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by Terry Sawyer

17 Mar 2009

Say My Name works on so many levels, that it’s ultimately a minor disappointment when it loses direction, doesn’t cohere, and ends in a positivity crescendo that feels like a holiday inappropriate card bought from a convenience store. But Director Nirit Peled falters mostly for her amazing ambition. As a documentary, Say My Name attempts to do several things. It’s an anecdote-driven history of women in hip-hop, it’s the hardscrabble stories of just making it to the microphone, and it’s intermittently a commentary on the issues that arise with women in hip-hop. 

Only the last effort makes the movie a fitful experience. We hear conflicting voices about whether it’s “hard” for women in rap, but it’s not really addressed beyond a few ripples. There’s a pulling away from confrontation that simply doesn’t make sense for this kind of documentary—one that aims to get the story, the whole story. 

Issues emerge in an ebbing way, but the movie could have used some people with intellectual distance or a director that forced the issues into more than passing panel clips that looked like bad episodes of Crossfire. Do rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, who trade more in costume sexuality than mic skills, hurt the cause of women in hip-hop? Do women in hip-hop even owe anything to each other as a community? Controversial statements were usually just dropped. With no follow up, Remy Ma and Jean Grae’s statements about being happy for women who get to shake their asses in videos for cash sounds thoughtlessly contrarian? I understand why historically oppressed communities hide their divisions so that a common enemy might not use them as ammunition. But can any of the conflicts compellingly portrayed by these gifted and struggling artists really be addressed without breaking a few toes? Perhaps this documentary suffers from the categorical disintegration that comes when words localize, mutate, and go global. Every history is partial, changing, and redefining itself.

To call this movie a failure would be to deny its enormous pleasures. Remy Ma and Roxanne Shante have spontaneous and quick-witted ways of giving an insider story of outsiders. The freestyle segments are sweet treats that set an overall rhythm for the film that’s fleet and kinetic. There’s no lack of joy in seeing Say My Name, just a hunger for more and a desire for a deeper range of questions. It’s the perfect tease hopefully leading Nirit Peled to expand her scope bigger, bolder, and salted with the same swagger that her subjects here display gloriously.


by L.B. Jeffries

16 Mar 2009

A while back I posted an essay on how a video game placed in a relevant setting would be able to raise awareness of important issues. Since then, a little digging has revealed that there are already several games covering that ground. Although there is nothing quite on the scale of an FPS set in a real world conflict, there are now many groups on the internet that are trying to raise awareness by using the medium of video games. The results are often mixed depending on how much they actually utilize the strengths of the medium. As Ian Bogost explains thoroughly in his work with Persuasive Games, a properly designed setting and appropriate means of interaction is able to induce a mental response in the player. If you’re able to create a game design where the player needs to collect information to win, they are going to pick up on whatever that information is presenting while they pursue the goal of winning. If the player must participate in an unpleasant activity to win, they are going to maintain serious doubts about the merits of such an activity in the real world. And if you give the player the choice of trying to win in an inherently corrupt system, you might actually communicate something in a way that only video games can. Here are a couple of examples of hits and misses with these goals.

First up is the controversial PETA parody of the Cooking Mama series, Mama Kills Animals. As with PETA’s other protest games, the production values are really impressive while the actual game design revolves more around parody than actual communication. It relies on the conventions of the Cooking Mama series to coerce the player into participating in disgusting activities. To prepare Thanksgiving dinner the player must pluck feathers, remove vital organs, and stuff the Turkey while blood and squishing noises make the entire experience thoroughly uncomfortable. Intermixed with these sessions are videos depicting the horrible treatment of turkeys in farms. It’s an interesting protest game because it makes the decision to aim low in terms of getting a message across to the player. Given that PETA’s goal is to promote the ethical treatment of animals, they may have missed the mark somewhat by making the turkey so disgusting that they don’t really generate empathy for the creature.  It just makes me want to not eat turkey, which is certainly a much simpler goal that still accomplishes PETA’s agenda. This is a flash game, and the designers are presuming that you’re only going to be playing for about five minutes. Generating the kinds of emotions that would involve the player questioning society’s treatment of animals would involve a playtime that’s probably unreasonable. They grab your attention with the outrageous parody, they get you to play long enough to absorb their point, and you walk away with the unshakable knowledge that the turkey industry is not exactly a wholesome affair.

