October 9th

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what the goals of criticism should be. I’ve been involved in this for years and yet I’m still not immune to these periodic internal crises of identity. Thankfully, some of the pieces that came up for selection in this week’s roundup offer some inspiring reasons why we critique.

Non-English language

  • Asphyxiante culture – Merlanfrit (French | Français)
    Martin Lefebvre’s piece on the French public’s recent rejection of videogames as cultural works brings to bear some familiar arguments about games as art, alongside some ideas I haven’t come across before.

“Admittedly, the question of whether gaming belongs in the culture sphere is not totally meaningless: even if one leaves aside the symbolic capital that is at stake – and one should not, because symbolic capital always has exchange value – inclusion in or exclusion from the cultural field has immediately quantifiable consequences. It determines subsidies, library budgets, research grants, the ability to set up exhibitions…”

Original: “Il faut reconnaître que la question de l’appartenance du jeu vidéo au périmètre culturel n’est pas totalement dénuée de sens : même si l’on laisse de côté le capital symbolique qui est en jeu – et l’on ne devrait pas, car le capital symbolique est une espèce toujours convertible – l’appartenance ou non au champ culturel a des conséquences immédiatement chiffrables. Elle conditionne les subventions, les budgets des bibliothèques, les bourses de recherche, la possibilité de monter des expositions…”

Affective payoff

Some illuminating thoughts come out of one developer’s perspective on criticism. Additionally, this week brings us some incisive critical perspectives on player motivation.

“Some of us like to think that we pursue deeper, more complex pleasures than the nearly comatose Candy Crush-ers and Clash of Clan-ners at the airport. Crafting systems provide the same affective payoff—another completion; another checkbox—and beg the question of whether that payoff is the only thing we really want. Do we want games to make us feel things, to move us in complex and surprising ways, or do we want them to give us stuff to do?”

De-familiarizing the familiar

Two pieces here suggest that criticism is an essential part of motivating people to create change in their environment, but acknowledge that the very nature of what we criticise can make it hard to be heard.

“In the best cases, criticism offers the opportunity for context setting, and for asking questions beyond the tick-tock of technical development and into the how’s and why’s of a larger cultural shift. […] Popular criticism seeks to question established and unexamined knowledge—the assumptions and positions taken for granted. As author and contributor for The New York Times Virginia Heffernan reflects, criticism should ‘familiarize the unfamiliar’ and ‘de-familiarize the familiar.’”

Distinguishing what’s possible

I am always resistant to arguments that suggest that technical possibility is the most important thing about game design change. These two pieces offer a different way of thinking about the significance of technical limitations, focusing instead on how it affects the people who make games.

“According to the lawyers that PC Gamer spoke to, the most logical and likely approach to this investigation will be attempting to distinguish what’s possible and what’s a certainty in the game. If what was shown in the marketing materials is possible in No Man’s Sky, then Hello Games have done nothing wrong, but if the version of the game that was released doesn’t allow for those possibilities then there’s a potential issue.”

Fostering dependence

Sound and interaction in games can create subversive narratives, playing on our expectations and reversing the expected outcome. These two pieces address the importance of silence in sound design, and weakness in player-character empowerment.

“Usually when RPG mechanics show up in a non-RPG setting, it’s to exalt the player’s ability to choose and define themselves. Here, though, they take on a different meaning. While you can certainly feel the increase in power […] the system severely limits the ways in which you might realize that power. In fact, the only way it gives you power in the first place is by fostering dependence on the machine.”

Breathless pursuit

Finally, these pieces consider science fiction storytelling in other media, with major implications for how we tell stories in games.

“I like that Westworld is making me look at our industry with fresh eyes. Oh, of course the drama is on a higher plane in the show — when you bring sentient beings, human or not, into the fray, we’re talking about subjugation and slavery, concepts that we cannot apply to AI characters in our primitive-by-comparison 2016 games. But it asks, on a fundamental level: what do our power fantasies say about us? Do we engage them ethically, or do we hurt others in the breathless pursuit of pleasure? “


How This Week in Videogame Blogging Works

Thanks for reading another roundup of This Week in Videogame Blogging! The process that we go through to bring these links can be a little opaque at times, so last week I put together a guide on how our curation process works. You can check that out here.

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