Category Archives: Game Criticism

TLF: You Can Call Me Flower if You Want To

Many years ago, thatgamecompany released a game called Flower, in which the player plays… a flower. Their first game, FlOw, was available free on the web (and still is, here), although when they were picked up by PlayStation, they added several new levels. I like FlOw, and I highly recommend it on many levels.

Well, our household finally decided it was time to purchase a PlayStation product (PS4), so I now have access to other thatgamecompany games, like Journey (soon) and Flower. So I finally played Flower, and here’s why I thought.

Insert Quarter Here: Materialist Schilling and Pop Culture Writing

This post is going to address the question of ethics in games writing. Really address it, though, not sealion my way around true problems by waving flags or pointing fingers. This is a problem that isn’t specific to games journalism, but impacts games writing across the board in different ways. And, truth be told, it isn’t even specific to games writing, but is a more broad problem with popular culture criticism, particularly online.

The question of “ethics” at issue here has to do with social, cultural, and economic pressures faced by every person who wants to do the most basic human things a person can do – eat, find shelter, support themselves and their families. For most people, economics end up deciding a lot of things – whether a person gets paid or not often determines whether they have the luxury (the privilege) to take a stand on an issue, whether they are able to express their true opinions, and whether they even take a chance at being able to try.

As an academic, I have the privilege to be able to publicly say a lot of things that many people simply cannot if they want to keep earning a paycheck. I have the support of an institution that permits me to voice my opinions without threatening me with the withdrawal of my paycheck, and that makes me a very privileged person. There are a lot of writers out there–freelancers, independent bloggers, and writers working for professional on- and off-line presses–who do not have that luxury.

What this means is that there are a lot of pieces of “games writing” (popular culture writing) that are little more than materialist schilling for major publishers like EA, Microsoft, or Sony. These writers produce “stories” about how much they love a product in order to encourage consumers to spend more on it–take, for instance, Polygon’s piece about mystery figurines from Fallout 4. There is nothing (to my knowledge) false about the information contained in this piece, and so, in that sense, it is an accurate piece of writing. However, the purpose of this piece can only be to encourage people to buy the damn things.

(Side note: mystery figurines are themselves a horrible form of corporate coercion, since you have to keep buying the little bastards in order to collect all of them, and will end up spending more money on duplicates in order to obtain rare ones… like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon cards. It’s a corporate tactic that forces people to spend money and I think it’s disgusting.)

There is nothing at all of critical value being added to the world when journalistic or cultural outlets (and I usually like what Polygon has to say) functionally produce advertising for corporations under the guise of journalism or cultural criticism. Sadly, these are the kinds of pieces that the games community has not only come to expect, but–sickly–to demand as “journalism,” although–sadly–it is not exclusive to games. More and more, we are seeing news outlets focusing on products rather than on social problems, which in turn contributes to what we now see being called “outrage culture.”

To a certain extent, I think our society needs more outrage, not less (although I understand that “outrage culture” itself is a problem of a different kind–it’s artificial, inflated egotism that presumes that Tweeting angrily is tantamount to effecting social change). But what we need is actual, critical outrage. We need to stop pandering to corporations and the status quo with pieces about the next thing we’re supposed to buy and start taking about the real issues that are impacting us on a human level.

As consumers, we need to take what we read seriously, and to demand media that are critical and thoughtful. When we read a piece designed only to make us spend more money buying another game or DLC or–worse–figurine, we need to turn away. We need to focus more on outlets that are doing actual, critical work, and support them.

Cultural criticism and journalism are shifting, not only because of digital technology (that’s a whole different kettle of very confused and weird fish), but because we have grown increasingly willing to accept schilling as critical writing in order to fill a cultural gap. It’s happening on both the production and consumption levels, and if we’re to have any hope for the future of critical thought, it has to stop.

The Future of Games (Kojo Nnamdi Show: Tech Tuesday recap)

Last year, I was lucky enough to be a call-in guest on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU out of DC, talking about diversity in games. Yesterday, I got to do it again, but since it’s summer, I was able to actually go up to DC to participate in the studio, talking with Bill Harlow and Dr. Lindsay Grace about pop culture and recent trends in gaming, including Serious Games, indie games, and where we think the market might go from here (link takes you to the show, where you can listen).

One of the highlights of the show is the final caller, a boy named Oscar, who asks us what we think is the future of games, since they will be designed by people like him, who have grown up with games like Minecraft. Not only was Oscar adorable, but he was articulate and smart, asking one of the best questions of the day. He also represents a very positive future for games and gamers; while the show kept coming back to the idea of violent games (the producer’s idea) and how new games are either complicating or moving away from violent mechanics altogether, Oscar’s question really got to the heart of what’s happening in the industry.

