I’ve decided that, in addition to the regular posts focused on morality, I would also post shorter weekly reading responses, in which I quickly summarize a few comments or thoughts I might have on this week’s readings and games and try to link them to the subject of this blog.
Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Beaudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming,” Games and Culture (2007)
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 1, 2, and 3)
Lindley, Craig A. “The Semiotics of Time Structure in Ludic Space As a Foundation for Analysis and Design,” Game Studies 5:1 (2005)
First, as for connections between the readings and the theme of my blog, I’d like to call attention to the Lindley reading. In discussing the narrative layer of ludic structures, Lindley mentions that “A strong sense of dramatic characterization requires ongoing character development at the interactive focus of play” and later states that “Choosing to play the game with [a] focus on characterization and identity is to follow classical dramatic paths of character development. In this case repetitive combat-oriented play becomes a secondary consideration after identity formation…An ongoing challenge for computer game design is to achieve a strong sense of dramatic play as a game character using games moves that do not rely so heavily upon text”.
I highlight these two sections because I think that the issues that Lindley mentions have helped to lead to the classic “morality system”, especially the type of system in which moral decisions are a) quantified and b) shown to the player. By using a morality system that the player can see, the player can see the character develop (become more good or more evil) as a direct result of his or her actions. It also provides a greater sense of gameplay and narrative integration to have the character’s development be a direct result of me, the player, saving/killing a little girl, as opposed to it being something that happens to the character outside of gameplay (such as in a cutscene, for example). It also avoids needing a lot of text to get the message across since a player can immediately gauge how good/evil the character is becoming by checking a scale or even the character’s physical appearance.
As for other comments, I found myself thinking the most about Critical Play’s first three chapters (“Introduction to Critical Play,” “Playing House,” and “Board Games”). I’ll probably dedicate another post to just critical play and activist games, but there were a few comments I wanted to make about “Playing House”—specifically, the subject of the gendering of domesticity and the household space in video games.
First of all, “As many scholars have argued, domestic spaces continue to be associated with the feminine in television, film, and other media” (54). However, video games are very much a masculinized medium, and I think this actually creates a situation similar to the change in doll production mentioned in the book:
“once doll making entered the phase of mass production, it became a male-dominated business…dolls soon emerged as products of clockmakers and machinists…Locomotion was a special source of fascination…In parallel to an industrial revolution that brought mechanical gadgets to the center of everyday life and promoted the idea that pleasure could be derived from mechanical devices, the culture of technology collided with more traditional forms of doll making” (37).
Something similar might be happening with the domestic space in video games, in which a traditionally feminized space is masculinized to appeal to a largely male audience, such as in the game Dwarf Fortress. The game is basically about managing dwarves as they get drunk, wage war on goblins, take on manly jobs like being in the military, farming, mining, weapon crafting, hunting, and occasionally fighting off the local fauna (ranging from carp to demons to elephants). It’s also a game where you design a fortress from the bottom up (or rather, top down—these are dwarves), furnish it with the prettiest furniture you can create, and decorate it all with gold and precious gems. Also, while having less direct control over your dwarves than sims, players are still in charge of keeping the dwarges happy and healthy. At the same time, the game focuses a great deal on creating mechanical creations such as drawbridges, intricate traps, and lava moats.
Lastly, two quibbles with the Critical Play text:
I question how “subversive” the killing of sims actually is, since the game designs those opportunities and the amusing death scenes, meaning that the player is just doing one of the many things the game wants you to do.
I also argue against the assumption that the “wide appeal” of games like The Sims is because “Rarely if ever do players feel disempowered in domestic game scenarios” (56). Players rarely if ever feel disempowered in any scenario in any video game. The only genre I can think of where that’s even attempted is the horror genre. I think it would be more accurate (though perhaps still not accurate) to say that the empowerment is what appealed to an unusually high number of women. After all, video games provide plenty of male empowerment fantasies played out by male avatars in almost exclusively male environments and meant to appeal to a male audience, but, especially at the time when The Sims was first published, exactly how many video games were there that involved a female avatar in a female environment acting out female empowerment fantasies in order to appeal to a female audience?
I was also interested in how some of the issues raised in the “Playing House” chapter might relate to the haunted house genre in video games (“The house has shifted from being a place of comfort to a site for defense” (53) and its relation to the uncanny) and the “escape the room” genre, which often takes place, unsurprisingly, in a house, but this post was only meant to be a few hundred words long, not 1000, so let’s wrap up here.