Video game censorship and feminist criticism

Last week, the white house held a meeting to talk about violence in video games, and their potential connection to gun violence. This has many gamers worried that the government will do something to censor video games, or pressure the games industry to self-regulate.  My opinions on the matter: 1) this is an obvious ploy to “address” gun violence without addressing gun violence, 2) I defer to the research that says video games do not cause gun violence, and 3) the second amendment shouldn’t exist. If you disagree with any of these propositions, you are welcome to yell at me in the comments, as one does.

But I’m not really here to talk about gun violence, I’m here to talk about feminism. See, I did a forbidden thing, I read some internet comments. And I found that some people think that Trump’s talk of censoring video games is similar or analogous to feminists/SJWs talking about problematic or sexist aspects of video games. As a feminist/SJW myself, my reaction is, “uh no.”

But it also raises the interesting question, what do I want?

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Difficulty in Dark Souls 3

Last year when I talked a bit about difficulty in video games, I mentioned the Dark Souls as an exemplar of difficult video game design. More recently, I had opportunity to play Dark Souls 3. I finished it too. So here are my thoughts.

Like other adventure games, Dark Souls 3 is essentially a power fantasy. It gives the player a sense of increasing power over time. It begins by disempowering the player, beating them down over and over. But the player is empowered to eventually succeed. And what makes this experience so effective, is that the success depends almost entirely on the player’s skill and cleverness, instead of their character’s level. After completing the game for the first time, you can start over from the beginning and find it significantly easier.

Something that this game makes me think about, what even is difficulty? Does it mean it’s mentally taxing? Does it mean it’s frustrating? Does it mean very few people can succeed?

In the context of Dark Souls, people seem to think difficulty means “You die a lot,” but I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it. New players die a lot, but instead of thinking of it as failure, you could think of it as a necessary part of the learning process. One of the Dark Souls taglines is “Prepare to die”, which is literally telling players that dying is a necessary part of the game. Dying is even a essential component of the narrative–you’re a cursed undead who comes back to life each time you die. It’s not like other games where if you die, the universe rewinds and the game says “let’s pretend that never happened”.  In other words, dying in Dark Souls is diagetic.

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Accessing difficult games

Cuphead is a recent video game hit, best known for its animation inspired by 1930s cartoons, and for being extremely difficult. This has led some game critics to discuss difficulty as a design choice. Is it justified to make a game so difficult that it excludes some players from seeing all the content? This isn’t the first time game critics have tried to answer this question. Last year, people were discussing the value and possibility of an easy mode in Dark Souls.

To make it clear, nobody disputes the value of a difficult game. But if it is feasible, should the designers also offer some sort of “easy mode” to make the content accessible to players who can’t complete the normal mode?

On the face of it, it seems that actively preventing some players from seeing content only reduces the amount of joy in the world. Some players might enjoy the feeling that they are accessing content that other players cannot access, but it’s not clear that this is enough to justify making the game less accessible.

On the other hand, that difficulty may be essential to the game design, at least for the particular game in question. From the linked article about Dark Souls:

I think Dark Souls might collapse if it compromised. If there was an easy mode, people would play it and then ask those of us who’d been here all along, ‘what was all the fuss about?’ That’s what happened to me when I had to cheat my way through sections of The Witness. The joy of a solution lost, I couldn’t understand the appeal.

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Cooperative board games

Cooperative board games are difficult to design. One major failure mode of a cooperative game is one player directing all the others what to do. At that point, it becomes a one-player game, only there are several additional people sitting around being bored.

One of the best-known cooperative games, Pandemic, has this problem really bad. Pandemic requires players to carefully coordinate in order to contain several diseases as they spread throughout the world. Unfortunately, the “careful coordination” often amounts to the most experienced player telling everybody else what to do. This is often a winning strategy, because the more experienced player can usually unambiguously identify the correct move. I refuse to play Pandemic for this reason.

But I do like other cooperative games. Here I’ll go through some examples and describe how I think they address the issues with Pandemic.

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Quantum games

Last March, I attended the APS March Meeting, which is the largest annual physics conference in the country (and perhaps world?). During the conference, one of the particularly memorable sessions was about quantum gamification, making games using concepts from quantum physics.

Quantum games are an interesting concept, because usually “physics-based games” are only based on classical physics, specifically gravity and collision. The point of having a physics-based game is to have a relatively complex system where you don’t need to teach players every single detail, because they already have an intuition for how gravity and collision work. But obviously, when it comes to quantum physics, players don’t have an intuition, thus the physics must serve some other purpose.

In most of these games, the nominal purpose is either (a) teach physics, or (b) use player data to help physicists. Although I get the sense that the nominal purpose is not always the true purpose. I’m not that confident in the value of collecting player data, and suspect that the true purpose is more about public outreach. And some of the “outreach” projects kinda felt like they were just a way for physicists to do something fun. Well, whatever persuades people to give you grant money.

Anyways, let’s check out some of these games.

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But is it really capitalism?

A few years ago at a conference about queer video games, I said to an acquaintance, “It seems like there are some financial barriers to creating good queer video games.” My acquaintance says, “Yeah, well that’s capitalism.”

But is it? Is it really???

Sure, capitalism makes it hard to make well-funded games catering to a minority group. But it’s pretty hard to imagine an alternative economic system where we decide to invest a disproportionate amount of resources for the cultural benefit of a minority. Of all the problems created by capitalism, I’m not sure this is one of them. If anything, I would blame… eh… utilitarianism.

Capitalism vs utilitarianism

You may have heard that, in the simple case, a “free” market maximizes the good for the greatest number of people–that is, it’s the most utilitarian economic system. It chooses the optimal pricing and product allocation, eliminating “deadweight loss”, which is an angry red triangle that inhabits the supply/demand curves. There are of course, a lot of issues with this claim, most of which are beyond the scope of this post. The currently relevant issue is that hardly any markets qualify as simple.

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Maybe literary fiction is just bad fiction

Earlier I mentioned this Gamasutra article which I disliked, and one thing I disliked about it was its discussion of literary fiction. According to the author, literary fiction was the epitome of cultural elitism, defining itself as simply better than “genre fiction”.

As someone who likes literary fiction and dislikes genre fiction, the discourse around literary fiction constantly annoys me. Hey, maybe I just like it because I like it, not because I think I’m better than you. Why does it always have to be about elitism? Why can’t it just be about differing tastes?

I am also complaining as an aspiring author of literary fiction. I do not consider myself to be very good at writing fiction. I have barely made it into writing the novel I started three years ago. I’ve encountered two obstacles: First, nobody I know likes to talk about literary fiction, so I don’t get the ideas I need. Second, there’s an expectation that literary fiction is “good” and that it’s hard to write. At this point I’m writing it for myself and don’t care if it’s good–why can’t I write “bad” literary fiction, what makes people think that’s a contradiction in terms?

But I realize that the elitist image of literary fiction often comes from lovers of literary fiction themselves. I wish to turn that on its head, by reframing literary fiction as bad fiction, bad fiction that I happen to like.

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