Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game’s success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people’s perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.
The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend’s Game Boy in the late 90s, I’ve never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops. We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.
Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game’s widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people’s homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games “lures”) to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that “Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man“:
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go “is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities“. Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking “a global wave of urban exploration“. Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has “redrawn the map of what people find important about the world“. City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed “Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur“.
Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: “No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur“. At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to “resist Pokémon Go“:
Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.
Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists:
On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.
On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.
Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.
We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the derive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.
Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on “the tragedy of Pokémon Go“:
We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.
Pokémon Go’s popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Game,” in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player’s vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it’s similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game’s zombie-fying effects; we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that everyone’s eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.
My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go’s proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there’s something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go’s popularity. “Look,” my wife would say, “I bet they’re playing, too.” After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, “Are you playing Pokémon Go?” Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we’ve just met, discussing play strategies, sharing Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.
One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses and a hotbed of Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it’s something; there’s an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.
Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game’s popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.
- Tim Biggs wrote an article at IGN considering video games in relation to the human search for authenticity:
The postmodern condition presents a constant struggle and conflict between our own desires and a world that seems fully available to experience but devoid of concrete or objective meaning. Video games, by virtue of their most basic structure, allow easy access to the feeling that your chosen actions and goals are both informed and legitimised by the overarching rules surrounding them. This is the very definition of authenticity.
None of this is to say that games are better or preferable experience to real life or other media, but it is to suggest they’re uniquely placed at this point in time to provide satisfying experiences. Indeed, matching the appeal of video games with the search for authenticity goes a ways to explaining the particular trajectory of gaming’s prevalence, from largely rejected as a toy in the production-focused late eighties and early nineties, to an explosion of mainstream acceptance as the global media and advertising machine makes up more and more of our everyday lives.
- Forbes contributor Michael Thomsen reports on an independent video game that touched on symbolic representation, labor and productivity, and even namedrops Franco Berardi’s “semiocapitalism”:
In most videogames, the semiotic meaning of the system is accepted by players before they begin playing—they don’t know what tactics they’ll use to win, nor whether they’ll play long enough to do so, but they know that winning or completion is the organizing metaphor. Players aren’t often encouraged to question the values of competitive systems, but only asked to internalize the responsibility of making them work as efficiently as possible, postponing the anxious reality of failure for a few magical moments that we’ve agreed to describe as fun.
In contrast, Rehearsals and Returns overflows with signifiers placed in a system that remains indifferent to their interpretative meaning, and which consciously obscures the player’s desire to interpret them in terms of winning or losing. The system acknowledges player choices—whether you chose to tell Hilary Clinton something hateful or nice—but the game doesn’t interpret the player’s choice, nor does it tie the economy of collectible conversation pieces to any allegorical meaning. It uses the game as a sort of digital confessional chamber, in which familiar units of social and political meaning are taken out of their historical narratives and given to the player in an incomplete space meant only for self-reflection.
- Ian Bogost recorded an interview for the Go For Rainbow podcast, discussing “gaming culture as it relates to geographical space, and when and when not to whip out the PhD cred“. Full audio is available here.
- Ian Bogost devoted a recent Atlantic op-ed to the subject of hyperemployment, his term for new economic realities introduced by technology and the proliferation of smartphones and online services:
If you’re like many people, you’ve started using your smartphone as an alarm clock. Now it’s the first thing you see and hear in the morning. And touch, before your spouse or your crusty eyes. Then the ritual begins. Overnight, twenty or forty new emails: spam, solicitations, invitations or requests from those whose days pass during your nights, mailing list reminders, bill pay notices. A quick triage, only to be undone while you shower and breakfast.
Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyperemployment?
Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies. And even calling them “unpaid” is slightly unfair, since we do get something back from these services, even if they often take more than they give. Rather than just being exploited or duped, we’ve been hyperemployed. We do tiny bits of work for Google, for Tumblr, for Twitter, all day and every day.
- Bogost’s essay is reminiscent of Dallas Smythe’s notion of the audience commodity; near the end of his article Bogost warns that leisure time may disappear leaving only work time, while Smythe declared thirty years ago that all non-sleeping time should be considered time spent laboring.
- Karen Gregory at the Digital Labor Working Group blog responded to Bogost’s article in a post about digital labor, feminized labor, and use of the term “hyperemployment”:
Bogost writes, “hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies.” This tacit agreement, however, extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives. In that regard, I wonder if calling the cozy arrangement between digital technologies, data economies, and invisible labor “employment” runs the danger of side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered “care.”
