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This week in video game criticism: From SimCity to Tropes vs. Women

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Katie Williams on topics including SimCity's disastrous launch, the pope as a gameplay mechanic, Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women series, and more.

March 12, 2013

6 Min Read

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Katie Williams on topics including SimCity's disastrous launch, the pope as a gameplay mechanic, Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women series, and more. It's been a noisy week, folks. Loud like the plaintive whirring of my PS3 as it struggles to keep up with all these games I've been playing (for research, I assure you). Loud like the fracas that's been kicked up by the launches of SimCity and an Anita Sarkeesian video in the same week. Good grief! Let's launch right into the madness. First up, issue two of the magazine helmed by BoRT coordinator Alan Williamson, Five out of Ten, is now out! For five quid you'll get yourself ten essays penned by some of games criticism's most prolific. Yours truly poked curiously at Sleep is Death and the female monsters of Silent Hill: Downpour, but my personal favourite? Denis Farr's exploration of gender in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Sims. There's enough material in this mag to fill its own TWIVGB post, to be honest, so definitely pick it up if you just can't cram enough criticism into your cranium. Meanwhile, over at Indie Game Magazine, Marc Isaacson describes the dangers of in-app purchasing. While this editor is not 100% sure she agrees with the idea of IAPs being scammy generally - I am sensitive to the fact that games are a business, and that developers need to eat, after all - I think it's a conversation well worth having as the free-to-play model only grows more and more prominent. The Globe and Mail has a fantastic long piece, by Ian Brown, which asks: “Are video games like Assassin's Creed rewriting history?

This is one way history still gets taught: At 6 p.m. in a pink-and-beige lecture hall at the University of Toronto, 100 young men and women in HIS217Y are writing down everything, absolutely everything, Erin Black is saying about Woodrow Wilson and his efforts to keep the United States out of the First World War. Here's another way history is inhaled today: At 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in a precise, book-upholstered apartment, Mark Brownlie, 42, and his fiancee, Erin Dolmage, 39, sit before their 60-inch plasma TV and play Assassin's Creed III, a $60 video game about the American Revolution.

Ah, I love this stuff: Jill Scharr of Unwinnable makes evident some really interesting links between video games and well-known artworks. Headline of the Week Award goes to Troy Goodfellow, with “The Pope as a Game Mechanic” at Flash of Steel. But, hey, once you get past that title, the actual text isn't that bad of a read either. If you've ever wondered what exactly the Pope does, Goodfellow suggests looking through the lens of gaming to understand: "Well, if you play historical strategy games, then the Pope is there to make your life a little more complicated. He is a prize to be fought over, a lover to woo, or a dispensary of tasks." Critical Distance's newest editor Mattie Brice, writing for her own Alternate Ending, examines how the design of games such as Depression Quest serve to drive home their message. It's the first of her video series, but she's helpfully posted a transcript as well.

Depression Quest is for a couple different audiences, and a player could fit into more than one. Mainly, there are two ways a person can approach it; looking for solidarity in a shared experience and gaining empathy through a shift in perspective. It is possible to do it both ways because this game both is and isn't about depression, is and isn't about a particular person.

And now, for a pair of Tomb Raider reviews. At the Gameological Society, John Teti muses that Lara's promising story is unfortunately constrained by its narrow-minded game design; at the Mary Sue, meanwhile, the wonderful Becky Chambers praises the evolution of Lara Croft, video game sex goddess, to Lara Croft, someone we can actually relate to:

Forget everything you've read about Lara needing your protection. Forget about her needing to be "broken down." It's nonsense, all of it, the remnants of some truly misguided remarks about a character who is, without a doubt, one of the best action heroes I've ever seen. Not female action heroes - action heroes, period, full stop.

If you've noticed a lot of articles here exploring women's issues, well, that may be because we're not the only ones celebrating Women's History Month. The Border House is doing a callout for submissions on women's history in games, to be compiled in a pdf collection - check out the post for details. This week also marks the launch of the project Women In Development (Games and Everything Tech), or: WIDGET! Run by Leena van Deventer and Liah Clark, it's a website that says it will "support women developers by means of supplying resources, showcasing role models, and providing an encouraging space in which to ask questions and learn from others." Successful lady developers, such as BioWare's Karin Weekes, have already used the space to write about their craft, and I'm sure there's only more to come. And that brings us to one of the week's two meatiest issues... Anita Sarkeesian's highly publicized web series has finally launched, following the huge Kickstarter campaign and the horrific haters that came with it. Part 1 of Damsel in Distress is pretty basic knowledge on the common trope, but still important; as I said on Twitter, I'm hoping this really makes its way into games studies classrooms. Check out the accompanying Tumblr, too, for further examples of the trope. If you needed an example of why Sarkeesian chose to disable YouTube comments - and of why we so badly need a series like this in the world - see Mathew Jones' round-up of what people are saying about Tropes vs. Women. And for those who might ask "whers my tropes vs men vdieo???"... check out Stephen Beirne's investigative piece on just what happened to that project, anyway. It's fairly hilarious. The other hot topic of the week? The disastrous launch of SimCity, whose always-online DRM kept many players from actually being able to play the thing. It's brought up a lot of questions about the usefulness of the ever-expanding popularity of such DRM, and in the wake of Polygon's twice-revised review score, it's had many questioning how the review process works, too. Tom Chick argues that those who reviewed it highly, despite the launch day server issues, were not necessarily misleading consumers:

SimCity does not work yet. And anyone who has reviewed it favorably at this point is reviewing it entirely on its promise. If that's how you want to evaluate games, have at it. There is pretty much no reason any game shouldn't get a stellar review. The industry should be grateful for your enthusiasm.

And finally, Raph Koster believes that always-online DRM is not going to go away; it's a "march towards 'everything you used to buy, you now rent as a service,'" he says, "With all the good and bad that entails." That's it for this huge week of TWIVGB! Mattie Brice will be doing the next two weeks' round-ups, so be sure to tweet or email to ensure your favourite pieces of the week are submitted for her consideration. Why not contribute to our themed Blogs of the Round Table topic, too, while you're at it?

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