Wednesday, 17 February 2010

SLRC is dead! Long live SLRC!

At 2:39am on January 26th, SLRC died. (tl;rd - New blog/website here.)

SLRC knew it had died because a number of things tipped it off. Primarily, the reasons for its existence at the time of its inception were no longer applicable. The spirit of the thing had departed it. For the benefit of any readers who joined since, say, the start of 2009, SLRC started life as a place to write about music and sound and videogames. And also as a place to write specifically about the videogames I personally was interested in; games like System Shock 2, which at the time of writing in November 07, I felt had not received its share of critical attention in the critical-games blogosphere.

A lot of that naturally had much more to do with my lack of breadth in reading and awareness of the field than it did any failing on the part of the community. To get an idea of how much has been written about even SS2, before and since SLRC started, check out the results for a quick search on Simon Ferrari’s Game Blog search engine, or on Michel McBride’s own variation on the same (they’re both great resources, by the way, and deserve more attention and use than they seem to have attracted so far). SLRC seems to have both naturally and productively drifted away from these early aims and morphed into something completely different.

And that was the first tip-off that it was perhaps time to retire the old blog, coming as it did late last year. The second came just as subtly but much more recently as a growing malaise and uncertainty about videogames blogging qua blogging. I’ve been reading Geert Lovink’s ‘Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture’ these past few weeks and in his opening chapter he positions blogging as a ‘creative nihilism’. I’m finding that thought increasingly attractive and pertinent the more time I spend with it.

As bloggers and technology-using types, we like to imagine that technology is meaning agnostic, that it’s whatever we make of it that counts, or more importantly that we are in charge of what we make of it. But the truth is less certain. It is becoming increasingly obvious that technology imposes its own logic, its own way of doing things, and that can both resist as well as reinforce hegemony. As Lovink says,

“Blogs fix the social in a specific manner. These techno-fixes are not neutral; they reflect the broader cultural atmosphere of our time.” (p.2)

On a similar note, Danah Boyd has spent a number of years researching the different ways that online social technology interacts with real-world societies. In her case it was American teens and how MySpace/Facebook, etc divided along class lines.

So blogging is not a medium devoid of cultural and social baggage. Things that a given site allows for, like reader comments, ‘fix the social in a specific manner’ as it were. We tend to say that blogging is a ‘democratising’ force and celebrate the way it empowers people who have something to say, but we pay less attention to the attendant downside which is, as Lovink points out, that;

“as much as democratization means engaged citizens, it also implies normalization (as in the setting of norms) and banalization. We can’t separate these elements and only enjoy the interesting bits.” (p.4)

So whether we like it or not, and whether it is intentional or not, blogging changes things. Michael Walbridge wrote recently about his own first hand experience with the world of games journalism post-these changes – i.e. “making it” as a videogame journalist is not only increasingly hard, but it’s also looking more and more like a mugs game. There’s just no money in it, and the fact of the matter is that when people as brilliant and talented as Michael Abbott, or David Carlton, or LB Jeffries, or Wes Erdelak are all willing to give away their stuff online for free why would anyone pay for it? Heck, if Tom Bissell can’t make a buck at games journalism now that Crispy Gamer has folded what hope is there for the rest of us? As numerous influential people have piped up to say in the comments to Michael Walbridge’s piece, the field is getting overcrowded. In the final tally, blogging and, by inference, us lot are complicit in bringing about the demise of print journalism and old media structures (hooray!) with a million bleeding cuts in the form of our brilliant blog posts.

But this is by no means the only (or even the major) reason that I’m not going to ‘blog’ anymore in the way I have been doing at SLRC for the past two years and five months. The practical differences in what I’m changing may be relatively minor, but I feel like they are a gesture that should be made nontheless. They are encompassed tidily by this speculation by Lovink, who suggests that when blogs have reached their peak and subsided,

“most likely the social aspect of blogs will be phased out and developed elsewhere into other products, leaving blogs to perform the introspective duty of the online diary.” (p.29)

Hello Facebook!, Hello Twitter!, my new friends. We are enjoying our new time together, and I’d invite you to join us – friend me on Facebook and gain regular access to all the strange and wonderful links I pull from all across the internet with my network tendrils. Or catch up on them via RSS if that’s still your thing (it’s becoming less and less mine – there’s just too much stuff). Unless you’re one of the few established videogame blogs (Hi Michael Abbott! Hi Mitch Krpata! Hi Corvus Elrod! You guys are seriously wonderful) trying to build a big and thoughtful community on a new site it feels like a folly similar to the abovementioned breaking into games journalism. And why would I even need to bother trying when I've got Facebook and twitter right here already? What’s to stop you from using Facebook as a blog? I seriously considered it but decided that I'd have to compromise a bit too much of my personal information (pictures, statuses, etc) to make it worthwhile, but everyday it seems there are new and excitingly customisable privacy settings.

I also find a lot of value and not an insignificant amount of personal satisfaction in posting links on Facebook, not least of all because I’ve gained something of a reputation amongst friends as always posting quality links, but because very nearly everyone I know and whose opinion I care about is on Facebook already. It's also very convenient and works just like a blog with an archive for links and the aforementioned RSS feed and everything.

So my blogging is becoming more like diary keeping, and Facebook/Twitter are taking over the social aspect of the equation. Obviously, as a writer I am compelled to keep writing things, but SLRC is no longer the place for them.

The important question now becomes what, or more importantly where, is this new blog I’ve been keeping for stuff that doesn't go to Twitter/Facebook? Right now it’s located at and I’ve been writing there for much of February 2010 already. Unlike SLRC it’s not restricted to publishing important essays or creative stories, etc, etc and is more ordinary, like an diary, and more flexible in subject matter – I also plan on using it to store up and write-out ideas for my PhD research (which I’m already super excited about doing by the way).

In the past, I’ve always gotten a lot of the mileage out of being able to write out related tangents and seeing where they lead, but SLRC was never the place for that. Exploring tangents and experimental connections are, for me at least, a useful strategy for getting at The New. One of the very first things impressed upon our cohort at the start of honours research in 2008 was that you simply cannot predict where The New is or where you’ll find it in your research. Which may sound trite and obvious to some, but could also be completely backwards and counterintuitive to others. I think that it’s almost certainly not such an obvious fact given that so much of our society and our collective time is spent rehashing, renewing, refocussing and refining pre-existing ideas. I guess that’s a reasonably successful strategy, but it seems to only get us so far. After all, if we knew where to find The New or if it were completely mapped out, it wouldn’t really be New anymore would it?

All that aside, in keeping with the phasing out of social aspects as mentioned by Lovink, ben abraham dot net doesn’t allow comments. As allude to above, I’m not out to build a community, but just to keep a diary. Doing away with the now ubiquitous “add a comment” feature is just another way to “fix the social in a specific manner”, and in this case do something to push-back against the author-reader-commenter relationships established by blogs as the De Facto operating mode for the internet. If you’re after the social, join Facebook, join twitter and you’ll find me easy enough. If you want to read the online diary, go have a look and maybe get the RSS or catch up infrequently whenever you remember to load up the site. Since it’s becoming my go-to place for my writing, I'll probably write my GDC trip in March there. The new format should be conducive to some good stuff.

I will leave SLRC with a last line from Byron that I read in a great book recently. See you around.

-- Ben Abraham, 17th February, 2009.

Fare thee well! and if for ever,
Still for ever, fare thee well.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Dreams of Falling

I am floating in a sea of deep blue. A carpet of clouds is below me. The sun shines brilliantly through the rarefied atmosphere. There is no sound and no sensation of any kind of movement.

I turn my head to watch my jet plane float away from me at a jaunty angle. I look down at the ground far, far below me and when I look back for my plane it has disappeared.

