Interview – Cameron Kunzelman

On GTAV, Games Studies, & Alpacas

Interview - Kunzelman

In the third instalment of First Person Scholar’s interview series, essays editor Jason Hawreliak chats with Cameron Kunzelman about Grand Theft Auto V, satire, archiving, game design and games criticism. We reached Cameron via Skype.

FPS: In the next instalment of our interview series here at FPS, I’m joined today by Cameron Kunzelman. Cameron is a game maker, critic and graduate student at Georgia State University. His games include Alpaca Run, Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game, and Slavoj Žižek Makes a Twine Game, all of which you can find here. He has contributed to numerous outlets, including The Atlantic and Critical Distance. You can follow him on Twitter @ckunzelman and also read his personal blog, thiscageisworms—there’s really great stuff there. Cameron we really appreciate your time, thanks for talking with us today.

CK: Oh well thanks for having me.

FPS: First off, I guess the hot topic right now is GTAV. I saw today [September 20th] that you wrote a really great piece on your experiences so far—I think you said you’re about 10 or 12 hours into the game—and you write that you find it, perhaps ironically, a bit conservative and also boring. And I found that last bit interesting in particular because of course there are a lot of people who don’t find it boring and I was wondering, what do you think is the disconnect there? Why is your experience different from the others, do you think?

CK: Well, you’re hitting me with the hard one to begin. So I think that GTA is boring in the sense that it is quotidian in the way it represents the world and represents particularly the sort of stereotypical cis, white, hetero male interaction with the world. So you go into GTA and there’s no opportunity for anything new. GTA as a series pushes the idea that it’s transgressive, that it’s brilliant, that it’s doing all these interesting things. It’s sort of spitting in the face of conservative America: “You don’t like the idea that we’re killing people? We’re going to kill a bunch of people. You don’t like the idea of sexuality? We’re going to show you lots of sexuality.”

Not that sexuality and violence are never interesting, but I think it’s gotten less interesting as the series has gone on, particularly because you can find all those things in everything now. They’re in every TV show, every type of American media. So it’s boring in the sense of, we see it constantly, over and over and over again. And there’s just not a lot there that’s new for me. I mean I guess if you like playing through the same exact narratives—which are being a powerful man and becoming more powerful—well then yeah, it’s great; it’s wonderful and it’s exciting. But that’s just not a particularly interesting narrative to me I guess. Because that’s been every game so far this year, right? Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us, every major release. It’s the same story.

FPS: Yeah, and I wonder, do you think your educational background plays a part in it? Does being an academic looking at game studies cause you to see these things that maybe people without that same education might not see, or might not take into consideration?

CK: Well I think there’s two things going on here. On one hand I’m paying close attention to the way the narratives are being told and looking at the machinery itself. So that’s the education thing. But also it’s that I’m deep in games culture in the sense that I’m playing all these releases, and I’m interested in what they share and what they don’t share. And I guess when you’re looking for patterns, then [seeing] when one pattern repeats itself over and over….

I think it’s bad to make exclusionary statements *snotty academic voice* “Well I, as an academic, clearly see this narrative in a way that you did not” * I think that’s kind of ridiculous, but I think, maybe I’m much more sensitive to it, but maybe not more sensitive globally, because these arguments have been made by Maddy Myers or Mattie Brice or Zolani Stewart or Patricia Hernandez or Anna Anthropy, or Sidney Fussell, Lana Polansky or Liz Ryerson, right? All these people who are not white men in the world and who have always had their fingers on the pulse of this idea that these narratives might not be so great or interesting.

Grand Theft Auto 5 (Rockstar)

FPS: So we’ve actually had this conversation quite a bit lately among the FPS editorial staff about what makes good satire in a game. But I’m guessing you don’t think GTAV is very effective satire and I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that, on why it doesn’t work as a satire, or maybe why it does.

CK: Look, I don’t think that anyone in videogames knows what the word “satire” means. I think that’s just it. I think that people who read Wikipedia pages [on satire] and never actually read satire think that the moniker “satire” gives you free range to do and say whatever you want. The whole point of satire is that there’s going to be a turn in the satire that makes you realize that it’s not true. There’s a moment, maybe not a wink, but you see a set piece wall fall down or something and you’re like, “Oh, yes this is not being told straight-faced; it’s being comedic in some way or making light of the situation.” But when you have things like GTA that don’t play that, there’s no wink ever in GTA. Sometimes there’s a meta-move, to say, “Of course we know we’re a videogame,” but that’s not satirical. So there’s a sort of straight-faced reproduction of awful things and then you say, “Oh well it’s definitely satirical.”

