Games and culture

Win-lose

Loser We've seen a fair amount of euphoria emerge from the video game community in response to Monday's Supreme Court decision. The ruling has been hailed by various outlets as a validation of games as speech, games as art, and games as analogous under the law to other media like books and films.

Monday's ruling is unquestionably a win for games, but I'm not so sure it's a win worth celebrating. While I'm delighted that seven Justices saw fit to protect games under the First Amendment, their formal opinions on the case raise serious questions about their understanding of games and their ability to grasp the defining characteristics of the medium.

Even the Justices themselves express deeply ambivalent reactions to their own ruling, with Alito and Roberts issuing separate statements taking issue with Scalia's majority opinion, and Thomas and Breyer (who often collide on other issues) offering strongly worded dissenting remarks.

So, what on the surface looks like a landslide decision (7-2) is in reality three Justices who share Scalia's point of view (see my previous post for details) and four who take issue or strongly disagree with many of his assertions. As a matter of strict scrutiny constitutional law, games won the day; but as cultural validation, the ruling looks like a familiar a mish-mash of uncertainty and fear.

People (like me) who believe video games can be powerful artistic forms of expression will find much to be troubled by in Monday's ruling. Scalia's majority opinion goes out of its way to diminish the uniquely interactive nature of games - he equates them with Choose Your Own Adventure books - and in so doing he privileges the narrative dimension of games over their nature as complex systems that operate rhetorically very differently from literature or film.

Alito's response (which I find more thoughtul) worries much more about the extraordinarily immersive experiences games can deliver, and he expresses concern that we don't yet properly understand how this “new and rapidly evolving technology” works and why it should or shouldn't concern us.

Of all the Justices, Alito is the one who took it upon himself to research video games by playing them himself and observing their contents firsthand. He reports that “the violence is astounding”; he notes a preponderance of stereotyped minorities, and he cautions that “We should not jump to the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar.”

Again, Alito sided with the majority because the California law was poorly written and failed strict scrutiny. But his opinion strikes me as more valuable and informed than Scalia's because he accepts what so many of us have been saying for years: video games, at their best, deliver a substantively different experience than other media, and this experience can profoundly affect the player emotionally and intellectually.

Put another way, if Jim Gee, Ian Bogost, and Jane McGonigal are right (or even if they're only partially right) about the transformative power of games to impact human behavior, maybe we oughtn't be so thrilled about Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor lumping them together as analogous to other media, albeit with wiz-bang tech.

Maybe, as Alito and Breyer suggest (Thomas argues an originalist view that essentially ignores games), we ought to pay more careful attention to how games work and what they can do for good, ill, and otherwise. Doing so acknowledges that these newfangled electronic gizmos may fall under free speech protection, but they aren't movies and they certainly aren't books. California may have written an ill-conceived and unenforceable law, but that doesn't mean kids shouldn't be prohibited from buying games that may mess with their heads in ways we don't fully understand.

Ironically, maybe our case, as gamers who understand the transformative power of games, would be better served by a loss that acknowledges the medium's true nature, rather than a win from a court that states: “Even if we can see in them 'nothing of any possible value to society..., they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature.'”


SCOTUS Modern Elite Force 7 Rulez

Scalia

Today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that would have restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. This landmark ruling - and I don’t use that term lightly - goes farther than any scholarly treatise, keynote address, or impassioned blog essay in settling the case for games as a medium of artistic, and, therefore, protected expression.

For many of us, designating video games as free speech is a no-brainer. But to the broader society at large, it’s still very much an open question, just as it was when the court struck down censorship against motion pictures in Burstyn v. Wilson, a case cited in today’s ruling and widely seen as a cultural milestone.

Why is today’s ruling so important? The obvious headline is that the court “legitimized” video games today. CNN declared on its website: “Supreme Court sees video games as art.” The Washington Post ran with “Supreme Court: Books as ‘interactive’ as video games.”

These are pithy takeaway messages, but they fail to account for significant and far-reaching issues emerging from Justice Scalia’s majority opinion. While it may be refreshing to think the Supreme Court considers video games art (I'm not sure they do, actually, but more on that later), other aspects of the ruling may be more consequential.

Distinctive communication
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas and even social messages through many familiar literary devices...and through features distinctive to the medium.” The ruling notes that while games share characteristics with other media, they must also be seen as possessing unique discursive powers worthy of protection. This is a welcome and surprisingly nuanced view coming from a set of judges, none of whom play video games.

Hobgoblin of interactivity
Today’s ruling dismisses the notion that interactivity, by itself, presents special problems. Scalia characterized as “unpersuasive” the claim that players who participate in violent action on screen are at risk, noting that “This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.” Furthermore, the ruling suggests that video games cannot lay sole claim to interactivity, noting that “all literature is interactive. The better it is, the more interactive.”

Games don't cause violence
The court examined research presented by both sides and concluded: “Nearly all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology. ...Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”

Grandstanding fail
The ruling chastises California for selectively targeting video games while ignoring other media that routinely depict egregious acts of violence. He notes that such policies raise “serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” In other news, California State Senator Leland Yee vows to fight on.

The Playboy argument
Today’s decision also protects video games from the tyranny of the ‘moral’ majority. While the court displayed a clear distaste for games like Mortal Kombat (and an unmistakable elitism about its artistic merits1), the majority opinion reiterated its support for individual choice and interpretation. Quoting United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Scalia writes, “Under our Constitution, esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature...are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”

No obscene ideas
While the court recognized the State’s legitimate power to protect children from harm, “that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed. Speech...cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.”

Parents rule
At various points in the majority opinion, the justices express doubts about a ‘government knows best’ approach in this case. “...punishing third parties for conveying protected speech to children just in case their parents disapprove” is an improper means of aiding parental authority. The ruling goes on to note that “Not all of the children who are forbidden to purchase violent video games on their own have parents who care whether they purchase violent video games. While some of the legislation’s effect may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want."

