Irish Travellers and American Blindspots

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I’ve written several times in the past on what it’s like to be Irish in the midst of the loose amalgamation that is the culture of videogames. I’ve tried to emphasise my surprise and suspicion that comes in hearing an Irish voice, an Irish character, in a game, and my delight in finding something I feel sincerely speaks to Irish narratives or identities.

What little cultural background I gave usually came in the form of brief anecdotes about how little we see Irish folk in games, which of course is proportionate to the country’s contribution in the grand scheme of the industry. Through negligence I withheld the more substantial context of the lack of presence of Irish identities in media beyond that of only videogames. Since today I’m writing about ethnicity and whiteness and representation, and I’m writing from a perspective that I’m increasingly learning is distinct from the bulk of my peers, this context is kind of necessary. Continue reading

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Two Minute Game Crit – Competing Ideologies


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Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

So, here’s a simple and useful way to look at videogame narrative.

If a game has a story, a good thing to check for is how the ideology of the protagonist meshes with those of the villain and the player. If they resonate or clash, the character interactions will probably be more interesting and satisfying.

The Assassin’s Creed games do this blatantly in these lovely soft moments after a kill. Stabby Man will have a chat with Dying Man where they briefly discuss their ideologies. He’ll either say ‘your ideology is stupid and I hate you’, or ‘I like your beliefs but you’re a bit of a prick.’

Let’s look at a less obvious example, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Like many Japanese games, there’s a big thing in the Ace Attorney series about building a positive legacy for future generations. Phoenix Wright is symbolic of this in how he fosters an extended family of apprentices and kids who’ve been neglected by fate. Throughout the game, he puts stock in the importance of community to the point where he’ll operate purely on blind faith in his client. Usually, his investigations reveal some tragic moment in the past that must be respected and remembered for us to be able to move on.

On the other hand, Manfred von Karma is driven by pride and vanity. He’s manipulative and selfish to the point of enacting revenge on the son for a slight caused by the father.

If we extend these as ideologies, Von Karma, who is shown as westernised, would be a classical liberal: egoistic, self-governing and individualistic. Whereas Phoenix is more communitarian: a reformist, communally responsible, and with values for tradition.

This is why von Karma makes for a good villain: antithetical to Phoenix, he sees himself as above the law and exploits the system to enhance his reputation. To some extent, all the villains in Ace Attorney hold positions of power or place themselves outside of society.

So, how are we, as players, involved in all this?

Puzzle solving in Ace Attorney is all about finding the hidden relationships of objects and people, or of people and events, in order to discover their history. It’s highly focused on building these connections to lead you first down the wrong path and then down the right one.

Like Phoenix we solve each case by delving into the past, even 15 years into the past, to receive the future with an optimistic note. We have to trust there’s a solution to each puzzle which means we have to trust our client is innocent. And because it’s linear we have to depend on Phoenix’s rambling to get us there in the end.

Level 99 Capitalist

When Crytek Nottingham announced they would be releasing Homefront: The Revolution, a game where grassroots American militia engage in guerrilla warfare against North Korean occupiers, they told Debbie Timmins of The Average Gamer that they don’t want to make it political. This, the sequel to a title whose marketing department spent a fair share of energy trying to convince everyone it was written by the hand that wrote Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn. It’s hard for me to say whether the original Homefront quite lived up to that conceit—I played just one level and never returned—but given how it so swiftly tumbled into obscurity, I’m going to hazard a guess at “not very”. So, this time around, Crytek Nottingham are nipping that in the bud: this game with a politicized setting, from a series with politicized marketing, will not have a politicized narrative.

Meanwhile, a few weeks prior, Nintendo fell over themselves to adopt the same stance. By pure fluke, Tomodachi Life originally released with the option of same-sex relationships, but as soon as Nintendo caught the error they patched it out. In doing so they thought they were restoring the world to its rightful state, a world without gay people, thereby describing their ideal of family friendliness as heteronormative and implicitly homophobic. To not patch it out, however, might have been seen as progressive and accepting or at least tolerant of homosexuality (heaven forbid), so they went ahead and toed the line they’ve always toed.

In that moment, the company found itself in that impossible position of having taken a political stance simply by acknowledging an issue exists. The truth of the matter goes deeper: even if they had never accidentally made Tomodachi Life lovely and gay, it would have still been characterised as political by virtue of their intended heteronormativity, whether or not they were adopting that stance consciously.

