I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging, everyone!
Cult of Celebrity
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a massive moneymaker, and it’s provoked quite a bit of discussion. On The Daily Dot, Samantha Allen lauds the game and its central figure for flouting the highly gendered negativity being directed at it:
Kim Kardashian is surfing this wave of male tears all the way to the bank. In a world with limited opportunities for famous women as they age, Kardashian broke the Internet simply by lending her likeness to a single mobile game. And to read Kardashian as a vapid figure who does not deserve her fame is to fundamentally misunderstand the ways in which women exercise agency within the sexist constraints of celebrity culture.
At Paste, Gita Jackson goes one further by pointing to how the by-now familiar mechanics of the free-to-play genre reflect the game’s subject matter:
My avatar is whisked from engagement to engagement to engagement. Literally — as soon as I leave a cover shoot, I get a “call” from my “agent” with another offer with the implication that I should run over now. At these engagements, each action takes a bit of energy. When you run out, but try to continue, the game tells you that you are tired.
It does seem tiring. [...] For Mrs. Kardashian West, however, this isn’t a diversion. This is her reality. She doesn’t have a choice on whether or not she is scrutinized. She had a choice when her sex tape was released—be forever known as a woman who had a sex tape, or try and take control of that situation. She no longer gets to have “off the clock.”
This article by Dan Grilopoulos on Eurogamer delving into the origins of Minesweeper could have gone further into today’s competitive scene, but it is still an interesting piece on the ubiquitous software. In it, he interviews the original developers behind the game and Microsoft’s better-known plagiarism.
Back on Paste, Ansh Patel interviews Arvind Raja Yadav, game designer of the recently released Unrest, a game set in ancient India. (Full disclosure: I am a backer of this game.)
Meanwhile, at Sufficiently Human, Critical Distance contributor Lana Polansky and alumnus Zolani Stewart get into discussion over several recent topics, including Brendan Vance’s “On Form and Its Usurpers,” our flash-in-the-pan obsession with Mountain, and our problem with technological ahistoricity. Or as Lana puts it: “Be skeptical of the narrative of the new… the constant distraction of the immediate.”
A Matter of Interpretation
At Sinister Design, Craig Stern asserts there are, indeed, ‘wrong’ interpretations of games, or at least interpretations unsupported by the body of information within and surrounding that work:
If the creator of an artistic work leaves gaps in the work for the player to fill in, then yes, the creator will have to expect that players will fill in those gaps themselves–but this does not change our conclusion. The player’s interpretation must still be consistent with those elements for which the game does not leave gaps. Otherwise, the interpretation will be built upon false premises–which is to say, it will be wrong.
[T]he “no wrong interpretation” theory does not just promote interpretations from marginalized voices; it provides cover for unsupported interpretations from every perspective, including racist, homophobic, and misogynist perspectives. For instance: some have interpreted the inclusion of a gay character in Dragon Age Inquisition as a cynical bid on Bioware’s part to push “the gay agenda” [...] If it is not possible to provide a wrong interpretation, then that loathsome interpretation must also be “not wrong.”
In a direct response to Stern, Stephen Beirne contends that there is a middle path to walk between authorial intent and the critic, or player, as authority:
[W]hat we can do to reconcile these two forces of text and meaning is to produce with our criticism, not data or reference work, but folklore. Communally existing knowledge that is inseparable from consciousness on a social plane, as extelligence, inverse to intelligence, consciousness on an individual plane. Much like geist suggests the mindfulness of ideas, extelligence sees ideas and consciousness embodied in cultural artefacts. [...]
The value of this comes as I accept the existence of the social world and my place in it, and contribute to it my consciousness as given in the experiences and perspectives representative of a game’s narrative through me. I accept my fallibility and fragility as a condition of this. And in admitting myself as a participant in your world, rather than maintaining we each live in distinct bubbles, I accept responsibility for my message appropriate to my failings in the context of it as a socialized text and me as a socialized person, rather than appropriate to everybody’s individual imaginations.
On Polygon, Patrick Lindsey stresses the ways various (chiefly mainstream) games pathologize and stereotype mental illness, while also offering a few productive alternatives. (Content warning: ableism.)
This next link requires some background: last year, when the Entertainment Consumers Association named Gerard Williams, better known as HipHopGamer, as its new brand ambassador, the move was met with criticism as news outlets called attention to Williams’s past use of sexist and homophobic language. While these issues oughtn’t be downplayed, Williams’s new video brings to bear on the racially-inflected respectability politics which played into how his appointment was discussed in the media.
Back at Polygon, developer Brianna Wu presents four brief case studies of high-profile women in games journalism and development and the harassment they’ve experienced, as well as her own. (Content warning: sexist and racist slurs, descriptions of stalking, harassment rape and death threats.)
Wu’s article provoked several response pieces. First, Crystal writes that it’s stories like Wu’s that make her afraid of diving further into the industry. Second, at Gamasutra’s Member Blogs Elizabeth Sampat responds particularly to the way Wu’s article opens with a racial slur but subsequently elides the racial underpinnings of games industry inequality.
Lastly, this Tumblr post by ‘eponymous-rose’ cuts right to the heart of how we talk about gendered fandom, and it’s just short enough that I’ve elected to quote it here in full:
Like, let’s talk about how gaming fandoms often have an official forum that skews heavily male. Let’s talk about how that forum is almost universally an unfriendly locale for female contributors. And let’s talk about how that forum is often the only point of direct contact with devs, and how it shapes their perception of fan preferences and trends, and how that shapes their future work. Let’s talk about how the female-dominated online spaces are considered intrinsically easy to dismiss, the butt of a joke. “Man, tumblr overanalyzes everything and hahaha ships what’s with that anyway. Oh hey so this guy did a sweet 360 noscope montage to dubstep music let’s publicize that!!!”
