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This has been a rough semester for me. I’m really glad to say it’s almost over, and it hasn’t been a total wash. I really did need grad school to kick my ass a little bit and remind me to be humble, justify myself better, and keep being a curmudgeon. I’m working out some really interesting stuff for myself with regards to the role of play in civic engagement and bureaucracy, the role of fun in governance, and the importance of gamic attitudes in grappling with major social issues. I’m paving this path with good reading, some experiments, and the simple act of standing up for what I believe is right.

I’ve started having thoughts about what it means to “document” an event, though. I got my ass kicked in first year review for presenting work that was in process (apparently a faux pas, but I didn’t know that at the time), and not having documentation for the work that I have been doing. I feel a bit like a cranky awkward camera user, but I don’t feel like it’s my job to document the things that I make happen. I generally leave a pretty good paper trail in most instances, but there is something about my own bias as the maker that makes it seem to me like I shouldn’t be doing my own image production or video production to show what happened.

On the other hand it seems a little exploitative for me to say, “document what happens yourself.” Kyle pointed out that I can always ask friends to lurk around with cameras (which sometimes happens of its own accord), because they’ll probably find the things that other people would find interesting to record. At least there is always the possibility of them creating footage I couldn’t, and I can take some editorial freedom with what gets included in, say, a video documentation of a performance/play action.

I still don’t know. There is something about creating documentation for something that is designed to be experiential that is very unappealing to me. If you weren’t there, maybe you should have been. Maybe what I should do is get one of the documentary filmmaker grads to follow me around with a camera. (But of course that seems more than a little conceited.) Of course I’m going to have to suck it up and document things, because at some point I need to show that I’ve been doing work and so deserve the eventual degree that comes from that. Nevertheless, the whole idea of it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Shouldn’t I just be doing what I want to be doing, for the sake of doing it or because it’s the right thing to do?

(Maybe I’m just bitter.)

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As friend and colleague Adam Liszkiewicz has recently noted, FarmVille is a terrible game. It doesn’t even really qualify as a game, under Roger Caillois’s six criteria of games, and no matter what credence you give to classical ludology, you have to admit — there is an unprecedented number of people who continue to play, despite the absence of any of the rewards of play, or any of the rewards of labor. Zynga, the company that runs FarmVille, continues to make an absurd amount of money from hooking or scamming its players. Which is something that Jesse Schell neglects to mention in his DICE 2010 talk about design outside the box.

Now, before I begin, let me make perfectly clear that I am skeptical of the idea that Caillois’s criteria constitute a complete and definitive measure of a game. (i.e., I think that Caillois’s criteria are necessary but not sufficient.) Nor am I resistant to the idea that this definition can change. However, thinking about Martin Roberts’ talk at a conference this past fall and reading a bunch of Adorno has turned me a bit curmudgeonly. Ultimately, I think there are not a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about the things that games can do, while simultaneously being skeptical about certain deployments of gaming and the “fun” buzzword. And, as an industry and community, we desperately need more of that attitude.

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Last weekend I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is a small but important book about the way in which we become spectators when presented with photographic representations of war. While the photograph is still an enormously powerful, pervasive medium, and indeed one of the primary ways we see the things that happen abroad, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which we “see” things that happen abroad in other ways. Sontag discusses films very briefly, and mentions video games but once. (She is, after all, probably best known as a critic for On Photography.) But I also noticed that, in the later part of the essay, she critiqued her own view that we become desensitized to violence through overexposure to images of suffering.

This idea is problematic on a number of levels. First, she writes that it is difficult to say with any certainty that image-glut does, in fact, create the kind of callousness that critics claim it does. Second, the virtualization of war is a phenomenon restricted to those for whom war is not real and immediate — that is, spectators in the West. Sontag makes a point of calling these claims “platitudes” and tearing them apart as ungrounded and provincial. The effects of these kinds of images need to be reassessed.

Of course, my thoughts turned to video games. Much is often made, in the mainstream media, of the damaging effects of video game play on the minds of youngsters — the desensitization to violence and suffering can now be taken to a new level, where the player is virtually involved in the violence, instead of just a spectator. (But is not the video game player still a spectator, in some way? And how is viewing art on a wall not in some way interactive, perspectival, and affective? This relationship is complicated.) And within the game studies community, many scholars have written on the propaganda value of a good, clean first-person shooter, the gore turned down and the stakes lowered through the very nature of the gamic medium.