The website Global Conflicts has a flash game about the harsh conditions of the maquiladoras along the Mexican-American border. The game that I played was just a demo of the full version but the setup was interesting. You have a finite amount of time to interview people in the area before the main interview with the manager of the factory. The majority of the game then involves manipulating a resource management dialogue tree with each question taking 5 minutes of your time while the clock ticks. Specific angles must be explored, questions must be left unanswered, and the resounding chime of discovering an incriminating fact hard codes information into your memory. The player ticks through lists of info like a scavenger hunt: factories often pollute without any concern for environmental laws, they abandon native workers for those in countries that pay lower wages, or they have no interest in the community. You learn all of this because you have to click through all of it, study the information, and decide whether or not it is strategically relevant. The only flaw of the game is the excessive amounts of text it throws at you. You don’t have to make everything about shooting evil aliens, but it helps to remember that there’s more than one way to communicate your message than just blocks of text. Images, game design, mission variety, and countless other options allow the player to collect information in different ways. Telling me that the maquiladoras are bad for the community is one thing, letting me see it or even better, letting me suffer consequences because of it is far more effective.

The best protest game to this day is still the McDonald’s Video Game and its success comes on several levels. The game creates a satirical business simulation because in order to succeed you must eventually compromise your own morals. It’s perfectly possible for you to run your franchise in a legitimate manner that helps the employees and doesn’t damage the third world countries that you rely on for food. But, you don’t make any money when you play this way. In order to succeed at the game, you have to turn a profit and keep the shareholders happy, which means maybe paying a bribe to government officials so you can cut corners on the meat production or slashing the salary of employees so that you can get a few points ahead. Of all the protest games that I played, this one was by far the most effective because it didn’t just communicate something as simple as PETA’s “Turkey farms are bad” or Global Conflicts’ countless rattling off of facts. It made me comprehend the dilemma on a very personal and empathetic level. Playing this game makes you realize that the people who run McDonalds aren’t evil, instead the entire system encourages corruption as the only viable way to run a corporation. It’s subversive in a way that none of the other games even bother to attempt because it communicates its message through choice. What better way to make a person realize that an entire system is corrupt than by making them realize that they would do the exact same thing if they were running a company? It’s not a question of how receptive or smart your audience is. The game uses cute graphics and an easy interface to rapidly engage any unsuspecting player. As with their later game Oiligarchy, the point is not to offend the player for becoming corrupt. The point is to make them comprehend how corruption works and why it happens.


Each of these games succeeds at their basic objective. PETA’s Mama Kills Animals was a massive experiment for the group that relies on satire to slip their message between the cracks. The Global Conflicts game on the maquiladoras creates a game where the player must pay attention to information in order to progress. We’re reading the information because we’re looking for the clue that will let us beat the factory manager, and it is not until after the game is over that we realize we’ve just learned a great deal. Yet I think the last one may still be the most effective of the trio because it communicates its message through the player rather than just barking it at them. There’s no arguing with their critique of Fast Food Corporations because there is no argument to be made in the face of the experience provided. I played the game, destroyed third world countries, ripped off my employees, and realized that by winning I had just made myself complicit in the entire system. Whether or not the player is bothered by this conduct is irrelevant, they now know that anytime they are dealing with a fast food franchise that the business must always face the temptation to operate in the most corrupt manner possible to gain a profit. They know it because it’s the same experience that they had experienced firsthand. Choice is what makes video games powerful, not the fact that lots of people play them or that you can trick people into absorbing information while they’re playing. If your cause is so righteous and true, then let the experience of that injustice speak for itself.

by Rob Horning

16 Mar 2009

Clay Shirky’s essay about the decline of newspapers is excellent on how they have ended up in their predicament.

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

What those working at newspapers couldn’t face was that the problem that publishing as an industry had developed itself to solve—how to overcome the expense of printing and distributing bundles of information—was no longer a problem at all thanks to the internet. A new industry to solve a new problem—how to pay for news gathering—must emerge.

But Shirky refuses to attempt to predict what that will be. He adopts a kind of anti-teleological stance, declaring that no one can know which experiments in news dissemination will take hold until after the fact. This is a wise and careful stance, but it ends up being tantamount to urging a kind of analytical passivity: We should just wait and see what shakes out, and then we will know what the right answer was to the problem of how journalists will be paid.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

What “we need” is whatever we end up getting. So in a sense, we can’t possibly go wrong. All truly is best in this best of all possible worlds.

by Terry Sawyer

16 Mar 2009

It’s tragic to say that, for the most part, I’ve seen so many “slices of reality” and artistic biographies that I wince at the prospect of either. With so many people living life within the incessant Twitterati spectacle, it’s difficult for me to believe that people can actually be captured in the wild. It’s hard to sneak a camera in front of someone and not see themselves begin to live as autobiographers. That’s just one of the reasons that Sissyboy was such a genuinely enjoyable film. Katie Turinski had delicate, intimate technique as a director. She obviously built a fairly stunning rapport, a confessional safety zone, and even an eye for capturing settings that were as entertainingly revealing as the characters themselves. 

