Fun Possibilities

When I sit down to produce a singular piece of writing, I generally do a few things to spark creativity and get the ball rolling. I generally search Google Scholar, Critical Distance and my own library for things that might be related to what I’m writing and skim through whatever turns up. However, when I sat down to write this (actually more like the three or four times I tried to write this), I couldn’t find too much on the subject. I posed questions about fun and its meanings on Twitter in hopes that someone would get me an easy citation, something I could look at and move on from, but there isn’t much out there discussing the explicit definitions of fun. And I’m not going to offer much here as a clear direction either.

We talk about fun a ton, but do we know what fun is and how it works? Jesper Juul maintains that failure can be fun. Miguel Sicart tells us choice and agency are fun things. We might even be able to argue that Bogost lets us extend that fun is persuasive, but I doubt we want to take him that far. Like play, fun is one of those concepts that is difficult to pin down, but there have been fewer attempts to do so than play. It’s nebulous not because we dismiss it, but because we talk around it, just missing it before we circle back around, again skipping by tangentially. Chris Franklin is probably our best resource on this, as will be the case throughout this essay.

It should be noted that I probably am not looking in the best place for the definition of fun. While parts of academia have embraced games as worthwhile objects of study, the role of fun has been diminished, if not outright dismissed. Fun is taught in game design classrooms (as an aim, not a concept) to prepare future developers and used as a reason for the influx of serious and educational games that we have seen in the past few decades. However, that is where academia’s interest with the subject dies out. And even when we look to the use of fun in relation to serious games, it is something that is set up in, at best, conjunction with an outside motive (increased attention or retention) or, at worst, an infantilizing throw-in to boost an endeavor’s rhetoric. Fun is merely enjoyment that can be coerced to productive and positive ends for students, instead of the mindless pleasure they might get from their Sonics and Marios.

This sort of negative position isn’t enough to give us a robust definition of fun and definitely not enough to get serious games off the ground. If we look to the usage of ‘fun’ for insight, we know that it can be used as an adjective or a noun and thus is automatically attached to people, places, objects, or events through different verbs. We ‘have fun’ or some thing/place/person/event ‘is fun.’ At least grammatically, fun doesn’t necessarily function on its own, unable to be ‘pure’ or essential. Instead, it’s meaning is always joined with another.

I think we can agree that fun is inherently subjective and its manifestation flows from individual to individual and context to context. If I weren’t afraid of its current meanings and uses, I might be more forceful in saying that it is emergent – created in moments of play within particular contexts (times, spaces, objects). In relation to time, the things we see as fun change and cycle around: They move from things we do to things we remember to things we have nostalgia for. I might enjoy fishing more than many people because it reminds me of the times my dad would take me to the state park near our house to fish. That memory gets invoked in the act, while also being reinforced in any enjoyment that comes out of present experiences. It is invoked and reinforced at the same time, in the experience of fun. Here it becomes attached to objects, events, actions, and people, where fun is not detached at all, but tied to a web of memory and knowledge.

Memory is one reason that I question the relationship between fun and meaning. Meaning in these situations might be tied to fun in some ways, but it is largely attached to an object, emotion, or feeling. It is the creation of fun that is meaning and not just some free-floating fun. This is where we get to the curious case of pure fun and its possible existence. What would such a fun look like? When I originally tweeted these questions, Lindsey Joyce suggested that the play of children would be something that might be an essential fun. However, not having children, being allergic to their laughter, and having sprouted from Zeus’ head a fully-formed, humanity-destroying robot, I haven’t experienced it personally. Or, at least, I don’t have the memory of it.

If there is some kind of pure fun, what does it offer us? Does it still have meaning? I think it does, but I don’t necessarily now how. Charlotte Hyde argues that this kind of play can be restoring, therapeutic even, and I can agree with that. But I often wonder if this function of fun is for our own self-edification or for our eventual service in the social worlds we inhabit. If we look at Caillois or Huizinga, play (and possibly fun by extension) exists mostly in the negative to labor or work, as that kind of restorative act that alleviates the pressures of everyday life. But, then again, this might just be a socially derived function that we read into fun, not necessarily how it can, should, or does function.

I think we have to treat pure fun as a kind of double-edged sword – something that can aid in our overall well-being and important for moving through every day, but also with a consistent possibility to harm us at the same time. Harm isn’t the best word, but the other words I think of – mystify, distract, numb, etc. – don’t offer the right amount of gravity to the issue.

Pure fun is what I think a lot of gamers want and something that game scholars have consistently fought against. Maybe it is a possibility, but maybe it is also just a dream that is too far out of reach in our socio-economic climate. Pure fun is a bastion of normative culture with walls of uncritical thought and gates of disengagement. It allows us to hide ourselves away in a space, allowed to disregard fun as important in any way. It’s one of the reasons that serious and educational game studies took off – the object had ‘real-world’ implications unlike all the other things that players were dealing with. Here fun begins and ends in the act of play and never carries anything into or out of these experiences.

But at the same time, I recognize the importance of pure fun. I also recognize that my thoughts on education and fun and meaning are all tied up in an educational system that de-emphasizes its possibilities and usefulness. But, being in school for most of my life, and within media studies programs for the past six or seven years, has also taught me that we need reprieves from these places. We need arenas where we can turn off our minds and not care about the underlying issues within every minute of experience in our lives. Some people can do that easily and some can’t do it at all. I’m kind of lucky that I came to games late and am not destroying my own protected space through my work (music has been one of the few things that I’ve sequestered). Pure fun is a necessity and a possibility, but also maybe a retreat into a fantasy that is unsuainable, conservative, and naïve. Playing with that line is something that we will always have to do.

