Reading Note #4

In Bogost and Poremba’s “Can Games Get Real?”,  the authors discuss the ways in which the term “Documentary Games” works, and does not work as a label. Bringing in the frame of reference of documentary signals to the player/viewer that this experience serves a purpose in learning, beyond pure entertainment. However with games, perhaps the realization of this purpose isn’t quite the same: for example, Alexander Galloway argues that it is less important to have a visually realistic/similar setting, and more important to recreate the situation in which the real life event occurred. They use the example of a game about JFK’s assassination as an example in the text, explaining how the game allows for many outcomes, and only if everything goes exactly one certain way, does the assassination occur in the way that historians tell us it did. This points to the more realistic and poignant truth around conspiracy theories, and the confusing nature of the the evidence presented in the investigation. You can imagine that a game with stunning renderings of the figures involved and environment around them, would perhaps receive accolades, but not for it’s realism.  Additionally, games don’t show merely what did happen, but all of the possibilities of what could have happened, commenting more on the context in which certain outcomes come to pass.

The authors also discuss how photography is no longer synonymous with “reality”,  and in fact, as Tracy Fullerton points out, a shift is taking place in public opinion that perhaps simulations and virtual models of reality are more realistic than film/photo.

Documentary games also have this “Aha” moment, that goes along with learning something new, reenforcing existing knowledge, or putting the pieces of a situation together: the player “must both recognize and accept the game’s documentary quality” in order for that moment to happen. Another way you can support the documentary quality of a game is through adding real source material, similar to a documentary film.

The authors then use Bill Nichols terminology for cinema to define 5 different modes of documentary quality in games: procedural, interactive, reflexive, generative, and poetic.

In the end, the authors overarching belief is that documentary games can exist, but there is much more left to explore, and they critics and game makers much try to step out of the constraints of the word “documentary”. The more that the unique qualities of games are used for documentary means, the stronger the genre will be.


2. couldn’t play columbine.

Unmanned: In this game, you play a man who is in the military, working again terrorists in another country. You have a son, and a wife, and colleagues, and as you answer questions throughout the game, you see how your words effect your world. Additionally, each situation is framed like a war battle/competition, where if you do the right thing, you win a medal. This serves to show how a war mentality creeps into everything, especially as you play war video games with your young son. With each set of options for response, there is a clear bias set up, and the “wrong” answers are fairly obvious, but also not unrealistic.

McDonalds video game: In this game, you are an omnipresent figure of power at Mcdonalds, overseeing 4 areas of the company: agriculture, feed lot, McDonalds restaurant, and the corporate headquarters.  The biggest thing I felt, was that when you started, you have not that much money, and nothing really happening, but once you set up a few basic workers/crops, everything starts moving, your funds go up, and you can just watch as money pours in. Essentially, you are positioned so that you see all the benefits of your work, without seeing any downsides. When i chose to bulldoze a village to make room for cows, there was no negative outcry, there were no human faces that I had to look at while I did it. When you are in a position of power like that, you can be removed enough from the every day, actual parts, and just forget that down below there are other things happening. The literal view point of the game reinforces this: you are floating above the scenes.


3. I think that games are absolutely a medium for expressing a point of view. I don’t worry as much about the “lack of fun” aspect, more about how intensely biased a polemical game can become. In reading the first article, the focus was on documentary games using the format of a game to its highest potential, and to me, this is all about the complexity of real situations. Of course in the McDonalds game, I am not looking for a portrait of McDonalds that is loving and open, but I want the viewer to come to those conclusions on their own, not be hit over the head. I felt similarly about the dialogue in unmanned, a little too blunt or obvious. I think as a genre it is completely possible, and very exciting, but the most wonderful work that could emerge from it, is the subtly in each story, character, and action.

4. Documentary games place the viewer/player in a situation, but more importantly in a mindset. By going through actions, they can start to relate, sympathize, hate or understand their character’s actions in a much stronger way than in a documentary film. The film will continue to play whether or not you are engaged as a viewer, but without a player, games stop. Additionally, documentaries are essentially forced to take one perspective and present it as true. Unless they want to make an uber long film, it is very hard to represent the various truths, perspectives, and readings of a situation. A game is more conducive to this complexity, because in a technical sense, all the parallel stories are stacked on top of each other, like in reality. I think this ability to explore different possible outcomes is the most interesting part of documentary games to me. Both documentary games and films have the limitation of “looking nice”. People tend to be more engaged with both mediums when the visuals are good, realistic, pretty etc.