I notice the wind whipping past as it catches at my clothes. The deep sapphire blue above me slowly recedes as the clouds below grow in size. Mountains of verdant green show through in places.

I play with turning, using my arms and reorienting my view. Time passes and as the cloud level approaches I notice how slowly I have been floating downwards.

I speed up my descent and travel down past the top of a nearby mountain. The angle my flight takes on while at this newly speeded up pace makes it appear askew in my vision. Floating turns into flying.

I do tight circles over the airfield I plan to land on and I slow my descent by stretching my body out and letting wind resistance decelerate me.

I pull the cord for my parachute about a hundred metres above the ground and continue circling the airfield. Barely metres above the ground a hurricane fence appears as if out of nowhere and is too high to continue over on my current trajectory. Rather than slam into it I ditch to the ground at a sharp angle and at great speed, injuring myself in the process. Flying turns to falling.

Barely seconds have I spent on the ground and I am already yearning to go back up and float in the sky again.

Regaining my feet, I search up and down the fence for a gap – a large number of villagers are walking parallel to it but they don’t show a way through. It’s then that I realise there is an easier, lazier way to get across the fence.

Calling the agency, I order a small personal sized gyrocopter and it lands in the field of grass on top of the canister of blue smoke I dropped. I hop inside, start up the rotors and sense of floating returns. I hover up and over the fence. I have a mission to start - a mission bound to the ground - but the dream of floating and falling and flying lingers.

With every jump I float through the air, briefly detaching myself form the tyranny of The Ground. But the jumps with their brevity make a mockery of the true floating and are much the poorer for it. I try not to jump unless I have to.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

My 2009 in Important Reading for Human Beings

The end of the year is a time for looking back over the previous one, looking forward to the next one and other such clichéd nonsense. I am, however, increasingly interested in the future: what’s going to happen in the next 1-10 years? How is it going to go down, and what will be the consequences of that 'getting down'? I believe the outline of the answers to these and many other fascinating and unrelated questions can be glimpsed by casting our eyes back over the year of 2009 while keeping in mind the one to come. So I present to you, this list of My 2009 in Important Reading for Humans Beings.

A word on my methodology: These were all posted to my Facebook account at one stage or another, a good indicator of my own estimation of their value and importance. That's about the extent of the methodology.

This is the first of a planned three parts, the first being constrained to pieces written or published this year that I found to be important reading; the second will be pieces that are perhaps less ‘important’ but no less interesting or potentially informative as to the shape of things to come; and the final third piece will be are pieces I discovered this year, written in previous years and decades that, I found particularly prescient or relevant.

This list begins in March.

March 19, 2009 – ‘The Big Takeover’ by Matt Taibbi

The first piece on my important reading list in 2009 is Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone expose on the 2008 GFC bailout and what it means for the future of our society. It’s big, it’s long, and it’s assertive in its assessment of the future impact of the ‘necessary evil’ that was the $700 billion dollar bailout. If Taibbi is suggesting we may be living in the tail end of the era of the American Empire – with his opening allusion to insurance giant AIG as “a dissolute nobleman gambling away the family estate in the waning days of the British Empire” – then it is an assertion rapidly gaining currency, as we shall see at least once more further down the list.

April 15, 2009 – ‘Inside the Precision Hack’ by Paul Lamere

The next piece of important writing comes from an unlikely source – the ‘Music Machinery’ blog pulls the thread behind a online poll and uncovers the machinations of the group of anonymous users from 4chan who came together to rig the poll by stuffing ballots. There are a couple of ways to read this piece; as either a rather typical cautionary tale about the underlying potential for abuse in online media, or as testament to the growing power and political influence of anonymous. This was no Fox News ballot stuffing – it was Time and they let it stand. The fact that the people in charge decided to leave the results as is perhaps says more than any simple poll result.

May 21, 2009 – ‘A Day At Sydney’s Pinball Expo’ by Ben Abraham

Because this is an indulgently personal list, I’m going to say that the next important piece was something I wrote for Kotaku Australia about visiting Australia’s first annual Pinball Expo. It’s important, I feel, less for the points that it makes about the differences between Pinball and Videogames (which are kind of interesting) but because it represents a mainstream videogame media willing to publish writing about games from an untried author, writing that’s a bit different, a bit off the beaten track and that’s a bit more experimental. Of maybe it’s nothing of the sort – it’s still on my list.

May 28th, 2009 – ‘Shhhh. Newspaper Publishers Are Quietly Holding a Very, Very Important Conclave Today. Will You Soon Be Paying for Online Content?’ by James Warren

In a short piece (for this list of generally extra long pieces) at The Atlantic, James Warren mentions that a News Industry group were meeting that week to discuss monetizing online news content. It’s an important piece because, firstly, in the time since the piece was posted in May some news organisations have actually begun to charge for their content online. The future for online news is still uncertain, but I hazard a guess that, as hinted at by the earlier piece on Anonymous, it’s future is going to be influenced more and more by people like 4chan’s anonymous and less and less by the Packers and Murdoch’s of this world.

June 6th, 2009 – ‘The Learjet Repo Man’ by Marc Weingarten

In this piece for the website Salon, Marc Weingarten chronicles the upswing in business for one high flying reposesor of luxury items like private jets and expensive yachts that accompanied the 08/09 financial crisis. If Taibbi’s ‘The Big Takeover’ was about the political implications of the bailout, then ‘Learjet Repo Man’ is about a small, vertical (ha!) slice of the practical impact on post GFC life.

June 14th, 2009 – ‘TehranElection on Twitter’ by Abdul-Azim Mohammed

Instrumental in spreading the first Iran Election twitter info, the 31 tweets all from the day and night of June 14th spoke of injustices at the ballot boxes and restricted internet and phone access as the government spread its own election winning propaganda. His last tweet is only “I have to shut down for a bit, the police are looking for satellites” but the word was out, and plenty of other Iranian twitter accounts sprung up to similar effect. As far as I know, his ensuing fate is unknown and my cursory googling turned up no relevant contemporaneous hits.

June 13th, 2009 – ‘The Obama Haters’ Silent Enablers’ by Frank Rich

In a piece for the New York Times Frank Rich writes about the increasing politicisation of republican media outlets like Fox News and their inflammatory influence on the extreme political right of America. Rich asserts that these “silent enablers” in the media could very well be trying to incite indirect violence against the President. It’s a sobering thought, and alongside another piece later in the year, can be looked upon confidently as indicators of a polarisation in politics in 2009, as the gaps between the left and the right were wedged right open.

June 30th, 2009 – ‘The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online’ by Danah Boyd

Boyd presented her research findings at the ‘Personal Democracy Forum’ in New York and it’s important reading because it challenges the rhetoric employed in tech circles that often has the tendency to ascribe utopian properties to technology. The crux of her argument is that, “For decades, we've assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with "access" and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the "digital divide." Yet, increasingly, we're seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we're seeing a social media landscape where participation "choice" leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions.” Important stuff and again it’s a theme that will come back later in this year’s list.

July 5th 2009 – ‘I’m a proud braniac’ by Roger Ebert

Another trend perhaps always present in every year but particularly easily identifiable in 2009 was an up-swell of defensive reactions to critical thinking and reasoned, thoughtful critique. Roger Ebert wrote in defence of reading ‘too much’ into films instead of passively and unquestionably consuming in a piece titled “I’m a proud braniac”. More recently this year we even got ‘Moffs Law’ summing up why the case for ‘not thinking as much’ is not really a valid discursive argument.

