Category Archives: Game Politics

JUNICORN!

(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 

Juunicorn!

(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.

UNITY.

Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.

———–

So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Economics and Gaming

A short aside.

Every so often I just want to grab a whole bunch of tech writers and game makers, shake them by the lapel, and yell “YOU LIVE WITHIN A LARGER ECONOMY”.

I know. It sounds obvious! But whenever I read a discussion of “AAA” gaming and consoles and resale and all of that, nobody ever really seems to think about it. There’s never anybody who steps up and says “maybe people aren’t buying these games because they can’t.”

Maybe they’re trying to find the cheapest entertainment options, ones that leverage devices that they’re already able to afford thanks to instalment payment plans (hello, mobile!), because they don’t really have any other choice.

Maybe they live in places that don’t have the sort of Internet connections you want them to have because those places are cheaper to live in.

Maybe they buy and lend and trade and sell because it’s the only way they can experience anything like the console games that they grew up with.

Maybe they aren’t buying new PCs because they can’t justify the price tag for something they already have, even if they’d like to upgrade, and are only buying tablets because they’re technically new devices and (people forget this!) are actually really damned good ways to teach your kids things. People will go deep into hock for their kids’ sake.

Maybe they only shell out for Call of Duty and Madden because they know their friends have those, know what they’re getting, and can’t damned well afford to take a chance on non-refundable entertainment products.

Maybe not. But the point is, you have to think about these things. You have to remember what the hell is going on in America and around the world. You have to remember that Silicon Valley and the lucky techies there and elsewhere with the good-paying jobs are the EXCEPTION rather than the RULE. Maybe you have to pay a bit more attention to what the rise of Apple as America’s most profitable company is saying about the possible permanence of the shift of the economy to extreme polarization.

You aren’t in a bubble. You’re part of a larger system, and that system is really, really not doing well right now.

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Microsoft Blinks

And how. After the drubbing by Sony and the entire media over their even-worse-than-I-had-anticipated DRM policies, they turned around and said “okay, fine, whatever you say, just stop hitting us.”

So, oddly enough, I ended up being right. Microsoft can learn. It’s just that they have to take the absolute worst kind of drubbing, the absolute nastiest sort of backlash, before they’re willing to do it.

It doesn’t mean that the Xbox One is bereft of problems now. The exclusives don’t really grab me, their attitude towards indie devs is baffling, the always-connected Kinect thing is still vaguely creepy, “TV” thing is a joke just waiting to be told, their choices on system memory could come back to haunt them, and the price is still too damned high, largely due to the aforementioned Kinect. But at least it’s now something that someone could plausibly want. 

(Though, as Jim Sterling ably points out, if they changed their mind once, they could always change it again…)

If nothing else, it’s a welcome rejoinder to all those smug asshats who call themselves “journalists”, “analysts” and “enthusiast press” that continue to jabber and bloviate about how the “vocal minority” are unrepresentative of the broader whole. That was bullshit and IS bullshit. They may not be 100% representative, but they’re closer to the truth than you’d like to admit. Maybe they aren’t where you are, with your sympathetic ear towards the publishers moaning about production costs and resale “theft”…but maybe you are the one who isn’t representative.

It’s also a victory for user’s rights. Huzzah. We’ve needed a few of those.

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Don’t listen to “Austrians” about hyperinflation in Diablo 3. Please.

Sooo…looks like the other shoe dropped on Diablo 3’s economy.

I’d written a while back about deflated prices in Diablo 3; about how the auction house reduces everything to money, and about the volume of items meant that there was rampant deflation of the value of goods. Things just weren’t worth much. There was always a flip side to that, though; as the playerbase dropped, as money from play multiplied, and as the players became savvy about which gear was good, there would be bidding wars on said useful gear that devalued gold vs. the cost of goods. Looks like that happened.

But please, PLEASE, Critical Distance readers: before you go running off to read the Mises institute’s analysis of Diablo 3’s economy, keep three things in mind:

1) These guys rant about how hyperinflation is coming thanks to “fiat currency” Real Soon Now all the time. They call Diablo 3 a Virtual Weimar because EVERYTHING is Weimar; either a Weimar that’s happening or a Weimar that’s soon to come. They’ve been predicting post-crisis American hyperinflation for so long now, and been so consistently wrong, that it’s become a bit of a joke. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

2) Austrians really have no place in modern economics. They’re seen as cranks due to their resistance of economic modelling and quantitative analysis, and this is coming from someone who used MARXIAN stuff. Pay absolutely no attention when they start pretending that they’re representative of modern economic thought. Their “laws of economics” are nothing of the sort, which the piece tacitly admits in avoiding discussion of any economic school outside their own.