- At the Cyborgology blog Robin James continued the dialogue by further relating hyperemployment to femininity:
For more than thirty years, Marxist feminists have been arguing that women’s unpaid labor–housework, reproduction, etc.–is a prerequisite for capitalist wage labor, surplus value extraction, and profit-making. Capital can extract surplus value from waged labor only because the wage laborer is supported by (extracts surplus value from) unwaged labor, mainly in the form of the wife. Gregory’s argument is that what Bogost is pointing to isn’t a new phenomenon so much as a reconfiguration of an ongoing practice: we are all our own wives and moms, so to speak. Indeed, as Bogost’s example suggests, our smartphones wake us up, not our moms, just as emails accomplish a lot of the relational work (scheduling, reminding, checking in, etc.) conventionally performed by women.
- Finally, Katy Waldman summed-up the conversation so far and pondered whether smartphones will kill femininty:
So does technology relieve the burden on women to perform certain traditionally feminine tasks? Sure! If your husband scans the news on his iPad, you no longer need to collect the morning paper. If your kids have SpongeBob SquarePants for company, you are free to leave them bathed in television glare while you check Twitter/wallow in 21st-century guilt. On the other hand, assigning a task to a computer doesn’t necessarily make it go away. Wageless work may now be more evenly distributed among men and women, but someone still has to send the reminder emails and program the vacuum bot. We haven’t escaped the reality of unpaid labor; we’ve simply spread it around.
- The upcoming issue of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies features an interview with Baudrillard scholar Mike Gane. The interview touches upon a variety of topics, including Gane’s interactions with Baudrillard, media coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and hypothesizing what Baudrillard would be writing about were he alive today:
One could ‘see’ the specific things Baudrillard would have picked up – extreme phenomena like sovereign debt. Today he would be writing on fracking, drones, etc.
Gane also addresses the present state of academia:
The essential point is that the whole educational experience has changed, and the student has become oriented to enterprise, and to developing, accumulating, human capital. The student gets used to appraising the lecturer’s performance just as the lecturer grades the student, and the Sunday Times grades the university. So, all the discussion about declining standards focuses on the wrong issue. What has happened is a transformation of individualism, not towards a new freedom in the classical liberal sense, but towards a new individual who builds up capital and exploits this competitively. The university staff members are equally thrown into a competitive game network, where to outperform others is essential to survival. Almost everything is assessed and ranked with a degree of Kafkaesque bureaucratisation that is hardly believable. Whereas the system of 40 years ago was simple and relaxed, with liberal values, and within it there were known traditional hierarchies, today it is hyper-bureaucratised and hyper-legalised and the hierarchies have changed and keep changing. Thus to understand what has happened it is essential to see that neoliberalism does not diminish the action of the state; it avoids direct state intervention but only to insert new mechanisms and values insidiously where none existed before: for example, in Britain it is only now, forty years after the initial entry of neoliberalism, that an enterprise element is being required on each degree course, and that an enterprise element is to be counted within the work profile of academics. And these new mechanisms do not stand still; the system is in constant movement, as if in permanent crisis. This why Baudrillard, and others like Žižek, have described this as a new totalitarianism which works not by imposing a system of commands but rather a game framework into which the individual is absorbed and has to adapt at a moment’s notice.
- In a recent Atlantic article Ian Bogost considered the McRib sandwich through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The aphoristic ending of the essay recalls the Baudrillardian turn on the function of Disneyland and prisons:
Yet, the McRib’s perversity is not a defect, but a feature. The purpose of the McRib is to make the McNugget seem normal.
It’s been a long time since the last update (what happened to October?), so this post is extra long in an attempt to catch up.
- I haven’t seen the new Ender’s Game movie, but this review by abbeyotis at Cyborgology calls the film “a lean and contemporary plunge into questions of morality mediated by technology”:
In a world in which interplanetary conflicts play out on screens, the government needs commanders who will never shrug off their campaigns as merely “virtual.” These same commanders must feel the stakes of their simulated battles to be as high as actual warfare (because, of course, they are). Card’s book makes the nostalgic claim that children are useful because they are innocent. Hood’s movie leaves nostalgia by the roadside, making the more complex assertion that they are useful because of their unique socialization to be intimately involved with, rather than detached from, simulations.
