Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 16, 2009
How various people cope with too much gaming.
From videogame2play.com

From videogame2play.com


Burn out in video games is something you learn to expect because most games require a greater time investment than the average book or film. As Jason Rohrer pointed out in his talk “Game and Other Four Letter Words,” many people actually consider a game’s lasting appeal to be founded on how many hours of your life you can dump into it. Yet if someone handed you a DVD and told you that it would take 20 hours to finish, to some it could be considered a threat. People who play games professionally, as a hobby, or for work, all have to balance their love of the medium with the fact that sometimes it can be too much. An essay on how to overcome burn-out breaks the process down in several steps. First, figure out what’s making you upset. Then, get some sleep, take time to reflect on the issue, and maximize your free time by relaxing. Eat healthy foods and listen to soothing music. The article makes a point of saying that video games or surfing the net are NOT relaxing because you’re still mentally working and stressing yourself out. Which leads to an interesting problem for people who rely on games as a form of relaxation: when does the game stop being fun and start to feel like work?


From Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2

From Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2


I bounced an e-mail off several people from various parts of the industry concerning this issue. Chris Dahlen is a freelance journalist who does a lot of work outside of video games. For him, burn-out only comes when he has to work with a game that he doesn’t really care for. He comments, “I’ve never spent so much time with games that I got truly, gutwrenchingly sick of ‘em.  Family stuff and other hassles get in the way first.  But when I’m reviewing a game I can’t stand, it definitely feels like work.  I get impatient.  I stop hanging around and checking out the nuances.  I keep jumping online to figure out how much longer I have left, how many missions I went through, how many hours it takes to finish.” That’s a sentiment that Michael Abbott echoes, who is a full time professor at Wabash College in addition to writing for PopMatters and running a video game blog. He writes, “Burnout rarely occurs because I usually play games as a respite from other hard, time-consuming things like teaching, parenting, and making theater. When I pick up a game to play, I’m nearly always looking forward to that activity well in advance of doing it, and carving out dedicated time to play probably makes me treasure that time even more. The only exceptions are the few times I’ve had to review games I don’t enjoy.” The mark of burnout in two people who don’t work with video games fulltime is when they’re forced to work with a game they don’t like. Whereas a bad movie is over in an hour or two, a game requires a real investment. When that falls apart, everything else goes with it for the player.


From Lumines

From Lumines


Yet for some people it’s going to be games, games, and again games so that playing things that are appealing is not always an option. Kieron Gillen is a game journalist and comic book author who has worked with numerous publications for years. The tedium of games comes from an entirely different source for him. He explains, “I went well out of my way to avoid getting stuck as a specialist in any bloody genre as a reviewer. So for the job, stuff gets mixed up and I’m not stuck playing virtually identical RTS for weeks of my life. When I don’t want to play, it’s because of the culture around it. Nothing takes the fun out of a game than a thousand people calling you corrupt for liking it. That’s the danger in being a games journalist.” Leigh Alexander is the news director for Gamasutra and also runs her own private blog on video games. For her, it’s the sheer volume of material that’s constantly outside her own preferences that she’s obliged to work with. A game critic has to stay informed in every genre and that includes titles that are often long epics. She writes, “How I cure burnout is I allow myself to do only what I want to for a bit. I might have this huge stack of brand new this and that, but I let it sit and play Lumines every night until the urge to do something else comes back. I have to take personal ownership of video games back away from my job before I can enjoy them again.”


From Cliffy B.

From Cliffy B.


Yet another totally different take on burning out comes from Steve Gaynor who is a video game designer and is working on Bioshock 2 at the moment. As someone who plays, works on, and constantly reads about video games, the issue is one of quality instead of quantity. He writes, “As far as burnout goes, I honestly more often run into the opposite problem, wherein I wish I had an awesome game to be jamming on and there’s just nothing exciting that’s come out lately…I avoid burnout by having other compelling things going on most of the time, while also keeping up with plenty of game stuff in the background so I always have something to play when there’s nothing else happening. I think it also helps that I don’t have any kind of formal obligations compelling me to play anything, except my own desire to do so.” Such a comment brings the discussion back to that curious desire to not feel like one is being forced to play a video game. Tom Endo, an editor at The Escapist, makes himself read a book every night. He comments, “The thing that helps me is that I’m a videogame tourist. I’m really interested in all genres—for at least an hour or two. Burnout is when I have to play some JRPG for 20+ hours.”  Iroquis Pliskin also suggests engaging with a different form of media or finding a game that is critically praised by everyone. If you’re not working with a game that entices you to keep playing, try one that a lot of people did find engaging.


