Reading Response: Critical Play II

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 4, 5, and 6 )

Of the three chapters, (“Language Games,” “Performative Games and Objects,” and “Artists’ Locative Games”), the one I found myself thinking about the most was “Artists’ Locative Games”. More specifically, I was interested by her comments on the issue of the objectification of “non-players” in these games as well as the commodification of the city.

I think Flanagan raises a very important point when she states that certain locative games have an unfortunate consequence when “most participants are not players; the NPCs are unaware that there is a game going on, and unwillingly commodified by the players” (206). In essence, these types of games turn anyone who isn’t playing the game into game pieces. For instance, one of the examples of locative games, Cruel 2 B Kind, is an attempt to spread “random acts of violence” by using good deeds as weapons to “kill” opposing players. However, while the actions performed by players to accomplish their goals might be different (compliments instead of stabbings), and while the intentions of the game’s creatores are also obviously quite well-intentioned, in practice the game turns the people who aren’t “in the know” into objects to be used, objects with as much agency within the game as the computer NPCs in a round of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which is a quite problematic attitude to encourage in the players.

In addition to how these games treat non-players, another important point that Flanagan brought up was how these games treat the urban environment, and I think this treatment has important ramifications for video games as well. Flanagan states that “the type of space these games typically produce rely on an abstracted, loose relationship to the location in which they are played, thereby commodifying the urban landscape” (199) and that “major urban centers have become spectacles of tourism and entertainment, and that these spectacles no longer serve residents, but have become tourist destinations in their own right” (200), which brings up an important cautionary point about these kinds of games. Now, for video games, I think a similar sentiment applies, and that this view of “the city as a game board” (204) by the creator and player is even heightened. Many games, especially urban sandbox games, will model their setting after a real city, to greater or lesser extents. However, in video games, the city is not merely transformed into a game space, but actually only exists as one, with the player as the ultimate, empowered tourist for whom the city exists. I don’t mean this as necessarily a criticism of these types of video games though; they might actually be more honest than similar locative games in that the video game presents a simulation of the city while the locative game presents a simulacrum.

Reading Response Round Up: Bonus Round

Arsenault, Dominic and Bernard Perron. “In the Frame of the Magic Cycle.”

I forgot about chapter 6 of The Video Game Theory Reader 2, not that I have all that much to say about it. I rather liked the “magic cycle” with its layered approach as a particular model for understanding video games games . However, I have to question the third layer, the “hermeneutic circle”, mostly for what seems like a separation of “comprehension” and “interpretation” (117) that I don’t agree necessarily exists. Is it possible to comprehend something without first interpreting it?

Also, and this issue I have is not specific to the text but an issue with a general trend I’ve seen in many places: I strongly disagree with this dichotomy between narrative and gameplay, as if they never interact or overlap (although at least Arsenault and Perron don’t establish them as directly conflicting with each other). I consider this idea to be one that creates numerous problems in games, and while not limited to morality, these problems that can certainly occur when games do try to use morality as an aspect of the narrative or gameplay. For instance, a game’s narrative might establish a certain moral stance for the character that the player is then free to undermine, and I think one of the reasons these situations occur is because gameplay and narrative are so frequently treated as completely different aspects of a video game that the ways in which they can affect each other is overlooked.


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