The big discussion of the week is loot boxes – also known as gacha mechanics – or, in-game microtransactions with randomised contents. A long-controversial aspect of free-to-play games, these items have featured prominently in recent AAA game releases, provoking a wave of vocal frustration. In this roundup, I’ll cover the loot boxes story first, and then move on to other topics, including some new work on ludo-narrative dissonance and visual expression in games.
- ESRB Says It Doesn’t See ‘Loot Boxes’ As Gambling
Jason Schreier broke the intial story, with an email from an ESRB representative.
- The ESRB Is Wrong About Loot Boxes And Gambling
Erik Kain emphasizes the similar emotional responses triggered by loot boxes and slot machines.
- Thinking outside the loot box | GamesIndustry.biz
Rob Fahey highlights the fact that there are cases where the items won from loot boxes can be sold for real money, even while refuting the notion that loot boxes are necessarily always a form of gambling.
- Are loot boxes gambling? * Eurogamer.net
Vic Hood interviews academics, critics and industry voices as well as a representative from PEGI to get different perspectives on the line between chance-based microtransactions and gambling.
- Gamasutra:Josh’s Blog -The Origin of Loot Boxes
Josh Bycer cites definitions of gambling as being about a lack of impact that player skill may have on their success, referring back to the legislation of pachinko machines.
- Loot Boxes Are Designed To Exploit Us | Kotaku
Heather Alexandra says it doesn’t matter what they churn out – loot boxes are a cynical design strategy that does little to enhance a game’s design.
“You are not a valued player; you are a statistic on a spreadsheet. You are red or black ink. Loot boxes certainly aren’t there for fun. They have always been designed for the purpose of making sure that a company turns a profit.”
While some of the discussion about loot boxes evokes treasured notions of player agency, critical writing on other games continues to trouble the assumption that players should always feel in control – or, examines what that dream of control means in the context of people’s personal ethics.
- How Mortal Danger Permeated Every Inch of ‘STALKER’ – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman explores a survival horror game’s oppressive sense of not having control over your destiny.
- Satanists Say Video Games Help Them Practice Their Religion
Cecilia D’Anastasio interviews Satanists about how video games encapsulate their self-interested philosophy.
- An Uncanny Reflection – Haywire Magazine
Maia Koliopoulos argues that Mirror’s Edge focuses too much on efficiency and speed, and lacks the creative subversion of parkour.
“The exact same restrictions that real urban spaces create are built into the physics of the game world. There is no way to disrupt intent. Unlike “real” parkour, the act of movement itself is not autotelic; it can only be used to accomplish something else.”
Dissonances are also explored in these two pieces on the surprising narratives told through games that seem to be about one thing but turn out to be about another.
- Opened World: The Night Is Young – Haywire Magazine
Miguel Penabella praises the understated yet sensitive storytelling of a game that, on the surface, should surely just be about making cars go very fast.
- In Stardew Valley, Ignorance Can Be Bliss | Kotaku
Kirk Hamilton makes a compelling argument that Stardew Valley’s rarely-acknowledged ludonarrative dissonance is deliberate and effective.
“It’s a contrast that’s often reflected in the game’s terrific soundtrack. Many of the tunes begin with a simple melody plucked out on a down-home instrument like a banjo or piano, then shift midway through to a more synth-dominated, dreamlike sound. All the twee charms of a simple small-town life, but with a hint of something more.”
These two pieces showed me new ways of making use of the absurd or illogical in critical writing.
- This Game Wants to Prove That You Don’t Know What Soup Is – Waypoint
Henrique Antero offers a detailed examination of a game that I featured here a couple of weeks ago as an example of game design as critical writing.
- Lost Word of Jenny | Something in the Direction of Exhibition
Vincent K. gives a great deal of attention to a game that sounds terribly un-fun, and on the way unpicks some of the friction between text and reader that are at play in game design.
“When the game’s perspective and the player’s collide, what’s left is an absurdist mess, one where the things the game abstracts can’t be made to make sense.”
Further expanding notions of how we should read games as critics, these two writers challenge us to sharpen our visual literacy.
- Brick By Brick / Selective Chromophobia & Castlevania
Doshmanziari sees bright, vivid colours where others either don’t see them, or don’t remember them, and gives us images to prove they are real.
- Are Videogames Bad at Images? – Zolani Stewart – Medium
Zolani Stewart pens something close to a manifesto, laying out a way of thinking about images and visual communication that has been largely neglected in games criticism until now.
“If videogames struggle with meaningful, powerful imagery, it’s probably because our culture has never been able to recognise the form’s unique visual language that’s distinct from a technical visual language.”
This has been a great week for writing on the history of games in non-Western contexts.
- Gaming Beyond the Iron Curtain: East Germany – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
George Weidman tells a history of games under communism, with particular attention paid to clones.
- Saving Japan’s Games | Kotaku
Chris Kohler reports on the Game Preservation Society, a Japanese organisation inspired by London’s Software Preservation Society and , which archives games from the past.
- Decoding Shenzhen: The Chinese city that makes the world’s tech • Eurogamer.net
Arshiya Khullar investigates the changing landscape of China’s electronics capital, with some interviewees reporting concerns about the future of its digital entertainment companies as the industry matures.
“If you look at Western games, designers first develop the core mechanic of a game. In Japan, the story is the key, like in the role-playing games, while Korean games use cutting-edge technology. In China, gaming is a product not a service. When your core design philosophy is based on making money, then innovation will drastically decrease”
Critical Distance is community-supported. Our readers support us from as little as one dollar a month. Would you consider joining them?
Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!