One thing that most games share in common is the sense that they are a world apart from the lives that we ordinarily live. This week’s round-up of some of the most provocative writing on games is organised around ideas about separation and togetherness. I’m able to bring these articles together every week thanks to the support of readers like you, through Patreon and through sending in recommendations. For another way to get involved, perhaps consider contributing to our Blogs of the Round Table on the topic of food.
The white cubes
This thing we do as games critics can feel far removed from the physical world, so connecting games to physical spaces can be refreshing, with some critics even going beyond written language to address games abstractly, using physical structures and materials.
- The war on the floor | Eurogamer.net
Alexis Kennedy dives into the worlds created by H.G. Wells for games in domestic spaces.
- What The Division gets right (and wrong) about disaster response | ZAM
Robert Rath looks at how the placemaking and quest design of The Division reflects and distorts the reality of military disaster response (content warning: discussion of Hurricane Katrina).
- Digital Games in the Real World : The Design of the Game World of Jason Rohrer | Gamasutra blogs
Yugon Kim describes the practice of exhibition design as a kind of impressionistic commentary on the games being shown.
- Games criticism as architectural disintegration | Memory Insufficient
Owen Vince wrote a piece for my publication Memory Insufficient on alternative methods for games criticism.
“If “weird” games celebrate their own lack of finality, their own brokenness, should we break our writing too?”
The possibility space
Games are often about traversal, metaphorically or literally. Many mechanics are, at their core, about closing the gap between self and other, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and critical writing on games often walks the same ground.
- Let’s Talk About… Epistory: Typing Chronicles | Lena LeRay, Extant Human
Lena Le Ray addresses how a game can be educational without feeling like homework, by creating a game-world as a context in which new knowledge feels familiar.
- Steam’s Hot New Cam Girl Game Is Kinda Boring | Kotaku
Patricia Hernandez reviews a resource management game where the resources in question are porn performers, arguing that its mechanics lead to little more than a series of cold, self-involved transactions.
- Working with puzzle design through state space visualization | Gamasutra blogs
Rune Skovbo Johansen provides a guide to using open-source visualisation tool PuzzleGraph, which looks like a great resource not just for development but for critical analysis.
- Erik Twice Reviews » Chess – AAA
A surprising exercise that perhaps more of us should try out, this review of Chess manages to give words to a game that is so embedded in European culture that it seems at times beyond description.
“We are so used to it we might not notice, but Chess is a very modern game in some regards. Instead of fighting to the death or strangulation like in most abstracts, the win condition is the capture of a single, practically unarmed piece. This is huge! It enables a wide range of plays and the threat of the game ending in a single move introduces a lot of fun and tension. And the pieces? They are all a bit strange. The Bishops move diagonally despite the game being vertically-bound. The Knight can move through other pieces but doing so makes it alternate between white and black squares. Pawns form the backbone of the army yet are barely capable of harming each other. There are a lot of curve balls in Chess that makes it feel fresh and exciting.”
The past is a foreign country
One way that the unfamiliar is made familiar is by coming to a deeper understanding of our place in history.
- My kingdom for a phalanx | Wargame_[space]
Bruce Geryk launches the first in what promises to be a series of board game critical analyses, focusing on a particular event in classical European history.
- What cyberpunk was and what it will be | Versions
Darran Anderson pens a moving tribute to cyberpunk and its history woven with games.
- Stories We Tell | PopMatters
Boen Wang examines Wind Waker‘s complex relationship with cultural memory.
“Wind Waker knows that you know how this goes. Nintendo is often criticized for exploiting players’ nostalgia, and while there’s some truth to that criticism, Wind Waker plays with the burden of the franchise’s past in surprising and interesting ways.”
1979 Revolution: Black Friday
- 1979 Revolution: Black Friday: The Kotaku Review
Evan Narcisse reviews 1979 Revolution: Black Friday for Kotaku, highlighting how the mere fact of its creation is a politically-charged act.
- Putting Naiveté to Rest: ‘1979 Revolution: Black Friday’ | Gamechurch.com
M. Joshua Cauller, who once had aspirations toward being a Christian missionary in Iran, offers some sensitive and self-critical reflections.
