February 6th

A lot of games critics worry, understandably, that their work can’t address the problems that people face in the real world. Others have already started the work of politically-engaged games criticism long ago. This week there are lots of examples of the fruit of those years of experience.

Turn the world toward dystopia

Let’s start by thinking about how criticism is done.

“The world of The Founder is indeed a dark one. At a certain point within the game, you have to expand into defense in order to keep playing. You have to colonize other worlds in order to keep growing your profit. And soon enough, you can replace your entire staff with artificially intelligent robots, who are cheaper and more efficient than humans. At the center of it all is the founder—you, the player—who ultimately is responsible for decisions that turn the world toward dystopia.”

Not the Fake News

Next, we consider the changing nature of political and economic institutions through and around games, in light of the devastating events going on in the US.

“‘I think when [1979 Revolution] got banned,’ said Khonsari, ‘[the Iranian government] saw it—because it was made [in the United States]—as a form of propaganda. The game is called 1979 Revolution. It’s not called The Islamic Revolution, so as a result, that had some pushback. If they’re not controlling their message, it’s considered propaganda, or what we like to call fake news now. It’s exactly that. If it’s not in line with what the message of the regime is, it’s deemed to be propaganda or untrue. Strangely enough, we’re now seeing that happen over here.'”

The young inheriting from the old

Looking more broadly at the historical moment, these three pieces put game aesthetics in conversation with a longer trajectory of popular culture.

“All healthy cultures must adapt and evolve, the young inheriting from the old and pushing onwards. But cultures around games, often so transient, rarely get that chance. Doom is different.”

Extraordinary places

These pieces consider different ways of viewing and moving through spaces.

“Through each of their road trips, My Summer Car‘s mundane and yet madcap, Jalopy’s quietly pioneering, they reject the homogeneity of mainstream driving games, showing us cars not as disposable toys but indispensable tools, and exploring their significance within specific cultures. They demonstrate that when decoupled from the restrictive trailer of racing and winning, virtual vehicles can take us to extraordinary places.”

Feels subversive but…

The morality systems portrayed in games come under scrutiny here, looking back over 30 years of history.

“Playing these games now feels subversive. But at the time, Sega was actually hitting on an environmental movement that had wide public appeal. A Gallup poll from 1990 found that 76 percent of Americans called themselves ‘environmentalists.'”

I am worth the loss

Moving on to how people’s experiences are imagined in games, we consider how identities are harmed and healed.

“Bonk’s only goal is to reach a point in history where he can go ‘I am here, I belong, and I am worth the loss that represents.’ Despite the sometimes ludicrous scale of Bonk’s journey, its stakes are incredibly personal. Bonk is not trying to save a kingdom, rescue a princess or free captured woodland creatures. Bonk has no interest in saving the world, only in establishing what he considers to be his proper identity, in every aspect.”

Each successive hurdle

Next we delve further into the experiences of selfhood that are not just implied by games, but engendered through them.

“Frustration, exhaustion, uncertainty, and indecision are things that are never reflected in a full health bar, even if the characters are in the best possible shape. In the war of attrition that is inventory management, supplies can wither even without progress, but there’s the player factor that I feel puts more weight on each successive hurdle.”

Resident Evil 7

Finally, there has been a lot of critical discussion about Resident Evil 7. So far these pieces seem to have been the most instructive, going beyond what the game is like to play and thinking more concretely about what techniques are at work in its design.

“Seemingly, Resident Evil 7‘s designers work without much regard for “world-building” and “lore”—some of them have used the black mould simply as a vector for their most brazen ideas, thus creating complete discord between the game’s liberal abstractions and forensic, explanatory latter half. As a result, Resident Evil 7 is the microcosm of a general, pervasive conflict between two game-making approaches: expression, without regard for narrative or the audience’s standards of “sense”, and clarity, the desire to produce and sell explainable stories to absolutely anyone, whether they have a disposition towards art or not.”

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