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

 
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Thursday, Apr 7, 2011
What is the state of mobile/handheld gaming out in the wild? If the sights taken in on one recent trip are any indication, the traditional kings of the jungle might need to worry about their place in the food chain.

Recently, I had to travel from England to the San Francisco Bay Area.  Because of my modest net worth and the unfortunate unreliability of matter-transport/teleportation technology, I faced a nearly 24-hour journey.  I figured that since I would already be stuck in a variety of vehicles and security lines, I might as well find a more productive use for my time and spy on people.  The information that I was after was nothing so trite as national secrets or personal financial information.  I wanted to see if anyone was playing video games and, if so, what they were playing.


After what amounted to essentially an all-nighter of observation, I came away from the project quite surprised.  I saw little of what I expected and much of what I did not.  Although it was hardly a scientific survey, my little gaming sightseeing adventure did affect the way I think about mobile gaming and made me even more interested in the future of the field.


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Thursday, Mar 31, 2011
Perhaps concealing some of the game data and making the remainder difficult to analyze bolsters the game’s environmentalist rhetoric. But does the game’s difficulty undermine its ability to inspire action? Are players learning to be hopeless?

In 2006 and in conjunction with the BBC, UK based Red Redemption launched Climate Change, a browser-based strategy game in which players takes on the fictional role of the President of the “European Nations” and try to impede global warming. The game is a clear predecessor to Red Redemption’s latest release, Fate of the World. A strategy game in a similar vein as Climate Change, players in Fate of the World lead the Global Environmental Organization (GEO), the fictional body that manages all the chaotic political economies of the planet. Overcoming the regional and global problems that beset mankind demands a heightened mastery of the game system and enough patience to withstand increasingly severe and widespread dilemmas. Fate of the World is far from easy, and its difficulty offers its own unique risks and rewards.


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Thursday, Mar 24, 2011
Inside a Star-filled Sky illustrates the challenge of making a game that tests a player's reflexes and beliefs.

Author’s note: This essay was written based on Version 15 of Inside a Star-filled Sky.  On March 22, 2011, Version 16 was released.  It introduced major changes regarding the game’s structure.  Unlike Version 15, players of Version 16 all inhabit the same procedurally generated world and also have the ability to place flags marking their progress on a global server.


Obviously, this undermines certain themes in the essay, particularly the ones regarding the individuality and isolation inherent in each player’s experience.  However, most of the material remains relevant.


Although they throw a monkey wrench into my essay, I think these changes are quite interesting, especially in light of the game’s previous versions.  What started out as a unique, solitary journey has slowly become a more uniform, social experience.  Inside a Star-filled Sky is still a big place, but players are no longer alone in its universe.


Additionally, this event is yet another example of the medium’s ephemeral nature.  The game I wrote about is substantially different from the game as it now exists.  What are the implications of such malleability?  How do we study the history of the medium in light of its ever-changing nature?  Is there a way to determine the “canonical” version of a particular game?  Is a game ever truly finished?  Are these questions even worth pursuing?  In any case, they are questions for another day. 


I hope you enjoy this piece on Inside a Star-filled Sky, Version 15.  Thanks for reading.


Jason Rohrer’s Inside a Star-filled Sky is a difficult game to grasp, not only due to the game’s ambitious scale, but because its layers aspire to divergent goals and achieve varying levels of success.  It’s nearly impossible to offer a single evaluation of a game that defies boundaries, so perhaps the best way to evaluate it is to mimic its own structure, zooming in and out between its nested layers of meaning. 


On a macro level, the game encapsulates the medium’s current thematic fascinations with recursion, randomness, and challenge.  These ideas are clever, but their implementation is hobbled by mechanical weaknesses that illustrate the difficulty of marrying an artistic vision with elegant craftsmanship.  Finally, and most broadly, the game’s overarching themes offer philosophical messages about the humbling search for meaning in video games and beyond.  Inside a Star-Filled Sky may be composed of simple little sprites, but those unassuming figures house sophisticated concepts.


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Thursday, Mar 17, 2011
The burden of documentary storytelling is too confining. In order to successfully create a documentary, game designers must inhibit their own genre from flourishing.

Every year, school buses loaded with children of all ages take class field trips to the Ronald Reagan Foundation & Library in Simi Valley, California, which is located about forty miles outside Los Angeles. There, in the Air Force One Discovery Center, library staff lead students through an interactive history lesson. Children take on the role of Washington staff, members of the press corp, and even Reagan himself and replay the events of leading to the 1983 invasion of Granada. In the provocative episode “Kid Politics” from the radio show This American Life, Starlee Kine records one such field trip in which a class of fifth graders joyfully reenact a troubling moment in American history.


The children are shepherded towards the vilification of the press and deification of Ronald Reagan. Loud buzzers and flashing lights punish students for making decisions that err from history and reward them for correctly mimicking Reagan’s actions. At one point, the class lets out a unanimous and resounding “No!” when asked “Just because [the press] have their freedoms, does that mean they should use them?” (“Kid Politics”, This American Life, 14 January 2011). The entire session comes off as frighteningly Orwellian. One individual, discussing the episode, describes the event as a form of indoctrination, stating: “It can be argued that the library’s bias is obvious in the very name of the building. It’s just that they pass these conclusions off as products of the students’ own critical thinking that is misleading and so very Reaganite.” (Paul Steele, This American Life - Kid Politics”, Dogmas of the Quiet Past, 14 March 2011).


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Thursday, Mar 10, 2011
Stacking's matryoshka dolls are more than a quirky aesthetic; their nature reflects the game's approach to design and storytelling.

Stacking is a lighthearted, approachable game, but it takes one thing very seriously: layers. Rather than aim to please a certain type of player, Stacking‘s rule systems and challenges are structured to allow players to burrow down into their preferred level of engagement.  In addition to being a fresh and innovative take on the adventure genre, the game’s storytelling occupies a rare niche. It’s a game whose story and humor appeal to a wide variety of audiences.  Like the Muppets, Stacking’s storytelling, and especially its humor, is crafted in such a way to please youngsters (along with the juvenile impulses in adults) while also containing jokes that older folks can appreciate. Buried amongst Stacking‘s satire and cultural allusions is an even more specific layer that winks at folks who closely follow the medium. Any game about Russian nesting dolls solving mysteries and thwarting evil capitalists in a Gilded Age environment is automatically unique, but Stacking turns a creative concept into a coherent mechanical and thematic ideology.


Tagged as: game design, stacking
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