A new kind of conversation about games in culture
Well Played 1.0 was announced this week. It's a collection of games writing drawing from an all-star cast, and it's gotten a lot of attention (perhaps in part because so many of its authors have prominent blogs):
Video games may overemphasize the value of elements associated with epic films. Of course, games aren't films, but they may seem increasingly more like literature -- even, perhaps, epic literature. Then again, I don't think I'll hold my breath on that adaptation of Dante's Inferno.
What do games need to attain cultural relevance as a medium? Offworld noted that Jason Rohrer's games are emotionally deep, but could games handle a sensitive topic like Alzheimer's? I can certainly see the disease as a novel and interesting antagonist, but it's likely hard to model.
Perhaps cultural relevance comes in how games and culture interact. Heroine Sheik's feminist view on RapeLay and the ethics of allowing sexual abuse in games makes it fairly clear that games do not exist in a vacuum, regardless of how detached from reality players may feel while in the "flow state" -- and even in a flow state, it seems unlikely that players will ever be able to fully escape themselves. To take a less narrativist (and more ludological) view, there's always the argument that the aesthetic elements of a game are merely the plating and garnish of the meal that are game mechanics and dynamics. Most metaphors I can think of to express the notion of ludological prominence seem to be about food, but I can say that corrupt narrative and aesthetics are much more likely to make me ill than decrepit mechanics.
But games don't only interact with individuals. In the way games like Dragon Quests build and incorporate cultures and dialects (also at GameSetWatch), they also begin a conversation about real human cultures. This will also be true in the dialog of designers and player-creators that yields user-generated content.
Terminal diseases are problematic in stories, as they drastically limit the player's agency and can render choices illusory at best. Bioshock 2, on the other hand, may present meatier choices, though there's always the danger that the game's mechanics may render the choices from freely-chosen options into problems with mechanically preferred (or even objectively "correct") answers. Beyond that, there may be added frustration because of the "readability" problem in which design and interface complexity turns tricky and hard-to-perform achievements into convoluted and hard-to-understand puzzles. It's troubling to imagine a game in which Parkinson's is cured through expertly-timed jumps between platforms.
Critical Distance went on something of a genre bender last week. I may sneer at a number of schools of literary analysis, but Genre Theory will always have a piece of my heart. While I'm not much of a fan of personal accounts of gameplay experiences inasmuch as some consider them academically worthwhile, I do believe that there is real meaning in the ways that a work interacts with audience expectations by following or avoiding certain genre conventions. I've said before that trying to shove games (or any other human creation) into specific categories is a fool's errand, but I find the ways that works do and don't fit boxes to be fascinating.
I'm a fan of the way board games such as Puerto Rico and Agricola seem more able to step away from violent premises and instead focus on non-violent competition. This past weekend I got a chance to try Pandemic, a charming board game that not only moves away from violence, but also is cooperative instead of competitive.