Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Disenfranchised Youth

What is the common philosophical line between the co-editors of Austin C. Howe's "On The Ghost Of Formalism"? You've got Zolani Stewart, Lana Polansky, Iris Bull, Claris Cyarron, myself, and Austin, of course. We are all co-signers of a treatise that recognize that the systems that are commonly used to understand games is useless to us and consistently marginalizes our work.

An interesting thing to note is that some of the above signed are graduate students. And some of us didn't finish high school. We represent a range of ages, nationalities, classes, genders, and work spaces. We are critics, game designers, let's players, event organizers, writers, editors, activists, and scholars. Each one of us have been marginalized in different, life-changing ways by systems that dismiss an intertextual understanding of games. So the common point between us all? We are the disenfranchised youth.

I don't mean youth by age here: the age of those who would've been "Narratologist" game scholars fifteen years ago are now disenfranchised 30-40 year olds. Within The Debate That Never Took Place the losers of that debate were immediately ostracized as non-essential to the progress of the Great State of Games Studies. All of my mentors worked hard on close readings of lore, player interactions, themes, and spaces in games. They did this (a tradition I proudly continue alongside them within my Let's Plays) with full knowledge that this probably wouldn't help their dissertations, get them hired at a game company, be noticed by outlets like DiGRA, or even keep their blogs from expiring. Because of all of this, we've become used to having to create our own systems of representation.

So when we, the students, look to scholars for media critiques of video games, our primary outlets are anthropology lampshading as romanticized nostalgia, player-centrist close readings that end up feeding into formalist theory, and experimental hobbyist work. All of this is fantastic work, but it continues to get waylaid by formalist systems that are built to self-reproduce, franchise, crowd-out, and consume. Instead, we ask for an approach to games that respects interdisciplinary, intertextual, and auteur readings of games in which the player is not separate from the game, but inherently responsible for their play (The Anti-Ludonarrative Dissonance)

Lana says this is gonna keep happening over and over. We're gonna keep fighting about this as long as we continue falling into this disenfranchised state. So here is the real solution to Formalism: How do we support and enfranchise the youth, the scholars, and the game studies program as a whole?

If game studies can (re)enfranchise the youth, we will, without irony, achieve Post-Formalism.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Tiny-Huge Island

The following essay was written in April of 2012. It was originally part of a series of introductory essays to Solon's undergraduate thesis, "A Methodology to Understanding Video Games", which will be posted in full over the next few weeks because the primary themes of the thesis have become more relevant now than they ever were. Some details may be dated.

There is a small square island floating in the sky. You can explore this island as a giant, crushing the tiny flora and fauna and running across the island very easily, but being a giant also makes it easy to slide off the floating island’s jagged angles and lose control. However, you can also choose to explore this strange island as a tiny, dwarfed version of yourself, making the island much larger and giving you a lot more ability to explore by going into the small nooks and crannies scattered around the island. However the flora, the fauna, and even the terrain itself is much larger than you are accustomed to and threatens to engulf you as you fight to survive and explore as much as possible.
This is a synopsis of Tiny-Huge Island, the thirteenth course in Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario 64. Within it you have the choice between entering the stage as a giant Mario or a tiny Mario. Either choice is disorienting in different ways and challenges the player’s notions of space. Being huge Mario gives one an enormous sense of power but also makes one very aware of the edges and limits of the very small stage. Meanwhile, being a tiny Mario makes everything seem like the world is limitless despite it simply being an adjustment of scale and perspective.

Tiny-Huge Island for me reflects the dichotomy of opposing identities and forces within contemporary video game culture. The AAA video game industry with its Hollywood-esque aspirations and budgets is this huge Mario without a lot of control or style outside of itself, whereas the comparatively smaller Independent development arena becomes engulfed not only by the harsh, unforgiving world of game development but also by the many barriers of entry that the AAA video game industry has created to make it more difficult to create games, usually by way of proprietary game engines, consoles, and other game making tools. The irony is that both parties, Huge Mario and Tiny Mario, are trapped on Tiny-Huge Island, fighting over the same resources and using the same ideas to create games by, competing for the same power stars. It is like if Tiny-Huge Island was being mined for power stars. Huge Mario strip mines the island for everything they can get, in order to power their machines, so that they can keep strip mining. Meanwhile, Tiny Mario sneaks into nooks and crannies trying to find their own power stars, although they are usually crushed by these AAA machines.

So, it is an endless cycle of two different groups that look very similar, competing over similar things, in a small, contained space. The only difference between AAA and indie is scale. They both have the same limitations, sensibilities, and mechanics. And they are all trapped on a tiny island without critically questioning if there is more out there than just Tiny-Huge Island. Is there more to games than what this status quo maintains? Are there other ways we can express ourselves without limiting games to these dichotomies? By writing this, I am not looking to simply escape from oppressive systems that the culture and industry of video games has built up, but to explore new paths for others to follow that will help us all explore new ways to imagine and understand video games.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Five Year Intermission


The last time I posted to this blog it was 2010. 2 years prior I'd have moved off of Myspace to be on Facebook. 2 years later I'll have been rejected for the second and third time from the University of Washington's myriad tech majors. In hindsight, one of these events I regret and the other I don't at all: Myspace was a lot more fun to play with than Facebook.

