In the second installment in our feature interview series, we chat with game critic, author, and PhD student Brendan Keogh. We cover a wide range of topics, from Aniwey’s Candy Box, to Spec Ops: The Line and the future of Game Studies. We reached Brendan via Skype last Thursday [May 9th, 2013].
Jason Hawreliak: Hey everyone, this is the second installment in First Person Scholar’s interview series. I’m Jason Hawreliak, an editor for FPS, and I’m very pleased to have Brendan Keogh joining me today.
Brendan Keogh: Hi.
JH: I’ll just give a little introduction for anyone not familiar with Brendan’s work. He’s a PhD student at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, as well as a prolific writer. He’s written for a bunch of outlets, including Unwinnable, Gamasutra and Ars Technica. He’s also the author of the book KILLING IS HARMLESS, a long form critique of the 2012 Third Person Shooter, Spec Ops: The Line. And he runs a fantastic blog, Critical Damage, at critdamage.blogspot.ca
Brendan, thanks so much for being with us today, how are you?
BK: I’m good, thanks for having me.
JH: I want to get to some “deeper” topics in just a second, but I really wanted to ask you first about this Candy Box game which everyone seems to have been playing lately. I tried explaining its appeal to a friend, but had a tough time doing so. On paper, you wouldn’t think it would work, but of course it does. Any thoughts on why it’s such a compelling game? What do you think a game like Candy Box does right?
BK: It’s really interesting, I’ve got it open in my other screen right now. It’s a really great game. It’s not even ironically good; it’s just really good. What does it do? I guess the most interesting thing about it is its sense of discovery. When it starts it’s just this little parody joke—Oh look it’s a grinding mechanism; you’re playing a joke of a social game. It’s like cow clicker or something. And then you just go into another tab and there’s this ascii guy, and you’re like, who are you?
And then this whole economy and RPG system opens up and it’s amazing because you didn’t expect it to be there. It’s kind of like Minecraft: you just want to know what’s over the next hill, you just keep walking. So more than any other system, you just want to know what’s down this rabbit hole.
And as Leigh Alexander said in her piece on Gamasutra, it kind of does social gaming without trying to be a social game. Everyone just wanted to understand it so everyone on twitter is talking to everyone, and someone might just start the game and be like, “I have these lollipops,” and then they look at twitter and someone else is fighting a dragon. So then they’re like, “There’s a dragon in this game?” So it just sucks everyone in by trying to see what everyone else is doing.
The other thing that’s interesting about it for me is the economy about it. So you start to see candies going up automatically–you just get one candy every second–so candies are disposable because you just wait and they just keep going up, so you have an unlimited amount.
And lollipops are expensive–it’s like 60 candies for one lollipop–and you need lollipops to do things and then man, lollipops are really valuable and then you plant all these lollipops on your farm—this sounds really silly out loud—you plant a lot of lollipops and your lollipop production rate is like 100 per second.
And then all of a sudden you have like a gazillion lollipops and nothing to do with them. And so suddenly candies are super valuable, because you’re not getting them as fast as you’re getting lollipops. So the economy just swaps around while you’re playing. It’s just a super fascinating game.
JH: Yeah it really is. It’s interesting that like you said, there was no real marketing behind it, I don’t think. It just kind of spread by word of mouth.
BK: Yeah I‘m pretty sure, from what I hear, that it’s been around for a while, and then all of a sudden it just kind of snowballed because I think Brandon Boyer or someone was talking about it on twitter, and then everybody–it just exploded.
JH: Yeah, it really did. On to Killing is Harmless, you write that one of the strengths of Spec Ops: The Line is that it attempts to complicate the standard hero/villain dichotomy, in which American soldiers are depicted as righteous heroes, and Arabs or Eastern Europeans are dehumanized, evil Others.
But at the end of the day, this complication is, I think, primarily achieved through narratological means and cutscenes; in terms of gameplay we still end up shooting hundreds of bad guys in the face. You’re still placed into kill or be killed scenarios. How can we get away from this form of ludo-narrative dissonance? How can we use game mechanics themselves to complicate rhetorics of heroism and villainy?
BK: That’s a good question. I think The Line uses more than just cutscenes that do that. I think what’s interesting about The Line, and I actually just wrote a paper about this, is its conventional subversion of the military shooter. I think there’s something really interesting about the way that it makes you do what you normally do in a shooter.
So the mechanics are very much straightforward and generic conventional: you take cover, you shoot things, you move forward and you shoot things. But the context of those mechanics changes over the course of the game, through audiovisual strategies and cutscenes and things like that, but by changing the audiovisual, narrative representative context of the mechanics, it makes the player rethink how they’re interacting with those mechanics.
