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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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Thursday, Aug 11, 2011
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks shows that a game can revolve around the abduction of a royal woman while still avoiding the most tired aspects of the well-worn "save the princess" trope.

It might be funny if it wasn’t such a cliche. Despite its name, The Legend of Zelda is mostly about Link.  To be fair, Link isn’t the most developed video game character; over the past twenty-five years, he hasn’t even managed to speak a word.  But viewed from a mechanical perspective, every Zelda game is about Link’s development.  Over the course of the adventure, the player learns new techniques and sharpens their skills as Link makes the transition from an innocent youth to a seasoned warrior.  While all this is happening, Zelda is usually in hiding or imprisoned beyond the player’s control and the plot’s immediate attention.


However, there are some exceptions to this pattern.  I recently played The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks and was pleasantly surprised to find that Zelda was more than a plot device.  Spirit Tracks isn’t a revolution in sophisticated storytelling, but it succeeds in making Zelda meaningful for reasons beyond tradition.  Spirit Tracks shows that a game can revolve around the abduction of a royal woman while still avoiding the most tired aspects of the well-worn “save the princess” trope.


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Thursday, Aug 4, 2011
By wrestling with contradictory desires to create a compelling large scale experience and a personal relationship between deity and worshiper, From Dust inadvertently discusses man's relationship to divinity.

Gods may shape the earth and all its rivers and streams, but do they feel responsible for the trials and fates of mortals? With so many games that bestow great power on players, games may offer a unique realm to explore the sensation of responsibility and themes of duty, guilt, and regret. From Dust, which grants players limited divine influence over land and sea, wrestles with the dual task of providing dynamic gameplay in a large scale sandbox while creating an emotionally resonant relationship between god-like players and their aboriginal flock.


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