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This week in video game criticism: From historical games to #1reasonwhy

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including historical games, gun violence, reflections on the #1reasonwhy trend, and more.

Kris Ligman, Blogger

January 14, 2013

8 Min Read

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including historical games, gun violence, reflections on the #1reasonwhy trend, and more. Hello C-D readers, this is your Captain speaking. I am back in the chair as is right and proper with the universe and we are ready to engage. Let’s get This Week in Video Game Blogging going! #1Reason Kim Swift, a developer who should require no introduction, has a new blog up and running with a few inspiring words and reflections on the #1reasonwhy trend:

If you want diversity in gaming subjects: If you want a more fair, unbiased workplace: If you want the industry to just plain grow up: Then we need to change the makeup of our industry, because games are a reflection of their creators. So I see the solution to this problem coming not a year from now, not five years from now, but twenty. When this current generation of kids sees the good example that we should be setting now. And though we may not be able to tell it completely like it is just yet, there’s still plenty we can do to help future generations of game developers.

Addressing the hashtag phenomenon with a different approach, Emily Gera has this brilliant little text game you should definitely try on: “Congratulations, You Are Now a Kotaku Commenter“. HERE COMES EVERYONE Media studies big-fish (and former professor of this humble editor yours) Henry Jenkins handed over blog space this week to USC PhD student Micha Cardenas, on the subject on indie games LIM and dys4ia. Also in that vein, dys4ia creatrix anna anthropy has finally posted the the full text and slides of her IndieCade panel from this past October, titled “Now We Have Voices: Queering Games.” Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez calls for an end to the bald space marine default character. Meanwhile, though it’s not specific to games, trellism offers up this salient critique of the tokenism behind the “strong female character.” Speaking of tokens, Kate Cox turned up on her personal blog again this week reflecting on how board games (namely Monopoly) seem to treat the idea of the avatar, as opposed to video games:

Everyone seems to understand, instinctively, that it’s okay to have strong feelings about your Monopoly piece. From a young age, we got passionate about the dog, or the car, or the shoe (but never the iron), and that was all right. So why does similar passion about digital avatars create such a hue and cry? If you say you are tired of the slate of straight white men, you are a whiner. You do not understand that “sex sells.” You are a troublemaker. You are a “feminist bitch” and worse.

YES, EVERYONE Problem Machine lays down the issue of the sorts of physical proficiency that games privilege, to such a degree that they become impenetrable for a great number of prospective users:

Basically, by pseudo-Darwinistic processes, we’ve created a development culture that a) has, as common perspective/capability, above average dexterity, and b) has come to expect that games, almost by definition, will challenge that ability. […] I think it’s important to frame this discourse in terms of diversity, I think it’s important to recognize some of the same understandings that underpin that discussion also apply here. Primarily, I want it to be understood that I’m not claiming that the games that exist are bad, or even necessarily worse than they could be, because of this: I’m just stating that the total scope they encompass, that our understanding of what a game can be, is smaller because of it.

Dylan Holmes, whose first book on games, A Mind Forever Voyaging, is alas still sitting by my desk awaiting review (sorry, Dylan!), relates how he uses Dear Esther to help get some of his fellow academics into games. Meanwhile, in light of Endgame: Syria’s rejection from the Apple App Store, Jorge Albor criticizes the ability for a small, private, governing body to censor political games. CLOSE READS As always some of the week’s best pieces come in the form of taking a magnifying glass to a particular game or franchise. Let’s dig in. Zach Alexander outlines for us the strata of realities in the Assassin’s Creed series of systems. On Unwinnable, Joseph Leray takes a retrospective look at Machinarium’s depictions of class and slavery. Also on the subject of class, Robert Rath proposes that it may be worthwhile to view Dishonored in the context of what ‘honor’ meant to the 18th and 19th century British culture which inspired its setting. Meanwhile, Rob Zacny takes to using Dishonored’s Heart mechanic to guide moral actions in the game. On the subject of Far Cry 3, Michael Clarkson has a particular beef with its treatment of the “rape revenge” trope. (Clarkson’s article indeed contains its own trigger warning on exactly this subject, so read with care.) HISTORY! We catch back up with Robert Rath for another memorable column, this time on how we can tap into historical games not just for their visually interesting settings, but also their zeitgeist. Elsewhere, Cabel Maxfield Sasser performs a different kind history lesson: a wonderful little time capsule of Easter Eggs in early video games. MR. BOGOST GOES TO WASHINGTON (NOT REALLY) On The Atlantic, Ian Bogost has some coolly-delivered words about US Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun violence landing the games industry in a Catch-22:

