Alex is an MA candidate in English at the University of Waterloo, podcast editor (in training) at FPS, game designer at the Games Institute, and avid consumer and critic of games-related media. His research seems to be in areas related to serious games, gamification, and simulative ethics. He also dabbles in comics scholarship. You can find him every Sunday evening streaming through the Metal Gear series.
Halo 5 and Quantified Self
Halo 5: Guardians (H5) is a first-person shooter in two parts: multiplayer combat and a series of story missions. In multiplayer, the player’s avatar is made distinct from other players’ with cosmetic modification (colour choices and armour options), giving them a range of options for self-expression that are unavailable in single player. Through this and other methods, Halo 5 affords certain possibilities for self-representation or expression, encourages a limited range of actions, and ignores other possibilities. Affordance, in this case, refers to everything that Halo 5 online multiplayer allows the player to do, what it encourages the player to do through its various systems (coaxed affordance), and what the player cannot do or is discouraged from doing by the platform or discursive environment (constraint).
As an illustrative example, affordance theory is applied to a different platform in Aimee Morrison’s “Facebook and Coaxed Affordances” (2014) to examine the coaxed affordances of the status update. She asserts, in discussing autobiography and its transition to an online forum, “that we are guided not only by the often-implicit discursive precedent of the genre in which we write or speak, but also by the material affordances and constraints of the objects through which we structure these stories of ourselves” (117). It isn’t just that genre conventions must be adhered to, but also the physical container – the hard boundaries – built into our chosen mode of communication must be negotiated. Speaking to material affordances, her example is of a chair: “A well-designed object leads us to an appropriate use (sitting on a chair), and away from an inappropriate use (lying down on a chair), but not entirely away from nonstandard uses (standing on a chair)” (119). To conceive of videogame worlds and social media platforms (digital communication networks) as material – solidified by and constrained by their discursive features – provides weight to discussion of what kinds of expression or action are possible in those worlds, and what those affordances (or lack thereof) may suggest about the ideological character of that world. Thinking of videogame worlds as material – limited and solid – is useful because it leads us to explore in ways that aren’t necessarily encouraged by the game itself (to stand on the chair instead of sitting).
In “The Quantified Self: Fundamental Disruption in Big Data Science and Biological Discovery,” Melanie Swan defines the quantified self (QS) tracker as “any individual engaged in self-tracking of any kind of biological, physical, behavioral, or environmental information” (1). Positioned as a tool for self-optimization and improvement, Swan sees a trend toward larger data analysis from the aggregate of private streams: she notes a transition in usage and analysis from an emphasis on the individual tracking their everyday activity, to the researcher that is interested in what individual habits, collected and collated, suggest about a wider data set (2). Tracking and quantifying certain data sets to improve health (pedometers, heart-rate monitors, calorie-counters, REM cycle sleep) and developing a community-based (or professional) scientific discourse around that data seems to be a useful and relatively optimistic use of self-tracking technology. Using the collaboratively-generated data, self-trackers could discover patterns in their behaviour – patterns which may suggest ways they might better maintain or improve health. In this way, self-trackers can gather an awareness of patterns and facts about themselves that non-quantitative analysis may have obscured.
In contrast to the big data benefits and value of aggregate that Swan highlights, Minna Ruckenstein and Mike Pantzar suggest that in promoting the use of statistics and quantitative analysis to “rethink life in a data-driven manner” (1), there is a possibility of becoming too reliant on quantitative analysis – of it becoming totalizing and limiting the ways in which identity is defined. This “new numerical self” is not only defined by which data streams are tracked, but also “promotes a framework within which such a self operates” (Ruckenstein and Pantzar 2). The presence of the tracker itself might begin to limit an individual’s range of activity: rather than exploring various exercises, considering more individualized options, the self-tracker may only do the things that are tracked.
In line with Pantzar and Ruckenstein’s view of health-oriented trackers – not negative, but wary – my contention is that the Quantified Self of Halo 5 multiplayer coaxes certain kinds of behaviour while discouraging others. The statistical-tracking of certain game metrics and the inclusion of data-tracking systems themselves suggest to the player how to properly play in the Halo 5 multiplayer environment: what is measured and what is not teaches the player how to read and understand what constitutes successful or useful play. This means that the kinds of identity that can be asserted in Halo 5 are also shaped and limited by what is tracked. Statistical tracking in Halo 5 creates and propagates a functionally militaristic view of the game’s multiplayer environments and thus character. The game’s systems ignore potential world-building or reflective aesthetic opportunities and obscure them from the player in favour of more efficient death-dealing: authoring better soldiers with better statistics. This constraint is problematic because the sprawling vistas, alien-citadels and claustrophobic future-cityscapes of the multiplayer environments cry out to be explored, instead of circumvented: the game affords a wider possibility space (for expression and exploration) than is coaxed by its systems.