-----

Today’s Supreme Court decision attempts to address many key issues related to video games, not simply the question “are games art?” In fact, a careful reading of Scalia’s opinion suggests that he, and perhaps others in the majority, may not consider games art at all. Scalia uses the term only once in his 18-page opinion (and it's a quote from a previous ruling). Nowhere does he argue or claim that video games should be considered art.

What the Supreme Court did say, unequivocally, today is that video games must be considered speech; and, therefore, must qualify for First Amendment protection. This, in a representative democracy influenced by powerful special interests, is a much bigger deal than the question of art.

I’ll return in my next post with a few thoughts on why I won’t be writing Justice Scalia a thank-you note just yet. I hope you’ll stick around.

1. "Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat. But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones."

 


Valuable experience

Eugene  Critic2

Dan Cook has provoked a dust-up over at his Lost Garden blog with an opinion piece entitled "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." Ben Abraham responded on his blog, and Andrew Doull followed up on his. A flurry of Twitter posts took issue with Cook's assertions, and many commenters have responded directly on Cook's site.

I've enjoyed the conversation, partly because Cook seems more interested in discourse than diatribe, but mainly because it's created a wide open channel for discussion of game criticism: what it is, who should do it, and why it matters. I know some have grown tired of this topic (it re-emerges roughly every six months), but I continue to find it useful, and decidedly non-navel-gazy, when it encourages careful reflection on the role of critics and the function of criticism. 

Many journo/critic friends I admire have dismissed Cook's main argument, but I must say I find his thesis thought-provoking and worthy of consideration. In essence, Cook wants to see less experiential criticism of games and more writing that focuses analytically on the systems and formal design elements underlying games. In other words, he wants more writers with practical design chops producing criticism that advances the medium in "actionable" ways. I'll return to this thought in a moment.

Where Cook goes wrong, in my view, is devaluing criticism that fails to satisfy his criteria. While I agree there's a hole waiting to filled by the kind of writing Cook wants (though not as big as he suggests - plenty of critics have produced systems-focused games criticism), he fails to account for the useful functions and inevitable limitations of any single approach. He contends: 

The vast body of game criticism is written by people that I would consider partial game illiterates. They are dance judges who have watched Dancing with the Stars, but who have never danced.

I would suggest to Mr. Cook that we are all "partial game illiterates." None of us possesses the complete arsenal of skills or universal sensibilities to account for the full measure of a game, a painting, or a symphony. We bring the skills we own, and we do our best to hone them for the task at hand.

Even a critic/designer/scholar as respected as Ian Bogost - whom surely fulfills Mr. Cook's prerequisites - can produce deep systems-based analysis (see his Persuasive Games) that I personally find cold and detached from the powerful sensory and aesthetic dimensions of game design. Does this mean that Mr. Bogost failed to produce valuable analysis? Of course not. But it means his work has a limited value, appeal, and audience, just like all the work we produce...and, I daresay, all of the games Mr. Cook and his colleagues will produce too.

But what if there were a small group that wished to do more than talk about playing? Imagine holding your writing to the standard that asks you to ratchet forward the creative conversation.

Here again, Cook characterizes a vast body of writing (yes, much of it uneven and ill-formed...like many games) as only "about playing." I could cite numerous critics whose reach extends far beyond experiential analysis (G. Christopher Williams, Simon Ferrari, Justin Keverne, Sparky Clarkson, and Mitu Khandaker come to mind), but let's say for the purposes of argument that most of us do write primarily "about playing." Isn't that precisely what we ought to be focusing on, from a variety of informed perspectives? From a strictly empirical standpoint, what outcome is more valuable than the player's hands-on experience with the game, with critical commentary on that outcome?

Writing clearly and insightfully (no easy task, I assure you) about the malleable, subjective reality of play should yield valuable (and, yes, actionable) information to the designers and developers who make the games we play. When I drive an automobile - and I'm not talking about test-driving here; I mean driving a vehicle over time and applying my rich experience as a driver attuned to the nuances of driving - my feedback on how that car performs should provide invaluable feedback to the engineers who made it.

I don't need an engineering degree to provide this feedback, nor should I be expected to diagnose the problems I discover. In fact, from the engineer's point of view, my lack of expertise as an engineer offers a welcome, distanced perspective. I hope you'll agree, Mr. Cook, that I can bring very different kinds of expertise - even some you may lack - and our various perspectives can complement each other in service of the evolution of this art form.

Sometimes a critic's most valuable function is saying a thing like nobody's ever said it. Saying it in a way that cuts to the bone. We need more of that kind of writing, and I'll gratefully devour it from anyone who wants to bring it, engineers and English majors included. We're all served by such writing. We needn't compartmentalize who benefits from what. I know many designers who regularly read my work. I suspect they're not looking for meat and potatoes design inspiration from me. I presume they find some other value in it.

We're all trying to 'ratchet forward the creative conversation.' You've suggested ways to do that, Mr. Cook, and I welcome your encouragement. But you should know that many of us have earnestly worked to improve our knowledge and understanding of the game development process. I and many of my colleagues attend GDC and other similar events each year, and the only real purpose (aside from fodder for a few posts) is to educate ourselves about the design process. We attend sessions, participate in workshops, and speak with developers out of a natural curiosity to understand. I know my own writing has been greatly informed by these interactions, and I'm always eager to learn more.

I would suggest to Mr. Cook and other developers that you consider your own responsibilities in cultivating an envrionment wherein critics can learn and grow. Game development, to a far greater degree than filmmaking, live theater, or other collaborative art forms, cloaks its work in secrecy in ways that are counterproductive to critical treatment. I understand there are reasons for such secrecy, and I'm repeatedly reminded of the economic imperatives developers and publishers face.

But if you want informed critics, then you must be willing to help inform us. Choosing one writer from one publication to go "behind the scenes" during development in exchange for exclusive coverage may serve a publisher's promotional goals, but it's antithetical to critical inquiry or dramaturgy. As long as the industry keeps us at arms length, it will continue to receive the fawning cursory coverage we lament. I long ago abandoned my hopes of meaningful conversation with designers during the pivotal stages of development. The list of off-limits topics and publishers' insistence on pre-approving interview texts made it not worth the effort. You have a stake in opening up the design process, but only you can open it.

