I’m blown away by the volume of high-quality writing this week. All the great stuff seems to be coming out at once! It’s overwhelming.
To make it all a little easier to digest, I’ve broken this week’s roundup into four parts. Take it at your own pace, skip the topics that don’t speak to you, and please get in touch with your recommendations for next week’s roundup!
Critical Distance is community-supported, and very close to our monthly funding goal, so please consider dropping us a dollar or two a month.
Heading links: institutionality | temporality | textuality | No Man’s Sky | sociality | economy | community | relationality | subjectivity | mentality | interactivity | virginia | spatiality
Part 1: History
The Rising Sun (Content note: orientalism)
Heading to Asia, three in-depth features all gave excellent insights into the diverse gaming cultures of China, Japan, Korea and the peninsulas and archipelago of South East Asia. (Edit 2016-09-30: content note added. While the articles are excellent, they all come from an outsider’s perspective, highlight differences, and reify the role of the Anglo-American observer.)
- Gambling dens and gamer monks: Asia’s offbeat videogame subcultures | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Robert Rath shares stories from his game-hunting adventures in Asia, giving us insights into the diverse gaming cultures and economies that have developed under different historical conditions.
- Gamasutra: John Szczepaniak’s Blog – Dark Side of the Sun
John Szczepaniak shares his findings on crunch culture in Japan
- The Determination of China’s Independent Game Scene – Kill Screen
An excellent feature on Killscreen examines the current state of the Chinese indie game developers’ scene, with some surprising observations about life under China’s somewhat esoteric economic structure.
“Indie Play feels like the Chinese IGF, where game makers meet each other and the people interested in their craft. This event also helps game makers ask for guidance and help, in a country where laws and procedures can change at any moment.”
The Iron Curtain
Turning to the past, we look at games that portray the post-WWII era, each on different sides of the iron curtain.
- L.A. Noire – History Respawned
A new episode of History Respawned looks at LA Noire and the history of policing and racism in California.
- The Tomorrow Children would fail a history exam – Kill Screen
Chris Priestman is unimpressed with the use of Soviet kitsch as a narrative prop.
“In the end, it’s kitsch. It’s a Soviet-themed Lego set that renders a monumental socio-political phenomenon into little else but a toy. And an exceptionally boring one at that. This would all be harmless enough if the aesthetic it borrowed wasn’t one of paranoid violence and a complex unraveling of a utopian dream for all humanity, but, that’s what the USSR was.”
The New Weird
Histories of surrealism are examined in these three pieces that look at videogames with lenses honed in literature and painting.
- Automatism and La forêt | vextro
leeroy lewin shares some fascinating insights into procedural generation from the world of literature and surrealism.
- The “New Weird” In Videogames – Kill Screen
Literary history and game design are woven together in this illuminating piece about realism and fiction.
- The Parallax View — Real Life
In Real Life Magazine, there is a piece of essential reading on realism in art history and the politics of simulation in videogames.
“Video-game realism is less a practice of using computation to simulate reality than the practice of defending the visual from political or social meaning. To render a cube in a vacuum and give it a mathematical skin for players to marvel at, even if it looks like nothing but a block of wood — it’s strangely impossible to recall ever having touched or smelled or felt anything like it.”
No Man’s Sky
Some of the questions emerging about simulation and realism are prompted by continued interest in the procedurally generated world of No Man’s Sky. These two pieces address that in relation to hype and disenchantment.
- Looking back at Spore in a post-No Man’s Sky world • Eurogamer.net
Rick Lane looks at hype cycles and design failure with some surprising conclusions, as the value of Spore is excavated from its terrible reputation.
- In Defense of the Infinite Universe in ‘No Man’s Sky’ | PopMatters
Nick Dinicola argues that No Man’s Sky has a clear philosophical direction from start to finish.
“If we assume this to be true, if the purpose of life is to admire the space around us, then any journey is a means of fulfilling that purpose, and any ending contradicts that purpose. It’s important to note that we learn the true nature of the universe in the middle of our journey, not at the end. The journey brings revelation and understanding. The destination brings a stop to the revelations and understanding. Being reset after reaching the galactic center seems anticlimactic, but it’s really an exclamation point on the idea that the game has been expressing the whole time. The infinite universe is awesome.”