Avatars and Digitally Mediated Identity
In Hello Avatar, Beth Coleman characterizes distributed digital networks as having “connections [that] can happen across nodal points in a multitude of directions” (12). A distributed network allows a user to be present across all nodes they choose to occupy, despite the distance or difference between each nodal instantiation of identity. Put differently, we can conceive of users themselves as distributively networked identities, selectively spread (not scattered) across digitally transmitted media: Coleman includes “[v]oice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), instant messaging (IM), and short message service (SMS)” in this conception of different nodes, each with their own avatar or extension the user operates through (12). Her expansive definition of an avatar includes the kind in Halo 5 – the first-person gun and armour that represent the player’s perspective and embodiment of character – and moves beyond it to take into consideration instantiations of identity not previously thought of as meaningful, or directly connected to what might be conceived of as “whole” identity (Coleman 12). Coleman’s avatars facilitate self-expression through various technologies and digital communication platforms: in her view, digitally mediating identity channels the self (nodal) rather than fragments or splinters it. Within her framework I conceive of digital avatars, regardless of medium, as embodying identity, residing at each node of the distributed self, shaped by the user through the technical and social affordances of the platform (videogame, IM program, Twitter client) used.
Stat-tracking, Feedback loops and Incentivized Play
Convenient access to a full array of statistics in Halo 5 is available through the “service record” feature. The framing here is of a military career (See Figure 1).
The service record is available for players to peruse while they wait for a multiplayer match to begin. The average of all kills, deaths, and assists for each game mode (“Arena” and “Breakout”) are presented along with the totals for each category, as well as information about which weapon the player used the most, their accuracy, the total time they’ve played in that mode, win percentage, headshots, and how many times melee attacks, grenades, power weapons, and Spartan abilities were used to kill enemies (See Figure 2).
There is also a section separate from “service record” dedicated to commendations. By killing enemies in certain ways, driving vehicles, and completing other specific actions, Halo 5 rewards the player with extra experience points, which they can then use to purchase cosmetic “upgrades” for their avatar (different helmets, visors, armor, etc.; See Figure 3). Playing a certain way also unlocks different emblems which can be used to represent your avatar during loading screens or other moments in which you are not “in-game” (See the cat with the bowtie, Figure 1): these emblems communicate game-playing prowess when unlocked by certain criteria, but can also be won by gambling requisition points, slot machine style, in Halo 5’s in-game card store.
As a gateway and important part of Halo 5’s encouraged play cycle – killing in certain ways, and upgrading to personalize one’s avatar and amass items – the in-game card store contains a number of cosmetic items organized by rarity. Players can use their earned (virtual) funds to purchase useable cards or permanent cosmetics drawn from a pre-selected rarity tier. Less expensive tiers (silver and bronze) yield less rare items, and the gold tier yields more rare items (See figure 4). Feedback loops here are in line with Ruckenstein and Pantzar: “Information gained through tracking is displayed to subjects, preferably in real time, so they can make connections based on previous experiences and modify their behavior accordingly” (10). This feedback loop is the major way Halo 5 encourages certain kinds of play; if one does not play the way prescribed, either by completing commendation goals or aiming for better statistics, the reward is less and the degree of personal expression afforded by the in-game currency and unlockable cosmetic equipment/emblems is also less. By rewarding certain kinds of action and not rewarding others, Halo 5 gates its cosmetic affordances for personal expression behind its coaxed affordances of play.
There are other incentives and coaxed affordances the game uses to encourage stat-tracking during a match itself. At any point the scoreboard is one button away. Also, every time something that is tracked for commendation points happens, a small symbol marks the kind of action completed at the bottom of the screen. The medals are only given out for certain kinds of behaviour; for some, a booming voice will accompany its achievement, usually naming the medal (“triple-kill!”; See Figure 5). The player’s score in relation to the leader, the game type and score to win, time remaining, and their relative placement is also always listed in the bottom right; the prevalence of performance data and the medals serve to reaffirm a continued focus on statistically-optimal play (See Figure 5).
Medals are part of the feedback loop Halo 5 encourages — and a long-running element of the series in general. In Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image,” polysemy is defined as a “floating chain of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others” (156). This chain of signifieds that the reader creates is meant to counter the “terror of uncertain signs” (Barthes 156). The linguistic message helps solidify that chain, supporting a particular reading of the image, and starting a logical chain that, although reader-created in that moment, is still compelling. In the case of Figure 5, the linguistic messaging of each medal and its appearance at the moment of execution (pun intended) continues to signal successful play. At the same time as medals and descriptions arrive, the score on the bottom right goes up by one, and potentially the relative scoreboard position as well, reinforcing the positive feedback. The medals, various scoreboards, and options available all function rhetorically to draw the player into the feedback loop in which Halo 5 encourages participation. This feedback loop is meant to keep the player playing a certain way and wanting to play that way.
