Clint Hocking on sense of place and the effect on violence in Far Cry 2

Steve Gaynor has a new Idle Thumbs offshoot podcast called Tone Control, and in this episode he talks to Clint Hocking, and they spend about the last 50 minutes talking about Far Cry 2. I wanted to excerpt this one great little quote that I think is really important. It’s from about an 1hr 10mins in, I think:

‘…a sense of place, even for a place that is really mundane in a lot of ways, is really, really powerful… …having the sense of place and the sense of the environment be so strong, I feel, makes the counter-position of the kind of violence that happens in it, much more shocking.

You don’t blow people up in any more shocking way than you do in any other game, it’s just when you have these long periods of silence where you might have stopped on the side of a rock and listened to water trickling, and as the sun was setting behind a tree for a few minutes, you get this strange sense of peace and like ‘ah the world is beautiful and things aren’t all that bad’. And seven seconds later you’re burning a guy alive with a Molotov cocktail while he’s screaming and flailing around in a brushfire. It’s the juxtaposition of these things, and without being authored or without being scripted, it can mess with your emotions.’

Later on in the talk, they get onto discussing the systemic nature of the game a bit, and talking about it reminded me of State of Decay which I’ve been playing this week, which takes a lot of the same systemic premises and runs with them to a really fantastic degree. Which made me think, we tend to think that the most ‘Far Cry 2‘-game has already been made, but really I think that might not be the case. The most ‘Far Cry 2’ like game is probably yet to be made. Which is exciting to me.

Addendum: if nothing else, listen to the very final question that Steve asks Clint at about 1hr 47mins. Long story short, the way that they solved the problem of playtesters taking pleasure in killing wild animals, their solution was minimal, elegant, and absolutely effective. Just a fantastic solution.

On the review

I put down Metal Gear Solid 4 and barely thought about it at all after.

There’s something perverse about the expected duties of a reviewer. They are expected to play enough of the game to make an assessment about it, but they aren’t allowed to be normal and “give up in disgust”. Consequently, there’s something perverse, something dark, and sinister about the black charge of being A Reviewer. Pushing through to the other side of resentment, into amazement and awe at what you, you, are bodily capable of enduring as part of the sacred duty of The Videogame Reviewer – all for the sake of being able to be taken seriously as One Who Reviews Games, not just any game but this game perhaps the most important game of all time…

I bet I could go to Metacritic right now and MGS4 would have a score of about 86. That feels about right for this game I never, ever need to see again. No, I’m not going to go look.

Fedora Shaming as Discursive Activism

My first ever published journal paper is out, and I was quite pleased with how it ended up. Here’s the abstract with a link at the end.

This article examines the Tumblr site Fedoras of OK Cupid which emerged in 2012 amidst a growing trend in feminists and other activists online that used shaming as an activist strategy. Fedoras of OK Cupid displays images and excerpts from men who wear fedora hats in their OK Cupid dating profile pictures, often highlighting worrying or even downright dangerous attitudes towards women revealed by their profiles. To understand this practice this article draws on work identifying feminist discursive activism in online communities, to examine the Tumblr site in the context of reintegrative shaming in order to evaluate the practice of deploying shame for activist ends. While shame is often seen as having stigmatising effects, the author of the Fedoras of OK Cupid Tumblr illustrates how the process of reintegrative shaming may work in the context of online activism by offering earnest commentary on negative attitudes while also offering the possibility of social reintegration.

Available in HTML and PDF versions.

Excerpts & commentary on Ian Bogost’s UX talk on ‘fun’

This is the lastest version of a talk that Ian once gave at Macquarie University in 2010 (I think?) talking about some really interesting ideas about what fun actually is, and what we mean and do when we talk about fun. It’s something of a shorthand, a way of telling a story without telling the story, he says.

The first excerpt is from his discussion of the murky origins of the term, and its roots in the practise (?) of ‘fools’ (as in, the satirists and court jesters of feudal times). Here’s Bogost on using ‘fun’ to refer to foolery in this sense:

Fun used to mean a particular kind of jocularity or diversion, and one meant for or done by fools, specifically done by fools.

