Reading Notes #4

1) Games can exhibit documentary potential, though the medium does have differences from film, which is the conventional medium for portrayal of realistic subjects. There is already some difference between a real subject and its portrayal, even in film; some element of construction is always at hand in the organization and obedience to genre tropes. However, in terms of interactive digital media like games, the construction is even more extensive. Games aren’t the mere recording of visual reality, but can include the recreation and recalculation of them. Some might limit this to supplementary material in the game, like clips and character/setting elements, but it can be more extensive. A challenge to documentary games is the cultural perception of games as something trivial and entertainment based, which can be an obstacle to any game’s power as documentary media. Ultimately, due to the unique nature of games and their interactive and constructive quality, a new sort of genre will have to be created to fully encompass the ostensible truth of documentary and the specific qualities of games.

2) I think games can exist as expressive media, or propose a point of view, whether that be merely in its subject matter, or in the mechanics and limitations/allowances of the game. I do think that its critical consideration – the component necessary to clearly and thoughtfully connect players with the game’s expressive intention – can frequently be limited by the fact that it is, in fact, a game. Context – i.e. the scenario and community in which the game is experienced – becomes essential. Obviously, our Game Design class will be able to recognize a lot more of the artistic aspects of a game than, say, the average high school kid who plays games for pure pleasure, and is thus only attuned to reading the pleasure potential of a game. “Fun” could be bolstered or obstructed by a game’s expressive intention. Jonathan Blow’s Braid features unique, and occasionally elusive, contemplations on the nature of time and self; the player’s explicit awareness of these themes would make the game more intellectually stimulating, and thus, more exciting. Every move triggers a new realization by the player. On the other hand, a specimen like Aliah’s card game on the perception of beauty & race thrives in its ability to make players uncomfortable. I’m not sure if a game’s quality of being “uncomfortable” completely excludes “fun” but it certainly could inhibit it. Yet the strength of her game is in it being uncomfortable. I do think, ultimately, that critique and play can exist in the same space; the relationship between the two, however, isn’t always so easy.

3) I’m honestly not familiar with many games, especially any of a more serious/critical nature. The closest instance I can think of is one game on Facebook, where an individual player played as a ruler of a miscellaneous nation. Each time they log on, they’re faced with various issues, with different options of how to solve them. No option is a clear best, and compromises are made; these choices begin to shape your perception as a ruler, whether that be more of a Dictator, or a more Democratic ruler, and this is also reflected in the reaction of the citizens that live in your nation. While this game does not take a specific stance on what the “correct” way to rule a nation might be, I think it does have a polemical quality in its complex offering of meaningful choice, and caused me and my friends to reconsider the complexity of political leadership.

Another game with polemical qualities, which I’ve never played, but have heard a lot about, is BioShock. The game’s subtext feeds from views of Ayn Rand (Objectivism) and Orwell. It features a sort of utopian society gone wrong (so: dsytopia), and uses that as a theme: utopian society which fails due to the humans/human qualities at the helm of the philosophies which uphold it. In that way, the game sort of functions as a commentary on polemics in general, perhaps, in referencing those political/sci-fi polemical writers.

4) I see them as separate. Honestly, I feel like documentary games need to be something completely different and they are otherwise trying to borrow from a genre that is ultimately not suited for them. Games are inherently very constructive and interpretive. To begin the process of showing ‘truth’ one has to decide what that looks like and plays like. The same could be said, of course, for editing in film. But I think anyone could agree that this constructive interpretation process is a lot more aggressive within games. I do think, though, the interactive aspect of games, in playing and receiving a response, is quite powerful, and yet to be fully exploited. To experience something, actively, can leave a very strong impression, while the passive experience of merely “viewing” still allows the audience to separate themselves from the subject matter.