But I guess I feel the same way about GTAV—maybe the GTA games as a series—as I do about say Hotline Miami. When that game came out and we get this sort of purposeful defense from Cactus and Dennis [the developers] at the end—SPOILERS for HOTLINE MIAMI—where you get them explicitly saying, “Oh look at all the bad things we made you do. Isn’t it strange we made you do that?” It’s just a massive copout. Yeah, it’s a copout. The word “satire” and [using] a meta-move is almost always a copout. I’ve been working on this essay for quite a while now that I can’t quite seem to finish, but it’s about what I call “reflexive games,” so it’s a very Brechtian kind of videogame, and it’s been picked up on by developers not as a tool but as a crutch, in the sense that it’s a sort of necessary thing to keep the game moving along, otherwise it sort of collapses under its own problematic weight.

FPS: Moving away from GTA, how has making games influenced your role as a games critic? And also, do you think that game critics also have to be game makers to fully understand their object?

CK: Ooh, you’re really asking hard ones. Alright so I tend to move this way. I moved through Literature. I have a degree in Lit and then I moved through media studies and then more specifically through videogame studies. So in each stage of these things, I’ve always done whatever the cultural product is that I’m analyzing. So when I did Lit I wrote short stories and a bit of a novel. When I moved on to media studies more broadly I did photography and I shot films and comic books; I wrote and drew awful comic books for a while. So moving on to videogames, it was just sort of a natural move.

And maybe it’s not that I right now in life can look back and say that yes, it’s important to understand how videogames are made or how TV production is made in order to analyze it, but I don’t know that I started out with that sort of idea in mind. I mean I come from a very particular, working-class background and I’ve always been just sort of brought up to believe that in order to touch something, in order to talk about something, you need to know what you’re talking about, and knowing what you’re talking about meant knowing how to use the machinery or to do something correctly. And so in the sense that I think videogame studies or any media study is partially mechanical in nature in the sense that it’s beneficial to know how these machines operate. But yeah, I think it’s necessary sometimes.

I am not of the school of media studies that believes that critiques of representation are enough, or that even sociological critiques are enough. I believe that we need a sort of firm grounding in materialism, or at least taking the question of materialism seriously. A lot of my writing deals with the new materialists, new feminist materialists—Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, that kind of thing—and that sort of cleanly flowed through my inherent beliefs about study and objects of study beforehand.

Alpaca Run

Alpaca Run

FPS: Moving on to something else, I think one of my favourite games of yours is Alpaca Run, which is just a wonderful game, and I was wondering if you could just sort of tell us how that came to be. I understand you and Samantha Allen worked together on it?

CK: Well I’ll give you a little bit of a history here—I don’t think I’ve written about this anywhere. So we [Samantha Allen and I] were invited to a panel by Kat Haché at Eastern Tennessee State University in Johnson City, and that’s about 4 or 5 hours away from us so we said yes and we went. [The panel] was about sexism in gaming. So it’s part of this sort of fan convention they were running and they had some more sort of serious panels. So we were invited to go do that and it’s a long way to drive. And on the way home we were bored and just started talking… No actually Samantha played me the song that she had written and performed initially a few years prior; she played me a sort of V[ersion]1 of the song and then we were talking about the game and maybe what we could do with it, and we sort of designed it verbally in the car.

So then we got back and I started prototyping, working with it a little bit. I got in contact with Joe Culp who is an artist—he did all the background art for the game—got in touch with Guy Conn, who is a PhD student in the Lit program at Emory, and through a long process of cooperation we made the game. So that’s it. So through this social, sort of this tentacle movement outward, it spread out very quickly. I think that was in April and it got released in May. So about a month of development.

FPS: Now most of your games don’t have what might be conventionally thought of as a “fail state” and so that may lead some to say, “Well these aren’t ‘real’ games.” What do you make of that “Is this a game?” argument? We see this a lot with Twine. Is there any use to it at all, or do you see it mostly as a pejorative question?

CK: I mean I tend to side, not only politically but rhetorically with the sort of large group of Twine creators. I’m not sure why we created standards for what is and what isn’t a game. The fact that we think things like Tag and Go! [are games], and ostensibly neither of those need to have a fail state. There’s nothing basically that comprises a game. I actually have been looking at and got to hear Jon Peterson who wrote Playing at the World, which is a history of D&D. I got to hear him at DiGRA recently talk about the sort of beginning of board games and I was making the connection that this is where the notion of win-states and fail-states come from.