…Imprudence may characterise one aspect of the fool or the jester, or the trickster, but the flipside of that is actually a kind of commitment. And that may sound strange at first, because we normally oppose indiscretion to commitment… But fools can have their own shrewdness, their own way of approaching things. Instead of toeing the line, instead of maintaining the standard way of things, the fool asks, “What else is possible?”… and then actually caries out that other thing that’s possible, even if it’s outlandish.

And the surprise of foolishness arises form this exploration, rather than being witless, from not knowing what you are doing. The fool finds something new in a familiar situation and then shares it with us.

That description really resonated with me, and with much of what I would call my ‘online practise’ in particular. The question ‘What else is possible?’ is an almost irresistible one for me – and it works itself out in lots of foolish ways: by advocating for revolution and overthrow of capitalism (which Brendan Keogh made fun of me for doing just today!), as well as in my trolling and ‘excessive’ practises on social media that Jason Wilson has talked about at the CSAA conference in Nov 2012, sadly the text to that talk has disappeared from the net along with Jason’s site). And there is a kind of ‘commitment’ to these practises that I keep getting in trouble for… like a foolish tweet/meme I made the other day insinuating that I would try and reclaim the term ‘gulag’ as a superlative (a patently foolish idea! but what else is possible? apparently this! look at the RT’s and fave’s. Why is this even possible, this is so bizzare and foolish…). The commitment is a kind of Zizekian ‘Laibach strategy‘ which is, yes, controversial. I worry about the responses I get for these foolish things, and so I should as a responsible fool, they sometimes cause me to lose sleep. But often I do tread the line between fool and witless, because I don’t often know what I’m doing. In a sense, I suppose that I do – I know that I’m tweeting something outlandish, or jeering something sombre or whathaveyou, but… often times I don’t know what I’m doing in a  kind of considered, conscious, or planned out way. I’m finding something new, but not always in a directed way. In a sense, this is perfectly natural since newness can’t always be ‘thought up’ and must be discovered. But there’s a price to pay for this, I think and it’s not always pleasant. Readers might be surprised to know but I am perpetually terrified of shaming myself, of saying something that is actually witless rather than foolish. Perhaps that’s part of the price of having (this kind of) fun?

Anyway, I thought that’s a fairly useful thing to help me (and others perhaps?) conceptualise my ‘work’ or practise or whatever. Fun is really important to me and what I do, clearly. I have a lot of fun with social media. But what actually is the ‘fun’? Here, again, I think Bogost provides a good account of what “fun” actually is, and why. Bizarrely, rather than the typical conception of fun as a byproduct of experience, he conceives of it as a material property of things:

So along with Merry Poppins, we assume that finding the fun is a task that comes from us, rather than from the thing itself, and we just have to encourage or support that activity… That we have to bring something to the table that makes intolerable things tolerable, or we have to somehow cover over those things so as to make the intolerable things tolerable…what if it’s just the opposite. What if we arrive at fun not by expanding the circumstances we are in, in order to make them less wretched… but by actually embracing the wretchedness of the circumstances themselves. What if, in a literal way, fun comes from impoverishment – from wretchedness.

Again, that makes sense to me, and a lot of the ‘fun’ of, a thing like Flafing on Facebook for instance, is from embracing the wretchedness of the whole thing, and as an activist from the impoverishment of trying to fight back against so much degenerate talk (sexism, homophobia, ignorance and bigotry) with more degenerate talk; more noise and fury and confusion and a further running-into-the-ground of the extremism and blurred lines that come with the ubiquity of Poe’s Law. Bogost goes on to talk about fun as engaging with a structure, and accepting the arbitrariness of things:

…when we’re playing a game, the question we ask is not how to overcome that structure, how to reject it and make it something it’s not, but what it feels like to subject ourselves to it… to take it seriously.

So play turns out not to be an act of diversion, but the work of working a system, or working with it, of interacting with the bits of logic that make it up. And fun is not the effect, it’s not the enjoyment that’s released by the interaction, it’s a kind of nickname for the feeling of operating it. Particularly of operating it in a way we haven’t done before…

I have long had, in the back of my mind at least, the vague notion of fun-as-novelty, I certainly prize that in the games I play and the experiences I have, and Bogost’s account is remarkably amenable to that. But here’s his remarkable conclusion that is a bit otherworldly:

So play is a material property of certain objects like steering columns and language and games. And fun is this sensual quality that emanates from it, when you kind of pet it, when you touch it in just the right way. Fun is like an admiration for the absurd arbitrariness of things. It’s a name for the feeling of deliberately operating a constrained system.