- In the ongoing discourse about games criticism and its relation to film reviews, Bob Chipman’s latest Big Picture post uses his own review of the Ender’s Game film as an entry point for a breathless treatise on criticism. The video presents a concise and nuanced overview of arts criticism, from the classical era through film reviews as consumer reports up to the very much in-flux conceptions of games criticism. Personally I find this video sub-genre (where spoken content is crammed into a Tommy gun barrage of word bullets so that the narrator can convey a lot of information in a short running time) irritating and mostly worthless, since the verbal information is being presented faster than the listener can really process it. It reminds me of Film Crit Hulk, someone who writes excellent essays with obvious insight into filmmaking, but whose aesthetic choice (or “gimmick”) to write in all caps is often a distraction from the content and a deterrent to readers. Film Crit Hulk has of course addressed this issue and explained the rationale for this choice, but considering that his more recent articles have dropped the third-person “Hulk speak” writing style the all caps seems to be played out. Nevertheless, I’m sharing the video because Mr. Chipman makes a lot of interesting points, particularly regarding the cultural contexts for the various forms of criticism. Just remember to breathe deeply and monitor your heart rate while watching.
- In this video of a presentation titled Game design: the medium is the message, Jonathan Blow discusses how commercial constraints dictate the form of products from TV shows to video games.
- This somewhat related video from mynextappliance contextualizes Valve’s Steam machine place in gaming history.
- This video from Satchbag’s Goods is ostensibly a review of Hotline Miami, but develops into a discussion of art movements and Kanye West:
- This short interview with Slavoj Žižek in New York magazine continues a trend I’ve noticed since Pervert’s Guide to Ideology has been releasing, wherein writers interviewing Žižek feel compelled to include themselves and their reactions to/interactions with Žižek into their article. Something about a Žižek encounter brings out the gonzo in journalists. The NY mag piece is also notable for this succinct positioning of Žižek’s contribution to critical theory:
Žižek, after all, the Yugoslav-born, Ljubljana-based academic and Hegelian; mascot of the Occupy movement, critic of the Occupy movement; and former Slovenian presidential candidate, whose most infamous contribution to intellectual history remains his redefinition of ideology from a Marxist false consciousness to a Freudian-Lacanian projection of the unconscious. Translation: To Žižek, all politics—from communist to social-democratic—are formed not by deliberate principles of freedom, or equality, but by expressions of repressed desires—shame, guilt, sexual insecurity. We’re convinced we’re drawing conclusions from an interpretable world when we’re actually just suffering involuntary psychic fantasies.
- Wired UK reported on university students who turned maps of seventeenth century London into a detailed 3D world:
Following the development of the environment on the team’s blog you can see some of the gaps between what data was deemed noteworthy or worth recording in the seventeenth century and the level of detail we now expect in maps and other infographics. For example, the team struggled to pinpoint the exact location on Pudding Lane of the bakery where the Great Fire of London is thought to have originated and so just ended up placing it halfway along.
- Stephen Totilo reviewed the new pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed game for the New York Times. I haven’t played the game, but I love that the sections of the game set in the present day have shifted from the standard global conspiracy tropes seen in the earlier installments to postmodern self-referential and meta-fictional framing:
Curiously, a new character is emerging in the series: Ubisoft itself, presented mostly in the form of self-parody in the guise of a fictional video game company, Abstergo Entertainment. We can play small sections as a developer in Abstergo’s Montreal headquarters. Our job is to help turn Kenway’s life — mined through DNA-sniffing gadgetry — into a mass-market video game adventure. We can also read management’s emails. The team debates whether games of this type could sell well if they focused more on peaceful, uplifting moments of humanity. Conflict is needed, someone argues. Violence sells.
It turns out that Abstergo is also a front for the villainous Templars, who search for history’s secrets when not creating entertainment to numb the population. In these sections, Ubisoft almost too cheekily aligns itself with the bad guys and justifies its inevitable 2015 Assassin’s Creed, set during yet another violent moment in world history.
- Speaking of postmodern, self-referential, meta-fictional video games: The Stanley Parable was released late last month. There has already been a bevy of analysis written about the game, but I am waiting for the Mac release to play the game and doing my best to avoid spoilers in the meantime. Brenna Hillier’s post at VG24/7 is spoiler free (assuming you are at least familiar with the games premise, or its original incarnation as a Half Life mod), and calls The Stanley parable “a reaction against, commentary upon, critique and celebration of narrative-driven game design”:
The Stanley Parable wants you to think about it. The Stanley Parable, despite its very limited inputs (you can’t even jump, and very few objects are interactive) looks at those parts of first-person gaming that are least easy to design for – exploration and messing with the game’s engine – and foregrounds them. It takes the very limitations of traditional gaming narratives and uses them to ruthlessly expose their own flaws.