That being said, I think we can say that not only is fun’s definition flowing from context to context, but also its value flows in our various cultures. On a more micro scale, I wonder how we value something like pure fun, possibly as being set aside from the consistent value in games writing of ‘just fun.’ In games criticism, fun doesn’t carry as much weight as it does in the popular presses. It is important, for sure, but when we aren’t rating things on a zero-to-ten scale it doesn’t matter as much. I think we agree that fun is constructed for the sake of sales and hype, certainly not for our own architecture.

Games criticism, if we can take it as a whole, has cared about the influences of games on players and their worldviews, valuing the experiences videogames have provided players. This de-values fun in some ways. But the de-valuing of that fun is important in one of games criticism’s central thrusts: to legitimate games as a medium that does not necessitate fun. That process is a conscious and political act, not necessarily a denial of videogames’ power in creating fun environments.

However, we cannot discount the role of fun within these experiences. Fun can make us overlook parts of experiences, disregard negative aspects of videogame texts, or remember things through rose-colored glasses. It’s a mask that games can wear, directly impacting how we think of what we play and the experiences we have with them. It is a very real effect of gaming. There is another very obvious influence of fun on games criticism, but it is usually on the selection of texts and not necessarily on the reading of those texts. We pick games that are fun, or at least have caused fun, because we know that fun is a value of gamers – a way into their lives. Fun, for both its ability to create popularity and its capacity to disengage, is a strong force in even the most critical of environments.

Taking all of this into account, I think we have to understand fun as a kind of tool. It has politics and values. It has uses and abuses, sometimes within the same game or object. Mark Filipowich discusses jumping back and forth on that line in relation to Saints Row IV, writing, “I think we can believe in the idea of pure fun even while accepting that it doesn’t exist.” I think I agree with Mark on this, with one caveat: we need to understand the practices that keep beliefs from turning into dogmas, or from habits into mindsets. How do we ensure that we can construct a kind of pure fun that is responsible, sustainable, and conscious? Our work must not only try to influence the development of games that foster these kinds of fun, but we also need to teach players how to have different kinds of fun. Pure fun doesn’t exist, but recognizing that its ghost can be just as destructive and limiting as it can be creative and liberating is a step towards unlocking its potential.


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Hype and Nostalgia: Gaming’s Memory Flows

It took me about four hours to find out that double-clicking made Manny Calavera move faster, running instead of the slow walk I had gotten used to. The game had changed there, in an instant, to something much different. The ambience had left, the music didn’t match up with my movement as well, and I didn’t linger in specific areas to pick up on the various scenes in which objects were carefully placed. I was working through Grim Fandango Remastered (GFR) with a walkthrough anyway, already largely ignoring the details of its careful puzzles. This turned my play away from the Tarkovsky-like experience of setting and detail, instead crafting a blockbuster with continuous, driving narrative action. The settings weren’t alive as this FPS-playing monster of a player denied any pause that it might have desired. Yes, I denied the game certain things that I had been promised, but the excitement and memories that I had been promised also let me down.

I had a lot of expectations coming into GFR – I had heard the crowd’s response at 2014’s E3, the press’s response afterwards, and had some friends talk about it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the game, but it seemed lacking when put up against everything I expected of it. Expectations are tricky to manage, especially for an audience that is mixed between those who have experienced the object before and those who have not. They raise and lower hopes wildly before they can even be enacted within the experience of something actual.

Expectations are caught up in a web of memory along with hope, hype, and eventual nostalgia. Those who experienced Grim Fandango when it came out already had a stable of memories built around the title, possibly smoothed over from the time between playing it and hearing about it’s remastered version at E3. I don’t really have the storehouse of nostalgia that seems present in much of games culture – a byproduct of not owning a console until I was in grad school and only playing a handful of PC FPSs through my childhood and adolescence. That doesn’t make me immune to the hope or excitement of remakes and remastered editions, but it does work differently.

I didn’t have the memories that other had, but I had the memory of expectations guiding my playthrough of the game. I had hope that it would be something that would eventually turn into that nostalgia that I saw rampant in the response to the game. In the week after this year’s E3, we see that nostalgia is a strong force, but it is tangled up with the other memories of expectations, hope, and hype. This web is difficult to parse out – as is much of memory – but we need to continue to question where the memories are coming from and what work they do within games.

Hope is an odd form of memory. The two don’t match up completely, of course, since they must move through the intermediary of expectation. Hope sets up expectations and those expectations turn to memories to be accessed later in time. For video games, hope gets tagged onto a title when it’s derived from a trailer, a piece of concept art, a leak, or even a friend’s re-telling of experience. We’ve come to call this “hype,” established, enforced, and prolonged by games publishers and the various outlets for gaming news. This memory is always a virtual thing, something that has yet to concretize, but acting as a possible springboard for the warm fuzzies of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a force of memory, but what does it force? When developers and publishers (and the fans that desire these games) push forward these remakes it isn’t just to sell games. The ideology that backs these things is one of technological progressivism and fetishization. We have the memories, but the only way to access them is through new consoles. The games don’t need to change as long as the hardware does. We get stuck in time this way. Our technologies keep moving forward, our texts clinging dearly onto a past that never existed. How do you capture nostalgia as a game publisher?

At E3, capturing the wonder of nostalgia can be done simply through uttering a name, activating memory through a tag and the legitimacy of a brightly lit stage. Cameras would catch a 20-something guy here and there who would be standing up, hands on head or grasped in hair, astonished that that game would be returning. The meme ‘shut up and take my money’ would get lobbed down at the presenter, enforcing the position from which fans are ultimately taking in these things.

