Category Archives: Games and Culture

The Virginal Experience

We all remember our first time, for anything substantial that happens after early childhood. I see this more and more often in the realm of games. We attribute the benefits of a genre to the first game that we play in that genre, and we attribute the gains of a technology to the first game that we play which uses it, and if it is our first game for either, we were generally unaware of the substantial gains already made in those areas by prior releases.

Typically these things happen in waves with adoption of other technology or hardware, demographic activities, infrastructure rollouts. So games which release in a timely manner around these events are poised to be received by a whole host of new customers who don’t know their genre or the technologies they use. Many of my favorite games saw the benefits of this, and I will be attempting to list a few examples of this below to illustrate my point. I will be focusing on the first person shooter genre, as it is my genre of choice. Continue reading

Call of Duty and Jingoisim

A common attitude about Call of Duty in recent years has been that being an American made title, with its military themes, that it is jingoistic. That is rather false, but before diving in to that we should first call out when the franchise follows history, and when it writes its own story.

Not to suggest that writing its own story is rewriting history, when it goes fictional, it is blatantly fiction. I’m not looking at revisionist cases, and where it does cross with history in its fiction, the process is one of integration to the lore, not revising what is believed to have happened. Until Call of Duty 4, the game concerned itself with specific World War 2 battles from the perspective of the American, British, and Russian forces. In more recent titles, some of the scenes of fiction took place in the context of historic events – the Black Ops franchise is more known for this in its use of the invasion of Panama, and the Vietnam War, as backdrops for what was happening in their stories.

Let’s take a look at the presence of the American military when Call of Duty writers are determining events, rather than the history books – the following is spoiler heavy: Continue reading

The Myth of the Thinking Man’s Shooter

Not to say that thinking is a myth in a shooter, but rather that it is a myth that there is a special class of shooter which requires thinking as substantially distinct separation from other shooters.

I’ve been told many times that Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Battlefield, or any number of other games are “the thinking man’s shooters”, whether by fans or developers through implied statements, or direct marketing campaigns.

However this implies, as does the Half-Life advertisement above, that other shooters are comparatively simple. It does this by reducing the terms allowed to describe other games without reducing the terminology available to them. It does this by observing one game with a low resolution, and another with a higher resolution. Continue reading

The Power Fantasy

A game is often reduced in stature for failing to meet fairly arbitrary social guidelines as set forth by the media. This stature reduction comes in the form of pithy comments, my favorite of which is “male power fantasy” or of similar blends. It is an interestingly sexist perspective, but it is also one which misunderstands games themselves.

We engage in games generically as an experience, or as a mechanic. Mechanic oriented games, one could call them “pure” games, are typically puzzles such as Tetris. They often border on the toy territory, but being constrained by a rule set, they retain their game status. Then there are experience oriented games, something the “average gamer” thinks of, be this Doom, FarmVille, Microsoft Flight Sim, Diablo, Uncharted, or Plants vs Zombies – these games all provide a specific experience. More specifically they provide an out of reach fiction, a fantasy. These fantasies can thus be divided by an emphasis on what is happening, and an emphasis on what you are doing – immersion and input respectively. I don’t fantasize about doing things I can already do readily, I fantasize about things I am not in a position to do, whether it is a matter of logistics or reality. I have never experienced being trapped in a deeply haunted castle (Amnesia), shooting my way through Hell (Doom), managing a farm with great ease (FarmVille), or acted as the only human in a world of goblins while seeking to uncover my identity (Awakening: The Goblin Kingdom). Nor have I piloted a Cessna across a state, or operated a street cleaner. These are all immersions and points of input not readily (or ever) available to me.

Black Ops 2 multiplayer recognizing a significant presence in the game and rewarding the player visually.

Black Ops 2 multiplayer recognizing a significant presence in the game and rewarding the player visually.

All of these are fantasies, and on the matter of input wherein you are the protagonist, they are power fantasies. Much of the pursuit of life is for a sense of purpose. Goals, philosophies, religious beliefs, any form of identity is generally wrapped in a teleological function and games are no different. We enjoy them for this delivery of a goal, this brief experience of a purpose that we are not getting in our lives. Where literature and film let us experience the lives of supposedly greater people, video games let us be those people within that world. Is there a more important person in the Doom universe than the lone marine? Who makes a bigger difference than the hero in Diablo? Yes not all games make you the most important, I suspect that the Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would go on just fine without me but it isn’t the same again once I begin taking action.

The player's decisions can have a profound emotional impact, not just physical.

The player’s decisions can have a profound emotional impact, not just physical.

Yes, these power fantasies often are in the form of a gun, or a blade. Why? Well it is a clear dichotomy, it is an obvious understanding. Not only that, it is easier to program. It is a far more daunting task to quantify a debate than it is to see if the gun was lined up with the monster when the player clicked their mouse. But if someone were to quantify debate, you can bet the games made with it would be ones where our speech makes a difference, where it is heard – even if we lose, it is still heard. That is the power fantasy of games. It is the presence of substantiation for the player, and that is one of the pillars of games being thus far the highest art form humanity has created yet.