July 6th, 2009 – ‘Babes of the BNP’ by Gavin Haynes

This year saw an interesting phenomenon in the UK in the form of unprecedented voter support for the British National Party, a far right extremist political party that would like nothing better than to reverse immigration and send everyone non-white out of Britain. It’s seems to me it’s only further evidence of the widening between the left and the right across the globe, and it’s important to understand why these people think the way that they do. So, to find out we have this cheeky series of interviews with the ‘Babes of the BNP’. Easy targets perhaps, but it’s quite amazing to see just how misinformed some of them are.

July 6th, 2009 – ‘Huh?! 4 Cases Of How Tearing Down A Highway Can Relieve Traffic Jams (And Save Your City)’ by Yonah Freemark and Jebediah Reed

In a case (or four) of the accepted wisdom being turned on its head for the betterment of everyone, Freemark and Reed write about how removing freeways in four cities around the world has actually improved traffic flow, as well as being beneficial to the city. This is a personally important piece of reading because it reflects a gradual eclecticising of my interests. I’ve somehow gained the belief this year that the low-level curiosity instilled in me by diversifying my reading habits will pay dividends in the long run. There really is no telling which fascinating new tangent will inform some other area of interest or lead to some interesting new idea.

July 15th, 2009 – ‘Confessions of a Radical Prof’ by Julie Matthaei

As if proof of the previous point, I bought a book earlier this year about print design for magazines and online, which led to finding the website that ran this fascinating and important piece. Matthaei is an economics professor here explaining the failings of economics teaching in providing an education to its students. For example, “I always took care to explore the fact that equilibrium – where the supply and demand curves cross, and quantity supplied equals quantity demanded – does not mean that everyone is happy, or that basic needs are met. Many people could, in fact, be starving because they are too poor to be able to “demand” what they need. Even when no lines or shortages exist, people can still be dying from starvation. Despite my lessons, many of my students were unable to point out the falseness of the statement “everybody is happy in equilibrium” on their tests. As the earlier pieces on the GFC have made patently clear, we need more professors like Matthaei to teach these kinds of things to the next generation of economists.

July 15th, 2009 – ‘Losing my religion for equality’ by Jimmy Carter

In a year marked strongly by the aforementioned growing divide between the political left and right (which I can’t seem to stop mentioning – probably because it was a big deal, right?) it’s notable when someone argues for a more moderate stance on religion and equality, doubly so when it’s a former US President and now-former southern Baptist. Here he is arguing for equality before dogma, and a new equality for women in the Christian faith.

July 21st, 2009 - ‘An Easy Way to Increase Creativity’ by Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman

Another piece I found personally important, if not, perhaps, on the same scale of world-wide socio-political import as others on this list, was an article in Scientific American that detailed research that found gaining distance from a problem, even purely imagined mental distance, increases ones creativity and ability to solve problems. Absolutely fascinating, and something I’ve found applicable a number of occasions this year.

July 29th, 2009 – ‘New Game Column at Edge’ by Chris Dahlen

Another important moment for games writing this year was the green-lighting of Chris Dahlen’s (now not so new now) weekly Edge column. It’s an important piece because, again, it represents the triumph of more of what I want to see from games writing. Offbeat, occasionally humorous, just as often insightful, and always grounded in something like personal experience, Dahlen’s column (and there are too many good ones to mention them all) was an important part of my 2009.

August 5th, 2009 – Symbol of Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims by Jeffrey Gettleman

For all the patting on the back we (and I include myself) may do here in the west, there are still so many places of the world that are just not okay. Rape is always a tragedy, but something in the stories of the male rape victims of the Congo seemed to capture something of the absolute desolation of the place, as Jeffrey Gettleman writes some of their stories for the New York Times.

August 4th, 2009 - ‘When Did Americans Turn into a Bunch of Raving Lunatics?’ and August 11th, 2009 - ‘What Really Happens When You Demand the President Produce His Birth Certificate?’ by John H. Richardson

Something of a reasonably late development in the year was the almost-legitimisation in the conservative American media of the ‘Birthers’ and their absolute conviction that President Obama was not a real American. Esquire’s John H, Richardson goes on the road throughout the Bible belt to find out first hand why these people are such sore losers. Then again, I bet they said the same thing in the aftermath of the 2004 election controversy.

August 11th 2009 – ‘TIE Fighter: A Post 9/11 Parable’ by LB Jeffries

LB Jeffries piece on the old LucasArts TIE Fighter game talks about its renewed relevance in a post 9/11 world. It was another important moment because it was another case where games writing took itself seriously and went, I’m okay with this. It employed a kind of poststructuralist approach by viewing the game with modern eyes, and in our context, rather than its original one, which is kind of what the rest of the art world has been used to doing for forty-odd years.

August 15th, 2009 – ‘What’s Good For as good as it gets for America’ by Zachary Karabell

A piece in Newsweek about IBM and the shift in it’s global workforce out of America and into other emerging markets brought everyone that read it up to speed on that post-American-Empire thing once again. The important point from the story is that “This is the new world of global business, one in which the U.S. becomes simply a market among markets, and not even the most interesting one.” And that’s both pretty important and a pretty interesting change. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’ll be a factor in 2010.

August 5th, 2009 – ‘Garbage In’ by Diana Holden

This year saw the “pacific garbage patch” explode into the public’s consciousness (or mine at least) with a number of high profile pieces (including one on the ABC programme catalyst back home in Australia) about the large area of the pacific ocean that attracts rubbish and that is now filled with floating debris. Looking at the scale of some of the world’s biggest garbage dumps (including the pacific garbage patch) is an important thing to do, and the accompanying pictures with the story are quite impacting. Waste, managing increasingly scarce resources and the attendant economic effects were (and are going to be) big and important issues in the coming year and decade.

September 13th, 2009 – ‘We still have the same disease’ by Margaret Wente

But I’m not making a list of the issues, but a list of the most important pieces of writing about the issues. Here’s economist Nassim Taleb writing on the one year anniversary of the Lehman Bros collapse about the economy, and saying rather unfortunately that ‘We still have the same disease'

September 14th, 2009 – Redactor Agonistes by Daniel Menaker

A fascinating essay on the book publishing business, with some estimations about reader numbers and explanation of why books that get published get published. The money quote: ‘Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be.’ I wouldn’t mind turning some writing into a book one day, so this was eye opener for me. It also echoed sentiments more commonly seen in the newspaper industry (such as the piece linked earlier) with the feeling that, if not dying away, then certainly the nature of the industry is undergoing some fundamental changes.

7th September, 2009 – ‘Douglas Coupland: the writer who sees into the future’ by Decca Aitkenhead

This interview with author Douglas Coupland, who I have never read anything of before this interview, is important because while it’s ostensibly about promoting his novel ‘Generation-A’ Coupland is more interested in talking about pig picture ideas, the future, and a whole bunch of interesting peccadillo’s of his personality. It’s also important for me because Coupland sounds like the kind of non-traditional thinker I aspire to – for example, Coupland says he can never throw away his art objects “because an object is interesting because it's the crystallisation of a good idea. And I like being surrounded by good ideas.”

24th September 2009 – ‘Diary’ by Roy Mayall

If I recall correctly, the person who originally posted the link to this expose of the UK’s Royal Mail compared it to a real life version of The Wire. It’s another striking example of corporations valuing profit over people, and it’s another important piece of writing from 2009.

24th September, 2009 – ‘Lost Vegas’ by Pete Samson

In a combination of news and personal interest story, UK’s The Sun does a story on the people living in the sewers under Las Vegas. This is exactly who and what our society is producing; these are the kinds of people The West creates, even if it isn’t immediately visible.

September 24th, 2009 – ‘Mobile money in the poor world’

A story in The Economist (which has now been gated behind a subscription) was about the importance of mobile phones in developing countries and some of the possible technologies, including micro transactions of money via SMS, which the mobile phone is enabling in third world countries. One of the things that 2009 saw time and again (as in the earlier Myspace/Facebook piece) was proof that technology is neither neutral, nor was being on the very cutting edge necessary for development.