It hasn’t been long since the marketers of gritty and politically inept titles had a go at spinning their ineptitude as thematically brilliant, I’ll believe you’ll find, even if nine times out of ten those feints at political themes turned out to be little more than opportunistic marketing techniques. Maybe now we’re starting to see a turn away from all that, as publishers and marketers are realising it does them little good in the long term to advertise their games as snake oil, a miracle cure-all for your narrative needs, and now instead are trying to entreat with the spirit of gaming yore and accept that they don’t have the wherewithal to deliver on promises of narrative intrigue.

And this is wonderful. It’s almost a breath of fresh air. Not because “we should let games be games” or some such dreadful truism, but because, look at how preposterous these statements are! Look at how these intrinsically political media texts trip and perfectly nut themselves on the fence they were trying to straddle, revealing their authors as mortally, irredeemably clumsy.

It’s not just that this approach of theirs, their fear of the political, is at least honest on their part when compared to that of the gritty snake oil salesmen, and so is less condescending. Though there is that—it’s a more pleasant way to be lied to. Moreover, it represents a slight change in the way these creators of art and entertainment view themselves and the world they operate within, a shift towards a future consciousness where their art and where all art is politically imbued, even if that shift is here marked by a very silly attempt at denying that future.

So I take great joy in these attempts to remain apolitical, because counter to substantiating the belief that such a thing is possible, they highlight the intrinsic capacity for politics within any media text of this nature and they show it to be inescapable. Much like Nintendo emphasising a political narrative merely by acknowledging it, such feeble bids to absolve themselves of responsibility only reveal the political narrative already latent in the text, whether it’s a wargame afraid to talk about war, or the limiting heteronormativity of a happy life simulator, or misogynistic plotpoints that publishers are suddenly finding themselves needing to be aware of, or a mindless action romp with delusions of satire, or any of the abundant examples that leap to mind.

In turn, attention flows from the politics of a game’s overt setting and plot to the politics of a game’s ludic narrative—the intrinsic meaning embedded within gameplay and its design, such as how Papers, Please lures you into becoming a dehumanizing bureaucrat, or the clash of BioShock Infinite’s gung-ho gunplay with its aspirations of criticising US patriotism. These archetypes of game design aren’t just suddenly political, they’ve always been political. Perhaps it’s more discrete because, well, designers have traditionally neglected to look for it.

By now it’s old hat for many games critics how prolonged exposure to the norms and values in our culture has ingrained them into our minds, and through us they seep back into the art we make, deepening, proliferating. How the politics we’re raised into affects our own, how our politics influences the media we enjoy, and vice versa. The payoff for the critic is in coming to recognize the little nuggets of culture in our media that were previously invisible, using this knowledge to better understand a game, and sharing with the community in order to collaborate towards building better games for everyone.

One such nugget, I think, is the ideology of capitalism as narrated by economic exchanges of labour and wealth, which takes shape in the design archetype of levelling up.

Mechanically and systemically, levelling up usually constitutes this: as the player achieves ludic goals, they’re rewarded with points or toys to increase their proficiency at completing future ludic goals. It’s a cute little economic process devised around accruing and storing wealth, since that’s what experience points represent: a quantitative measure of one’s power and successes, an abstract currency to be traded for self-improvement, although ‘self-improvement’ in this regard mainly extends to ‘improving one’s ability to collect currency.’

As a result of this abstraction of experience into a currency format, self-improvement and self-actualization become acts of consumerism. The more a game’s design succeeds at hooking players into a consumerist mindset, the more addictive it becomes—it feeds into a hole in our lives created by the needless want for more possessions, an avarice necessary for capitalism to function but which must remain perpetually unfulfilled. Here in the virtual world it has almost the scent of an achievable goal, so we often pursue it as a substitute solution for the unhappiness in our lives. The game serves as a power fantasy and a narrative fantasy, but also as an economic fantasy for the attribution of possessions-as-personal growth.

So, if we consider the process of levelling up as a capitalist narrative, what does it describe? Capitalism is founded upon an exchange of labour for wealth, where labour is the product of a labourer to be bought and used by others in pursuit of their own wealth. In terms of a videogame, labour would be the activities involved in generating the player’s wealth, such as combat in Final Fantasy IX and questing in Skyrim. Much of the time these activities aren’t inherently enjoyable but still we tolerate them for the rewards, accepting them as part and parcel of the labour trade agreement between ourselves and the game. There’s already the linguistic likening of the labour of combat in a JRPG as a grind similar to a dreary 9-to-5 job: just put in the hours, you can enjoy yourself on the weekend.

