Is there a lot of nihilism in the subcultures that have grown around videogames? Many of the writers featured in this week’s roundup are considering interactive media in relation to their own feelings of disempowerment and alienation. How do we use this medium to talk about the things that we care about? And how does care change depending on whether it is active or passive?

Alienation effect

We start with some writing on passivity in game design, and how it can be used to address questions about the actions that we do attempt to take in the world.

“Brecht is perhaps best known for creating what he calls a Verfremdungseffekt (often translated as “alienation effect”) in his plays, meaning that he intended for the audience not to experience immersion […] but to look at what was happening on stage with a critical eye. […] In games, you can do similar things, while also making use of play-specific interventions such as interrupting flow.”

New normal

Thinking of how people relate to games as a culture and an industry, these writers address the interventions that fans and developers have made into the spaces where play happens.

“If we get in early enough, we can define the general public’s first significant impressions of VR, and influence how people value VR experiences. We need to develop the theory, the language, and the touchstones that others will have to adopt in order to seem fluent — we need to be the new normal here, and we could possibly do it, because no one else has defined the norms yet.”

Hashing out

The act of creating a game is itself a critical intervention into the world. These two pieces take close looks at how game design is informed by critical writing.

  • Critical Jostling « G|A|M|E
    The new issue of one of the more awkwardly-named games studies journals takes on critical game design. Pippin Barr’s essay provides a great overview of the topic and makes strong arguments about what happens when games fail as critiques.
  • 2006 Vs. 2016 — Matthew Seiji Burns
    Speaking of developers as critics, Matthew Burns talks about the role writing once played in his work, and what it means to let it go.

“It’s often said that writing about something is a good way to determine what you really think about it, and the time I spent hashing out my thoughts on games here helped me find my positions, develop my theory. I know what I think, now, and these days I’m focusing on trying to express that worldview in my works directly.”

A mere player of videogames

In these pieces, writers show how narratives about the agency of player-characters in fictional worlds collide with the agency of the players themselves in the design of a game’s systems.

“Like in many games, the repetition holds the game together, creating its logic[. B]ut in this case it also seems to lock you in, [to] show you the limits and your inability to ever break through, as a mere player of videogames, […] can playing a videogame tell you about politics[,] and the real suffering it causes in the world?”

Life is short

Questions about what our values are come up particularly strongly in these last four pieces, which move swiftly between the sacred and the profane.

Content warning: ableist slur in title


“Microsoft defended its position, insisting the ad was supposed to be a positive statement about life. Yet the ITC dismissed that, and said that the man’s screams suggested a ‘traumatic experience’ which, coupled with the ‘life is short’ tagline, ‘made the final scene more shocking’.”

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