This week sees some fantastic thoughts on role-playing. Which roles are represented in narratives, what it would have been like to play a particular role in its historical context, and how we deal with the pressure to perform in a particular role.

A dance teacher once told me that she sometimes tries on different people’s walks, to feel what it is like to be in their body. She said that it freaks people out, that somehow people can tell you’re doing it and it’s disconcerting. Some of the pieces this week make me think about game design as a way of letting someone try on a different kind of walk for a while.

Shambling behind

Challenging our sense that history is a constant march towards progress, two pieces show how fragile and contingent any movement forward really is.

“Games like Blitz the League and Def Jam wanted you to hear the crack, know that these people felt pain and could be hurt, but black people can take the hit. These weren’t humanized characters either, just cutouts and stereotypes, with no depth, no detail. As games were starting to develop a sense of humanity, black people got left out.”

Rambling back

Other pieces on games and history look at memories of the industry’s past, and imaginaries of formative moments in global history.

“[…] the iconography hangs in the air in a way that is functional but also slightly unnerving and hallucinatory, unmoored, out of perspective. These are abstractions that work as game elements but hint at a scarier, more brutal metonymy that would give these objects a near talismanic quality to the soldier […]”

Swaggering on

What are do games ask of players? What are we enacting when we play with or against the designer? Critics are exploring the moods and cadences of this intricate dance.

“The loudest voices are almost always from the smallest minorities of gamers, and when someone writes about – or videos themselves – being less “good” at a game, it is these loud voices that respond. Furiously and often cruelly, mocking and chastising, and ultimately dismissing, because they might have a better aim, or a greater affinity for a particular genre. However, as is very often horribly demonstrated by those doing the mocking and dismissing, what they aren’t better at is informative and entertaining writing. Which might rather be the key.”


Play as a kind of performance has been a central theme in early responses to the reboot of DOOM.

“A lot of games fall into a self-important trap. Their creative teams, probably with their hearts in the right place, want their violent AAA games to have rich characters, important stories, a sense of heaviness and drama. And that works beautifully in a game that isn’t explicitly about shooting thousands of enemies in their faces. But in a shooter that isn’t explicitly referencing military tactics and a very specific “war is hell” vibe, there’s massive dissonance there. Doom drops that pretense entirely. It wants you to know, from its very first minutes, that this is a game about having fun shooting and bludgeoning DEMONS FROM HELL IN SPACE.”

Scouting out

Speaking of SPACE, this week brings two particularly astute pieces on games as worlds and places.

“Gamist design considers the game to be first and foremost a game. It doesn’t matter what the numbers represent, but it is important that the game achieves a state of “flow”, where every single encounter is perfectly balanced to be neither too easy, nor too hard. Worldist design considers that everything in the game represents something in the game world, and that it is most important that this world is believable. There need to be interesting decisions which result in real consequences.”

And that’s the end of the roundup! Some final personal plugs and notes:

Critical Distance is community-supported. We run on your donations and respond to your recommendations. Thanks to all of you who contribute — this couldn’t happen without you!