From Bejeweled 2

From Bejeweled 2


It’s interesting that in each of those explanations is the fear that when a game starts to feel like work it will cease to be fun. You could almost say that that is the difference between any person’s feelings towards a game, the perception of the activity defines what we get out of the experience. For those who get burned out playing games with a lot of grinding and development, the activity might be a little bit too close to what their day jobs are like. Having played games all my life, I think that most of the titles that I stuck with were a counter-point to my routine. When I worked in a hectic kitchen as a line cook, I mostly played slower games that were low on adrenaline and hand-eye coordination. When I was in college it was more cartoony and engaging games that were exciting escapes from the academic routine. Now with the dull monotony of school back I find myself drawn to action, competition, and the other things that I find myself missing in life. Perhaps the real key to preventing burning out on video games is to avoid the ones that you feel like you should be playing and try to stick with the ones that you need.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jun 12, 2009
Silent Hill: Homecoming had all the elements of a psychological survival-horror game but didn’t know how to use them properly.

Silent Hill: Homecoming was largely seen as a departure from the survival-horror genre when it was released last October. However, this entry in the long running series remained true to its genre roots in many ways. Guns were sparse and ammo even more so, there were plenty of puzzles and dark environments, and while the new combat system bothered many long-time fans because it didn’t actively discourage fighting, since it emphasized dodging over attacking, players still felt weak and disadvantaged in each confrontation. But Silent Hill: Homecoming was a departure from form. It took more inspiration from the Silent Hill movie than from the previous games and ended up with many of the same flaws. It had all the elements of a psychological survival-horror game, but didn’t know how to use them properly, and as a result, it felt like more of a departure than it actually was.


One of the staples of the Silent Hill series is the different forms that the town takes on. There’s the Fog World, in which a thick fog covers everything, and there’s the Dark World, a mechanical, metallic hell any fan of the series knows too well.


In previous Silent Hill games, the world changed after players had almost fully explored a particular area. The map for each location would be covered with pen marks indicating which doors were open and which were stuck and where the dead ends and the secret passages were. With a single glance, players could be comforted by this knowledge. They knew where they were, and they knew the fastest path from one room to another. What was once scary was now familiar, but then the world changed. Players were transported to the Dark World and all the previous exploration was made worthless. The map was reset so that not only were players now stuck in a far more frightening environment, they were lost in it.


In Silent Hill: Homecoming the Dark World does not have the same emotional impact. When the world changes, players are still transported to a fearful looking mechanical, metallic hell, but the layout of the environment has also changed. Players are forced down a linear path, so the fear of having to explore this twisted landscape is gone. In one such sequence, players descend into a pit through a series of catwalks. Occasionally the path splits in two, but if a player chooses the wrong path, they’ll reach a dead end within seconds and finding the way back is easy. There’s never a fear of getting lost. In the one instance when players are forced to explore the Dark World, the area is very small. It’s just a singe house with two floors, a basement, and an attic. Once any room is deemed safe, that haven is never vary far away, so the fear of exploration is always tempered by the knowledge that safety is nearby.


Silent Hill: Homecoming is about Alex Shepherd, a war veteran who has returned home to Shepherd’s Glen only to find his town in chaos. Fog covers everything, people have been disappearing, and monsters roam the streets. When Alex learns that his little brother is missing, he decides to find him and get out of town.


The story unfolds as more of a mystery and less of a psychological horror story. Much of the plot focuses on answering the question, “What is happening in Shepard’s Glen and why?” With each new clue, Alex pieces together the history of his town, the secrets of its religious cult, and its inevitable relation to Silent Hill, but during this journey, there is very little self-reflection on his part.


