Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered their decision on Brown v. EMA (formerly Schwarzenegger v. EMA), a case arguing the strict regulation of mature-rated game titles in California. The 7-2 decision to overturn the California law in favor of the game industry was hardly an upset to perhaps anyone but Senator Yee, but I would ask a larger question: what, if anything, has changed?
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“Do you think a game can be a religion?”, a friend asked me recently. The question came as part of a conversation that we have had about fandoms and content worlds for more than a year now, and it emerged without consideration to works such as Jason Rohrer’s Chain World or the Left Behind games. Valuable foregrounding points though these titles are, they weren’t on my friend’s mind. Final Fantasy VII was.
We agreed in fairly short order that, as religions and fandoms both tend to organize themselves around stories and looking to characters as models for behavior, a case could indeed be made for games as religion. But what a discourse such as ours should really be exploring is whether games—denotatively—can function spiritually for the player. That is, whether there is some systemic quality to games that can generate a deep-seated emotional experience that is quite apart from the creation of elaborate narratives and rules for conduct that are more accurately the hallmarks of organized faith. Can games reach us emotionally on a level that we might term as producing something like a “spiritual experience”?
Thursday, 3:50pm. South Hall, Electronic Entertainment Expo.
“Like I said over Twitter,” a colleague tells me over the hack-and-slash din of the Square Enix fortress behind us, “Nothing says ‘first world’ like a job where you delete bad images from 4chan for a living.”
He’s got a point, and maybe I do complain about my job too much. There is indeed something distinctly “first world” about being a moderator for a casual MMO, or for that matter, a journalist for a gaming website, grappling with the noise and pulsating lights and body heat of a crowded expo floor. Even so, I’m gagging.
In my day job I moderate for an online kids’ game. I’ve written about this before, mainly in relation to knowledge toolsets and pedagogy, but if there is one aspect to my work that bears the closest resemblance to Christine Love’s lauded visual novel don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, it’s the practice of surveillance performed by the novel’s protagonist.
The premise of the game is that in a near-future, net-connected high school, the interpersonal dramas of the students of one homeroom class are laid out bare for their surveying teacher. That teacher, John Rook, has been instructed to follow their public and private conversations for signs of bullying, cheating, and so on.
My first attempt at Dragon Age: Origins fell short before I left the prologue. I was bothered about having rolled a dark-skinned city elf only for my family to turn out to be all visibly white, and I was further bothered by the city elves’ oppression compounded by the casual rape and murder exacted by our human “betters.” I closed the game and re-rolled as a rough and tumble thug within the dwarven underclass of Orzammar. My sister was still a prostitute, but at least this opening lacked the tinge of endless rape and degradation of the city elf origin.
I really enjoyed playing that casteless dwarf. I wore my Dust Town brand with pride when I crushed the best warriors in the city beneath my armored heel. On the surface, no one noticed my class and often enough tended to forget I was even a dwarf by the time that I was running them through with a blade. Dwarven merchants Bodahn and Sandal never commented on my tattoo, which I thought was plum nice of them. In no time at all, I was wooing prince’s hearts, running around in King Cailin’s armor and converting to Andrastianism, so satisfied I was that the game gave me openings to defy the constraints of the dwarven caste system without shunting me back into another system of oppression.
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