September 25th, 2009 – ‘One more go: Why Halo makes me want to lay down and die’ by Margaret Robertson

The end of the short lived tenure of Offworld as its own separate blog from the main Boing Boing posts was marked by Margaret Robertson’s important piece, a discussion of the eternal quality of the original Halo. It was also important as a demarcation of the Offworld that so many had such high hopes for.

September 2nd, 2009 – ‘A Virtual Life. An Actual Death’ by Mark Steven Meadows and Peter Ludlow

This piece looked back over the real-world and second life death of one rather prescient internet user and commenter who you’ve almost definitely never heard of before. The focus of the story, a woman known as Carmen Hermosillo who, before her death in 2008, was intimately acquainted with many of the peaks and pitfalls of virtual life is looked, examining her life both real and virtual, as a progenitor for many of the issues facing an increasing number of people coming to terms with virtual existence online. It sounds dramatic, and it is, but the authors note that, “The thing that killed Carmen was the thing she spent her entire online life warning us about.”

October 2009 – ‘The Story Behind the Story’ by Mark Bowden

In ‘The Story Behind the Story’, Bowden takes an in depth look at how news gathering in the US has become increasingly politicised, as the work traditionally done by proper journalists gets outsourced to amateur and professional political groups. It’s viewed through the lens of the media’s obsession with a pair of clips of then-supreme court -justice-to-be Sonya Sotamayer. The decline – and let’s be honest, it’s been nothing but a decline – in print journalism revenues and staff means that the quality of reporting and, perhaps more importantly, fact checking and context gets lost in the race to the juiciest ‘sound bites’. An important dissection of another overarching trend of 2009.

October 2009 – ‘They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?’ by Susannah Breslin

In an inspired move, ‘They Shoot Porn Starts Don’t They?’ made a website that looks and reads like a magazine article, but remains its own thing entirely. Breslin spent some time in California’s San Fernando Valley looking at the effects of the US economic downturn on the porn industry and the result is as touchingly personal as it is insightful and revelatory. Avoiding clichéd depictions of the actresses and actors themselves, it shows the good and the bad in this most definitely not recession proof industry.

June 9th, 2009 to October 11th, 2009 – ‘Alice and Kev’ by Robin Burkinshaw

One of the most important things in games writing that happened this year was the beginning – or perhaps the more important part was actually the ending – of the blog/story/comic/tale of Alice and Kev. Its incredible popularity demonstrates that not only are people willing to read non-traditional essay writing and stories about games, but that they are actually hungry for them.

October 12th, 2009 – ‘Why Snark Works’

In this short review/summary of David Denby’s book ‘Snark’ the unknown author of the ‘A Grammar’ tumblr blog makes some observations about ‘Why Snark Works’ and what it does to online communities – essentially, it works more effectively and efficiently to weed out those that are not ‘in’ on the jokes, explicating the culture of a website better than any list of beliefs or aspirations could ever do. Important reading because of the prevalence of snark in almost every online context.

October 14th, 2009 – ‘Off White’ by Tony Martin

Martin’s website ‘The Scriveners Fancy’ is ostensibly a comedy website, but as with just about everything he does, it more-often-than-not comes with an edge of intelligent commentary, and his witty and biting reaction to the Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday ‘Blackface Skit’ is an important read for Australia.

October 20th 2009 – ‘Nearly universal literacy is a defining characteristic of today’s modern civilization; nearly universal authorship will shape tomorrow's’ by Denis G. Pelli & Charles Bigelow

This short piece at Seed magazine discusses how, if current trends in Twitter take-up and usage continue universal authorship could soon become as ubiquitous as universal literacy…

November 5th, 2009 – ‘Neutral on Neutrality’ by Scott McClellan

…and then, soon after the aforementioned piece, I read this one examining Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and their applicability to Christians interested in using media in evangelism. Echoing the sentiments of Danah Boyd’s piece on technological utopianism and Facebook/Myspace class issues, McClellan notes that technology is not a wholly neutral thing which, in light of the above Seed magazine piece, leads me to wonder about the effects these Twitter/Facebook/Myspace universal authorship technologies will have on society in the future. What (if any) effect will the technology of Twitter have on our ability and interest in communicating with each other? These are the important questions.

November 11th, 2009 – ‘SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco

'We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die' by By Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris

Umberto Eco is another of those thinkers often appreciated for his diversity and eclecticism – in this interview with the German magazine Spiegel Online they even go so far as to reference him as a ‘polymath’. Eco talks about all sorts of things in this interview, with the stand out being the assertion that “We like lists because we don’t want to die” which is an interesting way of looking at things.

November 18th, 2009 – ‘pueraria lobata’ by Rob Holmes

More questioning of conventional wisdom here in an interesting breakdown of the idea of ‘introduced species’ of plants. Holmes argues that by declaring any species of plant ‘introduced’ is a social construct that draws an artificial line in time as though nature were a static thing to be preserved. Which is rather artificial when you think about it, and the piece references a Slate article that details “scientific push-back against the making of binary distinctions between ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ plants”. After all, as human beings we are part of nature ourselves.

November 27th, 2009 - ‘Here’s Kamahl!’ by Andy Quan

Peril Magazine is an Australian arts and culture journal that aims to provide insight and commentary on Asian-Australian arts and culture. Here they interviewed the preeminent Australian performer Kamahl about how Australia is (or isn’t) dealing well with issues of racism. It’s important in the wake of the Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday ‘Blackface Skit’ controversy and the event is discussed.

April 7th, 2009 – ‘The Dark Side of Dubai’ by Johann Hari

I read this piece right at the very end of the year – in November no less – and it seemed to make perfect sense to read it at that time, so I’m placing it here, our of order. In November/December the world was worrying about Dubai defaulting on as much as $50 billion dollars worth of debt, and this piece seemed to fit right in with the general mood about the place and its possible future – according to Hari’s time there and interviews with members of it’s migrant labour force, Dubai is a town build on cheap, almost slave labour and rife with class divisions.

December 1st, 2009 – ‘Somali sea gangs lure investors at pirate lair’ by Mohamed Ahmed

Reuters ran an investigative piece on the sea gangs of Somalia and their cooperative investments scheme. The rise and rise of Somali pirates was another important thing that worried the western world in 2009 and accompanying it was the concept of the ‘failed state’.

December 14th, 2009 – ‘The future of the Australian Liberal Party’ by Peter Hartcher

Australia has not been unaffected by the oft identified widening Left/Right divisions in politics, and here Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher discusses what the recent elevation of Tony Abbott to the Liberal leadership means for the future of the party, and by inference, the Australian political landscape.

December 20th, 2009 – ‘Crash State’ by Geoff Manaugh

BLDGBLG runs the terrifically important think-piece about the future of the state of California and, more generally a post-bankruptcy metropolis looks like. Manaugh presents two alternative futures for a bankrupt major city, each just as likely as the other, and wonders what we can do to influence the future towards the more palatable one.

December 19th, 2009 – ‘David Simon’ interviewed by Jesse Pearson

Vice Magazine interviews David Simon, creator of HBO’s critically acclaimed TV series The Wire, widely acknowledged as being the most interesting/important television series of the past year, even the past decade. In the long and informal interview, Simon talks about his creative process and the beliefs and ideologies that inform his work.

December 22nd, 2009 – ‘How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room’ by Mark Lynas

Lynas was there, attached to a political delegation at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit and he tells frankly of a China that decided to flex its political muscle. He dissects why it derailed what many had hoped would be a cut-and-dry worldwide agreement on the need for change.

