This week in video game criticism: From SimCity to formalism
This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including personal isolation, intimacy in narrative, the use of home in games, and more.
A thing that many movies do, most comics and Bioshock Infinite, is depict the faction in the story representing racism as unequivocally evil. Cartoonishly evil actually. This pretends like racism is some sort of thing mentally deranged people do, something sociopaths and psychopaths are drawn to or something you become when you are indoctrinated into some sort of cult.
While this of course serves to condemn racism as a concept, it mainly serves as a way out of dealing with your own internalized racism and serves as a way to absolve yourself by comparison. It also serves – and that is actually the truly ugly effect of that treatment – to push what we are allowed to label as racism into an extremist corner and it sabotages any healthy debate about racism in our society.
Bioshock: Infinite’s failings aren’t in its heavy use of violence, or the fact it’s a first person shooter. It’s the perversion of oppression, the creation of a world white people want to get lost and “immersed” in, instead of tearing down, the total lack of decency in regards to the views of people who have and still are the victims of racist oppression in America, and really just a general lack of empathy for the sake of entertainment.
This is not a game about American exceptionalism and the choice between obedient prison and chaotic freedom. This is a game where you have to chase a ghost among parallel realities. This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.
The Levine-led Irrational team has birthed a universe, now, of games about a dominant ideologue enforcing a slavish devotion to fearful systems, even after those systems have become irrelevant. It gives us worlds plunged into the stress of compartmentalized factions where teams don’t communicate, where promises are grand and lovely, but terrible on execution.
I think to some extent every game must be a reflection of its creative environment, its studio culture. Infinite strains its framework so fiercely you can see through to the flickering reality behind it. I would love to do an interview: Not a grand portrait of Levine, but with his soldiers.
And on Drop Out, Hang Out, Space Out, Daniel Joseph cautions against the cultural gatekeeping implicit in the process of artistically evaluating a game like BioShock Infinite, which segues neatly into our next section of links.
But is formalism games?
Writing on his personal/professional site, Raph Koster opens up a debate/can of worms when he responds to remarks made by Leigh Alexander over Twitter, and calls for dialogue on a number of subjects, including the role of definitions, games as rhetorical devices, and formalism.
Leigh Alexander responds in kind, reposting her comment from Koster’s blog and adding: “We have much more to learn and gain, at least for now, by eschewing definitions than we do by prescribing them.”
Writing on his Radiator blog, Robert Yang continued the discussion, responding to Koster’s letter with one of his own in which he lays out the reasons for some of the original post’s negative reception. “[With personal games], game design is not physics, engineering, or science — rather, it’s political science, it’s history. Maybe we could approach our criticism of these games more like those fields?”
The comment thread on Yang’s post, starting with some thoughtful remarks by Jesper Juul, are also very much worth reading.
Reacting to all the dust-up caused by these posts, Canabalt developer Adam Saltsman appeared on Polygon, opining that mutual respect and openness to feedback is called for.
Tadhg Kelly soon chimed in as well, erecting a (some would say unnecessary) dichotomy between formalists (as he self-identifies) and “zinesters,” borrowing a term from anna anthropy to describe the outsider artists taking umbrage with his and Koster’s statements.
Andrew Vanden Bossche quickly called for a decoupling of the idea that systems are the unique territory of formalists:
“Formalist” vs “zinester” is not a binary that exists … Everyone gets to talk about mechanics. The game/notgame binary is not an immediate conclusion of a frame of analysis that focuses on mechanics. I believe instead that it is a very strict and limited definition that carries its own political agenda, consciously or not.