Tag Archives: videogames

Brothers in Arms, the strategic desensitizer

war games

There are few games that have struck me as wanting to be a film as Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Or rather, wanting to be a TV series. The first ten minutes of Hell’s Highway had me seriously tossing up asking its creators if they shouldn’t just have just applied to work on The Pacific instead. The cutscenes – in the beginning, interminably long – have perfected that Band of Brothers tone and feel, and even the musical theme appears to share the same first few intervals. Now, I like Band of Brothers. But I’d rather watch the real thing than play an imitator. My patience was wearing thin, however, I knew several people who swore by the series, so I stuck with it. And I’m glad I did: Brothers in Arms presents a compelling take on World War Two that I don’t think could be achieved in any other medium.

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Call of Duty 2 and the World War Two theme park

theme park

There is definitely a place for theory and lofty concepts. A blog is one such place. However, I very much admire L.B. Jefferies’ sentiment when he suggests that there comes a point when theorising is useless without practical implementation: “Talk is cheap and in abundance on the internet, it’s actually doing something that’s in such short supply. If you want things to change, just act that change out yourself.”

In that spirit, then, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, and instead of presenting Subject Navigator readers with another post on how one concept from one medium is like a different concept from another, I’d like to analyse a game or two. I want to look at some World War Two videogames, overpopulated as the genre may be, and think about what their gamespace says about their approach to the period. I’m starting today with Call of Duty 2, and I’ll be continuing later on in the week with Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway.

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How Guy Debord can help us understand videogames

guy_debord1

When researching my thesis, I looked at quite a few theories and theorists of space, place, and geography. Perhaps the most interesting discovery I made last year, however, was Guy Debord and the Lettrist International’s concept of psychogeography. Debord was a French Marxist who found influence in the ’60s, largely due to a fascinating book called Society of the Spectacle. He was also probably more than a little alcoholic, and ended up shooting himself in 1994.

So what can a dead continental philosopher tell us about videogames?

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Mapping the Brainysphere: 29 blogs switched-on gamers should read

map-display-holder

 

The year 2008 was nothing if not a great year for intelligent discussion of videogames. Every month, it seemed to me like a new blog would pop up with an amazingly insightful analysis of some new game, and I’d be forced to go through their backlogs for everything else they’d written. Underneath it all, there is a real community thriving here; one that talks to itself and many hundreds of silent readers out there in the great internet ether. So, I decided, as much for myself as for any visitors of this blog, that I’d try and map out the Brainysphere; those blogs which have discussed videogames in 2008 in a manner beyond the surface. I’ve tried as best as I could to include everyone I have read this year, and to not link directly to their blog but rather, to what is in my opinion their best post for 2008.

If you believe your blog, or someone else’s blog should be here but isn’t, please let me know in the comments. Any omissions are purely because I am not superhuman enough to keep up with the lightning pace of the Brainysphere, or I simply forgot.

Without further ado, and in purely randomised order, these are the first 29 blogs of the Brainysphere:

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A Manifesto

 

being_there

There are many pleasures to be found in videogames. Some games are varied and diverse; others are more focussed on particular pursuits. Some games are almost solely directed towards the pleasures of competition, of challenge, of skill. Others are instead of the pleasures of a world: of interaction, of creation. 

These things we know videogames do very well. But we’re slowly realising that these aren’t the only things that videogames are good at. With casual games, we’re seeing that there is quite a lot more to the medium than we’ve assumed. Casual players, for example, don’t seem to like difficulty. Casual players like to get in and get out, enjoying the experience but leaving the grinding to those who need it.

Michael Abbot today wrote about the new Prince of Persia and the difficulty issue that some commentators have complained of. Certainly, many hardcore players don’t like the lack of punishment the game doles out and the consequences of its generosity. But by the same token, I’m certain many will embrace the accessibility provided by the pulling of the Prince’s punches. This is a crucial point: if we can be disinterested in challenge in games, what then else can we be interested in? Exploration and navigation are some of the ideas I am most obviously interested in, as I have argued through this blog and in my thesis. However, I think these ideas are linked to a larger concept that videogames do very well: being.

Iroquois Pliskin wrote of 2008 as the year of ‘being there’. It’s an illustrative metaphor, as Iroquois aptly shows just how important this year was for the immersive depth of our videogame worlds. But he also hones in on the point that made some see 2008 as an off-year – not with the ‘being’, so much as the ‘doing’. The problem with Grand Theft Auto IV was not with the wonderful world, but with what one had to do in it. The same, Iroquois suggests, can be said about Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and other major 2008 videogames. There are probably ways to overcome this, and certainly in the future we will have videogames with great worlds and amazing things to do in them (if we don’t already).

However, I want to argue that for 2009 and the future, ‘being’ should be just as much of a point as ‘doing’.

This medium, this wonderful new medium, has given us a whole new language to communicate and depict experience. We don’t have to just use it in the pre-established modes of competition, challenge and skill. Why can’t we just be?

This is how videogames could be used to more effectively communicate memory, feeling, emotion. We could have biographies – where the player simply navigates the memory, the life of a subject in a dream-like state. The simplest description might be some sort of cross between The Graveyard and Flower; an experiential world where goals are only loosely present and vaguely desirable. The greatest achievement is to be there; to experience, to see, to hear. To be a digital tourist, a sight-seer (or perhaps more accurately, a site-seer) of sorts.

We could reconceptualise the music of The Beatles through a navigable space; visiting Strawberry Fields, seeing Sergeant Pepper’s band and counting how many potholes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. While watching a recording of Cirque du Soleil’s Love show, I was struck by just how much I wanted to interact with the performance of The Beatles’ music. I didn’t want to play it – I have a guitar for that. I wanted to perform it. I wanted to experience it on a level that only a videogame could give me: I wanted to be there. 

