaxies, and EVE Online. At last, the behemoth World of Warcraft came out in 2004. World of Warcraft is the largest MMO, it has something around 12 million active players at present. It, dominates the realm of online games. It’s a wonderful property; it’s rich with imagination, full of narrative. It has an enormous social world, great crafting world, an economy that is robust and complex. It has everything that one wants in an online game. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re not concentrating on World of War Craft on this class, because, it’s not as well matched as the Lord of the Rings to the topic of how stories, change when they move from an original book, to a movie, to an online game. But World of Warcraft obviously has, more followers than any other game currently on the market.
2007 brought an event of, real importance to this class the launch of LOTRO. I can still remember my excitement when the game was announced, and I was in beta I could hardly wait for it go live, and founded a kinship on the first day that LOTRO came into existence. It’s the game we’re playing in this class, those of you that are pursuing that route.
MMO’s continue to come out at a regular pace. Star Wars, The Old Republic came out in 2011 and Marvel Heroes in 2013. The free to play model has given new life to some older properties, and the graphics have developed dramatically. Game play continues to grow ever simpler, which continues to attract new audiences to gaming, while frustrating some people who prefer the more complex older versions of the game. Meanwhile, the rise of the casual gamer has brought millions of more gamers into the activity, and it’s attracted whole new demographics, women, more mature players, people who just don’t have the time to immerse themselves in the kind of MMO that we are studying. Finally mobile gaming has taken the casual gaming phenomenon to a new level, I’ve left out, so much in this session. There is so much more to be, said about the history of gaming, much more to be explored. There’s also the future and the rest of the history remains to us, the players, to be made.
Juul: Rules and fiction.
Side note – These conversation in this and the next section are hard for some non-English speakers to follow. I have taken great liberties with them. For example the asides ‘you know’, and ‘like’ I have removed, large asides are in brackets and italics. I have laid it out as a script. Where Jay is quoting Juul I have marked that simply Juul. I hope you find this useful. This section took a long time so I'm not sure I will do it for future lessons.
Jay: Jesper Juul’s book “Half Real”, anticipates many of the things of this course. First of all, I want to talk about his concept of games as a combination of rules and fiction and then his distinction between emergence and progression. Finally I hope we’ll have a chance to discuss the aesthetic dimension of games, whether games can be works of art or not.
Jay: Let’s begin with Juul’s fundamental insight. On the first page of his book, he says
Juul “to play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world”.
Jay: Now, what does he mean by real rules?
Killian : I guess what I understood from Juul’s argument was the idea that the game represents a completely fictional world that is utterly fantastic, and yet it’s still going to have a series of rules that we cannot just transcend, that we have to work within even though the context is completely made up.
Jay: In the first paragraph he says,
Juul : video games are real in that they consist of real rules with which players actually interact, and in that winning or losing a game is a real event.
Jay: So when you’re playing a game, you’re doing something real and the rules of the game have a consequence.
Juul : However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon’s not a real dragon, but a fictional one.
Jay: What are the implications of that?
Don: When slaying a dragon in a game, you’re slaying an actual virtual dragon. It’s not a fake thing that you’re doing.
Jay : An actual fake dragon.
Don : An actual fake dragon, yes.
Blaine : It lowers the stakes. You’re still working within the rules of gravity and cause and effect, but within this fictional world with fictional characters.
Jay: That’s right. So the fictional world gives you a context, and that’s what he means by being half real. When you are playing game real things happen, you are interacting in life, you are sitting there moving your game cursor and you are responding to rules that bind you inside the game. Yet you also inhabit a place like Middle Earth. Let’s talk some more about what’s involved in saying a game is working inside a set of rules.
Juul : The rules of a game provide the player with challenges that the player cannot trivially overcome. It’s a basic paradox of games that while the rules themselves are generally definite, unambiguous and easy to use, the enjoyment of a game depends on these easy-to- use, rules presenting challenges that cannot be easily overcome.
Jay: Can you give me examples of, of that from the gaming world?