- An article at Techcrunch looks at how the Twitter-acquired Bluefin Labs “took the academic subject of semiotics and made it something “central” to the future of Twitter’s business“:
Roy’s research focus prior to founding Bluefin, and continued interest while running the company, has to do with how both artificial and human intelligences learn language. In studying this process, he determined that the most important factor in meaning making was the interaction between human beings: non one learns language in a vacuum, after all. That lesson helped inform his work at Twitter, which started with mapping the connection between social network activity and live broadcast television.
- Nathan at metopal posted their paper posing the question: What happens when we stop thinking about videogames as cinema and instead think of them through other media, like fashion, dance, or architecture?
Aspiring to cinematic qualities is not bad in an of itself, nor do I mean to shame fellow game writers, but developers and their attendant press tend to be myopic in their point of view, both figuratively and literally. If we continually view videogames through a monocular lens, we miss much of their potential. And moreover, we begin to use ‘cinematic’ reflexively without taking the time to explain what the hell that word means.
Metaphor is a powerful tool. Thinking videogames through other media can reframe our expectations of what games can do, challenge our design habits, and reconfigure our critical vocabularies. To crib a quote from Andy Warhol, we get ‘a new idea, a new look, a new sex, a new pair of underwear.’ And as I hinted before, it turns out that fashion and videogames have some uncanny similarities.
- John Powers at the Airship posted this great longform piece on the political economy of zombies:
Zombies started their life in the Hollywood of the 1930s and ‘40s as simplistic stand-ins for racist xenophobia. Post-millennial zombies have been hot-rodded by Danny Boyle and made into a subversive form of utopia. That grim utopianism was globalized by Max Brooks, and now Brad Pitt and his partners are working to transform it into a global franchise. But if zombies are to stay relevant, it will rely on the shambling monsters’ ability to stay subversive – and real subversive shocks and terror are not dystopian. They are utopian.
- This article at The Conversation addresses the “touchy subject” of Apple’s Touch ID:
Ironically, our bodies now must make physical contact with devices dictating access to the real; Apple’s Touch ID sensor can discern for the most part if we are actually alive. This way, we don’t end up trying to find our stolen fingers on the black market, or prevent others from 3D scanning them to gain access to our lives.
This is a monumental shift from when Apple released its first iPhone just six years ago. It’s a touchy subject: fingerprinting authentication means we confer our trust in an inanimate object to manage our animate selves – our biology is verified, digitised, encrypted, as they are handed over to our devices.
- In the wake of the Silk Road shut down last month, Chloe Albanesius at PC Mag asks: What was Silk Road and how did it work?
Can you really buy heroin on the Web as easily as you might purchase the latest best-seller from Amazon? Not exactly, but as the FBI explained in its complaint, it wasn’t exactly rocket science, thanks to Tor and some bitcoins. Here’s a rundown of how Silk Road worked before the feds swooped in.
- Henry Jenkins posted the transcript of an interview with Mark J.P. Wolf. The theme of the discussion is “imaginary worlds,” and they touch upon the narratology vs. ludology conflict in gaming:
The interactivity vs. storytelling debate is really a question of the author saying either “You choose” (interaction) or “I choose” (storytelling) regarding the events experienced; it can be all of one or all of the other, or some of each to varying degrees; and even when the author says “You choose”, you are still choosing from a set of options chosen by the author. So it’s not just a question of how many choices you make, but how many options there are per choice. Immersion, however, is a different issue, I think, which does not always rely on choice (such as immersive novels), unless you want to count “Continue reading” and “Stop reading” as two options you are constantly asked to choose between.
- Finally, GamesForChange has uploaded video of Ian Bogost’s keynote address from this year’s Games for Change Festival. Bogost extolls the virtues of “earnestness” over “seriousness” in game design:
- Kotaku recently posted a “manifesto” by game designer Eric Zimmerman declaring that the 21st century will be defined by games:
Systems, play, design: these are not just aspects of the Ludic Century, they are also elements of gaming literacy. Literacy is about creating and understanding meaning, which allows people to write (create) and read (understand).
New literacies, such as visual and technological literacy, have also been identified in recent decades. However, to be truly literate in the Ludic Century also requires gaming literacy. The rise of games in our culture is both cause and effect of gaming literacy in the Ludic Century.