And this is not me doing proper academic analysis whatsoever but it seems to me that these all have clear connections to domination but also clearly connected to the development of games that simulate war. Patrick Crogan has written about this. Quite a few people have written about this. I guess I’m just not that open to the question and if you push me on the question I think that this very tight, formalist notion that games have XY conditions and say, have fail states is derived from particular kinds of examples, not from this sort of broad bodies of games. I think the word “game” and the sort of debate around games is always a form of exclusion. It’s not concerned with developing helpful definitions.

FPS: So I guess you’re in the Wittgenstein camp of family resemblances, and that the definition can’t really be hammered down to fit all cases?

CK: Sure.

FPS: Great. So I want to ask you about a sort of close-reading of your game Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game. I noticed one of the characters, Jeffrey has a hard time deciphering texts. Throughout the game there are these times where he wishes he’d learned to have read a dead language. And I was wondering if that [indecipherability] was a theme you consciously put in about decipherability in games in general or if it was maybe something used to just sort of add to the sense of eeriness and uncertainty.

CK: Oh, this is weird that you’re asking me this question. I don’t know that it’s conscious. Very few of the things that are put in the game, as far as language is concerned, as far as writing, as far as characterization, very little of that was actually plotted out, or thought through very clearly initially. All of my design documents are analog. I write in a physical book. But anyway, very little of that. I guess that sort of long form series of analyses of indie horror games on my blog and most horror games are based on the idea of keeping information from you. The idea that there’s something out there in the darkness that you can’t see. You can’t see it, you maybe only hear it, and it will get you if you don’t progress, whether that’s violently or by solving a puzzle or whatever.

And so the general idea of Catachresis conceptually—why I decided to start developing a horror game—is that I wanted to know if you could make horror about knowing things, rather than not knowing things. So what’s a way of thinking through knowing, but that’s scary or bad. And that’s knowing something but not knowing what it means. Which is maybe having knowledge that can hurt you. Maybe it’s the same sort of replication but I think that’s a complication that’s more interesting.

And so a lot of that stuff comes from the source texts that I was sort of inundating myself in. I very much was putting myself in a particular mindset. So I watched Zodiac multiple times while developing the game, just because it’s three hours long and it’s something in the background. I have a hard time developing and listening to music. So I watched Zodiac a lot. That’s a movie that’s all about having knowledge and not understanding what to do with it. Having no idea what to do with the things you know. Things aren’t adding up. So that, and the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive I watched quite a few times, while I was working on it. So yeah, there’s this idea sort of implicit in Catachresis, it’s part of its sort of architecture, conceptually as well as developmentally, that there things you know that you don’t know; there are “known unknowns,” as Rumsfeld would have it.

Gone Home (The Fullbright Company)

FPS: That’s great. That’s interesting. Ok so I want to ask you about your work on aggregation, your sort of archival posts [on your blog] where you put together criticism on one particular game—for example Gone Home—or your work for Critical Distance. I want to ask you about the archive in the “digital age.” On the one hand with something digital we think it’s permanent, that it’s going to be there forever. But it’s also in a way more ephemeral I guess because there’s just so much information: as soon as something’s written something else will come along and replace it, and so we have a new kind of ephemerality which replaces temporality with quantity. And so do you see the role of the archivist now as more important or less important than it used to be? Or maybe is it still the same and it’s just the means that have changed?

CK: Hmmm… So what is the role of the archivist now? My interest in the archive—maybe I can come at it this way—my interest as an archivist is purely in community building. I’m going to use this very small example and move more broadly from there. I think that there’s an issue in videogame criticism on the internet that we are dispersed and we’re dispersed in such a way that the only time we really make it up to broader visibility is maybe when a big Gamasutra post goes up, or you get picked up by the New Statesman or something like that.

And so there’s this sort of minority culture in this very small community and so my interest in doing these sort of these small archives—and I did one for Bioshock: Infinite and I did one for Gone Home—is I think lots of really interesting intellectual production is going on and isn’t being read and the reason it’s not being read is accessibility. There aren’t very many places to go and find [criticism] comprehensively on one subject.