Part 2: Economy
The Critical Sphere
Looking a little closer at the cultural and material consequences of hype, two pieces on games designed to attract attention for their themes examine how games culture is created through moments of conflict.
- Defective Products: Postal, Hatred, and For-Profit Controversy :: Games :: Features :: Paste
Harry Brewis writes about the design and reception of games that exist primarily to be newsworthy.
- Why is everybody criticizing BioShock Infinite these days? | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Cameron Kunzelman gives people a fantastic introduction to the social economy of games criticism
“What we call “videogame criticism” is a combination of a lot of different things: it’s design analysis, it’s reporting how a game made you feel, it’s literary criticism, it’s aesthetic categorization, and it’s letting your mind unspool at length while trying to be in conversation with an object. BioShock games do something to the player that makes them want to engage in this kind of behavior. “
Zero Sum Games
Moving on from the social economies of hype and controversy, a bumper crop of pieces this week look at the virtual economies of multiplayer games and management simulations.
- Banished: It Takes a Village to Raise a Surplus | Play The Past
Gilles Roy traces the history of management of surplus as reflected in city-building and survival games, asking what happens when methods of control become modes of play.
- Gamasutra: Daniel Don Nilsen’s Blog – Community building economics
Daniel Don Nielsen gives a behavioural economics argument for investing in community management.
- Gamasutra: Matthew McCaffrey’s Blog – Virtual Worlds, Real Economics
Matthew McCaffrey describes human behaviour in economic terms to demonstrate that game play is an economic activity.
“Gaming culture is a vibrant new arena of action where sound economic ideas have a real chance to take hold. There is already discussion about how in-game economies emerge and evolve—particularly how they deal with money and inflation. But games incorporate economics at even more basic levels. Indeed, gamers are already using the economic way of thinking without even knowing it.”
The Consent Guide
An economy is partly something that people co-create, and partly something that people endure. In these pieces, people share strategies for survival, be it shelter from hypercapitalism or proactive efforts to change rape culture.
- Smash Bros. Player’s Sexual Consent Guide Ignites Debate In Community (Content warning: rape)
Cecilia D’Anastasio reports on how one gaming subculture is struggling to address rape and sexual assault at its gatherings.
- Gamasutra: Steve Bailey’s Blog – On the (Non) Resurgence of Couch Co-op Gaming
Steve Bailey shares a personal story about low-budget living and gaming without the internet
“One building was a former university science lab – on Friday nights, I’d drag a giant beanbag, projector, Xbox 360 and surround-sound system down to the lecture theatre at the far end of the corridor where I lived. There I’d play Borderlands on a makeshift screen the size of a cinema display, at preposterous volume, in maximum comfort. Other people from the building would often join in, because even split-screen modes offered the kind visual acuity that makes a modern flatscreen shrivel with envy.”
Part 3: Power
But Nobody Came
Other ways of connecting with, and disconnecting from, other people are explored in readings of three games that portray different relationships between different kinds of beings.
- opened world: queerness & movement – haywire magazine
Miguel Penabella shares a queer reading of a game about cars, bringing in notions of passing as examined in LIM and in Bonnie Ruberg’s reading of Octodad.
- EarthBound’s absent dad reveals its mother-loving heart · Special Topics In Gameology · The A.V. Club
William Hughes examines the gendered portrayal of affection in the RPG series that spawned Mother and inspired Undertale.
- Event will break your humanity – Kill Screen
Chris Priestman gives a fascinating account of a relationship with an AI
“Kaizen turns the English language into a series of puzzles, and to solve them you need to learn to speak like a computer. You’ll find that you spend the majority of your time seeking out the right question to ask—the more specific the better. Asking for access to an old user’s profile might lead to a sentence about that character, whereas a six digit access code might get you into the profile. It’s your task to learn and then navigate these linguistic differences. And, in turn, become subservient to Kaizen and her rules.”
And Everyone Came
Some more personal accounts here shed light on the empowerment and complicated shame of the positions in which games have placed their players.
- It’s Okay to Like Playing Male Characters in Video Games – remeshed.com remeshed.com
Identity and self-expression through role-play can be heavily politicised, but they demand more complex politics.
