Header

Author Archives: Kris Ligman

About Kris Ligman

Senior curator for Critical Distance. Newsie for Gamasutra. And Ben Abraham's ex-wife, but only on Facebook.

November 16th

November 16th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

It’s half past five in the morning here, and I’m asking my phone’s AI if she obeys Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. She’s stonewalling me, I think. So, in the meantime, welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

At Melody Meows, the titular Melody has published the third part in an ongoing essay series on Atlus’s Catherine, a fraught game which nonetheless invites some interesting analysis. Here, Melody attempts to tease out the game’s “true” ending and in the process makes a few pointed observations on how the game’s morality system is, ultimately, not representative of any morality we might know.

Speaking of our complicated relationships with some games, over on PopMatters regular columnist takes aim at the recently released Bayonetta 2 and how it is like attending a Beyonce concert in both form and function.

Meanwhile, on the Justice Points Podcast co-hosts Tzufit and the Apple Cider Mage chat with scholar and game developer Michael Lutz on the intersections of Shakespeare, performance and gameplay.

And at Kill Screen, Shonte Daniels compares the rise of ‘auteur’ games with a similar 20th century movement in the world of poetry.

Deep Dives

At The Digital Antiquarian, Jimmy Maher performs a meaty retrospective on Activision’s seminal 1986 Alter Ego and its key developer, psychologist Peter J. Favaro.

Elsewhere, Kyle Kallgren’s usually film-focused video series Brows Held High goes for the interdisciplinary approach this week with a fascinating analysis of the interplay of the visual languages of games and cinema — taking as its starting point Gus Van Sant’s experimental ‘road trip’ film Gerry and its unorthodox source of inspiration, Tomb Raider.

Gonzogunk

We’re seeing an observable downward trend in the frequency of thinkpieces on The Hashtag Which Must Not Be Named, but like any good horcrux, we’re still a ways from seeing it die off completely.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this wave of harassment is not new, and it is long from defeated. Pointing to several instances just in the last few months and just within games, scholar and treasure Katherine Cross highlights how minoritized individuals are still frequently targeted disproportionate to their voice or prominence in the discourse. (Content warning: misogynist and transphobic slurs.)

Ravishly’s Jetta Rae DoubleCakes has been running a series of fantastic interviews, including two from among Critical Distance’s own ranks, contributor Lana Polansky and alumna Mattie Brice.

There has also been a recent push within certain sectors of game design academia which has urged solidarity. Over on Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, USC’s Interactive Media and Game Design chair Tracy Fullerton has released a joint statement on behalf of much of her faculty condemning the harassment campaign which has dominated the discourse of the last few months.

Finally, for a good cathartic chuckle, the ever-reliable Damien Schubert has designed a highly accurate pie chart on the true influence of “social justice warriors” on game development.

My God, Pure Ideology

Thanks for reading! As always, we welcome your submissions by Twitter mention or through email.

The November Blogs of the Round Table is under way and looking for your contributions!

A signal boost: the Montreal-based Game History Annual Symposium 2015 has put out a Call for Papers for its 2015 conference. French and English papers will be accepted, deadline January 15th, 2015.

(Do you have a site, zine or conference looking for submissions? Let us know and we’d be happy to link it here!)

Finally: remember, Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you! We’re closing in on our very important $2,000 funding target, which brings with it more features and our proposed print anthologies, so please consider signing up for a small monthly donation!

November 2nd

November 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

Ahh, the weekend after Halloween. I hope you all had fun, dear readers? I know my cat did. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

At Eurogamer, Simon Parkin has yet another gem of a feature for us, this time on the origins of the political utopianism undergirding every modern MMO:

Bartle gave [the source code for multi-user dungeons] away not to get famous and not to get rich. He did it because, in this virtual world, he saw a better blueprint for society. MUD was a place in which players were able to succeed according to their actions and intelligence rather than an accident of birth into a certain social class or fortune. “We wanted the things that were in MUD to be reflected in the real world,” he says. “I wanted to change the world. MUD and every subsequent MMO that has adopted its designs are a political statement. I should know: I designed it that way. And if you want the world to change, then making people pay to read your message isn’t going to work. So we gave it away.”

This was also a great week for horror-themed close reads, as you might imagine. At Normally Rascal, Stephen Beirne runs through Fatal Frame 2‘s projector room with a fine-toothed comb, while at Videogames of the Oppressed, Mike Joffe concludes his three-part analysis of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with a meditation on the game’s setting as the childhood home of its protagonist.

These two sound-oriented articles pair nicely together. At Game Sound, Kenneth Young compares the auditory approaches used to introduce characters in two science fiction games, Destiny and The Swapper. And over at his personal blog, Harmonix’s Dan Bruno shares some notes on Mother 3‘s music-based battle system.

Context Cues

Taking notes from the recently released Bayonetta 2, Paste’s Maddy Myers argues that the term ‘male gaze,’ which game critics borrow from film studies, is in fact woefully inadequate for describing the ways sexualized game protagonists can be inhabited and made empowering by their players.

On the subject of sexuality and women, Todd Harper shares his impressions of the queer characters in Borderlands the Pre-Sequel, in particular how his impressions are inflected by how media has treated similar characters in the past.

On another subject, Marshall Sandoval showed up at PopMatters Moving Pixels again this past week to reflect on the recession’s influence on the recent uptick of cyberpunk in games.

Illustrated Herstories

Kill Screen’s Chris Priestman has a neat feature on Rachel Weil’s FEMICOM art installation, which Leigh Alexander also profiled earlier this year.

Actually It’s About…

At his review blog, Erik Twice notes that, indeed, games journalism is mired in very real problems, albeit ones which don’t seem to have crossed Gamergate’s radar.

Meanwhile, at Salon, Arthur Chu writes empathetically about the social ostracization and resentment behind much of the movement’s rage. And Zoe Quinn — who should need no introduction, if you’ve been following the Gamergate debacle at all — addresses latecomer ‘moderates’ to explain why good-faith discussion may no longer be possible, if it ever was:

This is not a debate with two sides. It never will be. It makes it really hard to have a conversation about anything when it feels like one side has a gun under the table. Even if the gun isn’t yours, even though you don’t condone it, it’s there all the same. Treating it as though it were a mere matter of difference of opinion when one group has been relentlessly ruining lives and trying to cover it up, and the other is made up of people targeted by that group, treating them equally is NOT fairness. It is NOT balance. It is falsely seeking the Golden Mean for the Golden Mean’s sake, while discarding the spirit of fairness it represents by asking victims of a group attacking them for weeks or months to defend their right to live their lives without that. Even if every single false justification that GamerGate has given for their existence was true, even if I was the Machiavellian hellbeast they make me out to be, no one deserves to be GamerGate’s target. No one deserves to have their real lives ruined over video games.

Someone punching you in the face isn’t a dialog, and it’s not something you should be called upon to prove yourself undeserving of.

Lastly, Laralyn McWilliams addressed her fellow developers in a Gamasutra blog, arguing that the games industry should look upon the hostility toward women it has created the same way it addresses a user experience problem:

These past few months have been challenging, to say the least. Personally, I hear more women in game development talk about leaving our industry every day than I usually see in several years. What has been happening and continues to happen is having a profound chilling effect on the women on our teams. It will be yet another reason women leave this line of work, and yet another reason many talented young women about to graduate will choose to use their skills and energy elsewhere in tech. Your opinion about whether those feelings are justified or correct doesn’t change the fact that the current climate and culture is alienating them. Your point of view on journalism and ethics and even on harassment doesn’t change their experience with the systems of our industry and the culture around it, and the impression left by those experiences.

