Archive for the ‘Games and the Media’ Category

A short time ago I wrote about the avalanche of internet douchebaggery that descended on Jennifer Hepler, a writer for Bioware who had the temerity to. . .well, open her mouth and offer an opinion about games.  Then Reddit got hold of it, and the next thing you she is being subjected to a torrent of misogynist abuse.  The level of pure hate directed at her was as revealing of a new, desperation on the part of hardcore gamers concerning the changing trajectory of game development as it was entirely typical of the neanderthal attitudes toward women held by many players and assiduously cultivated by game designers.

Well, it seems the bottom feeders are at it again.  Recently, pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian put up a proposal on Kickstarter.  Sarkeesian runs the videoblog Feminist Frequency, where she offers thoughtful analysis of specific pop culture artifacts (like the Hunger Games series) or more general media phenomena relevant to gender issues.  One series of videos, Tropes vs Women, looked at a some of the most common stereotypes governing depictions of women in popular culture.  For her Kickstarter project she proposed an ambitious series of videos that would apply the Tropes vs Women concept to the world of videogames.  Given the shockingly retrograde depictions of women in most videogames (if they make an appearance at all) there is obviously enough material for an extensive series.  Sarkeesian is seeking funding to undertake a lot of background research for the videos, since her intent is for the videos to be freely available and supplemented with materials that would allow them to be used as teaching resources (the original Tropes vs Women videos are being used in this capacity).  The problem was, Sarkeesian made the same mistake as Jennifer Hepler.

She opened her mouth.

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Game Developers and Game Reviewers in Ancient India. Not much has changed. Creative Commons copyright by Nagarjun.

If you take a casual glance around the media landscape you would be quite justified in thinking that the world of game reviewing is thriving.  There are lots of videogame publications in print, online and (tenuously) on TV, with lots of opinionating being directed at a lot of pixels across a wide variety of platforms.

In reality, video game reviewing is a disaster zone that is helping to ensure a steady supply of mediocre games that are enthusiastically embraced by a player population with frighteningly low expectations and a shallow fixation on gaming technology.

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I recently read an article entitled “Game Over for Gamestop” on a website called SeekingAlpha.com which suggested that Gamestop as a business will collapse at some vaguely defined point in the near future if their business model does not change.  Now I see several flaws in the theory and logic that they are using to make this claim, but let’s begin at the beginning.  Who is Seeking Alpha?

Seeking Alpha is, first and foremost, a blog.  It is not news.  It’s not market research.  It is a financial blog that attempts to guide stock market investors with tips, analysis, and sometimes the support of news.  They are making an argument and drawing a conclusion.  According to their About Seeking Alpha page “Seeking Alpha is the premier website for actionable stock market opinion and analysis, and vibrant, intelligent finance discussion.”  And yes they really did boldface their font just like that to jump out at you so you won’t have any delusions about who they are or what their business mission is.  Now as with every business in the modern competitive world, they have to justify who they are and why we should be reading this blog as opposed to say the online Wall Street Journal.  In answer to this quandary, they respond “Seeking Alpha differs from other finance sites because it focuses on opinion and analysis rather than news, and is primarily written by investors who describe their personal approach to stock picking and portfolio management, rather than by journalists.”  And once again they did feel the need to bold those specific phrases so there would be no confusion.  So putting this all together, Seeking Alpha is a blog written by investors seeking to provide financial advice with regard to the stock market.  They are not journalists, which I believe is a two-fold point.  They are not writing news so if you are looking for stock market news, turn around and run the other way.  Secondly, they are investors not journalists, but specifically not stock market (Wall Street Journal?) journalists.  They are not judging companies based on the news of that company.  Well really they are, but that’s not why they are here.  They are here to take the news and take the history and take the products and take the numbers and take their own investment experience and coalesce all of that information into a coherent opinion of the company specifically with an eye toward consumer advice.  Really this just makes them bad editorial journalists and product reviewers, but I digress as that’s an argument for another time.  Now I apologize for having spent my first 500 words on this website and I’m sure you’re wondering what any of this has to do with games and gaming, but don’t worry I’m getting there.