Part of this is an algorithm problem. If you go trying to look for games criticism you’ll hit Critical Distance for sure but you’re not going to get most of the smaller blogs or just people talking about it. Especially now with doing it on Facebook and sort of long-form Tweet stuff, it’s hard to find. So my interest as an archivist is to point out the fact that there’s a community—a bloc of authors with diverse voices who are talking about games and thinking about games—and making an accessible point into that. And that’s the reason I sort of do those long compilation posts on my personal blog.

For my work with Critical Distance, I occasionally fill in for Kris Ligman and my interest over there is also to be doing the same sort of thing. But I think Critical Distance has issues in the sense that I don’t always know if people want to find out about the general lay of the land for the week. Critical Distance as a concept is very good at giving you This Week in Videogame Blogging / Criticism but I don’t always find that I care so much about what happened this week as much as I care about what happened over a long period of time around a single instance through the object, [for example] a big game that came out.

And I think that lots of people have gotten a lot of mileage and have enjoyed the compilation posts simply because they can play the game and then spend a couple hours reading a lot of good writing. And I think I’m fairly critical as far as what I think belongs in the archive so I can say it’s rewarding in that way. So that’s the first thing: I think the job of the archivist as far as my job when I’m wearing an archivist hat is one of community building and showing that there is a community there.

Ok, so there’s that. As far as your real question, which is what’s the role of the archivist in this world of ephemerality, maybe it’s PR in some weird way. And the role of the archivist, at least one who isn’t juridical or disciplinary in nature, has always been one of PR. Of gathering together resources to say XYZ thing exists. You’re a librarian and librarians build collections based around very particular kinds of concepts and topics and I don’t see that as being really different [now].

I think the question of ephemerality is interesting, especially since this is one of the things we’ve run up against on Critical Distance. I think Steve Swift—it might be Tully Hansen, I’m not really sure—one of the Twitterbot people made a bot called OldGamesWriting and what it does is it goes back and finds links on Critical Distance from over a year ago, and just posts them again. And so what we found from that is that somewhere around 25% of the links from a year ago or older are dead; they don’t go anywhere. People delete their blogs, they move them, they don’t forward the links, stuff like that. So there’s this sense where it’s absolutely ephemeral in the sense that things are going to go away.

But also I think that’s kind of great. I mean I write on my own blog so I can have absolute control over what I’m doing and what I’m saying. I think controlling your own words and where your words go and what words you say is very important. And I also think owning your labour is important. If you’re going to do the critical work and you’re going to sit behind your desk for hours and write, I think that if you do that then you shouldn’t go give it to a website for nothing or for something very small in order to get advertising revenue on your back.

And that’s a profoundly problematic statement, I realize that. Lots of people need that sort of small amount of money to sort of make it. But I’m also not sure [about] games criticism as a profession; I’m not sure that very many people can do it successfully, not because people aren’t capable of doing it, but just because I don’t think there’s a market. I think there’s a certain carrying capacity for games criticism and that carrying capacity is very small.

And so archiving that is very difficult too, the idea that any games website can be bought up tomorrow and then shelved or deleted and you just have the way-back machine to prove it even existed. I don’t know, I think that’s a very long and rambling answer to your question and I think it’s a very difficult question and everyone has a separate answer to it. That’s mine. I think people should own their labour. I think people should figure out ways to monetize that labour rather than selling it for very low.

FPS: No that’s perfect, and it actually leads me into my last couple of questions. These are questions we ask at the end of every interview and so maybe I’ll tie it in with this last point that you made. If for-free sites, or not monetizing your work is problematic, which I agree with you it is, what about the academy? Where do you see game studies going? Which direction do you see it going and what do you see that’s maybe missing right now? And these are of course very broad, speculative questions, but we just want to get your take. Are you optimistic, pessimistic?

CK: I think that we’re in a really cool time for academic game studies in the sense that I think we have a wide range of very interesting and expansive core texts. I think that we have a canon and game studies is not very old but we already have a canon. And that canon has been criticized very often and loudly and justifiably. And I’m very excited for this generation of games critics—maybe not really my generation, I’m more talking I guess about the set of PhDs that are coming out currently, right now in lieu of us who are down the road.

Because I think the responses of the sort of second generation—or what some people are calling the third generation of game studies—which is taking both those initial canons of the past but also wildly being inclusive of other things. So theories of labour, new sociological theories, but also being firmly, disciplinarily in game studies. It’s not people from other disciplines writing about games; it’s people who are coming up, their dissertations are about videogames, and not videogames because videogames are a new and exciting thing, but because games are the core and sole project of their academic development. They’re fully immersed. The field is not developing around them; there’s a solid field and they’re able to build on it.