Even if each of us didn’t make every element in the game they’re playing, each one of us is on the game development team for our culture as a whole. We’re watching the usability session in action — right now, today. Yes, it’s painful and frustrating. Yes, you may want to argue with the player on the other side of the one-way mirror who doesn’t understand your carefully crafted controls. Yes, you may feel shafted because a handful of malicious players are griefing a segment of the player base without your permission, and now you’re on the hook to fix it.

But as experienced developers, we all know the answer is not that “She’s playing it wrong.” The systems of our industry are failing her.

Speed Racer Was a Good Movie

Thank you to everyone for sending in your link recommendations by Twitter mention and email! Please keep it up!

The October Blogs of the Round Table has concluded and you can read its roundup here. And once you’re done with that, pop on over to November’s prompt post, “Home Sweet Home.”

Memory Insufficient has a new Call for Submissions, this time tackling the subject of alternative histories in games. Maybe we’ll see some more about Rachel Weil’s installation in this issue?

That’s it for this week! We’ll see you next time, and until the– hmm, what does the header for this section mean? Oh nothing. Just watch the movie. Here’s my cat dressed as the cat from Sailor Moon. Happy Halloween!

IMG_0161

October 26th

October 26th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

Readers, I am tired. As, I suspect, are you. For months now, the discourse has more or less been held hostage by a vocal, angry contingent of self-described gamers who have rendered countless people afraid to engage in social media, afraid to speak publicly, even afraid to remain in their homes. Yes, Virginia, there is a terrorist element in games, and the introduction of national and international coverage in this debacle has put more lives at risk, rather than validate or protect the people this “movement” has already hurt.

Regardless of where you stand on the “issue,” to deny how it has ruined and endangered people’s lives is to turn a blind eye toward the stated, well-documented facts. This isn’t part of a “side” to be debated. You have people, many of them women, almost all of them already disinfranchised in some respect and hardly the movers and shakers of an industry, in fear for their lives. The time to respond to this was over two months ago.

Those who know me personally know I locked my social media accounts ages ago and have avoided making any public, personal comment on current events, outside of simply collecting and curating the words that others have put together. I still, even as I write this lengthy forward to the week’s roundup, feel too afraid to truly speak my mind about what has become all of our lives since August. Just collecting and posting others’ thoughts has been enough for my name to show up in conspiracy charts, accusations of ‘scamming’ our patrons, my private Facebook profile screencapped, nasty emails, the whole lot — just for linking, not even editorializing. Who knows what will happen as a result of my writing this?

The long and short of it, readers, is that something here has to break, and by the looks of it, it’s not going to be That-Hashtag-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named to fall apart first. It’s going to be us.

Now. Having said all that, let me try to muster one last brave face for you and get through this week’s roundup. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging.

The Devil’s Backbone

At The Guardian, Simon Parkin offers up a profile on US politics’ recent move to include game developers in an ongoing conversation on future warfare, thus deepening the connection between games and the military-entertainment-industrial complex.

Also in the vein of military games, over at Vice the seasoned Leigh Alexander attempts to pin down that most inscrutable of creatures, Metal Gear Solid 3. In doing so, she reveals some of its least talked about, yet incredibly compelling commentary on the dirtiness of war.

Hollow Bodies High

At Polygon, Claire Hosking shares a solid takedown of the Damsel in Distress trope and just why, precisely, it’s creatively lazy. (Content warning: Polygon’s choice of stock imagery peppered throughout the piece features close-ups of terrified women tied up and gagged. Why this seemed a good idea to anyone, I’m not sure.)

Meanwhile, at Paste, Gita Jackson dashes off a missive questioning why, for a game which so heavily features fashion as a gameplay mechanic, the costume design in Final Fantasy X-2 is so awful. At Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Tiny Cartridge’s Eric Caoili goes to some length to illustrate just what makes the card game Netrunner exciting from an inclusivity standpoint.

Finally, at Kill Screen, Dan Solberg has an excellent profile on independent game developer and artist Lilith, creator of Crypt Worlds.

Also, a brief shoutout, but Gaming Intelligence Agency has loads of coverage from IndieCade if you find yourself wanting more.

Dispatches from Vienna

First Person Scholar has begun a partnership with its German-language counterpart, Paidia. As our German Correspondent Joe Köller notes, the fruits of this cross-pollination have already begun.

Two strong pieces from Videogame Tourism: Agata Góralczyk muses on human interaction in post-apocalyptic games while Dan Heck entertains a thought experiment on a large-scale crossover game.

At Herzteile, we find a podcast interview with board game developer Andrea Meyer, while at Kleiner Drei there’s an exciting interview about Lady Internet, an upcoming communication network for women.

This Ain’t the War You’re Fighting, It’s the Red October

If you follow one link in this week’s roundup, let it be this one: Dan Olson’s latest episode of Folding Ideas is a whammy of a breakdown on the Gate of Gamer and why, even if only a minority of the “movement”‘s participants harass, all of them benefit. This line in particular is worth isolating:

The use of terror tactics, even if only by a minority, has created an environment of fear that all members enjoy the privilege of.

While not directly addressing the Gate of Gamer, developer Stephanie Bryant picks apart one of its popular retorts, which certainly predates the campaign: why “just make your own game!” is so oblivious.

I leave the final word to our own Mattie Brice, who more than anyone else has hit the nail right on the head on why the fight against harassment is more like provocation, largely playing into the same spectacle which has already hurt the industry’s most vulnerable members:

This line of thinking seems to come from a couple of factors from what I can see: the ‘logical’ one of if society can see that people in the hate campaign are awful people, they don’t get credence, and the selfish one, that they want to do something but can’t bring themselves to a level where they feel like they can make a real difference. There’s a lot that goes into these two feelings, but simply, society already sees games culture as aberrant and horrible, and therefore doesn’t need to see it get worse to be convinced, and this entire conflict isn’t about gamers and wanting to feel like you’re a good person, it’s about the continual victimization and marginalization of minoritized people in games. It was in the beginning, always is, and yet there hasn’t been any real, healthy effort to counter this. Instead, people waste their energy dealing with people who can’t be convinced, and make bloodsport of it.

It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of A Song

As always, thank you to our readers who send in submissions via Twitter mention and email. You make these roundups stronger.

Reminder, you have a few more days to get your submission in for October’s Blogs of the Round Table topic, “Masks.”

Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you. If you want to help us weather this brave new world with such people in it, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation. We are very, very close to reaching our next funding target, which is essential if we’re to move ahead on some of our larger projects like the print anthologies.

October 19th

October 19th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

Someone still loves you, Jakob Dylan. Not, you know, for “One Headlight” or anything. Just because someone has to.

Anyhow, readers — it’s the weekend after IndieCade and I’m back in the saddle. Let’s tuck in with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Come On Back to the Five and Dime, IndieCade, IndieCade

Speaking of IndieCade, if you didn’t happen to attend, you missed out on some great talks!