- In a follow-up to Zimmerman’s treatise, Kotaku asked various game theorists, designers, and writers: will the 21st century be defined by games? Respondents include media theorist Ian Bogost:
So, perhaps there is one fundamental challenge for the Manifesto for a Ludic Century: would a truly ludic century be a century of manifestos? Of declaring simple principles rather than embracing systems? Or, is the Ludic Manifesto meant to be the last manifesto, the manifesto to end manifestos, replacing simple answers with the complexity of “information at play?”
- While on the topic of Bogost, I recently read his game studies paper from 2009 wherein he relates contemporary game studies to McLuhan’s discussion of games in 1964’s Understanding Media:
Might we conclude: videogames are the first creative medium to fully emerge after Marshall McLuhan. By the time they became popular, media ecology as a method was well-known. McLuhan was a popular icon. By the time the first generation of videogame players was becoming adults, McLuhan had become a trope. When the then-new publication Wired Magazine named him their “patron saint” in 1993, the editors didn’t even bother to explain what that meant. They didn’t need to.
By the time videogame studies became a going concern, McLuhan was gospel. So much so that we don’t even talk about him. To use McLuhan’s own language of the tetrad, game studies have enhanced or accelerated media ecology itself, to the point that the idea of studying the medium itself over its content has become a natural order.
- This piece by Bogost for The Atlantic looks at “flipped classrooms” and massive open online courses:
Generally speaking, educators have warmed to the idea of the flipped classroom far more than that of the MOOC. That move might be injudicious, as the two are intimately connected. It’s no accident that private, for-profit MOOC startups like Coursera have advocated for flipped classrooms, since those organizations have much to gain from their endorsement by universities. MOOCs rely on the short, video lecture as the backbone of a new educational beast, after all. Whether in the context of an all-online or a “hybrid” course, a flipped classroom takes the video lecture as a new standard for knowledge delivery and transfers that experience from the lecture hall to the laptop.
- Also, with increased awareness of Animal Crossing following from the latest game’s release for the Nintendo 3DS, Bogost recently posted an excerpt from his 2007 book Persuasive Games discussing consumption and naturalism in Animal Crossing:
Animal Crossing deploys a procedural rhetoric about the repetition of mundane work as a consequence of contemporary material property ideals. When my (then) five-year-old began playing the game seriously, he quickly recognized the dilemma he faced. On the one hand, he wanted to spend the money he had earned from collecting fruit and bugs on new furniture, carpets, and shirts. On the other hand, he wanted to pay off his house so he could get a bigger one like mine.
- In a post discussing the trio of protagonists of GTA V, in anticipation of the game’s impending release, Craig at unigamesity sees the use of multiple playable characters as addressing “ludonarrative dissonance“:
Ludonarrative dissonance is when the story the game is telling you and your gameplay experience somehow don’t match up. As an example, this was a particular issue in Rockstar’s most recent game, Max Payne 3. Max constantly makes remarks about how terrible he is at his job, even though he does more than is humanly possible to try to protect his employers – including making perfect one-handed head shots in mid-air while drunk and high on painkillers. The disparity and the dissonance between the narrative of the story and the gameplay leave things feeling off kilter and poorly inter-connnected. It doesn’t make sense or fit with your experience so it feels wrong and damages the cohesiveness of the game world and story. It’s like when you go on a old-lady only murdering spree as Niko, who is supposed to be a reluctant killer with a traumatic past, not a gerontophobic misogynist.
- Ludonarrative dissonance also cropped up in this post by Alex Pieschel on medium discussing irony and praise in videogames (found via Critical Distance):
What I find strange, in light of our supposed anti-irony cultural moment, is a kind of old-fashioned ironic conceit behind a number of recent critical darlings in the commercial videogame space. 2007’s Bioshock and this year’s Bioshock: Infinite are both about the irony of expecting ‘meaningful choice’ to live in an artificial dome of technological and commercial constraints. Last year’s Spec Ops: The Line offers a grim alchemy of self-deprecation and preemptive disdain for its audience. The Grand Theft Auto series has always maintained a cool, dismissive cynicism beneath its gleefully absurd mayhem. These games frame choice as illusory and experience as artificial. They are expensive, explosive parodies of free will.
- Which led me to this 2007 post from click nothing on ludonarrative dissonance in BioShock:
To cut straight to the heart of it, Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story. By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest (which I almost did) or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.
