Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quick Primer / Update

Hey guys I know I said I was done writing about games, and really, believe me, I'd like to be. But, you know, there's been a lot of stuff going on recently and I think people could use a quick primer on the way games work and why things are wrong with them. Ready? Here we go:

1) Battlefield Hardline Is The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

People are generally pretty surprised and shocked at the timing of a game wherein you kill lots of people who are forcibly dehumanized in order to justify a binary moral narrative.

But this is what games have done forever. Every game where you kill living human beings does this.

The thing is that, in order to justify a format where the protagonist is better than everyone, someone has to be the "everyone". In B:H's case, the "everyone" is people you might know, people who are your friends, people you would sympathize with. They have names and faces and value and worth. They're human beings, goddammit.

Every game about killing human beings is about killing human beings. Repetitive, I know, but games love to take that thought away from you. The people you fight look and sound like human beings, but they don't behave like them. They don't cry or beg or run. They just fight and die. In such circumstances you're completely obligated to kill them - if you don't, they'll just try to kill you later.

And of course it's only fair that you should have advantages - there's so many of them, and just one of you! It makes sense that you can regenerate health. It makes sense that you can slow down time. You have to kill everyone. It wouldn't be fair for the act of murder to be scary or consequential. You have to make it fun.

At this point you might be thinking about games like Call of Duty. Fine. Do what you have to do. But when you're done thinking about that, don't forget to think about the snarky nerd-bait games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Don't forget to think about literally every game where the act of killing is cheered and praised. Because they're all part of the same problem. Don't make excuses. Don't go "well it's okay in this situation". Wake up. Confront the real world like a goddamned adult.

Is it necessary to kill people? Inevitably, yes. Sometimes people have to die. Should we celebrate it? Should we cheer it? Should we draw pleasure from it? That depends. Look around you. Look at the people cheering on the murderers. Ask yourself if you want to stand with them.

2) Gamers Harassing People Is The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

Gamers have been told all their lives that they're better than everyone, and if they're not better than everyone they're garbage. That's power fantasy.

If a gamer tried to shoot someone, the police would stop them. They know this. Their fear of death is more important than any possible desire to harm others.

If a gamer got in a fight, they could be overpowered physically. Failing that, they could be sued. Their fear of consequence is is more important than any possible desire to harm others.

But there are no police on the internet. There's no "being overpowered" on the internet. There's not even really any "being sued" on the internet.

Now they have a format where they can do as they please without being stopped.

This is what power fantasy does. This is what dehumanization does. This is the monster it bred.

Some of those monsters are reading this and they're nodding their heads. He's right. I can do whatever I want.

3) Polygon Headlines Are The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

Gamers being ignorant and uneducated is nothing new.

"When I see MGS transcending the medium, pushing the envelope... When I hear [people complain that there are] 'too many cutscenes,' I think, 'you're a peasant.' MGS 4 made me think about PMCs -- which, in a way, I hadn't before. The fact that [Kojima] brings up these real issues and brings them to light for people who don't really think about them...." - Shane Bettenhausen

Do you understand now why I hate Spec Ops: The Line? Not for what it is, but for the reception it had. The idea that something so shallow and weak could be so enlightening to so many was a revelation about how ignorant and terrible the average gamer is.

But it's not surprising.

Gaming is an exercise in "not thinking". Gaming is an exercise in finding reasons to not think about things. Gaming is an exercise in being shocked when a game provokes the slightest thought.

Gaming is about a population who will only accept new information in an exciting or thrilling form, like a child who must be tricked into taking vitamins.

Maybe pick up a book. I recommended a few the other day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading List

The one thing I miss about Twitter is the ability to signal-boost for a book or movie that I liked.

Luckily, I still have a blog.

The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer
- Autobiography of a German (French-German, really) soldier on the Eastern Front.

Ivan's War, Catherine Merridale
- Collected accounts and historical overview of the common Soviet soldier in WW2.

A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo
- Autobiography of an American officer in Vietnam.

A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
- Autobiography of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- Illustrated autobiography of a girl during the Iranian Revolution.

Ayn Rand, Darryl Cunningham
- Illustrated biography of a girl during the Russian Revolution.