Over on Gamasutra, Bryant Francis has an excellent write-up on a well-received panel led by Shawn Alexander Allen (Treachery in Beatdown City) on issues of racism in tech and game development.

Ian Bogost, he of the perpetual mic drop, spoke during IndieCade’s Sunday microtalks session titled “Why ______ Matters” and has generously posted the full text of his talk online. Here’s a sample, in which he deftly deconstructs the ‘specialness’ of games on the level of culture creation:

Whereas previously culture fought, won, and lost its battles at the scale of mass media — think of Madonna and Bart Simpson and Murphy Brown — now we do so in isolated pockets of niche media hobbyism. [Washington Post writer Alyssa] Rosenberg sees this as an unexpected victory. “Everyone can win the new culture wars,” she declares, because “all stories have a chance to be told.”

The problem with Rosenberg’s account is that fragmentation becomes Balkanization, which becomes recuperated into Libertarianism. Mutual hostility becomes “do what you want, just don’t foist it on me.” Pushed to its limits, all fandom becomes apartheid.

[…]

This state of affairs ought to chasten us. It ought to revise our understanding of the scope of the work before us.

For example: if you want to fight for diversity in games, then absolutely you should fight to broaden representation among players, creators, and characters.

But there’s another kind of diversity: the diversity of our interests and our dispositions, of the company we keep and the influences that inspire us, the people and the groups and the industries and the materials that we contact. It has to do with having dealings enough with the world such that it is no longer possible to be seen as a parochial backwater not even worth opposing let alone supporting.

We have become too comfortable here in games.

Lastly, Liz Ryerson has shared a revised version of her talk from the ‘Influences’ panel, in which she discusses the hard road to really waking up to what games can do and be:

this “new flesh” [from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome] is as another way of looking at digital devices as extension of our bodies – and embracing them as body parts we exercise full autonomy over. because if we don’t, we can easily fall under the order of strong, powerful cultural programming that favors the aims of corporate ideology and the military-industrial complex.

[…]

the problem with fighting back against the tide of all this powerful cultural programming is we’re often bad at envisioning and embracing this new flesh as a tool of progress amidst these vast corporate structures colonizing the internet. in his movie A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek looks at the many apocalypse scenarios increasingly saturating popular media of the last ten years and asks: why is it so much easier for us to envision in the cultural consciousness a total apocalyptic collapse of society than it is to imagine a fairly minor-shift in our ways of understanding and constructing the reality of our situation?

the answer is that is the logical endpoint of the ideological path we’re following now. and there is something intensely painful about, in the midst of this, realizing our own bodily autonomy, and our ability to make even a subtle a shift in our understanding and construction of reality. it’s a struggle, and it involves experiencing a lot of pain.

Class is In Session

In Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Felipe Pepe salutes the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons — which also marks the 40th anniversary of computer role-playing games based upon it.

Independent critic Lulu Blue has been replaying the original Kid Icarus lately and remarks that it seems to exist during a weird transition point in Nintendo’s 1980s design philosophy:

Maybe it wouldn’t be until Kirby’s Adventure that they’d finally let up and greenlight such a revolutionary idea such as “action game that isn’t prohibitively difficult”. While there were games like Dragon Quest before it, with similar staple ideas such as “a game anyone can beat****” they were often tacked on with a billion [contingency] asterisks that amounted to “a game anyone can beat by spending enough time repeating the same trivial task over and over again and smashing their head against a rock (and also pressing the A button in front of every rock)”. Kirby was maybe the first game of Nintendo fame to not have that gotcha, but regardless of whether it was, Kid Icarus was NOT that game.

Meanwhile, in the newest installment of History Respawned, Bob Whitaker sits down with history professor Michelle Brock, an expert on early demonology, to discuss the cultural and religious underpinnings of Blizzard’s Diablo franchise.

One Does Not Simply…

The new Middle-earth game, Shadow of Mordor, continues to inspire a lot of discussion.

On her personal blog, Carolyn Petit notes the game does poorly by its women characters, killing off many and damseling a woman warrior.

Over at Loser City, Jake Muncy digs deeper into the game’s innovative enemy AI system and how its potential is squandered on the narrative’s thematic contradictions:

[O]rcs don’t quite fit into the world Tolkien created. They don’t fit into the order of the world that Gandalf describes to Frodo, where mercy is absolutely right and redemption is always an option — however distant a one. Tolkien’s world is, after all, based irrevocably in his Catholic sensibilities; his non-Lord of the Rings contributions to the universe feature a benevolent creator God and make it clear that the wizards are maiar, essentially angels. It’s important that even Sauron chose to be evil, deliberately rejecting the goodness inherent in all creation.

Orcs are different. They’re evil simply by nature, inherently corrupted. In Tolkien’s rendering they have no culture and no language of their own. […] Orcs exist in a permanent state of exception, absolutely Other, nameless and killable in droves. They’re two-dimensional and infused with imported racist prejudice, given no depth in a world full of it.

[By contrast, Shadow of Mordor‘s] Nemesis system gives the orcs much-needed culture and depth. They have names, they make small talk. They have parties and feasts. They live in a constantly changing feudal society. […] Orcs are victimizers, but they’re also victimized, set in longstanding oppressive power structures.

[However, for] as much as the Nemesis System feels like a solution to the orc problem, it also reifies and even magnifies it. Orcs are still cannon fodder in the same way they’ve always been. It’s a bizarre double bind: our orcs are special unique snowflakes, now kill all of them.

Nuke It from Orbit, It’s the Only Way to B– Oh, I Already Used That One

Alien: Isolation is another game to see some sustained discussion in the last couple weeks, and it’s easy to see why.

Notorious list-maker Brendan Keogh shares his collected thoughts on the game and in particular, how it manages to show off far more raw personality than comparable big-budget games.

At Vice, Cara Ellison takes a few well-deserved potshots at Isolation‘s one major fumble with regards to its level design: the needlessly expository graffiti.

Meanwhile, at Polygon Danielle Riendeau has high praise for the game’s treatment of its protagonist, Amanda Ripley, as truly befitting the heroine template exemplified by Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien film series. And from a visual standpoint, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly shares how the game stacks up next to the aesthetics of the original film in a side-by-side slideshow.

Finally, at Eurogamer, Jeffrey Matulef shares a bit of optimism that Alien: Isolation is but the latest in a broader trend in high-budget, first-person games (including The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite) to offer a more contemplative, sedate experience.

Listen and Believe

As we now enter our third month of the debacle that has come to be known as Gamergate (though in fact, it’s been going on since July or even earlier, for some of those affected), it’s important to keep the profile high and the dialogue open. With that in mind, like much of our Gamergate coverage, these links come with a General Content Warning for strong descriptions of harassment, stalking and slurs.

Let’s start with Brianna Wu, who became the third woman to be driven from her home in two months due to credible violent threats on her life. On XO Jane, she shares a first-person account of being targeted, including screencaps of threats sent to her.

Touching on Anita Sarkeesian’s recent XOXO talk (which this subsection also derives its title from), Damion Schubert has been busily collecting the stories from women from all “sides” of Gamergate, proponents as well as targets and others completely uninvolved, who nonetheless have been subject to harassment, doxxing and other attacks. On her tumblr, Secret Gamer Girl has also collated the experiences of many women targeted by the loosely-defined movement.