One major indicator of success in regard to the persuasive power of that feedback loop is the amount of money the developer 343 has generated and continues to generate from card-based microtransactions since Halo 5’s release. Cards can be purchased with points earned, but they can also be purchased with real money. The practical implications of unregulated virtual gambling and its relation to non-virtual gambling – Internet Gaming Disorder, addiction, etc. – are not the subject of this paper. However, the introduction of real funds into the intersecting systems at play in Halo 5, and the prevalence of similar microtransactive systems and rhetoric in other online multiplayer games is, in my opinion, fast becoming a topic of wider interest. In this case, the leveraging of coaxed affordance and rhetorical persuasion to naturalize microtransactions into play is at least something to be wary of: its purpose is no doubt to earn money for the developer – why else? However, the important questions are these: if the feedback loop is designed to lead the player back to potential microtransaction spending, to generate more profit, then is Halo 5 even interested in anything else? And if it isn’t, should we care?
Playing Against the Curve
Continuing in that line of inquiry, as a thought experiment and digital component to this paper, I decided to play Halo 5 by myself on a few of the multiplayer maps and film it. I wanted to play in the ways that were allowed but not encouraged. Because I was alone, there was no reason to check score, there was no time limit and no reason to even use my gun. In resisting and deliberately opposing the statistically-tracked feedback loop of Halo 5’s systems, I aimed to see if there was anything else interesting happening in Halo 5’s multiplayer world besides what its systems suggest is important. I was at first pleasantly surprised, and then upon reflection, confused by what I found.
To return to Halo 5 “creating and propagating a functionally militaristic view of its environments,” and also highlight the value of adopting a deliberately different perspective from what is suggested (my experience of playing against the grain), I want to talk about whales. In one of the multiplayer maps in Halo 5 there are whales. The map is a battle arena aboard a submarine; it seems reasonable that there might be whales or sea life represented in such an environment. However, the whales are actually outside the realm of the battlefield. To see them, the player must look outward onto the ocean floor itself – turning valuable attention away from that firefight occurring within. To stop and smell the roses, so to speak, is not advisable or encouraged in Halo 5 multiplayer – and it certainly isn’t in line with the training that Halo 5’s multiplayer provides. Actually, for the experienced player of Halo 5, an expert in the efficient performance of the game’s coaxed affordances – attuned to which death-dealing method is most efficient – I would argue that the whales might as well not be there: they wouldn’t be noticed. The whales are modelled and rendered, moving about an ocean vista of abandoned outposts visible only from bulkhead windows on either side of the map. Before my experiment, I had played the submarine map, in a rotation of other maps, for weeks. I didn’t notice the whales once, or look out the bulkhead windows. The system of commendations and the movements and actions required to earn them was naturalized to the point that other potential options were rendered invisible. In the case of Halo 5, using play to call attention to the ways certain avenues are encouraged – exploring the affordances that are not coaxed – was, I believe, an effective way to begin to unpack Halo 5’s priorities. Because the focus of Halo 5’s rhetoric and mechanical systems is so tightly bound to statistically coaxed affordances, that there were other features on the maps – architectural details, wildlife, and other world-building pieces of narrative – made me wonder why it was that the game systems themselves would obscure that content by design. Why not attach medals or achievement points to these other aspects, or otherwise include them in the feedback loop the game encourages? It seems a waste to devote development resources to something that is essentially rendered invisible to the player while they engage in “proper” play.
In Tactical Media, Rita Raley suggests that if there were one feature producing categorical unity when it comes to tactical media it would be “disturbance:”
In its most expansive articulation, tactical media signifies the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible (Raley 6).
Tactical media temporarily disrupt the status quo to draw attention to the potentially limited features of the dominant semiotic regime. Additionally, Raley asserts that “the distinct temporality of tactical media, their ephemerality, along with their opening to the unexpected” are key features (7). As a deployment of tactical media, playing against the grain of Halo 5’s rhetorically encouraged systems allowed me to see not just what the game wanted from me, but also how its preference obscured and limited the possibilities for exploring other aesthetic, narrative, and world-building aspects – possibilities that are afforded, but not encouraged. Drawing from my experience, using quantified self as a critical frame in online game worlds – the kind ever-populated with collectibles, statistics, leaderboards, feedback loops, virtual currencies, and microtransactions – seems to be valuable in unpacking the rhetorical hooks and systems at play in Halo 5. It worries me that the beating heart and soul of these systems, at least in Halo 5, seem not so much to aim at creating or facilitating reflection (on war), or art, as to affect that air, while attempting to slip money out of the player’s wallet and disappear into the night. The question, as always, is do we care?
Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image-Music-Text. Sel. and Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
Coleman, Beth. “What is an Avatar?” ENGL 700 Course Reader. Ed. Michael MacDonald. Waterloo: University of Waterloo, 2015. 11-50. Print.
Morrison, Aimee. “Facebook and Forced Affordances.” Identity Technologies. Ed. Anna Poletti and Julie Rak. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. 112-131. Print.
Raley, Rita. “Introduction: Tactical Media as Virtuosic Performance.” Tactical Media. Electronic Mediations Vol. 28. U of Minnesota Press, 2009. Web.
Ruckenstein, Minna and Mike Pantzar. “Beyond Quantified Self: Thematic Exploration of a Dataist Paradigm.” New Media & Society. 1-18. Web.
Swan, Melanie. “The Quantified Self: Fundamental Disruption In Big Data Science and Biological Discovery.” Big Data 1(2): 85–99. Web.