Wednesday, July 31, 2013

User Generated Content

The other evening I wrote a short twine game to try and decompress the emotional impact of spending any amount of time online. It's not particularly subtle.

You can play it right from your browser here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How to do Things with Video Games review

A few weeks back I read and reviewed a book by Dylan Holmes called “A Mind Forever Voyaging,” which billed itself as a history of narrative storytelling in video games. The book has a particular political bent, which is legitimizing the study and cultural importance of video games as a whole. Ian Bogost here in his book “How to do Things with Video Games” has the same political bent, but the difference in tact is night and day. Where Holmes is cloying and earnest, Bogost is meticulous and lofty. Where Holmes relies on personal parables Bogost relies on the work of his own studio to make points.
It’s an unfair comparison, really. Holmes is a few years younger than I am and has barely established himself as a blogger in some extremely interesting but still relatively obscure websites. Bogost, on the other hand, is a forty something professor of media studies who also founded a reasonably successful games company and has written several books before this one. I remember reading his writing seven and eight years ago in fairly mainstream gaming blogs and I’ve played a number of his games. Bogost, in many respects, is where Holmes wants to be. In this political movement, however, it’s a comparison that’s gonna get made.
Bogost’s book is part of a series called “Electronic Mediations,” which is a typically self-serving series of academic liberal arts books designed to explore the appreciation and usage of the digital in a discursive cultural context, essentially the sort of legitimacy that Holmes is looking for.
But that’s academia, not the real world. In the real world we’re on the cusp of yet another console generation, $500 machines designed to take what a game is and make them yet bigger and yet better in a march of technological innovation. At the same time we’re watching a medium on the cusp of breaking free from its antiquated industry and reach a broader audience on more platforms than ever before. New models of payment have proven wildly successful and new forms of funding doubly so. Change is in the air, but it’s not quite clear what that change is as 2006’s console war starts anew with a fresh crop of corporate devotees eager to defend the honour of their favorite computer and its associated iconography and handful of exclusive titles.
Cynicism aside, Bogost’s book is actually very refreshing in its approach. The book is divided into chapters based on an answer to the question “what can video games be,” ultimately building an argument not for simple cultural consideration, but for creativity, making the final point that games will achieve the sort of social status they’ve recently been yearning for once they find themselves encompassing a breadth of human expression rather than simply as entertainment products or “timewasters.” He describes examples of each expression, from pranks to drills to relaxation, and advocates for new and more varied ways games can be used in those categories. One of the strongest arguments he makes is that the inevitable taming of gaming’s wilderness, the appreciation of gaming as a medium and not a particular entertainment vehicle, will inevitably lead to the destruction of the “gamer.” Once we reach the point that the average person has some modicum of gaming literacy under their belt and games are used in a variety of contexts for a variety of purposes, the notion of “gamer” will lose its relevance. All people will know how to game, so all people will be gamers.