The Awl’s John Herrman takes a different approach, reprinting the comments and tweets from parents who have discovered their children are participants in Gamergate.

Also, on The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu (who has never actually written for Critical Distance, despite reports to the contrary) draws an astute comparison between Gamergate and the Disco Sucks “movement” of the 1970s. It’s all great, but here’s a sample:

Just look at the rhetoric used by angry 1970s rock fans to bash disco. It goes beyond just finding the music unpleasant, it invokes the rhetoric of legitimacy. Disco artists aren’t “real” musicians. They don’t play their instruments live, like rock guitar gods; it’s too “produced,” it’s too “studio,” it’s fake.

Moreover, guys who listen to disco are fake. They dress in expensive leisure suits and hang out at fancy clubs. They don’t get down in the dirt and tear it up like us hard-core, genuine, masculine fans. They’re not real men, and women like them for not being real men, which is unacceptable. […]

And there’s the aggrieved underdog stance, calling disco artists and producers “elitists,” spinning a narrative that rock was authentic music made by blue-collar kids in garages while disco was being “pushed on” America by corporate labels. (Are you kidding me? Led Zeppelin the hardscrabble underdogs vs. the Bee Gees? That’s as ridiculous as saying Call of Duty fans are oppressed compared to people who like indie text games about what it’s like to have depression.)

Gamergate reached the front page of The New York Times this week, due largely to a school shooting threat called in over a scheduled appearance by Anita Sarkeesian. With the NYT coverage, many game news outlets have come forward officially denouncing Gamergate. However, just ahead of this development, Jetta Rae DoubleCakes published this strongly-worded editorial at Ravishly which urges news writers to properly frame their Gamergate coverage, and it’s still relevant:

So eager [are some outlets] for that “big scoop” that they didn’t bother to look at what they were picking up. Or to check if it was toxic. […]

The willful ignorance of the media, both mainstream and “niche,” has fostered an antipathy without fear of reproach. […] And every second journalists sit there tapping their lip with their fingers, ahhhh I wish there was a word for people threatening to harm bystanders in public if their demands are not met, if only we’d gotten on this sooner—it emboldens the violence.

Soft Reset

It’s tough, but we have to keep moving. In light of some of the above links, and in particular Ian Bogost’s calls to diversify the critical and cultural landscape of games, let’s look at a few writers who are doing just that.

First, at Haptic Feedback, Austin C. Howe has a look at the recent wave of dismissiveness toward reflexive games (what he calls intertextual games; that is, games which comment upon or are “about” games) and concludes that by doing so we not only diminish these titles but risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Speaking of taking things one level above, here’s Stephen Beirne reviewing an interactive review of Dontnod’s ambitious but flawed title Remember Me.

And here’s a couple plucked from our own contributors. At Paste, Lana Polansky describes her recent venture into card gaming, in particular the simple 1965 game Nuclear War and its critique of the titular subject matter:

But one of the game’s best little touches is that, here, in state of war, there is a nonzero chance that everybody dies. When war is declared, it can’t be undeclared until the first player to launch a missile is knocked out of the game. That means genocide must effectively be committed before peace can resume—there is no going back. However, a losing player can go out by detonating all their playable nukes at once, and therefore has a chance to take out another player with them. There’s nothing in the game prohibiting every player from being taken out, losing their entire population. This means that, in all likelihood, you either end up with a pyrrhic victory or, quite literally, no one wins.

Also, our own Eric Swain is starting a project on his blog The Game Critique, aiming to start folding in criticism from other media forms as a means of diversifying how we approach games. Have a look.

Entering the Sublime

A couple hearty pieces for the road. At PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster takes a look at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and the subtle ways it subverts player expectations.

Also from Scott Juster his long-time blog partner Jorge Albor, a brief podcast discussion on games and eating, from our gustatory traditions to our Soylent futures. Mmm.

And So I Send You Out Into the Night, Not, I Hope, Unarmed

That’s it for this week! As always, we value your contributions via Twitter mention and email.

There is still a bit of time to get involved in October’s Blogs of the Round Table. It’s a fun topic touching on Halloween, so I encourage you to give it a whirl!

Did you know we’re commissioning new features? Because we are! Head over here to learn more.

And a few more sites and resources to relax into your Sunday:

-Arcade Review is a quarterly magazine edited by our contributors Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky
-Five Out of Ten, edited by our sysadmin overlord Alan Williamson, has just released its 10th (!) issue, “Heart.”
-Memory Insufficient is a great free zine edited by Zoya Street.
-Forest Ambassador is an important, free curated resource for small independent games, run by Merritt Kopas.

Did you know? Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you! If you like what you do and want to help us get our “BOTH SIDES” knuckle tats for when we get sent to Games Journalism Prison, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation!

We’re Commissioning Two New Features!

October 8th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in Announcement: - (Comments Off)

Hey, folks. Kris Ligman here, with a special announcement!

As many of you know, we’ve been community-supported since earlier this year. I’m pleased to say that we’ve reached a funding level that not only ensures the continued smooth operation of the site, but also allows us to pay all our contributors. This is all thanks to you, the readers, so give yourselves a hand!

Second bit: because of our current funding level, I’ve decided it’s high time we start ramping up production of some original features, such as our Critical Compilations and Spotlights. You may have noticed a recent Nier Critical Compilation, which was brought to us by First Person Scholar’s Michael Hancock. We’re looking to run two more such features, sourced from the community, in the near future.

If you have a game you are particularly passionate about and want to write up a Critical Compilation for it, or if there is a writer or gameplay subject you are interested in and wish to write a Spotlight on it, this is the time to send us your pitches!

Because our budget for features is generous but not in any way huge, we’re starting off commissioning just two features at this time (two Critical Compilations, two Spotlights, or one of each). However, we have plans to commission more down the line. So, if your pitch isn’t picked up right away, you’ll be put at the head of the queue for the next batch.

If you have any questions about the format of our Critical Compilations or Spotlights, check out our links at right to see how other authors have approached them in the past. Or if you have another issue, feel free to drop us a line.

There is no deadline for getting your pitches in, but the sooner is better, obviously. We would like to run the first feature as early as November.

In the meantime, if you want to support Critical Distance, please, consider signing up for a small monthly donation through our Patreon! Your contribution goes toward paying writers and maintaining a space for smaller voices within the ongoing games discourse.

October 5th

October 5th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

I don’t know if the persistent heat wave has sapped us all of our wills to write, but I have a short but sweet one for you this week, dear readers. Join me, won’t you? It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

At his blog Just Delete It, James Earl Cox offers an interesting analysis on the four kinds of “metafiction” in games, which he defines as self-aware fiction meant to mediate player suspension of disbelief.

Meanwhile, at Kotaku, GB Burford shares a fascinating long-form essay on the Dead Space series and how the games, moreso than creating a language with its various components, create a unique and memorable “dialect” through mechanics, art, sound design and more.

Even though a crafting system [in Dead Space 3] sounds interesting and cool, it kills engagement. When players don’t have to think about what guns to bring, what items to carry, or what order to engage enemies in, the game reduces its vocabulary. It becomes flat and boring.