Nostalgia has seemed a bit like a buzzword the past week, with not too much consideration of what the forces of memory do when invoked at gaming’s great pageant. We’re not just dealing with repackaging experiences, but with the same conservatism that is rampant within other aspects of game culture. The games presented might bring in new audiences, but when it is the same text, we’re replicating a gamer culture that will never move on. This isn’t to say that these old games are useless, but that the culture that they feed into are long gone and have been replaced with a medium that is attempting to move on and move out from its own museumified canon.

Games live in the circuits between our eyes and hands and the screen they are projected on. They are alive when we play them. However, with constant remakes and re-releases, the games slide back into the hollow platforms many want us to believe they belong in. They filter back through the plastic and metal until they are no longer ours, but instead something that is wholly born from the machine – inevitably reborn as well. Publishers are certainly milking an audience, but the memories that the audience put so much stock in play just as big a part in this issue.

When we free Terry the Sea Bee from imprisonment in GFR, we are greeted with his cheer of “It’s time to shake up the hive!” But what we’ve been stuck with in this season of reveals is the realization that the hive is too large and the bees too preoccupied with missions of stagnation and replication. Our memories drone on, establishing new expectations and turning hope to hype quicker than a typo. There has been a good amount of talk about preserving games in the past year, but the managing of gamer memory will be just as important in the criticism and understanding of videogames. If we don’t, we’re bound to the same hive we’ve dealt with for years: airy and hollow with an inevitability of being stung.

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Criticism and Habits: My Fear of Never Alone

Every Wednesday in high school I went out to do community service that the campus ministry of my Catholic high school facilitated. We would go to nursing homes, care facilities, and homeless shelters, work for a few hours, and return to the comforts of our middle class homes. Every year there would be service trips to different parts of the US, Mexico, and some other places. I went on a few of them: one to West Virginia, the other to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

We went, worked for a few days, listened to and learned from the people living there, and came back to our lives in suburban Massachusetts. I won’t deny that these were formative experiences for me, but how I have viewed those experiences have drastically changed as I’ve gotten older.

I have a tattoo on my back shoulder that uses several objects from Oglala Lakota culture. I’ve thought about mitigating my dislike of it with another tattoo that reads “19 year old white guys don’t understand cultural appropriation,” but there is a part of me that remembers and misses the high schooler that put it together. He was generous in more accepted ways, offering up his time to work in different places. But he was also naive and ignorant of the things he was doing (and, generally, still is).

When I got the tattoo it was to remember to continue community service. Seven years later, I see it as a reminder that the closeness that I felt during that work was not a closeness to the actual community, but a false connection that developed out of the power I had to pick up whenever I wanted to. There were others that would stay in these places for years on end, engaging with the issues and joys of the community. There were even more that couldn’t leave. I was more of an empathetic tourist. Most of the feelings I had ended when I got on the plane or van to return.

This is why I’m afraid of Never Alone, a game made in conjunction with the Iñupiat people of Alaska and Northwestern Canada. It follows the story of Nuna, who has gone out from her village to restore order that a terrible man and forces of nature have disrupted. You can switch characters with your companion, a white fox, to solve platform puzzles and work with the spirits that inhabit the lands. Gameplay is paired with collectible documentary clips, known in-game as cultural insights, that explain various aspects of Iñupiat culture. If you want to know more about the game, Eurogamer published an excellent review of it that ignored the slight mechanical issues others had harped on.

OK. I’m not very afraid of Never Alone, but I’m afraid of myself playing it.

I’m afraid that Never Alone is like that weeklong trip I took to Pine Ridge. I feel like I’ve done a few hours of work and have gone back to my comforts, but I’m not sure about what comes next – if anything. I fear that like the tattoo that I have, I, or other players, will quickly allow the experience of this game to be reduced down to objects that we can easily pick up and examine, removed from their context. I fear that other players will look at it and boil down the Iñupiat to scrimshaw and caribou-skin clothes. I fear this because I’ve personally done it before, albeit with different experiences and outcomes.

I fear that the game facilitates it, with its dissected and separated cultural insights. I fear that the relationship to nature is something that could be taken holistically so quickly and so easily that players might make lazy assumptions. Since the game is manifested as a fantasy, I fear that any struggle we see of the game is one that is tied to nature and not understood as possible products of various systems of dominance. All but one of the cultural insights is a discussion of positive aspects of Iñupiat life (the one exclusion being a discussion of a climate change seemingly without cause). These are the first things that my own brand of criticism puts forth.

This fear is a double-edged sword though. While it might highlight everything that could go wrong, it also shields me from experiencing much of the joy that is in this game. Sure, I still felt the thrill of conquering the challenges when the degree of difficulty ramped up towards the end. I found pleasure in the narrator regularly speaking over my actions in Iñupiat. The visuals made me feel like the world I was put into was alive.

However, these things quickly dissipated once I moved from experiencing them to thinking about the game as a range of experiences.

I don’t mean this to come across as a woe-is-me narrative. Instead, I hope that critics can use it as a note of caution. We will occasionally be forced away from things because of our histories or our understandings. I honestly don’t know what to think about Never Alone, but it feels like my distance has diminished celebration in favor of worry.

And that is what is so fucked up about this. I have to take a step back and get metacritical about this experience because I have an inability to see it as anything positive or productive. My criticality is so housed in negative or contested readings that it is impossible to just go along with what is happening.

I’ve honed a critical practice that is based on noticing the lack of difference to the point that I can’t recognize where to celebrate its existence. In my previous experiences I let an understanding of difference turn to appropriation. I fear that empathy can too easily turn to sympathy or even pity. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the makers of Never Alone, but I know the power of the player in negotiating the meaning and significance of the games they play. For some, only messages of power and hope flow through this game. For me, I only see the pitfalls that these experiences could foster.