And that was the year in important writing as I saw it, linked it and recommended it to friends and colleagues. I should thank everyone who linked me to these important artifacts from 2009 - there are probably too many to name, but a large portion of the credit can be given ascribed to Christopher J. Hyde and his fantastically eclectic blog '25 Times a Second'.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The Between

Margaret Robertson in the Proceedings of the 2009 DiGRA conference:

Now, this same instinct [The One Right Answer Fallacy] is starting to be felt when thinking about writing about games, as well as in making them. Should games writing be subjective and experiential? Yes. Should it be…objective, analytical and based on a sound understanding of a century of critical theory? Yes. Should it be voyeuristic like good sports writing? Yes. Can you ever write meaningfully about a game you haven't played or finished? Yes. The biggest thing wrong with game writing at the moment is how polarised the ecology is. Academic writers find game journalists hyperbolic and hysterical, game journalists find (if they ever encounter it, which they rarely do) academic writing pompous and impenetrably self-referential. And, sadly, between there's not a whole lot else.

My most recent news of late is that, as of February 2010, I’ll be starting a PhD to study The Between kind of writing and what it’s doing (or could be doing) for game discourse. I'm invested in the project because I not only want to know how The Between blogs like fit into the picture Robertson is painting; not because I'm content with finding and promoting The Between kind of writing and its authors; I want to BE in that space also. I hope it’s somewhere not far from where Permanent Death resides and I'm hoping to do some more similar projects in the not-too-distant future.

One last reminder that the ‘Fly Ben to GDC 2010’ effort looks set to finish up on December 16th, so if you’ve been holding off on donating but still planning to do so at some stage, now’s the time.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Permanent Death - The Complete Saga

After some delay I am now proud to announce that the complete Permanent Death saga is available for download. This definitive PDF version of the story, novel, machinima, whatever you want to call it, is something I am immensely proud of. I feel it eclipses both the scope and quality of anything I’ve ever produced before.

The story is 391 pages long and features hundreds of full colour screenshots from Far Cry 2, one of the most beautiful games of recent times. It chronicles my progress from the beginning of the game all the way to the end of my single in-game life some 20 play hours later. Permanent Death represents a large portion of a year of my life, and an obsession with a game that captured my imagination in a way that I struggle to articulate.

Permanent Death is a free download, however if you decide that it is worth something to you in a monetary sense, then I would only ask that you donate something small to the ongoing efforts to fly me to GDC in March 2010 which you can read more about here.

Thank you for reading SLRC and Permanent Death.

Download Permanent Death here. (104mb)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Tough Love: Left 4 Criticism

Left 4 Dead 2 came out and I all but dropped every other game for it. Was it worth the not insignificant cash outlay to obtain, plus the effort to get the uncensored international version? I think so. Does that mean it’s immune to the infinite gaze of The Critic? I think not.

The first thing I noticed about the new introductory video for Left 4 Dead 2 was that it did not do the same job as the one present in the first game. That video introduced not only the characters of the game to new players, but also began the process of familiarisation with the game mechanics. Virtually every important aspect of the game for a new player to get accustomed to is demonstrated in those first few minutes. The individual weapons; the need to melee infected away from players; what each special infected does; how tanks attack, and what to do to stay away from witches – these are all subtly introduced to players through the intro video. Even pulling up survivors that have fallen off buildings is covered. In contrast, the L4D2 video, while full of sound and fury, introduces the new aspects of the game not nearly as well and doesn’t cover some of the more critical additions.

In fact, the crux of my criticism of the newest incarnation of Left 4 Dead boils down to the fact that, in many cases, it just isn’t up to the usual valve standard of passively and actively teaching players about the game. For the longest time I ignored melee weapons because when I first used them (on the opening level of Dead Centre, naturally) I couldn’t work out how to best use them while avoiding taking damage from zombies – so I went back to what I knew how to use, which was pistols.

In this, the very first level of the first campaign, players don’t start with a primary weapon, so any choice to use a melee weapon comes at the expense of a pistol and any way of, say, shooting a smoker off of a target barring actual physical attack on either the smoker or the ensnared player. By forcing a choice of pistol or a melee weapon on players, valve do not make it easy for new players to best learn how to use melee weapons. It took another player using melee weapons to great effect in versus mode for me to fully appreciate the value of melee weapons. It’s wasn’t completely obvious to me, because at first it would seem the advantage to a melee weapon is in not having to worry about ammo, but pistols already have unlimited ammo, so the real advantage actually lies in not having a timer on melee attacks. Add to that the crucial addition that it also kills infected rather than simply push them back and you've got a real reason to drop that shiny 1-hit-KO desert eagle for a cricket bat or machete.

Another aspect that wasn’t introduced well was the special ammo types, being the incendiary and explosive rounds. The way they work currently they use up the slot shared by a medkit or defibrillator in a player’s inventory, which invites comparisons to the important role played by the medkit. Health is worth its weight in gold in Left 4 Dead, particularly in competitive game modes, so when first presented with an offensive item to replace the spot of heath; my immediate reaction was “Why in the hell would I want that?” By placing it in the same inventory slot as the medkit, Valve are saying this could be worth the health you are forgoing if used right, which is both counter intuitive and runs counter to my own experience, in which it has never been the case.

While I similarly rejected adrenaline initially for its low health boost compared to pills, it’s come to be my preferred item for that slot. Similar to the above case however, there is just nothing outside of a loading screen tip and perhaps a brief onscreen mention that explains the primary benefit of adrenaline, in that it gives you not only a movement speed boost but increases the speed of all your actions by a significant percentage. Used judiciously, an adrenaline shot can be the difference between life and group death, particularly in one of the new crescendo events. Many of these require that an object be reached and switched off to stop the ravening hordes and for these events adrenaline is a significant boon - but again, that’s never satisfactorily explained, and it is left up to players to learn through trial and error or by observing other players (often in many cases only by having it used against them).

Another example of the reliance on ‘trial and error’ for teaching players is seen in the game's treatment of the new weapons – looking at them all it’s impossible to tell which ones are “better” than others, so players have to try them all until they find which ones work best. In the original game it was quite clear which weapons were better, as there was a very limited selection of them and the “tier 2” weapons as they came to be known were clearly improved versions of the starting weapons available at the start of every level. Perhaps this clarity in weapon hierarchy was merely a result of the simplicity of the original game, but simplicity can be a virtue. Faced with too many choices, from experience, I know that people tend to stick with what they know.

A similar level of “decision overload” occurred to me when first playing Left 4 Dead 2 as the amount of on screen activity, coupled with the engorged dismemberment and plethora of viscera, resulted in a visual overload. The signal to noise ratio needed getting used to, coming from the decidedly clean and sparse levels of the original game. This could go either way, as either praise or criticism, and I’ve certainly acclimated to the new levels of visual activity by now. But still, even for as big a fan of the original as I, it was quite the learning curve.

Lastly on my list of gripes, and my major concern, is the four new characters. This is entering the realms of personal preference and taste, but to me it seems that Nick, Ellis, Rochelle and Coach aren’t as memorable as the original quartet. Perhaps it’s because they are less obvious archetypes. Coach seems the closest to a recognisable archetype and for his larger-than-life personality he remains my personal favourite. Nick and Ellis both feel too similar – Nick, I know from the pre-release publicity, is ostensibly a conman but he’s much too nice and average. That aspect of his character is struggling to shine through, however and the only quote of his that has stood out for me is most revealing of that aspect of his character.

In a game recently I heard him admonish someone for shooting him, saying “You did not just shoot the man in the three-thousand dollar suit!” Nick needs to be talking about his suit way more, and Ellis needs something to give his character a similar focus. Valve has said that they wanted him to be “southern” and innocent and naive, while avoiding representing him as a stereotypical hick. While this effort is laudable for wanting to portray southern American culture in a mature light, I wonder if the character suffers for it.