Videogames are growing up, and I don’t just mean in terms of content. There will always be shooters, there will always be games that cater to a juvenile demographic–and that’s not a bad thing. All popular media have that, because popular media cater to everyone. What is happening in games is that they are expanding their demographic base to include everyone; games are entering a period in which they have become aware of and are trying to involve players of all ages, genders, races, and types, and the kids who grow up now playing games that make an effort to include this diversity will no longer think of it as “changing” how games “are meant to be” (*cough*), but as what games are.

They will see the failures and successes of current games in terms of narrative, graphics, artistry, and mechanics and will improve upon them, following the trajectory we have seen in every form of popular culture from music to poetry to novels to film and television. And now videogames. And we need to remember, sometimes, that change takes time, but that there is great promise not only in the industry as it currently stands, but in its future, when people like Oscar become old enough to not only study games in school, but to pursue degrees in games, to play games, to critique them, to think critically about them. And when kids like Oscar are old enough to make games of their own, those games will be above and beyond anything we can now imagine.

And that is unbelievably exciting.

Politics of Difference: Indie Development and Diversity

In the wake of E32015, it has become apparent to me–even moreso than it already was–that one of the fundamental shortcomings of the game industry lies in diversity and diversification. Yes, this means the inclusion of women and POC in games, but at least this year’s E3 shows (as I said earlier this week) progress on that front. But when it comes to the titles, mechanics, and types of games, the industry is still lacking.

What I mean by this is that games are now showing a decided lack of innovation when it comes to stories and mechanics. Most of the titles announced at E32015 were prequels or sequels (Dishonored 2, Gears of War, Halo 5, Metroid, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Deus Ex, Mass Effect Andromeda, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy 7, ANOTHER Mario game, and so on). There were, of course, some new games announced, and that’s great, but so many of the titles and DLC we see come out are now appended with subtitles and numbers that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with them all (much like the Marvel movie-tv-comic franchise monstrosity).

What this means is that the industry has found formulae that work, and is yet again playing it safe by sticking to those formulae with little-to-no deviation. Thankfully, this no longer includes quite so many straight-white-male narratives, but that’s only one of several components that goes into game development.

What this leads to is a lack of interesting new stories, of new types of protagonists, and–particularly important for gaming–new mechanics. What this means, practically speaking, is that most innovation is happening in independent development houses, with people who are struggling to find the funding and support to make new and interesting things because publishers are too afraid to invest in something that doesn’t fit their formulae. (Until recently, this was also the justification for we-can’t-have-female-protagonists-because-women-on-covers-don’t-sell, despite the fact that Tomb Raider was one of the most successful franchises of all time.)

Enter Kickstarter. Except that now the games showing up there are having the same problem, because major companies are taking advantage of a platform that used to be all about giving indie developers, artisans, craftspeople, and artists a non-corporate space in which to do market their work. But with people like Broken Lizard (Super Troopers), Penny Arcade, and now Sony taking over the platform, it’s becoming hard for actual indie companies to do their work, again.

Sony, in particular, bothers me, because they’ve used Kickstarter as an audience litmus test rather than as a platform to crowdfund a project that couldn’t otherwise get funded. Instead, they’re taking well over 2 million dollars (2 million!!!) from backers that they absolutely could afford to give themselves for a sequel (Shenmue 3). That is not innovation. It is not progress. It is manipulating a system put in place to help the little guys in order to feed the multi-billion-dollar monster that is AAA development.

I’d rather see a group of students make a board game, or a single parent sell their art, or a group of people without a massive publisher (like Sony) get their game funded. Sure, I’m biased, since I’ve been pushing the Kickstarter for Deep End Games’ Perception, and it’s frustrating as all get out to see Shenmue 3–which has an established audience and the backing of a huge industry company–taking backers while Perception is pushing hard just to make its first goal. But I’m not the only one upset by Sony’s use of Kickstarter–Dave Thier at Forbes also thinks that what Sony is doing is unethical, and that people should stop backing the project.

This doesn’t mean I think sequels are bad. I don’t–and I will be purchasing several of them when they’re released. But I also think it’s important to support indie development, because that’s where the new ideas (blind protagonists who use echolocation as a gameplay mechanic!) come from. Without indie development we would not have Braid, Minecraft, Bastion, Elsinore, Gone Home, or any number of other innovating and game-changing (literally and figuratively) titles.