But I think in many ways a new generation of first-person shooters is problematizing the assumed relationship between the video game, the gamer, and the suffering of others. I’ve been trying to come up with useful cases, and I think we could examine the controversial “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) as a starting point. [Basic spoilers follow.]

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Recent discovery: the need to write really involved blog posts that take multiple days to write. I spent a couple hours yesterday and at least an hour the day before trying to flesh out this post I’m working on about Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and video games, but it’s just not working out. I think it’s been making me feel a little batty. Or maybe that’s just because I spend most of my time in a black-walled room typing on a computer.

I guess also my brain has been moving very fast. It’s time for me to get down to business and start doing some coding for the (still) unnamed Red Light, Gren Light project. I’ve also been thinking about the social coding — as in, do I let campus security know what I’m up to, and that while what I’m doing is kind of disruptive, it’s “art” and “harmless.” Reading the books I got about campus architecture don’t make me feel very good. They sort of politely skim around the topic of control. Nobody wants to be overt, but also nobody wants to be critical.

I’m thinking about reading Lefebvre anyway, this is about not-just-architectural space, the construction of hybrid space in between physical and social space. Though I am sure the architecture has a great deal to do with it. Did you know  you need to sign up to use the open field next to the Center for the Arts? I understand this is the case. There is no other gathering space in the Academic Spine. Or campus, really. What does that do to you? My architecture books aren’t saying anything but I have my suspicions.

I think tomorrow morning I will be going to the University Archives. For now I am going to make broad gestures at this blog entry that might turn into a really serious paper at some point.

I’m starting to do my homework for designing and implementing the Red Light, Green Light game I’ve blogged about here in the past. At the moment I’m putting together a reading list about architectures of control, but I’m having a hard time finding any information specifically about designing campuses in response to the Kent State massacre. Since UB’s North Campus was built post-Kent State, I suspect that I might even be able to find specific information about the design of this campus as a response to that event.

The idea of putting together a bibliography for a game is kind of odd, but it makes sense if you want to make an effective intervention. I think it would be beneficial for players to have a resource to be directed to after the fact. And also something to prove that I’m not just a “fun” designer. I think I will make the bibliography available via AAAARG, both for political and practical reasons.

Anyway, if anybody has any ideas about additions to the bibliography for me to check into, please let me know. I’d really appreciate it.

Oh, and also, we can play Name That Game, since I’m not yet sure what to call this exercise.

So I’ve started reading Homo Ludens finally, because I have to (sometimes I think it’s kind of awful that I have to be made to do these things, but I think I would eventually, it’s just that things get done faster when someone is there to man the bellows) and I’ve been thinking a lot about how Huizinga talks in his introduction about the mysterious impulse of living things to play, and I kind of wonder if this has something to do with the way the brain works — in ways that we’ve come to learn now, post-Huizinga. Since he writes about the performative creation of art, religious ritual, and the phenomenon of flow, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there is something about play that is related neuropsychologically to our need for religion.

I think I just wanted to jot that down because I just got really excited about it. Back to reading.

I really meant to write a bunch over break, but after going home, I found it very hard to. I think it has a lot to do with the state of being home, and also the difficulty I had in terms of access to technology while I was home (this was partially intentional).

Home was alright. It was kind of refreshing to see people and play at how my life used to be. It also reminded me that I am glad my life is the way it is right now, not because I dislike anybody at home, just that home is not home anymore. Buffalo has been so nurturing to me in the past four months, I can’t even begin to say. It’s not like Ann Arbor was for me — actually, in contrast, Ann Arbor was kind of stifling. I mean that on a number of levels. I can’t tell you how weird it is to think about my life a year ago, let alone ten. I guess I am just not ready for Michigan again. I guess I’ve fallen in love with Buffalo (sorry, Michigan).

I got a lot done over break but I still have a lot to do — I just bought a pile of books for the comparative literature class I’m taking this semester. The syllabus is packed with books I’ve been meaning to read, and now I get to, and talk about them with a bunch of other people who want to read them, too. I have a lot of things to read and write about and consider and plan. Now I have a great lair in the back of the VR lab to do my planning in. I am thinking about getting a chart-making surface to hang back there, so I can make flow charts and to-do lists and other things that make me look enormously productive.