Deanne : Sure! In Lord of the Rings, when you begin you don’t know, for example, how the quest tracker works. That can be frustrating: you don’t understand the rules: what you are supposed to do next, or the world’s geography. There are signals for what you’re supposed to be doing in the world, which are helpful. On the other hand, when your foes become too easy to defeat, like the feeble bears (bears become easy to kill as you level up) this becomes boring .There has to be a balance between a user interface that’s not too frustrating ( I think that the user interface is a form of a rule system. The rule is that this key does that and this button does that) but there have to be challenges built-in too.
Jay: That’s right. That’s right. So, yeah, Don?
Don: I’m thinking of a basic game like Tetris where the rules could not be simpler in terms of how to solve the problem and get through to the next step or the next level. The challenge arrives when the pieces start falling down faster and faster, and that’s the challenge.
Jay : That’s right. Juul means this to apply to all kinds of games, from Tetris to ones with really elaborate fictional worlds. Tetris is a game with minimal fictional world barely any at all. Lord of the Rings, a rich one. What about chess? There’s a great example of a game with fairly easy to understand rules but they’re very hard to overcome when you’re playing against a well matched opponent. Is there a fiction to a game of chess? Minimally so. The pieces generally have a representational logic, king, queen, bishop, knight, pawn. But, a point he makes in the book is that you can basically play chess with any kind of piece you like. So that is a game that really fits his model of rules but is only minimally fictional. I don’t think you can completely discount the fictional element in a game like that.
Video games have the potential to greatly enhance the fictional part of this equation. They don’t always do it. You have already mentioned Tetris, what about Pac-Man? What is the fiction of Pac-Man?
Chelsea : All the world is a maze.
Jay : All the world is a maze with things to eat in it and something chasing you from time to time.
If games can exist with just a rule set, like Checkers (Checkers has probably got even less of a fiction than Chess does) is he right? Is the story essential to game? Yes?
Don: I think elsewhere he says that it’s a combination of these two things that make a game excellent and interesting. But in terms of examples of games where a story is more important than the rules or equally important I’m thinking of the Dragon Age series of games. These are based in a lot of ways on Lord of the Rings; the emerging into the world: the lore: learning the various dialects of the characters; coming to understand their motivations; understanding the emotional relationships between the characters. These characters become amorously intertwined. There are all kinds of rich narrative possibilities in this game. And yet there’s a set of rules that dictate the parameters for where you can take the story.
Jay : Blaine, what about you? Do you care about the fiction? Do you read all the little pop-ups that give you your mission or do you just accept the question run out, and start doing it?
Blaine: I’d say I tend to skim the pop-ups, because I want to learn something. But I really like being immersed in the landscape of LOTRO. It has enhanced my reading of the text, and made me engage and immerse myself in Bree and all the different areas. It makes my reading more focused.
Jay; Reading Tolkien?
Blaine: Yes, when I’m looking at Tolkien.
Killian: I think that I most love narrative games. When I was younger the games that I was most interested in were adventure games that had incredible (or what seemed to me at the time to be incredible) stories. I think they lose out on replay value, according to some arguments. I think LOTRO kind of does both things at different points. Take the example of being in the wilderness killing bears. That doesn’t seem like something that I need a lot of narrative information about. But if I’m doing something more quotidian, delivering letters from here to here or something like that, then I have a desire to know about these people whose letters I’m delivering.
Jay ; The epic quest line is very narrative, but lots of people skip the epic quest line. Something very interesting about the freedom you have, in some kinds of games, is that you can skip it. The more freedom you have, the easier it is to skip the narrative. There’s almost a, a relationship there between reader or player autonomy and engagement in the narrative. Some people clearly crave narrative in their games. There are hundreds of people who write fan fiction about these games,(not just Lord of the Rings online); there are books that are published on the internet; there are websites that are full of lore that people spend hours and hours reading and writing. I think that Juul has given us a very, very effective formulation in his sense that video games tend to be half about the rules and half about engagement with fiction.
Juul: Emergence and Progression
Juul: A small number of rules combine to yield a large number of game variations.
Jay : What are some examples? Yes?
Chelsea: Not to keep harping on it, but Minecraft is like the ultimate version of the emergence game in which you basically have a world in which the only rule is that you don’t let the monsters eat you. Apart from that you can do everything that you want to do.
