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

 
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Thursday, Apr 26, 2012
If we abandon our flawed assumptions about games, there are no limits on the evocative power of the “powerless”.

Mark Sample of Play the Past recently asked an interesting and thought provoking question to his readers: “What are the limits of playing the powerless?” Even more specifically, he asked, “What are the limitations of playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless?”  (“The Limits of Playing the Powerless and the Doomed in Video Games”, Play the Past, 10 April 2012).  Sparked by Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, Sample goes on to raise and allude to a variety of questions about viewership and participation, player detachment, historical obligations, and developer responsibility.  All games can—and more should—address sensitive issues with tact, including emotional topics and historically significant time periods or events marked by troubling power relations. The only limits to playing the “powerless” are the limits we set when we carry our game design assumptions into the development process.


The concept of fun inevitably arises when discussing serious games and powerlessness in particular. Time and again others have exhaustively argued for “engagement” as a more descriptive ideal than “fun,” which fails to capture why we engage with melancholy media at all. So let’s leave that concept behind entirely.


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2012
Sometimes, the most satisfying ending is a depressing one.

This post contains spoilers for Neuromancer, Halo: Reach, Braid, and Red Dead Redemption.


Recently, I’ve been slacking on some projects I’m working on, but I have a good excuse.  Well, at least my editor might think it’s a good excuse: I got caught up reading William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer.  It’s a foundational work in modern science fiction, one I’m proud to now check off of my long list of shamefully neglected cultural blind spots.  There’s a lot to like about Neuromancer, but one of my favorite aspects is the ending—specifically, how depressing it is.  This isn’t to say that it’s bad or flawed, just that it’s not a particularly sunny resolution.  It’s the kind of ending that also appears in some of my favorite video games.


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Thursday, Apr 12, 2012
We can better understand our responses to certain physical spaces by tapping into the study of human psychology and the visceral reactions that we have to aesthetics and architecture, a field that game designers explore constantly.

In a deep salt basin in New Mexico about 26 miles east of Carlsbad, the US Department of Energy has been burying the world’s most dangerous material. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) houses an enormous load of transuranic radioactive waste, the destructive remnants of nuclear weapons research and production. In this massive hole in the desert, our deadly refuse must sit for 10,000 years—a timespan difficult to imagine let alone predict. In the far off future, when an advanced human culture or the destitute remains of a crumbling civilization finds our pock upon the earth, regardless of their culture or linguistic ability, they must understand a clear and resounding message: “What is here is dangerous.”


You can imagine then the difficulty faced by WIPP’s scientists in designing a universal missive for future generations. Their solution was to tap into the study of human psychology and the visceral reactions that we have to aesthetics and architecture, a field game designers explore constantly.


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Thursday, Apr 5, 2012
What kind of material gets left out of the strongest video games? What would weaker games look like without any excess fat? Director's cuts could reveal broader lessons about the games that we play.

For all of its majestic landscapes and dramatic action sequences, Journey is an exceedingly tight experience.  Journey‘s environments, art, and even its mechanics stick to the bare necessities in order to communicate the game’s message. 


It’s hard to argue with the result. The game feels massive, but not monotonous.  Meticulously designed, yet organic.  Nothing feels out of place and nothing feels superfluous.


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Thursday, Mar 29, 2012
Since the first entry into the franchise, the most interesting dichotomy of Mass Effect 3 has not been between synthetic and organic, but between Paragon and Renegade.

This is an article about choice in Mass Effect 3, about the path our Shepards have taken and how confined decisions make these experiences all the more powerful. Since the first entry into the franchise, the most interesting dichotomy has not been between synthetic and organic, but between Paragon and Renegade. While Bioware constructs a false dichotomy between the two out of necessity, artful adjustments to story and context during decision points have continued to complicate the game’s own binary system.


Even in the first Mass Effect, the Paragon/Renegade system had already set itself apart from traditional morality systems. The blue and red color coded options gave newcomers the false impression that these decisions represented “good” and “bad”, as though they were judgements passed down from some fictional deity. In actuality, these decisions more closely adhered and continue to adhere to the “lawful good” and “chaotic good” alignments established by Dungeons & Dragons. They represent how closely Shepard “follows the rules” in pursuit of good, a measurement of divergence from a lore-based code of conduct.


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