Justin Hall's personal site growing & breaking down since 1994

watch overshare: the links.net story contact me

How Has Inventory Management In Computer Role-Playing Games Affected The Way I Pack?

A speech for the Austin Game Developers' Meeting, 10 March 2003

Dave And Busters Podium I play role-playing games, recently Baldur's Gate II and Fallout I, as a pack rat. If it's not nailed down, I take it. "Hey! There's a green rock! I'd better pick that up, don't know when I might need it." Because later on in the game, I would feel very stupid if it turns out that I needed a green rock and I didn't keep what could be the only green rock in the game.

This means I spend an inordinate amount of my time in computer role-playing games arranging my inventory. Because while there are a rainbow of rocks, and flares, and shards of somethingomanother, there are only a few inventory slots and usually a weight limit. So I estimate I spend at least 15% of my time in RPGs maximizing inventory - shifting items, stacking them. Fortunately I'm often allowed party members, so I'm able to assign pack-rat roles to each of them. But that just gives me more inventory slots to juggle!

All this amounts to hundreds of hours spent over the years learning to map my virtual possessions in these game spaces. Inventory management in RPGs must affect my packing skills, the way I establish priorities for items and allot them within my luggage. At least as much as the few hours I've spent playing Tetris!

I was raised by these games - these games babysat me. When I was fourteen, I was babysat by Al Lowe - his first Leisure Suit Larry game was the perfect product for a sexually unsure, curious mind. Before I could get to the corny pixellated soft core humor, I had to take a multiple choice test to prove I was old enough. There were four choices for each answer, and I learned that Spiro Agnew was the Vice President through a process of elimination.

Why did I spend so much time with computer games? Because they gave me a chance to explore. Because I could sit at my desk, test myself and experience things.

Some of what I experienced was titillating, some was provocative. I played a lot of Richard Garriot's series of Ultima games (starting with Ultima III). By the time I got to Ultima IV, Garriot and his team were asking the player to understand that good behavior sometimes meant choosing between competing virtues. Honesty and compassion often stood at odds, as did humility and honor. Garriot added nuance to superhero morality and by playing his game I learned a little bit about ethics.

Was this excitement for virtual exploration unique to me? I look back and I feel alone, but today this electroculture seems to be emerging worldwide. I saw this last year at the World Cyber Games in Daejeon, South Korea. After a series of national semi-finals, talented gamers from computer game-playing countries of the world gather to compete for a $300,000 pot. I was covering the WCG for the South China Morning Post, an English language newspaper out of Hong Kong. They wanted me to follow the home town computer gaming teams as they fought for victory. The best Age of Empires player Hong Kong had to offer was Shing Chun-yu, a quiet but confident 15 year old. Frequently teased by his older teammates, Yu Shing seemed most at home when he was joking and poking around with the other 14 and 15 year old AoE champions from Japan and Spain. They'd played each other extensively online, chatting and battling; they had only met up at these world championships. They spoke to each other across three languages using a pidgin-English AoE shorthand - "You die? You no die! He kill you? No, die!" Beyond cultural difference and language barriers, these boys shared a rich and varied world of success and learning inside the machine.

This was wonderful for them, but leaning over them with my notepad and camera, I felt slightly left out. Growing up, I didn't go online to play in real-time against other people like myself. My games were largely single player games. I had a computer growing up and I liked games with long stories and detailed character interactions. And then I remember, so did my friends. In fact, I spent many of my pre-pubic years playing games in the company of one or more guys like me. There were many nights on Andrew Meyer's old green and black screen PC collaboratively playing Bard's Tale and Seven Cities of Gold. We argued over riddles in the city of Skara Brae. We would sail our ships to Dani Bunten's new world and when we found a native village we debated what to do. If the natives attacked we let out shouts or screams, and maybe three of us would run out of the room waving our arms in attack while a cooler head worked to resolve the fight.

Many of my peers were raised in this same sort of game culture. We can make jokes about and references to games new and old. Even if we did pass many nights alone in front of machines, we were plugged into the same source. We share that culture. And we share that programming. Raised and trained by games, how does this generation do things differently?

As I continue accounting for a youth spent in gaming, this has become an increasingly urgent question. At the Game Developer's Conference in San Jose the week before, I asked friends and random people "How have video games changed you as a person?" The answers filled half a notebook and inspired some of these remarks. My work ahead is in sifting through those thoughts, and further developing this question.

agd homies
Lulu, Wendy, Brian.
And I have some reading to do: starting with Digital Game-Based Learning and What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. The style of insight I want has been articulated before by Ong, with regards to the shift from orality to literacy. I want the shift from literacy to interactivity described, by a learned and witty mind.

Thanks to Brian Sharp for inviting me, Robin Chenoweth McShaffry for sponsoring me, Wendy White for videotaping the talk, and Lulu Lamer for smiling at me. Jane worked over my ideas with me in advance of my talk. And thanks to the members of the Austin Game Developers for a good discussion, giving me a whole raft of additional stimulating game learning examples to muse over.

speakin's | life

justin's links by justin hall: contact