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

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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012
If game mechanics are meant to provide players with experiences such as fun and anxiety, then narrative actually is a game mechanic, as much as game mechanics can also be narrative elements.

Narrative is a naughty word. Its appearance in video game discussions trigger froth to arise from corners of mouths and paints internet forums red. This is most likely because of a prevailing insistence on entertaining an old binary argument: video games are just another medium for telling as opposed to narrative being an inconsequential component in games. The latter opinion, along with the ideas of ludology and formalism, mostly won out, and narrative studies maintains its underdog status in the debate. A recent addition to the barrage of anti-narratology essays is Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic,” which further insists on binary thinking in terms of narrative (“Narrative is not a game mechanic”, Raph Koster’s Website, 12 January 2010). Koster’s treatment of narrative as feedback and static information perpetuates a limiting attitude by misrepresenting what narrative actually is. However, it is not only one person or even the more active subscribers to this school of thought, but instead an ingrained perspective on narrative that polarizes the gaming community and stymies expression in the medium.


This discussion often hits a roadblock because most people use the terms “narrative” and “story” interchangeably. From a design perspective, they are separate ideas. Narrative refers to how something is communicated, most often it is used to refer to the way that someone tells a story. We refer to a narrator, not a “storyteller,” because the process of communicating an experience is at the heart of the word. Stories are descriptions using narrative elements, such as characters, plot events, point of view, and other mechanical techniques. Following this line of thought, Koster’s (among many others’) claim that “games can and do exist without narrative” is misleading.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 17, 2012
Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games.

There is a difference between “mass appeal” and “accessibility,” though some word-slingers and comment fanatics find the terms interchangeable. Who uses them determines a large part of their meaning, as a lot of gaming discussion also determines who belongs to the “in group” and who belongs to the “out group.” Games striving for mass appeal tend to come from a series or lineage of some sort that include conventions that appeal to hardcore gamers but also attempt to broaden their audience by watering down complex features. The phrase is used pejoratively, devaluing other gaming styles while calling out developers with their eye on gaining more customers. Accessibility is a design philosophy that opens up games to more people without changing the experience for the original audience. It also aims to value a plurality of gaming styles instead of “one over all others,” such as higher difficulties being the ultimate vision or true version of a game.


Arguments concerning mass appeal and accessibility frequently occur over RPGs, a genre going through an identity crisis by trying to satisfy the old guard while fighting stagnation by expanding into new territory (the purgatory of the “give us something new but keep everything the same” demand of gamers). A focus on stats or numbers in general is often included in many gamers’ definitions of what an RPG is, but the focus on micromanaging numbers is the only one way to express character progression. It is far more likely that statistical progression is a given and that a game is built around such progression rather than an organic component of what it means to be an RPG.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 3, 2012
Why can't free-to-play games or extremely niche titles be featured on end of the year lists?

“Game of the Year” lists. Everybody’s got one, and they all tend to look the same. This year’s blockbuster hits, sequels to long-standing series, new projects created by popular development teams. After some reflection, I realized there were many gaming experiences that I excluded from my own list because I had some presuppositions of what “should” be on such a list. We expect high profile games that cost us $60, typically rewarding games that improve a formula instead of taking risks. If the recent presence of the indie development scene tells us anything, it’s that high end production and price tags aren’t necessary for making a successful game. What about the free games or the extremely niche titles? I decided to put together a small list in the spirit of rewarding some 2011 games that are unlikely to be featured elsewhere but deserve recognition for the risk taking that they took to advance the medium.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 13, 2011
The narrative rests in the relationship between the environment and the items found in it, specifically placed for the player to find and create an explanation.

When a game has many players who ignore the main quests and journey off to create their own stories, one should question the value of embedded narrative. Does a game like Skyrim need a main storyline? The writing and character voice acting were okay and forgettable, just there for when I was in the area rather than being something of interest. I venture to say that the presence of a main story that you would find in other RPGs that don’t have such an open world is dissonant with how The Elder Scrolls series tells stories best.


There are actually multiple narrative structures in conflict with one another in Skyrim—and arguably in Morrowind and Oblivion as well. The presence of fate as a central concern grows stronger in each installment, with Skyrim sometimes going as far as to control your character’s movement for you. The concept of fate is antithetical to the type of play that The Elder Scrolls promotes, which is player-focused and controlled. However, we’re so used to convention that we expect cutscenes and epic storylines to unfold before us. We’re not used to the idea of “This is my story” unless it’s a Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress that we are experiencing. Skyrim doesn’t need a storyline for the player to experience their own.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 29, 2011
Because pornography typically has straight male consumption in mind, its politics leak into games by highlighting how they look at women and other men in porn. We would have to look to pornography made for women and gay men and apply how the camera looks at the performers for a holistic approach to sexualizing characters.

Sexuality in games is a contentious topic. Few see video games as open or mature enough to express ideas and create experiences concerning sexuality for players to explore. It’s also rarely pleasant to talk about the topic, usually any arguments settle on the accusation of games as serving as wish fulfillment for heterosexual men and the more vocal of said demographic replying with a “So what?” What’s often overlooked is the possibility of the sexualization of men, as if it’s not an option.


My title is misleading; games don’t usually sexualize men. As frequently suggested when discussing the Male Gaze theory in film studies and neatly tied into relevancy for our purposes by Kate Cox in “The Gamer’s Gaze,” men are not sexualized in most media (“The Gamer Gaze, part 1”, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 20 June 2011). Because there is a large presence of the heterosexual man’s identity in the development process and in gaming’s audience, the perceived “neutral” vision of game design takes on the influence of the socially appropriate interests specific to straight men. The lack of men’s sexualization is a product of the average straight guy’s impulse to avoid appearing or feeling gay. Men have a fig leaf of sorts when it comes to camera work and character design, while women get more attention and exposure. What sexual bits we do see are “safe” for heterosexual men to view without feeling like they’re watching something “gay,” such as muscular arms or exposed torsos. A common counter-argument concerns the issue of men’s impossible body image in games, which is definitely important, but mostly a different discussion to tackle. The aesthetic of muscles denote strength, agency, and power for the assumed male player to relate to, while emphasis on T&A when viewing women only serves as fan-service. Both rely on problematic ideals, but there is still a power relation present in theis representation that favors men.


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