If I had to describe Critical Distance with the title of a game, it’d be Infinite Undiscovery. Except I heard that game wasn’t too good. Oh well. Moving on: its’ time once again for This Week in Videogame Blogging, the web’s premier weekly collection of the most interesting games writing, criticism and commentary!
We start at The Border House, where Michelle Ealey writes of the minimalist ambiguity of Kairo. Elsewhere on TBH, Prunescholar takes a look at three games’ fantastical treatment of capitalist greed and exploitation.
Martin of Oh No! Video Games! has some video and textual commentary on The Walking Dead’s representation of totalitarianism. Meanwhile at Push Select, Jeff Wheeldon criticizes what he perceives as a pervasive yet shallow oversaturation of religious and mythical iconography in games.
On Nightmare Mode, language scholar Oscar Strik takes a look at several gestural and symbolic forms of online communication which crop up in several games, including Tale of Tales’ latest, Bientot l’ete.
C-D alum David Carlton writes on his own blog Malvasia Bianca about guitar learning with Rock Band and Rocksmith.
Dyad lead Shawn McGrath showed up on Kotaku this week with some deep meditations on the source code of Doom 3.
On Unwinnable, Brendan Keogh has a few words on how exactly Far Cry 3 fails to discomfort the player:
It is exactly how the game fails to deliver the message that [lead writer Jeffrey] Yohalem thinks he delivers: the game gives me permission to not think about what I am doing. The game gives me a safe space to be comfortable and to just have fun. I don’t need to think about what Jason is doing or how he is evolving. I don’t even need to think about my own survival for the greater part of the game. Mostly, I don’t have to think at all.
Lastly on the topic of design, this isn’t an article really, but have you visited Wikipedia’s entry on games with hidden rules?
BUILDING UP THE GIRL
Back on The Border House, Kaitlin Tremblay writes of the construction of masculinity as machine in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
On The Phoenix, Maddy Myers shares her ambivalence toward the romance of Cortana and Master Chief:
After all, she “picked” him, she’s the smart one, the dominant one who tells him what to do. He may argue, but eventually, he’ll agree that Cortana is right. She’s always right.
But this subversion doesn’t make me feel good about Cortana and Master Chief’s relationship. If anything, it makes me question the logistical reality, let alone the romance, of a human dating a much smarter AI being. Cortana’s smarter than the Chief, and not even just a little bit smarter – she’s way more chock full of knowledge than the most brilliant human being could ever dream to be. In other words, she’s not human. So why would we want her to date a human, let alone this one?
The reason is obvious: because this human is Master Chief, and we are Master Chief. We want Cortana to love us, because we love her. We don’t see his face, ever, because his face is supposed to seem like it could be our face. We aren’t supposed to see Master Chief as an alienating Peter Pan manchild, like I do – we’re supposed to see him as us.
HUNT FOR THE GAY PLANET
This week saw the announcement of an expansion for BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which includes a much-promised update to allow players to pursue same-gender romances. However, by setting the content behind a paywall (in addition to some other problems with its execution), the announcement has drawn some ire from various outlets.
On Gameranx, Denis Farr decries SWTOR’s choice to sequester these same-sex relationships to a single location as too like the real discrimination faced by LGBTIQ people:
The first is to wonder if perhaps you’re trying to give everyone a history lesson. By putting these NPC same-gender romances on Makeb, a planet that is part of paid content and available to higher level characters only, you are systemically placing the same romance options others have already experienced and continue to have access to out of easy reach. Pay money for equal rights. Feel what it is like to have to confine yourself to a single area to express love for someone of the same gender, because no other community will have you.[But] for those of us who’ve lived that history? Perhaps those of us who grew up wanting to learn about who we were and why we were ostracised, and read up on how neighborhoods formed, but bars were raided? Maybe it even mirrors the political fight right now, where queer people who want the expected life that they were promised, including marriage and children, but must fight for the systemic right to do so? It’s a bit too on the nose.
On The Escapist, Robert Rath reasons that BioWare are probably trying their hardest, but that doesn’t make the end product any easier to swallow:
In many ways, it’s understandable why BioWare Austin took this approach. A great deal of things have happened in the year since the game launched, including a massive fall off in subscriptions that forced the game into its free-to-play model. Staff layoffs after the game’s release no doubt compounded the difficulty of this changeover, meaning that Hickman’s claim that the team is swamped seems plausible in context. Moreover, we must remember that BioWare doesn’t own the IP for Star Wars, and I’m guessing that convincing LucasArts/Disney – both of whom are notoriously protective of their brands – to allow gay relationships in their ostensibly family-friendly galaxy was a lengthy process in itself. Given all this, plus BioWare’s history of designing SGRs into both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I feel comfortable saying that the SWTOR team was making a sincere gesture with the SGR options in Makeb.
Unfortunately, that gesture is too little, too late for a player base that’s rapidly losing its patience. And that loss of patience is understandable when you consider that in the real world, waiting for recognition and settling for poor stopgap measures is practically a way of life for the LGBT community.
