This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Johnny Kilhefner on topics ranging from black and queer representation in games to what it means if Mass Effect's Commander Shepard was originally a woman.
Our own Mark Filipowich likes Brendan Keogh’s book Killing is Harmless more than Spec-Ops: The Line, even though it’s totally Coppola’s seminal film Apocalypse Now and by extension Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novel.
Wait, that's it for this section? OK, moving on!
Jessica Conditt offers a multi-faceted look at the representation of black gamers, from the troubling lack of prominent black voices…
"The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices," Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen told me. "We don't see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators. I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible."
…to the disheartening lack of positive black characters in games:
These virtual worlds tend to reflect the white male majority found in their development and audience, meaning representation of black characters in games is also anemic. A 2002 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56 percent of human characters depicted in games were white, and 22 percent were black – but 87 percent of all human heroes in games were white. The seven top-selling games specifically designed for children starred only white human characters, the report read. A separate study from University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams in 2011 studied 150 games across all platforms and ratings, and found that 10.7 percent of characters were black, though they were mainly athletes and gangsters.
Over at IGN, Jesse Matheson discusses a project in an isolated mining town in Western Australia providing indigenous youth a digital space to preserve their cultural identity.
Gil_Almogi of Game Revolution looks at the dating sim Coming Out on Top:
The player character cannot be changed, so very much like the majority of video games, you can only play as a conventionally attractive, white, cisgender man. Although this was as advertised, it leads to an awkward moment when the player utters, “I’m not racist, but…” Thankfully, this doesn’t segue into terse conversation with either of the men of color in the game, but I couldn’t help but feel this could just not have been a thing. Later, when Jed is thrown a racist remark and physically threatened by a random person, it drives home the idea of the privileges white, gay men experience that their brethren of color do not benefit from.
Robert Yang’s Succulent makes for a particularly tasty social commentary for Jess Joho to deconstruct gay male culture:
But by the end of Succulent, sex is the last thing on the player's mind. Finishing the game with a final blow to the Queer as Folk, consumer-driven lifestyle he sees as so prevalent in the media representations of homosexuality, Robert explains that "after consuming the carrot/popsicle/corn dog and hypnotizing you, [the character] has nothing left to feed upon, so he reveals his demonic nature and proceeds to consume you."
Finally, Alisha Karabinus wonders where we might be if Mass Effect's Commander Shepard had been exclusively a woman:
That's not a choice. That's not equal presentation. It never has been, and as best as I can tell, was never meant to be, because the industry is geared, in every way, toward male players of a very particular type.
Form and Politics
Stephen Beirne expresses his thoughts on ludo-fundamentalism and ludocentricism, offering insight on how we use language to mean, but also how the application of concepts can become a prescriptive de-valuing of aesthetic experience in digital spaces:
It can be done by associating general concepts like ‘form’ or ‘interactivity’ to only mean specifically ludic form or mechanical interactivity as a matter of fact, for example, which erases all other aspects of form and interactivity from the equation. When self-identified formalists say they focus on form to mean they focus on ludology, this is the removal of non-ludic parts from the scope of what could constitute a game’s form, illustrating ludo-fundamentalism.
Brendan Keogh stepped out to toss the ol' formalism ball around, calling out himself and other "humanities based videogame critics" for a lack of interest in form:
I want more critics accounting for videogame form. Art critics can talk about a type of paint used and film critics can talk about camera work and lighting and actors and scripts, and we definitely struggle with that as videogame critics. More account for videogames as things that are touched and played with and not just worlds that are magically entered is what we need. That means we need a more coherent language to talk about form.
Elsewhere, Jake Muncy plays Metro 2033 and discusses the poetics of urban agoraphobia:
Subways are naturally orderly spaces, each corridor and tunnel built with a purpose, moving people and property in a mechanical, logical way. Transfigured here into the home of a new human society, they are a hope for order, a place where control can be measured along the length of the train tracks.
And Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander attributes 80 Days' success to an avoidance of preconceived notions surrounding text games. Still, even the developers felt the pressure of an ever-present exclusionary mechanic-centric discourse:
Money and luggage made a natural inventory system, and the relationship stat suits the interaction between Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Time, of course, is the most crucial resource in a story about rushing to circumnavigate the globe in record time. "In general when you're looking to make a narrative game, as a developer you're often looking for excuses to shove a bit of 'gameplay' in....a few quicktime events maybe, to give you the sense there's a skill element involved. 80 Days just gave us this gameplay element for free, and that was handy."
An Inquisition into Meaning
Our winner of 2014's Blogger of the Year, Austin Walker, writes about choice and meaning in Dragon Age: Inquisition, while Todd Harper pens a weepy confession to the narrative beats induced by flirting in Dragon Age: Inquisition:
I think most of us understand how painful unrequited love can be. If you grew up queer (as I did), there's an additional layer to that experience: being in love with someone who you know not just doesn't return your affections but, really, can’t. In many cases, these feelings are for the people in our young queer lives that are our support network. As a wee gay in the mid-90s, my close allies were very, very few and I was assuredly in love with at least one of them. It's a feeling you learn to bury, or at the very least, to try and transform into a different kind of closeness, so that you don't lose something very important in the process. If you're lucky, you can deal with it all on your own.