Traditionally, the Dark World and its monsters were used as reflections of the protagonist’s own fears and desires, but not so in Silent Hill: Homecoming. Every time Alex is transported to the Dark World he usually talks with one of the founders of the town, and through their monologues, players come to understand that this hell that they have been brought to and these monsters that they fight are reflections of the founders’ dark pasts. In one scene, one of the founders constantly compares his late daughter to a doll, so it’s no surprise that the boss that Alex fights soon after is a twisted vision of a porcelain doll. This is a creative way of developing the antagonists, but it’s done at the expense of developing the protagonist.  As a result, the story loses that personal intimacy that the series is known for. While Alex does face some personal issues throughout the game (the history of his strained relationship with his parents emerges in certain scenes), this is treated as a subplot within the larger mystery.


It’s a shame Alex’s own psychological problems are not fully explored because he has a wealth of them. We learn late in the game that Alex was directly responsible for the accidental death of his brother. We learn that he’s not actually a war veteran. He was out of town because he was in a mental institution, insane with guilt about the death. But the game doesn’t take any time at all to explore his reaction to such a horrible revelation. After learning this, Alex quickly finds an elevator and rides it into the headquarters of the town’s cult. The fact that he killed his little brother has no emotional impact on him, and it seems the only point for the big plot twist was to shock the player.


Silent Hill: Homecoming doesn’t depict The Order, as the cult is called, as a collection of religious zealots but rather as a collection of psychopaths. The distinction may seem subtle, but the differences become blatant in the final area of the game, the Order’s headquarters. There all of the built-up mystery devolves into a wannabe Hostel game. Whatever psychological horror the game was going for is lost when characters begin to get tortured for no apparent reason. For a series known for its disturbing stories, unsettling atmosphere, and focus on the psychosomatic effects of fear, such unabashed gore is a major step back. Not only does this attempt at shock dilute the more subtle elements of horror in the game, but it gives a human face to our enemies. They are people, and people can be killed. There is nothing supernatural about the Order members, and compared to what players face throughout the rest of the game, a human opponent is preferable.


Both in its level and creature designs, the game perfectly captures the nightmarish visuals the series is known for, but it doesn’t have the frightening story to backup those visuals. With its updated graphics, it looks scarier than any other game in the series, but there’s nothing beneath that guise. It’s all just for show.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 10, 2009
The emphasis of many games is on presenting the player with an object that is desirable or loathsome and then sets that player on a path to capture or possess it.

In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, the titular young artist, Stephen Daedalus, lectures his friend Lynch at length about the nature of the beautiful in art.  He argues that when art is apprehended properly that its audience is arrested by a static emotion.  By contrast, he refers to “kinetic emotions,” which he deems to be emotions that excite in their viewers desire or loathing.  He claims that art that generates such visceral responses are either “pornographical or didactic” in nature.


Lynch responds to this clinical discussion of proper and improper art with a practical example of his own confusion about how what is considered high art (statuary in a museum) might evoke a very kinetic excitement in its audience:


You say that art must not excite desire . . . I told you that one day I wrote my name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxiteles in the Museum.  Was that not desire?