An Image of Africa, Chinua Achebe
- A critical essay regarding Heart of Darkness, available here. Criticisms are also applicable to stories that followed the HoD model, such as Apocalypse Now and that one other thing.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- The Stoic Emperor's observations on life and existence, which are surprisingly secular in nature.

The Cartoon Histories, Larry Gonick
- Some people don't like reading books with just words in them. Gonick's an alright alternative.

Women In The Military Speak Out About Their Portrayals (Or Lack Thereof) In Video Games, Jacqueline Cottrell
- This is a great article primarily because the two servicewomen bulldoze the interviewer's attempts to make excuses about "well, FEMSHEP,". The last paragraph lines up almost perfectly with the things I believe about games.

Unmanned, MolleIndustria
- This is a weird book.

Jet Set Radio Future
- I have two joys in life: I love to go fast, and I love to build cities.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Semper Invictus

Before I start this, I'd like to dedicate this article to S.R. Holliwell, the author of a well-researched and well-written set of analyses on the works of Hideo Kojima with regards to depictions of misogyny and transphobia. These articles have been stricken from the internet, I assume because she got tired of being harassed about them. If there is one person in games who should have been writing, whose works should have been getting recognition, it's her, and not people who are writing about how games need to be More Fun And Less Serious, or about how games journalism is Totally Corrupt (for the ten thousandth time).

Anyways, on to the article.


The second most-read article I've written was "How To Write Empowering Female Characters". In that article, there was an examination of the concept of "agency", as well as the greater concept of portraying characters as though they are people and not just cardboard cutouts. Pretty simple stuff. At the end I mentioned WWE wrestler "Kharma", who differed from other women in the WWE because she was presented first and foremost as an aggressive, powerful figure instead of eye candy. I mentioned that the WWE should consider hiring some female MMA fighters to add that sort of credibility and power to their women's competitions.

But I never wrote an article about female MMA fighters, and that's basically a huge oversight on my part, because essentially Women's MMA is 90% of the things that I wanted out of videogames before I gave up on them as a medium. Here's the checklist for depicting combat well:

1) Combat is realistic and meaningful.
2) Combatants dress and behave in ways that indicate they are taking things seriously.
3) Combat, and its participants, are treated with respect.

These are pretty simple rules, I think. I'm not going crazy here (at least, not with this specific set of rules). And there's games that fulfill those standards - well, a few at least. Tom Clancy's stuff was pretty consistently good about that sort of thing. Rainbow Six 3 was a respectful, realistic, intelligent shooter that easily included female characters with no major overhauls necessary. GRAW2 has the best "tough lady" faces in video games. But most of the time, games are pretty dumb about this, because games make combat to be "fun", and by being "fun" they also end up being "stupid".

Whereas, conversely, MMA in real life is a sport where people are getting punched in the head. As a result, competitors and spectators tend to take it pretty seriously. They wear practical clothing. They do their hair up so it can't get yanked around - and if they don't, they at least know there'll be repercussions. They're not there to "look good", they're there to fight. It's simple stuff. And it's basically all I wanted out of games, at least in terms of depicting characters.

So here's the funny thing about women's MMA, right: I don't have a lot to talk about. It's basically fine. Women are competing seriously. The commentators are treating them respectfully as athletes and fighters. You get cool natural moments because this is an actual fight instead of a staged event. Everything is right where it should be. I mean, the thing is, everything that happens around it is more balanced because there's that strong core of serious respect. There's women in MMA who flaunt their sex appeal, and the difference between that happening in MMA and that happening in a video game is pretty obvious too: it's a real woman doing it, under her own agency. She's not being disrespected for it. It's simple stuff. That's the thing about MMA, though - it's real. It treats fights like they're real because they are. It treats women like they're real combatants because they are.

It'd be silly to say that there are no problems in the MMA world, but compared to gaming it feels like there's a more real chance of actually undoing those problems. Yeah, Dana White is a misogynist asshole, and the entire Invicta company was founded as a way to get away from him, but hey. Martial arts is founded on principles of respect. You know what isn't? Gaming. There is no underlying expectation of respect in gaming. The only principles in gaming are "if people will buy it, make it". Anyone can throw out a "market research" explanation for depicting women in a certain way, or, failing that, they can go for the equally eye-rolling "artistic license". You don't get that shit with MMA. Fights are fights.