In this exchange of labour for wealth, you farm baddies to be able to better farm baddies. Baddies in this sense are little more than little packets of experience points waiting to be freed up and collected by the player. As one ingests food for physical nourishment, we slaughter enemies and absorb their remains—their loot and experiential value in Final Fantasy IX, their souls in Demon’s Souls (since the game has the head on it to make the exchange properly sinister). In the scheme of capitalism they’re nary more than resources waiting to be cracked open and consumed, and through their consumption the player-character grows more fulfilled as a person, stronger, as their skills develop they become more capable, more wizened.

Societies that have become enamoured with capitalism dictate that the more numbers a person has in their bank account, the higher they’re elevated above their fellow humans in terms of social status and legal freedom. Similarly, the more money they have, the more free time they have within which to spend it and enjoy life, since money is a prerequisite for this, so spiritual actualization is linked to the privileges unlocked through wealth. Not so with those affected by poverty, who are shamed for their lack of success within the system and depicted as villains, wastrels, parasites—scapegoats for social woes. Poor folk instead have to find contentment in their work, short of which perhaps solace might be scrounged from thoughts of them being the lifeblood or soil of society, or God’s chosen people, or whatever other transcending fancy that makes it easier survive a humble living.

Levelling up has the best of both worlds. On one hand, the process of labouring is valued as core to the game’s entertainment factor, even in games where the addictiveness barely serves as a haze to conceal the soul-destroying monotony of the labour transfer—games like Borderlands. And on the other hand, it produces such wonderful fruits as to render the player undeniable as a profiteer, through rewards like thousands and millions of experience points or wonderful, beautiful weapons only available to the most exclusive of this world’s warriors. By entreating the player as both a labourer and a profiteer, it humours them as successful capitalists without really elevating them above their current station, and points towards the exchange of labour as the source of their fulfilment. Maybe so that they may learn to accede to the benevolence of capitalism in the real world.

By amassing experience points the act of labouring is an act of growing as a person through accumulation of external wealth, a sort of imaginary cyborgization via capital. It’s not about learning lessons and emotionally maturing and growing mentally content with one’s lot and comfortable in one’s existence, which are usually the things we attribute to self-fulfilment, because these things are not measurable through a capitalistic exchange of labour. Instead, self-fulfilment is narrated within the cyclic act of labouring and consuming: “in consuming you find happiness, so consume!”

In her 2014 GDC talk, Lana Polansky identified this narrative as inherent to the capitalist doctrines surrounding winning and losing, win states and fail states. This limits the experiences games can offer a player by virtue of the difficulty in measuring and quantifying things like interpersonal, emotional connections and gamifying them as rewards. Polansky remarks, however, that by subverting the obsession with metrics and win states, games can deliver us to a point of epiphany where these intensely valuable human experiences actually manifest. And it’s simply by ceasing to treat the player as a happy, obedient vessel for capitalism, and instead consider them as a human soul.

Polansky’s talk is largely focused on addressing attempts at instilling legitimate emotional experiences in games through the use of capitalist metrics, so the solutions she provides are with this scope in mind. But like Polansky, I believe that alternative models of growth, be it personal growth or growth in one’s expertise, already exist in games on a whole through the use of epiphany (e.g. grasping and internalizing game logic in Portal) and the natural development of one’s skill at a task (e.g. honing tactics in Demon’s Souls).

So what’s the benefit of seeing all this in this way? Knowing that systems of levelling up are but one way to represent character growth can be beneficial for designers when choosing what structures to put into their game. And being able to recognize that design archetypes are also narrative structures can enable greater harmony between a game and its authors: does the capitalist narrative fit in with the intended themes or does it clash? Do you want to represent the freeing of slaves as a gathering of collectibles and currency, with the act of ‘liberating them’ little more than an exchange of their ownership?

Whether you want them to or not, these narratives exist within games as a matter of fact and interpretation. A lot of the time, they’re political. The irony of denying it is that, in hiding from the consequences of your actions, you inherently make a political statement and the narrative you were trying to deny as apolitical becomes irrevocably political anyway. But it was always political, as are we, by virtue of having been raised in politically-minded societies. Hopefully ten years from now we’ll all look back and laugh at the naivety, this desperate bid to remain impartial and exempt from the world around us.


 

 

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Flappergasted by Videogames’ Colonialism

Although Flappy Jam is premised on being a motion of moral support either towards the creator of Flappy Bird or to Flappy Bird itself, I wonder if its not further perpetuating the problems it thinks itself opposing. It’s a big jumbled knot we face in trying to find out what it thinks it’s attempting to say, what it’s actually saying, what’s provoked it to say that, and so on, because all the factors playing into its creation are of varying visibility and meaning. Perhaps a good way to untangle that knot would be to grab the nearest loose thread and follow it backwards.