- Sarah Wanenchak at Cyborgology considers mindfucks in videogames (partially in response to this post from Problem Machine):
The post itself makes a very important point: games, for the most part, can’t pull the Mindfuck like movies can because of the nature of the kind of storytelling to which most games are confined, which is predicated on a particular kind of interaction. Watching a movie may not be an entirely passive experience, but it’s clearly more passive than a game. You may identify with the characters on the screen, but you’re not meant to implicitly think of yourself as them. You’re not engaging in the kind of subtle roleplaying that most (mainstream) games encourage. You are not adopting an avatar. In a game, you are your profile, you are the character you create, and you are also to a certain degree the character that the game sets in front of you. I may be watching everything Lara Croft does from behind her, but I also control her; to the extent that she has choices, I make them. I get her from point A to B, and if she fails it’s my fault. When I talk about something that happened in the game, I don’t say that Lara did it. I say that I did.
- These excerpted research results published on kmjn.org reports that videogame players are acceptive of at least some cases of incoherence in anachronic gameplay:
Anachrony is a common storytelling technique in which events are narrated out of chronological order. A familiar example is a flashback, where story time jumps to the past for a bit, before returning to the present. The term “nonlinear narrative” is also sometimes used for this kind of out-of-order storytelling (somewhat less precisely).
While it’s a common technique in literature and film, anachrony is widely seen as more problematic to use in games, perhaps even to the point of being unusable. If the player’s actions during a flashback scene imply a future that differs considerably from the one already presented in a present-day scene (say, the player kills someone who they had been talking to in a present-day scene, or commits suicide in a flashback), this produces an inconsistent narrative. The root of the problem is that players generally have degree of freedom of action, so flashbacks are less like the case in literature and film—where already decided events are simply narrated out of order—and more like time travel, where the player travels back in time and can mess up the timeline.
- Polygon reports on a venture by Press Select to publish longform games criticism:
The first of the books are set to be published in early 2014. Some of the writers that will be published by Press Select in its first round have written for publications like Edge magazine, Kotaku, Kill Screen and personal blogs, including writers like Chris Dahlen, Michael Abbott, Jenn Frank, Jason Killingsworth, Maddy Myers, Tim Rogers, Patricia Hernandez and Robert Yang.
- Media theorist and ludologist Ian Bogost recently penned some thoughts on Facebook’s development platform (referred to as “Facebook’s bleak new feudalism” in the title of Kotaku’s repost of the original piece):
The short truth is this: Facebook doesn’t care if developers can use the platform easily or at all. In fact, it doesn’t seem to concern itself with any of the factors that might be at play in developers’ professional or personal circumstances. The Facebook Platform is a selfish, self-made altar to Facebook, at which developers are expected to kneel and cower, rather than a generous contribution to the success of developers that also happens to benefit Facebook by its aggregate effects.
- Jeffrey van der Goot at Been Playing argues for “more Kubrickian and Lynchian narratives in video games“:
A lot of reactions to the narrative of [Bioshock] Infinite that I encountered were that it “didn’t make sense,” and that it was “being weird for the sake of being weird.”
Those reminded me of criticisms leveled at two of my favorite filmmakers: David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. I think these comments arise because Infinite doesn’t go all the way, it hesitates. It tries to stick to conventional logic. It strews about Voxaphones to explain its abstractions.
- Shujaat Syed at Player Effort writes about “making linear story telling interesting in video games by acknowledging the fourth wall”:
At their core, video games are authoritarian. They have rules that need to be followed, and you are restricted to the game play systems and a story the programmers and designers have created. However, compared to other forms of media, they offer a breadth of freedom that is unmatched. I will not be speaking about the freedom of exploration. What I will be talking about is the freedom of creating a different type of narrative that is only possible through video games by breaking the 4th wall between the game and the player. This is one of our mediums greatest advantage, however, very rarely, is this power explored. With video games, we can have truly powerful forms of narrative, but at most we get ideas that could theoretically work as movies. Open-world sandbox games can dodge this because the player is free to create their own narrative alongside the main plotline, and this is a concept that is entirely unique to video games. It’s the linear story-based games where the narrative is usually much harder to distinguish than what you would get from a book or movie.
- Miles Klee at The Daily Dot reports on an app “that gamifies your boring sex life”:
In addition to registering your decibel levels (I’m hoping mine will get a boost from the garbage truck always idling outside my window), Spreadsheets will also monitor your overall duration, frequency, and somehow, thrusts per minute. Apparently this does not require supplementary electrodes.
What’s more, you can unlock “badges” and the like. For example, to meet the “Hello Sunshine” achievement, worth 10 points, you must take on the ultimate challenge of our time: “perform morning sex.”