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June 2011


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


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."


Break time


Hi everyone. I'm taking a little time off for vacation and travel with my family. It's a working break, though, as I'm attending the Games for Change Festival in New York City. I guess you can call that work. Okay, maybe not. :-)

I'm jotting down notes on the sessions I attend and will return soon with a post or two on the festival. I cover several game-related events each year, but this one is like no other. It's a fascinating assortment of gamers, developers, policy-makers, NGOs, teachers, and business leaders - basically a bunch of people from disparate walks of life, gathered to talk about games. Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore delivered the keynote yesterday, and I'll have a few thoughts on what he said.

In the meantime, I'm hosting a collective playthrough of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and enjoying the terrific conversation that's unfolding. If you'd like to join us, we'd love to have you. Head over the Vintage Game Club and jump in.

Finally, Brainy Gamer will reach 4 million pageviews very soon. That's small potatoes for a site like Kotaku or Joystiq, but for a single-author cubbyhole blog like mine, it's a big deal. I can't possibly convey how grateful I am for your willingness to come here, read my work, and occasionally join in the discussion. It means the world to me. Thank you.

Happy gaming!

The Ocarina Noob Project


We routinely discuss The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as if we've all been there, done that - but I have a feeling many of us haven't. When I mentioned it recently in conversation with students, all of them had heard of OoT, but only two had actually played it. Which got me thinking.

With the remastered 3DS version due in a few days - and 2011 marking The Legend of Zelda's 25th anniversary - what better time to host a collective playthrough of arguably the greatest game of al time? What better time to invite folks who've never played OoT (or players who'd like to experience it again with fresh eyes) to play and discuss the game with others on their first ride?

So I've decided to host a playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and welcome OoT noobs with open arms. I'll organize the discussion to be newcomer-friendly, and I'll ask veterans of the game to approach it as if for the first time. I realize this may seem a little silly, but I believe there's great value in taking a fresh look at an older game and purposefully encountering it anew.

OoT is available on several platforms: the original Nintendo 64 version, a Gamecube port, a Virtual Console port, and the new 3DS version, which I can tell you is a stunning remastering of the original, sure to become the definitive version of the game. Keza MacDonald's review at Eurogamer captures my sentiments exactly, and it's a terrific read. Is the new version worth buying a 3DS for? Given the historical impact of OoT and the brilliant treatment it receives on the device, I gotta say yes. YMMV.

I'll extract parts of our conversation and post them here as we go along. OoT has received a lot of critical attention over the years, but I want to explore how this 13-year-old game is received among current players accustomed to contemporary games.

If you're a newcomer to Ocarina of Time, I hope you'll join me. If you're a veteran willing to play along with a "noob-mind," I hope you'll jump in too. Post your thoughts or simply lurk in the shadows. Whatever works for you. Here are the details:

Where: Vintage Game Club (a forum I founded a few years ago with my pals David Carlton and Dan Bruno)

When: Playthrough begins Monday, June 20th.

All are welcome. Happy gaming! 



The goal of innovation is to serve every player. The new platform will provide deeper game experiences than what even the most passionate gamer has realized before... It can satisfy all tastes.
                                                                       --Satoru Iwata 

It seems like Nintendo heard the voice of the hardcore gamer. 
                                                                       --Ken Levine

Nintendo is at a crossroads. Again. Despite the extraordinary success of the Wii (86 million units) and DS (146 million units), the company finds itself on shaky ground facing an uncertain future. Its stock fell 5% on the day it unveiled the Wii U and dropped another 7% the following day. Its share price is now the lowest it has been in more than five years.

Want more gloom? Profits at Nintendo have dropped by more than 66%. The company has sold 5 million fewer Wiis and 10 million fewer DSs than the previous year. Nintendo also fell short of its 4 million target for 3DS, selling only 3.61 million units by the end of March - a figure president Satoru Iwata acknowledged as disappointing.

Contrast Nintendo’s trajectory to Microsoft’s. In the seventh year of its lifecycle, the Xbox 360 is on pace to sell more units than in any year of its history - a feat unmatched by any previous console. May marked its seventeenth month of year-over-year hardware sales increases.

It’s not just about hardware. Video game spending is down 13% year-over-year, and physical game sales have plummeted 19%, their lowest level since October 2006. This figure is especially damaging to Nintendo, which derives little benefit from the growing DLC market. Perhaps most telling of all: not a single Nintendo-published title appears on the most recent NPD list of Top 10 best-selling games. 

And so along comes E3 and Nintendo's recent press briefing, a convergence of timing and careful messaging. And weirdness.

The event opened strong with Shigeru Miyamoto hosting a lovely 25th-anniversary Legend of Zelda retrospective, accompanied by a live orchestra that could have used a little more rehearsal. An oddly humorless Reggie Fils-Aime presented a showcase of forthcoming 3DS games, followed by the Wii U reveal and a segment featuring developers promising to support it. 