This projection of myself into the work is something that critics need to be aware of when interpreting their experiences. Several writers have talked about subjective criticism as of late, and important in this work will be a deeper understanding of how we interact with games and how we project our own critical screens upon them. The critical lenses that we have built up are part of those subjectivities, but a bit more difficult to parse out. They don’t necessarily shape our experiences directly, but shape how we see and discuss those experiences – how we incorporate them into our lives.

There is a point in Never Alone where the aurora borealis above a village turn into ghoulish sprites that will engulf your character. They move around in patterns, their arms open, trying to catch you. Looking back on my experience with the game, these seem like a manifestation of my critical screens. They consume me and take me away from the text, driving me into past experiences. They circulate around certain objects and ideas, programmed to latch onto them. For me, fear of certain things has cast its arms wide, making it more likely that I’ll fall into that frame of mind. The project from here is not working to avoid them, but to find those fallen into less often. Neglecting certain critical screens has led me astray before. It’s impossible to solve this issue, but it may be possible to mitigate its effects.

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Sports Games and Remediation

Brendan Keogh wrote a wonderful article for Reverse Shot on the visual workings of FIFA ’14 and it’s really cool. As someone who plays a ton of different sports games, I’m always excited to see new critical engagements with the genre. I would also suggest you look at Abe Stein’s review of this year’s Madden, which is one of my favorite game reviews that came out in the past year (and one that came at a time when compartmentalization of media was particularly important).

Sports games are kind of like Call of Duty in that core mechanics only change once every six or seven years while different smaller features are added and subtracted throughout the franchise’s existence. Minor adjustments are made every year: the AI is adapted to cheese moves that have been exploited by players, physics are tweaked in order to provide better collision detection, additional camera angles are supplied, along with a whole host of other changes. EA can hype these differences as much as possible, but players who regularly buy these games understand that they are more like patches to the previous games than wholly new objects.

However, one of the larger issues that has been tackled (hehe, sports pun) over the past few years is increasing the realism of the pre-game ceremonies and the in-game scenes that are separate from player action. Keogh’s article largely focuses on these non-interactive sequences (learned that term after looking up a trophy guide for NHL 15 that requires the player to not skip any sequence for a full game) and how they instill a sense of realism for the player. Housing this in a discussion of Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation, Keogh discusses the ways that realism comes to be known. He writes,

“But realism, of course, isn’t an objective quality. Creating a realistic work is less about depicting something as authentic as possible and more about ensuring that something is depicted in the manner most like that which the work’s audience is used to engaging it. Realism is less about reality and more about reassurance.”

From here, Keogh talks about the necessity of any sports game to fuse the realism that is experienced in playing a particular sport with the most common way pro sports are experienced, as television broadcasts. In the past few years increasing the televisual experience of sports games has been a particular emphasis for EA. This process has involved investing in the pre-game sequences more and more in order to provide that sense of reassurance that comes with familiarity and habituation. Madden 15 used CGI sequences of two popular broadcasters, with some great glitches, while NHL 15 went with full video pre-game sequences that are terribly written.

All of this adds up to products that have fully integrated the logic of remediation. However, I think that the concept only gets us so far. The issue that I’ve had with it is that it is a linear and prescriptive model of how media change can possibly occur. If we follow the whole history back from games and VR to painting, we are dealing with a constant remediation of perspective and the creation of depth in the visual image. Yes, according to Bolter and Grusin each medium must add to those traits in order to differentiate itself successfully, but we are still left with a one-way street when we’re talking about aspects of a certain medium. Photography is perspective (painting) plus photorealism. Film is perspective (painting) plus photorealism (photography) plus movement. Videogames are perspective (painting) plus photorealism (photography) plus movement (film) plus interaction.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this (and I don’t think it was Keogh’s intention to deliver a full treatise on videogames and remediation), but I do think that there are a few issues we must address in using remediation as a logic of sports games. Remediation works really well when we’re looking at the design of sports games and how they are marketed as new experiences, but I wonder what happens when players start their hundredth or two-hundredth contest in these games. When the cutscene that establishes the televisual aspects of the experience becomes nothing but a hindrance to getting to the actual game, how does that change our experience of the event? It’s important to note that there is no way out of remediation here in certain spots, which Keogh mentions, writing, “Video games are played and viewed not as a singular activity…but in a parallel and hybrid way in which the player is both playing at playing soccer, and playing at watching soccer.” This is where a base level of remediation has to function since there isn’t necessarily a way out of that amalgam of watching and playing. The question here is not whether the televisual experience is still occurring on some level, but whether or not we should still be calling that a remediation of television or a fully gamic experience.

Ultimately, that’s a question of videogames’ nature that I’m not entirely interested in. What I’m more intrigued by is how remediation can be opened up and understood as flowing in both directions. Television has certainly impacted the design of games, but games have also affected the ways that sports are televised. The late-1990’s saw the introduction of the Skycam for American football broadcasts that provided a videogame-like, bird’s-eye view of the game. While not directly related to the presentation of sports, this year EA started filming NFL rookies’ reactions to their in-game statistical representations. Along with that, sports journalists and game companies have pushed the official simulations of championship games for a few years now. If we have these specific instances of change flowing from game to television, I wonder how the experience of games also changes the experience of television.

Remediation works incredibly well when we’re discussing it as a factor in the design and production of major sports titles—Keogh does a great job of explaining that. That being said, it’s important to realize that this view of media change is a bit of a dead end, at least until sports games go VR and the road magically extends to include games’ exclusionary traits. When we understand games as a part of a media ecology with varying flows and forces that move in several directions, we can get a better understanding of how they impact mediated experiences of different technologies.