So I think that the first or second generation of game scholars has given us a wonderful ground from which to start with but that this generation is going to be able to do really amazing things building on that. I honestly believe at this point—and maybe this is doomsaying—that academic games criticism is becoming more and more hegemonic in the sense that it is dictating the terms and language of videogames. And what I mean by that is all my games criticism in anything other than a review or which talked about the newest game will be gone or at least super small. I think that videogames criticism on the internet, I think that videogame discourse on the whole is going to end up looking a lot like film [criticism] over the next ten years, in the sense that website writing, critical writing about games is ad copy essentially.

So right now if you read about film on the internet, if you’re looking at trailers, if you’re looking at people analyzing trailers, there’s very little critical work being done. It’s firmly in a PR to audience kind of model. And that’s not saying that that criticism is not happening but there’s not a huge body. There’s a huge body of criticism, of talking long-form and critically about movies and films that only goes on in the academy. And I think that the same thing is going to happen in game studies. And that’s doomsaying, but it’s based on me looking at the history of film and film criticism and their relationship.

The first 30 years of film and criticism, public criticism being written in magazines and start up journals, well first off it’s brilliant—and some of those ideas have not been mined or talked about very well—and second it’s huge. It’s massively prolific. It looks exactly like the contemporary field or maybe actually the field of online videogame criticism from two or three years ago. A couple years ago we had this large proliferation of mostly free, critical magazines and you can see over the past couple of years a bunch of them have closed. Nightmare Mode for all intents and purposes no longer exists, BitCreature is gone. But these sort of well known outlets are drying up. And academic proliferation of game studies is pretty big. So yeah, I think there’s a reifying and ossifying and a paralytic effect going on.

FPS: Well yeah, hard to fight market forces I suppose.

CK: Absolutely. I think a lot of it is economically pushed. I don’t think that’s the fault of anyone, at least I don’t think it’s the fault of any critics or people who are running a website. I mean you can’t be expected to write, to do all that massive amount of work and not be compensated in some way.

FPS: Definitely. And so the last question I wanted to ask you is about games as an educational tool or pedagogical tool. As your work as a teacher, as a pedagogue, what do you think the role of games are in teaching? And maybe specifically in the context of a game studies course. Should they be used to teach political points, for example? Or should we conduct “close readings” as we do with Lit?

CK: I mean I think that they’re a tool among many. I don’t think that we should be displacing proven and useful pedagogical tools. I don’t think that we need to axe the book and get in the game. I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I’ve had a good history course, I’ve read some textbook, but then you read something like Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, then you read something like a critical history, and then you read a little bit more textbook. I think there are good educators who use all the tools at their disposal, whether those are particularly disciplinary for them or not.

And so I think that good educators will figure out ways in which to include games and bad educators will continue to be bad educators. I don’t know if there’s any way to fix the educator that lectures for an hour 15 and then gives the test, right. I don’t think that’s fixable. I think that the work with news games and particularly political games have made a lot of headway there. You know, Bogost writing How to do Things with Videogames, those types of things. I think there’s a space. I’m not sure that games will ever reach the point of like, it’s a slow day and you don’t want to do anything so you have your students watch a movie. We’ve all been in that class. I don’t know if games will ever reach that point. Because they’re more bodily, because they require more attention—I don’t want to say “more interactive” but they certainly are a different kind of engagement than a film. I don’t know if they’ll ever hit that sort of ubiquity but I think that they are becoming part of the tool box and I think they’re a useful part of the tool box. I think that games educate people.

FPS: Great. Well Cameron I just want to thank you so much once again for taking the time to talk with us today. I really enjoyed our conversation.

CK: No thank you, thank you for doing it.

  • Twent

    I’d love to get into games criticism. Sadly, its very expensive for myself to cover new games on consoles or high end pc games.

    • Jason H

      I hear you on that. If you can’t get review copies (which we don’t) it can get very expensive. I’m not really sure how we can get around it at this point. You either have to borrow from a friend if he or she already has it, as I often do, or start out reviewing smaller games under $20. Gone Home, for example, is only $10 on Steam right now, but admittedly it’s already been out a while. A site like ours also welcomes criticism on older games as do many others. If you’re just starting out, that might be a way to get your feet wet. Best of luck!

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