This idea isn’t new. It’s actually along the lines of what Bogost and a few others have been writing for years. This idea is, however, novel. The games industry as it exists today is very much focused on one thing: making a ton of money for everyone involved. They do that of course by creating focus-tested entertainment products that have a massive overhead and ergo can’t risk innovation or creative expression beyond those expressions that are at least fairly likely to make money. The traditional concept of the industry is in a bad way. Over the last console generation development costs for an average run of the mill game ballooned from 5 million to twenty million plus, meaning that even a few flops can seriously damage the financial standing of a mid-size publisher. And damage it has with the last 5 years party to more layoffs and studio closings or mergers than any time since the video game crash of the 1980s. Part of it has to do with a decrease in consumer spending (and ultimately the long decline in consumer spending power brought about by stagnant wages) and another part has to do with the rise and proliferation of mobile gaming, introducing a platform that traditional publishers were slow to embrace or understand and largely unlimited by the old deals that industry leaders have bargained amongst each other to cut newer publishers out of the big three consoles.
Anyway I’m rambling and my point is this: publishers are shit fucks at taking risks and they have a lot of good reasons for it. Where else can we go? Why, the indie market, of course! Indie games have had a number of shots to the arm in the same timeframe that old-money has had a number of shots to the gut. Stuff like humble indie bundles, the runaway success of Minecraft, Kickstarter, the proliferation of digital storefronts like Steam and Green Man Gaming et al, and most importantly a general sense of disgust, of fed-up-ness with the traditional models. So the Indie world is thriving, with more and more kickstarters for alt-consoles with open platforms and hippy philosophies.
Problem is that many (though definitely not all) of the games that are coming out of this movement bear no small resemblance to the typified entertainment product model of gaming. Games are new and interesting twists on 2d platforming or music games or shooters or 3d brawlers or whathaveyou, but they’re (frequently) not trying to say anything new in gaming. It’s a morose situation, especially when compared to the versatility of other media. In writing, for example, a person can write an instruction manual or a love letter or a novel or a doctoral thesis or a letter to the editor or a news article or a review or a stream of consciousness expression of the internal mental states of anxiety or so on. Games are just as capable of that kind of breadth but historical industrial constructions and the social understanding of games are holding them back from this.
Or so Bogost’s argument goes.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I’ve been on the bus for just over two solid days now. I have slept for a total of perhaps 4 hours, owing largely to my personal inability to sleep upright. Much of today has been punctuated by accidental microsleeps, closing my eyes and following my mind down some irrational track.
I traveled out of New Orleans on a bus headed for Shreveport, wide eyed and bushy tailed. The bus was crowded, but quickly became less so as people left. In Shreveport, though, the connecting bus to Dallas was about 2 hours late as the earlier bus broke down and a new driver had to be found to make the trip. More delays in Dallas meant the trip through texas had much smaller breaks than indicated on the little itinerary slip. Consequently I was able to see much less of Texas than I wanted.
What I did see a lot of was poverty. Greyhound serves millions of travelers each year, but thanks to its low price, long travel time, and simple amenities, Greyhound also serves what is essentially the lowest classes of people, the homeless, the destitute, the working poor. The construction and execution of air travel has always been an upper/middle class endeavor, with servants and in-flight entertainment. Even the modern conceit of commuter air still holds the trappings of former affluence; food amenities drastically pared but still extant.
When airline travel is threatened, it becomes national headlines. When these symbols of decadence are twisted and used against still other symbols of decadence, it sparks war. Air travel is the bourgeoisie, air travel is a target. No one assaults a bus line, since there’d be nothing to prove. There’s no message in killing the oppressed when you yourself are oppressed. No one ever looked into my bag, despite large regulations thereof. No one checked my carryon. The driver is “protected” by a frame of plexiglass and a door and the same legal statues that protect your municipal busdriver.
Compare this to traveling across New Mexico, in the highway closest to the border. We were stopped en route at a specific border patrol checkpoint. Other cars and automobiles simply have an officer stand outside and glare into the car, hoping to determine citizenship with a piercing glow and gut instinct (and license tags). He then waves them on, those droids being not the ones he was looking for. For our bus, though, two armed men entered the bus and began down the row on either side asking each passenger one simple question: “Are You a U.S. Citizen,” only slowing to look at the one Canadian passenger’s details and to glare more thoroughly at the handful of Hispanic passengers. Then they left, our freedom obtained and secured, jobs protected, taxes mad sacrosanct. A large wooden sign advertising for people to join the border patrol and a handful of shiny less-than-three-year-old cars painted in the green and white of the force closed out the scene.
The most common rhetoric in anti-immigration literature and arguments is some kind of variant on “they’re going to take our jobs” which is a fear generally based on the fear of loss of resources. The sheer poverty of the border fuels this fear, since there is so little success to be had, giving up any must feel like a zero-sum game, where any loss on your part is at a clear gain to the other and vice versa. But even still, even as the dead empty scrubland of Texas cringes softly at the concept of an invading force (of people who originally owned and occupied the land, and who constitute the majority of its residents), the destitution persists and the unequal relationship between the maquiladoras of Chihuahua and their NAFTA enabled goods shipping across to El Paso and massive warehouses and onward to supply America with things to buy maintains a steady parasitism. No amount of border patrol agents are going to stop the influence of money and tantalizing hopes of a middle class American lifestyle.
One of the things I notice most about New Orleans as a whole is the utter lack of Hispanic people and the ensuing paucity of Spanish being spoken in public places. Churls and pedants will be quick to note that the city does have a Hispanic population, though largely relegated to suburbs or generally marginalized by their low proportion of the population. Louisiana in general is not much different, Dallas similarly so, but as our bus crossed Texas the concept of what was “American” and what was “Mexican” blurred and merged and created whorls and eddies of symbolism. Former Spanish Catholic missionaries became town halls and meeting sites, rancheros proudly advertised their allegiance to the U.S. of A. Midland, Texas has a sign celebrating the town as the hometown of President George W. Bush and Laura Bush; the town is comprised of at least half Hispanic people.
By the time we arrived in El Paso, the transformation was complete and I was the only white monolingual I saw for the entire hour I aimlessly wandered outside the station. The rhetoric at this point becomes useless. If there’s an invasion, they’ve won. If it’s a hostile buyout, they’ve made the best offer. They don’t just take American jobs, they’re making the jobs in that part of America. The city itself is very nice and clearly has had a good deal of effort put into transforming it into a major player, with tourist destinations and nice hotels and fairly clean streets, all of which serve as a jarring contrast to Juarez, just on the other side of a very persistent fence . Juarez is a scrabbled together city built out of adobe houses erected on top of and to the side of dirty, ungreened hills. Juarez is the city famous for pancho villa and famous for a perpetual and ongoing gang war that leads to weekly shoutouts on public streets. The police are either shockingly corrupt or obviously afraid and the entire town is built on a framework of hoping and praying that the next day isn’t the last.
It’s poor, and it’s the kind of poor that we as Americans like and need, since they’re poor enough to make our clothes for dirt cheap while we deport their families and maintain the system that keeps them in the maquiladoras. A day later we drive by the American Apparel factory with a big sign that declares it to be “la compania rebelde.”