Let’s talk about how folks in fandom were rewriting [Mass Effect 3] in a massive variety of creative and clever ways for over a year before that one dudebro did it, in horribly out-of-character quasi-prose, and was the subject of front-page Kotaku articles showcasing his devotion to the series.
Let’s talk about how female-dominated fannish spaces have been around for decades. Let’s talk about how “fans brought back Star Trek in the 70s!” always brings to mind stereotypical Trekkie dudes and not the women who were actually organizing and running conventions.
Let’s talk about how women are over 50% of moviegoers. Let’s talk about how women make up nearly 50% of gamers. Let’s talk about how, despite all this, the industry is still almost entirely guys making content for guys.
I’m just saying. Let’s fucking talk about this.
In the latest Errant Signal, Chris Franklin contends that while Valiant Hearts is at times successful in striking a balance in gameplay and tone, it ultimately shows no confidence in the story it wants to tell:
[T]here’s this whiplash inducing indecision between “Let’s make this a moving, powerful game about a small number of characters” and “Let’s make this a super fun video game that people want to spend fifteen dollars on” and you never know which direction the next scene’s going to go.
[...] The game demonstrates that it’s perfectly capable of being maudlin without ever falling into mawkish or manipulative but also without attempting to overreach and deliver a story deeper or more complicated than its lush drawings and simple mechanics can tell. It knows how to be a quiet, somber eulogy those we lost during the Great War punctuated with warmth and humor to remind you why we should mourn and what we lost. It just, for whatever reason, doesn’t or can’t commit to that vision.
At Medium, Robin Sloan compares Minecraft‘s metagame with Star Wars‘ expanded universe, in which a core work which “calls forth” volumes of secret knowledge and spiraling fan creations. And at The Ludi Bin, Rachel Helps recently came across some articles on adding explicit educational skills to traditional board games and balked at the idea:
This kind of modification makes games less fun, because it introduces tasks that are irrelevant to game mechanics. How about using games that involve math facts or words directly, instead of inserting them into otherwise perfectly good games? We go to educational games to get away from the worksheets and flashcards. When a game uses math or reading relevantly, it helps motivate children to learn those skills.”
Helps then goes on to outline several ways that existing and upcoming board games can introduce explicit learning, integrated with the games’ mechanics.
Wai Yen Tang of VG Researcher rounds up four recent studies on game genre preferences by gender.
Also, Critical Distance contributor Lindsey Joyce recently presented at the Videogame Cultures and The Future of Interactive Entertainment conference held at Mansfield College in Oxford, and provides an overview of the event for those who missed it.
Finally for this section, this 2010 article on Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly resurfaced recently on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, albeit with a busted link. I’ve elected to run it despite its age, first because of the subject matter, and second because its author, William Huber, is one of the savviest games scholars I know (though in the interests of full disclosure, I should add I’m also a former student of his).
Dollars and Sense
Using iD Software and the proliferation of the first-person shooter as a touching-off point, Higher Level Gamer’s Erik Bigras argues compellingly that the why, how, and who of information distribution has at least as much influence on game design trends as having a good idea:
In the case of video game design, the ethic of access that was present in the early years of shooter design [shareware and engine licensing practices] was able to be coopted by the discourses that promoted an increased militarization of society in general and leisure in particular. Because of this increased in militarization discourses and of the ethic of access, the shooter design strategy was able to spread out to many other game genres. Video games that can neatly be classified into a single genre are now very rare. The spread of the shooter design — through the ethic of access and the militarization of information technologies — enabled an hybridization of video games that is heavy slanted towards military themes, which allows military discourses to access the private spaces of American citizens.
In a similarly incisive vein, Leigh Harrison looks to how Game Dev Story, by itself not seemingly all that controversial, in fact replicates some of the cutthroat and anti-worker practices of its subject matter. She notes:
Now, I’m not saying that the indentured game developers featured in GDS are somehow more important than all the ostriches, golfers, firemen, alien meat-curers or even medieval brewers in all the other management sims ever created for all of the computers. It’s just that I’m more familiar with the caveats and weirdness of their tumultuous real life job market. It’s this added knowledge which makes the game quite difficult — morally speaking — to play in its intended way.
On that note, Simon Parkin has turned up in The New Statesman this week to discuss why framing independent game development in terms of financial success is a dead end:
If the incentive that we present to young people for making games is predominantly a financial one [as in Indie Game: The Movie], then we are all the poorer. Video games allow people to express themselves and present the ways in which they experience and interact with the world and its systems in a unique way to others. [...]
This focus on financial gain rather than artistic gain is, arguably, at risk of turning video games into a cultural backwater. The big business side of the industry is characterised by creative conservatism, sure-fire bets based on bankable precedents.
In the Palm of Your Hand
At Lookspring, Margaret Robertson looks back at 2007′s Coolest Girl in School, a game made by and for young women in an era when small titles such as this were only beginning to appear. She observes:
Contemplating 2007 from 2014 is a really good exercise in understanding how weirdly time moves for the games industry. Is 7 years a long time ago? Obviously not. Except it’s an eternity ago.
This near-yet-remote history of mobile games prior to Apple’s App Store is the subject of a new book by Dreamcast Worlds‘s Zoya Street. It’s currently seeking funding and could certainly use your help.
Ten Seconds to Air
There is still some time (mere days!) to get in on the June-July Blogs of the Round Table.
And you know the score, folks — Critical Distance is kept running entirely through the generous support of readers like you. If you like what we do and are eager to see that print anthology I keep talking about, consider signing up for a small monthly donation! We really do depend on you.