Reading Note #4

1) Bogost and Poremba’s essay entitled Can Games Get Real? is an essay that aims to analyze whether certain games have the potential to become documentaries of real life events and how successful they can be as a medium. After defining what documentaries (as a film medium) are, Bogost and Poremba begin discussing the points of intersection and translation between the two documentary mediums: films and games. Much like in its film counterpart, in order for a game to be considered a documentary, a game must articulate an actuality and must generate events that “[bear] a plausible relation to reality.” Examples that they offer include comparing the difference between Sim City and a game that would possibly document urban renewal in a declining London borough. Additionally, it is important for a game to do more than just create a realistic game environment and to integrate a sense of “informing logic” within its gameplay. Similar to many movies which are “based on a true story”, a game which simply creates a realistic environment is sacrificing documentative content for pure entertainment value.

Going further, Bogost and Poremba compare the different modes defined for cinematic documentary and reframe these models to fit digital games. These categories (for film-based works) are: expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, performative, and poetic. Translated into the game world, they become:

Procedural:

• involves using a rule structure to drive the story

• said structure creates the illusion of freedom while crafting the game’s “constructed actuality”

Interactive:

• transcending the film limitation of being an observer and allowing a viewer to be the participant

• “an advantage for documentary games, as the constructed nature…is never as transparent as in lens-based forms”

Reflexive:

• both a documentary and a critique of the form

• deconstructing rules of the game to master it and realize the deeper meaning behind it

Generative:

• games driven by real-world data or processes that are continuously constructed by its subjects

Poetic:

• abstract presentation of raw material designed to evoke mood, loose association, fragmented and subjective perception

Bogost and Poremba conclude the paper by making note of the slightly negative light that is held to video games and the impact that it has on documentary games. Though documentary video games have so much potential as a medium, the fact that video games themselves are “devoid of serious consideration” and part of a “low culture” severely hampers and slows down the growth of a strong and powerful medium with “potential yet to be fully explored.” In order for documentary games to be truly successful, they argue, games must transcend the realm of “documentary” and develop properties and parameters that are unique to the genre as a game form.

2) Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is a game that puts you in the shoes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the infamous shooters of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. By allowing us to play as the shooter(s), the polemic point of view of the game is very evident and clear: for the player to experience the massacre from an uncommon and arguably an undesirable point of view. Whether the game was designed to evoke sympathy for the shooters or to portray them in a victimized light is something I’m not quite sure about. However, I do feel like it was a very effective means of exposing and recreating the events of the shooting and for showing how twisted the minds of Harris and Klebold must have been. As I went through the game, avoiding security cameras and planting propane bombs, a sense of “I don’t want to do this anymore” started to grow in my head. This feeling was furthered especially when I began the actual shooting phase of the game. The combat system, which reminded me strongly of Final Fantasy 7 required me to battle helpless characters (classmates of Harris and Klebold) with a choice of weapons that I had at my disposal. It got old pretty quickly and to be honest, wasn’t fun at all. Although I can see the appeal of making a game like this, especially with the flashbacks that show the “torture” and bullying that the characters had to endure, I didn’t particularly enjoy playing it. That’s not to say that it’s not a good game by any means, as it dude induce a sense of mild horror and strong discomfort within me.

Papers, Please is a game where you play as a immigration inspector who Approves or Denies Entry to the communist country of Arstotzka. It was honestly a pretty fun game with many challenges, one of the biggest ones being understanding the rules and the territories. I was checking the “manual” constantly and faced a ton of warnings which eventually escalated to staggering credit fines for the mistakes I made in approving visas. The more I played, the harder the levels became (with more rules and restrictions of who and who wasn’t allowed into the country) and the higher my stress levels became. Although the game is a simple, straightforward non-dramatic game, it was very realistic in creating a sense of duty for me. If I accidentally allowed the wrong person in, a shootout could occur resulting in my termination of duty. If my performance suffered too much, my family’s wellbeing would decline. Ultimately, I believe that it simulated a job in any Soviet/Communist country very well; boring and monotonous, but essential for survival, stressful, and very punishing if done incorrectly.

3) I feel that polemical games offer a huge potential as a medium for expressing a point of view. Although many may not particularly be fun, the feeling of fun itself is completely subjective. Much like how I did not enjoy playing Super Columbine Massacre RPG! at all, others may feel that it is a marvelous turn-based shooter worthy of nominations and awards. Regardless of fun, it was very effective in conveying the creator’s point of view and to virtually recreate the event from a perspective that was previously completely untapped. For polemical games, I don’t believe that fun should be the motive for the game by any means. I can see why it could be important as a selling point for commercial success, but the strength that they have in story-telling and alternative documentation is unparalleled to anything other mediums can offer. Just like how Bogost and Poremba noted, polemical games allow players to become an active participant in situations, rather than passive observers who cannot interact with what is going on at all. As a form of documentary and simulation, I feel like polemical games are extremely successful, but the fun factor of the games is something that I believe is highly subjective and a case-by-case basis. Although Papers, Please isn’t the most entertaining of games, there is still a value of fun  for me that is involved in Denying citizens and feeding your family.

4) To me, I believe that documentary games are infinitely more immersive and effective than documentary films. As I’ve stated numerous times, the power of documentary games comes from the ability for them to allow players to simulate and become immersed in the environment. The potential of games as a learning tool is incredible, and evokes a much stronger emotional connection and bond between viewer/player and medium. Anyone can watch a documentary about Columbine and hear about the “torture” and bullying that Harris and Klebold were subjected to, but to actually get rejected by Brenda or to actually be outcasted in the cafeteria adds a whole new dimension. Although you aren’t physically becoming J̶o̶h̶n̶ ̶M̶a̶l̶c̶o̶v̶i̶c̶h̶ Harris and Klebold, a connection via sympathy is developed because these depressing actions are actually happening to you, albeit virtually. Though some may be as disconnected playing a video game as they are watching a documentary, there is much to be said about the strength and potential of actively (virtually) experiencing in a video game as compared to passively observing a documentary film.

Despite these strengths of documentary games, there is still much to be said about how the world perceives video games. As Bogost and Poremba mention, there is still a huge stigma towards video games as many – especially among the older generation – do not view the medium seriously. To many, the fact that it is a “game” means that it is purely meant for fun and must be kept in the realm of entertainment. This is where documentary films have incredible strength, as many regard documentary films with high regard for the level of legitimacy and seriousness. Additionally, certain documentaries, such as The Salt of the Earth, would lose much of its visual meaning if gamified. As much of its strength lies in its photographical and cinematic power, making a game out of it could detract from its overall meaning. Moreover, I’m sure many people would rather learn by sitting on a couch and watching an entertaining film rather than spending time, stress, and possibly frustration t experience it through a video game. As I mentioned in my last question, the factor of fun is very subjective, and many would definitely fail to find the fun in these documentary games.

Though video games have already come a long way in proving themselves as worthy in carrying the documentary weight, there is still much more ground to be covered in making them common and more mainstream. Despite their strengths, there are still certain flaws and gaps that surround these games which are more or less covered by the prevailing form of film documentary.