Then, with no transitional intro, attendees were jolted by an incongruous tonal shift that collided with the briefing’s other 87 minutes. Nintendo brought the mayhem. A sizzle reel of guns, chain saws, explosions, and splattering blood. One FPS after another. “A Whole New Future,” proclaimed Nintendo. “See?” Reggie seemed to say, “We can sever limbs and blow stuff up too! The Wii U is for everyone!”

Baffling as it was, Nintendo’s E3 briefing makes sense as a mixture of hope and desperation. The company has big news to trumpet, but it's also losing ground and battling competitors (iOS, Android, Zynga, et al) that didn't exist when its newest hardware was being designed. Nintendo can be an arrogant frontrunner, but when it plays underdog, nobody is scrappier or more tenacious.

As an entertainment company, Nintendo has always balanced conservative preservation of its characters and history with audacious (and risky) innovation. History shows that when Nintendo has its back against the wall, it dreams up something new, and bets the farm on it. They did it with the Wii, and they’re at it again with its successor. This strategy hasn’t always succeeded, but Nintendo’s failures often function as first drafts for future successes (e.g. Power Pad, Virtual Boy).

Nintendo wobbles when it plays me-too. The Gamecube was a me-too device, and it never had a chance. The company also tends to stumble by clinging to old ideas. It built a better machine with the Nintendo 64, but ignoring the advantages of optical media doomed it from the start. More recently, dismissing online connectivity as "unnecessary" suggested the folks at Nintendo were out of touch with contemporary gamers.

All of this makes prognosticating about the Wii U tricky business. On one hand, I’m excited by the possibilities of a game system designed to exploit the fact that LAN parties are the most fun you can possibly have playing video games. I love the idea of asynchronous play, and I’m crazy for the simple notion that I can continue playing Zelda uninterrupted when my wife turns the TV to Project Runway. I’m not entirely convinced by Tadhg Kelly's case for the Wii U as “The Ultimate Machine,” but I do see terrific possibilities for interfacing with games in exciting new ways. 

We hear you
Unfortunately, Nintendo appears to be positioning the Wii U as a device to finally bridge the gap between ‘casuals’ and ‘hardcores.’ Iwata and Fils-Aime each hammered home the new system’s attractiveness to developers who currently ignore the Wii. Rather than focusing on game design possibilities unleashed by a touchscreen-enabled controller, the company seemed intent on repeating its mantra to serious gamers: “We hear you.” One could easily walk away from Nintendo's press briefing with the impression that the biggest advantage offered by the Wii U is the possibility of playing Assassin’s Creed on it. 

As always, time will tell about the marketplace response to Nintendo’s new console. I suspect players who currently enjoy playing FPS games on their Xbox 360s will see little reason to abandon that system (and, importantly, their online friends and achievements) for a Nintendo system that may offer compelling UI advantages, but not compelling enough to jump ship. 

If Nintendo and a slew of clever 3rd-party developers capitalize on the Wii U’s blend of touchscreen interface and motion-control, the future looks bright for Nintendo. Until it dims again. Which it will. And Nintendo will bet the farm on another big idea. That's what they do, and it's why I always root for them a little more than the others.

Something for everyone


Look. We hear you. You want what you’ve always wanted, but you also want something new. You want things to look like they always have, but you want the buzz of the new... Contradictions? No problem. They come with the territory. But is it possible to ask, and is it even possible to deliver something for everyone?
                               --Reggie Fils-Aime, President, Nintendo of America 

The big E3 press conferences aren’t really press conferences at all, despite most media outlets referring to them as such. Sony calls its event a press conference, but Microsoft prefers “Media Briefing,” and Nintendo likes “Media Presentation.”

A press conference implies dialogue - an opportunity for journalists to engage the manufacturers and publishers who drive a twenty billion dollar industry. Such unscripted events can be hazardous for executives, however, as Geoff Keighley’s refreshingly tough interview with Reggie Fils-Aime illustrates. (Be sure to watch all three parts.)

These orchestrated gatherings are about sending carefully crafted messages to the press, consumers, and Wall Street: ninety minutes of hyperbole to claim the spotlight, frame the narrative, and fuel the hype. Conventional wisdom says Sony and Microsoft compete for the hardcore crowd, while Nintendo caters to the casuals, and that’s pretty much how things have played out recently.

Fail tale
But this year it’s a different story, especially for Nintendo and Microsoft. Nintendo, seeing flagging sales of its hardware, wants its core gamers back; and Microsoft, seeing an enthusiastic but limited hardcore base, has its eye on Nintendo’s casuals. Both need to expand their audiences, and both devoted major portions of their E3 briefings to proving how serious they are about succeeding. And both will fail.

