September 25th

I’m blown away by the volume of high-quality writing this week. All the great stuff seems to be coming out at once! It’s overwhelming.

To make it all a little easier to digest, I’ve broken this week’s roundup into four parts. Take it at your own pace, skip the topics that don’t speak to you, and please get in touch with your recommendations for next week’s roundup!

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Part links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Heading links: institutionality | temporality | textuality | No Man’s Sky | sociality | economy | community | relationality | subjectivity | mentality | interactivity | virginia | spatiality


Part 1: History

The Rising Sun (Content note: orientalism)

Heading to Asia, three in-depth features all gave excellent insights into the diverse gaming cultures of China, Japan, Korea and the peninsulas and archipelago of South East Asia. (Edit 2016-09-30: content note added. While the articles are excellent, they all come from an outsider’s perspective, highlight differences, and reify the role of the Anglo-American observer.)

“Indie Play feels like the Chinese IGF, where game makers meet each other and the people interested in their craft. This event also helps game makers ask for guidance and help, in a country where laws and procedures can change at any moment.”

The Iron Curtain 

Turning to the past, we look at games that portray the post-WWII era, each on different sides of the iron curtain.

“In the end, it’s kitsch. It’s a Soviet-themed Lego set that renders a monumental socio-political phenomenon into little else but a toy. And an exceptionally boring one at that. This would all be harmless enough if the aesthetic it borrowed wasn’t one of paranoid violence and a complex unraveling of a utopian dream for all humanity, but, that’s what the USSR was.”

The New Weird 

Histories of surrealism are examined in these three pieces that look at videogames with lenses honed in literature and painting.

“Video-game realism is less a practice of using computation to simulate reality than the practice of defending the visual from political or social meaning. To render a cube in a vacuum and give it a mathematical skin for players to marvel at, even if it looks like nothing but a block of wood — it’s strangely impossible to recall ever having touched or smelled or felt anything like it.”

No Man’s Sky

Some of the questions emerging about simulation and realism are prompted by continued interest in the procedurally generated world of No Man’s Sky. These two pieces address that in relation to hype and disenchantment.

“If we assume this to be true, if the purpose of life is to admire the space around us, then any journey is a means of fulfilling that purpose, and any ending contradicts that purpose. It’s important to note that we learn the true nature of the universe in the middle of our journey, not at the end. The journey brings revelation and understanding. The destination brings a stop to the revelations and understanding. Being reset after reaching the galactic center seems anticlimactic, but it’s really an exclamation point on the idea that the game has been expressing the whole time. The infinite universe is awesome.”


Part 2: Economy

The Critical Sphere

Looking a little closer at the cultural and material consequences of hype, two pieces on games designed to attract attention for their themes examine how games culture is created through moments of conflict.

“What we call “videogame criticism” is a combination of a lot of different things: it’s design analysis, it’s reporting how a game made you feel, it’s literary criticism, it’s aesthetic categorization, and it’s letting your mind unspool at length while trying to be in conversation with an object. BioShock games do something to the player that makes them want to engage in this kind of behavior. “

Zero Sum Games 

Moving on from the social economies of hype and controversy, a bumper crop of pieces this week look at the virtual economies of multiplayer games and management simulations.

“Gaming culture is a vibrant new arena of action where sound economic ideas have a real chance to take hold. There is already discussion about how in-game economies emerge and evolve—particularly how they deal with money and inflation. But games incorporate economics at even more basic levels. Indeed, gamers are already using the economic way of thinking without even knowing it.”

The Consent Guide

An economy is partly something that people co-create, and partly something that people endure. In these pieces, people share strategies for survival, be it shelter from hypercapitalism or proactive efforts to change rape culture.

“One building was a former university science lab – on Friday nights, I’d drag a giant beanbag, projector, Xbox 360 and surround-sound system down to the lecture theatre at the far end of the corridor where I lived. There I’d play Borderlands on a makeshift screen the size of a cinema display, at preposterous volume, in maximum comfort. Other people from the building would often join in, because even split-screen modes offered the kind visual acuity that makes a modern flatscreen shrivel with envy.”


Part 3: Power

But Nobody Came 

Other ways of connecting with, and disconnecting from, other people are explored in readings of three games that portray different relationships between different kinds of beings.

“Kaizen turns the English language into a series of puzzles, and to solve them you need to learn to speak like a computer. You’ll find that you spend the majority of your time seeking out the right question to ask—the more specific the better. Asking for access to an old user’s profile might lead to a sentence about that character, whereas a six digit access code might get you into the profile. It’s your task to learn and then navigate these linguistic differences. And, in turn, become subservient to Kaizen and her rules.”

And Everyone Came 

Some more personal accounts here shed light on the empowerment and complicated shame of the positions in which games have placed their players.

Undertale is an emotional, personal game for many people. Different points in the narrative stir up different memories, good and bad. It shines light on human nature and on tough choices. It brings up the loneliness anxiety and depression can instill on you, when there seems to be no way out and nobody around. “

The Power Suit 

Looking a little more at empowerment and trauma, these pieces take a more psychological stance on how two games portray gendered experiences of resilience.

“This lack of certainty in Bound’s landscape, its shifting nature, the fact that it cannot be trusted–all this seems to mirror the way the game also works to destabilize the seemingly static and universal notion of truth. For just as the game’s landscapes cannot be trusted, just as the world itself is not static, so too are the game’s constructions of memory, history, and narrative rendered untrustworthy. So too is the game’s story, the game’s truth, something that fluctuates and fractures.”


Part 4: Structure

Iron Man Mode

Resilience of a different kind came up in game design circles this week, as the term “permadeath” became problematic. More broadly, the question of games’ relative difficulty continues to create definition challenges for those of us who are open to writing about interactive media with limited agency.

“Even though this optimum may shift from player to player, there tends to be a point where the challenge of the game is well tuned: Where the attentive and engaged player can succeed, where the structure of the designer can maintain, where actions feel consequential and consequences feel earned. This is the point of optimum difficulty. There’s another point of interest on the difficulty curve, and that’s the point of maximum difficulty.”

Virginia

The topic of reduced interactivity brings us to Virginia, a new release that has critics divided due to its cinematic approach to storytelling.

“One of Virginia’s boldest choices isn’t just that it’s a two-hour, player-prodded movie. It’s that the film in question is a silent one. Variable gets away with this by providing a decent amount of reading material to fill in the plot’s more obscure points and putting its talent for visual storytelling on full display.”

The White Cube 

Virginia’s spatial storytelling techniques are being praised at a time when there is ever more writing taking on the spatial qualities of games’ expression, not just visually but through sound as well.

“why wouldn’t the photocopier – from the perspective of a logical alien who hasn’t quite grasped how one works – be able to copy those donuts, or any other object which will fit under its lid? So of course you lean down and photocopy your own head, only to produce a weird plasticky brain which you can throw around like a football. Here, it’s not only the workspace but the relationships between different objects in the workspace which enchant the player. The workspace is a kind of switchboard for surprising connections and unexpected consistencies.”