Perhaps Nick’s character too suffers for being in a game as devoted to cooperation as Left 4 Dead 2. Thinking on it, it's possible that a sharkskin-suited conman could still be an appropriate character for L4D, as he could easily be cast as The Reluctant Help, much like Francis in the original. Francis was a grouch, but he was a lovable grouch, and it was always communicated that his character had your back. But how does one pull off “the lovable conman?” I guess what I’m suggesting is that Nick is not wisecracking enough for it; he’s not even sarcastic enough.

I’m probably being a little unfair on Valve here, but I think it’s actually a bit of a shame that they used up their most memorable characters on the first Left 4 Dead game. Unless L4D2 is surpassed by a third game in another year’s time (yeah right) I hazard a guess most will still be playing the second game and not the first come this same season in 2010.

It might seem from all the above like I preferred the first game to the second, having tragically fallen into the “I liked their old stuff better than their new stuff” cliché, but that’s not quite accurate. I really like Left 4 Dead 2, but it’s a functional kind of like. It’s the same kind of like as one gets for Season 2 of The Wire – it’s great that there’s more of it, but it’s not exactly what I wanted. I don’t like it for quite the same reasons I liked the original (with one notable exception, but more on that another time).

The new explicitly linked campaign narratives also fail to live up to the ‘memorability’ test, and while there are a great number of excellent set-pieces very little left me saying ‘this is like nothing I’ve ever seen before’. And that was how I felt about every single campaign of the original on first playing. Take that with a grain of salt perhaps if only to offset the nostalgia and originality of the underlying mechanics, but even so I feel the decision to explicitly link the new campaigns chronologically was unnecessary. Like all well told stories, there will be gaps in which not much happens, and they get omitted. With everything now spelt out from beginning to end and the dots all lined up and connected for us, I feel like it was a misstep.

I’m still pleased with the L4D2 campaigns, but there was something uniquely fascinating in trying to piece together the story of everything happening around you – and even to you – in the original game. This sense of a mystery to uncover has been diminished in the sequel, and that goes hand-in-glove with a lessened sense that the graffiti on the walls of safehouses is part of uncovering the mystery. I’ve looked deliberately at a number of them, but from what I have seen they have retained little of the charm of the original – notably absent are any of the pithy one-liners such as “I miss the internet” from the first game, gone too are the scribbled out notes that tell tales of ongoing discovery by previous survivors.

Still! It’s early days for the game and some of these issues may yet get ironed out. Heck, play versus for long enough and half of these complaints disappear simply because you’ll see all the tricks, all the tactics clever players have already devised and you won’t need teaching. The issue of memorable characters however remains my biggest worry. The new quartet has a lot to live up to, and perhaps that’s the biggest problem – the previous ones were so good. So good in fact, they spawned memes. How can Coach, Rochelle, Nick and Ellis possibly live up to that?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Digital Archaeology; OR, A personal history of embarrasing comments

So I had this weird idea the other week. I wanted to go back and look at (read: poke fun at) some of the really old comments I’d left on Michael Abbott’s blog The Brainy Gamer. Follow the digital paper trail, as it were - do some digital archaeology. It’s interesting because it’s a piece of my personal history as a games-writer of varying description and it’s there for all to see.

I got my start at forming and articulating something resembling a cogent opinion on things related to games in those early, heady comment threads back in late 2007. Going back through them, the seeds of the author I've grown into are all present in those comments and it’s revealing to see those beginnings and following the threads back to the present day.

As an exercise in seeing what posts by Michael captured my attention enough to provoke a response, it can also somewhat acts as a tour guide for those that weren’t around at the very beginning of The Brainy Gamer. For a long, long time I read every single thing that Michael Abbott posted on TBG and while I still pay very close attention to everything he posts, I get the feeling it’s become increasingly difficult for him to come up with a steady stream of posts that, to my mind at least, for a while captured the essence of games criticism and discussion. He wasn't just capturing the zeitgeist, he was the zeitgeist. Being on sabbatical and having the time to devote to the blog probably played a big part in what I have come to think of as ‘the golden era’ of The Brainy Gamer. Every post was new ground, every idea was fresh, yet fully formed.

Anyway, onto the somewhat awkward comments that I posted on The Brainy Gamer in the heady days of late 2007 – here displayed in chronological order, from first to last, every single comment I ever posted on a Brainy Gamer post in 2007 (yes, I checked them all) copied and pasted, including time stamp. Please consider following the links back to the original post to see other gems and the original post that inspired me so.

A post called ‘Girls Play Games’ wasn’t the first post I ever read at TBG, but it was the first I ever commented on and here’s what I said,

Ben Abraham said...

Brilliantly put! I'm so tired of other guys who think that they have some God given right to comment away on issues that (lets face it guys) we really have very little of anything new to say about.

Lets toss the discussion over to some people who actually have some knowledge or experience in the area of girl gamers.

Thank you for such a well-rounded informative post!

October 16, 2007 at 02:04 AM

It’s an interesting comment from myself, and looking back on some more recent events I wonder if I shouldn’t have just stopped there and quit while I was ahead. Note that the hyperlink on my name links to my (now very long abandoned) Myspace music page. At this point SLRC was just a twinkle in my eye. Another interesting thing to turn up in the comments section of this article is a link to an Iris Network Directory of women videogame bloggers. It seems crazy to me that I didn’t know this existed until I found it again here, despite it once being in the very same comments thread as myself.

Moving on – the next post I commented on was ‘In praise of empathy and good teaching’ which was a look at Half-Life 2 and how Valve subtly teach the player about the game world without a tutorial. A million-and-one people have made this point since, but Michael was one of the first, making it all the way back in 2007. To call him a game criticism pioneer doesn’t even come close to doing him justice. In the comments,

Ben Abraham said...


This is a really insightful analysis of an element of HL2 I've never really thought about before... If you don't mind, I'm bookmarking this article for reference in my honours thesis next year.

October 20, 2007 at 03:58 AM

It didn’t get directly references in the thesis I completed almost 10 days shy of one year to the date of that comment, but it was at the very least played a part in shaping my thinking about games. The next post to attract the dubious honour of a comment from Ben Abraham was ‘Zelda, Meet John Ford’ which introduced readers to Abbott’s love of cinema and the western. Here’s how I responded.

Ben Abraham said...

Yeah, bad idea. Wouldn't want games to become too much like a movie now would we? :P Now... who mentioned something like that just recently...?

Now, if you WERE going to turn a movie into a game, you'd have to pick a David Lean film. I mean, Lawrence of Arabia or Dr Zhivago MMO anyone? I'd love to faction grind the Arabs to get them to attack Aquaba!!! Now THAT'S EPIC! :p

October 31, 2007 at 06:33 AM

My comment, in hindsight, feels like someone else speaking out from across the ages – am I really advocating that games should be more like movies? And if so, in what regard? I hazard a guess that it was in regards to videogames treatment of serious fare, which, FYI, many games still aren’t all that crash hot on. However we’ve seen a bit of movement in that direction from the indie game sector, so don’t colour me completely disappointed. Also – I’d still totally play any videogame that managed to capture the essence of a David Lean epic.

The next post to receive my attention was ‘Are game reviews culturally biased?’ to which I deigned to respond to someone called ‘Simon’ who posted a comment before me.

Ben Abraham said...

Hi Simon and Michael,

Simon said:

"The only thing a reviewer can be certain of and speak with any genuine authority on is how a game affects him/her and him/her alone."