3) In-game economies tell us almost nothing about real-world economies, because you don’t have “money sinks” and “faucets” and the rules of ownership of goods are completely, completely different. The extent to which the Mises guys try to pretend that “fiat” (read: floating) currencies are akin to an in-game economy just shows how screwy the whole enterprise is.

Sure, it can work the OTHER way, which is why I wrote the Diablonomics piece in the first place. But if you want to do economic analysis based on in-game economies, then you want to look at something like EVE Online, not Diablo 3.

Sure, by all means, check it out as a bit of a fun curiosity. But for heaven’s sake, don’t attach any authority to it.  Anything that includes the line “virtual gold had gone the way of all flesh and fiat currencies” really, really doesn’t warrant it. “Fiat currencies” are doing just fine, thanks.

Edit: Hah. When I wrote that, I hadn’t really plumbed that gabble at the end of the piece about “free markets” and the evils of “central planners” and the like. Folks, these guys have been going on about that sort of nonsense ever since Obama dared to try to rescue the “free market” from itself by doing a bit of stimulus spending back in 2008. Nobody with any sense believes that regulated markets are some sort of Evil Thing. The only smart ones who advocate that these days are the ones who stand to profit from deregulation.

Even if real-world economies behaved that way, games aren’t supposed to be completely free and open in the first place. Games are systems of rules and restrictions. The economies of games are about those rules and restrictions and the enjoyment that the player gets from operating within that space. The whole reason why Diablo 3’s economy was a miserable failure, and why the PS3/PS4 version of the game won’t have an auction house at all, is because Blizzard forgot that. The game’s enjoyment and engagement economy clashed with its gold-denominated faux-economy, and was destroyed in the conflict.

Blizzard’s success with World of Warcraft has everything to do with that game’s careful balance of time and skill vs. reward and chance. And, yes, that’s an economy, since it skillfully and carefully balances scarce resources against each other. It’s just not the sort of economy that these Mises guys understand in the slightest.

If they understood game economies at all, this article wouldn’t have devolved into reciting doctrinaire cant at the end.

Edit: There’s a far better analysis of what the AH did to Diablo 3 here at Joystiq. Yes, it mirrors my own, but it’s still from someone who understands how games work, instead of reciting Austrian Scripture, zombie-like, at the invocation of the word “economy”.

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Games are Political. Sorry.

Had a fascinating exchange on Twitter with Dan Amrich, Community Manager for Activision. We were talking about the anti-used game stuff on the XBOX One (or XBone, if you prefer), and after I rebutted his point that people shouldn’t be haters by saying that it’s okay to hate terrible ideas, and gave the admittedly-hyperbolic example of dumping PCBs into public pools as a terrible idea that I feel free to hate,  he busted out the “it’s only games” thing, quickly following it up by an exit featuring the  “you’re mixing up games and politics. Good day sir.”

Mixing up games and politics.

Hah.

Dan, do you even know what politics IS?

Politics, dear Sir, is about the exercise of power. When I studied political science, that was pretty much the entire curriculum. What power is, who has it, how it’s used, where it’s used,  and how it should be used. An entire field based on one concept.

So why is it an entire field of study that goes back thousands of years? Because power is everywhere. It’s all around us. Every day, in every way, in every action we take and every action we don’t take, we are exercising power and being subject to power. It can be as obvious as not taking a candy bar from a store out of the desire not to be punished by the state, or as subtle as the language we use in a casual conversation with friends. Sure, power affects who you vote for, but it also goes into the things you buy and sell and, yes, the enterrtainments you enjoy.

(Hence that whole “the personal is political” line. It’s not that everything reduces to power. It’s that power  suffuses everything.)

Gaming is no exception to that. The entire field is rife with issues of power. The gender issues that everybody’s worrying over right now? Power. The all-consuming discourse over freedom of expression? Power. The concentration of economic power in the hands of a small number of publishing houses? Power. The move of the industry to the locations with the best subsidies for development? Power. The rise of free-to-play on mobile devices? Power.

But the whole resale thing on the XBOX One? The one that we were talking about? It’s more of a power issue than almost ANY of these, barring the gender and identity questions. It pits the power of the publisher and manufacturer against the power of consumers. It pits the publisher’s power of copyright ownership and the manufacturer’s powers of patent ownership against the consumers’ power of media ownership, as embodied in the first sale doctrine. Whoever has the least power may face bankruptcy, fines or even imprisonment.

(Yeah, that’s the thing about power. It’s entirely relative. It’s a zero-sum game.)

Yes, most of these issues are discussed in terms of “rights”. Rights are about POWER. They’re recognized and endorsed entitlements, backed up by the state’s power to punish and the moral power granted to rights-holders in our society. You have rights? You have power. It may not be much, and it may not be enough, but it’s there.