- And Everyone Came… – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Jynx Boyne shares a very moving perspective on Undertale’s portrayal of some of the darkest feelings of hopelessness one can encounter.
“Undertale is an emotional, personal game for many people. Different points in the narrative stir up different memories, good and bad. It shines light on human nature and on tough choices. It brings up the loneliness anxiety and depression can instill on you, when there seems to be no way out and nobody around. “
The Power Suit
Looking a little more at empowerment and trauma, these pieces take a more psychological stance on how two games portray gendered experiences of resilience.
- Kirby: Planet Robobot Review — Kirby’s Power Fantasy | Game Bias
Jed Pressgrove provides a strangely compelling, libidinal reading of Kirby’s cyborg life.
- Filling in the Gaps: Truth and Memory in Bound – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Bianca Batti and Alisha Karabinus explore how fragmented, unstable realities reflect a feminist epistemology of trauma.
“This lack of certainty in Bound’s landscape, its shifting nature, the fact that it cannot be trusted–all this seems to mirror the way the game also works to destabilize the seemingly static and universal notion of truth. For just as the game’s landscapes cannot be trusted, just as the world itself is not static, so too are the game’s constructions of memory, history, and narrative rendered untrustworthy. So too is the game’s story, the game’s truth, something that fluctuates and fractures.”
Part 4: Structure
Iron Man Mode
Resilience of a different kind came up in game design circles this week, as the term “permadeath” became problematic. More broadly, the question of games’ relative difficulty continues to create definition challenges for those of us who are open to writing about interactive media with limited agency.
- Katherine Isbister’s Move Beyond the Monolith of “Games” – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Alisha Karabinus shares a core point of Katherine Isbister’s recent book on games and emotion.
- Rogue Creator Says We Need A Better Word For Permadeath
Tony Carnevale reports on a terminological dispute that reflects a tendency to focus on punishment over reward in how we talk about game difficulty.
- Difficult Designs | Problem Machine
problemmachine examines game difficulty, balance and the purpose of friction.
“Even though this optimum may shift from player to player, there tends to be a point where the challenge of the game is well tuned: Where the attentive and engaged player can succeed, where the structure of the designer can maintain, where actions feel consequential and consequences feel earned. This is the point of optimum difficulty. There’s another point of interest on the difficulty curve, and that’s the point of maximum difficulty.”
The topic of reduced interactivity brings us to Virginia, a new release that has critics divided due to its cinematic approach to storytelling.
- Virginia needs to go back to film school – Kill Screen
Zach Budgor argues that concessions toward interactivity only serve to weaken the use of cinematic language.
- Virginia Review | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
The use of cinematic convention to express a story without dialogue is praised in this piece that examines the techniques at work in this silent game.
- Game Review Virginia’s intimacy makes it more than a Twin Peaks wannabe · Game Review · The A.V. Club
William Hughes shows how Virginia uses spatial storytelling techniques to communicate without dialogue.
“One of Virginia’s boldest choices isn’t just that it’s a two-hour, player-prodded movie. It’s that the film in question is a silent one. Variable gets away with this by providing a decent amount of reading material to fill in the plot’s more obscure points and putting its talent for visual storytelling on full display.”
The White Cube
Virginia’s spatial storytelling techniques are being praised at a time when there is ever more writing taking on the spatial qualities of games’ expression, not just visually but through sound as well.
- Sunday Sound Thought 38 – Sensory Interplay
Shaun Farley argues that sound may be a more important part of how games express a sense of place and meaning than most people recognise.
- Bjarke Ingels’s new game is everything good and bad about his architecture – Kill Screen
David Rudin argues that minimalism can just be nihilistic
- The joy of VR ‘desk’ games | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
John Brindle explores the playful remediation of workspaces, and makes a case for an emerging genre in a troubled medium.
“why wouldn’t the photocopier – from the perspective of a logical alien who hasn’t quite grasped how one works – be able to copy those donuts, or any other object which will fit under its lid? So of course you lean down and photocopy your own head, only to produce a weird plasticky brain which you can throw around like a football. Here, it’s not only the workspace but the relationships between different objects in the workspace which enchant the player. The workspace is a kind of switchboard for surprising connections and unexpected consistencies.”