Jay : That’s right. So, most sandbox games like Minecraft, are almost completely emergence games. There are rule sets, though which you have to discover.
Chelsea: Yes! There’s definitely an aspect of working around them. When you compare them to a game like LOTRO for example, where you can only walk over certain kinds of terrain, then you can see how even that number of rules is smaller than some of the other games.
Jay: What about a game like football? And it can be American football or it can be the rest of the world’s football, which we call soccer. Is that a game of emergence?
Killian: Yes!Defiantly yes. You can play a game like that to win the championship, in the case of American football to go to the Superbowl. But just as often if not more often you’re playing against the computer or playing with your friends.
Jay: But then he’s also talking about the small set of rules. There’s a field of a certain size, you can’t touch the ball with your hand or your arms, and you win by scoring goals. There are certain infractions and there are referees to enforce those infractions, but they’re very minimal. Yet it’s fascinating, the World Cup is the largest spectator sport on our planet. If there wasn’t something really compelling about games of emergence people would get tired of watching 11 people on each side play the same set of rules.
Deanne : I was thinking of a game even more simple than that. Four square, a game I often played in my elementary school. There are just four squares, no specific size. Four players. You progress up to the king square by passing the ball back and forth and not letting the ball bounce more than once in your square. We played endlessly when I was a kid, because no one knew what the, outcome was going to be; what moves were going to happen; or who was going to end up in the king square.
Jay : And so what was the pleasure of that? Was there a fictional dimension to it?
Deanne: I think a little, yes. I think that fiction of “I am the king and I can make a rule” when you’re in the king’s square is very exciting although you know you’re not a king in any kind of sense of the word that we would use outside of the playground. But I think mostly that the interest in that was the competition of exercising how well you could execute the rules of the game.
Jay: What about games of progression? Here, still on page five he says,
Juul : The player performs a predefined set of actions in order to complete the game. – The game designer controls the sequence of events.
Jay: Juul maintains that
Juul : Games with a powerful story dimension tend to be games of progression.
Jay: They seem to guide the player more, and there’s less variation.
Jay: Right. Like a lot of first person shooters or games that you play through just once because once you get to the end you’ve beaten the game, but you’ve also come to the end of the story. You have examples of those kinds of games?
Don: I think I’ve already talked about the Final Fantasy series. This is perhaps the best example I can think of. It’s a game where the set of rules seem to be mapped onto a narrative. The rules enable the narrative to unfold. It’s primarily the narrative, however convoluted it may be, that people are invested in and the percent of progression from one piece to the next.
Chelsea : You have games like the Pokemon franchise for example, where you have a story that you have to fulfil from beginning to end in order to complete the game.
Jay : Right. Definitely. That’s a great example. What do you think? This is a challenging question. Have games yet become a distinctive art form?
Don : I can talk anecdotally about this. When I was undergraduate I applied for college and I wrote an essay on video games as an art form. I was 16 or 17. I used as my example Final Fantasy six (which is three in the United States). I don’t have it in front of me, obviously, but, I was just thinking about this the other day. I was very upset, at that time, thinking about how people would partition art from the idea that video games couldn’t be art. I certainly do personally believe that.
Jay: So did you get into college?
Don: I did, I got into a few.
Jay: So that essay must have worked. Do you think games have potential to be an art form?
Chelsea: I think definitely they do. I think part of, part of the indicator for that is how much art video games generate. If you look at Reddit and DeviantArt, and all these other places where you can look at all of this artwork that people have made, inspired by the games that they love, I think it becomes very clear, that it is a form of art that begets other art.
Killian: I think that, just like any other cultural form, we have to evaluate video games on their own terms, that seems important. I can remember, for example, in my teens playing Lucas Art’s famous Monkey Island series of adventure games and puzzle games. There were moments that I had, when playing those games, that I felt I had achieved a degree of immersion in a world that was, (I don’t even want to say better or worse) qualitatively different and more amazing than anything I’d ever experienced. So, yes I want to give video games that.