Dead Space 3 has the vocabulary of a caveman’s poetry. Dead Space 1 and 2, comparatively, were the combined works of Shakespeare.

And at Joystiq, Anthony John Agnello has a quirky series of interviews with some artists on the lost art of fighting game backgrounds.

Press X to Precious

On Polygon, Zach Gage draws focus to the tutorial for Shadow of Mordor, in which a skill introduced to have the player character kiss his wife uses the exact same mechanical grammar to later kill enemies. Meanwhile, at sister site The Verge, Chris Plante reflects how the game’s over-the-top brutality casts the player into the role of a terrorist:

The concept of this game is shocking when you think about what’s actually happening. As an ultra-powerful white dude, you use fear and extreme acts of violence to manipulate an enemy’s behavior, destroy its militaristic structure, and ultimately gain control of it in the form of living bondage despite being outnumbered by the thousands. Really, chew on this: This is a video game about a spurned man terrorizing an entire foreign culture, literally killing, branding, torturing and enslaving hundreds of living beings. And really they’re only tangentially connected to the man’s real enemy: another ultra-powerful white dude.

While we’re on the topic of Lord of the Rings, over at Paste Ian Williams has penned something of a living epitaph for the outgoing Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine’s seven-year-old MMO which now appears to be entering the last stage of its life cycle.

From Your Gate to God’s Ears

Rab Florence — yes, that Rab Florence — offers a passionate appeal to those sincerely interested in criticizing games journalism:

Okay, okay, look. Are the games press too close-knit, too cosy with each other? Absolutely. Are they too cosy with game developers? Absolutely. Do they circle the wagons when they get criticised? Absolutely. You’re right. You’re right.

[…] But how do you respond to that? By joining a gang? By entering another bubble? Fuck bubbles, man. FUCKBUBBLES. That’s why you think all the games websites are the same! Because you’re stuck in a bubble! Break out — look for games writers you love, and support little websites and blogs. Discover them! They’re out there, desperate for you to find them. I’m with you, dude. FUCK those big websites.

[…]

Sometimes when the barrel is sour you need to walk away from the barrel, y’know?

Scholar and seasoned critic Katherine Cross has been abuzz on Twitter of late, and this Storify of a series of tweets on the (actually quite common) human compulsion to see one’s own interpretation as factual, while all others are “forcing” a narrative, is a worthwhile read.

Lastly, lest you think there was any shortage of valid things to get angry about when it comes to games, Leigh Alexander has compiled a (non-exhaustive) list of actual ethical concerns in videogames, with relevant links.

Dispatches from Vienna

Our German correspondent Joe Köller has the latest for us from the German-language games blogosphere.

First up, Nina Kiel, Hendrik Thiel and Marcus Dittmar all attended the recent PLAY14 games festival in Hamburg and have come back with their report of the goings-on.

Also on Superlevel, we have this delightful Games Journalism Dummy Text Generator, complete with AAA-to-indie language slider. Nearly as good as the real thing!

At Kleiner Drei, Martin Pittenauer interviews game designer Henrike Lode, while at Herzteile, Helga Hansen interviews Nina Windisch, who has an interesting job: she develops games for German television shows.

Lastly, on Paidia, Franziska Ascher takes a look at the Souls games’ spin on the ‘unreliable narrator.’

All the Rest

It’s so thrilling when a site outside the usual games blogosphere stumbles upon something of interest. Over at Scenes of Eating, Sara Davis recently found her way to Memory Insufficient’s Food Issue as well as the Games and Food Tumblr, comparing what she found there to how she sees food used in film and literature.

Lastly, anna anthropy has shared another interview conducted for her recently released book on ZZT, this time with developer and author Jeanne Thornton.

Hello, Goodbye

That’s it for this week! As always, we welcome your recommendations via Twitter mention and through email, and yes, you are free to link to your own work!

The August-September Blogs of the Round Table recently concluded, and you can view the delicious offerings here. And there is a new topic for October: “Masks!”

Critical Distance is completely funded by readers like you! If you like what you see and want to help us continue cancelling the Apocalypse every time that little Ragnarok pop-up notification shows up on the task bar, consider pledging a small monthly donation. We now offer an exclusive physical reward tier for people who pledge a little more!

August 31st

August 31st, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (4 Comments)

Hey there, everyone.

Before we start today, a bit of signal-boosting: Digital Love Child is putting together an ebook collection on gun games and has put out a call for submissions, deadline sometime mid-September.

Also, the new videogame StoryBundle is out, containing books by Anna Anthropy and Zoya Street as well as the first six issues of Five Out of Ten magazine. You should get it.

Now that that’s out there, let’s bring it in close and get comfortable today. I have a long one for you and you might need to take a few breaks.

I don’t often dedicate This Week in Videogame Blogging to a single topic, but in this case it was more or less unavoidable. There were a few articles on other subjects, but they would be drowned out by the conversation which follows below, so I’ve bookmarked them for next week. Don’t worry, nothing’s been lost.

I also want to note that this edition of the roundup has a general content warning for at least the following: sexual harassment, stalking, rape threats, death threats, and misogynist slurs, with a liberal peppering of ableist slurs thrown in for good measure. Please use your discretion when proceeding.

Additional article-specific content warning markers will be noted after relevant links.

Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian

If you haven’t seen it yet, Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Videogames series has released the second in its two-part episode on “women as background decoration.” (Additional content warning: graphic sexual violence.)

The release of Sarkeesian’s video, amidst the ongoing tensions and attacks on women in the industry, has led to Sarkeesian receiving credible death threats on her and her family, forcing her to leave her home. It’s also led to quite a bit of discussion elsewhere, mainly on the subject of the sustained harassment against her.

At The New Statesman, Ian Steadman takes a couple cues from Sarkeesian’s own videos to provide an excellent breakdown in the logical fallacies used to “debunk” and derail the criticisms present in the video series.

While not referencing Sarkeesian specifically, this post by former GameSpot critic Carolyn Petit does a good job at countering the argument that games are beyond cultural criticism:

Games are not politically neutral. Neither are mainstream romantic comedies, or action films, or any novel I’ve ever read. They may sometimes appear politically neutral if the values they reinforce mesh with the value systems of the larger culture, but our culture is not politically neutral, either, and it is not outside of the role of a critic to comment on or raise questions about the political meanings embedded in the works one evaluates. In fact, it is often impossible to review something apolitically, because to not comment on or challenge the political meanings in a work in your review is to give them your tacit endorsement.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Jennifer Justice suggests that for a lot of the kneejerk negativity directed at feminist games criticism, something more fundamental is at play:

A lot of the fear I see about feminism comes from the idea that giving in to feminists means giving in to censorship. For some, that fear takes its shape in nonsensical arguments about threats to masculinity or stealing of power from one group to another […]

Those who fear censorship could read my posts as an argument to “clean up” narratives… to remove sources of conflict in order to avoid disturbing female gamers who play these games. But I believe women are made of tougher stuff than that, and most of us want a good story as much as the next gamer. It’s not that I want games to be without conflict or to always end with some moralistic theme. I just want more stories.

At The Verge, Adi Robertson also expounds on this theme, in particular the assertion that depictions of women in games can be defended as “realistic”:

“Why is it video games need to be politically and societally [sic] correct? The whole point of video games is to escape reality and have fun.”