I accept Dan Cook's encourgement to deepen my understanding of games from a designer's perspective, and I'm persuaded that I can benefit from doing so. I hope he and others will accept the value of experiential, comparative, theoretical and other forms of criticism as no less vital to the evolution of video games as an art form worthy of careful consideration from many points of view. I can tell you from first-hand experience that territorialism and boundaries of expertise have played pernicious roles in academia. We mimic those behaviors at our own risk.

 


Get up!

Southparkgamer

When I was a kid, my mother used to say, "Go play!" - which always meant two things: 1) she needed a break from us; and 2) it was time for us to go outside and find something fun to do.

These days, many of us translate "Go play," to mean "sit down," and that's become quite a problem. If your life is anything like mine, you probably spend six to eight hours each day sleeping and 30-60 minutes being active (walking, exercising, etc.). That leaves 15 hours for everything else. So what do you do with all that time? 

I sat down (irony) yesterday and crunched the numbers for myself, and here's what I discovered. When I add the time I spend at my computer (writing, corresponding, and doing work-related tasks) to the time I spend commuting, eating, reading, and playing games, I typically spend 12 (sometimes even 14) of those 15 hours sitting. That's not good, and here's why.

A recent study at the University of South Carolina considered adult men and their risk of dying from heart disease. In a nutshell, the study indicates that sitting a lot can mean dying sooner.

The study shows that men who were sedentary more than 23 hours per week had a 64% greater risk of dying from heart disease - even if they routinely exercised - than those who reported 11 or fewer hours a week of sedentary activity. These numbers suggest that regular uninterrupted sedentary behavior may be even riskier than smoking.

A sedentary lifestyle can also be a risk factor for diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and obesity.[1][2] In other words, if you spend long periods each day in your chair without moving, you're asking for a world of trouble.

I should know. In 2008 I developed a painful compressed disc in my neck that required months of physical therapy to cure. It was caused by a combination of prolonged periods at my computer, poor posture, and one other major factor.

Do you remember 2008? Do you remember Fallout 3, GTA IV, Far Cry 2, LittleBigPlanet, No More Heroes, Left 4 Dead, World of Goo, Persona 4, and Burnout Paradise? I do and so does my neck. I was a gaming maniac in 2008, and nearly all my recreation that year occurred sitting on my butt. And I paid the price.

So what can you do? Easy. Take breaks. A recent study at the University of Queensland, Australia, showed the importance of "avoiding prolonged uninterrupted periods of sedentary (primarily sitting) time," and recommended taking regular breaks to walk, stretch, or otherwise get up and move.

The study reported that "increased breaks in sedentary time were beneficially associated with waist circumference, BMI, triglycerides, and 2-h plasma glucose." Even one-minute mini-breaks, once an hour throughout the day, can make a difference. The point is to use your big muscles to remind them not to shut down, which they're prone to do when you sit in a chair for hours at a time. 

Apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, and iOS can remind you to take a break at intervals you determine (sounds crazy, I know, but I need help remembering). And you can always do little things like play Portal 2 standing up and perform a little wiggle dance at every loading screen. Or something. You're a gamer. You can do this. Use your imagination. Just get up!

FYI, I recommend Patti Neighmond's recent report on NPR, which inspired this post and includes tips on "beating the cubicle trap."


"You can smell the paper."

I promised in my last post to share Chris Dahlen's talk at Wabash College yesterday, and here it is. Chris (Editor in Chief and co-founder of Kill Screen Magazine) discusses writing about games, launching a new print magazine, and he offers advice to aspiring writers. At the end he answers questions from the audience.

I'm tremendously grateful to Chris for traveling to our tiny spot on the map and discussing his work with our students, faculty, and staff. He was immensely gracious with his time and energy, and he made a very positive impression. When the President of the College (decidedly not a gamer) requests a copy of the magazine - and proceeds to actually read it - a positive and encouraging exchange is happening.

FYI, Chris' slides aren't visible in the video, but you can download them here. I hope you enjoy.

Chris' PowerPoint slides.


The action is in the margins

201012_spidermanbig

This post gets around to video games a few paragraphs in. I hope you'll stick with me while I try to set the table.

Earlier this week a stunt double named Christopher Tierney was injured when he fell 30-feet to the stage floor in a preview performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a $65 million musical (the most expensive in Broadway history) beset with problems.

Tierney's fall was the fourth accident to occur during the show's pre-opening run. The female lead who plays villainess Arachne suffered a concussion after being hit by a rope, a dancer broke both wrists in a flying sequence, and another injured his foot on the same stunt.[1]

Given Spider-Man's many production woes, the inevitable impulse is to question its creators' intentions. As one critic asks, "Is Broadway trying too hard to be like Hollywood?"[2] Theater, the thinking goes, should stick to what it does best and leave the epic visuals and high-tech stunts to the experts in Hollywood. Theater is a live, flesh-and-blood event. Its primitive nature is its biggest strength. An actor on the boards before a live audience - it was enough for Shakespeare. Everything else is window dressing.

That is, unless you get it right. When that actor playing Spiderman defies gravity and flies across the stage, casts his web and sticks his landing to the amazement of a live audience, suddenly the Hollywood comparison gets turned around. Why would I want to watch a CG-enabled Tobey Maguire pretend to execute acrobatic stunts on a screen when I just saw a real guy fly 30-feet over my head, somersault in midair, and attach himself to that wall?!

We routinely overvalue originality and undervalue boring stuff like precision and shrewd execution. Anyone who glances at a list of lifted-from-Hollywood productions that pass for Broadway fare these days: Elf, Billy Elliott, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, among others, could be forgiven for thinking the Old White Way ought to be relabeled Tinseltown East. Whatever happened to originality in the American theater?

