Game Design + Game Studies= Profit1!!

“We can reflect upon games by making them. Experimental games are a powerful tool for thinking about and communicating ideas about games.” – Chaim Gimgold.

This quote reflects Gimgold’s conclusion on his review of Nintendo’s WarioWare Inc.: Mega MicroGame$. What I like about this review is that it focuses on one well-known example (WarioWare) and explains how this game draws attention to its own design and inner mechanisms. Moreover, WarioWare allows us to compare and contrast its unusual and reductionist design with the design of more conventional games.

Gimgold’s review highlights 5 specific areas of design: continuity, scale,  sense, building blocks, and fiction/rules.

WarioWare is a game of minigames that transition from one to another at a rapid pace. There is little continuity to speak of; characters, objectives, button mapping, and conditions for success change with every new game. This chaos is a challenge to the player who must quickly interpret the game and base their actions on limited information. In contrast, this aspect of WarioWare highlights how important continuity is to the design of more traditional games. For example, “when I’m playing Super Mario Bros., I understand that as Mario, my inputs always affect Mario, my goals are the same as Mario’s, and that Mario, who looks like a man, is probably affected by gravity and sharp objects. When the world or player character aren’t radically transforming, and retain their form over time, goals and controls remain coherent over time.”

In terms of scale, everything is minimalized in WarioWare, and thus easier to analyze. WarioWare games are small in terms of virtual real estate, the player is given a short amount of time to accomplish the game’s goal, and the game’s rules are remarkably simple. “By pushing the formal boundaries of game complexity to a bare minimum, WarioWare foregrounds the essential elements of what makes a video game a video game. Once you’ve taken out everything you can in order to make the smallest video games possible, what’s left over?”

(I’m skipping the section on sense. It’s good though).

The building blocks section is particularly interesting because it shows how WarioWare presents players with simple mini-games and then combines those elements in complex boss battles. This allows us to see exactly how different elements of conventional games are actually games unto themselves. “micro games are short, small, and simple, and the boss games, by comparison, are long, big, and complex. Boss stages and micro games, however, share many game design elements. Galaxy 2003, the boss at the end of Dribble’s level, seamlessly integrates the earlier micro games Shoot!, Avoid!, and Collect!. Galaxy 2003 is a conventional overhead scrolling shooter: players shoot at enemies, avoid colliding with them, and collect power-ups. Boss games, it seems, are compound collections of micro games.” The author also does a really cool job of illustrating how this can be applied to Super Mario Bros.

The section on fiction and rules demonstrates how a unified theme helps players comprehend the game world and elements. The game’s fiction doesn’t necessarily have to make sense (but this can help) as long as it’s consistent. This thematic consistency helps the player create a mental model of the game’s mechanics because it provides players with distinct mental objects that relate to each other in ways that make (some kind of) sense. On the other hand, an unexpected break in the fiction can elicit specific responses from gamers. Whether it be a dramatic twist or a transition to a new section of the game, purposefully altering a game’s  thematic unity can be done creatively to affect the player’s experience in a number of ways. “WarioWare’s diverse fictional strategies explore and demonstrate the free play between fiction and rules available to game makers. In some ways, fiction is arbitrary, and nonsense can even be used to enhance usability. While fiction has a certain amount of free play, it is ultimately grounded in a need to explicate rules. By pushing fictional possibility to its limits, WarioWare demonstrates how ludicrous game fictions can get, while reminding us of the symbiotic relationship between rules and fiction.”

This was a short, fun, and informative read. I got a really good grasp of  what the author was trying to convey thanks to all the vivid examples, and I think I learned more about game design from this article than from any of the other one’s I’ve read recently. Highly recommend!

I also read an article on what went wrong with Star Wars Galaxies from a game design’s perspective, and I thought it was really informative. I recommend that one as well.

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Game Studies + Game Design= ???

