Revisiting some favorite themes, Episode 023 also sees us joined by J Goldberg, Community Manager at Volition. Having recently shipped Red Faction: Guerrilla, J sits down with us for a conversation on open world gaming and the significance of destructible environments (metaphorically as well as mechanically). We also take on fears of simulation and representation, shifting similarities between games and other artistic spaces, and player characters in fictional roles and their importance. Thanks to J, don’t forget about our book club, and enjoy.
And this, friends (for you are truly a friend if you’re still reading this…), is part of the reason why venturing into that wasteland of conversation titled/trademarked When Will Video Games Have Their Citizen Kane Moment? is still largely a waste of time. For Orson Welles, making Kane wasn’t about exercising a studio’s intellectual property rights, but exorcising his personal political demons. Kane is a work of art perfectly and hermetically sealed within its historical moment, yet it’s an expression so precise, poisonous and personal that its angry energy still infects us, a white dwarf high-beaming us from light years away.
Like Virgil and Dante, Welles’s voice refused to be ignored (which has to be disappointing for Knight, probably. One should just be able to listen to what they want, right?) because of its arrogance, audacity and white-hot brilliance, and he himself suffered great injury for his inability to darken or cool it. (Adding insult to injury, Welles’s original negative of the film was lost in a fire at his Spanish villa in the 1970s.) Art endures, convulsive, twisting itself into the future.
Not unlike the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the video game industry has a pantheon of studio-beholden stars who make compelling work, but still work that is primarily (a lot of times only) produced to be consumed, not considered. And frequently the attempt to seriously consider these expressions is met with that familiar anti-intellectual ditty titled “Oh Let It Go Already, It’s Just A (insert medium here)!” As much as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, we do not live an age of ideas or even an age of information. We are living in The Age Of [Anti-]Intellectual Property(TM).
And but so, Alexander’s final analysis in this, our Glorious Age Of [A-]I.P., is prudent and pragmatic. Things Are What They Are. Everything That Is Is What It Is. And That’s Okay.
I mean, Right?
You tell me.
I just spent most of my morning playing and marvelling over Tiltfactor Laboratory’s new browser game Layoff. Co-developed by Tiltfactor and the Rochester Institute of Technology Game Design and Development program, Layoff is a smart and smarmy commentary on “the current state of the US financial crisis,” in which the player helps restructure yet another faceless corporation’s hapless workforce.
The gameplay is a variation on Bejeweled, wherein the player targets entire classes of workers for layoffs by lining them up in multiples of at least three; once three or more workers of the same class are arranged in a row, they are sent tumbling to the bottom of the screen, where they are instantly queued to collect unemployment.
Unlike the jewel-encrusted browsergames that partially inspired its game mechanics, there is no leveling in Layoff or warm-fuzzies awarded for clearing the grid. A tally is kept in the top right screen, showing the player how much money she has saved the company by gangplanking the workers onto the public dole. If the player matches five workers of the same class, a corporate merger ensues and a banker icon is added to the grid; bankers cannot be selected or grouped for removal in the same way that the other classes can, and are only alleviated by the “BANK BAILOUT” button underneath the player’s tally of “$ SAVED”.
What I find most satisfying about Layoff, of course, is its underlying argument. Hovering the mouse over any worker on the grid gives the player a short character sketch of that specific sprite’s personal history or situation. Mini-bios for the workers are poignant and sobering, revealing the hardships, worries, and strife that are becoming all too commonplace in our New Depression.
A different poignance is found in the bankers’ pop-ups, whose text frequently parrots the corporate-speak commensurate with the talking heads on CNBC or FOXBusiness. In my most recent game session, I laid off an entire row of orange-shirted workers and was immediately rewarded by the banker who took their place shamelessly proclaiming:
The gameplay is confined to the top half of the browser window, but it is probably the bottom half that is most compelling. This is where the text pop-ups appear, also where all the displaced workers pace back and forth as they wait to collect their unemployment checks, and still also where a CNN/FOXNews-style ticker displays factoids from the real world of corporate mergers and the collapse of the U.S. banking system. The total effect of this space is a powerlessness for the player that is rare to find in most games, because most games are trying desperately to distract us from these kind of issues. In other words, Layoff is by design all about the proverbial bottom line, and it does not hesitate to point fingers.
For Tiltfactor, Layoff’s competence as both a game and an argument draw immediate comparisons to the rhetorical/persuasive works of Ian Bogost, Gonzalo Frasca and Paolo Pedercini. This is not only high praise in my opinion, but praise well-earned.
The past few weeks in Washington DC have been incredibly surreal. Hell, the past few months have been pretty odd. The two topics I hear about most in my daily social circles, apart from our immediate task needs, are videogames and politics. And with the way that gamesmanship pervades the political realm, I can’t help but see them in mixed terms. First, it was the hordes of political activists campaigning for their candidate. Then Fallout 3 started promoting in the Metro, and the game forever changed my mental map of the DC Metro area. And then the election and subsequent inauguration — both of which created real, palpable chaos on the streets. Fear! Uncertainty! Disbelief!
