Archive for the ‘Games and the Media’ Category

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.


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.


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.

Yes, I know.  It is entirely possible to overdo the “Europe is awesome/US sucks” comparisons.  The USA possesses many fine cultural characteristics of which Europeans are (or should be) rightly envious.

There is baseball. . .a steroid-infused episode of boredom designed to allow Americans to spend yet more time on their keesters as they eat and drink their way to WHN (World’s Heaviest Nation) status.  Hmmm.  Ok, there is Lindsay Lohan, and Cheezwiz. . .wait, those two might be the same thing (they both have a kind of oddly attractive surface sheen, make a terrible mess when used in public, are highly toxic and seem to be everywhere). . .alright, I’ll have to get back to you on the positives.

What US culture manifestly doesn’t have is a sophisticated understanding of electronic games.  Now let’s consider what they do with games in Britain.

They give them awards.  And not just any awards.  BAFTA awards.  For those who don’t know, that’s the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.  Basically it is the US equivalent of the Oscars.  (Actually, it is bigger than that because it is the equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys combined; in the US we need two separate ceremonies to keep Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon gainfully employed).  Do the Oscars give out awards for games?  Don’t be silly.  They are too busy giving out awards for the inevitably forgettable “best song” (i.e. songs that are only in the film because there is a best song category in the Oscars).  The BAFTA site offers a complete list of all nominees and winners for a variety of game categories.

On the face of it, the fact that that the Oscars don’t give out awards to games and the BAFTAs do is a little strange.  The Oscars, after all, are given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Arguably, the prevailing paradigm for understanding game achievements and game design in the US (on the part of magazine reviewers and players especially) is still to see them as examples of technological, engineering, and or design prowess.  So you would think that this would fall comfortably under the “sciences” part of the Academy’s mandate.  Games should, at least, be included in the “technical Oscars” show.  You know, this is the Other Oscars that is typically given a 30 second spot in the main Oscar broadcast every year.  These awards are typically held in a secure, undisclosed location somewhere near Yucca mountain.  Every year some poor starlet, chosen mainly for the potential for an impressive display of cleavage, is fed to a band of salivating nerds who have been enticed out of their basements with the promise of seeing a real woman.  The geeks receive awards for incredibly arcane technological innovations that range from musical toilet paper dispensers for stars’ dressing rooms to really major devices that have completely revolutionized filmgoing as we know it. . .but which the Academy can’t be bothered to mention because they need to fit in Celine Dion singing another “best song” nominee (which, oddly enough, sounds exactly like the previous best song nominee which itself sounded eerily similar to all best song nominees from the year before).

But no.  Games don’t even make it into the Geek Awards Dungeon as far as the Oscars are concerned.

That the Brits have taken a different tack seems mainly due to the fact that their awards fuse both television and cinema and consider them through the lens of “art.”  This, for many in the US at least, is an entirely alien concept in relation to electronic games.  Popular culture, in the world of the BAFTAs, may be (should be!) entertaining but that isn’t incompatible with artistic achievement.

So how do we treat electronic games in the US?

We try and ban them on the grounds of obscenity.

The US Supreme Court is at present considering three landmark cases with some important implications for the concept of free speech and freedom of association  John Doe #1 and John Doe #2 v. Sam Reed is a test of whether or not signatories to petitions have a right to anonymous political speech.  Hastings Christian Fellowship v. Leo Martinez et al. considers the degree to which mandates in favor of inclusivity may be discriminatory.  Arguably the most significant case, however, is Schwarzenegger v. Electronic Merchants Association.

The justices will be considering whether or not a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors constitutes an abridgement of free speech.  Frankly, in some ways I’m amazed that this law wasn’t tossed out on its ear at its inception; the fact that it wasn’t should give the lie once and for all to the belief that California is the land of loopy liberals.  But I’m also willing to bet the golden eagle emblazoned on the red, white and blue boxers of Justice Scalia that since its swing to the right this court has been itching to get its hands on the videogame violence issue.

Naturally, there is a lot of “family values” posturing going on around this issue.  Schwarzenegger, predictably, has claimed that the law is in place “to protect our kids” (this from the same governor who has systemically de-funded the California education system).  But there are two aspects to this case that should raise concerns for two broad sectors of the population.

First, anyone who cares about the quaint notion of evidence, should be concerned that much of the discussion around the California Law has not sought seriously to challenge the notion that viewing violence leads inevitably to violent behavior.  Links between violent representations and violent behavior are questionable at best and more typically are nonexistent.  Yet part of the reluctance to challenge the basic premise is because it also undergirds other ratings systems (such as that for movies).  But it is also such a central cultural assumption in the US that I’m sure that some people would stop functioning entirely if it were discredited.  That, however, is not likely to happen.  After all, the fact that violent games create violent kids is now basically an article of faith among the family values folks and faith is immune to the pesky prodding of actual evidence.