Several of the articles I’ve recently read have attempted to demonstrate how game studies can be fruitfully applied to the game design process. For better or for worse, right now, game studies’ credibility as a discipline is affected by how relevant it is to the contemporary game industry and how it can help this industry produce games of critical acclaim. What I mean is that the critical discussion of videogames tends to focus on the latest and greatest releases; we are at the whim of summer line-ups and over-hyped games with delayed release dates (somewhat). Discussing less than relevant games amounts to talking to one’s self (I like to exaggerate). I’m sort of split between the pro’s of this position, which inlcude being able to influence our object of study, and cons, such as being confined by profit margins and release dates.

To be honest, most of the articles I’ve read are “meh.” I’ll just list some titles, give brief descriptions, and explain why I was not amused.

A survey method for assessing perceptions of a game: The consumer playtest in game design, by John P. Davis, Keith Steury, and Randy Pagulayan, was about how researchers can use smaller focus groups for shorter periods of play testing to receive quality feedback at a lesser cost when compared to currently used methods. This article is actually not as boring as it sounds because it provides some cool examples about how it has been implemented in the play-testing of  past games, but most of it is kind of obvious and it drags on for quite a bit. I would say it is worth skimming through. Actually, readers who aren’t familiar with play-testing would find this article very informative, so I recommend it for them. This article isn’t groundbreaking or exciting, but it’s a solid read if you’re interested in play-testing.

The Hunt for Collaborative War Gaming – CASE: Battlefield 1942, by Tony Manninen and Tomi Kujanpää, is a straightforward and thorough analysis of how players communicate in Battlefield 1942 by creatively utilizing rudimentary game mechanics. I liked this article but felt that it was too thorough, meaning that sometimes it points out the obvious and elaborates on it for longer than my attention span can bear. (Maybe I’m just a spoiled, little know-it-all…) On the other hand, some of the mechanics it highlights are often overlooked or taken for granted by players. This is a good read for those who want to analyze how an avatar’s body language, a vehicle’s sounds effects, environmental cues, etc., are and can be used to facilitate multiplayer communication and interaction (there’s a difference). Like I said though, some if it is kind of obvious, but I suppose we could also say it’s “intuitive.”

Player-Centred Game Design: Experiences in Using Scenario Study to Inform Mobile Game Design, by Laura Ermi and Frans Mäyrä, describes the results of a study that involved presenting volunteers with potential game concepts and themes in the form of comic strips and gauging their reactions. This is a really fun, new way to brainstorm and plan for the game design process, but it also leads to some distorted, highly interpretable feedback; the authors address this issue by suggesting some conduction parameters that are supposed to minimize how skewed the data can be (IDK if these parameters work, but they’re worth considering). The article also brings up questions about the player’s role in the design process and a player’s ability to know and communicate what they want out of a game. So yeah, the article is full of fresh but questionable ideas and insights.

Formal Models and Game Design, by Stefan M. Grünvogel, is sort of an oddball article (for me) because it breaks gameplay down into mathematical formulas, which is cool but kind of tedious to read about. The purpose of the paper is to show how “formalism” can be used to abstract game components into symbols in order to re-conceptualize  and rearrange them. This sounds useful, and maybe even fun (for others). I can’t say I enjoyed reading the article, but it has some good examples that clarify how this formalistic approach can create a simplified model that reflects the interaction of complex game mechanics. I would just skim this one and study the examples since they pretty much demonstrate the gist of the entire paper.

The Semiotics of Time Structure in Ludic Space As a Foundation for Analysis and Design, by Craig A. Lindley, is another attempt at defining things. This author opts for the term “ludic spaces” and then breaks these spaces down into three overlapping categories: games, narratives, and simulations. The author uses the semiotics of language and the semiotics of narrative to draw parallels with “the semiotics of computer games,” and then the paper becomes one long compare and contrast endeavor. There are plenty of real-game examples that demonstrate how these categories can be useful tools for conceptualization and design, and ultimately, I do think that this can be provisionally beneficial to both game studies and game design, but as with any other definition, we must remain cognizant about what isn’t covered by these categories, where they fall short, and when they can stifle creativity. Definitions are dangerous when they are taken too seriously!