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A Hook to Grapple With: Transcending Environments with Vertical Accessibility

This E3 is the first time that I’ve paid close attention to the whole spectacle. I’ve only been playing games on a console for a few years now and didn’t really understand how watching game trailers could be exciting. I still don’t really comprehend all of it, but I have come to understand that trailers and early gameplay footage don’t necessarily mean that anything put forth will come to fruition. Cynicism seems to be the name of the game at E3.

I say this to start because I’m declaring something stupid that I nonetheless believe to be true: 2014 is the year of the grappling hook. Grappling hooks were featured in three games shown off at E3 – Battlefield: Hardline, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Far Cry 4. When we put these together with games like Assassin’s Creed, Titanfall, and Infamous: Second Son, which offer (super)natural or biomechanical grappling hooks on the player-character, it seems somewhat obvious that there is a distinct move towards increasing the vertical openness of games. This is not necessarily a new thrust but simply what I think is an increase in the frequency of AAA games attempting to use verticality as a means to create ‘depth’ or be ‘innovative’ or whatever buzzword works.

To start this discussion of verticality, I would like to first turn to how it has been dealt with in another medium – film. Kristen Whissel wrote an article in the early 2000s about how CGI had increased the use of vertical shots in films throughout the 1990s and how that enforced traditional notions of space and power. She writes,

[This article] approaches digitally enhanced verticality as a mode of cinematic representation designed to exploit to an unprecedented degree the visual pleasures of power and powerlessness. Precisely because verticality automatically implies the intersection of two opposed forces – gravity and the force required to overcome it – it is an ideal technique for visualizing power. Verticality thereby facilitates a rather literal naturalization of culture in which the operation and effects of (social, economic, military) power are mapped onto the laws of space and time.

This is a critical argument that can be readily attached to many games without alteration. The loss of vertical power in games like Sportsfriends or Super Smash Bros. equates to loss of life and loss of power within the games. Fall off of a ledge and one must struggle to return to their seat of power or be lost to failure. Miss one of the ladders in that flooding puzzle in Half-Life 2 and you probably will have to start everything over again.

Important to note is that Whissel is dealing with a medium that doesn’t have interaction in conjunction with visual space. For many of the games that I have mentioned already, the power of verticality is not just tied to the space that characters inhabit, but to the abilities of those characters. This is how characters are established as heroes, with their capability to inhabit and embody the power that comes with their access to vertical expanses. It’s how games establish differences between the player character and NPCs. Simply, it’s how the player character transcends their environment. Every Assassin’s Creed hero has been able to scale buildings and reach vantage points that are unavailable to their enemies. This seems to be the case as well with Far Cry 4’s use of the grappling hook (and their gyrocopter), in addition to Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce being able to inhabit vantage points well above his enemies through ctOS cameras. It probably isn’t a coincidence that all of those are Ubisoft games.

When we’re talking about these games, we aren’t discussing a struggle to obtain or maintain the power that comes with vertical ability. Instead, we are dealing with a constant that can be accessed by the player. Whissel also writes, “Since extreme forms of vertical movement inevitably involve a violation of physical laws (which often reassert themselves), vertically oriented bodies and narratives provide the ideal form for abstracting power and representing the struggles of the emergent against the dominant – a concept neatly conveyed by the title Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow [the only thing neat about the film].”

Sky Captain, as far as I remember, featured a large number of technological advances that allowed its characters to overcome the environment. Blimps, planes and Angelina Jolie’s eye patch put technology as the only way of attaining and keeping power. These technologies put the characters above their environment, soaring even above the Empire State Building. Here is where the shift in verticality becomes even more interesting. Accessing vertical power is not in the buildings or environment themselves, but in the individual’s ability to climb above that environment. In the early 2000s I remember playing a ton of the Half-Life mod Day of Defeat, a multiplayer FPS set in WWII (the trend at the time). I bring this up because there was always a vertical sense to the maps in this game. I particularly remember maps like Avalanche (a European town square) and Charlie (a D-Day recreation) having vertical spaces that were solely environmental, made of buildings, churches, hills, bunkers, and other natural or man-made structures. These maps allowed for the same kind of accessibility and depth that a grappling hook promises, but entrenched that power into the map instead of placing it solely in the hands of the player.

That isn’t to say that the new AAA games I have mentioned have abandoned environmental verticality. I’ve played a bit of the Hardline beta and there are still plenty of places where a person can obtain and make use of vantage points (and helicopters are still available to both sides of the engagement). Assassin’s Creed games have always used the environment to create tactical advantages, even if only a few characters can use them. However, the point that I’m trying to make here is that environmental verticality seems to no longer be enough for AAA games. Accessible space for all players is being replaced with buy-in options like the grappling hook. Yes, there’s some private property/public space argument here, but I’m unable to fully convey it (hopefully someone else will?).

Why is it that we even desire highly individualized spaces? Battlefield and Call of Duty have been using ‘levolution’ or whatever other terrible word they came up with in their last few iterations. Even Nintendo’s new shooter Splatoon (by far the most interesting shooter to come out of E3 this year) is looking to individualize the map space in a new way, even though it’s mostly horizontal space in that instance. I think part of it is developer’s trying to embrace player creativity and get away from top-down gameplay, freeing up a player’s ability to interact and change their environment. It’s side-stepping world-building and instead merely extending the world, putting the burden of the actual building the life of the world onto the players.

However, I think these sorts of moves are also due to a bit of a shift in how marketers and PR people use words like immersion and depth. Instead of creating these senses by building worlds that reflect a social or cultural period, immersion and depth are measured in how a player interacts with the world. Bioshock and its sequels put the player in worlds that were crafted and conveyed a certain culture. Gone Home contextualized the player through the world it built (see Jill Scharr’s article in Unwinnable Weekly #2 for an excellent article on that world). These games created depth and immersion from the ground-up. These sorts of worlds seem like they would exist even when I turned off the console.