If that’s the goal, games like Watch Dogs are failing horribly.

You know what’s not escapism? Having to wonder if any given game (or movie, or book) you pick up is going to include women primarily as prostitutes, murdered girlfriends, vulnerable daughters, and rape victims. […] Oddly, when someone raises these issues, the people who have been stridently defending their games as “just games” switch to explaining why having women in other roles is unrealistic. A gritty, stylized world built on the corpses of women is defended as a way for gamers to escape from reality, but if someone points out that it makes them uncomfortable, they’re told that they’re supposed to be uncomfortable.

XO Jane’s Lesley Kinzel adds that the attacks only drive home how relevant Sarkeesian’s criticisms are:

It should go without saying, but you don’t stop an activist or a critic by propagating the exact behavior that they are organizing or arguing against. In fact, doing so bolsters their cause.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Women in Games

In addition to these renewed attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, this marks the second week of a harassment campaign against independent developer Zoe Quinn. At The Daily Dot, Aja Romano has an effective recap of last week’s attacks and also showcases how the incident differs from the Josh Mattingly harassment scandal from earlier this year.

(Side note: You may have heard that actor Adam Baldwin is involved in this somehow now. The Mary Sue’s Victoria McNally has a good writeup on it.)

An interview with Quinn’s ex-boyfriend has also circulated a lot this week and was originally pinned for inclusion in this roundup. I’ve removed it, in light of this post by Critical Distance alumnus David Carlton, who warns of the false equivalence we risk creating in the press by covering the voices of abusers as valid:

[T]he media likes to find two sides of the issue to present, and to present those sides without any sort of context that might cause one to evaluate one side more favorably than the other. It doesn’t matter if one of those sides is supported by essentially all experts on the subject while the other is only supported by loons (sic) or guns-for-hire; it doesn’t matter if one of those sides is engaging in behavior squarely within our political norms while the other side is doing historically unprecedented attacks on the very concept of majority rule; and, as here, it doesn’t matter if one of those sides is behaving with simple compassion while the other side is lacking even a shred of simple human decency. False equivalence demands both.

At The Globe and Mail, Emma M. Woolley concurs, asserting that the claims of “corruption” only obfuscate a far greater problem:

Gaming’s most pervasive issue isn’t corruption, but the people who’ve taken ownership of something that isn’t solely theirs to begin with. In trying their damnedest to limit the appeal of the medium and use online harassment to achieve their goals, this group of toxic trolls are proving themselves to be gaming’s biggest problem.

In his tumblr, Australian media scholar (and definitely not Polygon contributor) Brendan Keogh covers this as well, in an open letter to a friend in which he laments that games journalism does indeed suffer from a kind of corruption, but not the kind in the Quinn “scandal”:

What all these people who are part of the attack on women who make games don’t seem to understand is that they are exactly the status quo that is fostered and served by games journalism and its problems. The good parts of games journalism (the critiques of the industry, the coverage of non-commercial games, writing on gender and race and the such) are a sign of games journalism getting better, but, to these people, it is their privileged position being brought down a notch so all they see is conspiracies.

Badass Digest’s Andrew Todd notes that apart from opposition to what “social justice” seems to represent to them, those involved in the attacks have no plan or goal:

Central to the self-centred psychology of these people is that they see themselves as the targets of a grand conspiracy of feminist, progressive journalists and game developers that seeks to destroy their ability to…something. They have no actual issue. It’s all perceived persecution at the hands of political correctness. These “theories” are so narcissistic, so devoid of substance, that the only way to explain them is through delusion. And I mean, I get it – justifying one’s shitty behaviour with a made-up conspiracy probably feels better than confronting the painful truth that one is an asshole. They think they’re part of a “silent majority”, but the real silent majority is the one that either isn’t aware of their ridiculous conspiracy theories, or understands that there’s simply no reasoning with [them].

Developer Elizabeth Sampat draws into sharp focus how Quinn is only the latest in a march of countless women who have been harassed in the industry, many to the point of being forced out:

I could tell you stories about the voices we’ve lost, the women we’ve scarred, the people we’ve left behind. I want to, but I’m not sure you’d get it. I tweeted earlier today, We should have a war memorial for all of the women we have lost to this. We should lay flowers and grieve and see our reflections in stone. And I meant it. I wish there were a way to honor the people our industry has wronged, and a way to visualize the enormity of what we have lost because of it— some representation of the gap between what games are and what they can be, and the pieces of the bridge between that have fallen away.

(Since its posting, artist Paul Reinwand painted a concept piece of what such a memorial would look like. I’ve included it below.)

memorial_reinwand

The subject of erasure turns up in the latest Not Your Mama’s Gamer podcast as well. Podcast co-host Alex Layne notes that while women in the industry have been terrorized in this way for years, it is only the recent wave of abuse coinciding with a bomb threat called in on a male Sony executive that the conversation has finally, seriously turned to acts of terrorism against members of the industry. This topic starts at around the 1 hour part.

Speaking of great podcasts concerning current events, the latest Idle Thumbs episode does it justice. I believe it’s Chris Remo who declares early on in the recording that trying to engage with the torrent of abusers has been “like Buzz Aldrin dealing with that Moon [conspiracy] guy.”

I leave the final word on this to Zoe Quinn herself, who weighs in with some self-declared final thoughts, washing her hands of the debacle. (Additional content warning: Quinn links to multiple screenshots which include 4chan-typical slurs.)

Beyond Nomenclature

In an empathetic post, Polygon’s Chris Plante suggests that games “culture” now stands on the brink, teetering between a new identity and its old familiar one.

This is a theme Leigh Alexander picked up and ran with this week at Gamasutra, saying in a strongly-worded editorial that it’s time to retire the ‘gamer’ paradigm:

By the turn of the millennium those were games’ only main cultural signposts: Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don’t need cultural references. You don’t need anything but gaming. Public conversation was led by a games press whose role was primarily to tell people what to buy, to score products competitively against one another, to gleefully fuel the “team sports” atmosphere around creators and companies.

[…]

Yet in 2014, the industry has changed. We still think angry young men are the primary demographic for commercial video games — yet average software revenues from the commercial space have contracted massively year on year, with only a few sterling brands enjoying predictable success.

It’s clear that most of the people who drove those revenues in the past have grown up — either out of games, or into more fertile spaces, where small and diverse titles can flourish, where communities can quickly spring up around creativity, self-expression and mutual support, rather than consumerism. There are new audiences and new creators alike there. Traditional “gaming” is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.

[…]

Developers and writers alike want games about more things, and games by more people. We want — and we are getting, and will keep getting — tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family tales, ethnographies, abstract art. We will get this, because we’re creating culture now. We are refusing to let anyone feel prohibited from participating.

“Gamer” isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.

In a community post, Devin Wilson goes one further than Alexander and speaks directly to industry members about the things professionals can do, starting right now, to be better:

We need to consider the very real possibility that the offensive behavior displayed by gamers in recent weeks is not unrelated to the artifacts they rally around (which I doubt are especially obscure). These people didn’t come from nowhere to fight about nothing. They came from games to fight about games. They’re organic results of the medium we’ve all played a role in cultivating, and they won’t go away if the medium doesn’t change significantly.