Overall, I think there’s much to be learned from these works, but they’re not all that either. Of more interest to me is the way they show how theory can influence practice (with varying levels of success).I do think it’s important that academics be able to do this, but not if it means compromising academic pursuits in order to stay “relevant” or “current.” It’s not important enough to make us sell-out! (too often).

“BUT WAIT, There’s more,” as Billy May’s would say. I did find two other articles that are far more successful at demonstrating the benefits of combining game studies with game design. One focuses on Warioware, and the other on Star Wars Galaxies. I’m going to dedicate a separate post to these two articles, my next post to be exact.

Oh and you can find all the articles I’ve mentioned here. Did you really think I was going to make you copy and paste a bunch of titles onto your Google search bar? What kind of blogger do you think I am?!

Till next time,




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Miscellenous post: 1/ Sociology 2/ Education

So I didn’t post anything this week because life happens, but I did want to share two things I read recently. One was this really cool ethnographic study that was done around 2004 with Ultima Online players. Albeit dated, it’s worth looking into because it is a great example of Game Studies conducted via approaches used in sociology.

Ze link.

Another tid-bit I wanted to share was this piece of games-as-education history. I’m still working my way through the article, but this quote is worth seeing.

The Future’s Language

gaming is a future’s language, a new form of communication emerging suddenly and with great impact across many lands and in many problem situations. This new communication form represents the first effort by man [sic] to formulate a language which is oriented to the future. This future will in all certainty differ dramatically from the past, and the languages which have passed to us from antiquity will no longer suffice. (Duke, 1974).

When Richard Duke wrote these words in 1974 he was not, of course, writing about either videogames or recreational gaming.  Duke’s game Metropolis, developed ten years earlier for the city council of Lansing, Michigan, involved resource allocation issues in an urban environment – an early analogue ancestor of Will Wright’s SimCity (1989) and any number of other resource management games (Starr, 1994).  At the time, the game contributed to the emerging role of simulation gaming as educational and analytical tools. Duke proposed that such “serious” simulation games would one day replace the traditional lecture as an entirely new form of communication – “a future’s language.” He suggested that simulation games might offer a possible answer to the problems of education in an increasingly complex society (Duke, 1974).

What has been termed “the modern era of simulation gaming” (Wolfe and Crookall, 1998) began in 1955 when the RAND corporation developed a logistics system simulation for the US Air Force. The development of simulation games following World War II was fueled by the understanding that techniques used in training military personnel might be equally effective in business management (Jones, 1998). The Air Force simulation Monopologs placed participants in the role of inventory managers in control of the Air Force supply system (Faria, 1998). One year later the American Management Association (AMA) had developed Top Management Decision Simulation for use in management seminars (Faria, 1998, Lopez, 1999) while in 1957 the first simulation was used in a business college class at the University of Washington (Dickinson and Faria, 1997). During the late 1960s and early 1970s simulation gaming began to move into other areas of training and education, leading Seay to conclude:

Gaming, then, was thought of as a new language with which to educate. It was the new way to educate. Simulations and games were developed that taught social systems, communication, politics, ecology, health, history, relationships, marketing, business, language skills, economics, geography, and mathematics. Games were used to help make decisions on marriage, career exploration, hiring decisions, or deciding admission into college (1997).

In 1969 the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA) was formed as a response to a growing call for academic exploration of this powerful new technique (Duke, 1974). It is apparent that educational game designers of the time had begun to see the potential of simulation games as a facilitator of social change, resulting in powerful games that generated significant “holistic” understandings of dynamic systems and relationships.  Furthermore, some of these games had demonstrated how effectively the format of a game might not only train people, but assist them in thinking critically about the culture and society in which they lived.  Such games can be broadly termed social-system simulation games.

And this piece of history is from an article called Loading the Dice: the challenge of serious games

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(Video) Game (Music) Studies: I am excite!

So the latest article I’ve come across in my quest to know all about game studies was actually about an academic approach to videogame music.

