Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Petitions

For the uninformed, a petition was started in the wake of the recent "Gamer" Law and Order SVU.

I recommend reading it if you want a good laugh.

This petition places the blame for the episode on the likes of Polygon and Kotaku.

Now, for those that haven't seen the episode:  yes, it's bad.  It's as uninformed as you'd expect from a 45 minute TV show trying to cram in some pretty reprehensible things.  The arc of the show was limited and the whole thing basically took things to a ridiculous extreme (though, if the threats to Breanna Wu are any indication...).

But what the petition fails to really grasp is the concept of yellow journalism. To borrow Frank Luther Mott, a historian and journalist, defined yellow journalism in 1941 as:
  1. scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  2. lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  3. use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  4. emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  5. dramatic sympathy with the "underdog" against the system.
To call Kotaku or Polygon's coverage as "Yellow Journalism" is to create a pretty fuzzy distinction between two things that actually have some pretty strong distinctions.  You could, maybe, present the case for number 1, and number 4 doesn't apply, but from their coverage, Kotaku and Polygon have not delved into 2 or 3 unless you take the "GG" crowd at their word, which given their behavior, would be an exceptionally stupid thing to do.

To quote Inigo Montoya:  "You keep using this word, I do not think it means what you think it means."

Shooting the messenger is the easy way out.  It allows the receiver to ignore the repercussions of the events which effect them.  It is no different than a child throwing a tantrum, standing with their fingers in their ears and yelling.

If games and game culture are to be taken seriously in the larger mass media culture, then being able to address the foibles of the culture are a requirement.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More on Games and Culture

This discussion was spawned from an indepth conversation on facebook amongst game developers about the role of game culture within the larger mass media culture.  This discussion was centered around the response of some self-identified "gamers" who respond negatively to increased scrutiny on cultural matters within the context of games.  More specifically, the identified "GamerGaters" who saw cultural critique of sexism as an intrusion into the subculture that is gaming.

Now, I don't want to get into a debate about GamerGate.  That isn't the purpose of the discussion.

What I got to thinking about is the responsibility of the culture creators to moderate or curate the culture in which they are creating.  We see this sort of behavior in other creative endeavors such as art, film, literature and music.  Curators sift through the creations and judge, based on the merits of taste and aesthetics, which pieces are worth exhibiting, worth studying, and worth leaving their imprint on that specific creative culture.  If you're in Dallas, you can go down to the Nasher Sculpture Center or the DMA and view relevant art that has been selected for exhibition for its relevant qualities.  The curators have been trained, studying art history and aesthetics, to choose the best pieces to represent not just the institution that is exhibiting them, but to exhibit the specific movement that the piece is a part of.  The result is a unified message of the specific subculture to which the artifact represents and belongs.

Right now, as Games begin reaching a higher cultural relevance, they are no longer viewed as creative play things but artistic creations of their own.  What has happened over the last twenty years is that the artists of the game industry have created their artifacts but have done so without a curator. The result is a cultural black hole.  This is starting to change, as more academics begin focusing on games as part of the larger mass media culture and generating new criteria for analysis based on existing standards and criteria, but this has caused a great deal of friction.

The resulting criteria is the result of an inherent dichotomy that has existed among Gamers.  For as long as video games have been unleashed on the market, its creators and enthusiasts have sought legitimacy from the larger culture.  An example of this sort of struggle was evident in the statements by Roger Ebert where after doubling down on the statement that games cannot be art eventually agreed that it is possible that they can be art after passionate defenses by gamers from across the world.  Even in the early days of computer games, pre-NES, there were artistic titles that deviated from the norm.  Games like Below the Root eschewed game conventions of the day to better adapt to the source material from which the narrative was drawn.  This meant that, in "Below the Root", violence as a method of conflict resolution was practically nil, and player death is identical to the more recent Shadow of Mordor and most modern games where you simply regenerate in your home while losing "game time".  This in an age when game developers were just stepping beyond the arcade-style game with games like Choplifter, Ultima, Lode Runner and Karateka.  Thirty years after the rise of computer games, the topic of computer games as art finally reached one of the preeminent pop-culture critics in the United States.  Games had arrived as an art form within the larger pop / mass media culture, and Gamers were proud,

What they didn't appreciate is that, once accepted as an art form, it would place their beloved games under heightened scrutiny by the guardians of aesthetics within the media culture.  The black hole of critique in which games were surveyed and critiqued strictly against other games collapsed, replaced by the bright light of the broader culture.  This bright light revealed an ugly side to game culture, the black eye that developers and publishers relished as long as it lined their bank accounts.  I'm not going to run down all of the really horrible things that the increased scrutiny has revealed about the game industry;  I lack the time to do so, but it is clear that it is an embarrassment.

