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This Week in Video Game Criticism: From  Prison Architect  to  Castle Doctrine
This Week in Video Game Criticism: From Prison Architect to Castle Doctrine
January 28, 2014 | By Lana Polansky

January 28, 2014 | By Lana Polansky
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design



This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Lana Polansky on topics including Prison Architect and Jason Rohrer's Castle Doctrine.

All Our Sins Laid Bare

First, Paolo Pedercini, the development mind behind (Unmanned, Every Day the Same Dream) took to Kotaku to interrogate Introversion Software's alpha build of Prison Architect. Pedercini views the game from the perspective of the United States prison-industrial complex, challenging its representation of things like rioting, labor, recidivism, solitary confinement, and the list goes on. He offers insights into how Introversion can tweak elements of the game before general release to make it more than just a "surface level stupid" private prison simulation.

Prison Architect's producer, Mark Morris, and designer, Chris Delay, responded to Pedercini's critique in a lengthy Youtube video where they explain where they think they can do better, where they're in the process of doing better, and where they think Pedercini is mistaken. Notable is the rebuttal to Pedercini's (reasonable) presumption that the game is set in the United States. Both Delay and Morris concede that the American cultural imprint of the contemporary prison archetype is too widespread to ignore, but insist that that wasn't their central source of inspiration and such, American policy and social convention regarding prison culture isn't wholly relevant to the design of Prison Architect.

Resistance is Futile: Invasion of the Academic Game Critics

The Journal of Games Criticism has just been released, an open-access game studies journal whose flagship piece by Brendan Keogh, "Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games," has sparked discussion about the relationship between game academia and game criticism produced outside of that system. Keogh argues that the preoccupation among game studies academics to find formal purity in games is a reflection of industry self-interests in technological progress and concomitant capitalist ambitions. Rather, Keogh argues that games studies ought to look at the "cyborgian" approach of young, largely non-academic critics. Many young people outside both the high echelons of academia and industry are creating thoughtful close readings that are rooted in hybridizations of subjective writing and academic forethought. Rather than erasing the importance of non-"gamey" elements in order to find the Ideal Form of the Game, Keogh admonishes his peers in games studies to look at these outsider works of phenomenological writing that account for the messy, experiential, embodied parts of playing and parsing a videogame.

In response, Dan Joseph asks just what game studies even is, anyway. He meditates on the lack of cultural studies' discourse within games studies, and the need for an understanding of the relationship between political economy and academia (and games studies in particular). He expands a little bit on Keogh's call for close readings by adding that it isn't just a phenomenological approach that's required, but a materialist one too.

On his blog, Felan Parker provides a few "reading" strategies to help critics achieve a more holistic approach to interpreting games, one that takes into account the personal and socio-technical complications of playing a game instead of focusing too much on ludic purity. He cites some examples, including some from personal experience, about practices that allow people to deconstruct and then reassemble a play experience from new perspectives. This may allow the player to have a better understanding of how a game is designed and give them a broader understanding of their own relationship to it.

Zoya Street sums it all up on Medium with a nice abstract on Keogh's piece and its responses, as well as a clever nod to Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social. There, he argues that not only does reconstitution of games from different perspectives help us understand them better, but the hybridization of criticism and scholarship is ultimately going to teach us a lot about the structures of things like academia and blogging:
If Keoghís image of the academic critic seems to include people who are not academics, itís because the cyborg critic is not themselves a hybrid of blogger and academic, but something produced by a hybrid assemblage of academia and blogging.

(Rather appropriately, Chris Franklin's close reading of The Novelist on Errant Signal embodies this particular movement of phenomenological, scholarship-inspired reader responses to games.)


We Can Rebuild Videogames. We Have the Technology.

The Game Design Forum has posted a very long, very thorough introduction to the history of videogame design, outlining the wisdom and conventions acquired in each era that have constructed videogames as we now know them.

On his blog, David Gaider responds to a fan question about omitting romance systems from BioWare games. "Sometimes it's tempting," he says, describing the meticulous consideration involved in making a romance system that's both ethical and diverse.

On Think Entertainment, Alex Rinaldi discusses the tenuous relationship between videogame problem-solving and making moral choices. The piece begins with Star Trek: The Next Generation analogy which makes yours truly very, very happy.

Stephen Beirne pens a very insightful critique of Jason Rohrer's upcoming game, The Castle Doctrine. He argues that Rohrer's "distillation" of the moral question of using lethal force to stop a home invasion is undermined by his deliberate elision of social and political factors that lead to increases in things like burglary. Much like Pedercini's take on Prison Architect, Beirne insists that the exercise of that moral question is made more, not less, substantial with the inclusion of relevant social context:
Rohrerís distillation creates a gulf between the issue in reality and the issue as TCDdiscusses it. For the most part, people donít suddenly materialise into criminals one day. There are causes that drive them there, making their roles in society much more tragic than Rohrerís moustachioed caricature. As game designer, he adopts the teleology of the world within TCD, and with it responsibility for the systemís narrative dynamics falls upon his head. So, whereas in reality these criminals are created by the horrors of the world, inTCD they are selfish, greedy opportunists with nothing better to do.

At This Cage is Worms, Cameron Kunzelman discusses designing horror, defying convention, and a little game called Ib.

This piece on Before Game Design meditates on the design differences between board games and videogames, and how board game principles that allow for abstract dissections of systems can be better hybridized with videogames.

This short piece on Games and Tips breaks down the positives and negatives of the new Human Female design in World of Warcraft. Essentially, she lifts. But that does not an adventuring hero make.

At The Ontological Geek, Owen Vince seeks game design that can genuinely represent the horror that was the First World War.

Words, Words, Words.

On a rather sad note, Nightmare Mode has gone offline. However, the great writing it boasted is not lost: you can find its basic archive here.

Issue 9 of Memory Insufficient, a games history e-zine edited by Zoya Street, is now available online. So, why are you waiting? Read it now.


Last but not least, be sure to check out Imaginary Funerals, a website dedicated to alternative writing on games.

And Now, From Our Friends in the Scandinavian Division

Dispatch Oscar Strik brings us good tidings and lovely words for our Dutch readers, including:

On Power Unlimited, columnist Nick ruminates on the possible detrimental effects of Early Access to the longevity and quality of a game, cautioning buyers not to get too excited about the new phenomenon.

At Control Online, Matthijs Dierckx reports on a recent debate about games in Amsterdam between 3 scholars and 1 developer. Dierckx's take was that while the 2-hour talk was interesting in its variety of topics, from game addiction to violence to the benefits of games taking on more serious issues, the debate unfortunately strayed too often from the topic of play itself.

And for our last course, on Gamereactor Norway, Martin Sollien weighs the potentially harmful implications of declining net neutrality and high bandwidth demands for the users of services like Netflix, Twitch.tv, or enthusiasts of F2P games like Dota 2.

That's all for this week, folks! Remember to submit your own reading recommendations via our email submissions form or by mentioning us on Twitter. See you next time!


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