To illustrate that concept, he finishes with the story of Isner and Mahout’s truly epic 2010 tennis final, which went on for three days in a perpetual deadlock. He describes the situation thusly:

Isner and Mahout were there, they contributed to that outcome, they were implicated in it. But they didn’t exactly make it, they didn’t fashion it. And yet neither did the Victorian designers of modern game of lawn tennis, rather Isner and Mahout found something in tennis that nobody had ever found before. Something was preserved in it, sort of durable, even as it was incredibly fragile, it was like finding a fossil at Pompeii. And they coaxed tennis, slowly over 150 years almost, to give up this secret. Because they and those who came before treated it with such ridiculous, absurd respect that the game finally couldn’t help but release this secret. And that’s what fun looks like at its best, when the whole world watches an abstraction give up its secrets.

Videogame journalism and the values we hold

A couple weeks ago I gave a lecture on the history of videogame journalism, which I’ve now uploaded to YouTube for anyone interested in getting my understanding of the trajectory of the practise, mainly from an institutional or structural perspective.

The talk lays out some of the basic history of videogame journalism (in a very broad-strokes way) and attempts to explain some of the reasons why I think videogame culture is the way it is today – and how we’ve ended up with a culture that is so exclusionary. In this respect, I was touching on similar themes to what Steve Swift and Marigold Bartlett would talk about a couple weeks later at Freeplay 2013 (which should be no surprise, since they quote some of my more well known work arguing against these near-meaningless, exclusionary terms like “immersion” and “replayability”).

The first half explores many of the historic forces that shaped videogame magazines, from their roots in tech journalism to argue that videogame journalists have held an incredible amount of influence over the language and framing of how we engage with games. The second half looks at how these forces were shaken up by the internet, talks a bit about the faustian compact between the Press and the Publishers that got worse during this period, and concludes with the New Games Journalism (NGJ) movement which arrived alongside this shift to blogging and the alternative spaces and voices the internet afforded.

I didn’t get into making a really good case in the video for why NGJ is such a good approach, but in the tutorials I taught after giving the lecture, I did a really interesting exercise with my students that I think gets to the heart of why NGJ is so fantastic. I had my students attempt to explain to me what the terms “immersion”, “visceral”, “replayability” and “gameplay” meant as if I were their grandmother, or someone who has never played games before at all. In most cases, students began by trying to nail down an explanation that treated their term as some particular quality the game itself possessed. In my discussion with them, however, we almost invariable ended up concluding that each of the four terms was actually something relational – and a phenomenon created by the confluence of a player and the game.

If there is one thing that NGJ is still vastly better at than the mainstream ‘analytical’ approach (which I still take to be the dominant mode games journalism operates in, though the coordinates of acceptability around this are definitely changing) it is in the recognition that all these words are relational terms. Immersion happens for a player; Replayability is only ever calculable for a particular player; and so on and so forth.

What I didn’t get to mention in the lecture (mostly because I hadn’t quite figured it out myself) was that these terms expose the very values that hold, and establish hierarchies of “more and less replayable games” with (typically) multiplayer and twitch type games at the pinnacle of the “more replayable” (think of the corollary term: “replay value”  – it’s right there in the title). Here’s what Kieron Gillen said years ago in his chronically misread and misunderstood manifesto:

New Games Journalism rejects this, and argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there.

The typical reader infers from that that confected emotion and experience is the goal, rather than a clear elucidation of the relational experience between player and game. That’s how I wish I ended the talk.

Late Victorian Holocausts, by Mike Davis

The kind of book that comes along and blows away all your expectations about what a book can do for your understanding of a thing, whether an idea (Graber’s Debt), or a philosophy (Harman’s Prince of Networks) or a period of history, is few and far between. Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts has just blown out of the water my mental picture of the 1800s, the level of evil (lets not hedge bets here) was propagated during the first century-or-so of global capitalism. Looking at the three global famines that occurred along with the El Nino events of 1876-79, 1891-92 and 1896-1902 in which just the first and last (aka the 1870s and the late 1890s) estimations of the number of deaths from famine in just Brazil, India and China ranges from 30-60million. Davis looks at the role of capitalism, imperialism and the newly implemented global grain markets (crucially, free markets), with his’ thesis distilled into the two following paragraphs:

