There have been a few memoirs from thirty-something video game players in the last couple years, and I’ve avoided them all. It’s a weird quirk of mine, the result of some toxic mixture of envy and sloth and pride on my part. It’s sometimes hard to make myself read books that I wish I had written myself or that resemble the kind of book that I might someday write. Well, I broke down and finally read one of them, Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives. Actually, I listened to it on unabridged audiobook, read quite effectively by the man himself. I’m afraid to say that all my fears were justified: Extra Lives is every bit the book that I would have loved to have written about my own relationship with video games and then some. My version for instance would never have had a section on playing Grand Theft Auto IV over and over again while doing cocaine, and thus, would’ve been the poorer for it.
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This discussion does contain spoilers for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Advertisements for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days currently begin with the declaration that “Real Ain’t Pretty”. This declaration is superimposed over an image of the titular characters looking a bit bruised and beaten and prior to a video featuring a glimpse of the ugly world that Kane and Lynch occupy in the game.
Having been playing the game for review, I can testify to the authenticity of this description of the game. This newest Kane & Lynch game makes a genuine effort to embrace a form of realist aesthetic grounded on the idea that life ain’t pretty. Thus, its representation of that kind of world needs to reflect that idea.
Video games have often been used to parody or satirize social conventions. Whether it’s something as simple as recreating a shoe being thrown at George Bush or a satirical representation of how to operate a Fast Food chain, these games use the power of interaction to make their commentary more tangible. People have been making up games and playing this way for centuries. An excellent book by Mary Flanagan, Critical Play, explores the history of this practice and outlines several criteria for assessing games that are critically engaging an aspect of society. She writes, “Critical play means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life . . . Criticality in play can be fostered in order to question an aspect of a game’s “content,” or an aspect of a play scenario’s function that might otherwise be considered a given or necessary” (6).
Something like the McDonald’s Game (cited above) is a good example of both content criticism and a questionable system. It takes a business sim and uses that system to outline the corruption of a corporation. The only way to “win” the game is to be corrupt, and all of the content uses modern examples and recognizable parodies to do so. That’s a unique example though, most games are either criticizing the content placed in their system or criticizing the system itself by inducing absurd behavior. Flanagan goes on to explain critical play through one of the original forms of critical play via doll houses, “The enactment of critical play exhibits at least three kinds of action: unplaying, re-dressing or reskinning, and rewriting” (32). “Unplaying” is acting out forbidden scenes with the doll. “Re-dressing” is changing the doll’s appearance or items for darker play, like making funeral items and caskets. “Rewriting” is fan fiction and the proliferation of people writing stories about the doll funerals.
Like last week, the Moving Pixels podcast crew is focusing on a broader topic in gaming for the week, co-operative gameplay.
Our regular contributors, G. Christopher Williams, Nick Dinicola, and Thomas Cross, discuss varying kinds of co-op style play from the living room to the arcade to multiplayer online and the kinds of dynamics that these experiences create among players.
Lately I’ve been playing a few mediocre games. While they have control issues and bad checkpointing and other flaws, these poor design choices aren’t unbearable in and of themselves. They hamper the experience but don’t destroy it. Rather, it’s when these poor design choices interfere with my progress through the game that it becomes so frustrating that I want to quit.