So at the start, it is very much “good American guy” versus “bad Arabic guys,” and then because you’re still doing these exact same actions [i.e. killing], by the end of the game, you’re like, Walker’s kind of terrible… he’s not a good guy. But I’m doing the exact same thing as I was at the start of the game. So what I’m doing, what I’ve always been doing, has always been problematic and I never noticed that.
So I think there’s something very interesting about the line mechanically, as well as narratively. It is ludo-narratively dissonant. As the game’s writer Walt Wiliams said at GDC this year, it embraces its own ludo-narrative dissonance. It kind of says this is messed up that we say this [violence] is ok. It’s very much an intentionally contradictory game like that.
So how do we get past that? It is very much a transitionary game. It’s not the answer to the problem it exposes. It’s not saying we deal with this by making every game about a messed up person; it’s saying we need to find a solution to this stupidly simple way that we represent conflict.
So I think the way forward is by acknowledging that you don’t have to kill 50000 people to have a powerful experience in a game. That you can just walk through a space, maybe kill one person, maybe every hour, and have that kill have far more gravity than 200 kills in the same hour.
You can just have more complex, real, I guess more human stories than these big, bombastic, “save the world from a nuclear holocaust” kind of stories. I guess that’s probably the solution, but I’m hesitant to say, “this is what games need to do,” because I’m not a developer. There’s all kinds of economic pressures that prevent people from even attempting to do that, unfortunately.
JH: Yeah, I don’t know if you played the old, original Ghost Recon games, but in those games, you’ll only kill maybe 40 bad guys over a whole mission, and that really just made each kill more meaningful and exhilarating. So maybe that’s something to keep in mind as well.
BK: Yeah that’s something interesting. I think stealth or strategy focused games mean that you have to spend much more time focusing on each kill for better or worse. So you have less kills, but that makes each kill feel maybe more powerful.
I was playing Tomb Raider recently, and I really liked it, but there was just way too much killing in it. Maybe if it embraced more aggressive stealth options there could have been a lot less killing, and maybe that would have worked. I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe just making games about things other than killing would be nice in the first place, but that’s not going to happen in the AAAs anytime soon.
JH: Well maybe just generally—maybe you don’t have to provide the answer—but do you think games can move beyond just questioning, and that games themselves can provide some answers? Do they have the capability to do that?
BK: I think they definitely can. I think they have the ability, if not to provide answers, then at least to provide statements, rather than just ask questions. And again it’s not something we’re really seeing AAA games do yet. A lot of studio games really want to take a kind of stand-offish approach to letting the player decide how they feel about this.
outside of the AAA scene you see plenty of smaller indie games and twine games which are making a very explicit statement, coming from a very specific point of view, and not letting the player decide how they feel about it, but telling the player, “This is what is happening in this game”. So we are starting to see games with a more confident voice, saying here is a statement not a question.
You see that in Bioshock Infinite with that choice you make right at the start of the game—you can throw the baseball at the inter-racial couple, or you can throw it at the guy telling you to throw it at the inter-racial couple—and it’s like standing back and asking the player, “Well how do you feel about racism?” instead of just saying, “Racism is bad,” and I think that really weakens the game, because it doesn’t commit to making a statement.
Though outside of the AAA scene you see plenty of smaller indie games and twine games which are making a very explicit statement, coming from a very specific point of view, and not letting the player decide how they feel about it, but telling the player, “This is what is happening in this game”. So we are starting to see games with a more confident voice, saying here is a statement not a question. But AAA games are still largely afraid to do that I think. Which is probably largely because they want to be as inoffensive to adolescent guys as possible, because that’s their main target.
JH: Absolutely. Back to The Line, The Line shares some thematic similarities—and you talk about this in the book–with both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. So how does The Line as a videogame explore these themes in a way that writing or film maybe can’t? What do videogames bring to the table that’s unique to the medium?
BK: That’s a good question. I think what the line does, and maybe Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now don’t necessarily do this, is show how this kind of othering of people happens in videogames, as opposed to how it happens in film. It shows the particular strategies that videogames and shooters employ to make us ok to be violent against people that don’t look like “us,” White Westerners.
So I think what it does is say, “What does this mean for videogames? What strategies are we deploying here?” Things like, making every enemy look the same or cover their faces, or making them Arabic instead of Western. And it does that by peeling back the layers sort of slowly, so that by the end of the game you’re shooting people who have faces that are scared of you and of the same ethnicity as Walker and as a lot of the players.