Of course there's still assholes who follow MMA - it's a bloodsport, after all. Of course there's still people making derogatory comments about WEAKER WOMEN. Of course there are MMA fighters who are pieces of shit. It's an inevitability. It's still an event that takes place on Planet Earth, after all. On the other hand, you have companies run by and for women - the kind of thing that would get overwhelmingly swarmed and harassed in the gaming world. You have a backbone of "this is real combat" that adds a level of objectivity to the proceedings. There's a strong core foundation of "hey, this is a serious sport" that helps solidify the community in the face of shitty human beings. Gaming would be fucking blessed if it had a single woman - fictional or non - as intense as AnnMaria De Mars. Fighting is serious fucking shit.

When people ask why Assassin's Creed won't treat women with respect, ask yourself: when did AC ever treat anything with respect? When did games ever treat anything with respect? Why are we surprised that a medium based on shallow, petty self-indulgence keeps fucking up when it comes to actual serious topics? How can they stay when they're sixty million miles away? How can they fly when they're free?

Sometimes I wish I'd started taking heroin instead of getting into videogames. It'd probably have been healthier overall.

Support Invicta FC.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

done

it finally happened

it's pretty funny that, like mrbtongue*, wong ultimately has a soft spot for mass effect despite it being all the things he's listing off as shitty

also i probably would have added an entry for "things looking stupid as shit" but you can't have everything

*for the record mrbtongue is undoubtedly the most respectable games theorist on youtube; the fact that he has only two attributes that i dislike should make it pretty clear that he's heads and shoulders above the rest of the video game world

as for me,


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ludonarrative Dissonance: A Primer

In conventional terms, there are two parts of a "game", or "interactive experience". There is the mechanical aspect ("the game") and the narrative aspect ("the story"). Some people are confused about the relation between these two things and I have a lot of time on my hands after writing literally every possible thing about believability that I could, so here we are again, doing this old song and dance one last time before I do it again next week. To start with, let's identify the two major parts of an "interactive experience", or "game". The first part, the mechanical game aspect, is what we'll call "the sport". The second part, the narrative story aspect, is what we'll call "the story".

Sport is a term I am using not only because of its structural connotations (sports have rules and regulations that exist on their own terms) but also because of the implications of its etymology. While today we associate "sports" with a highly structured team experience connected to physical exertion and capabilities, the origins of the word are actually much simpler. The word comes from the French desporter, meaning diversion or amusement. No seriously, look it up. This definition dates back to the 1400s, and as "play" became more structured it took on the modern meaning. The point here is that "sport" is a term I am using because sports are done for fun or for enjoyment. This relates in turn to the role of "sport" in a game. Sport is the rules for playing a game. Sometimes these rules intersect with the greater rules of the game slash joke that we call "reality". Sometimes they don't.

Story is the simulation of actions in a usually-consistent universe. Characters, events and settings make up the foundation of a "story", which is reinforced with dialogue, graphics, sound, etc. Story serves as the horrific, misshapen skinsuit crudely fashioned to cover the Sport Experience. It is a tattered and baggy object that nonetheless adds appeal to the Sport Experience despite clearly not fitting on it and ultimately being a terrifying funhouse mirror of real life. An example of Story is a reflexive point-and-click experience being converted into a murder simulator where players pretend to kill other human beings while gun companies make actual real-life profits from their guns being represented in the game as largely unrelated numbers and objects. If the story was not there, the players would simply be launching projectiles at each other, and players hit by the projectiles would be briefly removed from play for several seconds. Without the facade of shooting human beings until they die it's impossible to see this sport as being appealing.

Hey, do you remember that time that a fictional movie was made and it was so convincing that it drove up membership for the Ku Klux Klan to the degree that it was more influential and dangerous than it had been at the height of Reconstruction? No, forget about it, I'm just thinking out loud.