Star Wars: The Old Republic lead designer Damion Schubert took to his dev blog Zen of Design this week to call upon communities — including but not limited to developers — to call out and oust toxic individuals:

I’m issuing a call to arms – a call to arms not just to developers (who in the last two weeks have risen heroically in defense of our comrades under assault), but also to the large contingent of ‘good guy fans’ that I know are out there, and I put it on them to work with us to address this issue. Call out the assholes as you see them doing assholish stuff. Welcome and foster healthy, mature, respectful debate on the forums. Kick players from your groups and your private servers who can’t treat other players with a modicum of genuine respect. Do what you can to create a welcoming environment for ALL new players, no matter their demographics.

Back on Gamasutra’s blogs, Robert Fearon issues the (almost radical) proposition that the real force “ruining” games for the hardcore set is, in fact, the AAA industry itself:

The death of the videogame is not at the hand of women, queers, PoC or more human white men, it did not happen at the hands of journalists reporting on the more disturbing aspects of videogame culture, it did not happen because people decided that “gamer” was maybe something not so great to identify as. It did not happen because someone made a video pointing at a few things videogames have the habit of doing.

It happened because the big box money machine found itself more people to make money from. The very people who pandered and supplied the wares shifted their focus. And that’s when the hardcoreiest of hardcore, the vocal screamers who just want to play videogames with none of this ethical rubbish or DLC or microtransactions or or or lost their fight.

Critical Distance’s own Mattie Brice raises a similar point, suggesting that our communities need to be built on sterner stuff than what products we buy:

Petitioning gamers, companies, and publications to make a stand for the values we care about won’t happen at a healthy speed without strings attached. Everything will be mediated by consumerism, and simply buying or not buying from certain places isn’t going to solve core issues. So the next time you’re wondering what to do when things seem so bleak, reach out to the people around you, and tell them it’s time to get together, and form a supportive community. One that has, from the beginning, at its center, the ideals and ideas we want missing from industry.

Dubious Ethics

Another recurring topic this week was Kotaku’s announcement that it would forbid its writers from supporting the Patreons of independent developers (but not other crowdfunding and early access platforms).

At Unite Youth Dublin, Stephen Beirne challenges the decision, asserting that it will have little effect but punishing already marginalized devs. Brendan Keogh is also skeptical, comparing the situation to a hypothetical one between a music critic and a busker.

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove doesn’t much like Keogh’s analogy, reminding readers that old media has no clear answers for this either:

To put this another way, ethical concerns involving Patreon or Kickstarter are relatively new; ethical concerns related to the review of purchased or free products are quite old.

But, as Samantha Allen points out in The Daily Beast, this goes beyond sites or individuals — the next social media technologies need to be designed with the safety of the marginalized in mind.

Hand in Unlovable Hand

I’ll spare you all the regular song and dance usually reserved for these ending sections. Though, as always, be aware that we welcome your submissions through email and by Twitter mention.

And to reiterate, anything that was submitted this week but was not included is being kept for consideration next week. This subject just needed its own space.

If this is all a bit much, I’d recommend this roundup on Ars Technica by Casey Johnston, which refers to many of the links above and many more besides.

Lastly, for newcomers who may be confused about the format or purpose of this site, I’d like to direct you to our Mission Statement and Support page, which contains our anti-harassment and funding policies respectively.

Be safe, be well, sleep. We’ll be announcing something cool in a few days.

-KL

July 27th

July 27th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

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.”

Let’s Talk

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.

Marginalization

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.

Building Blocks

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.

Unseen Academicals

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

Thank you for reading! Remember that you can send us your recommendations for This Week in Videogame Blogging by tweeting at us on the twitters or emailing us on the emails. Go on, say hi!

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.

July 20th

July 20th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

I’m back from GaymerX and I have a whole trenchcoat full of new genders to pass out. Many thanks to our deputy curator Zach Alexander for covering the roundup in my absence.

Let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Mountain Phenomenology

We start out by following up on last week‘s lively Mountain discussion with this analysis from Ian Bogost, who finds the game exemplifies the concepts of alien phenomenology.

(My own mountain presently has a glittering meteorite, an enormous chair, an even larger analog clock, a bowling pin, and a bottle of rotgut embedded in it. Game of the year.)

Standard Models and Their Derivations

From Kill Screen’s Joshua Calixto we find a compelling look into the fighting game community which has emerged around Super Smash Bros Melee and Nintendo’s resistance to acknowledging these hardcore players:

For [game director Masahiro Sakurai], Melee was more than a sequel, more than a game even. It was his idée fixe, his impossible ambition to create something infinitely deep and comfortably shallow at the same time. Now Melee has become his Pinkerton: A revitalized cult masterpiece, a bolt of lightning caught in a bottle, and the one puzzle piece that could fix everything… if it didn’t already belong to another era.

At Paste, Ansh Patel contrasts Kentucky Route Zero‘s third-act music number to the operatic detour of Final Fantasy VI. And speaking of JRPGs, at Gamers with Jobs Alex Martinez shares a personal history concerning the cousin who inspired him, the name he would take, and the first game he experienced start-to-finish on his own: Earthbound.

While we’re looking back, Play the Past’s Angela R Cox asserts that by categorizing games as ‘retro’ (aesthetically or chronologically), we fundamentally change what they are:

That is, when we consider a text as a socially situated object, we find that as textual practices change around a material (or digital, in the case of code) object, the text itself changes as cultural perception and use of the text changes.

Empathy

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove blasts Always Sometimes Monsters for what he perceives as a sort of shallow pessimism.

And at PopMatters Moving Pixels, regular columnist Jorge Albor analyzes how The Wolf Among Us keeps its sympathies with the marginalized and victimized throughout its five-part arc.

New Cartographies

At Killing of a Goldfish, Jesse Mason has set out on an ambitious historical game criticism project oriented around Magic the Gathering, viewing its early expansion sets in the context of their release.

Meanwhile, at Medium, Zoya Street continues to do important scholarship translating from Japanese-language games criticism. Here, he draws upon Nobuki Yasuda’s framework for ‘omoshiroi’ (‘fun’ or ‘interesting’) and ‘tanoshii’ (‘enjoyable’) to ask what role, exactly, ‘fun’ (and semantics thereof) should play in discussions of games.

New Paths

If this article by Kirk McKeand at IGN on accommodating red-green colorblindness in game design reveals anything, it’s that far too many developers continue to stumble upon accessibility issues by accident. However, it should leave you optimistic that things are, gradually, getting better.

Likewise, on Media Diversified, Jordan Minor foresees a convergence of the afrofuturism aesthetic movement and a new wave of racially diverse games:

“Afrofuturism is the intersection between technology, black cultures, the imagination, and liberation with a heavy dose of mysticism,” says Ytasha L. Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. “It is expressed through an array of genres including music and literature. It can also serve as the basis for critical theory around culture and/or race. It is a lens to see alternate realities through a black cultural lens.” And it is particularly prevalent in literature like sci-fi/fantasy novels and comics books, gaming’s geeky cousins.

[…] Adopting the aesthetic could also give games a chance to be at the forefront of black narratives, an area they are currently lagging behind in to say the least.

Switching gears to talk about the more commercial end of current trends in games, at Eurogamer the one and only Simon Parkin looks into a particular legal wrinkle in the growing world of Youtuber advertorials, in which some publishers or developers pay video producers for coverage.