That’s probably the only thing I think it really does differently from those ones (HoD and AN), apart from maybe being for contemporary conflicts and for contemporary concerns, as opposed to concerns about the Vietnam war or concerns about turn of the century Africa and about colonialism. It’s very much, these are the concerns we have with how we’re interacting with the rest of the world in a post 9/11, kind of axis of evil time. I guess that’s not a particularly videogame thing, but I don’t think videogames have to be doing particularly video-gamey things all the time.
JH: Yeah I think that’s very true. On to the book itself, at FPS we’re really interested in your publishing model. For those who don’t know, Killing is Harmless was published in a bit of an unconventional way. If I understand the process correctly, you essentially wrote it, and then just put it out there to see if anyone would be interested. How was your experience publishing like this—what were the relative strengths and weaknesses?
BK: It was really interesting. I learned a lot really quickly–I’m still learning. I was just writing it, and I realized I wanted to write something about The Line after I played it, and what I ended up writing was really long. I thought about pitching it to some websites that I know allow you to have long features, but it didn’t really seem like… it wasn’t journalism in any way. So I couldn’t think of any sites that would actually take it, and give me more than a few hundred dollars for it as well, and that’s another concern. So I was just like, I might as well just make a pdf and throw it online.
Originally I was just going to quite literally just make a word document and convert it to pdf without really worrying about formatting or illustrations or design work. And I was speaking to a good friend and fellow videogame critic, Dan Golding, about it. He read it, well I asked him to read a copy of it, and asked him, “Is this ridiculous, what the hell have I written?” And he’s like, “No it’s ok” and he really convinced me that it’s kind of a first book about a game of this kind and that it was worth doing properly, and actually setting a kind of higher standard, doing an actual legitimate, proper e-book, not just a word document dumped into a pdf.
So I spoke to a good friend of ours Daniel Purvis who does illustrations for Hyper magazine and Kill Screen magazine, and he did all the design work and the illustration for the front cover. And he had also just started his own publishing company, called Stolen Projects, so we’re like, you have a publishing company, you need a publisher, let’s just get together and see if this works at all. So we did that. He did all the design stuff, I did all the writing, and we got some friends to do some quick edits–just to tell me what was terrible and what wasn’t–and then a lot of people bought it really quickly.
So the main advantage was that all the money sort of went straight to us. Economically, it was a very good thing to do. We didn’t have to give a publisher a whole heap of money. Every sale went directly to us. We didn’t lose money; we just gained money per sale.
The main disadvantage was just not having any editorial or outside eyes. Writers know this, but I don’t think non-writers really appreciate just how important editors are to tell a writer, “just get rid of this paragraph.” So there are paragraphs in there that an editor would have just put a line through and I would have gone “Of course, I should get rid of that.” So because I didn’t have an editor to do that, there’s paragraphs which really don’t need to be in there.
And also, the first version had a lot of typos, even though I had read it like 6 times and friends read over it, but unless it’s your job to get rid of typos, there are typos you’re going to miss. So the first version had a lot of typos, and a whole lot of people would very nicely email about every single typo they found and then we went through it, updated it, and released I guess version 2 of the book, and people could re-download that without typos. So the lack of editorial oversight was the real disadvantage of it, and being totally independent and getting all the money to us directly was the main advantage.
JH: I can imagine, no editors, that would be terrifying to put yourself out there like that.
BK: Yeah especially because when I was writing it, I was like, I have no idea what I’ve written; I’m not sure if it’s going to be interesting to anyone. I’ve just vomited all these words on to a page. So yeah, it was a very anxious few hours after we released it. We weren’t sure if anyone would actually want to read it.
JH: Well they certainly did; it’s fantastic. Just as a follow-up, it seems that a lot of the conversation these days in Game Studies is happening in these “alternative” discursive arenas, like blogs, gaming sites and Twitter. And so do you think, is maybe the conventional, academic publishing model not a good fit for Game Studies, especially considering the lag time between when you write something and when it finally reaches an audience?
BK: It’s interesting, until very recently—I’m just in the first year of my PhD, so I’m still a kind of beginner, maybe naïve kind of academic still–but at first I was very much thinking, all the interesting criticism is happening out there on blogs and alternate websites outside of the academy. But now I think that was perhaps a very naïve opinion, and I think there is a whole lot of interesting stuff still happening in the academy that really depends on that really rigorous, peer-reviewed model, and actually being aware of theories and ideas outside of just videogames.
The problem with the games blogosphere is that we can be very insular, and talk about games as only games, and never actually connect them to other media or other trends that are happening in film or literature or architecture, or whatever, that may closely mimic what we’re talking about here. So we end up just speaking amongst ourselves, and don’t really contextualize. So the academy’s definitely good for that.