But cursory glances can lead to misinformed assumptions, and that's precisely the case with two of the shows I mentioned above. Yes, Elf and Mary Poppins might best be described as showy cash-ins aimed at the tourist crowd, but that cynical description hardly suits The Lion King or Billy Elliott, two outstanding musicals that transcend the Hollywood material which inspired them. Billy Elliott is a grittier depiction of its title character and his dire circumstances than the movie version, and the sensational dancing flows from a palpable sense of desperation in Billy. The Lion King (directed by Julie Taymor) remains one of the most exhilarating re-imaginings of original source material ever staged.

So what does all this have to do with video games?

In recent years we've seen plenty of criticism (including mine) leveled at video games that rehash old ideas; games that rely on genre formulas; games that ape the language of film. Games, we're often told, need new ideas. Games need to grow up. Games should leverage their defining interactivity. Cutscenes are lazy. Let movies be movies. Players want to write their own stories. Games don't need authored narratives. Games don't need linear stories. Games don't need stories. All games should be fun. No they shouldn't.

The problem with these reductive arguments is they fail to account for how art rails against boundaries; how artists inevitably seek to situate their work in the margins no one can own. Artists instinctively push back against "don't," "shouldn't," and "must." This is why we give them genius grants. It's also why we put them in prison. The real action is in the margins.

Julie Taymor's Spider-Man won't succeed or fail based on its recipe of ingredients or fidelity to the language of stage or cinema. Its success will ride on the production's ability to entertain and communicate its core vision to an audience. In Taymor's gifted hands, that vision is likely to include a blend of theatrical and filmic elements that define her sensibilities as a director of both media.

This is why we should stop worrying about games that try to be like movies, comic books, or anything else for that matter. The mechanical syntax and visual language of existing media and genres inevitably inform each another, and we should celebrate these confluences when they work. When they don't, the problems are likely to be less about modes of expression than about execution. In other words, a good idea is an idea that works, regardless of its origins or the format used to communicate it. 

Uncharted 2 is a great game, in part because its cinematic elements frame the player's experience and successfully convey its formal narrative. Minecraft is a terrific game too, partly because its primitive blocky visuals align with its player-focused building-block DNA. Interestingly, we tend to haggle over the merits of the first, but see the genius of the second as self-evident. Retro graphics suggest an artsy choice, but verisimilitude means somebody sold out. Neither preconception is reliable.

Good designers make formal choices that help express their creative goals. It's the critic's job to examine the meaning and impact of those choices. Why did Ian Bogost purposely constrain himself to chunky graphics and 4 kilobytes of memory for A Slow Year? Why did Krystian Majewski rely on high-res still photography for TRAUMA? Why did Daniel Benmergui choose text as a primary visual stimulus for Today I Die? Why does Monobanda offer the player no instructions for creating a tree in Bohm?

If we critics can meet games at the places they come to us; if we can examine their materials and try to understand why they were chosen and how they function; if we can allow every game to stand in our consideration untethered to other games or preconceptions, we will better comprehend how they work and why they succeed or fail. In the process, we will more ably fulfill our role as servants of the art form.

Here's hoping Spider-Man the musical overcomes its difficulties; but if it flops, sign me up for the autopsy. This one has a lot of moving parts.


Covered in brawn, mayhem, and steel

GI cover

Consumer magazines are tanking. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show yet another drop (-2.27 percent) in paid circulations through the first half of this year and an even sharper drop (-5.63 percent) in newsstand sales.[1] This decade-long slide shows no sign of stopping.

However, one publication has managed to buck the trend. Of the top 25 consumer magazines, Game Informer (4,364,170 verified subscriptions) saw the biggest increase in subscribers (+21.19 percent). Skeptics will say these numbers are inflated because GI's parent company, GameStop, includes a free subscription to the magazine when customers enroll in the store's Power Up discount program.

That may be true, but Game Informer is far from the only major publication to benefit from such a distribution deal, and in these horrific times for print media, who can blame GI for securing its survival? I'm happy to be a subscriber, if only to ensure that I received the October edition, featuring three gorgeous Saturday Evening Post-style covers devoted to Bioshock Infinite

But I'm not here to evaluate GI's merits as a game magazine. I'm more interested in its covers. I find myself increasingly repulsed by the images GI and other game magazines feature on their covers, and I'm struggling with what I fear those images say about today's games and gamers.

This won't be a diatribe. Game magazines and websites know their audiences and direct their visual appeals accordingly. Casual gamers rarely buy game magazines or visit their associated websites, so publications like GI, GamePro, and EGM target the so-called hardcore crowd and try to give them what they want. It makes sense to me.

That said, I don't think I've fully apprehended the degree to which weaponry, militarism, hyper-masculinity, and violence dominate the visual landscape of our games media. I mean, I know it, of course, because I see it all the time. I've written about it here, and it's a frequent topic of conversation with my students and colleagues.

But when I sat down today and began collecting images from magazine covers published this year, I was staggered by the the extreme narrowness, the repetitious drumbeat, and grotesque rigidity of the imagery. Yes, it's supercharged male power fantasy stuff, which is troubling for all sorts of reasons. But that's not what shook me today.

I look at these images and suddenly wonder why I'm here. It sounds overwrought and self-absorbed, but I can't help it. If these magazine covers (and the flood of similar imagery on analogous websites, advertising, and elsewhere) convey something truthful about games, American game culture, and the game industry, is this a place where I can feel at home? Are we really moving forward? Will indie games save us?

This week my students and I read the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case involving the sale of video games to minors (transcript here). Claims and counter-claims aside, one thing is clear. This case is being argued by attorneys who don't know much about video games before nine Justices who know even less. What they know, or think they know, emanates from perceptions derived primarily from mainstream media coverage of video games. Images like the ones below.

FYI, I've organized each magazine chronologically, January 2010 through the most recent issue. EGM and @Gamer began publishing mid-year, which is why you'll find fewer of them. I think you'll discover Edge Magazine (published in the UK) charts a slightly different course, but you be the judge.

Click on any image to enlarge.

