This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Riley MacLeod on topics ranging from a look back at the first PlayStation controller to the pitfalls of jiggle physics.
Our Mutual Hobby Involves Pushing Buttons to Perform Actions
Let's begin with the intricacies of mechanics and controls. As part of Kill Screen's week on the first PlayStation, David Shimomura explores the semiotics of the design behind the PlayStation's controller. Shimomura writes that what Teiyu Goto, the designer of the original controller "didn’t realize was that while he had ultimate reign of the symbols themselves he did not have ultimate sanction over the meanings that others would draw from them." Shimomura also looks at the cultural context of the buttons and how they did and didn't translate to American audiences.
Relatedly, over at Paste, Katherine Cross discusses the button-pressing we love to hate, the quick-time event,or QTE (which I just realized you could pronounce as "cutie;" has anyone done that?). Looking beyond Call of Duty's cringe-worthy "Press F to Pay Respects," Cross considers QTEs in a more far-reaching and generous light:
Simply put, at their best, quick time events are meant to blur the line between cinematic and gameplay to maintain the involvement of the player. They can be seen as a form of experiential integration designed to simulate involvement in a particular moment of the avatar’s story. The input device, be it a keyboard, controller, a mouse, or a mobile phone, is used to its fullest extent to provide some kind of sensation that simulates what you see on screen[...]
But this simulation of physical sensation is, of course, an ideal which many QTEs spectacularly fail to reach, often simply reducing QTEs to basic reflex challenges.
Speaking of physical sensations, over on her blog Mattie Brice looks poetically and thought-provokingly at how our physical bodies are present or not when we play games. She believes that the body is marginalized in play in favor of being seen as "one large controller," and she protests that "[o]ur bodies are the site of play, where meaning occurs, willing or not." From this she draws broader political conclusions, such as:
There is a resistance because bodies are complicated. Incorporating subject(ivitie)s decentralizes the game object and forces designers and critics to ponder the infinite relationships bodies can have with an experience. Controllers in particular throttle the ways bodies can be recognized in the design, and is probably the main agent in the absence of body subjectivity in critique. It is impossible to know how another’s bodily reaction will be to an experience, and that exactitude is only necessary for products that promise it. That class critique is also underrepresented might hint as to why these sorts of connections are rarely traversed outside of particular, minoritized niches. Right on the surface, the lack of awareness of bodies assumes a typical body, most definitely excluding those who don’t have it and their experiences.
Stepping away from the buttons we push to what those buttons do in a game, L. Rhodes takes a look at the interactions in Gone Home from a mechanics point of view, exploring how the controls, or "terms of interaction," given their basis in first-person shooter mechanics, require a familiarity that may not entirely serve the game. Far-removed from the "is this really a game?" argument the internet enjoys over Gone Home and other exploration games, this article suggests that:
Gone Home really only requires you to move around the house, clicking on items to examine and move them. I see no reason why the terms of interaction shouldn’t be more limited.
Among other things, that would make the game more accessible, both to videogame novices and to players with physical disabilities.
Lastly, Lulu Blue takes a look at Monster Hunter's mechanics in a positive light. The article recounts a particularly thrilling experience, concluding that "[t]hat moment wouldn’t have came to exist without every layer of complexity crafted into the game. So many moving parts also means there’s just as much space for creative, unexpected solutions."
Perhaps We Both Enjoy Roleplaying Games?
Games can let us be new people or explore different parts of ourselves. Heather O at FemHype looks at the relationship between videogames, daily stress, and PTSD, exploring the role that simulated combat has played in her life as a disabled veteran. She links to several studies on this topic that are sure to be interesting to anyone who thinks about the ramifications of games as oftentimes-violent roleplaying experiences.
Looking at roleplay from a personality-focused perspective, an article over at Big Fat Phoenix asks if how we roleplay can change who we are. The author considers how their own relationship to roleplaying in games has changed over the years and what it reveals about their personality and morals, especially as they age.
If you make games in which you'd like people to roleplay, Extra Credits made a video about it this week! They look at how to encourage roleplay and how to make it meaningful in your game's world, and, as always, they do it through energetic cartoons.
Do You Have Thoughts About the Videogames Industry?
Over at The Guardian, Ian G. Williams revisits the issue of crunch in game development and how it has and hasn't changed since the infamous "EA spouse" post of 10 years ago. Williams points out that, according to surveys, the average age of people working in game development hasn't changed much, and this perpetually youthful and oftentimes exploitable workforce might contribute to the industry's work/life balance issues.
On Gamasutra, Laralyn McWilliams addresses this age question in her blog post on turning 50 (a belated happy birthday, Ms. Williams). Like Williams' article, she highlights the toll game development takes on people in the industry's personal lives, and she importantly notes, "Keep in mind that passion isn’t synonymous with crunch. Managers who conflate those two ideas are taking advantage of us." She also looks at how change in the industry affects its culture.
