Category Archives: Videogames

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.

Shameless (not-self) Promotion: Perception

So for those of you–if there are any–who read regularly, I’m taking advantage of this blog to promote the Kickstarter campaign for a new game being developed by a team of former Irrational Games developers (one of whom I happened to marry). The game is entitled Perception, and I like it for a variety of reasons unrelated to the fact that it is being worked-on by a person I live with.

First, Perception has a female protagonist (Cassie). First-person perspective means that her attractiveness, costume, and physique are irrelevant.

Also, she’s blind. Yes, the game is played first-person perspective with a blind protagonist. Which is also pretty damn cool. You should check out the trailer to see how that works. (Also, yet another reason why her physical attractiveness is irrelevant.)

Third, it’s not a shooter. It’s a survival-horror game in which the player does not shoot things–instead, Cassie uses her cane to sense the objects around her–and interacts with them based on sound and memory.

In other words, it’s a game featuring a differently-abled female protagonist of undetermined race (probably white, let’s be honest, but we can’t see her and SHE can’t see her) who isn’t engaged in shooting things and who is independent enough to be exploring a house on her own even though she’s blind.

Yes, please.

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).

Braaaaaaains: The New “Threat” of Videogames to our Minds

So today’s example of scare-mongering “science” comes to us from Canada (via the Telegraph in the UK), where someone has apparently “proven” that “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the headline. When added to a recent thread on the DiGRA list about Philip Zimbardo’s current speaking tour about how the “greatest threat” to young men today is videogame playing (because it turns them violent), this has me banging my head into the wall, the desk, and any other object in close proximity. (Maybe that’s why videogame playing is linked to brain damage… because articles like this make us give ourselves cranial trauma…)

Okay, so Zimbardo first. Zimbardo is a well-known psychologist with published books, one of which–The Lucifer Effect–I have taught to my class because it is an example of what not to do in psychology. Zimbardo, for those of you at home, is the man who came up with the Stanford Prison Experiment which traumatized several young men at Stanford in the 1970s (there’s even a documentary on it) because when it started to get out of control (the “guards” were psychologically torturing the “prisoners”), Zimbardo let it continue for a few days until someone else called him out on it.

Yes, that’s the man I want to trust to evaluate the psychological impact of anything. But even assuming that he learned from his experience and became a more ethical psychologist (which, to be honest, by all accounts he has), he has done no research into videogames whatsoever and is simply capitalizing on his fame in order to state opinions which people then trust as true, because that’s ethical.

Putting Zimbardo aside in favor of today’s article about Alzheimer’s, let’s take a look at the actual article, rather than the fear-mongering title. Nowhere in the article does it say that Call of Duty causes or increases a risk of Alzheimer’s. What it says is that videogame players–not Call of Duty players, either, mind you–use a different part of their brains to manage three-dimensional spatial interactions on screen than non-videogame players. This part of the brain is called the caudate nucleus and is used for voluntary movement and goal-directed actions, which means that gamers understand gaming as a goal-completion activity (as opposed to non-gamers, who don’t think about it the same way).

Apparently people who rely heavily on the caudate nucleus “normally” “have less grey matter.” Specifically, “The Canadian team said if action gamers have less grey matter, as people who rely on the caudate nucleus normally do, then they may be more prone to mental illness.”

Let’s parse that. People with an overdeveloped caudate nucleus “normally” have less grey matter than people who don’t. Gamers rely on their caudate nucleus. There is no statement in there that says that gamers actually have less grey matter; it says “If action gamers have less grey matter.” Which they apparently do not know whether gamers have or do not have.

Okay. Next step. People with less grey matter in the hippocampus (the site of spatial memory) have a higher correlation “with neurological and psychological disorders including dementia and depression.” That means that if someone has a reduced hippocampus, they might have an increased risk of a disorder (which could include Alzheimer’s). One of the researchers, Dr. Gregory West, summarizes: “This means people who play a lot of action video games could have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with increased risk for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” Let’s repeat that–“Could have reduced hippocampal integrity.” Not “do have,” “could have.”

