Reading Notes #4

1. The paper asserts that like documentary films, it is possible to make a game that utilizes and builds on real life rather than fiction. The author sets forth several potential criteria for documentary games, such as they must “generate events bearing a plausible relation to reality”, they must make an in-depth analysis of some real-world aspect (rather than just having realistic scenery or being based on a true story), and be objective. The author asserts that documentaries are meant to be presentations of information without bias, but I would argue that all documentaries are shaped by the creator’s opinions on the topic and therefore there is no problem with a documentary game having a point of view. The author sets forth five potential categories of documentary games: procedural, interactive, reflexive, generative, and poetic. A procedural mode creates “the illusion of freedom while defining the scope of the game’s constructed actuality”, like you can’t necessarily redefine who your enemies are but you have options on how to interact with them. In an interactive mode, the player can become the agent interacting with the subject matter, much as a documentary filmmaker usually does in making the film. The reflexive mode is characterized by both being a documentary, and critiquing itself in that form. A generative documentary game could be powered by “real-world data or processes”. A poetic game would be less literal, and more of an “abstract presentation of raw material designed to evoke mood, loose association, fragmented and subjective perception”. I think it is possible for games to “get real”, and the paper outlines several methods by which it is possible. We can borrow ideas from documentary films to make a documentary, or “real-world” game.

 

2. Super Columbine RPG explores the Columbine tragedy through the eyes of the attackers and explores their motivation for committing the act of violence.  By having players play as the attackers, the designer humanizes mass murderers above the victims. The game designer’s point is that the Columbine attackers were really actually victims in a way of a combination of societal pressures and influences. Oh yes, my heart weeps for these two privileged white men who felt like they didn’t fit in and expressed it through violence. I don’t care about a game about getting inside a mass murderer’s head, because the news and our society is already fascinated with doing that. I definitely think that our conversations about mass killers should include discussions about male entitlement, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity, but I’m sick of people painting murderers as victims simply because their race and gender make them respectable to society; and I’m not convinced that this game becomes a good criticism of this practice simply by emulating it. In the game, you see what surrounded the attackers in their lives, what music they listened to, what their friendship was like, and how they felt about what they planned to do. It feels like an expansion of the never-ending news coverage that digs through every facet of a mass murderer’s life each time there’s a mass killing. Most recently, Dylan Roof comes to mind. It’s definitely creepy to be placed in the same headspace as a pair of monsters. You move around a low-fi flat animated landscape of rooms that is reminiscent of Pokemon games for the GameBoy as ominous chip tune versions of Nirvana songs drone in the background. You encounter classmates and have an attack menu of options for how to murder them. I understand that the game designer probably meant for this to feel repulsive, for it not to be fun. The game certainly is effective at communicating its polemical viewpoint. It elicited a strong reaction from me, but kind of makes me question if all polemical games must be offensive, or if there’s a taste level where you can make a statement without being so crass about it? Is there a more nuanced approach that would have served as a better exploration and criticism of mass murders and how we react to them than this game?

Dys4ia is about the game designer’s journey on hormone-replacement therapy. Players see and empathize with her struggles as she’s called “sir” on her way home, as her gender is questioned by cis feminists, as she deals with blood pressure problems, and more. The very first level is trying to navigate through a hole in a wall as a geometric Tetris shape that physically cannot fit, as an arrow blinks beckoning you forward and almost mocking that you can’t fit. On some levels, you can only move very quickly or very slowly, things flash bright colors, and are disorienting. It really effectively places you in the designer’s shoes as they go on this journey. She talks about feeling more visible than she’s ever been and fielding questions from family members. The background music begins layered and confusing, and becomes calmer once you reach levels where you begin gaining confidence and receiving support from loved ones.  The mini games you must complete to advance level to level like shaving your chest or walking home are simple game-mechanically but really immerse you in the story. You empathize because you are placed in the designer’s shoes, it’s you walking home, you defending your identity, you taking care of your virtual body. It’s a really intimate way to experience the designer’s story. I thought this game was super powerful and certainly more nuanced than Super Columbine RPG.

Perfect Woman is a game about fitting into the mold of a perfect woman at different stages through your life. I didn’t get to play this one but I was intrigued by the title so I looked through the info about it. Players must contort themselves in front of a Kinect to fit into the molds and roles of various female archetypes. I think it’s super interesting that the designers found a way to take this taxing mental process women go through and make it into a physical challenge. The movements the players must perform are sometimes ridiculous and unnatural, I think as a comment on the ridiculous pressures and standards someone like a female foreign minister would be held to, above and beyond that of her male peers. All three of these games make the player identify with the character in the game by placing you in their shoes. That seems to be an effective strategy for polemical games.

 

3. I definitely think that games can be a medium for expressing a point of view. In some cases, the serious topic might “get in the way of fun”, but I think in some cases that’s the point. A game about killing kids at Columbine that is fun would be extremely offensive, and hopefully that’s not the point. But not all games have to be fun. I think it’s enough if they elicit a response. Dys4ia draws attention to what it feels like to deal with some of the hurdles the designer did through the beginning of their hormone replacement therapy. It’s not so much fun, as it is expressive and poignant. Perfect Woman points out and pokes fun at the ridiculousness of standards for women and perhaps even the performative aspects of gender. I definitely think that it is possible to play and be critical at the same time, but I feel like there is a little bit of inherent baggage in using a game as an artistic medium to discuss something serious because games have this lighthearted connotation. I think nuance and tone is important to make sure that you’re making the point you think you’re making because some aspects of the gameplaying experience is out of your hands and in the hands of the players.

 

4. Documentary films and documentary games are certainly related. They are both based on real life but present a certain point of view or set of issues. They may not tell you what conclusion you are supposed to draw, but rather lead you most of the way down the path to some certain realization. In a film, a filmmaker can tell one linear story and hand it to the viewer, and then the viewer passively consumes it. A game must be interactive, so it must have choices in it that have not been predetermined by the designer. There is less absolute control in a game, and the designer must set up the system for the player to have the experience they want them to have rather than showing them an exact sequence of images and words like a film does. It’s definitely easier to passively absorb a film than a game, so games may have the advantage of engaging the audience more easily. Though they are different mediums, they can potentially accomplish similar goals.