Why Does It Matter That Game Designers Are Evil?

A little while ago, I took a trip to the city of Bath. Having taken the train up from London, we tooled around the city for a day or so and then decided to spend the following day visiting the nearby countryside. In order to access this countryside, we needed to rent a car and so we walked to the outskirts of Bath in order to pick up our rental. We usually rent a car when we go to visit my girlfriend’s family and so we were well acquainted by the buffer zone of form-filling and scratch-detailing that exists between us showing up to get a car and our driving off the lot with said car. However, we usually rent from quite a small rental company and this was our first experience with a major multinational rental agency and the experience could not have been more different: Potential upgrades were not just mentioned in passing, they were argued for using quite aggressive and manipulative language:

  • What if we were heading back late and needed to drive faster to make the drop-off? If we got a faster car we could save ourselves money in the long run.
  • What if someone broke into our car and stole our stuff? If we upgraded the insurance to cover everything in the car, we could stop some crook from ruining our holiday.
  • What if someone stole the petrol in our tank? If we insured that then we could save the money required to re-fill the tank and call out a tow-truck. Petrol is really expensive these days.

The list went on and on. Obviously working from a script, the woman behind the counter probed and prodded our every fear and concern in a desperate effort to extract more money from us than the price advertised on the company’s website. Sensing my growing irritation, my girlfriend suggested I put our stuff in the car while she sort out the paperwork but I find myself reliving that sense of irritation in more and more aspects of my day to day life. Under pressure from investors, companies are trying to wring more and more money from their existing business models. Customers are not just being squeezed, they are being squeezed in ways designed by people with a profound understanding of human psychology. Nowhere is this understanding of human psychology more evident than in the marketplace for popular culture.


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BG42 – Infamous 2: Mindless Fun and the Basis for Aesthetic Judgement

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

This column is probably best seen as an exercise in consolidation as it tries to tie together some of my more recent critical obsessions.  I begin with not one but two reviews of the recent sandbox game Infamous 2 (2011).  One review praises the game’s thoughtfulness and its addictive qualities while the other uses that addictiveness as the basis for an accusation that the game is manipulative and dishonest.  My drilling down into the question of whether ‘manipulation’ and ‘addictiveness’ are necessarily bad things, I am trying to make sense both of the process of aesthetic judgement (i.e. how we decide what we like and what we hate) and the way in which our culture praises some forms of emotional manipulation whilst demonising others.  I’m not sure that I reach any firm conclusions and the column does revisit some ground I have already tended but it may well be of interest to the people who were horrified by my recent defence of Michael Bay:

Works that ground their appeal in quirks of human neural architecture challenge the view that humans are self-contained and perfectly rational beings. By playing on deep-seated fears and weird cognitive biases, these works cast doubts upon all of our thoughts and feelings. After all, if Michael Bay can manipulate our brains into caring about fictional giant robots, what does this say about the people we really do care about? Is love nothing but a squirt of chemicals? Is religious transcendence but an electrical fluke? The true crime of mindless fun is not that it is stupid or that it is politically reactionary, but that it reminds us that we are nothing more than an arrangement of neural circuits and chemical ejaculations that happen to produce this thing we call consciousness.

It seems to me that, a lot of the time, aesthetic judgements are nothing more than elaborate displays of identification.  When we proclaim our love for such-and-such an author and such-and-such a work we are not just expressing our opinions, we are also trying to identify ourselves with the values and social symbols that surround that particular author or work. “I love Glee!” also means “I wish to be seen and judged as a person who likes Glee!”

BG 41 – Last Tuesday: How to Make an Art House Video Game

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries Column.