:0 (le gasp)

This rocks hardcore for a number of reasons. For one, videogame music is an amazing phenomenon that is even less-widely studied than videogames themselves, so its awesome that critical approaches are underway. For two, lots of people love videogame music, and a game studies approach to VG music would allows us to interrogate the “what, where, how and why” of this powerfully gripping aspect of games.

Personally, when people ask me what kind of music I listen to, I usually say, “videogame music” (no shame). I’m actually listening to VG music as I’m writing this, I was listening to it when I read the article, I could go on…but anyway, VG music does so much for games, and it’s hard (for me at least) to examine and discuss exactly what it is doing. I’ve  been curious about what a rigorous approach would look like, but I figured too much music theory would be required, and it just seemed really inaccessible for someone with no musical training. Aside from discussion how the music makes feel during and after gameplay, which would actually be a valid approach, I don’t really think I could say much, and because my formal (undergrad) training is in literature, I really didn’t have any theoretical concepts or approaches that I could appropriate to game studies (books don’t play music =\).

Luckily, game studies relies heavily on interdisciplinary scholars, and these scholars have successfully appropriated concepts used in music, film, psychology, etc., to examine and discuss game music. In regards to the article I read, all of the concepts and claims were super accessible, backed up by research, and any potentially confusing terminology is rendered comprehensible. This is particularly important because the author does use music terminology, but it was all thoroughly described and exemplified in the form of audio-files, so you can actually hear what the author is referring to.

One of my favorite things about this article is that the author is cognizant of the infancy and uncertainty of his approach, and he’s aware and of the potential bastardization of game studies that comes from (mis)appropriation of interdisciplinary approaches. So although he makes and backs up some great claims, he’s clearly open to criticism and the possible inadequacy of his approach.

But anyway, all I’ve been doing is harping about how wonderfully written this article is without mentioning any of the content. Basically, the author begins by grounding his point of departure on previous studies done on different kinds of music. This section is kind of lengthy but extremely helpful for understanding how his work fits in with overlapping bodies of research. Next, he describes the concepts he wants to focus on and modify, and then he demonstrates how the concepts can be applied to 1/ Super Mario Brothers 2/ Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time 3/ Silent Hill.

Yes, this is a must read!

Now it is time for my customary awesome quotables. One of the main arguments the author makes is that VG “music works across a game’s structure to encourage the user’s continued play. The game’s sequence is dependent on user input, so music that engages further participation can be said to function toward the continuity of the game play experience.” This can be a hard argument to make because of the diverse type of videogames, but it’s exciting to see someone credit VG music with more than simply setting the mood. And he backs up this argument with numerous examples. In the case of Super Mario, he states, “‘Dying'” in Super Mario Brothers (Figure 5) produces a staccato pulse followed by a conciliatory musical cadence[12] … The music is a descending figure, mimicking Mario’s ejection from the playing field. The music is a coded message of failure reinforcing the consequence of having to replay the level one more time, but similar messages of success reinforce the successful completion of levels in the game…the satisfying ‘ching’ of collecting gold coins reinforces that behaviour which is strategically advantageous to advancing in the game.” I don’t know what staccato pulses or a conciliatory musical cadences are, but the author provided a link to an audio file that let me hear exactly what he was referring to (not that I didn’t know anyway).

Another interesting aspect of VG music he points out is that it can shift from diegetic to non-diegetic. Diegetic refers to music that is produced and audible in the game world by game characters. For example, when Link plays the ocarina, this is considered diegetic music as it is occurring in game world. Non-diegetic refers to theme songs and ambient music that accompanies gameplay but is not produced in the gameworld. Players can hear non-diegetic music, but characters can’t. The author uses Ocarina of Time as an example of how both types of music can be used to communicate with players on a number of levels. He refers specifically to “the melody that must be played to perform “Saria’s Song” which permits teleportation to the Lost Woods area of Hyrule. In the Lost Woods, the looping theme music (Object 9) extends and elaborates Saria’s song in a straightforward “theme and variations” structure. Thus, the musical heuristic merges with the fictional space of the Lost Woods’ theme…so the atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing to the extent that often goes unrecognized, and as a result, players report feelings of déjàvu as the melodies they must learn have an eerie familiarity.” Basically, the non-diegetic ambient music of the Lost Woods is later introduced as the diegetic melody of Saria’s song, and this creates an emotional response in the player towards the newly acquired, melodic tools.

