Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-03-2011

0. A Tendentious History of Strategy Games Leading Up To A Question

All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.

– Chuck Palahniuk

Some video games require greater imaginative leaps than others. For example, games like Pong (1972) and Space Invaders (1978) were so graphically primitive that the gap between the things on the screen and the things they were supposed to represent could only be crossed with the use of a rocket-cycle; this collection of squares over here is an alien. That collection of squares over there is Earth’s last line of defence. The little squares moving up and down are particle weapons… or possibly missiles… or shoeboxes filled with explosive. It was difficult to tell. Continue reading “Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths”


Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-02-2011

It could have been ugly. When the French developers Quantic Dream announced that they were working on an ‘interactive film’ that used quick time events as the primary mode of player interaction you could hear the sceptical harrumphing from orbit. Many gamers compared the game to Cinematronics’ infamous laser disc-based arcade game Dragon’s Lair (1983).

Screenshot from Dragon's LairAt a time when most video games were comprised of poorly animated coloured blocks, the cartoon imagery of Dragon’s Lair was ground-breaking. Here was a game that did not simply suborn the language and titles of films; it actually looked like a film too. The only problem was that when players fed their money into the machine, they soon discovered that they didn’t actually have control over the on-screen action. Continue reading “Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events”


Video games as journalism

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

Just a quick mention for another of those New Scientist CultureLab “Storytelling2.0” pieces; how about video games as a future venue for journalism?

Take, for example, Burger Tycoon. It’s what we call an editorial game: short-form, quickly produced and easily accessed online. These games critique current events and issues – in this case global fast food. In Burger Tycoon, players take charge of every aspect of a fast food giant: they raise soy and cattle in South America, curtail contamination in a meat-packing plant, scold frustrated fry cooks in a restaurant and devise ad campaigns at corporate headquarters.

Despite its cutesy graphics and simple mouse-click play, Burger Tycoon paints a striking portrait of how the business models of multinational food conglomerates can compel corruption. As costs begin to outstrip revenues, players look for new ways to make a profit: tearing down rainforests, stuffing cattle with antibiotics, bribing health officials. Like a political cartoon, the game is highly opinionated, but it presents its opinion through the rules of the game rather than through images and words.

[…]

Video games do not offer a panacea for news organisations. But they offer a truly new way for journalism to contribute to civic life by amplifying the how instead of the who. Video games offer models of how the world works and how it might be improved, rather than skin-deep stories about what ails it. That’s why the best journalism of the future might not be read, but played.

Interesting idea… Jonathan, I think we have a theme for your next column!


Tell Your Own Damn Stories! Games, Overreading and Emergent Narrative

Jonathan McCalmont @ 10-11-2010

In a move that is somewhat unusual for a videogame column, I would like to ask you to consider not a game or a development in the gaming industry but a film… and not just any film, but an obscure art house film.

Poster for Las Horas del DiaJaime Rosales’ The Hours of the Day (2003) (a.k.a. Las Horas Del Dia) tells the story of Abel.  Abel lives with his mother and operates a decidedly unglamorous clothing shop in a run-down part of town.  He has a low-intensity relationship with his girlfriend who wants them to move in together, he has a passive-aggressive relationship with his shop assistant who wants more severance pay than Abel can afford and he has a rather tense friendship with another man who wants him to invest in a marketing project.

Though these relationships dominate Abel’s life, he is distant from all of them; he bickers with his mother, he sabotages his girlfriend’s attempts to find them a flat and he ruins his best friend’s wedding day by casually revealing that the bride once made a pass at him.  In all of his dealings, Abel comes across as weirdly detached and disconnected, as though the human world is somehow beyond his comprehension.  This disconnection from every-day social reality makes Abel almost impossible to understand.  We do not understand why he sabotages his relationships and we certainly do not understand the savage murders that Abel carries out seemingly at random throughout the film.  Because Abel’s motivations are so completely impenetrable, it is remarkably difficult to extract anything resembling a human drama from the events depicted in The Hours of the Day.  The film does not appear to be a comment upon unhealthy relationships or the absurdity of existence or even a portrait of one man’s descent into madness.  It is simply a series of events presented in chronological order.  Stuff happens. Continue reading “Tell Your Own Damn Stories! Games, Overreading and Emergent Narrative”


The Video Game Canon and The Age of Forgetfulness

Jonathan McCalmont @ 06-10-2010

0. Asking the Question

If you were a game designer and you were taken into your boss’s office and given carte blanche to create your own roleplaying game, what would your influences be?  My guess is that the games you see as central to the computer roleplaying experience vary according to your age and when you started gaming.

Screenshot from early computer RPG WizardryFor example, if you are currently a teenager then the chances are that you would be most influenced by games like World of Warcraft, Fallout 3 and Dragon Age: Origins, because these are the games that you are most familiar with.  If you are a slightly older gamer, then you might list titles like Final Fantasy VII or Suikoden.  Maybe if – like me – you are one of those thirty-something gamers who spent his high school years playing video games instead of getting to second base, then you might list Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Master or Shadowrun.  Maybe you are even old enough to remember playing the original Wizardry and Bard’s Tale titles, and think that the future of CRPGs lies in ASCII graphics and getting the players to draw their own dungeon maps.

Well, you’d all be wrong.

And you’d all be right. Continue reading “The Video Game Canon and The Age of Forgetfulness”


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