So, it’s a game jam that uses certain rules and contexts to encourage political activism. The parameters Flappy Jam lays down are that submitted games must be near-impossible to play and their assets must be classically inspired. The implicit statement here is that it’s OK to make a game with either of these things, that it’s not shameful or inferior as an example of the medium, in protest to perceived cultural pressure that difficulty and derivation are objectionable. Putting aside the fact that you needn’t look deep into any videogame community to find the error there, such as how difficult games are traditionally labelled ‘hardcore’ and elevated to elite status, and how retro-aesthetic games are still quite fashionable, I suspect few people interpreted these as earnest contentions by opponents of Flappy Bird, nor the true cause of its creator’s ostracisation.

To be short on that point, there’s a neat and accessible rundown of the game’s commercial history by Christina Warren here, together with tidbits showing the creator’s increasing anxiety since it’s sudden boom of popularity late last Winter. Note one central platform for motivating scorn at Flappy Bird was a preposterous Kotaku article initially titled “Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art“, which I hope you’ll agree is safe to assume as having inspired the framing of Flappy Jam’s parameters. It’s a big messy affair resulting from rowing factions of many collaborating feelings, values, and perceptions; the best I can hope to do is suggest a broad social phenomenon as the causing factor, for although certain individuals may have contributed to the storm, I find it more to be a travesty of social weather.

Mattie Brice wrote that capitalism was the driving factor behind the blacklash, as it always is when gamers get in an uproar about something that might challenge the status quo. To this sentiment I would add colonialism as forever pivotal to the interests and behaviours of the videogame community-at-large. If capitalist values are the values that must be protected, colonization is the manner through which it will be done. It means cultural protectivism, insularity, centralization, elitism. It manifests as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on. The hate against Flappy Bird bears remarkable similarities to that against Zoe Quinn or Feminist Frequency or Gone Home or Jennifer Hepler, for it’s much the same mentality spurring it on: a sense of protection over gaming as culturally owned by a certain group with certain values, with anything going against this group or these values thought alien or threatening. The horrible sexism of videogames is not wholly disconnected from the horrible racism of videogames.

Colonization isn’t just a mentality of aggressive ownership and expansion, it’s also a process, insofar as social and political phenomenon can inspire behaviours to abide by a pattern. As a process it’s characterized by treatment of the ‘foreign’ culture according to the rough stages of denial, destruction, belittlement, tokenism and exploitation.* It’s a flow of power that wants to obliterate anything in its way; if it can’t do that, the obstacle must instead be weakened and demeaned, then appropriated, co-opted and profited from. Political history has seen colonization stripping countries of their natural resources and people and wealth, but it’s also taken shape in the spread and control of cultural ideas, such as demolishing an entire people’s native religion and language and self-worth.

You might be looking at that and thinking where the exploitation of feminism comes in within the sphere of videgames, which is a fair thing to wonder. I’d hazard we’re seeing some of that already in the ways some major outlets stage feminism within their marketing strategies–Lana Polansky articulated it very well regarding Polygon in this podcas regarding the kyriarchy of Western cultures from which gaming inherits its social structure; undoubtedly these past few years have seen a shift in how quick most publications are to hone in on controversies of a sexist nature and benefit from their reporting, though very few have internalized feminism structurally.

Feminism is just one example of a threat to the cultural mores of gaming, however, though it’s one with an abundance of evidence to suggest a colonial nature of games press and communities. In the case of Flappy Bird, I see denial, destruction and belittlement, though for what reason other than colonialism I can’t fathom, given that here is an unknown Vietnamese developer making a casual game which attained stunning popularity through no marketing or purchasing of market manipulation. There’s a lot there going against the grain of what’s contrived as acceptable to the perceived common wealth.

Considering that the cold light of day reveals the supposed criticisms of Flappy Bird’s difficulty and use of assets as impossible tripe, of so little substance they couldn’t possibly carry a mob all the way to the front gate, they are more likely thin excuses to justify a desire to harass and belittle, a mask to hide behind from oneself. A game being bad or tough isn’t generally enough to incite such vile and rage in massive amounts. It’s normally coupled with some other inflammatory character, such as a person having the wrong gender, or looking slightly different, or perhaps they abided by a different understanding of the nature of the medium and its potential. In every single case, there’s an underlying motive that’s so deeply seated as to be presently immovable from the enraged person’s worldview. It’s usually dreadful and much, much bigger than the appearance of familiar art assets.