Game Informer

GI-1001 GI-1002 GI-1003

GI-1004 GI-1005 GI-1006

GI-1007 GI-1008 GI-1009

Gi-1010-1 GI-1011


GamePro

Gp-1001 Gp-1002 Gp-1003

Gp-1004 Gp-1005 Gp-1006

Gp-1007 Gp-1008 Gp-1009

Gp-1010 Gp-1011


EGM

EGM-summer10 EGM-1010 EGM-1011

EGM-1012


@Gamer

Gamer-1007 Gamer-1009 Gamer-1010

Gamer-1011


Edge Magazine

Edge-1001 Edge-1002 Edge-1003

Edge-1004 Edge-1005 Edge-1006

EDGE-1007 EDGE-1008 EDGE-1009

EDGE-1010 EDGE-1011 EDGE-1012


Zombies invade Culver City!

IndieCade_Map

Earlier this month I attended IndieCade, a festival devoted to independent games, mainly out of curiosity. Next year I'll attend it as a must-do event. If you're interested in new games and the people who make them, mark these dates on your calendar: October 6-9, 2011. That's when the next IndieCade will be held in galleries, bars, cafés, and theaters throughout Culver City, on the west side of L.A. If you want a first-hand look at artistry, innovation, and creative collegiality in the indie game community, IndieCade is your ticket.

IndieCade bills itself as a conference and a festival, and it makes good on both promises. I'm a huge fan of the Independent Games Festival held annually at GDC in San Francisco. Simon Carless deserves enormous credit for his ongoing effort to shine a bright light on indie devs and their work. Unfortunately, three rows of game stations, tightly packed together, each hosted by designers shouting over the din of a noisy exhibition hall - well, it ain't exactly a festive festival.

Don't get me wrong. IGF is an amazing showcase, and its sublimely awkward awards ceremony is one of my favorite events at GDC. It's great to see so much promising talent on one show floor; but I always seem to walk away with a headache and a sense that my impressions of these games are derived from bullet-point summaries delivered by shell-shocked designers trying their best to accommodate so many curious visitors. 

Fade out. Iris in on Culver City: a municipality with a law on the books requiring all public and commercial buildings to display public art. A town at the intersection of art and commerce since Thomas Ince built the first film studio there in 1918. When IndieCade relocated from Seattle to Culver City in 2009, organizers clearly saw an opportunity to host a festival devoted to games in a community accustomed to celebrating creativity. And IndieCade, I can happily report, occupies some funky Culver City locales.

For example, one morning I attended a session devoted to ARGs on the second floor of the Foshay Lodge, a Masonic Temple built in 1928 (click here to see photos, including 'Brother Chris simulating the antique Chamber of Reflection').

This session was followed by a fascinating talk on Minimalism held in a black box theater that's home to The Actors Gang (an outstanding renegade theater company); followed by a talk on Indie Funding Models at a restaurant/bar called Rush Street several blocks away. Over the weekend, IndieCade spread out to include playable game displays at nearby art galleries, a bakery, and even the Culver City Fire Station.

It must be difficult to organize an event that captures the spirit and non-corporate vibe of the indie game scene without fencing it in somehow. This year's co-chairs, Rich Lemarchand and John Sharp, deserve credit for encouraging spontaneity and leaving room for a little messiness in the flow of events. Conference sessions ran on time for the most part, but the festival aspects of IndieCade developed their own flavor and energy.

For example, on Saturday I was walking back to my hotel when I found myself unexpectedly surrounded by two cadres of Humans vs Zombies players warily eyeing each other on opposite sides of Culver Blvd. "You'd better get out of here," a 20-something Zombie-player warned me. "This is gonna get ugly very soon." I hustled out of the way, and moments later a Zombie assault on the streets of Culver City commenced. It was a sight to see. The next day I ran into one of the players at the Fire Station and asked her how it turned out. "You don't want to know," she replied. "Let's just say I wasn't wearing this Zombie headband yesterday."

IndieCade succeeds because it offers a uniquely receptive venue and a shrewd mix of programmed and free-flow events that showcase exciting work and explore ideas. If you care about indie games and the community fostering them, I encourage you to check out IndieCade. The other attendees will be happy to greet you...and consume your tender human flesh.


Unplayable

Ultima-iv-menu-3 

I've been thinking a lot about old games lately. As I write this, we await news about the future of Good Old Games, a digital download service that sells DRM-free games from an impressive back catalog that includes publishers like Activision, Interplay, and Atari. 

GOG dropped a bomb when they announced they were "closing down the service," and the entire site suddenly disappeared, save for a simple announcement on the main page. For those of us who've relied on GOG as a legal and inexpensive way to introduce a bygone era of games to students, the news came as quite a blow. Apparently they're coming back with a new business model. We'll soon see. [Update: apparently GOG's announcement was a PR hoax.]

One of my most satisfying moments as a teacher came two years ago when 15 students overcame their resistance and disorientation and embraced the original Fallout. I wrote about that experience, and since then I've continued to challenge my students with games that fall well outside their comfort zones: arcade classics (e.g. Defender); interactive fiction (e.g. Planetfall); and early dungeon-crawlers (e.g. Rogue).

But I've noticed a general downward trajectory forming over the last six years or so. Gradually my students have grown less and less capable of handling one particular assignment: Ultima IV. To be sure, they struggle with a game like Planetfall, but when they finally learn the game's syntax (and heed my advice to map their progress), it's mostly a question of puzzle-solving. Defender knocks them down initially, but they soon apply the quick reflexes they've developed playing modern games, and they're fine.

Ultima IV is another story. Here's a sampling of posts from the forum I set up to facilitate out-of-class discussion of the game:

  • I've been very confused throughout the entire experience. I've honestly sat here for hours trying to figure out what to do and it just isn't making much sense to me right now.

  • When I start a game I like to do it all on my own, but it's been impossible to do so with Ultima. I've asked friends for help, looked up FAQs/walkthroughs, and even searched for Let's Play Ultima 4 on youtube and am still uncertain as to how to get further in this game.