And then, calm. A feeling of relief has swept into the city, and I can visibly notice an upswing in mood that is not the mania of the inauguration, but is certainly is elevated. The dog days of the Bush administration are over, and the future is much brighter than it has been in a long time.
But it is still unclear exactly what the new administration means for videogame legislation. We have gotten few glimpses of what Obama brings to the discussion, and the Democrats have a rocky past with the subject of videogames and freedoms of speech in general.
Historically, the Democrats have not done well with videogames. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Joe Lieberman co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) in 2005. This bill would have mandated government oversight of ESRB ratings, a whole secret-shopper program to catch noncompliant retailers, and stiff penalties for selling adult rated games to minors. Had FEPA passed, it would have cost the government a bundle of cash every year and would have also set a disturbing precedent. Keep in mind that at this point both the MPAA (the movie ratings board) and the ESRB (the game ratings board) are private organizations whose power comes from an agreement worked out by members of the respective inudstry. Government censors need not be involved.
Obama does not curently seem to be interested in focusing on censorship over more pressing issues, such as our economic collapse and multiple wars. However, as GamePolitics tracked throughout the primary and election process, Obama does clearly connect videogames to underachievement:
You know, I will invest in education. We’ll make sure government gets behind the schools. But it won’t make much of a difference if parents aren’t turning off the television set and putting away the video games and making sure that our children are doing their homework.
In light of the recent push for educational videogames, and building research confirming that games are educational in a variety of ways, I’d much rather hear Obama talking about creating more ways to reach students and seizing the power of all our media options to connect with learners. With games like Operation: Resilient Planet and the current wave of “pop-ed” games for Nintendo DS and other more casual platforms, the world of educational gaming is just beginning to come to life. I hope that the Obama administration will actually tend more towards the other side they’ve shown.
Never before has a presidential campaign or administration embraced technologies of communication so enthusiastically. From SMS text messaging to video blogs, the Obama administration has done a great job leveraging the power of technology. Their social web experiments have garnered a lot of positive attention and they have left no tone unturned when exploiting the power of networked communications to further their message.
They even advertised prominently during the election in videogames. Their ads showed up in a bunch of titles on Xbox Live. Millions of gamers saw Obama’s smiling mug while racing at breakneck speeds or strategizing dominance on the field. These advertisements were clearly successful and contributed to the building of Obama’s cool cred. Xbox Live also featured special coverage of the Inauguration as free video downloads.
It would be very unfortunate if these sorts of enthusiastic and strategic uses of technology were limited to increasing Obama’s political cache. We need the same kind of informed, innovative and effective use of technology in our classrooms and government operating procedure. And videogames have always been connected to innovation and adoption of technology. Games provide a lot more than the momentary respite from the day to day grind, or the proverbial “five minutes of fun” that so many markerters and apologists claim.
At this moment, another example of a hysterical political response to something lawmakers clearly do not understand is making its way through the New York State Assembly. Assemblyman Brian Kolb (Republican) has introduced a law that would require a whole lot of crazy things from NY retailers and game makers. At first blush, the requirement for game makers to provide a free demo of every game sounds like good business. But requirements for retailers to keep mature content games in a locked cabinet and for the state to impose its own ratings system sound, again, like expensive and pointless nonsense. The real comedy gold of the bill is in the required warning label mandated by the bill:
WARNING, SALE OR RENTAL TO ADULTS ONLY. MAY CONTAIN EXPLICIT DEPICTIONS DESCRIPTIVE OF OR ADVOCATING ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING:
- COMMISSION OF A VIOLENT CRIME
- VIOLENT RACISM
- RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE
- SEXUAL ASSAULT
- SEXUAL ACTIVITY
- MORBID VIOLENCE
- ILLEGAL USE OF DRUGS OR ALCOHOL
The bill requires that if a game contains any one of these items it must contain the whole list on the back of the game. While we regularly see games with violent crimes, references to alcohol, and possibly even murder or morbid violence, I have never played a game involving sodomy, rape, incest, or bestiality. Even more to the point is that a general list like this is never going to be as effective as a list based on the actual content of a specific game, such as the list that already exists on every game reviewed by the ESRB.
This is just one example. There are many similar pieces of legislation in the US and abroad, illustrating just how much of a struggle it has been for mainstream society to deal with videogames. However, the pervasiveness of games increases, and all the lawmaking in the world has yet to stem the tide of games. With more powerful tools for individuals to participate in high quality game making on the rise, it is unlikely that the medium of videogames will be truly stymied in the near future. It is an eleven billion dollar industry that no country wants to lose.
Yet what lawmakers do can have a great impact on the games we see developed and the progress we make in leveraging the technology for the benefit of the culture. As White House staffer Bill Burton said, for the Obama team coming into the building was like going from “an Xbox to an Atari”. That reflects well the lack of progress the Bush administration did in effectively leveraging any kindof modern human knowledge. And hopefully it also reflects a bit more of the savvy of the new administration.
But we are gamers, and gamers always want more. We want an Xbox 360.