The ability to be and not do could be immensely powerful. It would allow us to experience the world, our history, our imagination in ways that those original, hopeful theorists of videogames thought some far off dream. It would allow us to convey ideas, to revisit time and place far gone, or not yet imagined. Our experience would be shared in ways similar, but inherently different than the goal-oriented ways we currently play. Importantly, it would allow videogames to say new things about topics I had thought inappropriate for the medium. It might show us Hiroshima before and after the bomb. It might take us through a history of physics, from Newton’s apple to the inner workings of Einstein’s mind. Most immediately, it would enable us to experience the wars of the Twentieth Century as more than the view down the barrel of a gun.

The current modes of videogames are incredibly popular and widely loved for good reason, and I am in no way proposing that they be done away with. But we should open ourselves up to these new experiences that the medium offers us: the experience of being. So in this post, a manifesto of sorts, I want to see if we can momentarily turn away from what we thought games were about. Let’s imagine being, and not doing.

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From above, from below: a videogames thesis

So, finally, the marks are in, and I’m able to post this thesis I’ve been rambling on about for far too long. I won’t say much by way of introduction, except to note that if you’ve got any feedback, I would absolutely love to hear from you, either in the comments here, or at dangoldingis [at] gmail [dot] com. So, without further ado:

 

From above, from below: navigating the videogame

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Why ludology?

logy

At the close of 2008, videogaming academia finds itself in a decidedly odd position. The problem? In its furious attempts to disentangle itself from film academia and foreign invaders from the land of Narrative at the turn of the millennium, it has become confused. In the attempt to fend off these shadowy academic-colonisers, gaming academia became something it plainly isn’t: ludology.

Let me insert that I intend no offense to Gonzalo Frasca (whose writing proposed and popularised the term). I like his writing much more than a great many academics; he seems good-humoured and open to criticisms of his work, which is more than can be said for a great number others. I also don’t believe that he entirely intended for the whole discipline to be known as ludology. As he states in the essay, “Our main goal was to show how basic concepts of ludology could be used along with narratology to better understand videogames.”

However, it seems that somewhere, somehow, there became a general impression that ludology should be used synonymously with the general study of videogames in their entirety. Some anecdotal evidence: I used to do a short segment on the PALGN Podcast where I would briefly run through a segment of games studies; often the research for it was more illuminating for me than the end product and it was probably laughable to anyone who actually knew anything about the field. However, one week (the episode on the narratology/ludology storm-in-a-teacup) I had a minor shock when a Game Design student at a local University wrote to correct me that in fact ‘ludology’ meant the whole discipline of the study of games, and not just one perspective on the whole deal. He said that this was the way he’d been taught by his lecturers.

When did this happen? When did higher education institutions start teaching ‘ludology’?

There are problems with this. I have many complaints against the term (not necessarily the ideology behind it, however), but I’ll start at basics. Etymologically, it’s a ‘bitzer’ of a term; ludo from latin, –logy from Greek. Certainly, narratology is equally slapdash, with narrare from latin, but I’m not here to defend that. If anything, they are both etymologically silly. That’s English for you, though; it’s more a niggle than anything else. The issue is, though, that ludology then strikes as a self-aggrandising term, a humorous nonce word. For ludology surely has more in common with sexology than biology; wikipedia even has a perfect summation of what has occurred with the word under their -logy suffix entry:

As with other classical compounds, adding the suffix to a initial word-stem derived from Greek or Latin may be used to lend grandeur or the impression of scientific rigor to humble pursuits, as in cosmetology (“the study of beauty treatment”) or cynology (“the study of dog training”).

As far as I know, no-one needed a new word to define the study of film or of literature. Consulting my own University’s handbook of studies, I could only find schools of Cinema Studies or of Literature; no school of cinemology or literatology were apparent. Funnily enough, I couldn’t find a school of ludology either. The point is this: apart from being pretentious and another example of essential jargon, it essentially means nothing.

Of course, issues of semantics and pretension aside, the greatest problem of ludology is that it doesn’t actually encapsulate what it is gaming academics are often actually studying. ‘Ludology’ isn’t helpful because it overemphasises just one aspect of videogames – admittedly, a crucial aspect, but one limited aspect all the same. Videogames represent the lovechild of play, sport, film, software, architecture, theme parks, riddles and more. I have rarely seen an academic – even the most hardcore ludologist – study games with isolated and limited reference to their so-called ludic basis. Usually, at the very least some cursory examination is made of technology, or fictional contexts. What I’m saying here is that ludology might be okay (quibbles aside) for a discipline’s name if all we wanted to study was ludic elements. Admittedly, ‘Videogame studies’ or simply ‘Game studies’, my preferred alternative(s), may also have this problem; however, ‘games’ and ‘videogames’ are what this medium is known by in the ‘loose and popular sense’ (after Chisholm). In other words, I doubt you’d find your average consumer asking a cashier for their latest and greatest in ludic technology; and when dealing in academia, I find it is best to use as many ‘real’ words as possible. After all, videogames are actually the object of study here. Frasca, in fact, argues as much in his initial formulation:

We will propose the term ludology (from ludus, the Latin word for “game”), to refer to the yet non-existent “discipline that studies game and play activities”. Just like narratology, ludology should also be independent from the medium that supports the activity.

So how on earth did ludology end up becoming our discipline’s overarching title in some circles, and where do we go from here? As a mere recently-minted Cultural Studies graduate with a videogame-academic bent, I don’t feel qualified to offer anything other than guesses. However, my personal hope is that ‘ludology’ will one day die a quiet death while ‘Game Studies’ or similar alternatives take over in respectable institutions and academics not prone to intellectual hyperbole or point-proving. It’s a modest hope, but a man can dream.

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