A lot has happened in five years but it also kinda feels like very little has happened too. When I was reflecting on the last post here and I feel like my writing style hasn't changed much. I'm still always trying to outsmart myself when I type words and I ramble on a lot without getting to much of a point. I guess if anything has changed it has been that I've lost a sense of wonder or self-confidence or a naiveté. If anything has changed within myself, it may be that I'm a lot more sensitive to the politics of my writing and trying to be real to myself.

I need to have a place to hold some writings that I make online. I'd like this to be that place once again.

Either way! The point of all of this is to just make a buffer post between the past and the future. I'm here again because of one thing and one thing only: "All's Fair In Love And Score" is still a good pun.

And in the end, that's what matters to me the most. Ain't gonna waste a good pun that's been collecting dust for five years, that's for sure!

Here's to the future!
Seattle's Solon


Monday, June 7, 2010


NOTEv2: This blog is never going to be finished! - it was submitted in this format for a class to show what the finished product was supposed to look like. I never got around to adding all of the links because I was so tired of writing and editing it that once I submitted the paper I just said "screw it". Let this be a lesson, never mix schoolwork with the hobby work, it makes you hate the hobby work because now its just schoolwork... Sorry, but I need to get past this specific blog so that perhaps one day I can write more blogs.

On the bright side, I took a 3.6 in the class, so this was definitely not a complete waste of time! ^_^

This used to be a place of peace and humanity, where order and democracy ruled. War was not about life and death, but about ideologies and possessions, religion and commodities of the earth and stone. Now, our world is ravaged by monsters; beasts of claw and fang sent from the underworlds to judge us as they please. All order was lost centuries ago with the fall of our savior. As the winged ones fly over - in the shape of man; but not - spotting from above what the ground crawlers cannot, I can only confide in my faith that what the soothsayer said was true: her prophecy that the savior will return in the form of a young boy wrapped in green clothing. And he alone will purge the evil from this dark world. All I have is faith. The beasts can never take that from my bones, no matter how long their claws are.

Now, that sounds like a pretty good story for an enjoyable video game - a chosen one comes to save the world from impending doom, lots of action and adventure, a coming of age, trial and tribulation, etc. all of those good literary devices thrown together in an interesting fashion. However, this story actually sums up my first reaction to my favorite piece of artwork from the Renaissance period: The Isenheim Altarpiece, an altarpiece painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald between 1512 and 1516.

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The Ebert Factor

This week in All's Fair Between Love and Score the goal is to explore the idea of Video Games as art. If you have accidentally happened across any one of the many forums, blogs, or webzines about video games within the last month, then you'd know that on April 16th, Roger Ebert, America's most acclaimed movie critic, wrote an article that claimed "no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." Prefacing this statement, Ebert makes a provision to his original claim that "video games cannot be art" by saying the only reason video games can NEVER be art is because, "[never] is a long, long time."

Now, Ebert wrote this fully expecting a large response from the gamer community to his blog, this isn't his first time being the spotlight for gamer reaction. And he addresses this in the introduction to his blog. However, instead of creating an understanding tone that puts gamers on the same level as him, he attacks their beliefs with harsh opinions. When he says,

"The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic."

Ebert is essentially looking down on gamers and video games as a subculture to media (specifically his movie industry). But this is an outdated view, especially in 2010 when the world's largest opening-day sale of an entertainment property belongs to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 last winter's major blockbuster video game release. Ebert has to understand at this point that you can't propose something that goes against gamers beliefs without getting backlash, because from a gamers' perspective his blog is a CHALLENGE - you know, the thing that gamers are PRIMARILY trained in: accomplishing challenges. To put it in perspective with an analogy, setting gamers up with a challenge like this is like opening your fridge to world famous competitive-eater Kobayashi. He is going to give you a run for you money!

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My Challenge

As far as Mr. Ebert's argument goes I respond with the following:

You wouldn't read a song.

You wouldn't listen to a movie.

By not actually PLAYING the game, you are denying one of your core senses the experience of the art, neurobiologists refer to this sense as Kinesthesia, the key component in muscle memory and hand-eye coordination. Its an intuitive sense that affects how people play games and react to their interaction with the medium, and Ebert, in his research, jumps the shark by discussing games without even touching a controller. You might as well be judging a compositional music piece based solely on looking at sheet music.

Art - Not a Definition, a Theory

Seriously though, this is a REALLY big question - can Video Games be considered art? It's a question much larger than some Roger Ebert and his opinion of some other person's opinion. It is easier to think of Mr. Ebert's role in this is more as a catalyst for real thought to take place. But art is such an overwhelmingly large concept! How do we tackle it? Wikipedia breaks art up into three ideas: skill and craft, value judgment, and communication.

As Aaron Smuts of the Philosophy Department at the University of Madison Wisconsin analyzes in his essay titled "Are Video Games Art?"