What this light has done, though, has increased the friction within the game culture.  As games have become more popular, and the types of games and game players have become more diverse, the game culture as a whole has lagged behind severely.  As aesthetic critiques have increased in specificity and volume, catering to this larger audience base and the legitimacy of games as an art form within the larger media culture, the backlash has increased in vitriol.  The legitimacy sought by gamers for so long has brought about something that they never considered:  careful and legitimate analysis revealing some pretty reprehensible content when compared to the accepted cultural norm.

The larger point that I'm driving at is that, once an art form is accepted as part of the larger artistic culture, it is subject to the rules of critique.  That means that the critical eye may reveal some pretty disturbing information to those that love the art form.  And that's alright.  The point of the critic isn't for the fan, necessarily, but the artist.  The critic exists to review the artwork within the context of a specific aesthetic to provide directed feedback to the creator, so that the creator can potentially improve their craft for their next artifact.

Being a critic is difficult, and requires a lot of study and, in the case of games, being more than "a fan" or a "gamer".  The critiques provided by such critics will be shallow - they experience the games as they are meant to be experienced and that's that.  Most reviews will explain the game on a very superficial level and leave it at that.  Professional reviewers will explain the game at the same level, but provide a very different critique that typically is driven at determining if the consumer will receive value for their money.  A professional critic will ask very difficult questions about the content presented in the game that goes beyond the superficial content or monetary value determination. They will ask things like: What does this game say about the larger culture?  Why does this mechanic exist and how does it relate to the larger narrative context?  What does the developers choice of narrative structure say about the culture in which it was created?  Does the setting evoke a larger sociological analysis about the culture at large?   What about the gender politics of the game?

Some gamers don't want that.  They want their artistic medium but without the criticism.  This is a flawed request - legitimacy requires study and study may reveal uncomfortable truths about the subculture of gaming.  It may also reveal some fantastic things that should be celebrated as well, but expecting legitimacy without study is a fools errand.

And it simply isn't possible to de-legitimatize games as an art form.  The genie has left the bottle, and the analysis is going to come and the critics will pass their judgement.  Games will change as a result, because that is the nature of the critic/creator relationship.  Because creating a game that specifically defies the larger culture and its accepted norms is making a statement that is to be critiqued and presented back to the creator.

Games are art.  So, get ready, because games will only be a better place for it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Games and Culture

So I just finished writing not one but two papers for my Game Studies class.


Since the start of semester, a month and a half ago, I've written 4 out of 5 required papers. Each paper covered what is hoped to be a specific angle of study in games, while one used a book and another used a game as their inspirations.

The course requires 5 minor papers, 2 covering required games in the course, 2 covering required texts, and a third that is derived either from a game or from a book that we cover in class.

I'm front loading because there is a 10 page paper due by the end of class.

And my other classes are writing intensive, which I hope to use in either helping craft better papers and help craft better teaching experiences for my students.

Thus far, all I can say is that my reading list is growing by the day and that I find my interests spreading out far too fast.  Though, I think I'd like to delve more critically into the formation and intentional ignorance of the culture surrounding games by the industry.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Class Days

As a matter of course, don't expect many posts from me early to mid-week.  I have classes those days, and am either focusing on readings, writing papers, or performing research.

Until Thursday...

Monday, February 9, 2015

Spirituality and Games

This is a repost and revision, based on a discussion I had with a fellow classmate.  It seemed relevant, and rather than it getting lost within my Gamasutra space, I decided to port it over here.  As I'm delving deeper into game studies, I also figured that I'd do a bit of leg work and revise it over with some links to some game scholars as well.

Because this goes beyond the normal video game realm, particularly into the realm of television/video, I'll be citing relevant points through analysis of additional media beyond video games. This is due to a lack of availability of content - I'm a console developer, primarily, and there is a notable dearth of religious console titles which makes completely analysis of a specific section of media, in this case, video games, difficult at best. I'm also going to be focusing on Christian-faith based games. This isn't due to laziness, rather, the problems that are illustrated in religious-based games aren't unique to any one faith and that Christian-based games are far easier for me to come by over Islamist, Hindu, etc. based game. 