So, no, Dan, there’s no distinction. Everything is political, and this is VERY political, because it’s a move by powerful publishers and distributors to curtail the (very small) amount of power still enjoyed by consumers.

Now, you could theoretically argue that it isn’t important. People do. Dan did, if unwittingly. But I think that you have to be consistent on that. If games don’t matter, if they aren’t important, then, yes, there’s no point granting consumers these powers. But that opens the question of whether and why their creators should enjoy the powers granted by copyright and patent laws, as well as freedom-of-expression laws like the Americans’ First Amendment.

If they DO matter–and this is where I stand–then their creators do deserve the power that come from the recognition of their rights, but consumers deserve the same thing. That includes resale, borrowing, rental, and all the rest.

And, yes, that includes the ones yelling on Twitter.

(Oh, one last thing. Power isn’t always gained or granted at the point of a gun. Moral power matters. Convincing people that you have a just cause in order to convince them to go along with what you want is often far easier and more effective than trying to use the state as a blunt instrument to punish the hell out of them. 

(If you want people to  respect your rights as a copyright holder, the first step is recognizing their rights in turn. That’s why resale isn’t “piracy”. Resale prevents piracy. Something to keep in mind.)

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STOP IT. Stop with the formalism thing. Stop it right now.

A very simple response comes to mind:

“Tadhg Kelly, please stop trying to tell me ‘what games are’. To be extremely blunt, judging by both your site and your CV, I don’t think you’ve earned the right.”

Granted, I haven’t earned the right to tell anybody what they should think is or isn’t a game either. But I’m not trying to claim it

You know who HAS earned that right, though? Anna Anthropy. Remember her? The woman who’s supposed to be at the vanguard of the “zinesters”? Her output has been excellent. Lurid title or no, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars demonstrated a clear mastery of simple, elegant, oldschool game design, and she went into no small amount of detail in explaining exactly how she employed that mastery. She’s done that over, and over, and over. She’s a good critic and a great designer.

If she’s calling stuff like Dys4ia a game, I’m going to be very reluctant to disagree with her, because she’s actually really good at making and judging the things.

The funny thing is that I’m not actually a gigantic fan of the anti-mainstream backlash. I get it, but I think that there’s more mastery and craft in mainstream than the “zinesters” are necessarily always willing to admit.  I also  don’t root my disagreement with Kelly in the political and identity elements of games as Anna does. (Though I do respect those responses.)

I’m simply not impressed by these attempts to turn games into empty systems of rules, and to straitjacket criticism by forcing critics to engage them solely as systems of rules. If that was EVER the case, it’s long over. It’s over in board games, it’s over in card games (CCGs are far more than their rules), and you’d best believe it’s over in video games.

If you want to know “what games are”, you don’t need Kelly. Go read Grant Tavinor for the definition of games:

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.

INTERACTIVE FICTION. “Rule-bound gameplay”… OR INTERACTIVE ‘EFFING FICTION.

This problem is solved. This discussion is OVER. Grant Tavinor solved it back in 2008. Now go do something productive.

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Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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Game violence redux (or: you are part of the problem. Yes, you.)

(This is adapted from a longer response piece to an article that, honestly, didn’t warrant it.)

I’m beyond tired of this damned violence discussion.

I’m not tired of the discussion per se. It’s important. And this has nothing to do with any specific author, since so many seem to be prey to it. (If not in their official work, then in their bandwagon-tastic Twitter and Tumblr feeds.)

No, I’m tired of this shape of the discussion. The medium is changing, positively changing, more quickly and drastically than it has at any point in its entire history, and is doing so while other media like film are demonstrating more resistance to change and experimentation than ever. The winner of the last VGA game-of-the-year award was THE WALKING DEAD, for Heaven’s sake: an adventure game (adventure game!) that people are lauding for its intelligent and tragic attitude towards death.

There are challenges, especially the treatment of women in the industry, but those are things to celebrate.

Yet the grotesque inferiority complex–the barely submerged and all-encompassing self-loathing of both gamers and game critics–is so pervasive and so all-encompassing that any positive development is ignored, while any stupid negative step or mis-informed promotional screwup or unenlightened developer soundbyte is hoisted up and carried around  as proof that things are just as bad as they’ve ever been. Whatever that was supposed to be. 

Bullshit.

Games aren’t making kids into killers.  They aren’t getting more violent, absent the ongoing changes in graphical fidelity. They aren’t getting dumber. They aren’t all just mindless shoot-em-ups. And Call of Duty’s fading seizure of the increasingly-marginally console space aside, there are a TON of important games making doing very well that either feature cartoony representations of mild violence, like Skylanders and Jetpack Joyride, or are completely and utterly nonviolent, like Super HexagonWhere’s My Water, Just Dance and FarmVille 2.