Jay: That sounds like a description of many readers who experience when they just get caught up in a great novel, you know, they just feel like they’re in another world.
Blaine: It’s like stepping into a beautiful painting, but being able to interact with in it.
Jay : Yes, that’s right. So what about, what do you think about its multi-modal status, the way games, video games in particular, blend artwork with music, uncertainty with drama and writing. There’s an endless amount of writing that goes into creating a game, from the scripting to the text that you read or in Blaine’s case half skim. How does that multi-modal character of video games affect the status as art?
Blaine: I think what makes it powerful is within the multi-modal environment is how all of these modes, the text, the imagery, the music, all interact and combine to create this embodied, disembodied experience. That’s just really building and it’s a full space of immersion.
Jay : And so, you said embodied, then you said disembodied. I love that because it captures a paradox of gaming. A common critique, but, I think, a misinformed critique is that video gaming is a disembodied experience.
Chelsea: I think that’s a little too simplistic. I’ll share an anecdote here. When you play LOTRO, for example, you can play it (it’s not one of those games in which you have to be able to hear directionally where sounds are coming from) with the sound off. But, doing so imparts a completely different experience of the game. Whereas if you have the ambient sounds, if you have all the people talking, that, that creates a much richer feeling of the game, than if you’re mechanically going through it.
Jay: That’s right and on the simplest level, you are an embodied human being at a terminal with a mouse or your fingers working the keys, there are tactile sensations that are embodied and are activating your avatar’s relationship with the rule set. So that, the very rule set and your relationship to the rule set, is an embodied experience. That goes further with games that have been designed for Wii, and that are kinetic. They’ve started to use more advanced motion technology to access that embodied character. There are no games that are completely disembodied, that criticism that there’s no virtual world with no reality at all. This is it and we know.
We’ve had some great LAN parties here; we’ve sat together and played, and talked, eating and having fun, interacting socially both inside the game and outside the game. You don’t have to be in person to do that, but that’s another element of the video game. Increasingly people want to do it collectively, with a group, to have that kind of double sense. In a way there’s a double reality that you’re aware of when you’re in the game. You’re aware of the fictional world that you inhabit and you’re aware of the world that surrounds you, which may well include your friends. It may include distractions; it may include telephone calls that interrupt you. It may include, in my case, a spouse who says when are you going to stop playing your game?
Don : That made me think about how the standards of tastes in video games are dependent on technological innovation. I have a long history as a gamer. Thinking back to those games, like the one that I wrote to get into college, it was pretty rudimentary in terms of the technology available at the time. The standards that the critics use to decide what art is, with regard to games, are constantly evolving. Gaming seems to be in this paradoxical position now in terms of how to determine whether it is or is not art, because people are always anticipating the next level. Like when the next Play Station comes out the graphics will be crisper. As technology improves maybe the voice acting will get better. Is this the important factor to consider when determining whether or not this is art?
Chelsea: While we’re enumerating ways in which we might need to take video games and really all forms of media on their own terms as far as determining whether they’re art. I think that technology really does play a serious part in that for video games; it’s not something that could be left out.
Deanne: But it’s not always an issue of the quality of the game being reliant on the technological intricacy. Websites like Google’s search engine, it’s so good because of its simplicity, because of the way those search results show up in a very digestible form. Craig’s List is another site that’s become popular, because of that. There’s an element in games too, where there are some senses in which a more simple form of technology may be more appealing than a more advanced version.
Chelsea: Right. I don’t mean to imply that the best technology or the most complex or realistic graphics are what will succeed. All I am saying is that, I think that it’s definitely a factor that can’t be left out.
Deanne: True. Yes, I agree with that.
Jay : Well, I think that our discussion has enable us to see one thing really clearly which is that the first step into determining whether a game has the potential to be an art form is to understand the kind of aesthetic claims that games make. You really touched on that when you said it may well be a totally new medium, that we don’t yet have the standards by which to evaluate it. For most fantasy games, and for that matter, for most science fiction games, the aesthetic claims that they make are connected to a long history of aesthetic principles, related to romance. But they’re developed in an entirely new medium and in unique ways, so that no one knows yet how this new medium is going to alter the tradition.
