2020 in Videogame Blogging

Before we get started, I want to briefly mention that this week we are running an essay jam on the topic of the pandemic and games – if this roundup brings up some thoughts about what 2020 was like for games, this would be a great place to try out a small piece of writing about that!

What can I say about 2020 that hasn’t already been stated in the form of exhausted tweets, quiet sobs on a lonely night, or furious screams directed up at the Sims player in the sky? At minimum, I can say that you got through it. So, here from the idyllic pastures of 2021, let’s review some of the highlights of writing from the darkest year.

First, a quick note on how this round-up was made. Your Senior Curator Chris Lawrence very kindly began this process, creating a longlist of articles from their selections for the weekly roundups. I took these, plus some suggestions from readers and contributors, and winnowed them down into a mere 100 links. We accepted submissions for video, but decided that video would be better served by a separate roundup drawing on Connor Weightman’s monthly roundups. I chose articles that stood out to me for saying something original or speaking to a perspective that is underrepresented, and tried to avoid repetition when it comes to either the points made or the people making them.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to include every piece of writing that I truly loved, but I hope the overall selection takes you on a worthwhile journey through the discursive landscape.

Part 1: Taking action in games cultures

Accountability

Content warning: sexual assault and abuse in the workplace.

Decentering and decentralization

  • Learning How to Share | Unwinnable
    Yussef Cole, with partner Vivian Chan, describes a working relationship that had gone unacknowledged until now. This piece uses both content and presentation to make visible something that was once invisible, amend a personal transgression, and challenge the cultural ideas that have made these acts of erasure common throughout the history of art and criticism.
  • Unprofessional Game Criticism
    leeroy lewin describes a way of approaching writing about games that both foregrounds the material political conditions that marginalize many developers and writers, and also refuses to limit its political horizon to “getting paid” and the industrial pressures that come along with that.
  • La importancia de descentrarse | la era del videojuego
    Tom Gradep describes the broken promise that sites such as Kotaku, Polygon, and Waypoint, as well as the growth of video criticism on YouTube, might lead to radical changes in how we talk about games, observing that the discourse remains obsessed with big mainstream releases and next-gen consoles and continues to ignore culturally valuable work happening elsewhere.

Labor

Gamergate

Content warning: harassment and domestic abuse.

  • Anita Sarkeesian looks back at GamerGate | Polygon
    Reflecting on the events of 2016, Anita Sarkeesian points out the connection between Gamergate and the Trump administration, and the broader strategies of the conservative political movements of recent years.
  • The Cost Of Being A Woman Who Covers Video Games | Kotaku (Content warning: this piece cites two figures who have faced credible allegations of abuse)
    Maddy Myers reflects on a decade of misogyny in the discourse surrounding games, witnessing the voices that were lost to the hostile environment of online harassment as well as the positive change in the representation of women in games.
  • Beyond Gamergate | Ellaguro
    Liz Ryerson critiques the tendency to externalise systemic political injustices onto events and social groups such as Gamergate, arguing that it shifts blame away from those who actually have an interest in keeping oppresive structures in place.

Media histories

Tabletop

Part 2: The bleak big picture

Colonialism

Content warning: discussions of genocide and subjugation of Indigenous people.

  • The Game Changers: Decolonizing video games | Play the Past
    Archaeologist Franki Webb provides an overview of how colonialism is re-enacted through videogame stories, showing that rather than just designing better representations of fictional Indigenous characters, decolonisation in the context of game development entails finding new ways of financing and producing games, and collectively changing whose voices and experiences are privileged.
  • The Oregon Trail [1971] | Arcade Idea
    This piece takes you on an journey with the author, beginning with their childhood memories of this famed edutainment game, examining its procedural rhetoric in contrast to a critical history of America, eventually leading to the conclusion that “The Oregon Trail game is, point blank and very straightforwardly, white nationalist propaganda.”
  • Chasing the anti-colonial video game | Uppercut
    Zeb Larson talks to developers Jon Ingold (80 Days), Stephan Naujoks (Pathway), and Santo Aveiro-Ojeda (Don’t Take the Night, 1870: Cyberpunk Forever) about how their games have challenged the colonial narratives and mechanics that are so common, highlighting some design strategies that flip the script.
  • The Coronation of Meghna Jayanth | EGM
    Samuel Horti’s profile of Meghna Jayanth covers her work decolonising narratives in games such as 80 Days and Sable.

Climate

Content warning: discussions of possible future ecological catastrophes.

Capitalism

Content warning: discussions of labor exploitation and possible futures where things continue to get worse.

Conspiracism

Content warning: this section describes the rise of far right conspiracy theories and hate mobs on the internet.

Part 3: Standing with each other

Race

Content warning: discussions of anti-Black racism.

  • The Pillars of Privilege – I Need Diverse Games
    Tauriq Moosa talks about white privilege and guilt, and challenges the expectation that games ought to be an escapist space where moral responsibility is never brought up.
  • Black lives have always mattered in the fighting game community | Polygon
    De’Angelo Epps highlights support for Black Lives Matter in the fighting game community, and explains how the history of racial injustice and inequality in America is connected to the Blackness of the fighting game scene.
  • ‘Catch These Hands’: The Black Boxer Trope in Fighting Video Games | Level
    Joshua Adams takes a critical view on the portrayal of Black characters in fighting games, showing that the reliance on vintage ethnic stereotypes in character design has led to the reproduction of harmful tropes that have been used to justify centuries of violence against Black bodies, and pointing instead to cultural references rooted in Black achievement and heritage.
  • State of the Discourse: a survey | GMMaS
    Ash Kreider reports on their work surveying marginalized game developers, finding that “more than half of game developers of color feel unsafe in existing communities” and identifying specific issues with community mangement that lead to tribalism, abuse, and harassment in online communities.