This we know to be true, because we agree that opinions and tastes are subjective - BUT if we accept this, then reject the entire notion of a review (and particularly score based reviews) entirely, as any score the reviewer would give are entirely different from a score you would give.

Okay, I see the point that we find reviewers that share similar tastes to us, but the key is that they are *similar* not the same, so again, any judgment that the review would pass wouldn't automagically be at all relevant to us.

That said, there is obviously a place for review if for no other reason than because people want it - they don't want to trust the publisher / developer that their game is more worth their $120 (and yes, here in Australia that is the RRP of a new release Xbox 360 title), so we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

November 06, 2007 at 07:15 PM

Look, look! The SLRC URL finally makes its appearance in the hyperlink on my name! I doubt I had anything useful to say as yet, since my first ever post worth reading was the April ’08 entry into the Blogs of the Round Table, but still. The seeds were well and truly sown. The comment also displays my early reliance on the subjective nature of experience as a focal point for much of my thinking and writing, a trend that continues to this day. New Games Journalism didn’t know it yet, but I was coming for it and I wanted it bad.

My next Brainy Gamer comment was on a post Abbott wrote about the ultimately forgettable Blacksite: Area 51. In a post called ‘Blacksite: Where's my subversion?’ Abbott asks where the much touted ‘subversive’ part of the game was to be found, and laments its notable absence. I weigh in with my two cents,

Ben Abraham said...

Gamasutra had an interview with the guys from Army of Two just a little while before the Blacksite interview came out. THAT game has my hopes for the kind of politically aware shooter that you have in mind. Although I fear it could easily go the same way... I desperately hope not. We've got enough shooters, how about some morally interesting/challenging ones?!

Thanks for they update on Blacksite, as well. I was as intrigued as you, but I know I'm probably never going to get the chance to play it. Now I know I don't have to.

November 16, 2007 at 10:07 PM

And as far as prescient statements go, that one was pretty spot on – I never played Blacksite and Army of Two came and went without getting my dollars. I did however go looking for a video of Blacksite on Youtube and it really did look like it belonged in 2007.

In ‘Face time with Mass Effect’ Abbott notes that he wants to try and experience the game sans-pre-release hype. He also notes that his theatre background makes him particularly interested in how the acting and dialogue is handled. I added,

Ben Abraham said...

Michael said

"My training is in the theatre, so I come to video games with a strong predilection for vivid characters and well-told stories."

And yet... you don't think games should become more like movies. Okay, fair call that telling a good story doesn't automatically make it a movie, but I still think that it's interesting.

Don't get me wrong though, the more I think about it and the more I read about it, the less and less I want games to try and become cinematic. I also think that comparing them to movies, and analysing them in cinematic terms does games a disservice, so I guess I'm just playing Devils advocate here.

It's an interesting question that George poses too... how to tell a story with a lousy actor. I guess there's plenty of other ways to do it in film, though - camera angles and stuff. Hmmm. I dunno. Just thinking out loud.

Happy holiday season (as it apparently is for you Northern Hemisphere folks).

- Ben.

November 23, 2007 at 07:19 AM

What was I smoking in November of 2007? Did I really want games to become more cinematic? Did I even know what that implied? Or was I perhaps envisioning something like the more recent Call of Duty games or Uncharted 2 with their sweeping set pieces and roller-coaster ride experience? It’s quite amazing how much my taste in games has changed since November 23, 2007. That’s almost two years yet it feels like no time at all. At least I was showing signs of progress towards seeing that games are not like movies.

The next comment was on a post interestingly titled ‘Mass Effect: The game that wanted to be a movie’. Now what would Ben-Abraham-who-wants-games-to-be-movies have to say about this, given his predilection for cinematic game experiences? Funnily enough, nothing about the actual merit of Mass Effect’s cinematic approach, rather I chose to read far, far too deeply into the relationship between blank, unresponsive on screen avatars and blank, unresponsive gamers. Quoth myself,

Ben Abraham said...

Try this for a second. Think about how the camera and Shepherds actions, about what Duncan mentioned, lack any "reaction shots" and how everyone stands there passively swaying a bit - doesn't that seem to mirror *very* closely what we the actual PLAYERS are doing? That seems significant to me.

I wonder if this could possibly be why we can generally accept this kind of action from 'our avatar' - because we are doing essentially the same thing.

Think about it, we never really let out an audible gasp when a 'shocking plot twist'(TM) is revealed in a game, do we? Or maybe you have, but I know I've never had this kind of experience. I'm not really sure what kind of an implication this would have on the cinematic/non-cinematic debate, but maybe it represents a different type of engagement with the medium from film. (Seems self-evident perhaps, but then again, plenty of game designers seem to be arguing the opposite) For example, movies can make us jump in our seats and they can make us cry, which no video or computer game has ever done to me before.

*sigh* It could come down to simply being in the same room as a 50 other people all sharing the same/a similar experience, but I think that I could go on forever about this and I've got to end my comment somewhere... might as well be here.

Oh, and also, thanks a bunch Michael for taking the time (just about ever time) to answer and respond to our comments! Not every blogger does so, and it sets you apart! Here's hoping you never get swamped with a billion commenters... then again... you might like that. :)

November 25, 2007 at 07:34 AM

I certainly ask readers of my comment to ‘think about it’ a lot. I wonder what that said about me at the time. Think about it.

No really – please do. I assert that I’d “never really let out an audible gasp when a 'shocking plot twist' [was] revealed”, which was probably true at the time. But have I since? I rather like to think that I very well may have, but whether that’s to do with games actually improving or my choice to engage with games improving I have no idea. It’s certainly something that writing the Permanent Death story has forced me to think about – is Far Cry 2 the greatest game ever or is it just because I made it that way with my own efforts and attentions? And does it even matter? Also: note to self, if I ever use “maybe you have, but I haven’t” again in a sentence take it as a sign that I should probably stop talking from inexperience.

All these questions must remain unanswered for the time being, because it’s time to move onto the next comment, which as it turns out is about “listening to artists talk about their work”. In ‘That one big idea’ Abbott highlights how Super Mario Galaxy creator Yoshiaki Koizumi talks about one simple idea influencing the game in a profound way.

Ben Abraham said...

Wow. What a simple idea. And yet, so profound. If you think about it, the concept of a "flat" world is pretty foreign and artificial to us, as we ourselves inhabit a spherical world, and there are no walls to run into.

Neat stuff Michael, thanks for posting.

December 05, 2007 at 08:17 AM

The flat/round distinction is an interesting one and I wish I had a Wii to play Super Mario Galaxy on and experience first hand.

Next on our merry trip through time we come to a post about the general lack of original stories in games. In the plainly enough titled ‘we need new stories’ Abbott suggests some non-standard stories that game makers could use to avoid the Space Marine / Fantasy / Apocalypse tropes. Mostly it just boils down to games exploring stories about people other than hulking space men, but the comments thread takes off, running long and deep.

Ben Abraham said...

This is a long argument, so I'll try and keep mine input short,

I agree with Chris and Michael. If game dev's want their games to be taken seriously as an art form, then geeze, they bloody well had better get cracking on working to expand what their audiences expect from games. And the only way that I can see that happening is to make some mistakes while they experiment and do things exactly like Michael said.

I also wonder as to why you have made the arbitrary distinction between 'indie' developers and 'propper' developers, Simon. I just don't get it. Sure there are differences in team size, budget, etcetera, but they are both making games, right?

To bring it back to the original argument, that we should be encouraging the game development community to try telling some different stories, I would only like to say that I wholeheartedly agree that the current imbalance in storytelling is detrimental, but it probably will straighten itself out. I'm not an expert on art history, but I believe that with most new media forms, like film and television (and dare I include novels too? Perhaps turn of the 19th century Sci-Fi pulp novels, ala Jules Verne) that one success tends to send off a frenzy of copying and imitation. However I thing that, over time, it evens out. Here's to hoping that the gaming community matures as well (as we certainly are doing) and wakes up to the situation.

