A new kind of conversation about games in culture
A lot of folks who have a scholarly mind towards games spent last week preparing for and attending the Games For Change Conference in New York City. By most accounts, it was an enlightening and enjoyable time.
While a number of all-star games writers were at G4C or preparing for E3 (June 2-4), we still had a fair amount of good games thought. While the G4C conference talked about how games can provide insight into current events, others were writing about how science and news coverage can better discuss games. Still others made the important point that mainstream games do a fairly awful job at addressing important cultural issues such as addressing the existence of life outside the hetero-normative.
The Escapist may have planned for a potential G4C lull, because last week's article spoke directly to the idea of academic games studies. While some of the articles were more on teaching the craft of games development, others attacked the ubiquitous "those who can't, teach" prejudice of games-industry insiders. Others gave accounts of how game mods and scenarios are great tools for providing context to classrooms, from learning German and understanding history.
The month ended yesterday, which means the end of the May topic for the Blogs of the Round Table. I dearly wish I could have contributed myself. Alas, it was a busy month. I hope for more great topics like this once I'm past my July wedding date.
The notion of "context" when discussing games is at least as layered as in Plato's allegorical cave. G4C often focuses games more explicitly on their social and cultural contexts, but games can apply to in perhaps less obvious ways as well, and games often have elements of simulation, and simulations inevitably create comparisons with the reality they model. The allegorithm of any game simulation is, after all, a choice.
Taking a step inward, games are released into the context of the greater games library, with various other games sharing similarities both intimate and tenuous. Games are released into an Alexandrian library shelved with perennial classics and well-worn favorites. Games have a context of their genre conventions and the lengthy history of those genres.
One would be remiss to speak of context in games without also talking about play-spaces: the internal contexts created as environments within the Magic Circle. Certainly level design is a large part of that context, but so are background music and the artistic mode in which visual elements are formed and presented to the player. And so are the myriad little details that form a sense of cultural gestalt within a game area. While many consider the game's narrative to be more the game itself than any context, the prescribed story arc is a context for the mechanics and gameplay of the game.
Stepping into the player's shoes, the interactions of the player and the game's internal context are generally considered the dynamics of the game, when using the "MDA" paradigm [PDF]. Dynamics can be slippery to pin down, as they often bleed between "things you can do" mechanics and the broader context of aesthetics. That said, there was a lot of good writing last week about things that may be considered dynamics, such as time-trial races, strategy and tactics, and, possibly, achievements.
Dynamics can have a more human side as well. Conversations and other interactions with NPCs are not only the mechanics with which they may be operated, but the aesthetic responses which the dynamic yields.
Another mostly humane area of dynamics is seen in morality gauges. Games almost famously struggle with ideas of morality in games. On one hand, this is perhaps because game designers seem intent on confusing morality and ethics, but on the other hand, designers and reviewers seem certain that Sisyphus is making progress. Game ethics is not purely a contained issue, though. G4C endorses that games venture beyond Leisure Suit Larry into serious issues, but gaming in and of itself is an act with ethical ramifications.
Dissonance, ludo-narrative or otherwise, has been a fairly hot issue for the past couple years. Before we all get our flags and pitchforks ready with this word, let me be clear: In every art form, dissonance is a tool that can be used intentionally or accidentally -- for good, bad, or perhaps some mélange of the two.
Well that's it for this week, folks. As always, feel free to contact me (here via note or comment, or @erik_a_hanson on Twitter) if you would like to point out something you think I missed, or if you'd like me to check out a site to add to my weekly review.