They will fail for a variety of reasons, but the primary culprit is likely to be pedigree. Both of their E3 presentations effectively showcase Nintendo and Microsoft’s impressive strengths, and each painfully illustrates how they stumble when they venture outside their comfort zones. 

Watching Microsoft and Nintendo’s E3 presentations is like traveling from a UFC arena to a big-top circus tent. The tone and vibe of each is completely different, reflecting the cultures of each company, deliberately crafted over years of products and marketing. What’s more, their 90-minute show-and-tells can be seen as polar opposite examples of the same curious failure to persuade.

Open fire
For the first two-thirds of its briefing, Microsoft brought the guns. A nine-minute combat sequence from Modern Warfare 3 opened the show, followed by five minutes of “intense and visceral survival” featuring Lara Croft tied up, burned, impaled, pursued, and dragged from behind. Then “kick-ass action” in a Mass Effect 3 combat demo; tactical battle from Ghost Recon Future Soldier, followed by a Kinect-enabled weapon customization demo. 

We caught our collective breath with a seven-minute briefing on new Xbox Live features, but lest anyone doubt the service's bad-assery, the presentation concluded with a trailer announcing the arrival of live-streamed UFC fights. Then the lights dimmed for a Gears of War 3 trailer; a six-minute co-op combat demo with Cliff Bleszinski and Ice T; an ancient Roman battle in Ryse; and a Covenant/Flood-blasting montage from Halo HD. Sixty minutes of full-throttle male power fantasy whoop-whoop, and nobody does it better than Microsoft. I'm not sure if "better" is the word I mean here. I felt a little sick by the end of it, to be honest.

When the briefing finally shifted to other kinds of games, the mood in room shifted too. Kinect Disneyland Adventures was met with polite applause. The opening bars of John Williams’ Star Wars theme got a thunderous reaction...which quickly fell to silence as the dismal Kinect Star Wars game demo wore on. A new Fable title appeared promising, but quickly faded as the audience grew restless.

It’s tempting to attribute the lukewarm reactions to the fact that these games lack guns and gore. Xbox players want to shoot stuff real good, and these games look suspiciously casual. But such a reading misjudges the crowd sitting in that room. These games went over like lead balloons simply because they looked awful - regressive on-rails tech demos for motion-control - and this savvy crowd sniffed that out in seconds. 

Waggle haggle
If this year's E3 proves anything, it's that Microsoft is doubling down on its Kinect bet, and it will produce titles that use it, no matter what. While big games like Mass Effect 3 and FIFA are implementing Kinect in their own ways, the family-friendly Kinect games Microsoft showed at E3 took a page from the early "look what this thing can do!" waggle days of the Wii. When Tim Schafer walked onstage to present his colorful and charming Once Upon a Monster - including an onstage father/son combo that appeared to be having actual fun - it was like somebody opened a window to let the stink out of the room.

If Microsoft and its developers want to expand their market, they should commit to the same level of imagination, design savvy, and craftsmanship that their FPS developers devote to their games. Spend ten minutes with Kirby Canvas Curse or Super Mario Galaxy to see how well Nintendo and its satellites understand what that commitment means.

Of course, Nintendo has credibility issues of its own, and these emerged at nearly the same moment that Microsoft hit the wall: in the final act of its 3-act briefing. I'll return in my next post to discuss Nintendo's presentation. Who know, maybe I'll even get around to Sony's. The rhetoric of hype never fails to provoke me.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 34

Tom  Briant  Leigh

This edition of the show features an in-depth discussion of L.A. Noire with Tom Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter) and Brian Taylor (Kill Screen, GamePro). Spoilers abound, but only minor plot points are revealed. I think you can listen to this discussion and still fully appreciate the game as a newcomer. In fact, you might even appreciate it more. 

Segment 2 features a conversation with Leigh Alexander. We discuss a range of topics, including how she prepares for a big event like E3; the impact of social networking on our lives; and how she manages working in an environment that can be both hostile and nurturing.

I hope you enjoy the show, and thanks for listening!

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast RSS feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

Show links:

Notes on becoming

Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of deeds is there.
Nirvana exists, but not the one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.
                                    --The Visuddhimagga

Buddhism teaches that there is no permanent individual self. There is no separation between self and other. Everything is interconnected. If we look at a flower we can perceive that it owes its existence to the earth, the sun, the clouds, the rain, and the gardener who tended it. And so, in a way, the entire universe has come together to produce this single flower. 

And since change is the only constant, this flower will eventually die. Nothing in existence is fixed. We are all in a perpetual state of "becoming." 

Sun-duality I've begun to understand that I value games because they function as meditations on becoming. When I step back and consider what's in this for me - why I play games and so eagerly invest myself in them - I believe it's because they provide authentic expressions of emptiness.