Having just started doing academic journal articles and sending them off, knowing they’re not going to see the light of day for a year or 18 months is pretty hard to get used to after just throwing stuff online the last few years as a games journalist. But I don’t really know what the answer to academic publishing models is. I guess we need a balance of each, and to combine both.
In my academic writing I’ve done so far, I probably reference as many games blogs as I reference theorists and scholars, because when I’m talking about an actual game, be it Spec Ops or Angry Birds, the actual close critique, until recently, has all happened on the blogs. In Game Studies, people seem finally interested in talking through games, in ideas, talking about play habits, or technologies, and not about an actual game itself as a creative, maybe textual artifact, so I always have to go to the game blogs for that.
But I think that’s going to change in the coming years. I think there’s a lot of PhD students and postdoctoral students who are really interested in talking about a specific game, so I think that’s a trend that’s going to start happening in game studies.
JH: Absolutely. So moving away from Spec Ops and Killing is Harmless, there was a lot made of the mainstream gaming press’ praise and hype surrounding Bioshock Infinite, especially for its exploration of “serious” themes like racism. This is a bit of a broad question, but I wonder, what do you take from the fact that any hint of moral exploration [in games] receives such high praise? Does that say something about the state of the industry, or maybe about the state of the mainstream media outlets?
BK: All of the above, probably. It’s really interesting. I think Bioshock Infinite has really made me realize that us as games people are all talking together, but the responses to Bioshock Infinite have made me realize that we’re not all talking about the same things necessarily, or on the same level. And that’s not to say that any one level is any better than any other level, but I think, I look at Dan Golding’s piece on ABC arts where he just destroys aspects of Bioshock Infinite—“aesthetics of racism,” I think he calls it—like it just uses racism to appear smart and he just destroys it.
But then you have like Polygon which gave it a 10, Edge gave it a 9 and so I don’t understand how that happens. And I respect both of those outlets a lot, but I wonder, like how did that happen?
But it’s interesting. I remember playing the first Bioshock in 2007 or whatever when I was in my early 20s, and it seemed like a really smart game back then simply because I was playing a shooter, but I wasn’t killing Nazis or zombies. There were themes, or at least an allusion to themes that it maybe didn’t actually explore.
So I think back in 2007 maybe just back when you’re in your early 20s, just seeing themes just even nodded at in videogames seemed like a big deal. And I think the exact same has happened in Bioshock Infinite where it’s like “we’ll acknowledge racism exists, that’s so smart!” But its not. It just says, “Hey, racism!” and then the rest of the game is just incredibly racist.
So yeah, it’s just this different, totally different conversations talking across each other, where people who just want to play a shooter play it, and are happy to be playing a shooter where they’re doing something more interesting than shooting zombies. And maybe more critically minded people, I guess, we like to stress that that’s better [than usual], but you haven’t really done anything with these themes; you’ve just said, “Hey, racism” at the beginning of the game, and then forgotten about it. It just goes into something completely nonsensical, a sci-fi, Sliders meets Dr. Who meets Inception kind of nonsensical plot.
But yeah its really weird. I just think its really shown that there’s this real fracturing of audiences and writers about games, that we aren’t actually all talking to each other in the first place. So, I don’t know what the answer to that is; it’s really tricky. It kind of seems like Infinite has been a very revealing moment in time for the discourses around it.
JH: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. So recently on twitter, I think it was, I saw you express some dissatisfaction with the recent GTA game coming up, and specifically, there’s I think 3 playable characters and all of them are men. And that really seems to be the state of the games industry in a nutshell; there’s still clearly a big problem with a lack diversity.
But away from mainstream titles, there are a lot of great “independent” games which represent a more diverse range of experiences, and which explicitly address issues such as sexism, homophobia, transmisogyny, and oppression. Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia comes to mind; that’s a wonderful game. Do you think the industry is ready to follow suit with these indie games? Are you optimistic that it’s able to get out of its heteronormative conventions and become more diverse?
BK: I’m not confident that the AAA industry is going to stop being very heteronormative, very masculinist… I don’t think that’s going to change. I think that the best the AAA industry can do is acknowledge that these big AAA man-shooters maybe aren’t the place where interesting, challenging themes are going to be explored. If they just kind of embraced making genre fiction kind of games, like Max Payne 3, then that would make it more tolerable at least. You have these big blockbuster movies which aren’t necessarily about anything interesting but are just fun to watch.
So for AAA games, I think maybe the best they can aspire to is being fun, and its going to be the personal, the developers who feel more artistic, or developers who for whatever reason are the ones who are actually going to tackle interesting themes. So people like Anna Anthropy and Porpentine, and plenty of other people like them who just create personal games, or they don’t even have to be personal, but just tiny games that are an expression by a person about a thing you play for like 5 minutes and you’re like, “That was a really good work of art!” But yeah, I’m not optimistic about the AAA industry changing anytime soon. Film hasn’t, and they’ve had a lot more time than videogames too.