Instead of immersion and depth being used in relation to the world itself, these words seem to be more attached to the interaction between the world and the player. I don’t recall how often immersion and deep were used in relation to the games that I’ve focused on in this article. However, I did recently write on Watch Dogs and the tying of that game to the tag of ‘deep.’ These are not worlds that are deep themselves; they are hollow repetitions of building and character models. Instead the possibilities of depth and immersive quality are being wrapped up in a player’s ability to alter the environment.

I’m certain that there is enough linguistic space available for both of these kinds of immersion/depths to exist (and as this essay shows a new ‘verticality’ is probably also needed). New critical vocabulary doesn’t seem to have been at the top of the list for marketers and PR departments in the past several years, sticking to stalwarts like interactivity and revolutionary instead of stepping out of their conservative lexicon. Perhaps words like ‘plastic’ or ‘malleable’ would be better suited to describe the environments of Watch Dogs or Battlefield than deep or interactive.

Lofty practices generally come with lofty rhetoric, particularly in an industry that promises to revolutionize gameplay every time a new product gets announced. Something that criticism can do is bring that rhetoric back down to earth and put it in line with what the product actually presents to its consumer. An attention to language and crafting a critical vocabulary is one possible avenue for doing this, as we are not tied to the buzzword glossaries that come down from on high before game presentation. Until we do create a more robust vocabulary, we are merely grappling onto the helicopters of PR departments and letting them fly us in whatever direction they please.

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A Week with Watch Dogs

As I’ve spent more time with them, the cities that I have lived in or frequented have often slowly shrunk as I got to understand them better. As I knew where I was based on a landmark or could quickly figure out which direction was north based on a few buildings, these cities became smaller and easier to traverse. Yet they also became deeper. Buildings, streets, corners, businesses became embedded with meaning from my memories.

This obviously isn’t uncommon, but when a city shrinks for different reasons, those memories and that sense of depth don’t evolve quite as easily. I bring this up because I have been playing Watch Dogs for slightly over a week and have finally figured out why I think there are so many problems with the game. Yes, it was a rushed title that seems to have acquiesced to a marketing departments’ slow bloodletting. Yes, it was a Christmas tree that toppled over when too many ornaments were attached to it along with a heavy, poorly-written star at its head.

However these aren’t the most immediate problems when you’re playing the game. They aren’t the things that consistently take you out of the game and disrupt your understanding of its narrative consequences. The problem with Watch Dogs is that it is set in an ever-shrinking Chicago where a sense of depth is never reached. In the ramp-up to release date we were told through Ubisoft reps that the world wasn’t necessarily supposed to be giant, but deep and I had no idea what that would possibly mean before I got several hours into the game.

Watch Dogs isn’t deep; it is hollow. Not just the streets, where everything seems repeated within the separate neighborhoods (and even those resemble each other after a while), but the characters of this game are ghostly. NPC’s are apparitions of randomized ‘data’ and as that data (and the few voice clips players get to hear from pedestrians) gets repeated over and over again the city shrinks. Even if every single NPC had their own constructed three-point description (income, occupation, factoid), is that the best we can do? Is procedural character generation and a handful of minigames really the best way to create a world with life and depth?

Something that could be seen as a positive is that the hollow city is reflected in its hero. Just as Batman reflects Gotham, the empty Chicago is reflected by the main character who talks like Batman. Aiden Pearce is the cishet, white male protagonist that Samantha Allen delineated earlier this year, complete with fridged females and a gravelly, this-must-appeal-to-teenage-men-somehow voice.

The hollowness in setting and characters of Watch Dogs makes me wary that any of this game could be taken as a serious commentary of the culture that produced it. I can’t believe that level of sophistication from a text that has a main character with the emotional palate of Christian Bale’s Batman and the linguistic ability of Perd Hapley. This was supposedly going to be a serious take on the surveillance society in America, where CCTV and data mining collect information on a constant basis for both commercial and national security purposes. Instead, players are brought into the same world they have been brought into time and time again, where “identify bad guy, eliminate bad guy” is the only real course of action.

The most interesting point that could be made about this game is that it reflects the ways that different people are labeled. Aiden Pearce cannot be profiled by the same software that he uses to profile everyone within the world, deciphering their secrets and lives. His face is scrambled by some magic scarf, which makes him look like an asshole instead of the vigilantes of the Wild West. Just like in Watch Dogs, the straight, white male of reality doesn’t have to worry about being labeled. We are privileged to be able to pass through life without a label attached to us. Sure, we worry about being labeled, but that’s because we don’t experience what it means to be actually labeled or have those labels tied to stereotypes and oppression. Cue Samantha Allen again for her discussion of privilege by using Halo’s difficulty setting as a metaphor.

This could have been an interesting point to discuss in some manner during the game, but it is completely left alone. We are only once confronted with the identity of Aiden Pearce, but there isn’t anything in that scene that we didn’t know about Pearce before. Instead the game allows the paranoia of the straight, white male to continue, removing the player from a system of oppression and consequence. Aiden Pearce transcends the system that most Chicagoans find themselves within throughout the game. At best, this suggests that one actually can exist without a digital footprint or paper trail. At worst, it suggests that freedom from oppression comes from existing outside of an oppressive system and not understanding one’s own placement within that power structure and working to alter the system.

And so, the world of Watch Dogs shrinks even more. It becomes as tiny as Pearce’s cell phone and representations become hollow for everyone and everything that exists within the game world. Women are plot points. Black and latino men are criminals. And the main character, the one that players inhabit, becomes little more than a gun with different attachments and abilities, all leading to the same outcome. However, they’re the only ones who can benefit from any of that.