Indie development makes games better and makes us–as players–better because that’s where the big questions are coming from. Indie developers aren’t afraid to put politics into games, to do the things that the AAA companies are afraid to do, to show us that innovation is what makes games fun. Indie games were the first to push for character diversity, to push for the inclusion of women, POC, and the differently-abled (Perception will be playable by the visually impaired!). Indie games break the formulae and make new ones. And that’s why we need to give them our support, both vocally and financially.

Times Are A-changin': Bringing Diversity into the Spotlight at E32015

Sometimes, after a lot of yelling, typing, hand-waving, and crying, sometimes the powers-that-be actually listen. Even more rarely, they listen and then act. And when that happens, it becomes clear that speaking out and speaking up really do matter.

That happened today at E3. (E3, for the un-game-initiated, is the biggest industry conference in gaming.) During today’s XBox presentation, Microsoft–arguably one of the whitest and most male companies out there–not only put women and people of color up on their stage to speak, but they showed off a full slate of games that included female protagonists (Rise of the Tomb Raider, Dishonored 2, and Recore are the three I’m really excited about) and characters of color (Gears 4, Tomb Raider), customizable protagonists (Fallout 4 and Mass Effect 4) and dogs (Recore and Fallout 4). And those are just the big titles.

Twitter–my feed anyway–began commenting about halfway through at the abundance of women and POC (and dogs), and getting more and more excited as the XBox presentation continued. Knowing that, in addition to Microsoft’s games, Mirror’s Edge will also have a new (still with a female protagonist) game, makes me generally optimistic–for once!–about the future state of the industry.

After a couple of years during which I was seriously beginning to reconsider whether I even wanted to continue following games media out of a mixture of exhaustion and despair, this has brought back a lot of hope. Does this mean that the industry is now a paradise of female and POC empowerment (and employment)? Of course not. Women and POC in tech still face discrimination and harassment on a daily basis. They are underrepresented in employment statistics and on screen. But at least the on-screen part is getting better.

Baby steps. But even baby steps are steps. Sometimes it’s worth being thankful for what progress we get… before getting back in the ring and continuing the fight.

TLF: “Jade for Beauty: Positive Female Characters in Video Games,” ep. 2

My TLF review of Anita Sarkeesian’s second video in the Positive Female Characters in Video Games series (on Jade from Beyond Good & Evil).

A lot of my frustrations with this episode are less to do with the specifics about what Sarkeesian says than a lot of the assumptions and implications of what she says. Overall, I actually think her video is a decent review of why she likes the game, which is actually pretty informative (and made me consider playing the game). However, there are a lot of “feminist pitfalls” to it that I find problematic (as a fairly militant feminist myself), such as the assumption that any game with violence subscribes to hegemonic male militarism (although I don’t think she uses that exact phrase).

My Game!: The Problem with Fan “Ownership”

So a recent (completely civil, polite, and even productive) exchange got me thinking about one of the problems with videogame culture, and, indeed, fan culture more broadly. This is the problem of fan “ownership”–of a game, a franchise, an entire genre…

On the one hand, creators want fans to feel a sense of ownership over the games (or whatever) they play so that they become invested in them on both the emotional and (of course) financial levels. And investment of that sort is a good thing. It’s good when audiences connect on a deep level to the things they consume because it means that those things are reaching them, engaging with them, and helping them to sort through problems. All these are good things.

This kind of investment leads fans to hold creators accountable, not only for errors in fact or continuity, but for sloppy work, lazy plotlines, rehashed tropes that no one wants to see anymore. It keeps creators pushing the edge, striving to be better, working to make sure that their product is an accurate representation of their ideas and ideologies. Also good things.

But there is, sadly, also too much of a good thing.

There are those fans (and, by the way, the exchange above did not sway into this territory) who come to feel that they really do own content by virtue of their fandom. These are the fans who say that an all-female Ghostbusters remake (which, by the way, does not erase the previous Ghostbusters films) “ruins” the franchise. These are the fans who demand that their games not contain the option to create a female protagonist, the fans who think that all content needs to cater to their–and only their–point of view.

These are the fans whose critical voices are not actually critical, but demanding and entitled. There is a difference between criticism and childish temper-tantrums. The former engages thoughtfully (and often also lovingly) with the content. The latter pitches fits with little basis and less maturity, often loudly and without consideration for the effort made. The former is about improving content and genre. The latter is about making the content into a personal fantasy.

The latter is not a good thing.

It stifles instead of expands creativity. It causes paranoia and is–by and large–a conservative force that keeps content constrained to the status quo. These are not good things.

What I’d like to see in games is a sense that fans can be invested, but that they recognize that, ultimately, they do not own the content of the games. They are participants in the sense that games are participatory, but they are consumers, not creators. They are audience, not actors. Yes, fans have the ability (and right) to respond to the content, to applaud it or boo it, to critique it, to buy it or boycott it. But they do not own it. It is not theirs. It is work–usually a lot of long, hard work–done by others, their brain-child, and fans need to remember this.