Another awesome example of how diegetic and non-diegetic music work together in videogames is the radio in Silent Hill “since this is also a strategic device built into the game and because it merges with the soundtrack though its source is visibly present in the game environment, the radio’s sounds again blend a motivational cue with atmospheric sounds of the fictional space.”

cool beans. I’m starting to feel that afternoon slump right about now, so without anymore gilding the lily, and without any further ado…

Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music

by Zach Whalen

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Freedom in Games

Freedom: what William Wallace fought and died for. It’s a word that is devoid of meaning due to how often it gets thrown around (not that it was ever meaningful in and of itself), and when we talk about freedom in games, it’s hard to say what we really mean, but I would argue that games provide a basic sense (possibly an illusion) of freedom in that they distract us from our everyday lives. Depending on the game, different types of freedoms can be experienced, but generally speaking, games allow us to lead other lives, do extraordinary things, and explore virtual spaces. This isn’t real freedom, whatever real freedom is, but it’s a wonderful feeling.

A game’s ability to provide this sense of freedom can be a deciding factor in its success, and according to Gonzalo Frasca, it was one of the key differences between the wildly successful GTA3 and the less successful Shenmue (note: Shenmue is intensely popular amongst a specific fan base). The games aren’t all that similar, but they both provided a “sand-box” experience, which is gameplay that doesn’t necessarily follow a linear plot and allows for more exploration. Now if you’ve ever played Shenmue, then you know that although the game is conducive to exploration and side-questing, it is also heavily plot driven (the main character is hunting down his father’s killer). Frasca argues that the linearity of Shenmue’s plot, the tedium of traveling through the game world, and the lack of role-play consistency in interactions with NPCs are gameplay factors that hindered the sense of freedom Shenmue provided.

I bring this article to your attention, dear reader, not because I particularly agree with Frasca’s arguments, but because this article is a primo example of how Game Studies can help us understand the phenomenon of videogames. This specific example is not quite as polished as a traditional academic paper, but it tackles preconscious gameplay experiences and elaborates on then in an intuitive and accessible manner while respecting the complexities of the experiences being discussed. Plus, I really like Frasca’s writing style: laid back yet knowledgeable.

As usual, I could paraphrase some of the finer points of this article, but I’d rather copy and paste. At one point in the article, Frasca compares GTA3 to a flight simulator and notes, “Even though GTA3 involves more roleplaying, the feeling of driving around Liberty City reminded me of my early friendly virtual skies, not only by the way it deals with space but also because of its rules. GTA3 has several clear quests but the player is not forced to follow them. Every time I felt a bit disoriented, I did not mind taking the game designer’s hand and following him through a mission where my goals had been clearly stated. Yet, most of the time, I enjoyed using the environment as a giant laboratory for experimentation, where I could test the system’s boundaries and set my own creative goals.”

When discussing the tedium of traveling through space in regular games ( a big issue in Shenmue), Frasca demonstrates how GTA allows the player to “go to the other side of Liberty City, you do not waste your time: you actually enjoy it. The means of transportation is fun: you carjack a nice car and then drive it according to your mood – either smashing other cars, using the wrong lane or being chased by cops. Driving in GTA3 is a game in itself…As should be clear by now, one of GTA3’s particular design characteristics is that it succeeds at transforming a traditionally boring activity (moving through space) into an enjoyable game (car simulation). This is an elegant design solution which is coherent with the game’s premises and do not disturb players from their particular goals.”