  • Yeah, I still have no idea what the main goal is. I suppose it's to basically find out what the purpose of the Ankh is. But I see no way of furthering that goal.

  • I tried for awhile without any walkthroughs to get the full gamer experience sort thing and within the hour I gave up because of a combination of bad controls and a hard to get into story for me at least. It reminded me of a bad runescape.

  • i dont quite understand the concept of the game. i believe my main confusion is the controls and how it displays what you have done and how you moved. im not used to rpg's and i dont like them to much. i hope to find out how to move forward,but so far no luck.

  • How the hell do I get out of here after I die?

They had five days to play U4, and I asked them to make as much progress as they could in that time. When we gathered to debrief in class, a few students explained how they'd overcome some of their difficulties, but the vast majority was utterly flummoxed by the game. As one of them put it, "I'd say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable." After removing the arrow from my chest, I asked them to explain why.

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. I had supplied them with the Book of Mystic Wisdom and the History of Britannia, both in PDF form, but not a single student bothered to read them. "I thought that was just stuff they put in the box with the game," said one student. "Yes," I replied, "They put it in there because they expected you to read it." "Wow," he responded.

Some of their difficulties must be chalked up to poor teaching. I should have done a better job of preparing them for the assignment. I resisted holding their hands because in the past I've found it useful to plop them down in Britannia and let them struggle. Figure out the systems, grok the mechanics, and go forth. Ultima IV may be a high mountain to climb for a 19-year-old Call of Duty player, but it's well worth the effort. 

At least that's what I used to think. Now it seems to me we're facing basic literacy issues. These eager players are willing to try something new, but in the case of a game like Ultima IV, the required skill-set and the basic assumptions the game makes are so foreign to them that the game has indeed become virtually unplayable. 

And as much as I hate to say it - even after they learn to craft potions, speak to every villager, and take notes on what they say - it isn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.

I'm pretty sure I'll continue to teach Ultima IV. The series is simply too foundational to overlook, and I can develop new teaching strategies. But I believe we've finally reached the point where the gap separating today's generation of gamers from those of us who once drew maps on grid paper is nearly unbridgeable. These wonderful old games are still valuable, of course, and I don't mean to suggest we should toss them in the dustbin. 

But if we're interested in preserving our history and teaching students about why these games matter, a "play this game and sink-or-swim" approach won't work anymore. The question for me at this point is how to balance the process of learning and discovery I want them to have inside the game with their need for basic remedial help.

I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself.


Backlash

Samus

When Abbie Heppe submitted her review of Metroid: Other M (2 out of 5 stars) for G4, I'm guessing she hit the SEND button and ran for cover. The backlash from fans was immense (459 comments, and counting) and personal ("It sounds like the reviewer had just had an argument with her boyfriend or something and was is a particularly "MAN HATING" mood when she played the game.") G4 removed a fair number of comments they deemed inappropriate, so there's no telling how many people stopped by to tar and feather Ms. Heppe.  

To be fair, Heppe received supportive comments as well, and many commenters defended Heppe's credentials and agreed with her point of view about the game.

In a nutshell, Heppe objects to the game's depiction of its protagonist, delivered via two hours of cutscenes narrated by the formerly silent Samus in a confessional "dear diary" style.

In short, you're asked to forget that Samus has spent the last 10-15 years on solitary missions ridding the galaxy of Space Pirates, saving the universe and surviving on her own as a bounty hunter. Instead, Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man.

Heppe also takes issue with Metroid: OM's controls, first-person mode, puzzles, and other elements; but her main complaint is that Nintendo and Team Ninja's effort to 'flesh out' one of the most iconic female characters in video game history has resulted in a depiction of Samus that's "insulting to both Samus and her fans." And that's where Heppe apparently crossed the line for many readers.

I'm struck by this brouhaha, not because it's new or especially rancorous. If you've seen one flamewar, you've seen them all. But it does illustrate what happens when a writer for a high-profile outlet chooses to address a game critically - I mean when he or she functions as a critic instead of simply a reviewer. All too often the backlash is severe and ugly. It suggests that, for a sizable portion of the gaming audience, genuine criticism is perceived as inappropriate, unnecessary, or even unprofessional.

Heppe engages Metroid: Other M on several levels, including as an evaluative reviewer. She observes, for example, that certain elements of the game's design don't work well (e.g. auto-targeting, sideways control scheme). She likes the combat, but she doesn't like the puzzles. As a "should you buy this game" reviewer, Heppe offers her take in a format familiar to anyone who's read these sorts of reviews from mainstream games media outlets.

Silly feminist and their emotions geting in the way of professionalism. [sic]**

When Heppe views Metroid through a critical lens, she applies a perspective and a methodology that informs her thinking. This is what critics do. Observing Samus as the embodiment of an empowered female hero - a perspective, by the way, that Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto reinforced in his GDC talk last March - enables Heppe to engage her subject in a rigorous, yet personal way. She applies standards of character construction that any responsible critic might apply, and she brings her own interpretive experience with Samus and the Metroid series to bear as well. Again, this is what critics do.

Heppe's approach is valuable because it contextualizes Samus as a fictional character in an unfolding narrative universe, and Nintendo has clearly gone out of its way in Metroid: OM to deepen our understanding of that universe and Samus' place in it. Heppe is meeting the game at precisely the point where its creators have lavished so much attention: Samus and her story. The game's first bit of dialogue, "Why am I still alive?" sets the stage for the story to come. Nintendo and Team Ninja stumble badly in their attempt to answer it, and Heppe tries to explain why.

The backlash takes a variety of forms. There's bald misogyny:

I'm not even a Metroid fan, I just think they should have a better criteria to rating games. Maybe they shouldn't be reviewing games during their time of the month?

Oh wah wah.. it's not empowering to women anymore.. wahhh...

Who are videogames like Metroid made for? Boys! (This isn't Cookin' Mama)

There's the familiar "it's just a game" argument:

To the reviewer I say this CHILL OUT! its not supposed to be some sort of deep docudrama geared and showing us all how to understand the inner-workings of women hood. ITS A FREAKING VIDEO GAME! You buy it to have fun not to make a political statement about our man controlled society.

