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

 
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Thursday, Sep 15, 2011
Surely the interactive medium offers wholly unique takes on plagues and pustules? Upon closer inspection, have games upheld the long tradition of exploring social and political issues by horrifying, repulsing, and upsetting us with disease?

Since I was a child, infectious diseases have been one of my most consistent fears. At mere mention of the Ebola virus, my skin crawls while I fight the urge to wash my hands. As PopMatters’s own Dan Dinello rightly points out, “[p]op culture runs rampant” with disease ”and has for some time” (“The Contagious Age”, PopMatters, 8 September 2011). Contagions have long offered potent analogies for the social and political fears of an era. Early zombie films explored the deadening effect of consumerist culture, while more modern takes on the undead have addressed governmental inadequacies and cultures of violence. While Dinello offers a thorough exploration of infections through film and literature, he only briefly touches upon disease in games. Surely the interactive medium offers wholly unique takes on plagues and pustules? Upon closer inspection, have games upheld the long tradition of exploring social and political issues by horrifying, repulsing, and upsetting us with disease?


The single more terrifying element of epidemics and diseases are how they completely and suddenly upset normalcy. From the global context to our own communities, the dread of disease lies in its ability to upend expectations. As Dinello points out, “In our age of global networking and circulation of people and goods, contagion threatens to violate secure borders, invade our society, and proliferate out of control.” Games may have difficulty evoking this menace when interactivity demands players maintain some degree of satisfying control, even in the most dire circumstances.


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Thursday, Sep 8, 2011
Games have not stumbled upon a new way of creating and interacting with art, they have rediscovered an older system.

For the video game community, summer is the season of reflection.  Players are still working through the dense stack of games released during the winter and spring, developers are toiling away on next fall’s big titles, and critics are trying to make sense of the medium as a whole.  Things slow down a little bit, which gives folks time to think about the bigger artistic and philosophical questions facing video games.


One can only stare into the endless abyss of competing philosophies for so long before becoming unhinged.  Thankfully, the changing seasons save us from consuming ourselves.  Mother nature announces the end of summer by turning the leaves gold and brown.  The video game industry does something similar by releasing the annual Madden installment.  Conversations about theory will soon give way to conversations about specific games: Will Gears of War 3 make us cry?  What will Journey teach us about companionship?  Is Apple eating Sony and Nintendo’s lunch?  New grist is added to the mill and converted into fuel for next summer’s existential evaluation.


Grappling with intractable questions of art and meaning is valuable, but exhausting.  Those that do it publicly expose themselves to potentially embarrassing corrections (just ask Roger Ebert).  As a rule, my wariness and caution tend to stop me from writing to much about The Nature of Art With a Capital “A,” but this week I’ll make an exception.  For those wishing to stay topside, here’s the simple version of my argument: notions of what constitute art have changed throughout history.  Because of this, asking whether art will change to accommodate video games is just as valid as asking whether video games can be art.  We would do well to remember that artistic strata are ultimately human constructions and are therefore malleable.


To those of you still with me: let’s talk about Shakespeare.


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Thursday, Sep 1, 2011
Channel 4 Education, the learning arm of the UK television broadcaster, and Preloaded, a London-based game studio, seek to help teens confront their own feelings about mortality with The End, a puzzle-platformer that normalizes death and creates a venue for discussing life, belief systems, and our eventual passing.

What better way to discuss some of the social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of death and dying than in a medium rife with demise? Our digital playground is strewn with corpses of both enemies and allies and filled with the memories of our own demise. Even the idea of spiritual transcendence is crudely mirrored by our avatars’ tendencies to revive and carry-on after any casualty. In games, death is commonplace and frequently trivial, and, thus, gaming provides a safe place to dissect some of our beliefs and assumptions about mortality. In real life, managing one’s feelings on such sensitive subjects can be quite difficult, particularly for young-adults. Channel 4 Education, the learning arm of the UK television broadcaster, and Preloaded, a London-based game studio, seek to help teens confront their own feelings about mortality with The End, a puzzle-platformer that normalizes death and creates a venue for discussing life, belief systems, and our eventual passing.


Since venturing into educational media, Channel 4 has shown no hesitation in broaching sensitive and risque subjects, from sex and drugs to the threat of a surveillance society, as they relate to youth. Death is both a biological and a deeply sociocultural phenomenon. The process of dying has long since left the home for the hospital, and as a result, our cultural attitudes towards death have altered drastically. For many, the subject remains taboo, something to be hidden away lest we give it strength. Although some cultural norms arise, belief systems and perceptions about death vary widely. Preloaded describes their interest in the subject as follows: “One debate we were particularly interested in was the approach to death, belief and science. Many children and teens in the UK have a secular upbringing, which can leave them feeling unsupported when trying to make sense of death outside of a religious viewpoint.”


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Thursday, Aug 25, 2011
I think Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld's contention that "Story Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories" is premature. If anything, the study illustrates the difficulties of trying to empirically measure enjoyment and the dangers of imprecise definitions of pleasure.

Discussions about video games are routinely constrained by “spoilers.”  People go to great lengths to tiptoe around major (usually plot-related) components of games for fear they will negatively impact those yet to play them.  A couple weeks ago, a study conducted by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld of UC San Diego was published that suggested this focus on avoiding spoilers may be unnecessary and “giving away surprises makes readers like stories better” (“Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories”, Psychological Science, 12 August 2011, p. 2).


In the spirit of the research, I guess I should say this up front: while the study is entertaining and provocative, I think its contention that “Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories” is premature.  If anything, the study illustrates the difficulties of trying to empirically measure enjoyment and the dangers of imprecise definitions of pleasure.  Video games, perhaps more so than any other medium, are defined by the exploration, discovery, and the learning process.  Because of this, spoilers often detract from what makes video games special.


Tagged as: spoilers
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Thursday, Aug 18, 2011
From the depiction of cursed men as sheep to revealing confessional statistics, Catherine attempts to dismantle individuality, insulting and devaluing the player in the process.

While playing Catherine the much anticipated erotic-thriller from Atlus, the occasional loading screen will feature a famous quote or saying appropriate to the game’s themes. Most of these quotes pertain to marriage, what it means to be a “man” or a “woman,” or relationships in general. During a particularly trying period for Vincent, the game’s often pathetic protagonist, words by the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson grace the screen: “We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables.” Such an isolating belief, reflected in Vincent’s paranoia and solitude, stand in stark contrast to the game’s persistent references to widespread and shared decisions and mistakes. From the depiction of cursed men as sheep to revealing confessional statistics, Catherine attempts to dismantle individuality, insulting and devaluing the player in the process.


No matter how many minor decisions that I make throughout the game, Vincent will always be a selfish and incompetent boyfriend. I usher Vincent through poorly crafted lies and watch as he tunes out Katherine, his partner of roughly five years (Vincent cannot quite remember how long it has been), to manage one of his many panic attacks about a future he refuses to confront. Rather than deal with his emotional baggage, he drinks with friends and avoids dealing with the growing dilemma that is the coquettish Catherine and his cheating problem.


Numerous other men share Vincent’s deep character flaws. As Michael Abbott rightly points out, “Vincent is one messed up dude, as are nearly all the men present as NPCs. To Catherine’s credit, it shows us male characters that we seldom see in games—vulnerable, damaged, self-loathing—all gathered in a freakish final-exam-nightmare purgatory.” (”The Catherine Masquerade”, The Brainy Gamer, 9 August 2011). Indeed, nearly every NPC wrestles with the causes and consequences of his personal neuroses. Across the board, the cast of Catherine are painfully flawed.


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