While I have some other things to talk about in relation to the game, they are quite disparate and I’ve had quite a bit of trouble putting them together into a coherent critique of the game as a whole. Everything previous to this was aimed at taking on Watch Dogs in general, but I have a few sections of critiques that follow that should be taken as separate arguments.


There was one thing that I was quite pleased with in Watch Dogs. Whenever you enter the game and continue your progress, the game will remind you of what the following campaign mission is all about. You always receive your campaign mission information in this way, but this way you can recognize the who, why and where of the next mission right away when beginning anew.

This is so helpful that I’m unsure why I haven’t seen games do this before (they probably have, I just haven’t experienced it prior to Watch Dogs). I can’t imagine how helpful this would have been when I was playing the Mass Effect trilogy, as I often got a bit lost when I took a day or two off from playing. I realize that ME had a journal system in the game that told you the key points of the available missions, but this sort of reminder really kept me within the narrative and provided me with a lot more information and motivation to stay within the campaign. 

While it acts best just as a reminder of the narrative at hand, I think it also helped instill a bit of urgency in me as I was playing through. Usually when I boot up an open-world game I will drift around aimlessly for a bit before getting back to the campaign. I go attack a few ships in Black Flag or fly around in a plane for a while in GTA V. By being prompted, however, I had the narrative back in my mind already and the flickering mission icon on the edge of my minimap helped as well. I would like to imagine this would be even more effective in a game where I was invested in the story. It’s also possible that it would be completely superfluous since I might have a better remembrance of what was going on.


The revenge plot of Watch Dogs all begins with the death of Pearce’s neice, one that the player solely gets to experience through cutscenes and odd audio recordings that the player can access at a few points on the map. Memory studies of games have largely looked at the historical/official legitimacy of memory recreated in games or on the trends of nostalgia and retrogaming. What we see in Watch Dogs is the use of a memory as a narrative vehicle. The memory of a child’s death is supposed to carry us and motivate us throughout the campaign. I might be a hostile audience to that sort of motivation already (I really don’t care about a child that I have known for five seconds), but this really doesn’t work.

I’m unsure of the best way to make memory work in videogames, but I think that there is a requirement that if the memory is to be of significance, the player must experience that memory first-hand instead of simply being told about it. Red Dead Redemption (Marsten being shot by Bill Williamson in the first few minutes of the game) and Dishonored (the player inhabits Corvo as the Empress is killed in front of him) are two revenge plots that both take advantage of forcing the player to create a memory to motive them. The opening scene of GTA V allows the player to understand the skepticism and paranoia that exists between Trevor and Michael throughout the game.

It’s hard enough for film to create memories within the audience that last a few hours. When we’re talking about dozens of hours with games, it’s even more difficult if designers and writers want the motivations for playing to come from diegetic memories. Games need to switch up where these turning points happen; where motivations are spiked and memories that drive players are created. How are those motivations sustained?

Watch Dogs suffered not only from a weak starting point, but also fails to force the player to recollect the initial reasons for the undertaking of this revenge quest. Instead, the player is faced with a convoluted storyline that tries to add on to the initial push with other, newer memories instead of relying on recollection. To take again from the Mass Effect trilogy, we are constantly re-presented with the motivations of Shepard. If there isn’t a specific mention of how this mission plays into the saving of the galaxy, the threats of the galaxy are at least mentioned. At the end of Watch Dogs, the game is no longer about revenge or retribution, but simply about killing. Side missions, like the gang hideouts or fixer contracts, are never contextualized into the narrative and acted solely as distractions from the motivations of the campaign.


While the morality/justice/representation hodgepodge of Watch Dogs’ NPC data has been touched on in other pieces, I think it’s important that we talk about this a bit more. Watch Dogs depends on a decontextualized morality. Fragments of a person’s life are thrust out toward the player in what seems to be an attempt at creating empathy or hatred towards certain NPC’s, but really just falls into lazy characterizations of people. Muslim and Transgender NPC’s are characterized in the same way as avid comic book readers or videogame players. 

At some point while I was playing I tried to imagine what the algorithm that ran the profiler would be looking to put forward, what computational device set these sorts of factoids out among others. The profiler’s algorithm isn’t like Amazon’s or other advertising-situated algorithms, since many of the random NPC factoids would be difficult if not impossible to monetize. I have to think that the profiling algorithm has something to do with power and the secrets that people have, as much of the plot revolves around obtaining information that would blackmail most of Chicago’s upper echelon (see Act 2 and anything dealing with Iraq).

If we look at these tidbits of identities as possible sites of blackmail we can see how easily Watch Dogs falls into normative, if not even more conservative, understandings of deviance. Drug use and sexual deviance are more often than not the tidbits of possible criminals. And those that exist outside of the crime prevention minigame seem to exist only for the player to shame the NPC’s (or as some have done, eliminate them). There is a surprising amount of time devoted to shaming people who identify as furries (three different discussions of this subculture exist). Homeless people are tied to drug abuse and addiction.


One of the procedurally generated bits of Watch Dogs is the crime prevention system, which will throw a randomly-generated crime up on the minimap every five to twenty minutes that the player can investigate and attempt to stop. Once in the area of the crime, the player must profile the potential victim or the potential criminal and watch as the ‘crime probability’ progress bar slowly rises to over 95%, when they are prompted to intervene. Intervene too early and no reputation points are awarded to the player, but the crime does not take place and no one is injured in the process (why this isn’t the true end-goal, I’ll never understand). If one waits just long enough, they are able to stop the crime before the victim is injured at all, but the projected perp is taken down violently. Wait too long and the crime may occur and the player might be required to shoot down an escaping criminal.