And he argues that GTA’s NPC interactions are role-play consistent “because both the game’s main character and the setting can afford this: you control a violent protagonist in a violent world; there is no need for negotiation. Car crashes, baseball bats and flamethrowers are the tools for “communicating” in this world. You never regret not being able to talk to NPCs simply because they are not worth talking with: it’s much better to kill them. In contrast, compare this to what happens in narrative, a detective character cannot survive without talking, asking questions, making inquiries. Action heroes can certainly get away without all the chitchat…This is GTA3’s second major design accomplishment: creating both a main character and a world that allows the game to live practically without any form of verbal communication. Shenmue’s NPCs’ discourses are so limited that they keep breaking the immersion: players are continually reminded that they are dealing with a bot.  GTA3’s lack of talking puppets allows players to focus on the action. Of course, this dehumanizes and objectifies NPC characters”

If you can’t tell by the colossal block quotes, I really like this article and highly recommend it. In my opinion, this is the kind of writing that takes actual gameplay experience, theoretical concepts, player psychology, and technical game design into account. It combines the insight of multiple disciplines and makes informed claims about specific games (in this case GTA3 and Shenmue) and hypothetical claims about games in general. Whether these claims are truthful is up to debate, but they’re well thought out, provocative, and worth talking about.

Sim Sin City: some thoughts about Grand Theft Auto 3


by Gonzalo Frasca

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Conceptualizing Play and Game: Hardcore

I’ve actually discussed the intricacies of defining play and game before, most notably in my post on the magic circle, but I came across and article that really tries to flesh out “the logico-formalistic configurations that as such act as indispensable vehicles for play and game activities.” you might be asking yourself, “what does that mean?” I’m not sure either, but I think it’s something along the lines of finding the essence of play and game, which in turn will help us better understand gameplay.

This would be a good time to say that the article I’m reviewing was not an easy read, but it was compelling. As I read through it, I kept trying to criticize the obscurity of the concepts and the way they were presented, interrogating each claim in hopes of unraveling it and declaring it marginally useful, exclusionary writing, but these ideas also sparked my curiosity and at times almost seemed intuitive in spite of my difficulty reading it. As usual, a second read-through was much smoother, and now I can give you a watered-down, flavored version of it (like drinking a margarita instead of hard liquor).

So the article starts off with an overview of the multiple and debatable definition(s) of play, which I’ve also discussed before, so I’ll just give you this vague list of bullet points that was originally provided by the author of the article, and I’ll add my own interpretation in parantheses.

  • Play and games are anchored in spatial and temporal settings, though, as we shall see, they do not operate on the same level of complexity. (translation: play sessions have a duration and an area; these can be small, sporadic, and can intermingle with non-play, which means the “real” world.)
  • Play and games are embedded within the realm of cultural dynamics, and perhaps they are even older than culture itself. (translation: play is not only a part of culture, it might be the originator of culture, which means that cultural and ritual events are simply a more serious form of play).
  • Play and games rely on flow-forms that both balance and optimize experience. (translation: to play, one must separate and maintain a mindset that is different from non-play. When this happens without any breaks or interruptions by the “real” world, it is a flow experience. Interruptions can happen, but as long as the mindset can “balance and optimize,” then the flow is not broken).
  • Play and games necessitate a certain mood, and hereby they seem to insist on complementary modes of analysis. What is in a game, and how do we get there? (translation: I think this refers to how fluid and hard to define play can be. Play consists of moods, actions, mental distinctions, and this makes this complicates any attempt too determine the answe to the questions presented above).
  • Play and games are meta-communicative acts that frame patterns of behavior in time. (translation: you tell me. This one I’m not really sure about, but I think it means that play is self-generating and self-motivating. Play is about itself and defines itself by not being non-play ( I know it sounds like nonsense). Play is not an action itself, but a framing of actions: actions done under a certain mindset: a mindset that differentiates itself from non-play).  Feel free to vomit, but it kind of makes sense after some contemplation.

That’s what the first section is about. The second section focuses on differentiating play and game. In a reductive nut-shell, play is a distinction between itself and non-play, and the player is threatened by losing the distinction and falling back to reality, and this occurs whenever balance and optimization can’t account for the interference of non-play, and non-play becomes prominent in the player’s mind. Game adds a layer of complexity to play in that it imposes “a rigid pattern of dynamics onto it.” Basically, it brings order to play through the establishment of rules, values, and goals. Play is considered a second order complexity because of its distinction with non-play, and game is a third-order complexity because it is an order that is imposed on play.