The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education. Game industry responses to this latest political affront have again worsened matters by accepting the opposition’s terms.

On another tack over on Gamasutra, Jared Lorince suggests that games offer accessible ways to tackle complex problems of probability, which obviously has far-reaching implications of the register Bogost has written about as well. ACCORDING TO DESIGN Much has been written in favor of surprise hit Crusader Kings II. Rowan Kaiser shows up on Gamasutra this week with a new feature on its design schema and an interview with its project lead Henrik Fahraeus. On the topic of excellent Gamasutra features, Christian Nutt has a great one up as well on Virtue’s Last Reward and its director, Kotaro Uchikoshi. Touching off on a 2011 piece by Kirk Battle about content degradation, Joseph Leray suggests RPGs’ narratives have a unique staying power because, rather than being completely dissonant from their mechanics, their story universes are meaningfully interwoven with them.

Most of [the Final Fantasy franchise’s] systems are diagetic: the Materia system of Final Fantasy VII occurs in a world in which materia is a real, physical item. Common townspeople have a few pieces of it, and it can be bought and sold in shops. It’s not relegated or written off as a game-y necessity. The game takes its own systems seriously. Junctioning a Guardian Force in Final Fantasy VIII; summoning a sky-dragon in IX and X; buying a license from a government-approved vendor in XII’s Ivalice — all of these complex, Byzantine systems are pinned into their respective game’s plots, taken as literal parts of their worlds. These mechanics are only possible in the context created by each game’s narrative foundation. The content — the story, the characters, the setpieces — serve as the foundation on which the systems are built. In other words, the content in, say, most Final Fantasy games doesn’t degrade quickly. Even in the midst of a boss fight, when the game is almost purely mechanical, players are dealing with tiny pieces of the plot and gameworld. When content is inescapable, it remains relevant.

Writing for Digital Spirit Guide, Saul Alexander reminds us that the most seamless systems aren’t always the most memorable. And on Electron Dance, the ever-meditative Joel Goodwin suggests that the author is dead, but context (often) (sometimes) matters. And over on his Critical Missive blog, Eric Schwarz snaps on a pair of rubber gloves to start rescusitating broken in-game economies. TAPPING THE FISHBOWL Returning from an Internet sabbatical where he mostly interacted with people who played, you know, those other games, Michael Abbott broaches a few interesting topics on the state of gaming we seem unwilling to address. DUDE… WHAT? I don’t know what Cara Ellison is high on, but despite Stephen Lavelle’s newest game being titled Slave of God, I don’t think it’s Jesus. Craig Wilson thinks his bold new approach to games criticism is too hot for Critical Distance, does he? We’ll show him! We’re edgy, damn it! We’re cool with the kids! And I did tell him slideshow criticism was a pretty interesting new schtick. And one last one for you, but it’s a twofer. I’m more into house music so I have no idea what’s going on in here but I bet these two pieces by Gus Mastrapa will be the best XCOM fanfiction you read all week. THE REGULAR BUSINESS If you’re craving a bit more, pop on over to Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Sunday Papers for a spot of tea. That’s all the links that’s fit to print for this week! Join us again next week for more of blogging’s best writing about games. In the meantime, be sure to send us your recommendations by email or by @ing us on Twitter, and drop by this month’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt as well!

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