The first problem with this is that most of the victim’s are women and most of the ‘criminals’ are POC’s. This is a huge problem that simply shouldn’t be occurring anymore in games. It is an unacceptable shortcut at this point in gaming.

Another problem is that this sort of justice isn’t one based on actual crimes, but on the probability that one might occur. This has been written about a bit by Ben Kuchera already, but what isn’t mentioned is that this isn’t the work of a traditional vigilante. The vigilante sees crimes occur and seeks retribution for those actions. This is something entirely different, with Pearce taking on the role of a crime weatherman, predicting what will occur before it happens based on past experience and a few angrily-said sentences.

I’ve written on data mining before and the real problem with the process is that it attempts to predict the actions of an individual based on a decontextualized set of data. The player in Watch Dogs is always presented with a decontextualized set of data that presents actions or characteristics in very black-and-white ways. In this world being Muslim is an off and on state, and there is never a sense that religious belief could exist on a spectrum of interaction. These binary characteristics become attached to action in crime prevention scenarios, where drug addicts are very quickly attached to certain game types and therefore to certain punishment. 


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“But that doesn’t mean anger isn’t valuable”: Notes on Critical Proximity 2014

“I think that we need to do more to come into productive conversation with each other, rather than just talking about each other. Many of us had a vaguely similar kind of education – probably too many of us, to be honest. At university I was trained to write about people, rather than writing with them. That’s how essays work: you read up on your topics in journals and books, and then pour short summaries of each prior work into a self-aggradising historiography that only exists to prove that your work is new and unique in some way. It’s the rubric: you have to shit on other people in order to get ahead.”

            – Zoya Street, “Reaching Criticity”

I would have liked to get this post out a few days earlier, but I think the work-induced ruminating and marinating isn’t all that bad. For those of you who don’t know, Critical Proximity (CP) was a conference put together by Zoya and others to discuss the state of the art, what games criticism might have been/be/become. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend, but since they’re considerate people, there was a Twitch stream available to the public and the videos and transcripts of talks have been archived. This is a lengthy post because I want to treat each of the talks individually, there was just too much of value happening there not to. I start with a short essay on the collective conference and then offer individual responses to the talks that have transcripts posted alongside them.

Unfortunately, this is a solo act, but CP itself wasn’t. Why put on a conference about games criticism? Why take this proposed solitary act – criticism – and craft a collectivity out of it? Well, to put it bluntly, without that collective, there aren’t many of us doing this work, and if there are still people doing it, the knowledge produced isn’t anywhere near what has been produced. I’ll talk about this a bit more when I specifically discuss Zoya’s talk, but I would like to note that I know that I’m definitely not writing this post if there isn’t some sense of collective within games criticism. Honestly, I don’t know how seriously I would be taking games at this point in my life if not for that collective of authors and ideas.

The big, over-arching issue that I’d like to talk about in this intro is the audiences of the conference (Sorry, I’m a one-trick pony). As I was watching the talks and looking at the Twitter feed (search #CritProx for some great, short responses to talks) there was a sense that everyone was talking to a slightly different audience. Why is this?

Well, to start with, everyone who sees themselves as being part of this thing has a pretty different background. We’ve studied different things, had different experiences inside and outside of games, and have different expectations of criticism (among other differences). This isn’t a bad thing, but it is an added complication. While Kirk Hamilton and Gaines Hubbell talked about audiences very briefly, I never got a sense of what the audience of CP was, or what the proposed audiences of games criticism for each talk were. Yes, there was this immediate audience – those that showed up to the conference or those tuning into the Twitch stream – but it feels like only looking at that audience would be doing CP a disservice.

Of course, there’s the audience that the name pokes some fun at. CP became something of a pre-conference to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). I’m not certain how that happened or how the conference was organized, so I’m unsure of how strong the tie is there, but let’s run with it for a second. It has been central to this generation/movement/period of games criticism to at least purport a utility to games design and development. We’re writing because we love video games and we want to see them get “better” in the broadest sense. We see criticism as a possible vehicle for this. We hope that developers read our work and think about issues like representation, consumerism, player experience and a whole host of other issues. It is a hope and not a reality for the majority of us and I think many are alright with that being the case. We’re just not OK with sitting on the sidelines when it comes to games.

However, many have talked about this before, so how about we expand the audience even more? CP wasn’t about persuading a developer, writer, journalist, designer, etc. Many of the talks might have been addressed to these individual groups, but this wasn’t an individual thrust, it was a collective one. Who was the audience of CP? I think it might be easier to ask: Who wasn’t the audience of CP? For me, CP was saying to everyone who would listen – and there were a good number of people listening – games critics exist, games criticism is a thing, and we’re going to be here whether you care or not. No, that’s too toned down for CP. It was really, we’re going to keep writing and fuck off if you don’t think we should be taken seriously or if you don’t think this knowledge is valuable. It was an amplified and indirect response to those calling for Lester Bangses, Roger Eberts, and Pauline Kaels of games criticism. It highlighted our own celebrities, yes, but also rejected the ideal of that kind of celebrity in its own way.

However, it didn’t come with the stench of trying to legitimate itself. There was no sense of adolescence at CP like in so many other areas of games discourse. There was no mention of the Citizen Game of Video Kanes nor was anyone upset that people might not be listening. What we saw were a group of people who let go of the legitimacy of games argument a long time ago, freeing them up to discuss games themselves. It was a group of people that were hungry for more, of course, but not dependent on it. At the very least, it was refreshing. Much more than that, though, it was empowering. It was a call to action and an invitation. CP said, “Let’s go out and critique games and make games and critique each other. If you’re interested we’ll be here, come over whenever you want to.”

Responses to Individual Talks

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