As a side note, the author also provides this awesome definition of play: “play seems to focus on investigations of semantics, since the task is, not only to measure its space, but furthermore to elaborate upon its modes of interpretation and means for re-interpretation. Not only do we explore a world while playing. We are also driven by its potential meaning and the stories we can invent in that respect. Play spaces tend to expand, either in structural complexity or in physical extent. This expansion is further reflected in the praxis of play, for instance when players argue over the exact thresholds of a play domain. Again, this must be understood in a double sense, meaning both the physical closure and the mental activities attached to it.” I like this definition because it accounts for types of play that don’t rely on space at all and only expand in terms of mental activities involved.

Anyway, if we understand game as a formalized system of rules and discrete sequential operations that are grounded in the space of play, then we can better understand gameplay (or can we?) Basically, gameplay is the simultaneous maintaining of play mood, mentality, and action while interacting and interrogating the structures, organization, and rules of the game.

Believe it or not, the article is far denser than the account I just gave, and that brings me to an issue that faces all academic disciplines: the use of alienating and exclusionary language. Granted, the topic of this article is notoriously difficult to discuss, but I can’t help feeling as if there’s a better way. I mean, even I made it clearer (although I might have butchered it in the process), and I assume that the author of this article could have done a better job at making the content more accessible.

Another issue that nags me in spite of my actively trying to dismiss it is that this all seems kind of useless. Granted, we should have some better definitions for play, game, and gameplay, and this article certainly attempts to do just that, but I know it’s going to be hard to utilize these distinctions whenever I’m actually analyzing a game/play/w.e, and even if I do make the distinctions, I can’t imagine they’ll lead to any particularly interesting insight. This stuff is really fun to discuss, but I think it becomes a game itself; this discussion feels like a game in which the goal is to put words together in a way that best captures a set of abstract concepts and their relations ( I just described language, pretty much). Is there a goal? yes, we ultimately want to better understand what we’re talking about, but have we achieved that goal? yes and no. Can we take this newfound “understanding” and do something productive with it? I don’t think so, but hey, at least we had fun, or maybe we can do something with this, and I’m just being cynical because I just got done with finals and my brain is fried.

It should be noted that this is a common critique of a large share of philosophical work, so maybe I’m just being whiny because I had a hard time reading it.

I really do have mixed feelings about this article, so I think I’ll end with a few questions. If we take familiar, intuitive, and trans-cultural concepts such as play and game, and we map them out in a fiasco of SAT words and enigmatic sentence structures, how much have we achieved? Is it the case that difficult concepts require difficult language in order to be discussed? Am I just too stupid for this?

See for yourself, reader.

Playing and Gaming

Reflections and Classifications [1]


by Bo Kampmann Walther

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Mass Effect: A simultaneously sexist/feminist text

There are a number of sexist tendencies in the Mass Effect series, most of which revolve around the way the Asari are represented and the role they play in the galaxy. Whether these are intentionally sexist or simple over-sights is anyone’s guess. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Bioware sexist, but when you consider the Asari life cycle (Maiden/ Mother/ Matriarch), it seems too blatant to ignore. Perhaps they were trying to be ironic? IDK.

However, good articles that critique the Mass Effect series in this respect have already been written (links at the bottom). Although I agree with many of the points these articles make, I also recognize that there are some strong, female representations and instances that undermine patriarchal ideology and binary oppositions in these games. Whether or not these were intentional is still anyone’s guess, but I’m just going to call it as I see it.

Biotics/ Mysticism: A few articles suggest that the fact that the Asari (an all-female race) have a great affinity for biotic prowess can be construed as sexist. It reinforces the idea that females are more in-tune with the illogical, supernatural realm of mysticism and magic, a realm that defies reason and logic (traditionally masculine fields). But there are many feminist thinkers that appropriate this idea of feminine mystique (Irigaray and Cixous). I don’t necessarily agree with this view, but an appropriation of the illogical, mystical realm can undermine traditional patriarchal values. It allows for the value of a different kind of knowledge and wisdom, a different perspective on existence.