Gender

Queerness

Disability

  • Geralt of Rivia: A disabled protagonist | Eurogamer.net
    Sara Thompson makes a strong case for The Witcher’s identity as a disabled character, drawing heavily on the books, and hopes that future adaptations of the stories will explore this in more depth.
  • Sick, Slow, Cyborg: Crip Futurity in Mass Effect | Game Studies
    Adan Jerreat-Poole reads Mass Effect through a lens informed by critical disability studies, looking for tension, discomfort, and interruption in gameplay as the signs of a “willful body” that does not easily fit into neoliberal demands for efficiency.
  • Crusader Kings 3: Eugenics at Play | GlitchOut (Content warning: descriptions of Nazi eugenics policies)
    Criticising the portrayal of disability in Paradox’s recent release, Oma Keeling calls for a stronger understanding of eugenics as a “mode of supremacist thought about the human body”.

Part 4: Fear

Horror

Violence

  • ¿Pueden los videojuegos criticar su propia violencia? | GamerFocus (No spoilers)
    Aiming to better understand the discomfort of violence in The Last of Us Part II, Julián Ramírez gives an overview of design strategies that several writers have argued gave games such as Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line a critical position in relation to the violent acts you have to carry out in order to play them.
  • Do We Really Need Combat? Systems of Interaction in AAA Games | Sidequest (Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II)
    Emma Kostopoulos reflects on combat in games such as TLOU2 and The Outer Worlds, arguing that offering players different ways of solving problems avoids awkward situations where the player-character is “a stone-cold killing machine right up until she need[s] to suddenly have conflicted feelings about murder”.
  • An Assassin’s Creed. An examination of violence as ideology in Ubisoft franchises | Medium (Spoilers for multiple Ubisoft titles)
    In this deep and leisurely read, Spencer Yan returns again and again to the notion that “nothing is true and everything is permitted”, presenting a view of violence as a type of freedom afforded to privileged agents, and war as a “force through which all things become alienated from their original associations and contexts”.
  • The Righteous, Musical Violence of Ape Out | Haywire Magazine
    Stephen Mansfield relates the portrayal of “creative violence” to the development of free jazz music in the civil rights era as an expression of Black “anger, desire, violence, despair” that could not find an outlet within the constraints of established norms.

(Im)mortality

Part 5: Specific places

Hong Kong

India

Japan

Part 6: Specific games

Spoilers for each of the games named in this section.

Ghost of Tsushima

Content warning: discussions of the far right in Japan in WWII and today.

The Last of Us Part II

Content warning: transphobia

Tell Me Why

Cyberpunk 2077

Content warning: racism and transphobia.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Content warning: transphobia and homophobia.

  • Final Fantasy VII Remake Gives Cloud’s Honeybee Inn Makeover The Update It Needed | Kotaku
    Todd Harper praises the fact that the Wall Market scene depicting drag performance has been updated from the original somewhat fraught material, but also finds it expected and outdated, reflecting early 2000s expressions of LGBTQ+ Pride in mainstream media and stopping short of the contemporary horizon of inclusivity.
  • Wall Market Isn’t Burning | Unwinnable
    Trevor Richardson argues that Cloud’s experience in Wall Market is presented as an ordeal rather than a source of joy and freedom, reflecting subtle the homophobia and transphobia of seeing queerness as a cause for discomfort.
  • Why Final Fantasy VII’s Trans Story Resonates – Uppercut
    I wanted to include two pieces by Grace Benfell on this game, because to choose only one or the other would miss some of the nuance and complexity of the point she is making. First of all, in this essay she discusses how Cloud’s identity crisis is relatable for a trans player.
  • Final Fantasy VII Remake Misunderstands the Power of Drag | Sidequest
    Analysing the narrative context and cinematography of the Wall Market scene, Benfell points out that despite being framed as a character-building moment, Cloud is not given a chance to find himself through this experience of gendered performance.
  • Degendering the Dress | Bullet Points Monthly
    Autumn Wright argues that the Wall Market scene portrays an essentialistic attitude to gender, and only uses queerness to entertain the player, rather than portraying an authentic space where everybody present is able to play with gender.

Umurangi Generation

Anodyne 2

Necrobarista

  • Undeath and Still Life | Bullet Points Monthly
    Violet Adele Bloch draws comparisons with the work of Liz Ryerson and Nathalie Lawhead, as well as the experience of having COVID-19, in an analysis of liminality and undeath in Necrobarista.
  • The Uncanny Valley of Culture | Medium
    Damon Reece talks about “cultural cringe”, post-colonial hegemonic assumptions, and the complicated position of responding to people who misunderstand Necrobarista as a futuristic cyberpunk story just because they don’t know what Australia is like.

Kentucky Route Zero

Death Stranding

Pathologic 2

  • Difficult Stress | Bullet Points Monthly
    Yussef Cole writes about the difficulty of writing about Pathologic 2 in a world where the idea of a life-altering pandemic has gone from speculative fiction to reality.
  • Scars of the Risen God: Healing in Pathologic 2 – Uppercut
    Referencing Brooke Larsen’s essay “Scars”, Grace Benfell describes the costly healing system in Pathologic 2 in conversation with Christian theology and the painful process of creating a better world that has healed from colonialism and capitalism.

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