In a broader look at change, Owen Grieve highlights capitalism's influence on changes in the games industry and what it means for the "gamer" identity. This exhaustive and far-reaching exploration covers creators, players, journalists, and the myriad forces that bring us to where we are today and where we might go in the future. Here's a snapshot of one of the many topics he covers:
But now, more than 30 years later, and in spite of the mainstream cultural acceptance of games in general, the majority of people are still put off by the kind of wilful (sic) masochism of traditional videogames. There's a huge amount of commerical (sic) and cultural potential in exploring alternative game concepts. [...]
But along with the celebration of acceptance and diversity, it does also create a wrinkle of frustration for some of us who grew up with traditional games: As more and more generations of people grow up surrounded by games, shouldn't the market for 'games for gamers' become stronger and more stable?
Regarding the changing face of journalism, Rob Fearon considers what Rock Paper Shotgun's recent Peter Molyneux interview says about creators interacting with the media and the future of games journalism. Among his many points are:
There’s so many people in games now with so much to say, so much of worth and use but they don’t fit within the system. They don’t have organised PR, they don’t do press tours and in many, many cases, you won’t find them locked in a room at an event showing off their videogames to the press because that is still a privilege reserved for the few (as good as some indies are at reaching out and playing the game). We can’t keep on going as we always have done and expect the new blood to fit in with us and the old ways, we need to accommodate them somehow. Reach out to them for their words.
Let's Discuss Gender and Sexuality
To return to Kill Screen, this week Chris Priestman unpacked the development of Lara Croft alongside the changing face of feminism in the '90s. I was surprised to learn how the intent of her creator was affected by cultural and political forces to create the paradigmatic figure we all know today.
Speaking of figures (do you see what I did there?), over at Kotaku Patricia Hernandez takes an in-depth look at breast physics. Part history, part exploration of tech, the article contains tips for developers and fascinating insights into why so many of them get breast physics wrong. (Content warning: nudity.)
On the player side of things, Sarah Nixon looks at a recent controversy in the Hearthstone circuit surrounding the gender identity of a top player. She points out "a deep rooted problem with sexism in these, and other gaming communities, that is making these communities intolerable for female players – particularly successful female players."
Finally, GayGamer's Mitch Alexander held an interview with Todd Harper about his Twine game Upon Reflection, which explores, as Harper says, "three moments in my life where I was dealing with the relationship between my body, which doesn’t match what mainstream culture (gay or not) says is 'desirable,' and having sex as a gay man." The interview also covers Twine as a tool for marginalized creators and the function of empathy in games.
Let's Talk about Race
On her website, N.K. Jemisin writes eloquently about making race matter in art, including in videogames, beyond simple nods to diversity. She discusses Vivienne in Dragon Age: Inquisition, pointing out that, "Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless."
This article dovetails with an article over at Kill Screen about race in Treachery in Beatdown City. The article points out that "[o]n the off-chance a game happens to portray a character as non-white, they are typically presented as ethnic cliches, rather than actual human beings with real issues and complex lives," and it examines how Treachery attempted to address this.
And just as I was telling you this, Mattie Brice published a passionate response to recent discussions about race in games. She dismisses the idea of surface diversity as "progress" for which people should be grateful, instead demanding
Why, exactly, must we deal with the breadcrumbs that corporations dole out? In a way, progress is not what we want, when we’re forced to play by someone else’s timetable. And even now, the progress we do have, would our forebears honestly nod and pat us on the shoulders, to commend us for this bold step forward for racial justice? Can’t we just give words to how fucked it is?
All the Things I Can't Make a Suave Conversational Transition About
It looks like this party's winding down, so here is a flurry of things I found interesting this week that I can't sum up in a clever topic heading.
Here is a fascinating article by Jamie Taylor about history through the lens of games and play. The article looks at how games can embody history, their possibilities and constraints, and what this might mean to a wide range of disciples, including games, historians, and the academy at large.
Jorge Albor at Pop Matters looks at how anarchy is represented in Netrunner and how the game's characters and mechanics allow for the exploration of various real-world anarchist strategies and ideals. This, like most writing about Netrunner, makes me want to play Netrunner, which is probably what you're all doing later.
Finally, religion in games is a huge interest of mine, though they say you aren't supposed to talk about it with people you've just met. Nevertheless, I would be remiss not to include this thoughtful and personal essay by Nathan Grayson about videogames' role in the gradual loss of his Christian faith.
Oh, I See You're Getting Your Coat
Thank you for reading! If there's an article by you or someone else you'd like to bring to our consideration for This Week in Videogame Blogging, let us know over at Twitter with an @critdistance mention or via email.
Stay tuned for the newest roundups and prompts for our Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let's Plays features. In the meantime, some signal-boosting: First Person Scholar has been publishing talks from the 2014 Queerness & Games Conference, and they're all interesting and will make you either glad you went or, like me, lament that you couldn't.
Did you know that Critical Distance is funded completely by our readership? If you like what we do and want to help us do more of it, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation on our Patreon.