By perpetuating this…by moaning about how Everything Is Terrible Forever And It’s All Our Fault For Being Horrible Gamers Oh God Why Couldn’t I Be Into Whittling Instead…you’re nothing more than a Useful Idiot. You are playing into the hands of everybody that wants to avoid real solutions, and you’re doing it by blaming a medium that’s actually improving by leaps and bounds. You are helping ensure that any movement towards useful things like reasonable gun legislation gets sucked into the endlessly swirling vortex of Game Violence Discussion.

You are not being “reasonable”. You are not being “rational”. You are not being “mature”. You’re just discouraging the people who are actually working to change things by devaluing that work.

YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

Cut it out.

Memo to Vaguely-Creepy 1UP Article Writer:

No matter how graphically accurate Call of Duty or Medal of Honor or What of Ever gets, Neal Ronaghan, you aren’t “killing human beings” in the game.

You’re interacting with virtual, synthetic simulacra. They’re subroutines, wrapped in a multitude of tiny triangles. That’s it. That’s all they are. They aren’t even SMART subroutines.

They aren’t people. They never have been. They never will be. Barring a revolution in strong AI, they’ll never even be close. One of the reasons why you’ve managed to keep your head despite playing these types of games for as long as you have is because you’re supposed to understand the damned difference.

If you don’t? Um, you’ve got way bigger problems than game violence. And so do the rest of us, because you’ve now officially wandered into useful-idiot territory by making the game-blamers’ arguments for them.

(By the by, since when does declaring your “layer of hypocrisy” somehow immunizes you from said hypocrisy? Yes, you’re being hypocritical in presuming that this level of graphical development is somehow beyond the pale whereas previous ones were supposedly fine.)

Very, very disappointed. Even if this is just clickbait, it’s the worst possible clickbait at the worst possible time. It threatens, again, to distract everybody from searching out the real means of ending REAL spree violence against REAL human beings by leading the body politic down a blind alley.

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Game-Makers should meet with Biden. But on THEIR terms.

I hate it when people argue past each other.

Take Gamasutra’s Kris Graft. He’s arguing that representatives of the game industry shouldn’t be meeting with VP Joe Biden to (as Biden put it) “look at concrete solutions to gun violence”. He thinks that the meeting would be an admission of guilt; that by showing up, you demonstrate that you’re part of the problem. Wal-Mart isn’t showing for that exact reason; they don’t accept blame, so won’t accept its consequences.

Fair enough. Sometime you do have to take a stand and say “no, your ‘reasonable compromise’ isn’t reasonable at all.”  Right now we’ve got far too many woolly-headed calls for “dialogue” or “discussion” or “debate” that purport to disdain the critics while quietly endorsing their every claim in an attempt to be “reasonable”. Taking a stand and saying “NO” matters a lot.

But then take IGN’s Casey Lynch. Casey makes the point that games are going to get blamed anyway, whether they show up at the meeting or not, and that it’s better to be on the inside than on the outside. If you aren’t there, you’ll get blamed by those who are.

Lynch has a good point too! There’s a lot of good science backing up the point that there’s no real connection between games and gun violence…but there’s also a lot of studies pointing to a connection between games and “aggression”. Those studies have been criticized as being pretty dubious–good luck defining or measuring “aggression” in a way that means anything, let alone tying it to real-world violence–but it does still exist.* Rest assured, the NRA will be happy to trot it out if they can.

(They’re lobbyists. It’s their job.)

But this debate is ridiculous. Lynch and Graft are both arguing the same thing! They’re both arguing that game-makers shouldn’t be turned into fall-guys. They both don’t like the idea that this terrible tragedy is being cynically exploited by the industry’s critics.

They’re just coming at it from different directions. We just need to reconcile the arguments.

Here. Try this instead:

“We are happy to meet with you, Mr. Vice-President. We look forward to showing you why these concerns are unwarranted. We anticipate the opportunity to discuss the scientific proof that there is no connection between gaming and violence, and we’re delighted to demonstrate how the ESRB’s best-in-the-industry media ratings system ensures that parents can make proper purchasing choices.”

The political game is about definition as much as anything else. It’s about having the discussion on YOUR  terms, instead of the other guy’s terms. It’s not about hiding away, but about getting out in front of the issue, being honest, demonstrating sympathy, and fearlessly advocating your position.

Don’t hide.

Don’t cringe.

Don’t let them pass the buck to duck their own responsibility.

Stand up for yourselves.

Be fearless advocates. That’s what’s best for the industry, and since video games really aren’t the issue here, it’s what’s best for America.

(* If you’re that curious, just Google “Craig Anderson”. He’s a psychology prof at Iowa State. It’s pretty much all him.)

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