There's the "stop shoving your political agenda down our throats" argument:

The female reviewer turned it into her opportunity to let loose her feminist and anti-sexism views about the story and said very little about actual GAMEPLAY, GRAPHICS, and all the things that really matter when playing A VIDEO GAME!

And you're trying to tell us that this game is sexist, are you freakin kidding me. I get so freakin sick of women claiming that something is sexist, even though it isn't. If it was a man it samus's place, would you call it sexist? 

And there's the argument that contends Heppe has no right to interpret the game:

The way I see it, the players of the game create these preconceived notions of what a Metroid game should be like, or how Samus should act and feel, and I'm here to tell you that you're all full of shit. There's only one party that can decide on what the content of a game is like, and that's exclusively THE DEVELOPER. In this case, it's Team Ninja and Nintendo.

I could go on, but I realize I'm shooting fish in a barrel. The point is that, all too often, the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.

In his keynote address at PAX last week, Warren Spector warned that marginalizing casual games and gamers will ultimately limit the industry's ability to grow and mature. I think he's right, but that's only half the story. 

Shouting down writers who adopt a principled, intellectual, political, theoretical or other disciplined approach to thinking about a game is ultimately no less self-defeating. There is no single "game culture" anymore, if one ever existed at all. There's a place for everyone at this table, and Ms. Heppe may have just helped the folks at Nintendo make the next Metroid a better, smarter game.

I have more to say about Metroid: Other M (hint: I somewhat agree with Heppe, but see the game as a failure of execution, rather than conception), but I'll save that for another post.

**All italicized quotes are taken from comments posted on Abbie Heppe's G4tv article.


Portal on the booklist

Wpshrine_Portal_198_1024x768 

This year, for the first time, a video game will appear on the syllabus of a course required for all students at Wabash College, where I teach. For me - and for a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1832 - this is a big deal. 

Alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle's Politics, John Donne's poetry, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, freshmen at Wabash will also encounter a video game called Portal. If you're curious to know how it happened, read on.

Last spring Wabash faculty approved a new all-college course and charged a small committee to design it over the following summer and fall semester. I was elected to the committee as a representative of the Humanities. 

We titled the new course "Enduring Questions," and we agreed on this description:

Enduring Questions is a required freshman seminar offered during the spring semester. It is devoted to engaging students with fundamental questions of humanity from multiple perspectives and fostering a sense of community. Each section of the course includes a small group (approximately 15) of students who consider together classic and contemporary works from multiple disciplines. In so doing, students confront what it means to be human and how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

The daily activity of the course most often involves discussion, and students complete multiple writing assignments for the course. As such, assessment of student performance emphasizes written and oral expression of ideas.

Students may not withdraw from the course. All students must pass the course to graduate from Wabash.

Our charge from the faculty made it clear that we should apply a broad definition to "readings," and I believe my special purpose on the committee was to help identify films, music, art, and other 'non-textual' sources to challenge our students to think hard about the questions raised in the course. 

And so, as you might expect, a little light went off in my head. What about a game? Why not? Which one? Will they bite on this? Who knows? Let's try.

My very first thought was Portal. Accessible, smart, cross-platform, relatively short, full of big ideas worth exploring. I played it again to be sure my impressions still held. No problem there. If anything, I admire the game more now than when it first appeared. A beautiful design. 

I recalled reading Daniel Johnson's recent essay on the game and its strong connections to Erving Goffman's seminal Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. One of the central questions of our new course, "Who am I?" is the focus of Goffman's study. He contends we strive to control how we're perceived by others, and he uses the metaphor of an actor performing on a stage to illustrate his ideas. Johnson describes it this way:

…we're acting out a role that requires constant management…of the interaction. The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, it contains the truth of our obstruction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience - it simply spoils the illusion of where we're placing ourself in the interaction.

This tension between backstage machination and onstage performance is precisely what Portal depicts so perfectly - and, no small detail, so interactively. Goffman would have found a perfect test subject in GLaDOS. Bingo! Assign students Goffman's Presentation of Self and follow it up with a collective playthrough of Portal.

I pitched the idea to my colleagues on the committee (decidedly not a collection of gamers), and they agreed to try Portal and read selections from Goffman's book. After plowing through some installation issues ("What does this Steam do? Will it expose me to viruses?"), we enjoyed the first meaningful discussion about a video game I've ever had with a group of colleagues across disciplines. They got it. They made the connections, and they enjoyed the game. Most importantly, they saw how Portal could provoke thoughtful reflection and vigorous conversation on questions germane to the course.

And so we're playing Portal at Wabash College. 

Could I have chosen a game to stand by itself, with no accompanying text assignment? Maybe. I thought about Bioshock. I thought about Planescape: Torment. In the end, I chose Portal because I thought it would make a good start. A good first impression. A lead-off hitter, if you will.

Deploying a game for an entire cohort to play at the same time requires more problem-solving than you might expect. We ultimately decided that hardware, installation, and licensing issues were complex enough to dissuade us from teaching Portal in all sections of the course this year; so I and a group of eager colleagues will play the game in our sections to work out the kinks. I don't want our first college-wide experience with a game to be plagued with problems.

I also need time to help acclimate some of my colleagues to "reading" a modern game. They're less resistant than you might think, but they need more than my speechifying. They need sound pedagogy. They need to taste it for themselves. We'll get there. I'll let you know how it goes.


Keynote rhetoric

Tretton

Things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, always easier to prove and easier to believe in. --Aristotle, Philosopher

What you just saw is another leap forward to the future of entertainment. --Jack Tretton, President of Sony Computer Entertainment of America

If you care about words and how people use them, an E3 keynote will fill your plate. Part sales-pitch, part corporate flag-waving, a typical Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo keynote is a thrill-ride of cheery self-assessment, brash claims, quixotic speculation, and big promises. Stir in a strong dose of visual pageantry, and you've got an event crafted for maximum persuasive impact.