Up until recently Rock Paper Shotgun were saying on their 'Hey, developers!' page that the "Chance of the next annoinced MMO not having Elves: 3.062%" or something similar. :)

December 11, 2007 at 08:33 PM

Who is this contentious Simon fellow and where ever did he go? I’m presuming it’s not the same Simon as Simon Ferrari, but if it was that would be cool (let me know, eh Simon?). There was never a hyperlink in said persons’ name, so it’s entirely possible we may never know. I’m a bit yucked out by all those spelling mistakes; sadly I don’t think I’ll ever completely get beyond making those. Other things of note in the above comment: My love for Rock, Paper, Shotgun remains unabated to this day, in addition to being still just as interested in making future predictions based on past experience.

Next we actually have another comment on the same post – I would hazard a guess that it was one of the very first lengthy comments conversations on The Brainy Gamer. Somehow, everyone else gives up before I do and I pipe up at the end of it all with this comment,

Ben Abraham said...

Gosh this post is getting a lot of comments. And it's getting one more.

As to what Chris Stubbs said about emotion driving the games of the future, I can't help but wonder if current attitudes towards emotion are rather underdeveloped in the industry. Emotion is not simply an action/reaction response. We generally are quite unable to predict how one person will emotionally respond to something. Case in point being music. While we can make distinctions about the 'mood' of a piece, i.e. whether it is upbeat, sobmre, etc, we have no definite way of knowing how a person will emotionally respond to that mood, other than by projecting based on how we respond (a rather hit and miss kind of method).

The relatively young field of music therapy has established a general pattern, however, that if music 'meets us where we are at' emotionally, then once it has our attention, it can take us in to new places. The primary way that this is applied in music therapy is to calm down over excited patients, many of who have mental disabilities prohibiting normal verbal communication.

How would one apply this idea to gaming? I would propose that a game that wants to 'emotionally' reach me, would need to be able to somehow establish where I am 'at' before I could be taken anywhere, emotionally. At the moment, I think we have to put ourselves into the position that the game is assuming we are going to be in, and I would like to see that change.

Example 1: Valve's player monitoring stuff - they have the technology built in to examine how well or not we are playing a game - why not do things like dynamically change the pacing of the game according to our performance. Change the music, lighting or other aspects, depending on time of day. And that's not taking into account any kind of actual biofeedback systems such as pulse rate monitoring or anything. We can do so much better!

December 14, 2007 at 09:05 AM

Wow, I’m bringing music therapy into a discussion about emotion in games? Way to go 2007 self. Notice how my staunch belief in the subjective nature of experience rears its head once again. In hindsight, I can kind of see an unmentioned third approach to engaging player emotions – that the player chooses to engage and makes it so. Is it enough, however, to reach the theoretical heights of complete emotional involvement? Probably not, but either way I don’t think it happens without it, so it’s a bit of a conundrum.

The same day as the above, I also commented on a piece called ‘In search of narrative, character, and empathy’ which was an announcement that Michael was going to replay A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planescape Torment and write about them Game Diary style. I fondly recall both series. My own comment was this innocuous request for clarification,

Ben Abraham said...

I'm sorry, I wasn't entirely clear on this, are you actually going to go back and play these games? If so, sounds good! I look forward to hearing what you've got to say about games that I've never played before! :)

Growing up gamer in the 90's, I never played anything pre... maybe.. '98? At least, not in the sense of playing them the minute they came out.

December 14, 2007 at 08:41 AM

Which is true – I didn’t really play very many games, and certainly never on Day 1 of their release. The ‘Vintage Game Club’ that Michael would later establish in 2008 would do similar things with classic games of yesteryear, and I participated in a number of the first few playthroughs.

We’re coming up on the end of the 2007 year and the end of our little retrospective. On December 19 Abbott started writing about Planescape Torment. Picking up on something about NPC characters, I added this gem of a comment…

Ben Abraham said...

What about Murray from Monkey Island 3? He is still my favorite, lovable disembodied head from any videogame! :D

December 19, 2007 at 09:00 AM

It’s true. Murray remains my favourite, lovable disembodied head from a videogame.

Next, on ‘Day Three’ of his Planescape playthrough, Michael Abbott decided he wanted to slow down his playing, take more time and be a little more thorough. In response, I quoted Radiohead. As you do.

Ben Abraham said...

To quote the chorus of a song by a famous British rock band,

"Hey man,
slow down.
Slow down.
Idiot slow down,
Slow down."

Enjoy your leisurely stroll through Planescape.

December 22, 2007 at 09:03 PM

I was very much in the grips of a swooning addiction to the delicious ear noise of Radiohead. This is another thing I may possibly never get over. Also of note is Abbott’s philosophy that games are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, with the slow motif would coming back with his memorable use of the ‘Chew your food’ metaphor a year later.

The second last comment I would make in 2007 was on a post called ‘A plea for journalistic integrity’, which was a discussion of the tragic death of Zoe Garcia. If you recall, Garcia was killed when her older brothers allegedly tried out “Mortal Kombat” moves on the girl and abused her until she died. Amongst this is a discussion of how games had, and have, become easy targets for meadia beat-ups, and I posted this comment:

Ben Abraham said...

I really think that gaming is *just* about at the tipping point where so many people now play and have first hand experience of video games that, surely, public opinion will recognise this kind of story as exactly you have said it to be, a sensationalist, headline grabbing story, and that sooner rather than later, prominent media outlets are going to be left with egg on their face. Most people know better than this, and it is only destroying the media's credibility in the public eye.

So, don't get too worried about it - we'll get there.

December 26, 2007 at 11:56 PM

I’m beginning to think that we experienced the tipping point for this phenomenon in Australia perhaps just a week or so ago. Melbourne’s The Age Newspaper ran a sensationalist story about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the leaked footage of a terrorist attack level. The piece was clear sensationalism at its disgusting best, and yet the comments thread on the article was full of commenter’s ridiculing the piece as exactly that. I can’t see this sort of level of awareness going backwards anytime soon, so I think we may be on the downhill run to wider game acceptance. Of course, game literacy and experience will get us only so far, but it’s certainly a start. Like I said in 2007, “we’ll get there”. Hey, that was another of those prediction things.

Last post for the year of 2007 was this, on Abbott’s “Don’t trust the skull: Final Thoughts on Planescape Torment”:

Ben Abraham said...

Spoiler warning might be a good idea. Then again... it is such an ancient game.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm intrigued by the game, especially its Momento like elements (I thought that was one of the most convincing movie twists of all time!) I think that your experience with the interface is a similar sentiment to one expressed by Leigh Alexander when she talked about 'going soft' in terms of difficulty in the Castlevania series of games. She found incredibly hard one particular reissue of an older one.

Is PST abandonware yet?

December 31, 2007 at 02:40 AM

No, Planescape Torment is most definitely not abandonware, younger self, it’s apparently about to be re-released by Interplay for about $15.

That was the year of 2007 according to Ben Abraham and his comments on The Brainy Gamer blog. Was it good for you too? This little retrospective-meets-introspection thing was good fun for me and If you’re trying to read (too much) into it you might care to make a prediction about the future of SLRC. From this navel-gaze of a post and the general quiet here in recent weeks, you would not be far wrong to wonder if I was contemplating something rather final.

In case that’s too much ambiguity for you, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with respect to SLRC. I guess it rather depends on what happens before the end of the year.

Also, you patient readers deserve an update on the Permanent Death novel-thing – I swear, it’s still coming and hopefully soon.