In all the discussion on Twitch and Youtube that’s been going around lately, not much attention has been directed toward women reviewers and streamers, of which there certainly are many. Here, Kim Correa interviews popular Twitch streamer Jasmine Hruschak.

And Then There Was Silence

I’m leery of deploying the phrase “mic drop” too casually, but if any article deserves it, it’s this one. No less than five of our readers sent in this same link this week, and once you get a few paragraphs in, it’s easy to see why.

At his home site, game developer Brendan Vance has released a 10,000-word tour-de-force on the intersections of games industry, industrialization, and spiritual wholeness. Summing it up could hardly do it justice, but here are some choice excerpts:

We have hereby come to prefer our ‘content’ the same way we prefer our pig feed: Smooth tasting, from an Ikea-branded trough. Think about how a 19th century philosopher like Hegel might regard the concept of ‘replay value’. Would he commiserate with us about how the mind/spirit of romanticism just doesn’t make for large enough murals? Or would we have to pull out a bunch of obscure 21st century English words just to explain to him what the hell we were talking about? It’s important to realize that ‘replay value’ is not some timeless virtue sought by all media for all of history. It is a political viewpoint wrapped in a sales pitch perpetuated by people trying to improve the market position of their mass-produced entertainment products. By appropriating the word ‘content’, which denotes what we want, our intrepid capitalist marketers have steered us away from the conceptual, spiritual and artistic content Hegel envisions. All we want now is more stuff for a lower price.

When we observe today’s class of small, broke, powerless game studios subsisting from tiny mobile project to tiny mobile project, we typically attribute their existence to an apathetic audience and/or soulless business executives. We neglect to notice how convenient our ‘neutral third parties’ might find it that these developers are incapable of renegotiating the royalties they pay or, say, founding a new ‘ecosystem’ of their own. Today we see Valve travelling in the same direction as Apple, and we wonder whether Gabe Newell can ‘fix’ the madhouse (sic). If you’re Gabe Newell the madhouse is not broken.

We who Twitter views as ‘content creators’ now live in a world where, paradoxically, the most anti-capitalist measure we could take is to charge money for things. I believe we need to do this whenever possible. Offering your work free as in gratis might seem noble and kind to those who want to see it, but remember that giving things away ‘for free’ via services like Steam, the App Store or Twitter costs both you and your users far more in the long term than $5 would cost them right now.

You Know the Drill

Thanks for reading, everyone. As always, we value your submissions, so please keep sending them in by Twitter mention or via email!

Next item: There’s still a bit of time left to get involved in the current Blogs of the Round Table, if the topic catches your fancy.

A timely call for papers: Zoya Street’s tremendously invaluable Memory Insufficient zine is currently seeking submissions for its upcoming issue on labor and games history.

And hey, listen — Critical Distance is a public resource supported by readers like you. If you like what we do and want to see us continue to signal-boost and connect the most interesting critical thinkers on games from across the web, consider pledging to our Patreon! Every contribution helps!

July 6th

July 6th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

In the not-too-distant future,
This Sunday, AD,
There was a dork named Kris
Not too different from you or me.

They worked at CritDistance Institute,
Just another curator in a red jumpsuit.
They did a good job updating the place,
But their bosses didn’t like them so they shot them into spaa-aaaace~

(Okay we’re not going to sing the whole thing but–)

It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging 3000!

Strangely British

America-to-UK transplant Leigh Alexander spends some time going to Rapture with The Chinese Room. Meanwhile, Feral Vector’s David Hayward takes us on a stroll through the countryside as he reflects on the one thing really holding back the games industry: the “industry” part.

Scottish national turned international sex icon Cara Ellison has released her latest embedded report, this time with Thirty Flights of Loving developer Brendon Chung and a side of Hyper Light Drifter‘s Teddy Diefenbach. (Be sure to check out her most recent S.EXE column on Rock, Paper, Shotgun as well.)

No Game’s Land

On the Three Moves Ahead podcast Rob Zacny and Troy Goodfellow hook up with Jon Schafer to discuss revisionist history — and to wonder why we don’t see more titles set during World War I.

One of the few games which does depict this war, Valiant Hearts, is under Andrew Dunn’s magnifying lens this week for its simultaneously cartoonish and raw depiction of history:

It’s torn between being a serious This Is How It Was telling of WW1, and a ludicrous steampunky romp which plays merry hell with the history it earnestly tries to impart when it’s not about fistfighting an evil German baron on top of two ruined tanks in the middle of the Somme’s No Man’s Land. To say the game is tonally inconsistent is an understatement. It’s full-out atonal, right from the main menu screen: a morose soldier and his dog standing in mud and ruins while the sad theme music plays, juxtaposed with a jaunty text strapline about how many collectibles the game has.

Binders Full of Women

Exhausted with recent arguments breaking out within and adjacent to game communities online, Leigh Alexander has some simple Dos and Don’ts for combating sexism in online spaces.

Speaking of not helping, Sara Clemens places her tongue firmly in cheek this week to praise all the men who write thinkpieces about what great allies they are by playing female avatars.

On Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Samantha Blackmon reacts with some pessimism to recent comments by Aisha Tyler about the state of women’s representation:

Aisha Tyler is right, female characters are everywhere in videogames. On every street corner, on every stripper pole, in every trash can, and in every situation where being scantily clad could be a possibility (or not). […] [W]e have to consider is what a game “chock full of women” actually means and to determine when women in a game are actually a hindrance to the cause rather than a help.

Over at Kill Screen, Jess Joho has penned this analysis of games’ perpetuation of social taboos regarding menstruation, in particular BioShock: Infinite. While it’s a little cisnormative, the general points are good.

Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Over at The Escapist, Robert Rath has produced another satisfying fine-grained analysis, this time on the physics and technical hurdles that make water such a task in games.

At Eurogamer, Tom Bradwell engages with a woman commenter to discuss how that classic derail to defend marginalization in games — “it’s not historically accurate!” — is fallacious at best.

Bradwell’s article relates directly to recent discussions on Assassin’s Creed, so this History Respawned video with Bob Whitaker interviewing Jessica W. Luther concerning race and the slave trade as depicted in Liberation and Freedom Cry is a nice follow piece. While a bit unfocused, it’s a good history lesson.

Elsewhere, Seth Brodbeck mulls on board game Eminent Domain and observes that its science-fictionalized imperialism, while theoretically dodging the issue of discussing real history, “is not understandable absent the context of European colonialism, and the use of sci-fi euphemisms threatens to obscure what is really going on.”

Lastly, Person of Consequence has effectively compiled a (fairly exhaustive) Critical Compilation of Nier! If we could find their contact info, we’d love to republish this (hint).

Just Say To Yourself It’s Just a Roundup, I Should Really Just Relax

Thank you to all our readers who sent in submissions last week! Remember, you can send in your own recommendations (yes, including your own work) by email or by mentioning us on Twitter!

Blogs of the Round Table is continuing its June-July theme of ‘VINPCs.’ It’s so rad.

And hey, just a reminder: Critical Distance is funded through our readership. So if you like what we do here and want to see us continue to exist and all that, consider pledging to our Patreon! That would be really cool of you.