“I realize how foolish, arrogant, and just plain ignorant I’ve been—to assume that I am poised to alleviate the tension and suffering of the Iranian people. I didn’t and still don’t know enough about the religious and cultural complexities of the Iranian people (and what’s been endured from all sides), but 1979 Revolution has given me invaluable and humbling insight.”
History of Eve Online
Andrew Groen’s book on war in space in cyberspace is out, with extracts in major games publications for you to try out.
“For some of the best player groups in the game, pride was a resource. Skilled pilots could build up their egos after winning a string of battles, but it was only a matter of time until they were humbled. And when they were, the illusion of mastery could unfold and unravel the social fabric of the group. If your corporation is based on being the best, what happens when you lose?”
Closeness is being nurtured in online spaces in new ways, with people playfully trying out new forms of social bonding.
- Being A Shopkeeper Is The Hottest Job In Steam’s Version Of The Hunger Games | Kotaku
Nathan Grayson reports on a charming mercantile culture blossoming in the most unlikely of places.
- Some Strategies of Bot Poetics | Harry Giles
Harry Giles analyses the poetics of Twitter bots, with many examples drawn from the games blogosphere or adjacent subcultures.
- Miitomo: Nintendo’s attempt to clean up social media | Eurogamer.net
Simon Parkin situates Nintendo’s first mobile game in the landscape of contemporary social apps
“Miitomo is a different sort of social media platform to the current titans of the landscape, although, like them, it too is defined by its restrictions as much as its features. Twitter (for now at least) limits us to 140 character utterances. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct on delivery. Instagram is life viewed through a clutch of kindly filters. Miitomo, meanwhile, is defined by exactly the kind of restrictions you might expect from such a conservative and image-conscious company. You cannot upload photographs of your pet or baby for example. You cannot link to divisive thinkpieces, or call out your boss for sexist behaviour. It’s unlikely that anybody is going to get fired anytime soon thanks to an ill-judged Miitomo status update.”
Perhaps the most intimate relationship we have through games is the one with our avatar. Writers looking at games as spaces for expressing oneself often talk about character customisation, but this week sees some pieces take that conversation further by critically engaging with how it feels to be the player-character.
- Star Wars Battlefront & A Crisis Of Identity (Video)
Corey Milne argues that character customisation of the ostensibly anonymous stormtroopers undermines the narrative of the rebels.
- Hawke: The Case for the Human Disaster | remeshed.com
Cora Walker argues that Dragon Age II‘s Marian Hawke is a better-written female character for having relatable flaws.
- Quick-save – impacts on playing styles and difficulty | Relativistic Ramblings
Christer van der Meeren considers the relationship between the roles you choose to play in a situation, and the amount of risk required for things to get interesting.
- Walkthroughs Are Power | vextro
Max Goodin argues in favour of walkthrough writing and use as an expressive practice
“Preaching the subjectivity of games while rejecting walkthroughs is hypocritical. Every experience is different, every person needs a unique amount of guidance. I used to get really frustrated with some games, and I think that’s only natural in this medium, or at least for some people. A certain hangup I had would stain the entire game for me, and I’d scramble to find “objective design flaws” to justify it. Once I could internalize that every experience is subjective, seeking walkthroughs is a natural extension. I can roll with the punches, take a game’s goodness and leave its badness. It’s only natural for me to reach for help when I’m challenged past my understanding.”
Games are not only for children, but the medium’s enduring association with adolescence creates a supportive environment for narratives about relating morally to other people, and the reasons why a person might feel isolated. Content warning: spoilers for Undertale and Final Fantasy VIII
- Undertale: Reflections | Problem Machine
The Problem Machine blog gives a solid analysis of Undertale‘s narrative and stylistic achievements, while also identifying points for further development.
“In a context where the hypocritical justification of violence is made so mainstream as to be invisible, the mere act of depicting it as an action with consequences becomes radical. Given that, I kind of wish the game had included more tacit interrogations of the sort of pacifism it encourages engagement in: being kind to people so they’ll do what you want, being the good guy to get the ‘best’ ending.”