I'm afraid much of this is anecdotal, as I have not worked for an explicitly religious game company of any faith. I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so, I like to consider myself a student of many religions.  That said, much of my experience with faith comes from playing games with family members that are exceedingly religious.  In none of the games I've ever played was faith or spirituality explicitly thematic or a driving force within the game world itself.  It is exceedingly simple to see why explicitly spiritual games are not more numerous within the broader game market:
  1. Spirituality is hard to define.
  2. Spiritual is often conflated with religious, and religious games are painfully didactic.
  3. Gameplay is more engaging when it is emergent; because of the focus on message, strategies are limited to fall within the confines of the specific spiritual goal
Spirituality has many definitions, and much like religious faith, is often a personal definition which is hard to qualify.  Wikipedia summarizes "Spirituality" thusly:
"...a process of personal transformation, either in accordance with traditional religious ideals, or, increasingly, oriented on subjective experience and psychological growth independently of any specific religious context. In a more general sense, it may refer to almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience."
  • "Spirituality." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 February, 2015. Web. 9 February, 2015.
What is interesting about this definition is how Wikipedia goes on to define meaningful.  Wikipedia takes meaningful to be within the context of the philosophical debate about the meaning of life, by using this definition:

"The meaning of life is a philosophical and spiritual question concerning the significance of life or existence in general. It can also be expressed in different forms, such as "Why are we here?", "What is life all about?", and "What is the purpose of existence?" or even "Does life exist at all?" It has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history. There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds." 

  • "Meaning of Life." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 7 February, 2015. Web. 9 February, 2015.

This goes beyond the definition used by academics like Jane McGonigal when they describe meaningful.  In game studies, meaningful is placed within the context of games and the role of games in effecting change, education, or desired emotional context.  Meaning, in the context of games, is that the gameplay or interactivity has an explicit intent to inspire a specific line of thinking or evoke a specific emotional aesthetic from the player.  So a game that is focused on spirituality has the specific intent (or meaning) to evoke a religious or pseudo-religious experience from the player.

The problem there is easy to identify: what one person may find meaningful within the context of their religious tradition may not evoke a meaningful response to those that are not of that tradition. Creating a game in which one travels to Judea and listens to the Sermon on the Mount may be a meaningful event to those in the Christian traditions, but to a Hindu or Ba'hai, it may mean nothing. That isn't to say that it isn't possible to create games that target specific meanings, and these meanings can be explicitly spiritual, but then we run into the muddy definition of what it means to be spiritual.

Once a specific definition of spirituality is embraced, limitations are placed on the tone, content and meaning of the interactive experiences.  There have been widely released games that have taken a very specific spiritual context and applied it to the tone of the game. The most famous christian game of late that received both wide release, thanks to being carried by WalMart, and wide critical press would be Left Behind: Eternal Forces and its sequels. The game, as evidenced by the Metacritic score, was very poorly received by the gaming community. Going through the reviews, even the best reviews provided via Metacritic indicate that the gameplay experience was, over all, poor. The story didn't get much better reviews, but, given that the gaming press is largely secular, this isn't much of a surprise. Because the game itself is focused on recreating a world and universe centered around a specific, christian, interpretation of the "End of Days", the game - at its core - must hold onto this premise and its meaning in its narrative. This adherence to a very specific Christian interpretation takes precedence over the development of core gameplay mechanics, resulting in a didactic game unless you accept the specific meaning of spirituality advanced by the developers. 
But even with a specific meaning applied to the mechanics, narrative and tone of the game, where spirituality is defined clearly within a specific context, the audience for these games don't necessarily care that the game is fun as long as the spirituality-based message is prominent. Games developed with this mindsent eschew emergent gameplay at its core and instead reply upon more traditional and far more limited progression-based gameplay. (see Jesper Juul's Half-Real p.73-91).  If the player does not perform the correct events in the correct series, their progression through the game is stopped. The adherence of the communication of the message takes priority over everything, including the use of emergent gameplay to occasionally surprise the player, and as long as the game clearly communicates this message, then the developers consider the game a success. This is clearly surveying the reviews of Left Behind: Eternal Forces as a game.  

The second is the IP holders. Like the audiences, they see the game as a marketing tool not just for their IP, but also for their message. So, again, if the message is at the forefront, clearly presented, and continues to be inline with the ultimate spiritual goal, then the IP holders don't care if the gameplay is good. The meaning and message is key, everything else is secondary.

So, how can we get by this and how can developers bring together these seemingly exclusive worlds together in such a way that these games appeal to both gamers and the faithful?

Allegory could work, but this tends to be perceived as diluting the message. Allegory is open to interpretation, which goes against a specific spiritual meaning.  Even if there is by in by like minded people, an allegory could be misinterpreted or missed entirely. The Left Behind series is a pretty good description of that; while it is couched in Bible, that is firmly couched in the prophecies as literally interpreted in the Book of Revelations (itself a work that is littered with allegory). 

Improving the gameplay would, of course, provide these spiritual games with a wider audience.  As we've seen, that is a fine line to tread. Gameplay is iterated upon to create a fun experience with the goal of creating emergent events that occasionally surprise the player and allow them to find new ways to interact within the game rules to achieve their goals. That means, in story-based games, that both gameplay and narrative are molded together into a single entity. This is no different than translating books into movies. Some aspects of books are invariably cut to create a much more compelling, both visual and pacing-wise, product. Using religious text or meanings as a narrative source, however, limits this flexibility. Altering the narrative potentially alters the message and this would be unacceptable. Gameplay, as a result, can only be modified so much as long as strict and explicit interpretations is followed. The results, as we can see via the Left Behind: Eternal Forces, show out that an adherence to inflexible narrative content hinders gameplay mechanic growth.   Once you understand the context of the meaning, then you know exactly what to do to succeed and eliminate the need or even desire to embrace emergence in play.  

