[This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Ben Abraham on topics including why spoiler warnings might be unnecessary, sexism in L.A. Noire, and more.]
Hello! Welcome to another episode of This Week In Video Game Criticism. It's been a busy week for the blogosphere, which has seen some heated but reasonably productive discussion. But we'll get to that.
First, the loveliest thing I've read all week (indeed, the loveliest for some time longer) is 'Games Saved My Life' which is a collection of essays and stories organised by Ashley Burch (of 'Hey Ash Whatchya Playing' fame).
They tell tales of salvation through games, featuring stories like this one in which "Morgan McCormick, a transgender gamer, talks about how video games were an essential part of her ability to accept herself and her identity as a woman", and in 'Game Therapy' "Greg Kaperski credits Final Fantasy 8 as the only thing that helped him come to terms with the death of his first love." This is brilliant, moving stuff.
"These moments are small in comparison to the majority of the game, but they stand out because of their clever use of subtlety and implied storytelling; their demonstration of just how successful the transition from 2D to 3D actually was; and because of the way in which they compel you to keep on playing through the allure of exploration and discovery."
"I have killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands. I can't remember what most of them looked like let alone their names. And I couldn't care less. Such a state of detachment characterised by a lack of empathy, guilt or remorse is symptomatic of what is broadly termed psychopathy yet it is also what gamers often experience when playing violent video games. But they're just pixels right, so why should we care?"
A pair of posts from PopMatters this week: "In defense of spoiler warnings" by Scott Juster looks at a recent study out of UC San Diego that investigated the nature of spoilers and found that such warnings may be unnecessary as "giving away surprises makes readers like stories better". Juster's take on it is that,
"If anything, the study illustrates the difficulties of trying to empirically measure enjoyment and the dangers of imprecise definitions of pleasure. Video games, perhaps more so than any other medium, are defined by the exploration, discovery, and the learning process. Because of this, spoilers often detract from what makes video games special."
And then if that weren't enough contention for you, G Christopher Williams goes on a lengthy spiel about 'Why Videogames Might Not Be Art'. But before you jump to conclusions, Williams takes a very thoughtful approach, identifying some real gaps in the argument against 'it's just a game', and drawing on the history of aesthetics and aesthetic philosophy to bridge the gap between pure subjective response and rock-solid facts:
"I personally very much dislike the phrase 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. What bothers me about the phrase is its implication that recognizing beauty can solely be understood as a result of the perception of a thing and that somehow the object under observation has not in some way had the effect of provoking that recognition. In other words, sure, I might recognize that a rose is beautiful, but it isn't merely because I decided arbitrarily that the rose is beautiful. There may be some qualities inherent in the rose that makes me respond that way. Both my subjective experience of the rose and the rose itself objectively have something to do with why I feel the rose is beautiful."
Williams goes on to tease out some implications from the necessary distance required for an aesthetic experience (and the lack-thereof, in games). Hamlet is only a cathartic tragedy for the audience, not for Hamlet himself. If it were 'us' that this were happening to it would be nigh impossible to have the kind of cool, dispassionate view required to appreciate the full scope of the tale. Contra videogames, in which there is no distance – we are Hamlet. Instead,
"…there is a certain thrill that I get when riding on a rollercoaster that is quite similar to moments that I have had when playing Call of Duty. I don't think that either of these "thrills" are aesthetic responses, and in that sense I can see a detractors point in not feeling like gaming is quite like viewing a work of art."
Williams doesn't take it as far as saying that games never can maintain the requisite, ahem, critical distance from the work, and I'd tentatively suggest my favourite games are the ones that somehow flit back and forth across this divide.
Richard Goodness at Secondary Quest asks a question in the headline and answers it himself: 'Is LA Noire sexist? Well…yeah.' Goodness is responding here to an IGN piece by Emma Boyes who argued that the game could tread a path through historically accurate sexism and still hold onto a modern commitment to equality (the difference between presenting sexism and condoning it, perhaps). That seems to be Goodness' point:
"LA Noire not only depicts a world where women are more peripheral, it doesn't question this status. Women genuinely are relegated to the background. I guess what made this the most obvious to me was the Homicide arc, where every single victim is a woman, and every single death is sexualized. The women are naked, raped, beaten, violently killed. One rape/murder is an aberration, a violent crime which must be brought to justice. I don't mind a gritty detective story which features that as a case. However, when every single case features the same MO, it gets a little…unnerving. After I examined the third body of a mutilated women, I began to suspect that the game possibly had some agenda against women. After the fifth, I was sure of it."