Some games that are all sport and no story include all sports that have no story, such as rugby, hockey, jai alai, and badminton. These experiences do not offer justifications for their mechanics, or even context - the rules are the rules and that's all that they are. A Ping-Pong player is simply a player of Ping-Pong; they are not representative of, for example, a mighty hero vanquishing an ancient evil. They are not recreating the battle of Stalingrad via paddle and ball. They are not pretending to explode civilians with every swing. They are not learning valuable lessons about the cruel nature of war when the ball hits the tiny net. They may have existential crises about why they are playing Ping-Pong, re: the pointlessness of learning to become extremely skilled at hitting a small ball back and forth, but this is within the realm of real life not the simulated reality of a Ping-Pong Narrative.

Some interactive experiences (or "games") that are all story and no sport include Bell Park, Youth Detective, Oren Moverman's Rampart, John Gardner's Grendel, and Eduardo Galeano's Days and Nights of Love and War. In these events there is no "skill" or "rules" that determine forward progress apart from the act of pressing play or turning pages or clicking one of several choice options. However, despite this simple setup, these stories are comparable in choice-levels to more advanced Sportgames such as Uncharted or Bioshock. Despite the more intensive sport setup, the narrative advancement is basically the same for these games as it is for the sport-free games. Also, the writing is worse. Like, Jesus, seriously, have you actually played an Uncharted game? Are they kidding us with that dialogue?

You might ask yourself at this point: what makes a game a game, objectively speaking? The answer is nothing. Classifications like that are entirely a human invention and the universe really doesn't give a shit about whether something is a game or is art or whatever. Their definitions come from the notoriously shoddy English language, which some people think is a near-infallible source of categorization when in reality it was cobbled together from like five different languages over the course of a millenium or so, and that's not including all the loanwords. Fuck Art. Fuck Games. Who gives a shit. Uncharted is a movie where you have to pretend to shoot people with shitty guns to unlock new sections of the movie. Who gives a shit. Fuck it. Another important part of games is level design.

What is the "endgame" of a game? What is the innate purpose that games should strive towards? Once again we must look towards the gaping abyss of existential purposelessness to give us our answer. A great eye opens in the swirling, incomprehensible vortex, and as you stare into it you realize that in 100 years you will be dead, and your role in this universe will be negligible. The only beings who will mourn you are just as fragile as you are. You were born into this universe to die and the insubstantial things that you do during your cosmically brief time here are of no concern to anyone other than beings as flawed and pointless as you are. As you take pleasure from breaking society's taboos, as you drive on the sidewalk in Grand Theft Auto or molest a 14 year old in SNATCHER or improperly stack crates in Shenmue, remember that the fleeting pleasure you derive from these experiences are in essence acknowledging the worthlessness not only of the simulation but also of the real thing. Without the firm hand of the law most of you wouldn't have enough empathy to even consider not doing it in real life because people like you aren't motivated by things like human kindness, are you? Bonus Question: What would Jean Calvin think of video games?

REVIEW QUESTIONS
1) Why?
2) Why bother?
3) Objectively explain why murder is wrong. Do not use the human definition of "wrong".
4) If it feels good, should you do it?
5)

6) Explain ludonarrative dissonance.
7) Do you think racists and sexists are allowed to post on the internet? Do you think that if someone commits a rape or abuses their spouse, their internet rights are revoked? Do you think that when you laugh at off-color humor, that every single person who laughs along with you is doing so ironically? Do you think that violence is real? Do you think that all this is just a game? Do you think you're winning? Explain why, objectively.
8) The Office was only funny in the first season. Explain why I'm right.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hideo Kojima Wishes He Had Thought Of Breaking Bad

I can't even laugh about this anymore.

"The kind of topics they're handling in Breaking Bad, the way they express them and put them on screen, let's say I tried to create a game with similar topics and similar expressions, it would be hard to get approval in the company. The way these guys are putting the planning for this project and making it a commercial success - that's somewhere I feel very jealous as a creator."