The column arose from the fact that, instead of playing a new game like a good columnist, I instead devoted all of my video game time over the last month to replaying Oblivion and Europa Universalis III. By the way, Oblivion is so much more fun if you play it as a warrior instead of a sneaky bloke with a bow. As the deadline loomed, I realised that I had better start looking around for a slightly shorter game to play and I stumbled across Jake Elliott’s indie game Last Tuesday, which can be downloaded for free HERE. Elliott’s game so closely adhered to the template of art house cinema that the column pretty much wrote itself:

Many of the earliest writings on film are psychological in nature because filmmakers were desperate to understand how it was that the human brain took a series of stills photographs and constructed it into not just a moving image but also an entire narrative. Indeed, it is said that when the Lumiere brothers first showed moving images of an approaching train to Parisian audiences, members of the audience fled in panic because they had not yet learned to distinguish between a large moving image of an oncoming train and an actual oncoming train. In order to ‘make sense’ of what it was they were seeing, audiences had to acquire the correct interpretative strategy.  A hundred years later and art house audiences are expected to be able to draw not only on the skills required to make sense of moving images but also upon a veritable arsenal of interpretative techniques used to shed light on narratives filled with the sorts of intentional ambiguities, inconsistencies and plot holes that would be decried as incompetence were it not for the fact that they were evidence of genius.

While I’m particularly proud of how my analysis of the art-house sensibility turned out, I’m also quite happy with my analysis of Elliott’s game. Go play it!

BG 40 – Pixel-Bitching: L.A. Noire and the Art of Conversation

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column is about the various attempts by game-designers to emulate the cut and thrust of human social interaction.  I begin by taking and in-depth look at L.A. Noire‘s attempts to climb out of the uncanny valley before widening the aperture a touch and taking a look at some of the theoretical challenges that need to be overcome before games become capable of modelling conversation as well as they model shooting people in the face and slicing them up with great big swords:

Phelps’ capacity to be inhuman to his fellow man helps him to understand his fellow humans better… thereby raising the possibility that Phelps is in fact a sort of autistic Colonel Kurtz whose willingness to commit acts of terrible violence is a form of spiritual strength. The road to Nirvana is easy to walk when you are wearing jack-boots.

However, in the interest of full disclosure I do feel obliged to make clear the fact that I did not come up with the term ‘pixel-bitching’ all by myself. The term used to be bandied about on the RPGnet forums as a means of referring to a mode of adventure design whereby games masters will not allow the game to progress until the players have uncovered a single specific (and usually well-hidden) clue.  I’ve also heard the phenomenon referred to as a ‘plot bottleneck’ but I think that term fails to capture how irritating it can be to find yourself hunting for a single pixel in a digital landscape.

BG 39 – Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story: High School, Privacy and Blended Identity

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

This month’s column is about Christina Love’s latest indie game Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, which can be downloaded for free on a variety of platforms.

Set in a weirdly Japan-ised American Highschool in 2027, the game explores issues of identity and social media.  As I suggest in the column, the game is best played as a companion piece to Love’s previous game, the equally excellent Digital: A Love Story, which I wrote about a little while ago. Together, the two games tackle the process of putting oneself online and interacting with other online souls from quite starkly diffing perspectives.

PS: In the article, I mention a paper by Andrea Baker called “Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans”, it can be downloaded (for free) HERE.

BG 38 – Sucker Punch: Video Games and The Future of the Blockbuster

Futurismic have my 38th Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column is one part review of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch to one part examination of the nature of blockbusters to one part analysis of trends in popular culture and the way in which video games are coming to replace super heroes as the blockbuster genre medium of choice (hence the length):

Sucker Punch mirrors the growing intertextuality of the video game experience by having Baby Doll shift seamlessly between the reality of the game, the reality of the brothel and the reality of the insane asylum. However, what makes Sucker Punch such an interesting film is not the fact that it displays an impressively detailed understanding of video game aesthetics, but rather the way in which it uses these images and techniques to attempt to create a cinematic effect.

BG 37 – The American Dream is SPENT

Futurismic have my thirty seventh Blasphemous Geometries column.

Entitled “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”, the column looks at two different browser-based business simulation games and shows how, despite both operating on the assumption that capitalism is a functional rules-based system, the games use their different depictions of that system to produce withering critiques of contemporary capitalism.