While Lynch’s interest in posing this problem may be to complicate Stephen’s neat way of dividing “high” art from other “less serious” forms of art, Lynch’s response to Stephen’s explanation also provokes interesting questions about what draws an audience to art to begin with or what motivates the audience to want to interact with a piece of art.  Assumedly, art (be it improper or not) with a pornographic quality (containing those things that, according to Stephen, excite desire and loathing in an audience) is constructed with the very notion that the sort of desirable or loathsome imagery that makes up a piece of art are the very things that the audience wants to consume. In that sense the emphasis that video games place on generating salacious and repellent imagery is extremely explicable especially given the inherently kinetic nature of this interactive art form.  If art is intended to “move” us, video games are most assuredly an art based on more than emotional kinetics.  Images are meant to make us act on our emotions. It is interesting then that the emphasis of many games is on presenting the player with an object that is desirable or loathsome and then sets that player on a path to capture or possess it.  Visual “bait” is the lure of many games, and like the assumptions of Lynch, it would seem that many game designers assume that a lot of players want to write at least their virtual names on the backsides of a Venus or two.
Visual stimulation and its possession is the central theme of the Dead or Alive beach series for example.  The player is charged with taking on the role of one of several fit young women over the course of an island vacation.  During the vacation, the character competes in sports like volleyball and jet ski racing and is rewarded with money for her efforts.  Money can be spent in the sports shop on the island, which in addition to some volleyballs and a few accessories, dominantly sells— you guessed it—slinky swimsuits. Since the player is occupying the flesh of a curvaceous woman and taking part in these activities with and against an outrageously physically well-developed group of female competitors, obviously the interest of the game is less about the sports that one is competing in and the money accrued by doing so than it is in a couple of other things.  The real reward is visual in nature; it is in outfitting all of the DOA girls in the skimpiest suits possible.  A complex relationship and gifting simulation is embedded in this “sports” game that promotes the primary motivator for gameplay, the visual gratification of possessing all or as many of the suits as possible and outfitting the various shapes and sizes of women available in the game in those suits. The notion of collection in gaming is a classic one.  Players of the original Super Mario Bros. realize the importance of collecting coins throughout the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom for instance.  For every hundred coins one collects, Mario gains another life.  Modern games thrive on this old school obsession that players have with collecting and often recognize the need for providing a reward to the player for collecting some odd little trinket or other.  In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, tagging 100 buildings in Los Santos boosts the player’s respect stat, collecting 100 oysters in San Fierro gains the player more sex appeal, and collecting 100 horseshoes causes an increase in a player’s luck at gambling.
While many games have offered gameplay rewards for completing collections, this kind of practical reward strikes me as different in nature to the aesthetic rewards of DOA.  The swimsuits and their possession are not merely a side quest in the game; they are the game.  They have no practical value, altering not how the game is played (Lisa and Tina don’t get better at volleyball by wearing a thong) but how the game is viewed.  The reward is purely in found in exciting desire, and the design uses that potential excitement as motivation for play.  This sounds suspiciously like Daedalus’ description of a “pornographical” art form.
Witness also a game like The Witcher, which takes such collection of female flesh to a very literal kind of realization.  While The Witcher is dominantly a traditional kind of action RPG in which the player takes on the role of a monster hunter who fights to gain experience to build skills and other stats, a good number of side quests are devoted to romancing fair maidens (well, most of them probably are not categorically speaking maidens, but you get the point).  While some of these romances advance the plot of the game and some of this plot advancement might ultimately lead to additional gameplay benefits, many have a single impractical reward, a card bearing the likeness of the woman that you have managed to bed.  The card becomes an emblem of a conquest and the medium that the image is captured in is an appropriate one to game players familiar with the notion of collectible cards and collectible card games.  Unlike the full value of a card in a collectible card game, though, the object of collecting them is largely aesthetic and only narrowly related to gameplay.  The card and acquiring her/it is the reason to play these side quests, and again, they have no practical value in the game itself as an object.  The captured image is the goal (y’know, you gotta catch ‘em all).
These two examples, though, may seem relatively obvious in exemplifying a pornographic aesthetic to motivate players given that both largely emphasize the desirability of a visual representation of achievement as a motivator for achieving goals in a game.  Truth be told, other forms of visual stimulation are very frequently a driving factor in motivating players to achieve goals in games that are less erotic in nature.  The flashy nature of fmvs in games attest to this notion.  Anyone that has played 40-50 hours of a Final Fantasy game is likely to attest to the fact that the promise of a really beautifully rendered cut scene coming up is often what drives the player to persist in such games.  While hardcore RPG aficionados were playing Final Fantasy II and III on Super Nintendo, it wasn’t until the more visually arresting images of Final Fantasy VII arrived that Final Fantasy became a hit stateside.  Viewing something “cool” may be as equally desirable as viewing something carnal and equally visceral. Interestingly, then, such provocation of desire through visual stimulation is often less overtly something resembling traditional porn than the earlier examples provided.  Indeed, video game “porn” can even verge on the downright cute.  One of the primary lures of the Viva Piñata gardening simulations is the visual reward offered to the player when he or she successfully mates two animals.  Ironically, the visual (and auditory) pleasure of witnessing the “romance dance” of a species of Piñata is at once seemingly not at all pornographic (they are cute animals dancing in funny ways to great music with no biological realities intruding) but then again obviously so (they are mating for pity’s sake).
It might be argued that Viva Piñata‘s romance dances (or at least the act of animal husbandry) do serve some purpose besides exciting their players with their visual charms.  Certainly, breeding animals in the game serves a function within what is fundamentally an ecological and economic simulation.  However, given the much more open ended quality of those games as sandbox simulations, it is arguable that the player is given much more to motivate him- or herself as they play through the game.  Having created a successful garden is nice but getting the opportunity to watch the fox-like Preztail piñatas perform a highly exaggerated foxtrot is, perhaps, the most aesthetically pleasing part of the game. Refreshingly, too, unlike the earlier mentioned games, the visual rewards of Viva Piñata are broader in appeal than the seemingly masculinely-oriented visual stimulation provided by the collectible “objects” of DOA and The Witcher.  As noted above, though, Daedalus argues that improper arts like the pornographic can excite both desire and loathing.  Watching women frolic in bikinis and piñatas get it on may help explain the visual stimulation that is excited by desire in games, but it fails to consider those images that might equally motivate play through the excitation of loathing.  Next week, I will take a look at some examples of what would seem to be an oxymoron, visual pleasures derived not from the desirable but from the loathsome.