But at the same time, maybe we’ll see more games at least try to be more intelligent. I think Spec Ops is a good start, but even Spec Ops is just a game that it’s weird that it exists. Like, there’s no way that game… it just shouldn’t exist. It’s an exception. But Tomb Raider’s interesting because you actually have a woman who isn’t ridiculously sexualized or objectified, and it was just pleasant to play and be someone other than a white guy. It was just really nice to be a woman in a videogame. If the industry becomes more diverse, if you get more people working for the AAA industry than just white dudes, then we’ll probably see better diversity represented in the games that come out. Until that happens, there’s always going to be games with guys, because that’s who’s making them.
JH: Yeah that’s a really good point. Ok, so we’re going to get you out of here with a couple of sort of broad questions. So at FPS we’re following the “Inside the Actors’ Studio” model where we ask all our interviewees certain exit questions. They’re quite broad and open-ended questions but we’d love to hear your thoughts. So the first one is, what are your thoughts on the current direction of games scholarship, and what’s missing?
BK: I’m excited, like I mentioned earlier, about maybe in the next 5 to 10 years, people currently doing their PhDs, currently emerging as new scholars—and maybe this is just me being one of them and being very ahistorical—but there seems to be this second wave of Game Studies happening almost, where for people who are younger than Super Mario Brothers are coming out of PhDs, and starting to teach, so I think we’re going to see more analysis on individual games, instead of just sweeping movements.
What’s always bothered me about game studies is that we talk about videogames as one thing, and we’ll talk about how players of videogames work or how videogames function, but we rarely just get down to a single game and [look at] what’s happening in that game as a creative work. And I think that’s going to change for people who grew up with videogames, where it’s just another creative thing alongside the books and the video player.
So for those people videogames aren’t this exceptional thing; they’re just another creative work. As they start becoming academics, we’re going to start seeing more interesting work just treating videogames as mundane, I guess. So I’m excited about that, partly because that’s very much what my PhD is going for I guess. But just looking at videogames and not making any sweeping statements about games. So I think that’s a trend already starting to emerge and I’m excited about that.
What’s missing I think is—again, what I’m writing about in my PhD, of course that’s what I think is missing—I think there’s a lot of stuff starting to emerge about embodiment and materiality in games. Like T.L. Taylor’s new book. Like people are starting to realize that the actual world doesn’t get left behind when you play a videogame, that what happens on this side of the screen for the player’s body and the material objects matters, and platform studies kind of gets to this as well. So I think that’s an interesting trend.
However, there is going too far in the opposite direction of emergent stuff, where we’re losing the hybrid coupling of the actual world and the virtual world and how that matters to videogame play. It seems that either we focus on the player, or the hardware, or we focus just on what’s happening on the other side of the screen—the mechanics, the narrative—so I think we need to mash it all together, where the player’s body, the controller, audio-visual design, mechanics, all matter for one videogame.
So I think that’s kind of that gap in the middle, where everyone’s talking about all these different things, and now we just need to put them all in the mixing bowl together, and hopefully that happens. That was a longwinded answer.
JH: No, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. So the second question is, as teachers, or potential teachers, how do you think we can use games to better engage with our students? Samantha Allen recently wrote a piece over at The Border House which detailed her experiences using Halo to teach intersectionality. Is this something we should be doing more of in the future?
BK: I think they definitely can. Again, videogames can be used to do that just the same way film and literature can in university courses, especially smaller indie games like twine games and browser based games, where its easy to get students to be able to play those. It’s pretty much impossible to tell every student to go play Halo, because you can’t expect every student to be able to afford an Xbox and a copy of the game.
But there’s definitely stuff you can do with games. I know Mattie Brice’s game Mainichi has been shown to both Game Studies classes and Gender Studies classes, to both talk through the ideas, so like game design to the game studies class, and then the gender politics of it to the gender studies classes. So absolutely, games can be taught to talk about themes and issues.
But the main issue is getting students who have a literacy to actually understand how to play a game and I guess how to “read” a videogame, how to interpret what your engagement with it means, which is probably less of an issue in game design courses than it would be in non-game design courses, I would imagine, as you can probably assume game design people play videogames. But maybe that’s a big presumption to make, I’m not sure.
JH: Well Brendan I want to thank you so much for joining me today and doing this, I really enjoyed our chat and I hope to talk to you again soon. And good luck with your studies!
BK: Thank you, thanks for having me.