As far as the Asari go, their perspective on existence differs greatly from from that of the other races. In their own words, they take the long view, they embrace eternity. This is a very telling choice of words. An embracing of eternity directly contrasts the definitive, finite realm of logic and reason. Yes, we understand the concept of eternity, but only as an abstraction as opposed to “true” understanding. There’s no way to know whether or not the Asari actually understand eternity, but they are certainly presented as a race that is more in-tune with a different perspective on existence, and I’m not just referring to their biotic abilities now; I’m also referring to their mind-meld method of reproduction and their extensive life expectancy. The mind-melds blur the sense of identity between the individuals participating in them. Moreover, the mind-melds are directly linked with the Asari’s sexuality, and their sexuality strongly influences their ability to think outside of the terms of finality, logic, identity, and reason, and this undermines traditionally patriarchal values. Their sexuality also undermines heteronormativity because the Asari can reproduce with any gender from any species. In this sense, the Asari can be understood as a positive, feminist representation.

It is also worth noting that these species of mystics were the first ones to discover the citadel, and they are revered throughout the galaxy; it’s really is unfortunate that, because they embody stereotypical notions of beauty and are so keen on mating with other species, they also play the role of the galaxy’s girlfriends. Clearly, not a representation a feminist would condone, but I’m supposed to be writing about how Mass Effect can be understood as a feminist text, so I’ll discuss the strongest feminist representation in the game…

Aria T’Loak, in my opinion, is the strongest feminist representation in the game because she runs Omega: A haven that operates outside of galactic law and is essentially a society of the marginalized. (marginalized groups are those that are oppressed or unaccounted for by a dominant culture. Members of these groups are considered “other,” as opposed to same.) In this realm of the other, Aria’s rule is unquestionable, and this has little to do with her gender or her race. Quite simply, as an individual, she has come to find strength in this epicenter of marginalization. This type of feminist representation, one that does not emphasize the difference in sex and gender, but rather emphasizes marginality as a point of departure, is the most effective, in my opinion, because it brings attention to the constructedness of gender roles and expectations. 

There is one instance during which Aria seems to be intentionally presented as a symbol for opposition against patriarchal figures, and that’s during the side-quest called “the patriarch.” This is another one of those cases that make me wonder whether Bioware is aware of the charged messages they’re creating. During this quest, the fact that Aria was a marginalized subject who overcame masculine oppression becomes too blatant to ignore. For those that haven’t played this quest, the player is sent to protect Aria’s old arch-nemesis, whom she calls the patriarch. I won’t explain the entire quest, but once again, the word choice is what really drives me to make such conclusions.

Interestingly enough, the game presents an equally strong, but clearly distinct representation of feminine strength with the introduction of Samara the Justicar. While Aria finds strength in marginality and operates outside of traditional laws and codes, Samara embodies the very definition of the law, of distinct notions between right and wrong, good and evil. However, because the Asari are an all-female race, one could argue that this representation makes the claim that the realms of logic, reason, and law can be usefully appropriated by females; it claims that males do not have exclusive rights to these modes of conceptualization.

While I understand that both representations can be construed as sexist, my goal was to show that they can also be seen as positive figures. It seems that issues of gender and sex can always be problematic, which is precisely why we should discuss them at length, even if clear-cut answers aren’t attainable. Other examples I would like to discuss, and maybe I’ll have the time to do so in the future, are Jack and Morinth (Samara’s daughter).

***I didn’t know where to squeeze this in, but one of the bars in Mass Effect 1 is called “Chora’s den.” This is significant because the concept of the “chora” is a central part of Julia Kristeva’s writing. Julia Kristeva works with issues of marginality and feminism. (could be a coincidence though).

If you want to read an excellent feminist critique of Mass Effect, here you go.

I still want to talk about these topics, but probably wont. Can one of you guys do it? : Ethical Dilemmas, Questions of Identity, God and Faith, Space and Place: the settings of ME2, Music and Mood.

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