I'll make one admission: it is possible - possible, but not likely - that I overestimate Kojima's creative control over his product. It is certainly feasible that he didn't want to include a sexy sniper babe to boost figure sales - that without the interference of the rest of Konami, he would have made a completely straightfaced story about child soldiers and CIA torture and sewing bombs into peoples' abdomens. It is possible that the goofy things throughout the rest of Metal Gear Solid were foisted upon him by the company.

But we still have to judge MGS; we still have to see it as the result of ideas, some of which are problematic, that leads to a completed video game product. This gives me the unenviable task of separating Kojima's "real thoughts" from the company lines he is contractually obligated to support. Was it Kojima's idea, or the company's idea, to have the bosses of MGS4 be played by supermodels? Was it his idea to sexualize women with horrific backstories of abuse and murder, or was that the company? Was it Kojima's idea to make the poopy guy fall in love with Meryl and then turn into an action movie badass? I know for a fact that he wanted Metal Gear Rising to be about Grey Fox and not about Raiden, so I can't blame him for anything in that. Was anything related to Peace Walker Kojima's idea? Is Kojima even a real human being, or is he a marionette assembled by the Konami corporation to have a relatable goofball behind their coldly calculated corporate products? In short, is Kojima a piece of shit, or does he just make games for pieces of shit? This might seem like a simple issue, but it kind of calls to question the whole "art" angle of  video games. If you literally cannot tell if a game is designed for the artist's preferences or "just to sell", is it really worth anything? Also, why is it that the people who want games to be considered art will also go out of their way to defend pandering, stupid decisions even when they're explicitly stated as such?

Anyways, if you want the Breaking Bad of videogames, play Liberal Crime Squad or Swat 4 or, hell, maybe even try out Floor 13 if you're okay with going a bit afield. All of those are games that exist, made by small, dedicated studios without grandiose ideas of billion-dollar profit margins, more concerned with delivering a small-but-tight experience with meaningful decision-making. So maybe Hideo Kojima should just fucking quit and start his own studio, is what I'm saying. It worked for Peter Molyne-oh wait no

During development of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima wanted the Beauty and the Beast Unit to be naked during cutscenes, though this would have severely affected the game's censorship rating.

i forgot that hideo kojima is just a piece of shit and there's no question about it

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Men climb the mountain to reach the top.


There's a paradigm in our culture. It's called "I can tell fiction from reality". It's a statement used in reference to escapism that contains elements and actions that are considered immoral or wrong "in real life" but are okay in scenarios where no real people are hurt. For example, material that involves the protagonist committing murder, torture, rape or acts of pedophilia are all defended under this argument. The core of the argument is that while it's acknowledged that a character's behavior is disgusting, it's okay to draw pleasure from it because it's happening in a caged, unreal environment. As long as nobody is really hurt, you can do whatever you want.

I won't say that there aren't truisms found in this argument. I'm certainly not going to argue that people who play violent video games should be locked up, as much as I'd probably enjoy a world free of them. But it's an oversimplification of one major element, which is this: the things we draw pleasure from have reasons behind them. You're not gardening, you're not driving a bus, you're not mowing the lawn, you're not painting your house. Your escapism - your alternate world, constructed purely to give you pleasure - involves murder. Specifically, it involves power. Escapism, 95% of the time, is about having power, and often about having power in such a way that you don't feel bad about using (or abusing) it.

That image at the top shows why there's a gaping weakness in this argument - a massive, uncovered, festering wound that people like me can jam their fingers into and then start pulling apart. The fact of the matter is that words like "badass" and "awesome" don't exist in a vacuum - they're appealing to concepts that people have been trained to value and enjoy and consider important. For men, appealing traits generally exist with a few core concepts.

"Badass" men are powerful. They are strong, rich, fast, etc because these characteristics allow them to influence others without being influenced themselves, which is the basic goal of the pursuit of strength. "Badass" men are composed, detached and stoic. They are not affected emotionally unless it is appealing for them to be, which is to say they do not show fear or weakness, but will exhibit grief when it can be turned into righteous anger. This ties into power; a real man does not allow himself to be affected by others even in an emotional sense. It is okay to show anger, because anger is a prelude to violence, and violence is the man asserting power and dominance over others. Fear, on the other hand, is a prelude to having power asserted over one's self, and as such is unappealing for a male character.

