Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
I confess to having a love-hate relationship with Assassin’s Creed. Every game in the series is beautiful. The stunning landscapes, architectural and historical detail, acrobatic player-character and smooth (for the most part) gameplay are incredibly satisfying. Certainly there were many critiques of the repetitiveness of the first game. The modern-day component of the story and Matrix-esque Animus which acts as the deus ex machina to help explain why, as Desmond’s ancestor, the player can access databases full of historical information is arguably a bit cheesy (though no more so than most game narratives).
What have gardens, graveyards, brothels and videogames in common? What might sound like the beginning of a joke for one, is in fact the introduction of a theoretical approach towards videogames which uses a concept popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault: the heterotopia. Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia originated in the 1960s and was – besides a short paragraph in Les Mots et les choses and an article in Architecture, Movement only explored further in a radio report for France Culture on December 7th 1966. Nevertheless it was used extensively by academics in the fields of film, literature and culture studies and there were also some ideas to make it fruitful for Game Studies, for examples look at Keith Challis’ Games as Heterotopias or at Gamereader.net. But I want to start with the basics and show, at least in sections, that the concept of Heterotopia is related with Johan Huizinga’s notion of play.
Many commentators and reporters have ascribed the downfall of BioShock’s Rapture – the Adam addicts, the horrifying cruelty and the shocking race towards self destruction – to the game’s desire to satirise the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. GameSpy summed it up entirely when, in a preview, Li Kuo said “To fully appreciate the storyline of BioShock, you may want to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.” Despite this quick conclusion few, if any, reporters or columnists give any serious thought as to exactly how Rapture falls. The answer, as often as not, boils down to some synonym of greed, selfishness or avarice (Khalil “BioShock Ayn Rand”). Rapture is a place of “philosophies, ideologies, and excess” as described by Aaron Linde of Destructiod with a “relentless desire for more” (Reed “BioShock”).
GamerGate will be remembered for its breathtaking scope; it drew together hitherto dissociated monads of angry, resentful elements in gaming— once content with shouting from the pestilent valleys of comment sections and tweets by themselves—and made of them a movement with a battle-standard. From the beginning it was a concatenation of ironies. They declaimed unethical games journalism with the aid of an unethical journalist; they claimed women and minorities were #notyourshield while using them as a shield against criticism of GamerGate; they excoriated “blacklists” while creating aggressively enforced boycott lists of websites and authors who disagreed with them; they averred their movement had nothing to do with Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn even as they remained unable to stop talking about them; they promoted a vague notion of “inclusion” while expending great energy claiming that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with gamer culture’s treatment of women
Anna Anthropy’s 2012 Rise of the Videogame Zinesters made a compelling argument that games shouldn’t be the preserve of a select few: as a mass medium anybody should be able to create a game – and games would be better for it. Her focus was broad – attesting to the variety of games that could be made – and her material tailored to those left cold by academic discourse. Her newer work, A Game Design Vocabulary written in collaboration with Naomi Clark, retains Anthropy’s proclivity for drawing on a diversity of games as examples, but this time around, Anthropy deploys these case studies to help us comprehend the crunchy problems of game design. Here, Anthropy and Clark address players, students, professionals and academics, seeking to start a conversation about the terminology we use in our criticism; they even propose their own analytical framework to get the ball rolling.
While game studies has had plenty to say about roleplaying games (RPGs), and particularly about Massively Multiplayer RPGs, less attention has been paid to roleplay as a play style, whereby winning the game becomes secondary to fleshing out and performing as a coherent character. When the practice has been discussed scholars have tended to focus on roleplay as a communal activity undertaken within MMORPGs, many of which have dedicated ‘roleplay servers’ (e.g. Paul and Pitmann). As more and more gamers begin recording and streaming gameplay via sites like YouTube and Twitch.tv, however, other forms of roleplay and modes of engaging with roleplay culture are emerging. In this essay I want to look at Youtube videos made by roleplayers of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011). An offline singleplayer RPG, Skyrim has nevertheless attracted a sizeable roleplaying community on YouTube, from comparative veterans like the UK-based SorcererDave – whose hundreds of videos have attracted over 25,000 subscribers – to newcomers whose output might garner no more than a handful of views. From a scholarly perspective their recordings represent a fascinating, ever-expanding corpus that, beyond its virtue as an archive of gameplay, serves to document the emergence of new, hybrid forms of expression, entertainment and play. In this case a single-player game is repurposed as a platform for self-representation, debate and emergent storytelling as roleplay shifts from an evanescent activity undertaken by particular (groups of) players to a mode of individual improvisational performance recorded and offered to a non-playing audience.
You may have caught a piece we ran last week that discussed GamerGate broadly as a movement. This commentary is Part 2 of that piece and examines the divisions between people who play games from a more personal perspective. In this part, I illustrate my experiences as a member of the Games Institutes Janes (GI Janes) here at Uwaterloo as fodder. Furthermore, this piece also discusses the new direction we are taking the Commentaries here at FPS.