Remember, and respect. Because at the end of it all, while fans do have the right to criticize, they ought to do so with respect, recognizing that this thing about which they are posting or speaking or writing a ten-page screed is someone else’s thing, someone else’s idea, someone else’s work. And that deserves respect.


Edit: Reposted on TLF.

TLF/AIP Inquisition: Diplomacy, Conspiracy, & Necromancy (Part Seven)

Over at TLF things have been rather hectic, so there was a brief hiatus from my two As-I-Play series (Inquisition and Borderlands 2). But since things are getting put back together by the fabulous mistresses of the web-o-sphere, I have a new Inquisition As-I-Play up on my first trip to Halamshiral (amusingly, I just finished my second trip two nights ago) and Castle Adamant (which, by the way, is an allusion to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Princess,” which was turned into a musical by Gilbert and Sullivan entitled “Princess Ida”). And yes, I know it’s not actually “Castle” Adamant in Inquisition, but I’m calling it that anyway.

And yes, the fact that Inquisition contains a reference to an obscure Tennyson poem that was made into an even more obscure–and hilarious–musical involving cross-dressing men who break into an all-women’s college (Castle Adamant) to try to get some makes me very, very happy.

TLF: Into the Friendzone

I have a new post–on an old topic–up over at TLF that discusses the changing mechanics of friendship and rivalry (approval and disapproval) in BioWare’s Dragon Age series as a whole. I’ve written about this before, at length, but it seemed like something worth discussing now that I’ve played through Inquisition (and then went back and replayed ALL the Dragon Age, and am working my way through Inquisition again).

Oppression Matters: Intersectionality, Feminism, and the Importance of Diversity as a Practice

On my way to a conference the other day, I was sitting on the plane reading Estelle Freedman’s No Turning Back, a history of feminism. The young woman in the seat next to me interrupted: “Excuse me, is that a book on feminism?” (There’s a cartoon superhero akin to Wonder Woman on the cover.)

“Yes,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said. “Not to be rude, but I took a couple classes last year on gender and women’s studies, and they changed my life. I think everyone should have to take classes like that. It really changes how you think about things, you know? I didn’t used to consider myself a feminist, but I really am. It’s important.”

That is not what I expected. As a (somewhat militant) feminist, I have had people ask me if it’s rude to ask if I’m feminist, I’ve had people tell me they can’t call themselves feminists because they like men, and been called a “feminazi” and a “social justice warrior” as pejorative terms. The young woman in the seat next to me (who, by the way, was a woman of color) gave me hope, not simply because she was proud of being a feminist, but because of the half-hour conversation that ensued in which we talked about popular culture, feminism, intersectionality (when identities–like gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc.–overlap), and misunderstandings of what all these things mean. And she got it. She understood the importance not only of feminism, but of understanding it in a larger context–cultural, social, and political.

In the book, Freedman defines feminism as follows:

Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies…I use “equal worth” rather than equality because the latter term often assumes that men’s historical experience—whether economic, political, or sexual—is the standard to which women should aspire. (p. 7)

What’s most important about this definition is that Freedman acknowledges the significance of politics of oppression–that feminism isn’t about making women equivalent to men, but of giving them equal value. It’s also important to recognize that there is agency in oppression; women have historically been oppressed by men, as well as by other women. Feminism–as opposed to “humanism” (already a thing, by the way, that has nothing to do with gender: “humanism” is a secular system of religious non-belief)–recognizes that the purpose of eliminating oppression is elevating the oppressed (here, women, hence, “feminism”).

This is as true of other forms of oppression: against homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, etc.; against people of color; against religious minorities; against national minorities. It is also true that we cannot focus on just one to the exclusion of all others; feminism cannot trump any other kind of anti-oppression movement. We are all strung together; equality is equality.

But that is not to say that we can simply erase the markers of difference which have caused this oppression. We can’t turn to #alllivesmatter because ALL lives have not been threatened; it must be #Blacklivesmatter because the lives which have not heretofore mattered are black. It can’t be humanism (not just because it’s already a term), because women have not been treated as full humans. It can’t be about straight pride, because straight people have always been able to stand in the open.

Oppression matters.

And, to turn it back to games (because, after all, that’s the point of this blog), it’s important to acknowledge the lack of women, LGBTQ, and people of color in the industry as fans, content creators, and in the content itself. And it’s important to deliberately include diversity in games because it has been so long absent. The status quo is no longer acceptable, it’s oppressive.

And now that we see it, it’s even more important to make a point of changing it.