What the research does not show is whether or not gamers in fact do have “reduced hippocampal integrity,” which means that the study has not, in fact, suggested that gamers are at risk for anything. It has only “proven” (sort of) that gamers use the caudate nucleus when playing more than non-gamers.

West also says that “For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities. Our current study again confirms this notion.” So this means that there are benefits to gaming, as well. And yes, gamers have differently shaped brains from “normal” people:

Previous research has also shown brains of people who regularly play computer games differ from those of infrequent gamers.

A study in teenagers showed the “reward hub”, which is involved in addiction, was larger in regular players.

Brain scans showed a larger ventral striatum, which is the hub of the brain’s reward system, in regular gamers. Playing computer games has been linked to a range of effects from addiction to improved reasoning.

That’s not really all that surprising, since our brains are plastic (as in, they change, not made of petroleum-based material) and adjust to our regular behaviors. Our brains’ structure changes as our habits change, so that we adapt to what it is we do most. This is normal.

So at the end of the article, all we know is that gamers use their caudate nucleus more than non-gamers when playing a game, and that they have a larger ventral striatum. What we absolutely do not know is whether this is good, bad, or neutral information, and we absolutely do not know that gamers–Call of Duty or otherwise–are at increased risk for pretty much anything (Alzheimer’s included) except carpal tunnel.

What this all boils down to is that media reporting–and, apparently, popular psychology–needs to stop leaping to conclusions not at all based in the scientific evidence being proffered. Just like with climate change (which is real, no matter what congress says) and GMOs (which do not cause health risks, unlike pesticides and certain preservatives) and vaccines (which do not cause autism and might in fact contribute to fending off some forms of leukemia). Videogames are no more–or less–harmful than any other form of popular media, including movies, television, comic books, the internet at large, books, poetry, theater, murals, sculpture, and classical art.

Oh, and education. (Well, maybe education for standardized testing really is causing harm, so I take that one back…)

Perspective Shift: Talking Games in the Midst of Violence

Today a friend asked a very good question, and one that I think is valuable to try to answer for cultural critics and academics the world over.

He teaches in Baltimore, where, as anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows, yet another protest has been sparked by police violence resulting in the death of a person of color. Given the context – not only Baltimore and Ferguson and North Carolina… but the earthquake in Nepal, the annexation of the Crimea, and so on – how can we keep talking about games? How can we ask our students to put aside everything they see going on outside their doors (sometimes literally) to talk about games? And, perhaps most importantly, given all this, should we keep talking about games?

My answer is yes – but also no. Yes, in the sense that talking about games is talking about culture and society and politics. Yes, because in talking about games we are (hopefully) talking about the issues that have led to the problems outside our doors. No, in the sense that we should absolutely not shut out what is happening outside. No, in the sense that it is vital that we talk literally about what is happening outside.

I believe that there are issues, concerns, and events that require us to put our planned classes and lives on hold because it is imperative that we stop to take a good, long look at what kind of society we have created, what acts we permit and what acts we condemn. I believe that what is happening now in Baltimore, what happened in Madison and North Carolina and Ferguson, is one of those events. Racism is a real, institutional problem that urgently demands our attention, and we need to not only allow, but encourage our students (friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues) to talk about.

And I also believe that these issues, concerns, and events appear in our popular culture media, including games. I believe that the problem of institutionalized racism appeared in Grand Theft Auto V and BioShock Infinite and Dragon Age and Fallout 3, and that each of those games attempted to address the problems of institutionalized racism through different lenses, to force their players to consider the ramifications of permitting the status quo to continue unchecked.

I also believe that institutionalized racism is a problem in many of these games, GTAV and Infinite in particular, because those games don’t fully understand or respect the ramifications of their privileged assumptions about race, class, and gender. And it is important for us to keep talking about them in order to make those problems visible, not only in the games industry, but in the world which these games reflect.

So yes, we need to keep talking about games. We need to talk about the good games can do if they seek to encourage social change. We need to talk about the harm games can do if they perpetuate social injustices without taking a critical stance. We also need to talk about the very real, very upsetting, very harmful things happening to real people in the real world, and remember that games matter because of the real world.