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 9, 2009
The new role of the hardcore gamer in their own subculture.
From gamespot.com

From gamespot.com


The release and poor sales of SEGA’s Madworld is just another notch in what is becoming a very real gap between the different groups of people who play video games. Often blamed directly on Nintendo’s Wii, the poor sales of a highly rated game by mainstream gaming websites is just another indication that the people buying Wii Fit are not going to be following up that purchase with Call of Duty 5. Even articles making the claim that video games are responsible for torture, violence, the housing bust, traffic, bad breath, etc. are now qualifying their criticisms with statements like, “While I happen to enjoy the ‘G’ rated Wii…” Despite the fact that there are games for stalking and murdering people on the Wii, it is consistently seen as something safe for children or as something okay for the everyday person to claim they enjoy but not for that “other” stuff. The question is…what does that make all of these hardcore gamers?


From www.latfh.com

From www.latfh.com


Part of the problem with the hardcore gamer is that the meaning of “hardcore” is such a nebulous concept to begin with. You can’t exactly claim that it revolves around playing games excessively because people regardless of gender or social background do this. The person who plays Bejeweled 2 for hours is, despite the fact that they’re both playing video games, not considered the same animal as someone who plays Halo 3 for hours. The definition doesn’t exactly revolve around violence or subject matter either because the hardcore demographic will readily enjoy The Sims or Super Mario Brothers despite the cute graphics and low amounts of violence. It doesn’t revolve around game design depth or quality because there are numerous challenging games with complex systems labeled as casual. At the core of either group is that same problem with people thinking the Wii only has casual games on it: perception. The company creating the game has to start marketing it towards one group or the other from the very beginning. Tom Endo over at The Escapist wrote that the division is so intense that games that appeal to either groups are no longer possible, “The business models and the audiences for the two gaming segments are so fundamentally different that attempting to force the two under one roof just doesn’t make sense. While it’s already started, the bifurcation in the largest publishers between business units devoted solely to core and casual game interests will only grow more distinct in the future.” In this way, the division of the hardcore gamer from the casual player mostly becomes an exercise in what they are not: they are not whatever casual gamers are.


From gamespot.com

From gamespot.com


The practice of being counter-culture, to actively define yourself by what you are not, is only fairly new to video games. Absent a political agenda or purpose like other counter-culture movements, there is a comparison to the division that exists between casual gamers and hardcore gamers that seems a bit more apt. They are the cultural equivalent of hipsters.


