A lot of games critics worry, understandably, that their work can’t address the problems that people face in the real world. Others have already started the work of politically-engaged games criticism long ago. This week there are lots of examples of the fruit of those years of experience.
Turn the world toward dystopia
Let’s start by thinking about how criticism is done.
- The Folly of Consumer Reviews | Game Bias Jed Pressgrove gives a brief overview of why he doesn’t write reviews.
- The Founder: A Game About The Dark Side Of Silicon Valley | Co.Design | business + design Katherine Schwab interviews Francis Tseng about this critical game.
“The world of The Founder is indeed a dark one. At a certain point within the game, you have to expand into defense in order to keep playing. You have to colonize other worlds in order to keep growing your profit. And soon enough, you can replace your entire staff with artificially intelligent robots, who are cheaper and more efficient than humans. At the center of it all is the founder—you, the player—who ultimately is responsible for decisions that turn the world toward dystopia.”
Not the Fake News
Next, we consider the changing nature of political and economic institutions through and around games, in light of the devastating events going on in the US.
- 20 years after its release, Final Fantasy VII’s Trumpian dystopia has arrived · For Our Consideration · The A.V. Club Patrick Lee draws out some connections between the spectre of American kleptocracy and the image of Shinra corp.
- Gamasutra: Mona Ibrahim’s Blog – The Travel Ban and Your Studio: What You Can and Cant Do to Protect Your Employees Mona Ibrahim shares practical advice on maintaining an inclusive work place during the US’s current state of crisis regarding the treatment of immigrants from Muslim countries
- Trump is bad for the US games industry | GamesIndustry.biz Brendan Sinclair lists out the ways Trump’s policies have already caused considerable disruption and upset for people working in games.
- What It’s Like To Be An Iranian Game Developer In Trump’s America Nathan Grayson interviews the developer of 1979 Revolution about how the Muslim Ban affects them.
“‘I think when [1979 Revolution] got banned,’ said Khonsari, ‘[the Iranian government] saw it—because it was made [in the United States]—as a form of propaganda. The game is called 1979 Revolution. It’s not called The Islamic Revolution, so as a result, that had some pushback. If they’re not controlling their message, it’s considered propaganda, or what we like to call fake news now. It’s exactly that. If it’s not in line with what the message of the regime is, it’s deemed to be propaganda or untrue. Strangely enough, we’re now seeing that happen over here.'”
The young inheriting from the old
Looking more broadly at the historical moment, these three pieces put game aesthetics in conversation with a longer trajectory of popular culture.
- The Process Genre in Videogames: Sunset – Intermittent Mechanism Ian at Intermittent Mechanism argues for the use of Sunset as teaching material.
- The 63-Year-Old Retiree Who Broke A Game Looking for The End of the World – Waypoint This is an unusual piece. Lewis Gordon interviews an elder gamer about his recent indie gaming experiences and his history with early 1980s PC gaming.
- The many faces of DOOM’s afterlife • Eurogamer.net Alex Wiltshire interviews several developers of DOOM ports.
“All healthy cultures must adapt and evolve, the young inheriting from the old and pushing onwards. But cultures around games, often so transient, rarely get that chance. Doom is different.”
These pieces consider different ways of viewing and moving through spaces.
- Gamasutra: Bartlomiej Waszak’s Blog – The physics of trains in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Bartlomiej Waszak shares some in-depth theory on how trains were modeled in AC: Syndicate.
- The rebellious rise of road-trip games • Eurogamer.net Rick Lane discusses two forthcoming games that center on the maintenance of a personal car over a long journey: My Summer Car and Jalopy.
“Through each of their road trips, My Summer Car‘s mundane and yet madcap, Jalopy’s quietly pioneering, they reject the homogeneity of mainstream driving games, showing us cars not as disposable toys but indispensable tools, and exploring their significance within specific cultures. They demonstrate that when decoupled from the restrictive trailer of racing and winning, virtual vehicles can take us to extraordinary places.”
Feels subversive but…
The morality systems portrayed in games come under scrutiny here, looking back over 30 years of history.
- Getting What We Deserve: Where Morality in Gaming Creates Unrealistic Expectations – Not Your Mama’s Gamer alex layne links common game design conceits to unhealthy social and cultural phenomena.
- The Radical Environmentalism of the Sega Genesis | Motherboard Jason Koebler traces the historical context of environmentalist messages in games, with some surprising insights that challenge the linear view of political progress.
“Playing these games now feels subversive. But at the time, Sega was actually hitting on an environmental movement that had wide public appeal. A Gallup poll from 1990 found that 76 percent of Americans called themselves ‘environmentalists.'”
I am worth the loss
Moving on to how people’s experiences are imagined in games, we consider how identities are harmed and healed.
- Not Your Exotic Fantasy – Tropes vs. Women in Video Games – YouTube (video with transcript) The new Tropes vs. Women addresses the objectification of black and ethnic minority women in games.
- I am become Bonk, the destroyer of worlds – ZEAL – Medium Joffe’s piece on absurdist embodiment is a great read. Check this out if you’ve been hungry for some effective and illuminating New Games Journalism.
“Bonk’s only goal is to reach a point in history where he can go ‘I am here, I belong, and I am worth the loss that represents.’ Despite the sometimes ludicrous scale of Bonk’s journey, its stakes are incredibly personal. Bonk is not trying to save a kingdom, rescue a princess or free captured woodland creatures. Bonk has no interest in saving the world, only in establishing what he considers to be his proper identity, in every aspect.”
Each successive hurdle
Next we delve further into the experiences of selfhood that are not just implied by games, but engendered through them.
- More Than Affordances – First Person Scholar Nick LaLone delves into the theoretical implications of Ian Bogost’s Play Anything.
- Art Tickles: The Missing Points – Haywire Magazine Taylor Hidalgo pushes beyond the portrayal of the player-character’s physical status to consider the physical drain that emotional tension takes on the player’s body.
“Frustration, exhaustion, uncertainty, and indecision are things that are never reflected in a full health bar, even if the characters are in the best possible shape. In the war of attrition that is inventory management, supplies can wither even without progress, but there’s the player factor that I feel puts more weight on each successive hurdle.”
Resident Evil 7
Finally, there has been a lot of critical discussion about Resident Evil 7. So far these pieces seem to have been the most instructive, going beyond what the game is like to play and thinking more concretely about what techniques are at work in its design.
- Resident Evil 7: Why Jack Baker is the scariest enemy in the game | PC Gamer Reid McCarter investigates the man of the house, highlighting what makes dads truly monstrous.
- “Resident Evil 7: Break the Mould,” by Ed Smith – Bullet Points Monthly Ed Smith finds a lot of missteps in Resident Evil 7’s approach to lore, though I can imagine many people reading this piece and feeling more curious about the particular kind of campiness that it betrays.
“Seemingly, Resident Evil 7‘s designers work without much regard for “world-building” and “lore”—some of them have used the black mould simply as a vector for their most brazen ideas, thus creating complete discord between the game’s liberal abstractions and forensic, explanatory latter half. As a result, Resident Evil 7 is the microcosm of a general, pervasive conflict between two game-making approaches: expression, without regard for narrative or the audience’s standards of “sense”, and clarity, the desire to produce and sell explainable stories to absolutely anyone, whether they have a disposition towards art or not.”
- Visual Essay Jam | Critical Distance Don’t forget to check out the visual essay jam and stretch your creative muscles a bit.