It was a rough weekend for Bay Area football fans. It was an especially rough weekend for Kyle Williams, the San Francisco 49ers’ kick returner. His two unfortunate fumbles were crucial parts of the 49ers’ defeat and the end of their Super Bowl run. Now that the disappointment is starting to wear off, I find myself able to appreciate the disastrous sequence of events in an academic sense. There’s something exciting about a game in which the most carefully designed strategies can be dashed by unforeseen events. Football is a beautiful combination of meticulous planning and implementing those plans under pressure, a description that also apples to most video games.
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The strategy game genre has long featured elements that mirror or model colonization, including many of its inhuman components. The Civilization franchise, for example, explores the process of colonization as players settle foreign lands, occupying territory forcibly from “barbarous” natives. Up until Civilization V, the series also included slavery. Perhaps Firaxis removed human bondage from the series to avoid discussing such a sensitive issue distastefully. Sid Meier’s Colonization does the same, which Trevor Owens of Play The Past rightly criticizes: “If someone wants to play a game where they replay the colonization of the Americas shouldn’t they have to think about the history of slavery as well?” (“Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is It Offensive Enough?”, Play The Past, 23 November 2010). Should we shy away from potentially intriguing and evocative historical systems?
Owens makes a compelling argument that Colonization should actually be more offensive. While I agree, this article is not about Colonization. Yet it is about slavery and what a particular game, a board game in fact, can teach us about the risks and rewards of modeling historical events in games.
I’m not yet finished with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and I make a point not to formally review anything that I haven’t finished, so consider this a critique. It’s a critique born of the unorthodox way that I’m playing the game, which is itself the reason that I haven’t finished it yet. For reasons I’m still unclear on, my wife Hanah has expressed interest in Skyward Sword, so we’re doing a quasi-cooperative playthrough. We hand the controller back and forth, I offer hints, and we generally try to stay at about the same level of progress on our respective saves. We make an odd couple: I’m a grizzled Zelda veteran whose played video games his whole life, while Hanah’s a relative novice to the series and more casual devotee to the medium. It’s an unorthodox way to play the game, one that’s driven me towards an unsettling realization: neither one of us is all that happy with the game. This raises the question: Who is Skyward Sword’s audience?
After five days trapped between an eight hundred pound boulder and a canyon wall, dying of extreme thirst and malnutrition, Aron Ralston amputated his own arm with a dull two inch pocket knife. Carrying out this impromptu surgery took time and tenacity. Ralston first broke his radius and ulna and then carved and chipped away at his tissue and tendons for about an hour before pulling himself free. Then, in a state of delirium, Ralston rappelled down a 65-foot wall and walked out of the canyon.
Since Ralston’s agonizing ordeal, he has become an inspirational speaker, and for good reason—it takes a uniquely strong person to survive the impossible. Yet according to Ralston, the exact opposite is true. You, yes, you, my humble reader, would chop off your own arm too if you had to. In fact, Ralston’s story is so compelling for this exact reason. It forces us to ask ourselves, would I be capable of such a seemingly inhuman feat? Could I really confront the pain and horror of self-amputation and survive? In his award nominated film 127 Hours, which is based on Ralston’s experience, Danny Boyle answers with a resounding yes. Boyle punctuates Ralston’s escape with a shot of ancient paintings on a canyon wall and a montage of people celebrating, running, swimming, and generally living. Instead of exalting Ralston, he places him within a long history of human accomplishment, a representative of the spirit that we each have to endure and overcome immense challenges. The film is a triumphant celebration of human tenacity.
Since their inception, the sensations of empowerment that games have evoked in their audience only slightly mirror the universal humanity depicted in Boyle’s work. How many millions of player have faced ostensibly insurmountable odds and overcome? How many of us have, at least, defeated the boss or safely navigated a level? Time and again, we have all become heroes. We certainly share that much in common. But too often our heroics are born of something entirely nonhuman. Our champions may possess innate powers, gifts from gods, talking swords, magical incantations, or numerous otherworldly endowments. Few video game characters represent very well both the frailty and fortitude of mankind evidenced in Ralston’s experience.
It seems that reports of Shigeru Miyamoto’s retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Last week, an excerpt from Wired‘s extended interview with Miyamoto set off a brief panic amongst players and stockholders. Thanks to a combination of translation issues, alarmism, and poor reading comprehension, the prospect of Miyamoto’s impending retirement loomed large. Nintendo quickly put the kibosh on the speculation (as well as the stock dip fueled by such speculation) by reassuring the world that: “He has no intention of stepping down. Please do not be concerned” (Isabel Reynolds, “Nintendo denies report games designer Miyamoto to retire”, Reuters, 8 December 2011).
Everything is fine and nothing will change. Miyamoto’s not going anywhere. Nintendo would have us think this and dedicated fans want to believe this, but it’s only half true. Things have already changed. Miyamoto has been preparing for his late-career period for some time. Even so, we shouldn’t be concerned.