Jorge Albor doesn't cry (in this case --ed), but he does wonder about the ontology of meaning created through mechanics centered around choice:
Maybe it would help to explore how some choices mean differently than others. Take for example, my friend’s statement that your choices don’t matter in The Walking Dead? When, exactly, does “mattering” take place? Is meaning created in the moments leading up the decision? In the decision itself? Or in the repercussions of that decision? When is the deadline for a choice to matter that, when passed, signifies an earlier decision’s futility?
Over at Tumblr, TransGamer Thoughts gives some thought to “The Meaning of Meaning” while also making us curious about a multi-verse reality branched off from a really fucking hungry Isaac Newton:
But this comes with a very clear and obvious issue: meaning is not a formal quality or status that is achieved. It is not some apple on a tree that we can just pluck down and eat if we reach a little higher. It is a happy coincidence of circumstances, a by product of interactions which then must be filtered through the lens of the individual. It is not the act of plucking the apple; it is the observation of the apple falling. Newton allegedly saw an apple fall and found a window to the cosmos but if he had been really fuckin' hungry that day, all he might have seen was a snack.
Lost to Time
Over at Gamasutra Lena LeRay’s reality gets shattered by the historical perspective of Dragon Age: Inquisition's lore:
In one swell foop [sic], BioWare has changed everything. So often in fantasy stories, The Legends turn out to be True, but they have just knocked the bowling pins of legend over with a bowling ball made of reality and revealed that the pins were all just a facade the whole time. But it's not a retcon. Everything points, now, to all the myths and legends in the lore being based on a series of actual historical events seen from different perspectives, but with details lost and twisted over the centuries. Some of the things in The Legends may very well be True... but not all of them.
Simon Parkin reveals how lackluster curating efforts is a death sentence to contextual experience:
Still, their social, political, and cultural context remains hidden. Few contemporary explorers of the archive will recognize, for instance, that Wanted: Monty Mole is a riff on the U.K. coal miners’ strike of 1984 -- you play a courageous mole who breaks the picket lines in defiance of his union leader, a character modelled on the real-world National Union of Mineworkers president, Arthur Scargill. Nor are today's gamers likely to sense the Cold War paranoia that suffuses Atari's Missile Command, which reputedly caused its designer, David Theurer, to wake at night in panic sweats.
Reality is Artificial, Survival is Insufficient
G. Christopher Williams talks Jazzpunk and its achievement of comedy through reference, abstraction and interactivity:
Jazzpunk feels different than Schafer's games. It isn't a game that solely tells jokes in cutscenes and through dialogue. It more often involves the player in the jokes and depends on the player to complete actions necessary to complete those jokes. It is a comedy that hinges on the fact that games are more interactive than other media. The comedy becomes a collaborative act between the game and its player.
Meanwhile, in Kill Screen, Chris Priestman discusses how The Stage removes the player from center stage in favor of the artists:
To Jack, this is what the stage is all about. It's the symbolic opposite to the multi-million dollar videogame industry. The stage is raw, mistakes can happen, will happen, and are part of the show. This is why, as he told me, The Stage is 'not a project about finished products but more about process'...Importantly, the distinction that The Stage makes from other types of game performance is that the centerpiece is not the player, but is instead each artist that shaped it. Crucially, the player only interacts with The Stage to incite the show, they do not control what happens. This is best demonstrated when an episode starts, plays a song and some repeated animation, and then ends abruptly, with the player only having moved around the stage wondering if there's anything more they can do—there isn't. They are not calling (or firing) the shots here.
And Hannah Peet of Videodame, in a review of Ian Bogost's How to Do Things with Videogames, reflects on a better reality where games are the “cornerstone of media conversations and artistic reflection.”
Perhaps it is time to insert these small, movement-less scenes of reflection into the player's instinctual gaming mannerisms. I can feel these reverent pauses in many games, but the player must be willing to listen for them in order for them to happen. Similarly, non-players should be willing to find this metaphor by spectating the fiction, actions, and environment. The player or spectator should appreciate such a positive moment of reformation for cultural beliefs and values. Games often don't force players to pause in-game as games are inherently a lean forward activity. Reflection on player choices should happen periodically while working through a game, but it's also time to implement reverence outside of the video game itself and into the conversations we have about the medium, its participants, and the symbols involved.
Douglass F. Warrick provides an account of forfeiting his autonomy to fall in love with a sex ninja in Apocalypse World:
By actively affording control over character creation to the other players, Apocalypse World encourages players to explore levels of experience outside of their usual frame of reference and to approach the narrative from a position of collaborative improvisation.
If you're still wanting more, ask Emily Short about games of co-authorship, she's got what you need.
Whew, we're almost there! Now let's wind down with a touching poem from Dalton Day exemplifying experiential interplay. And while you're at Cartridge Lit, check out this preview of their forthcoming Chapbook, "An Object You Cannot Lose" by Sam Martone.
It's Been Real: The Existential Crisis
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