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

 
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Thursday, Apr 21, 2011
Picross 3D might not have a "story" in the traditional sense, but it still has a lot to say.

Works that feature traditional narratives often enjoy the distinction of being the most popular, critically acclaimed, and carefully analyzed form of video games. Blockbusters like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption center around plots reminiscent to those found in film or literature. Popular independent games like Limbo or The Path also adhere to themes that have been explored in other forms. Obviously, video games differ from these traditional media, as players actively collaborate in the story and have at least some control over crafting the character behavior. Thus, game criticism often focuses on the dialectic between the themes a game’s plot conveys and those advanced by its rule systems. The BioShocks of the world elicit a preponderance of essays that parse the ways in which their stories and rules interact, but comparatively little is ever said about about what Gran Turismo tells us about the cultural role of automobiles or whether Madden NFL makes implicit arguments about football’s social value.


I recognize the bulk of my work has (and will probably remain) focused on games with plots, but I thought I would try and mix things up a bit. What kinds of values do games without stories impart? What do they say about the medium and about culture in general?  In search of answers, I turned to Picross 3D.


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Thursday, Apr 14, 2011
While we all have our own experiences to draw from, we relate to many symbols similarly. Our semiotic understanding of a situation is, in some ways, predetermined by those symbols already present in our collective conscience.

At this past Game Developers Conference, Brenda Brathwaite gave a talk titled “One Falls for Each of Us: Prototyping Tragedy”. She gave a nearly identical talk by the same name in 2010, which is available online and I would encourage all of you to watch. Brathwaite is a powerful orator, imbuing all her talks with vigor and emotion. Her six part, “The Mechanic is the Message” game series has drawn immense interest and critical acclaim for generating an equal amount of critical thought and emotional weight. One Falls for Each of Us, the fourth in the series, models the US slaughter of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. While I appreciate the title of her series, the mechanical reconstruction of history is not the message alone. Or rather, the components of a historical system mean little without a conjoining emotional system. Brathwaite’s work exemplifies how game designers can create provocative player-imbued systems of emotion.


During Brathwaite’s presentation, one powerful and important statement stands out: “Wherever there is human-on-human tragedy, there is also a system.” This is particularly true during large scale tragedies. In the case of Train, her well-known boardgame about the Holocaust, Brathwaite creates a game out of the systems required to collect and transport millions of Jews to concentration camps. How could you make a game about the Holocaust? Well, it turns out pretty easily.


Creating a game system inspired by human tragedy need not succeed in creating a strong response. Brathwaite imbues her work with deep emotional resonance, and not by solely relying on her collection of relevant historical units. Numerous games draw upon human tragedy without evoking many feelings at all. As she states, “as long as they are decently abstract, they don’t make us uncomfortable.” Someone could have a strong emotional response while playing Civilization V, but that is incidental. The sensations of disgust, revulsion, guilt, and melancholy generated by Train are not. Brathwaite calls the games Puerto Rico and Sid Meier’s Colonization two different versions of One Falls for Each of Us, as they all draw upon the tragedy of colonialism and incorporate representations of the oppressed into the game mechanic. How can One Falls create such an emotionally moving experience with the same basic conceit?


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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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