Tag Archives: Games Criticism

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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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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“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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