“At issue is not simply that tens of millions of poor rural people died appallingly, but that they died in a manner, and for reasons, that contradict much of the conventional understanding of the economic history of the nineteenth century. For example, how do we explain the fact that in the very half-century when peacetime famine permanently disappeared from Western Europe, it increased so devastatingly throughout much of the colonial world? Equally how do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died alongside railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots? And how do we account in the case of China for the drastic decline in state capacity and popular welfare, especially famine relief, that seemed to follow in lockstep with the empire’s forced “opening” to modernity by Britain and the other Powers?

We not are dealing, in other words, with “lands of famine” becalmed in stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centered world economy.19 Millions died, not outside the “modern world system,” but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.” p.8-9

Yet another thing about responsibility (woah almost like a theme is emerging or something…)

The NY Times has a piece up called ‘The Busyness Trap’ which is half-good, half-typical-bullshit-NY-Times-op-ed. (“Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France” ugh fuck off) But there’s one line that is interesting as evidence of just the sort of thing I’m really interested in:

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

These kinds of pronouncements of collective failure, or failure-by-group are really weird. They have a weird mereology about them I think. Like which one is more real – individuals, or the collective? Or are you proposing a flat ontology? Which way does causality run, upwards or downwards; from individuals to collectives or from collectives to individuals?

One criticism of my analysis might be that I am ascribing too much perception to this shitty NY op-ed and to popular pronouncements of this kind in general. But I don’t want to privilege intentionality. Why can’t they accidentally (algorithmically, as a function of their own language and rhetoric?) stumble upon a popular flat ontology? That’s part of the beauty of autonomy and agency anyway, right? The accident and the surprise (serendipity) are its primary attractions. This is what I liked most about Michel Chion’s work on film sound, and why I wrote my undergrad thesis on it.

Sudden realisation: this same aesthetic (?) concern has animated most of my work since at least 2007 (and I’m now thinking of examples form even earlier! I wrote a chat bot in High School! I’ve been a Bot Love forever!!).

A quote about responsibility

I’m reading a tiny bit of Emmanuel Levinas to try and pilfer some ideas, and I stumbled upon this quote:

“To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply here” – Rabbi Yochanan

This quote is really, really interesting to me. For several complex reasons. 1) How is this order of responsibility distributed, or how does it deal with distribution? When one human (I am substituting ‘men’ for the more general ‘human’) is left without food are we “all” responsible, in that no circumstance including our lack of both knowledge and proximity assuages us? 2) What form does that responsibility appropriately take – guilt, action, grief, spiritual damnation, etc? 3) Why does this order of responsibility seem to implicate nonhumans also, such that the circumstance of (say) “Being a grain of wheat” but not spontaneously and circumstantially comporting oneself into a loaf of bread along with ones comrades seems not to be forgiven? 4) This seems rather pointed an implication of God for a Rabbi to be making, especially as one with sovereign domain over all circumstance.

Of course Levinas’ application of this quote (of a Rabbi from an unknown point in history – the quote just references the ‘Treatise Sanhedrin’ book of, what I presume is the Talmud?) is  isn’t writing from the same frame as me whatsoever, he’s responding to the phenomenologists and the particular situation of post-WWII philosophy, etcetara. But it’s interesting just how tied up in knots this kind of ethical imperative gets as soon as I begin to include or ascribe agency to nonhumans.

Also we could say that the good Rabbi was limiting his address to human readers… still, it’s incredibly interesting to think about, and a powerful quote. Even limited to just humans, it makes a case for a strong ethical force that binds all humanity together to one another. It makes a case for a total knowledge of all humans via all-seeing surveillance, too I would suppose…

But obviously it’s not proposing any of those things and it’s hyperbole and rhetoric and polemic and a damn good example of all three.

Gone Home: Jump Scares and Ludonarative Harmony

So there’s a new game out called Gone Home and I don’t have the superlatives to describe it adequately so just take my word for it and go play. It’s some trifling amount of money on steam. If you haven’t finished playing it, I advise you to stop reading this essay now and just spend the two or three hours it takes to finish because it is about one of a half-dozen games that actually can be spoiled by reading too much about it.