Final Fantasy VIII
- What Final Fantasy VIII gets right about the details of teenage life | The A.V. Club
AV Club has a bountiful roundup of interesting perspectives on FFVIII from their readers.
- Final Fantasy VIII makes high school’s life-or-death drama literal | The A.V. Club
In one example, Anthony John Agnello summarises the melodrama of first love.
“When Squall meets someone who actually seems to like him, and he likes her back, they dance around each other completely unable to handle or address their feelings in an adult way. They finally get together, but they don’t kiss in Squall’s mom’s basement or at Ben’s crappy birthday party. They kiss in outer space after breaking into an ancient, dragon-shaped spaceship, which is precisely as strange and impossible as it feels to kiss your crush for the first time.”
The friend zone
Sometimes the emotional distance that critics observe is caused not by the game’s narrative goals, but by cultural inequalities between genders and species.
- The Three Modes of Male Sexuality in Videogames | Paste
Dante Douglas gives an overview of some of the portrayals of male sexuality in games.
- ‘Final Fantasy XV’ Sends an Important Message About Toxic Masculinity | FemHype
Natalie at FemHype argues that Final Fantasy XV portrays a healthy view of friendships between men.
- Jingle Cats can be as surreal as actually living with a cat | The A.V. Club
Anthony John Agnello reviews 1998 virtual pet game Jingle Cats.
“My good friend Bishop never behaved like the Nintencats or Ubisoft’s Petz or the EyePet. When she was hungry, she didn’t beep like a Tamagotchi. On the rare occasions she met other animals, we never had to worry about her devouring them, Viva Piñata style. While she was an affectionate beast, she never gamboled up and licked you like the felines in Kinectimals (unless you had pizza cheese on your face). No video game about pets or raising animals has ever properly captured what it’s like to live with a cat, but Sony’s Jingle Cats comes close.”
The ivory tower
Discussions about alienation between academia and online communities have been reignited, addressing the ways that academic writing can seem cloistered off and inaccessible to a broader audience that enjoys thinking about similar topics.
- ToDIGRA Journal vol 2, No 2 out | The Ludologist
Vol 2, No 2 of ToDIGRA Journal is out, with articles based on the 2014 DiGRA conference at Snowbird, Utah, covering topics such as a critical analysis of flow theory’s use in games.
- Publish or Perish? | First Person Scholar
In a powerful, almost manifesto-like piece, Emma Vossen reviews the goals of First Person Scholar as a middle-state publication.
“[…] middle state publishing exists because traditional academic writing is an oppressive force that keeps our knowledge locked up in the light of academic libraries and keeps those not privileged enough to be part of the academy in the dark.”
Finally, discussions of diversity and division continue, with a new project aimed at raising the profile of women, LGBT and people of colour in tech. Content warning: discussion and quotation of sexism and transmisogyny
- Why Does Diversity Make You Angry? | Eric the Unabridged
Eric Simon gives an overview of the recent flashpoints concerning diversity in games, and tries to make sense of the anger coming from opponents of inclusivity.
- The Siege of Dragonspear drama and the video game community | Gamasutra
Katherine Cross addresses the rage that has arisen in response to a trans character existing in the new Baldur’s Gate expansion.
The Techies Project
- The “Techies Project” Highlights 100 Underrepresented People of Silicon Valley | The Mary Sue
Maddy Myers critiques the rhetoric of a new web site launched to profile successful silicon valley figureheads from minoritised backgrounds.
- The Techies Project And Why Unpaid Labor for Diversity in Tech Needs to Stop | Model View Culture
Shanley Kane analyses how visibility campaigns in general, and Techies Project in particular, function paradoxically as a mechanism for extracting value from marginalised people.
“Then there’s Medium — which has raised over $82 million, is led by white-male billionaire Ev Williams, and hasn’t even bothered to release its own diversity data (I think we can all speculate on why, but as a data point, the company Williams previously founded, Twitter, is just as white and male as they come… and that hasn’t changed in a decade and isn’t changing now.) In fact, Techies Project will be posting one story a day on Medium – helping to drive significant amounts of traffic, visibility and reputation-enhancing kudos (in sum, $$) to this white-male owned and funded platform – while none of the people who the project is ABOUT and FOR will get money.”