Beyond genre and mechanics, games can illustrate the essential meaning and validity of non-self, and they can provoke reflection on how we construct concepts and systems to make sense of a complicated world.

When I say 'emptiness,' I mean a state of mind characterized by simplicity and openness. It doesn't imply passivity or nihilism. The Tao Te Ching describes it this way:

We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
That holds whatever we want. 

We hammer wood for a house
But it is the inner space
That makes it livable. 

We work with being,
But non-being is what we use. 
 --Ch. 11, Stephen Mitchell, trans.

Portal_mirror-2 Games provide an enveloping, risk-free space for such emptiness. My thoughts and senses always feel sharper when I'm playing, and I'm more attuned to the details of my surroundings. Very little escapes my notice in a game because I've emptied my mind of all external cares or distractions. I must be in this moment, right here, right now. Few other situations in my daily life require or enable such focused mindfulness. 

Non-self is harder to explain, but I'll try my best. I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

Games grant us many perspectives from which to see and experience human life. When I play as Link in a Legend of Zelda game, I marry my concept of Link, informed by many Zelda games, with the blank-slate silent hero that appears anew in every title. 

Link_Wind_Waker_3 This elfish swordsman may be the purest expression of non-self in all of popular culture. We commonly refer to him as Link, but he has no prescribed name. Each Zelda adventure summons a new hero, and we recognize him when he appears...but there is no persistent 'him.'

He is an 8-bit sprite; he is a polygonal young man; he is a cell-shaded boy. Link is many heroes. Nevertheless, when given the chance to name him at the beginning of each game, I always choose “Link” - which suggests more about my predilection for continuity and permanence than anything true about Link’s identity.

Speaking of identity, I recently finished L.A. Noire, which frustrated my desire to connect with my avatar, Cole Phelps. As the game wore on, I grew to loathe him and found myself conducting an internal Q&A with myself. Is this arrogant cop supposed to represent me? No. But I'm controlling him. Yes. Doesn't that create an unnerving disconnect? Yes. How do I feel about that? I don’t like it. Is that interesting to me? Absolutely. 

Phelpsava As a contemplation on self and non-self, L.A. Noire does something fairly outrageous. It deliberately distances me from 'my' character while forcing me to 'control' him. Consequently, the concept of ‘self’ is thrown out of whack. How do I make the right choice when my avatar can’t be trusted to properly execute my decisions? With each promotion up the ladder, why do I feel implicated in the detestable thing Cole Phelps is becoming? 

We often use the term ‘dissonance’ to describe a tension or clash between two disharmonious elements in game design, and L.A. Noire is full of such clashes. But in this case, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. 

Mlb_the_show_11_1 No such dissonance in MLB: The Show. Quite the opposite. In this game, I'm becoming me - an idealized vision of myself living out a lifelong fantasy. I chase down a fly ball in center field, and a young athletic fellow with "Abbott" on his uniform makes a sliding catch. Then he turns to the camera, and he looks just like me.

In “Road to the Show” mode, I create a wish-fulfillment self unencumbered by trivialities like reality. I and he exist interchangeably. He hits the home run because I hit the home run, and my joy in that moment is truly for both of us. Center-fielder Michael Abbott is my constructed self, on his/my way to becoming the National League MVP.

Collectively, these games surround the concept of self and encourage me to interrogate and deconstruct it, interactively, from many different perspectives. And, vitally, they make it feel worth doing.

Finally, there’s Life Flashes By, a game you’ve probably never heard of, but one that tackles the question of self more directly than any of the others I’ve discussed.

Designed by Deirdra Kiai, Life Flashes By is a point-and-click adventure that focuses on a middle-aged woman named Charlotte who discovers herself in a strange forest after a serious car accident. A droll pixie guides her through pivotal moments in her life, and the player chooses among a variety of options that can alter their outcomes and, consequently, Charlotte’s existence.

Screenshot6 On the surface Life Flashes By is familiar adventure-game fare (sans puzzles), with writing that can sometimes be stiff and ponderous. But Kiai is chasing something with this game that few designers have pursued.

Life Flashes By is essentially a contemplation on the question of self, with the player constructing a gallery of alternate Charlottes, each of whom represents a slightly different conception of herself. In all of these renderings, the post-crash Charlotte observes herself from a distance, critically reflecting on her insecurities and self-limiting fears - and sometimes overcoming them. 

In the end, no-self emerges, not as a spiritual or philosophical construct, but as a hard-earned lesson wrought out of earnest critical reflection.

Life Flashes By does what more games ought to do well: it shows you what it’s like to be someone else - someone who’s probably not like you at all, and who doesn’t seem particularly interested in winning your approval. Charlotte is on her way to becoming, but she doesn’t know who that will be. Just like your own self. The one that isn’t really there.