Joel Haddock at Spectacle Rock is revisiting the late 80s game Wasteland which he played as a kid (we mentioned the beginning of the series earlier). Well he's up to part 6 and I have it on good authority that this is an excellent series. Part one is here, and the latest entries are parts four, five, and six. History!
Kirk Hamilton of Kirktaku fame and his daring companion Leigh Alexander of SVGL are continuing down the road that is the original Deus Ex, even as the latest game in the series is released this past week. They're up to part three and they're talking about choices.
Joel Goodwin at Electron Dance looks at what we've lost from the 80s in his ongoing series 'Where We Came From':
"After the 70s, powerful computing technology moved into the home then invaded the space in our hands. The draw of the arcade waned. Pubs now make do with dreary quiz machines and one-arm bandits. No one wants to see the old coin-op any more. It is done."
At The Border House blog this week the blogger sidbiscuits asks fearfully… "Did she just money-shot herself with his neck-blood?" The answer to which is tied up in sexualised violence in games, priming the discussion with a rather disturbing finishing move from the character Skarlet in the recent Mortal Kombat game.
"To make better laws you have to get at the core of why it's okay to enforce laws and why people obey them in the first place. Do people do it because it's what the herd does when authority, sometimes with force, tells them to act or do they obey the law because they personally believe the law is correct and good? For gamification, the issue is are they buying your product because of its intrinsic value OR are they buying it because it levels up their stats? Because whether you're marketing toothpaste to kids or organizing a reward program for recycling, you can't fix it or improve it without understanding the underlying mechanisms at work. The problem is further complicated because the answers is not always crystal clear. As Ronald Dworkin points out in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Law, the problem is not which answer is right but how do you tell the difference?"
And lastly, we turn to the furore surrounding last weekend's Freeplay conference (which I attended) and try and sketch out how the conversation around the panel called 'The Words We Use' evolved.
The first response to the panel's failings was by Brendan Keogh at Critical Damage, who sketches a tentative definition of videogame criticism and rejects some of the statements the panel made about the nature and existence (or lack thereof) of videogame criticism:
"What ultimately caused the argument and its tone to be so, well, dumb, was due to what I think are much vaster issues in and around videogame writing, and the things that were said at this panel hit it home pretty hard that these things are really quite serious problems for those of us who care about videogame writing. So I think it is more constructive to talk about these problems than to throw harpoons at the speakers themselves. The fact they seem so oblivious to these following things should be a wake-up call to us that we need to do something about these problems. These problems, in list form are:"
…in the original article, which you will have to go read.
Following a news write-up of the panel and the anger that it stirred up in the crowd, I decided that I wanted to set the record straight about why there was so much anger, and in the process discussed tried to explain why it's not enough to just be 'against' sexism anymore, arguing for more challenging of sexist statements and attitudes.
"So here was the recipe for the perfect storm. The dismissal, the ignorance toward women writers, then the attempt of diffuse utterly inappropriate dick joke, then finally the most mind bafflingly expression that 'the way women treated in the industry is not a problem and it will fix itself' when just a moment ago a panel of expert video game journalists couldn't name a single worthy female writer while a Walkley Award winner was right in the room. That was when the audience, and Twitter, exploded."
Following that post, the chair of the panel, Leigh Klaver, created a blog just to respond to the post, now forever known as 'THAT panel' (and some more comments from the other panellists can be found in the comments sections of the posts linked here and above).
"I was at Freeplay this year. I sat in the audience during the 'Words We Use' panel, in silence, as the chair of the panel said that he felt that there was a divide in gender in video games, and that he didn't 'tend to get a lot of critical, serious comment or articles from females in games'. I sat there as a member of the audience suggested that we move off the topic of female games writers because 'the problem would solve itself naturally as the industry matures'. I sat there and I said nothing. I said nothing for the same reason I have said nothing since I started writing about video games (unless we count the odd angry tweet). And that reason is fear."