Studying spirituality in games is a difficult subject to tackle.  Because game studies is so young, little has been done in precedent, which is a good thing.  The study is novel.  Game studies is also pretty fuzzy around the edges, as there are many different things to study when it comes to games, meaning it could be possible to study the spirituality in games.  The problem boils down to how you define spirituality and meaning, because depending on the religious tradition or belief system of the researcher and the users, these terms become very fuzzy and difficult to pin down.  This makes finding examples in game spaces more difficult and requiring more interpretation and critical analysis like one would find in the Humanities and its study of literature and film.   One could walk down into the sociological aspects of faith and spirituality in MMORPGs, but, again, the broad definitions of spirituality and meaning would make finding specific instances difficult unless one spent a great deal of time nailing down more cogent and accepted definitions.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Meaning and Mechanics

So, I got into an interesting discussion on Facebook about whether game mechanics have meaning based their socio-cultural background .  The idea being is that, without meaning, the mechanics are just that, but that the meaning is inherently skewed by the culture in which it was conceived.  I think there is a certain flaw in the discussion, and rather than posting a huge wall of text for which Facebook is manifestly poor at dealing with, I'll get into it here.

The definition of  "game" I tend to go with is the one advanced by Jesper Juul.  He states that a game as has the following six characteristics:

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
  2. Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.
  3. Value assigned to possible outcomes: That the different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative.
  4. Player effort: That the player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. (I.e. games are challenging.)
  5. Player attached to outcome: That the players are attached to the outcomes of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and "happy" if a positive outcome happens, and loser and "unhappy" if a negative outcome happens.
  6. Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences.
Jesper Juul: "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness". In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45. Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003.

With that definition in mind, I'm looking specifically at point 1, the rules of play.  These are often referred to as the game mechanics.  The mechanics are often placed into a context as designated by the designer to help achieve a specific tone that the game pursues to achieve a specific emotional aesthetic.  Looking at Call of Duty, or other games in their style, the mechanics revolve around the linear progression of the first person avatar through intense gun play and warfare. The mechanics are developed to achieve the sort of high-stakes, rapid interaction required to play the game, but the mechanics alone don't actually point at a deeper meaning.  They are modern and deep in the sense of play but do not point to a higher meaning, as french philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed: “...the secret of true modernity lies in artifice, the only natural spectacles that impress are those which simultaneously betray the most striking depth and the absolute simulation of this depth” (Jean Baudrillard, America, 139); (emphasis in the original).  The artifice of Call of Duty is to make the player feel as though they are in a massive battle. It is all clever trickery.  The mechanics of the weapons are deep and unique, combining bullet spray, recoil, reload times and damage values based on cover and hit location of the target, and the simulation feels real and feels fun, but the core mechanics aren't that deep and are merely shifting between set values and capabilities.    

On the other hand, there are games where the mechanics mean something.  In this, they are artifact - something deliberately created as a result of preparatory or investigative procedures.  The developers have set out to link the interaction of play with a definite theme, and have placed a specific limit on their creation to achieve that goal.  This is the ultimate difference between artifice and artifact, intentionality in creation that merges the mechanics with the narrative elements of the game.  In the creation of gameplay artifact, the developer is doing more than simply doing what is fun, but discovering methods to give actual meaning and not simulated depth to play.  In an interview with "Ubiquity", Dr. Mihai Nadin states "The computer executes tedious routine assignments and supports the generation of alternatives, but the creative genius, the aesthetic choice, remains with the human being" (  This intentionality allows game designers to take mechanics beyond setting the tone of play.  A recent example of this sort of intentionality of infusing mechanics with meaning would be Thomas Was Alone (  In it, you play as a variety of polygons with different movement capabilities. Each polygon character has unique capabilities and their interaction with the game world illustrates specific behaviors and personality types as they interact with each other.  As a result, a very intentional design decision was made to tie the mechanics to a specific meaning.

The meaning of these mechanics is certainly rooted within the context of the games socio-cultural context.  But, that is with a caveat - mechanics don't always have meaning.  Mechanics can exist simply to impart a specific tone to the larger aesthetic experience of the game.  The number of games that provide meaning through mechanics is small but growing, particularly as games become more diverse and ubiquitous across the planet.  These meanings will be fundamental, but properly implemented, will provide a powerful emotional connection and aesthetic that pushes games out of artiface and into artifact.