"Almost anything said about video games is controversial. Some game developers even scoff at the idea that video games are an art, as do certain filmmakers, even distinguished ones. Theorists who call themselves ludologists argue that video games should not be considered just another narrative art form, but a form of play. Other theorists, narratologists such as Janet Murray, argue that video games can and should become more narrative-driven in order to realize their artistic potential. This seems to be the path game developers have chosen."

It is easy to see the views that Smuts’ is discussing here by looking at some of the opinions that follow these trends when reading the comments that follow Ebert's blog post. Many of these comments even pass up the argument all together saying, "Art is subjective." I disagree with this idea because it is a lazy answer that doesn’t move the argument anywhere. If art is so subjective, then why is Roger Ebert appreciated as a movie critic? Why do so many people enjoy Lady Gaga's wacky performances? And how does James Cameron continue to create such ridiculously popular films? This anchor point in the article discusses artistic judgment quite clearly,

"Though perception is always colored by experience, and is necessarily subjective, it is commonly taken that - that what is not somehow aesthetically satisfying cannot be art. However, "good" art is not always or even regularly aesthetically appealing to a majority of viewers."

This brings me to the first game that I would like to highlight as art.

What is art? Baby, don’t hurt me.

Grand Theft Auto 4:

The classic controversy comes back to its cradle. In most news stories Grand Theft Auto is the standard public view of how video games are being mishandled by their creators, which is sad because where Grand Theft Auto 4 is an immoral, violent, racist, misogynistic, and most of all reactionary video game - it is also many intrinsically fascinating artistic values and ideas. For those of you who don't know, which is understandable, there IS a story to this game, and it isn't about having sex with hookers to gain health. Bob Chipman describes GTA4 in his award winning Youtube video 'Game Overthinker EP 25' by saying, "The game's narrative places the player in control of an immigrant as he explores an urban hellscape that challenges his idealized fantasies of the 'American Dream'". This gripping hyperrealism falls under exactly what Wikipedia's article says about art that is not aesthetically pleasing but reactionary and a result of the time. Basically, if Grand Theft Auto 4 were an art piece, it would be Francisco Goya's 'The Third of May 1808'.


Although the contexts are different, the artistic value of dark, cynical, and modern hyperrealism can be easily found and appreciated in both pieces. But that is just one game, how about something that you can appreciate for yourself.

Today I Die / Every Day The Same Dream

These games are the exact opposite of Grand Theft Auto 4 - they are part of the rapidly growing 'indie' scene in gaming. To see games as art, I implore you right now to try them out by following their links Today I Die / Every Day The Same Dream. Both games are short and simple. The first game, Today I Die, is a game that combines poetry, an artistic style that alludes to the 8-bit era of Video Games, and a soundtrack that controls the dynamic mood of the game. Every Day The Same Dream has a different tone from Today I Die that Paolo Pedercini, the creator, describes as, "A slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor."

Craftwork or: Where the Seeds Begin to Sew

These games are not very similar to what the average person thinks of when they hear about video games, but they show the wide capabilities that video games have to make people feel emotions and to think philosophically about the world around them. This is similar to Duchamp's 'Fountain' Duchamp described that his intent with the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation. Are these games the pinnacle of physical craft? Definitely not - EDTSD was created in six days (although, from a creator standpoint, that is impressively quick coding). It is all about the meaning, which in both cases is widely up to interpretation, as many of the comment boards show. Both of these games show how video games can be art on the philosophical/interpretational level and they represent the new, growing trend of 'Indie' game creation (Today I Die was a finalist at the Independent Game Festival 2010) that holds parallels with the Indie Art Scene in how they try to bend the rules of their medium.

Video Games hold artistic value and should be considered another medium for art, just like movies and music. The major difference between Video Games and these other forms is that many people reject it as art and compare it to sport, which is true. Games, like film, do have different points and some ARE more artistic than others. Some are for sport, some are for entertainment, and SOME are art.

Quick and Dirty Quantitative Breakdown:

Madden and Super Smash Brothers are games for sport; there are infinite possible outcomes to the game and you compete against others to become victorious. Metal Gear Solid and Super Mario are games for entertainment; there is an overarching story line with character development and other qualities similar to genre films such as Transformers and It's Complicated. Finally, there are games made for art, which Roger Ebert claims does not exist, but if games aren't art then what do art directors do in game studios? How come when I look at the "sun" in Halo there is a mechanic that creates a lens flair? Why do I feel depressed when I find out that my princess is in another castle? Because video games cause a connection with the player that is similar to (and can even supersede) the connection you feel when you look at a piece of artwork. Video Games mirror artistic direction like that of film. Video Games allow people to roleplay as characters and connect on a deeper level with characters and develop characters more than what many books can achieve. Video Games employ music like other forms of media, however, the music has to match the dynamic, always changing mood of the game to make for a much more immersive experience than any other form of art can give you.


Right now, a revolution is rising. We have the potential to expand the boundaries of what we consider art to be just like the artistic revolutions before ours. Video Games have the ability to bring us to a new age and it is time to seize the opportunity instead of dismissing it as childish or unimportant.

People may not be ready to accept it yet, but video games are art.

Also, dear Mr. Ebert, Mario and Buster Keaton are the same person.

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