In short, characters like James Bond - who represents "the top of the mountain" in the opening post - exist in such a way that they are able to influence others without themselves being hindered or weakened or trod upon. Even when they are tortured and beaten and stabbed and shot, they grit their teeth and bear it, knowing that their chance will come to exact revenge, and that revenge will be all the sweeter for the grievances inflicted. Similarly, it's okay for such characters to have character flaws like alcoholism or drug addiction, as long as the manner in which they deal with such things is stoic and detached and not pleading or pathetic. They needn't be a braggart, either - think of characters like Solid Snake who are constantly asserting that "they're no hero", and how every insistent repetition of this fact just makes them seem humble and, ergo, more awesome. Every trait comes down to power, a perpetual need to be on top of situations even when those situations are specifically centered around being weak or downtrodden.

I'd like to talk to you about James Blake Miller briefly. You may remember him better from this picture:


When this picture was taken during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, it was held up as one of the best pictures taken from the war. The New York Post splattered it across their front page as an icon of success, of tough American soldiers kicking ass in the face of fierce (yet cowardly and conniving) resistance. The thousand-yard stare of a man who had just emerged from a hellish warzone and was taking a brief reprieve before re-entering it was interpreted as the cool glare of a detached and stoic warrior who was able to kill his enemies without emotion or regret or remorse.

On his return home, James Miller suffered from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course he did. He was involved in the most intense urban theater of the Iraq War, during which time he was constantly in fear of death coming from any direction. He watched friends die, and knew that at any time he could be next. It didn't matter if it felt like he was safe - RPGs and mortars don't care about walls. He knew these things. Even when he returned to the United States, his body and mind were trained to live in fear, to be paranoid about every whistle and sound and sudden motion and loud noise.

In 2005, while preparing for disaster recovery efforts for Hurricane Rita, Miller was involved in an incident where he attacked a Navy seaman. This came after the seaman had whistled in a way that mimicked an RPG's signature trail, which Miller believed was done intentionally to upset the marines present. In 2006 he got married, which was made possible thanks to the donations of people affected by his story and his trauma. Less than a month later he was divorced, unable to live in normal conditions due to his PTSD.

James Miller is a warrior, a stone-cold killer whose icy glare and drooping cigarette are iconic images that will endure for centuries to come. He is a model for children to follow, like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or Max Payne or Adam "Kane" Marcus or who the fuck ever else you want to name. James Miller is a human being who has difficulty functioning in our society. He is a man who lives in fear because he somehow survived an event that could have killed him at any moment it damn well pleased and his body and mind are so tensed up that resuming normal life is almost impossible. He is a traumatized individual whose sacrifices seem hollow and meaningless in retrospect, who has survived while watching friends die, who endures and can't really explain why he does.

"I mean, He must think I deserve to fuckin' be punished baaad. And the only reason why I can figure that I'm still alive is that this is God's way of letting me feel the guilt for all the bad shit I did. Because there's not a morning when I don't fuckin' wake up and the first thing I think is, 'Another day I'm here.' What did I do to make me deserve another day? What have I done in my life that my buddies didn't do to make me deserve so many days?"

You want to know how I can tell people can't tell fiction from reality? Because if they understood reality, they wouldn't idolize the image of a badass murderer in the first place. It wouldn't give them pleasure to pretend to be those people, and it wouldn't make sense for them to think of such people as being worthy of emulation. There wouldn't be people who look at Rorschach and think "yeah, that guy makes a lot of sense".

But they do. They think of people like that as "the top of the mountain". They think of war and killing as baptismal waters that transforms untested boys into hardened men. They think that it's the goal of the male animal to become sharpened, focused, stoic, detached. They think that men are killers, even if they have to obey laws. They wait, primed and ready, for a moment when some thug tries to mug them, some shithead breaks into their house, some little old lady gets attacked on the street. They wait for a chance to commit murder in such a way that it's societally condoned and justified and even heroic, like a firefighter hoping for an arsonist or a doctor hoping for a plague.

The mountain isn't real. And if you think you're at the top of it, you're fucking deluding yourself.

I just need someone to talk to.