I have a lot of goals this semester, and a formidable course load. Oh, but I can’t wait. What’s even more exciting for me is that I know where my thesis is going…hee!

Short toast today. Luke, Adam and I are starting a new group blog about game studies, Gaming in the Expanded Field. We want you to poke us about it! Repeatedly, and intelligently. Distinguishing yourself might even make you a good candidate to contribute, because we do want to diversify our staff.

I think that lately I’ve been feeling out holes in the field of game studies, especially since we remain enormously dependent on other fields for our frames of theoretical reference and lexicon. GITEF  is an attempt to address that, while also giving us a platform to publish our research independently and accessibly. I’m kind of hoping that this turns into its own thing, a kind of intellectual powerhouse as the three of us begin to be taken more and more seriously in the academic, art, and/or game design worlds.

I kind of hope GITEF serves as a hub for a distributed think-tank (or rather, contemplation-cup, since we are neither as serious as “thinkers” nor as large as a “tank”). If you have any possible contributions, please do let me know! The more the merrier. Meantime, drop on by.

So, I’ve been clearly doing a lot of thinking lately on why it is I’m so hung up on alternate reality games. I think one of the interesting things I’ve stumbled upon (or rather, failed to stumble upon) is a body of work critiquing the origins of ARG in what amounts to the glorification of consumer culture. I want to preface this with the fact that my thoughts about this issue probably won’t change how I look at the work I’m doing in terms of its possible efficacy, but I do think making these considerations is of utmost importance.

First, a bit on the history of the ARG. The generally-accepted first “true” ARG was the promotional campaign run for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., otherwise known as The Beast. This game ran for three months during 2001 — and much of what came out of the game served as an infrastructure for future ARG projects, whether corporate or independent. 42 Entertainment, the group behind The Beast, went on to become its own independent company. They’ve produced ARG-style advertising campaigns for a number of major clients, including Microsoft and Activision. While fan-produced and independent ARGs have been run, by and large the campaigns have been designed by professionals working for corporations.

Which should give us reason to pause. A form that has been described as “scary” by people I know, used to reach out to an enormous number of people through a variety of media, and then change their behavior through storytelling and problem-solving should not get off scot-free because it’s innovative. In fact, that should give us a better reason to look at it critically. Given the way a number of big-name academics talk about phenomena like ARGs, I would have thought there’d be just as many thinkers waiting in the wings, not necessarily as naysayers, but who are willing to raise the warning flags about the form’s origins and possible future.

As a bit of a side note, it goes without saying that I don’t think fandom is an unadulterated good, and that I have deep misgivings about the appropriation of fan labor by the major players that not just allow but encourage fan production. While I think there is much to be said about how fandom stimulates creativity and community, I also think that, ultimately, the fan is doing free labor for what is often a corporate interest. As much as the fan might claim that ze is promoting the work of hir favorite director, writer, actor, or whatever, those creatives often work under the auspices of a corporate interest — like a major movie studio, a game or book publishing house, or a record label. Regardless of the size or ethical quality of the brand being promoted, fandom ultimately is the promotion of a brand. Moreover, the existence of die-hard fans is itself a desirable brand characteristic for some audiences.

So I set out to see if there was any critical scholarship on the topic. And there is. It’s a single paper by a Swedish journalism scholar who is now at Oxford. It raises some of the critical questions that I had, and Henrik tells me that this article by Christy Dena might be another step in my direction. But insofar as a body of work is concerned, well, there just isn’t one yet.

Now this boggles my mind. As excited as I was initially about ARG as a form unto itself rather than simply an advertising form (and there are many out there who also are!), and as convinced as I am that the ARG form can be adapted and used for massively scalable critical pedagogy, there is a sore lack of critical academic work on the origins of ARG, why we should care, and why we should be careful. Especially because I’m embarking on a project that involves re-appropriating a consumer cultural form to the project of individual and social liberation, I think we should be wary about it. We should address the form with a critical eye if we expect to make significant social change through this kind of re-appropriation.

If anybody has any other leads on this topic, please let me know. I’d love to see any other inroads people have made toward this end.

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