But free speech advocates everywhere should be deeply concerned about the outcome of this case.  Because at its core it is not really about the definition of violence and the effects of violence (although it should be).  Rather, it is about the definition of obscenity.  If the great state of California is successful, this will be the first time the definition of obscenity has been extended to non-sexual representations.  And even the Supreme Court’s existing definition of sexual obscenity has been usefully vague.  A victory for the forces of reaction in this case, however, would both narrow the definition and broaden its potential application.  I can see a number of scenarios where the new criteria could be applied to forms of political speech, for example.

Ultimately, however, the reason this court case even exists is because electronic games are, in the US, accorded a completely different status than they are in the UK.  In the US they are seen as a deeply threatening form that is totally unlike any other cultural form.  This is why they don’t “fit” with the Oscars, and why, on the other hand, we don’t have a California law seeking to ban the sale of violent political thriller novels.  In Britain, games are seen as having a lot in common with other forms (film and television) and being a form of art.

OK, who wants some Cheezwiz?

Reality Check: Before anyone points out the obvious, the Brits may include games in the BAFTAs but that doesn’t mean they have reached total enlightenment.  This is the nation that, like Australia and New Zealand, has dealt with potentially controversial games simply by banning them from sale to anybody at all (Manhunt2).

Some of the discussion around the leaked video of the incident in Baghdad in 2007 where helicopter gunships killed two Reuters journalists and 10 Iraqis has focused upon comparisons between that incident and war games.  The comparison has, in part, been motivated by the obvious similarities between the camera view in the video and the eye-of-god view provided by many modern video games.  The feedback loop here is pretty complex, however: the overall design and sometimes the specific moments of some games that simulate modern warfare are both heavily influenced not only by the actual technology employed by the military but by video-footage of the weapons in action (the “weapons-eye” view that became so popular with news networks during Gulf War I, for example).  Yet the military is increasingly taking a leaf out of the same playbook that game designers are using in the designs of their interfaces because the basic design challenge is in both cases the same: to give an operator effective control over a weapons system in a high-stress, high-stakes, information-overloaded environment.


Video Gaming and Video Gaming

Posted: January 19, 2010 by Broadpaw in Games and the Media, Uncategorized

While I envision people ignorant of the depth and diversity of video games enthusiastically expressing, “It’s about time,” when reacting to the headline from the Chicago Tribune’s “Local News” section (26 November 2009) covering one of Chicago’s western suburbs — “Lisle Bans Video Gaming” — it indicates to me that one part of the problem for those weary of the (stale) argument that video games will be the death of our future (current?) generation has to do merely with language, with word choice: “video gaming” in that headline actually means gambling.  When “gaming” is coupled with “commission,” I think there no misunderstanding.  Coupling the term with “video,” however, can lead to some confusion.  The article mentions Illinois’s “Video Gaming Act” which “provides local governments the option of passing an ordinance prohibiting video gaming within the corporate limits of the municipality” (3).  It is not until the last two lines of the article (which is admittedly short, I’d be remiss if I did not point out) that gambling is actually mentioned.  Before that, it’s always “video gaming.” Troublesome.  The article represents a contemporary reminder that, while now rather inaccurate, there is a (perhaps unfortunate) link between “gaming” as video game studies folks know it and “gambling,” evoking the “pay-out” machines of the 1930s [which, as Steven L. Kent reports in The Ultimate History of Video Games, “combined pinball and gambling” (5)].  That history still rears its ugly head every now and again it seems; and I suppose that makes it not quite history just yet.

Part of me hoped that I was able to put beating the living crap out of women behind me, especially as we look to turn the page on this year, but I guess it wasn’t to be.  Soon after its sudden appearance and equally abrupt disappearance (due to being blocked for an international audience) the Danish anti-violence gamelet Hit the Bitch was discovered by the mainstream blogettantes and predictable levels of opinionifying ensued.  Now, make no mistake, if you’ve read my previous post on the gamelet, you know that I found Hit the Bitch pretty disturbing on many levels and, ultimately, a tragically misguided attempt to mount a provocative intervention in the service of a cause that gets too little attention.  You only have to scratch the surface of our society to find some pretty horrific levels of violence against women, and only the fact that most people engineer their lives to skate comfortably across the surface of life and society ensures that this remains invisible.

Therefore, one would hope, as the developers of the gamelet undoubtedly did, that their work would be controversial, that it would provoke discussion.  But what has been obvious from the blogosphere’s reaction to Hit the Bitch is how insubstantial and inconsequential has been the nature of that discussion.  But that insubstantiality is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, for those of us who study games and gaming this lack of substantive critical appraisal of games (frequently descending to the level of outright idiocy) is nothing new in the mainstream media.  The mainstream media is–with only rare exceptions–incapable of discussing anything related to electronic gaming with subtlety, insight and nuance (as is abundantly obvious when the media gears up to wring its hands about gaming violence).  Of course, a cynic would say that the same is true of the media’s coverage of anything.  However, we are told ad nauseum that the blogosphere is supposedly the new, hip, interactive, penetraing, insightful, engaged, world-saving alternative to the mainstream media.  It is, therefore, intriguing to find the blogosphere mired in the same lack of critical nous as the mainstream media when it comes to dealing with game-related controversies.  In one sense this is only to be expected.  It is hard to sell subtlety and complexity.  It is easy to sell controversy and outrage if it’s all presented in an easily digestible package.