From www.xoryst.com

From www.xoryst.com


Like the hardcore gamer, the hipster is a nebulous concept to define. These are the people wearing random thriftstore shirts, engaging with the latest indie band, or perhaps just carrying with them a pervasive sense of the ironic. One of the strongest articles on the subject is by Adbusters, which defines hipsters as indicative of the death of culture. The article opines, “Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group—using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.” The article goes on to explain that they are a mirror of the shallowness of mainstream society, a failed youth movement that doesn’t even challenge the decadence of their elders. Instead, the hipster is just a counter-point to Gen-X, an identity based on meaninglessness instead of brand names. Rob Horning here at the Popmatters blog Marginal Utility has done excellent coverage of the topic drawing in a wide variety of opinions. In one piece he provides an excellent quote from Dara Lind who wonders why a generation of typically privileged people with opportunity are ending up in such a cultural state of zombification. In the post “The Death of the Hipster”, he points out, “The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how “cool” it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity.”


From www.current.com

From www.current.com


On the surface, these two groups could not be more alien. A post by PixelVixen707 discussing the comparison points out many of the flaws in the analogy. She writes, “Gamers accumulate knowledge; hipsters move through it, consuming and relinquishing it daily. Gamers accumulate years’ worth of garbage and trivia, and never let it go. They are still making Portal jokes. A hipster is judged by what’s now; gamers, by what they were playing in 1993.” Easily the most popular critics of video games is Penny Arcade, and as she points out, they accomplish this through a sense of inclusiveness. But past these social difference, they are technically performing the same cultural activity. Both identities are self-created and enforced by the community’s own tastes.


Consider how a game becomes “high art” in gamer culture. The means by which we judge which ten year old game is significant is mostly artificial. Critics just choose games that they will then discuss in a more complex fashion. Using Shadow of the Colossus as an example, a blogger named Vanderblade explains how gaming websites elevated the game’s status. He comments, “Whether or not a videogame is highbrow depends largely on if the gaming community positions it and defines it as such. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, the discourse surrounding the game clearly identifies it as culturally superior to most other games.” Although that specific example deals with the vagaries of highbrow video games, it also explores the same mechanism by which gamers select whether something is casual or hardcore. We just make it up.


From www.latfh.com

From www.latfh.com


Video games have very recently attained their moment in the mainstream spotlight and the reaction is just starting to turn hostile. An example of a typical hardcore rant against casual games at Good Gear Guide places the blame squarely on Nintendo and the Wii for the downfall of video games. The author rants, “Call it a fad or a gimmick if you will, but this is exactly what the masses want — and they’re gatecrashing the party in their millions. Nintendo’s “come one, come all” approach to gaming has revolutionized our once-insular industry, with grannies, girlfriends and non-gamers all getting in on the action.” The hipster tone begins to set in once the article defines anything as hardcore that is not a “casual/party” game or put more colloquially, whatever is not mainstream. The symptoms of this do not just relate to Nintendo games either. The Halo 3 backlash is taking on somewhat mythic proportions as posters and message boards continue to complain that the game is not worthy of its popularity. Whatever your opinion on the game, a title doesn’t host over one billion multiplayer matches because it’s doing something wrong. Ultimately, the hardcore gamer will probably fall into the same cultural cycle as the hipster as it repudiates what is mainstream for the sake of remaining against such a culture. As Horning at PopMatters dryly jokes, “One can’t be against hipsters. Hipsterism consists of its own repudiation. Recognizing the existence of hipsters to a certain degree makes one a hipster.” One could easily say the same about hardcore gamers.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 8, 2009
Showcasing the narrative element of a game is fine, but we really just want to see how it plays.

As anyone reading this blog probably knows, E3 has been going on all week in L.A. (which seems even farther away from Buffalo than usual these last few days), and as such, a barrage of game announcements and trailers for new product have been finding their way to the internets mere minutes after they are revealed to the Expo’s attendants.  Of those trailers, there is one that I simply can’t shake after having seen it, and it’s this one:



Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.