PCGamesN’s Steve Hogarty contends that it should not have been an “expansion” to begin with:
Adding gay NPCs to Makeb is a bizarre half-measure then, a jarring stop-gap that only serves as testament to an existing in-game sexual inequality. At worst, it suggests that BioWare don’t understand the concerns of those fans who want to play the game according to their own identities, that they see “SGR” [same gender romance] as additional or surplus to the regular game rather than something that should sit quietly and seamlessly alongside heterosexual dialogue options from the outset. SGR shouldn’t be a feature. It shouldn’t be a dirty fling on a remote planet. It shouldn’t be an acronym. It should just be.
Meanwhile at the International Business Times, Edward Smith posts worriedly that the choice to focus “SGR” at a single in-game location will provide an opening for in-game bullying and other harassment.
One other thing to come out of this whole debacle, however, was this charmingly camp Twine game by anna anthropy: “Hunt for the Gay Planet“.
Warning: Most of this section’s articles feature graphic images.
“Oh, Torso Week,” Experience Points writer Jorge Albor wrote to me over Twitter. “It’s like Shark Week – just as bloody but way less entertaining.”
A matter of days ago, Deep Silver announced a UK and Australia exclusive Dead Island statuette titled “Zombie Bait,” which features a dismembered female torso presented to prospective buyers as a “conversation piece” for one’s desk. Many writers and outlets took issue with the design, especially in light of Dead Island‘s troubled history.
On Gameranx, Jenn “Tweets About Torsos” Frank reminds readers that the statuette follows on the heels of a long history of depersonalizing the sexualization of women’s bodies:
Stop right there. Stop in your tracks. No. Wrong. No, we would never do this to a male torso. Maybe some of us would like George Clooney to shut up and be pretty, but that is no mainstream fantasy. The rest of us actually do like him with a head and arms. We expect him to be heroic and masterly in movies, and we pay him for it.
Meanwhile, we define femininity by quiet neediness.
On Culture Ramp, friend of the blog Luke Rhodes looks at a number of ways to look at the statuette’s unveiling, none of them terribly optimistic:
This year, it’s a woman’s torso. Last year, it was Medal of Honor-branded assault rifles. In 2009, it was a contest promoting Dante’s Inferno by offering what sounded suspiciously like a night with two call girls in a limousine.
Those are just the missteps, though—drops, really, in an ocean of swag. Very few triple-A games are released without some sort of branded, collectable promotion. Publishers commission those pieces because they know the game industry is serviced by an enthusiast press that can be relied upon to report on swag.[…] They make it because swag in general works, and we’re not usually so discerning. The only way to discourage bad swag is to remove the source of temptation by swearing off swag altogether, the good along with the bad.
Game Church’s Richard Clark concurs, arguing that all gamers are in some way culpable for creating and sustaining the culture that fosters something like the Dead Island torso:
We, all of us, are the ones who sustained an industry whose product is made up primarily of different creative ways of killing. We are the ones who told ourselves it was good clean fun, while simultaneously upping the violent ante in every way possible. We are the one who paused Mortal Kombat to look up the fatalities, who try and come up with all the different ways to kill people in Bulletstorm, who praise Call of Duty for the ways it makes killing feel exciting and rewarding. We are the ones who bought, and clamored for, games in which women are sexy nuns that we are then able to systematically eliminated.
It was us – all of us. It was me. We are all, every one of us, totally depraved. None is righteous. No, not one. It’s a system we are invested and take part in.
I’ll give the final word to the matter to the Gameological Society’s John Teti, who suggests the statuette belongs in a museum as a reminder to us all: “You’ve heard of outsider art? This is insider art, crafted by forces deep within the beast.”
SEXISM IN THE INDUSTRY? NAWWWW
On Forbes, Gabrielle Toledano suggests that sexism is not the big issue affecting games- it’s that too few women are entering games development.
On her own blog, Foz Meadows offers up a critique of Toledano’s conclusions:
[What] Toledano fails to comprehend is that gaming, like everything else, is an ecosystem – and right now, at every single level of participation, women are feeling the effects of sexism. Female gamers are sexualised, demeaned and assumed to be fakes by their male counterparts; those who go into STEM fields despite this abuse frequently find themselves stifled by the sexist assumptions of professors and fellow students alike; they must then enter an industry whose creative output is overwhelmingly populated with hypersexualised depictions of women and male-dominant narratives, and where the entrenched popularity of these tropes means their own efforts to counteract the prevailing culture will likely put them at odds with not only their colleagues, but also the business models of the companies and projects for which they work; as the #1reasonwhy discussion showed, many will experience sexism in the workplace – hardly surprising, given the academic correlation between the acceptance of misogyny in humour and culture and real-world tolerance for sexism and rape culture – while others will be excluded from it completely. All this being so, therefore, if a single progressive HR manager at a comparatively progressive company looks around and finds, despite her very best intentions that, there are few or no women to hire for a particular position, then the problem is not with women for failing to take advantage of a single company’s benevolent practices, but with the industry as a whole for failing to create a culture in which women are welcome, and where they might therefore be reasonably expected to abound.