With that out of the way, I want to talk about one particular moment – the one, single, solitary ‘jump scare’ in this whole spooky house game. It’s the when the lightbulb pops on the staircase down in the first ‘secret passage’. I jumped so hard that I literally threw away the little crucifix I had just picked up to inspect. I probably even made some kind of noise as I spun around looking for some ghost or monster inevitably bearing down upon me to eat my soul or something. God punishing me.

So that moment, and really it’s true for the rest of the game, is a really nice example of ludonarrative harmony – an example of when I am experiencing exactly what the games mechanics (popping lightbulb) and the story (scared 20 year old in the ‘psycho house’ at midnight alone) am supposed to be feeling. It’s just really nice and I think it begins to answer some of Robert Yang’s question that he posed earlier this week, which was ‘Why should we care about ludonarrative dissonance since most players don’t seem to either?’

Yang takes, I think, slightly the wrong lesson from mainstream ‘core gamer’ audience’s failure to care about any major ludonarrative dissonance in a game (his example is Bioshock Infinite but take your pick). His point is that the “dissonance” component of ludonarrative dissonance isn’t really all that dissonant at all, which is sort-of true because heaps of people barely even register it. But my contention is that it never was an obvious form of dissonance, since even the prototypical Bioshock little sister example of ludonarrative dissonance went unnoticed until you did the kind of analysis that Hocking undertook. The concept never specified an overt dissonance to begin with. We put up with (even enjoy!) all kinds of learned dissonances everyday – just listen to jazz.

But getting back to the game, I raved about Gone Home on Facebook last night to a friend of mine James Dalmau – who is not a ‘core’ gamer, just a smart guy with a masters in law who like most people also plays games – and we chatted this morning about his experience, which differed considerably from mine. James told me via FB chat that,

…to be honest I never really thought it was spooky ghosts

I thought that was just silly kid stuff put in as a red herring

But every ‘core gamer’ journalist/critic friend of mine seemed to expecte horror. We’ve all played Amnesia: The Dark Descent (or watched hilarious Let’s Play reactions). Brendan Keogh even wrote on his blog about this point exactly:

I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn’t turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn’t. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad’s friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It’s a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it’s going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.

Likewise, Dan Bruno responding to Brendan’s piece in a Facebook comment said that he played the game in the style of a scared teen, rushing for the light switch in every room:

…that is literally exactly how I played. Open door, peek around corner looking for switch, then make a beeline for it before looking at anything in the room

At one point in the game I thought I spotted an actual ghost, but it turns out it was just black jagged veil that indicated the limits of the engine’s render distance, the contents of a hallway on the other side of the house appearing and disappearing as I stepped back and forth. But I was still expecting ghosts.

So what’s going on here? A non-core gamer isn’t scared by the game’s red herrings, but we seasoned veterans expect the worst. I’m going to suggest that what Gone Home does is actually exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes, even the expectation of ludonarrative dissonance to resolve into a weird, and almost ironic, situation of ludonarrative harmony. Because we expect the worst, we get the best possible synchronicity with the player character.

If you expect monsters because you have played horror videogames, your expectations are set up by the history of the medium, by the hundreds of spooky-house games that have come before (no slight on them). But until now there has never, or almost never, been a game this real before. Gone Home is almost shockingly quotidian, in an ordinary rational sense, and it’s the confounding of our gamic (ludic?) expectations (built up through years of expectation of ludonarrative dissonance since ghosts don’t actually exist but okay sure I’ll fight one in a game) which places us, the player, into the subject position of exactly who and where Katie is and what she is feeling.

That is supremely weird, and a triumph of a sort that I haven’t seen anyone comment on yet. Of course, there is so much more to say about this game – and so much great stuff has already been written. Check out Cameron’s piece, and Brendan’s is also great linked above. Leigh Alexander obliquely addresses the game’s setting of the 90s in a piece for Gamasutra. Claire Hoskings has a piece that I’ve read a draft of too which should be coming soon. And this post addresses an element of the relationship between two characters that I totally missed myself.

But I wanted to highlight this strangely harmonious aspect of Gone Home and maybe set up for another post that I have in mind that is a bit more ambitious, aiming to unite the political ideas of ‘accelerationism’ that Mark Fisher applies to the realm of cultural production with the idea of ludonarrative dissonance/harmony. It’s an exciting time.