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One of the things that continues to fascinate me about videogames is that they are thoroughly mainstream. . .and yet they aren’t.  They are mainstream in the sense of being massively popular and the preferred leisure activity of a large and increasingly diverse segment of the population.  But they are not mainstream in the sense that our culture still doesn’t really “get” games.  This is not, I hasten to add, a woes-me complaint that mommy and daddy culture don’t really understand us (sniff).  Hell, most gamers I’ve met don’t really “get” games.  They do all the things that the non-gaming sections of our culture do, either through inclination or force of habit: they approach games in a pure consumerist frenzy, they see them as simple outgrowths of other media and activities or, alternately, as something supposedly so radically different that they can’t be compared to anything else and hence none of the rules apply.

A major reason why games are mainstream but not is because on the cultural stage the conversations are controlled by people who by and large are not videogame players: Concerned Parents, professional rabble-rousers, politicians, moral crusaders and, sadly, not a few opportunistic scholars (although the number of game studies “scholars” who have a limited experience with games has certainly diminished compared with when I entered the field).  Again, however, it is important not to let game players and the game industry off the hook.  All too many players and developers have taken themselves out of the conversation through their belief that games themselves are capable of saying little more than “play me and leave me.”

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Art Deco Spandrel

Art Deco Spandrel. CC Copyright by Atelier Tee

In his article Broadpaw made an excellent point about the reluctance of many people to think of games as art or even that particular games might be a form of art; we are lightyears away from someone acknowledging that a specific game might be great art.  Broadpaw noted that the entire debate is structured around a series of false binaries.  And they are false  if we consider the way these things actually work in the world.  As I noted previously, the non-art/art binary doesn’t apply at all to our actual creative practices.  However, the important thing about false binaries is that they can nevertheless have real-world effects.  It is the reason why people use them, after all.  The concepts they describe and the words that give them life are the foundation of careers, schools of thought, forms of power.  All well and good, right?  The great wheel of capitalism turns to the benefit of all?  I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the downside, the real world negative effects of these false binaries on the present and future place of games in our culture.

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George Lucas

Really? Haven't you done enough? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Or, Lucas, You Smug Self-Satisfied Bastard, Stop Ruining my Childhood

If you are like me you were probably plunged into the same bottomless black pit of intestines-extracted-through-the-nose despair at the recent announcement that George Lucas is going to be releasing the Star Wars trilogy (and three other marginally related movies) in 3D.  This is disturbing on a number of levels.

It is, first of all, further evidence that there is nothing Lucas will not do to wring the last shekel out of the Star Wars franchise.  In addition, he is still laboring under the delusion that there are more than three Star Wars movies.  Therefore the 3D(e)ification of the Star Wars franchise will begin with The Phantom Menace (which, by the way, I am going to copyright as the title for Lucas’s biography).  Releasing that movie in the first place was a bad idea.  Re-releasing it in any form is simply a terrible idea.  A turd in 3D is still a turd, only now it is disturbingly lifelike and sitting much too close to your face.

The aspect of this I find most distressing, however, is that it proves that even someone as apparently savvy about movie history as Lucas really doesn’t know jack about movie history.  When it comes to the potential of 3D for movies and electronic games–and it is a technology that I believe has great potential in both these areas–this is very bad news.  It indicates, in fact, that most people have missed the fundamental lesson of the juggernaut that kicked all of this off, James Cameron’s Avatar.

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One of my former students, Ajay Kumar, has just published a piece on the US military’s use of videogames as recruitment tools.  The piece appears in GW Discourse, the student-run publication of George Washington University’s Political Science Department.  The piece was written prior to the leaked video footage of the helicopter gunship attack in Baghdad, but it also raises the issue of the effect of military simulation training on battlefield perceptions.