Elsewhere, on Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alex Layne reaches a similar conclusion: by blaming sexism in the industry on a few unsavory elements, it ignores the larger institutions that facilitate it in the first place.
And I can’t but return to anna anthropy for this one, with her very timely illustrated version of Cara Ellison’s and Jenn Frank’s poem Romero’s Wives“. (Trigger warning for images of assault and misogynistic violence.)
CORRELATION AND CAUSATION
Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, reacting to the Obama administration’s recent move to finance a study on gaming’s influence on violence, looks to past studies on the subject and what conclusion(s) they’ve drawn.
On Cracked (is this the first time we’ve featured them here?), Robert Brockway argues that citing studies isn’t going to help our case:
[We] as gamers have only one recourse: We stop denying our role in the larger problem of gun violence altogether. Nobody’s buying it anyway. You can spout studies and statistics all you want, and your debate partner will turn around and see a 10-year-old in his living room mowing down a village full of Arabs with a technically accurate machine gun, proudly rattling off the virtues of its fire rate and reload times. Gamers look ridiculous when we flail about, trying to deny that a fourth grader who understands the benefits of burst fire and knows to hold his breath while sniping is a bit disconcerting. Just like movie-goers look ridiculous if they say James Bond movies portray a pistol as anything other than an excellent solution to the problem of people who are in James Bond’s fucking way. Just like music fans look ridiculous when they insist that all the gang violence glorified in giant, flashy colors in every other rap video has no effect on the children watching them.
Our collective response, as gamers, to the accusation that video games have some connection to real violence should not be: “Nuh uh!”
In a similar vein, Michael “Brainy Gamer” Abbott argues that we need to take responsibility for our public image and be better advocates for games:
[This] isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them.
That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games – beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium – are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. […] It’s a moment for us to bring forward our best stories about games – not as a collective “God, I love this game,” or “This game made me cry,” but as careful observers of the deep and vivid experiences games can provide. We must put our faces and reputations behind the games we admire and explain to a skeptical public why violent games like Bioshock, Metro 2033, and The Walking Dead really are about more than plugging baddies with bullets and ray-guns.
SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE VIDEOGAMES
On Nightmare Mode, Mattie Brice writes about how many AAA games, for instance Spec Ops: The Line, seem a world away from the kinds of violence she faces every day.
Posting on his home site, indie developer Jonas Kyratzes writes a lengthy critique of his interpretation of Brice’s article, on the value of war narratives in games and a kind of criticism not based in identity politics.
On his Electron Dance, Joel Goodwin also remarks on what he terms “confessional writing,” or journalism and criticism that relates a personal experience of the writer. In doing so, Goodwin shares a certain amount of ambivalence toward the practice and what he perceives as its predominance over games blogging.
Liz Ryerson also responds to Goodwin (and, though not by name, Kyratzes), arguing in defense of games blogging through a personal lens:
i cannot and will not devalue the emotional experiences other people have with videogames, or try to say it’s not genuine or valid to write about them, because that misses the point entirely. it’s increasingly impossible to ignore the culture that games have arisen from, and the sort of stranglehold that culture has on all the discourse that occurs. […] videogames represent spaces and experiences separate from our bodies that we can form our own associations with, free from pressures of social identity, while still participating in an activity deemed “socially acceptable” for those categorized as males. games are rife for emotional projection of whatever kind of role you wish to occupy onto them.
And as a case in point, here Samantha Allen shares her experience using games to help her explore gender identity and transition.
HOW WE GAME
Writing for The Verge, Laura June offers up an excellent long-form feature on the rise and decline of the American arcade.
Elsewhere on VG Revolution, Marc Price speculates on five reasons Valve’s recently announced Steam Box console might fail.
As like with other gamer-oriented support resources like the Take This Project, we at Critical Distance are proud to signal-boosting what we believe are worthy online support networks for those struggling with depression or harassment. This week, we’re pleased to link to Beyond the Final Boss, a blog for and by game developers on overcoming childhood bullying and abuse.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
First up and as always, please submit your recommendations for This Week in Videogame Blogging to us via our email submissions form or by @ing us on Twitter. Remember, we welcome and encourage submitting your own work as well as that of others.
Secondly, there is still a bit of time to participate in this month’s Blogs of the Round Table! Get on that, bloggers.
Thirdly, I try to keep personal appeals to a minimum here on Critical Distance but as in previous years where we addressed the Critical Distance readership about sending a member of the critical community to GDC, this year, I have a funding drive of my own. Though we’ve already made the initial goals toward funding the trip, additional money raised from here on goes toward better participation at the conference as well as setting money aside for Critical Distance itself. If you’ve enjoyed our roundups here, consider visiting my GoFundMe page and kicking a few dollars CD’s way. There are cat pictures involved, just FYI.
That’s it for this week! Join us next Sunday where, if we’re lucky, all torsos will remain intact and unharmed. Until then, cheers.