Sissyboy follows the ideas and relationships contained within a cross country tour of a group of drag queens, albeit drag queen self-consciously acting as satires about the ideas of women rather than attempting to embody some idealized, materialistic, glamorized interpretation of femininity. They’re gender outliers, critiquing some of the reactionary gender rules that gays import into gay culture. Geeky, muscley, tatted, or sporting wheat grass facial fur, these gay men simply don’t fit a type. The sissyboys are a softer version of what Leigh Bowery was to RuPaul. They’re a courageous troupe of funny and flawed artists that have managed to laugh at some really painful life experiences. They share these stories in mini-monologues of free association, group history and their struggles with being who they are. The documented understand that they’re something of jesters, hiding hard realities with flamboyant misdirection. But for all their meth benders and petty thievery, they’re a deeply compassionate group of people that you fall in love with within seconds. 

Sissyboy, however, is so much more than a Pacific Northwest version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It’s rarely talked about how gay people try to import the morality of oppression into their own communities in fetishizing gender roles. The sissyboys seem completely aware that as flippant as their performances seem, they are at odds with unspoken codes of bigotry in their own communities, and they want to address these injustices as much as heal their own private, complex and sometimes troubled personal worlds. The sets might look like elementary versions of the Passion Play, but the shows are brave and garishly hilarious. They rewrite a L’Trimm song to make it from the point of view of teenage Muslim women serenading hot Jihadis. They turn a Fergie song into a primal pro-choice howl. Other jokes are so profane that I can’t even explain them without sounding evil. 

This is the kind of narrative documentary that runs well above its form. I thought this was the best intellectual documentary with ballsac close-ups I’ve ever witnessed. The sissyboys presented here seem like admirably self-aware artists creating without endgame. I’m ruining nothing by telling you that at some point, they decide that their experiment has run its course. They created something and understood when it was finished. How many lovely things would be better off as hit-and-runs? How many artists move on so gracefully, leaving such a comfortable place? It’s difficult not to gush about a documentary like this as much as I am embarrassed for doing so. But the sissyboys were such an outstanding collective of comics, commentarians, artists, and humans, that I forgive myself an hour and some change of being hopeful in the land of the damned.


by Mike Schiller

16 Mar 2009

Oooo, tough week for the consoles.  Maybe the big console publishers are assuming that most of us are going to be out partying it up and pounding Guinness for St. Patricks day instead of sitting in our houses playing video games.

Or, maybe it’s March, and the publishers just don’t care that much.

Nintendo really has the reins this week, as the most interesting releases we’re going to be seeing are all coming out for the DS and the Wii.  Of course, right off the bat we see Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which has been drawing press for the Drug Wars-esque side game that it seems to contain.  This has been a huge year for Grand Theft Auto (can you believe GTA IV came out less than a year ago?), and Chinatown Wars has the potential to be one of the biggest-selling iterations of the series yet.  Initial impressions have been positive, the graphics are solid considering the system it’s playing on, and who hasn’t wanted to bring GTA with them when they’ve been locked into a particularly long session?  The only question, really, is whether Chinatown Wars can break through to the DS’s highly casual-leaning audience.  Even if it doesn’t, though, there are probably plenty of hardcore DS owners to make the game a surefire success.

Of course, the DS is competing with itself, as this week also sees the release of Pokémon Platinum—perhaps not as big a deal as a new Pokémon game typically is simply because, well, it’s not strictly “new”.  Pokémon Platinum is an update of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl, with some new junk thrown in for the sake of convincing people to buy the same thing twice.  Of course, if you haven’t bought Diamond or Pearl, Platinum might just be the version you want.

A little game for the big console is also drawing a lot of attention: BIT.TRIP BEAT, which looks a lot like one-player pong crossed with Frequency.  The player has to knock back a nearly endless parade of dots, which hit the “paddle” at a speedy, highly rhythmic rate.  This means that if you play well, you’ll create a song as you go.  It doesn’t sound like much, but the few gameplay videos that have been released before today look like a ton of fun—and the tunes aren’t bad, either.  At a mere six bucks, what do you have to lose?

But mostly, it’s the DS’s week—I haven’t even mentioned Henry Hatsworth (who I’d love to see brawl with Professor Layton) or the excellent DS port of Trackmania, both also on the way this week.  What do you think?  Are you playing anything other than DS this week?  Let us know!

The full release list and a trailer for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars are after…the jump.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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