T.S. Elliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent said that every work of poetry alters the entire tradition that came before it. Well I’m making a similar kind of claim that, yes, fantasy games tend to invoke and rely on all the conventions we’ve been discussing of romance, poetry going back more than 1000 years but, they will alter that tradition.
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
Those are the first three lines of Constantine P Cavafy‘s poem Ithaca. I want to discuss Cavafy’s poem for two reasons. First, it’s about one of the great quest stories of Western civilization, Homer’s Odyssey. And second, it conveys a lesson that I think applies wonderfully to gamers. The poem is about relishing the journey for its own sake, and not just for the destination at the end of the quest.
Cavafy was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was a Greek, who lived most of his live in Alexandria, with some years spent in England and Constantinople. His poems were written in a revolutionary mixture of Greek demotic verse, that’s the ordinary language of contemporary Greeks, and the pure elevated language of the Greek classical tradition. Cavafy mentions some of the obstacles Odysseus had to face on his journey. In lines four through five, he writes,
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes, Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them.
The Laestrygonians, as many of you all will know, are giant cannibals which attacked Odysseus on his way home and they actually destroyed 11 of his 12 ships by crushing them with rocks from high cliffs. The Cyclopeses were giants with a single eye in their foreheads. Polyphemus is the best known cyclops. He gets tricked by Odysseus who puts out his eye with a sharpened pole and sneaks by the blinded cyclops by hiding under the bellies of Polyphemus’s gigantic sheep. Poseidon was the God of the Sea. Poseidon did his best to frustrate Odysseus’ journey home. Of course, most of us will never have to face such terrifying challenges. We won’t discover the marvels that Odysseus discovered. Many of his adventures are included in the poem. The Sirens is a very famous adventure. These were women whose entrancing song would lure unwary sailors too close to shore, where they would be wrecked on hidden rocks. Odysseus got by them by having himself bound to the mast of his sailing ship, his vessel, he plugged all his sailor’s ears with wax so that they couldn’t hear the enticements of the sirens. Odysseus also ran into Circe, the witch who turned many of Odysseus’ men into swine. He had to sail in between the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a six headed monster that lived in a cliff beside the ocean and snatched sailors out of the ships that passed by. Charybdis was also a sea monster, a whirlpool.
But Cavafy tells us that we don’t need to worry about these kind of challenges. Not unless we bring them with us in our souls. Cavafy writes, “you’ll not encounter them, unless you carry them within your soul, unless your soul sets them up before you.” These lines deepen the poem. They make us realize that Cavafy is talking as much about inner demons, the fears that we set up for ourselves, as any external adventure that we might encounter. But let’s get back to the question that may be bothering some of you. What does this poem have to do with video games? The answer, I would propose, lies in the very first line, hope that the road is a long one. It’s the journey itself that matters. It’s who you meet and what you see along the road that will make the trip satisfying. Cavafy writes, do not rush your journey in the least. Better that it last for many years. This is a profound lesson about life and incidentally encapsulates my attitude toward video games. Not everyone shares this attitude, many gamers are obsessed with levelling up, with maxing out their characters and getting the most uber gear they want to reach the end game, they forget that it’s the experience of getting there that matters. After all, video games are entertainment. They’re out there for pleasure, and the trip to levelling up, the trip to maxing out is the real heart and soul of most games.
Ithaca is your goal. Ithaca is what, set, why you set out on your journey, and you’ll reach her someday. But it’s the experience of getting there that brings us the deepest pleasures and the deepest satisfactions. Here’s how Cavafy phrases that sentiment. Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey, without her you’d not have set upon the road. But you may find, once you reach the end of your journey. That you missed the adventures you encountered getting there. You may find that Ithaca is not all that you thought it would be. That was certainly what Cavafy thought. In his poem, he imagines that Odysseus was disappointed by Ithaca. But Cavafy ends his poem with a final twist. And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you. As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience, you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
Notice that odd plural in the last line. Ithacas. With that Cavafy wants to indicate that we carry our own Ithaca inside us all along. In your adventures along the way you will have been learning what Ithaca means to you.
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