If you listen carefully to the Microsoft and Sony press conferences (I'm ignoring Nintendo's for the moment because I haven't finished watching it), you'll see our old friend Aristotle's modes of persuasion - Ethos, Pathos, and Logos - all present and accounted for. They are not, however, equal partners.

Ethos, a speaker's authority or qualifications to speak on a subject, is generally dispatched easily in E3 keynotes, with designers like Cliff Bleszinski, Hideo Kojima, and the Media Molecule gang presenting their latest creations. On the other hand, designers with a reputation for, shall we say, gilding the lilly may struggle to convey Ethos. I found Peter Molyneux's appearance this year especially notable in this regard, as he was uncharacteristically pithy and restrained in his presentation of Fable 3, perhaps in an effort to repair a damaged Ethos.

Keynote hosts Jack Tretton (Sony) and Don Mattrick (Microsoft) attempted to generate Ethos with a mix of geniality and corporate buzz-speak: "With the PS3, the living room is no longer a physical place, it's a concept." Neither executive fully succeeded because their remarks were so tightly scripted (and their eyes so firmly fixed on teleprompters), that both seemed imprisoned by the event. They possess Ethos because they're powerful industry players, but it's a thin coat at best.

Pathos, an appeal to the audience's emotions or loyalties, is a go-to device at E3. Whenever you hear stirring music accompany a trailer, see a virtual camera fetishistically gliding down the blade of a sword, or spot Kevin Butler shouting "We all serve one master! One King! And his name is Gaming! FOREVER MAY HE REIGN!!!" (met by thunderous cheers) - you're in the emotional domain of Pathos...or maybe in this case faux Pathos. Surprises, like Gabe Newell's sudden appearance announcing Portal 2 for PS3, or Miyamoto springing from behind a screen, are always good for a Pathos boost as well. 

Suits like Kaz Hirai (Sony) and Phil Spencer (Microsoft) fare less well at E3, and that's because they struggle to convey Ethos or Pathos. Vice President of X means nothing to this crowd, and these guys' marketing-mantra personas don't generate much traction in the Pathos department either. But if these two struggle to deliver Ethos and Pathos, they fall down even harder when it comes to bringing the Logos.

Logos is the logical argument. It's the claim supported by facts and data. At E3, Logos is the rabbit in the magician's hat. You see the rabbit appear, but when you take a closer look at the hat, the rabbit's gone. The magician wants you to believe his story, but you know he can't be trusted.

At E3, preposterous statements are presented as self-evident observations. They arrive in a steady pre-scripted stream and, after awhile, begin to sound almost plausible. The skillful huckster knows he can dodge the Logos bullet if he can persuade you to accept his version of reality - and E3 is nothing if not an exhilarating reality distortion field that sucks in all who draw near. 

An E3 keynote is rhetorical cheesecloth, but if you approach it in the right spirit, it's also a lot fun. We know the score. These companies want to sell us stuff, and that's what E3 is all about. Loading up the Ethos/Pathos (and distracting us from applying Logos) has always been an effective marketing strategy. Stir in a little brand loyalty, group-think, and techno-lust, and we're ripe for the picking.

So, in the spirit of fun, but also to shine a little Logos light, here's a categorized compendium of quotes from the Sony and Microsoft E3 2010 press conferences. Enjoy your journey into the future of gaming.

Blue = Microsoft
Red = Sony

Changing the Industry, Changing the World

  • This is a year of transformation. We're transforming the way you play games; transforming the way you enjoy entertainment; and transforming the way you connect to friends and family.
  • ...Dazzling and transformative.
  • As the new decade begins, we are transforming our industry.
  • In the next year, Sony will take its innovation and its content to a whole new level.
  • Nearly a decade ago, one game changed everything. It transcended video games to define a generation of entertainment, and it became a cultural phenomenon. A new chapter of this amazing story is about to be told.
  • PS3 is defining the leading edge of technology. The platform that does everything now does even more.
  • Kinect will completely redefine the kart racing genre.
  • What Avatar did for 3D movies, Killzone 3 will do for 3D games.
  • Xbox Live has changed the way the world plays video games. 

Changing Your Life

  • If you love entertainment, Xbox Live will change the way you watch movies, listen to music, and connect with friends.
  • Another breakthrough. A new product that won't just allow consumers to enjoy the game or be surrounded by the game, but literally to move into the game.
  • Your Shape is a game that will transform forever the way we think about fitness in the living room.
  • Last year we made a promise that Kinect on Xbox would revolutionize the way you have fun. Today we deliver on that promise.
  • It is the closest thing you will ever experience to being physically inside a game itself.
  • When you combine the power of the Xbox 360, the services of Xbox Live, and the magic of Kinect, the result is a revolution, not just for your games, but for all of your entertainment.
  • Playstation Move will revolutionize your sports gaming experience.
  • Transform your living room.

Launching the Future

  • This is your new Xbox 360. Completely redesigned for the future of entertainment. 
  • We are launching a whole new era of entertainment. A new vision for home entertainment. We'd like to share our vision of the future.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, the new era of entertainment has begun.
  • Future-proof and constantly evolving. We're living that vision. 
  • We're delivering the future of entertainment today for every member of the household.
  • A future unlike any in the previous 15 years. 
  • Welcome to the future of racing.
  • It's not just the future of entertainment; it's a future that Sony will lead. 

The New New

  • The most capable and connected platform on the planet.
  • Kinect for Xbox 360. It is unlike anything you've ever experienced before.
  • Playstation Move is unlike anything you've ever seen before.
  • With technology like this, there are no barriers and no learning curves.
  • We've built an ecosystem.

Random philosophy

  • We believe interactive entertainment is the greatest form of all entertainment, and it should be open and approachable to everyone.
  • Playstation Move is not only crazy precise, it's also got what we in the future call "buttons." - which turn out to be pretty important to those handful of millions of people who enjoy playing shooters, platformers, or...well, anything that doesn't involve catching a big red ball. (Kevin Butler)
  • We believe fun is the universal magnet that binds us together.