Mass Effect II and Racial Essentialism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 03-03-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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Genre is, to one extent or another, all about re-using old ideas. Ideas shared. Ideas reclaimed. Ideas reinvented. Ideas lost. Ideas rediscovered. Encounter enough works of genre over a long enough time period and you will see ideas rise and fall like the tides. You will also see patterns emerging in the way that certain ideas are used. For example, it is no accident that the rain slicked streets of 1930s noir fiction would pop up in the works of Raymond Chandler before re-appearing in the films of the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague, and appearing again in the novels and stories of Cyberpunk in the 1980s. The long shadows and bad weather of noir were an expressionistic manifestation of a sense of unease, a feeling that society was somehow broken. That same intuition has stayed with us over time, summoning noir’s set dressing again and again as new generations of authors deploy the same ideas and techniques to express ideas of their own time and place.

Genres are collections of these kinds of ideas. Ideas that form a shared vocabulary that gets used and re-used to tell new stories. But sometimes a good genre idea or trope will become detached from its metaphorical roots and take on a substance and a physicality of its own. The idea will develop freely as generations of authors engage with it but, because the idea has been separated from its original metaphorical purpose, the idea will forever remain wedded to the time and place in which it was forged. Like mitochondrial DNA, or a forgotten time capsule. A window into a different time and a different place. Continue reading “Mass Effect II and Racial Essentialism”


We are all sheep: Avatar, Bayonetta and the hypnosis of low-brow culture

Jonathan McCalmont @ 03-02-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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I say this without having actually seen it, but James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is an interesting film. This is because its success has had the same effect upon film critics and cultural commentators as pissing on an electric fence… people are sore, jittery and annoyed at pretty much everyone, themselves included. Continue reading “We are all sheep: Avatar, Bayonetta and the hypnosis of low-brow culture”


Mixed-reality marriage: man weds idoru

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2009

Virtual girlDid you catch the story at BoingBoing about the guy who went and married his computer game girlfriend? The original link is all in Japanese, so details are scarce, but the young lady in question is a character from Love Plus, one of those “virtual girlfriend” games. [image by Ramona.Forcella]

Unsurprisingly, a peep at the comments thread reveals that it’s probably not quite everything it seems to be – Konami, makers of Love Plus, are quite savvy on reality-crossover marketing for these products, and I think we’re safe in assuming that the fellow in question may have been motivated by something more than a deep affection for a bundle of pixels on his Nintendo DS. The most notable thing about this story is how easily most readers seem to take it at face value.

I expect part of that has to do with the cultural mythology that surrounds Japan – much as I try to avoid it, it’s hard not to think of Japan as a country with some very alien cultural attitudes (which is ironic, given that anthropologists are often keen to point out how similar the sociocultural pressures in Japan are to those of the UK). But we’re also very accustomed to realistic and expressive avatars inhabiting computer simulations, and with a bit of research it’s probably not too hard for a well-funded development team to work out exactly which buttons to push in the mind of a player to produce the desired effect – be it tension, aggression or love.

Furthermore, people get married in Second Life and other metaverses, so a physical presence obviously isn’t a prerequisite for the required level of affection. Perhaps in countries with high population pressures and low numbers of eligible partners – China leaps immediately to mind – marrying an idoru will become more commonplace as the effectiveness of the artificial intelligences behind them increases? I’m sure that David Levy would agree with me on that…


AI up the game

Tom James @ 29-06-2009

cardsA fascinating article in the FT magazine over the weekend on the ongoing arms race between those who program the software bots in online gaming rooms, one Martin Smith, and those who play against them:

These are contests that take place on constantly shifting terrain. Smith releases his latest version of a program: it wins for a couple of weeks, then the humans figure out how to beat it and they win for a couple of weeks while Smith goes away and works on his software – algorithms, probability calculations, search techniques – and scratches his head. Then he comes back with a new version of the program that wins for a couple of weeks, while the humans go away and think about it. “We have this ratcheting up,” Smith says. “It’s a very intellectually rewarding thing.”

“There’s a very big difference between computer intelligence and human intelligence. This is clearly indicated in games. Back in the ’70s, it was considered that in order to get computers to play chess like a grandmaster, they had to think like grandmasters. That turned out to be wrong. Computers can play fantastic chess and they don’t do anything remotely like what human grandmasters do.”

It is interesting how the upgraded software eventually becomes beatable after sufficient practice by large groups of humans. It’s also interesting for the insight into what a particular flavour of AI researchers actually spend their time doing.

On the distinction between mind and computers, this article at The New Atlantis makes for an interesting read.

[image from Malcav on flickr]


Mirror’s Edge – The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner

Jonathan McCalmont @ 24-06-2009

Blasphemous Geometries sees Jonathan McCalmont taking a run with Mirror’s Edge, a game whose hipster near-future dystopian stylings fail to disguise its underlying theme – freedom is illusory.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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After reading my previous column, you could be mistaken for thinking that only great games have themes and subtexts, and that those themes and subtexts only emerge when designers manage to work together and combine the various elements that make up a game into one shining image such as GTA IV’s initial depiction of the isolation and alienation that pervade 21st Century life. This is not in the least bit true.

Many crap games have themes, too. They have themes because every line of stilted absurd dialogue, every frustrating control mechanism, every poorly-designed level and every generic character all support one idea – an idea that the game designers almost certainly never had in mind when they started work on the title. Mirror’s Edge – from EA Design Illusions CE – is not only a terrible game, it is also a game with a clear thematic message: Freedom is an illusion, and all those who would claim to champion it are hypocritical and deluded fools. Continue reading “Mirror’s Edge – The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner”


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