In this case, what does Flappy Jam achieve in its moral support? It mistakes the symptoms of a broader social ill as characteristic of the problem itself and recreates the ‘offending’ trait over and over, just to be cheeky really, to give the finger. As it was with Candy Jam and as it generally is with game jams of a protest nature: take some political stance that is preposterous and objectionable and antagonize it.

Except where Candy Jam was activism against corporate greed, with a very clear line drawn between something King.com wanted to stamp down on and a clear expression of resistance through celebration of that thing, it’s unclear how Flappy Jam offers moral support by opposing criticism of derivativeness and difficulty. Fundamentally, it’s making the assumption that these criticisms are what bothered the developer, and that copying his game and rebranding it over and over will satisfy him. (Though it’s not mandated in the Jam’s guidelines, many of the games submitted are in fact just rebranded copies of Flappy Bird.) Perhaps the idea is to show how it’s actually acceptable to make a derivative game if it’s made by the right people, to highlight the double-standard of the gaming press and community against ‘outsider’ developers**.

It is still the case, however, that the right people are stepping in to co-opt this game and redefine it to suit their ends, that this is a privilege they are entitled to, and they don’t challenge that privilege by exercising and entertaining it. Similar to how ironic sexism is really just more sexism.

Remember that tokenism and exploitation are further manifestations of colonization. While there certainly can be games successful in honouring Flappy Bird while presenting the above protest narrative, and games definitely have potential to be critical responses to something upsetting, they mustn’t be divorced from the social conditions in which they exist. Flappy Jam is a social structure informing and contextualizing its games; it’s a form of grassroots organisation towards a rhetorical goal, and to that end it has encouraged the twisting and reforming of Flappy Bird for the benefit of its participants. If Flappy Jam never existed and the same games came about naturally as a stand alone complex it might be another matter–it might be wonderful and benevolent and justified–but sadly that’s not the case. As it is, it’s an example of people rebranding someone else’s game and manipulating his personal narrative to fit their present use.

It’s souring that this is a cultural sphere colonizing something in supposed opposition to that same sphere previously colonizing that thing. Top this off with the traditional nature of game jams as opportunities for developers to get creative juices flowing, to self-serve and self-promote, and this particular game jam asks participants to have fun, it’s hard not to see Flappy Jam as irreverent and exploitative in form. Earlier this week, Aevee Bee insightfully said this of reportage on Flappy Bird:

“There’s nothing inherently different between this article and any other, except that it is misleading and ragemongering (as well as angermongering), which should be of no comfort because, by taking someone else’s story into your hands and making something out of it you are always, always going to be selling that person out.”

As well as I know that’s true of Kotaku’s articles and Flappy Jam, I fear it’s now true of me. This morning I had wanted to avoid writing anything, absolutely anything, on Flappy Bird, for despair of contributing to the state of games criticism as irrevocably in love with whatever’s trending. I see it as a symptom of gaming’s perpetual centralization of ideas and “what’s relevant”, because what’s relevant only ever feeds the machine or is wrung and misshapen until it does. It demands that we talk about the latest games, the most exclusive social affairs, the most prestigious expos and conferences, or be drowned out and irrelevant and frustrated. It privileges the wealthy and the well-located at the same time as it stunts the flow of ideas from more unknown games and unknown voices. It’s another colonial tactic.

Although I never wanted to add to the five hundred or so articles about Flappy Bird this week, I’ve found myself this way compelled in the hope that my message is justified despite having transgressed it. I’m contributing to the trend to try to break the trend. So, rather than leaving with my hands in the air, in the spirit of breaking the centralization of ideas and in replacing Flappy Jam with something less alarming, perhaps we could collectively redouble our efforts to share around and celebrate games made by ‘outsider’ developers, not just on one day but in general.

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*I’m taking these points from here because they seem fairly on the ball but I haven’t researched the source past that page.

**Imagined barriers are still barriers.

BioShock 2 is Politics

BioShock 2 is politics

As I creep around the decimated avenues of Rapture in my quest to scavenge some much-needed supplies, I find my mind drawing a correlation between the horrible deprivation haunting the underwater city and the imposing deadline of the US presidential elections. The similarities to BioShock 2 are overbearing: both pertain to situations of desperation and postponement – having been victim to an onslaught of forces that whittle the player down, the bounty of all that patience and preservation lies just up ahead.

After the arduous construction of a mental map of the area and extensive preparation of traps and other defensive measures, I set the Little Sister down to work at an Adam-filled corpse and await the arrival of some violent opportunists. The Little Sister serves to gather Rapture’s most precious resource, thus her own presence consequently becomes little more than a tool to be exploited for the victor’s personal benefit. Continue reading