There is a bit of a problem with how people seem to think about games. An acquaintance recently told me that he had grown up, that he wanted more from his games, but that games hadn’t grown up with him. He talked about how pretty much every game in the previous generation was nothing more than a collection of hyperviolent romps in the shoes of some hypermale (a figure which I addressed in a somewhat satirical piece in a previous post).
The problem with his statement is that games have grown up. It’s just that he and other likeminded players / critics have failed to realize this. To show how, I need to turn to books.
When one reads Romeo and Juliet, the reader is told a romance story. However, although Romeo and Juliet is a love story, it’s also about the self vs society, about fate and its inevitability, about family vs romantic love, and depending on who you ask, about gangs or colonialism. A reader of William Blake’s Introduction to Songs of Innocence will read a poem about a kid in a cloud who told a poet to write a book of songs. But the poem is also a celebration of spirituality and religiosity, an ode to a dead brother, a commentary on the process of creation, and a statement on the use of hallucinogenic. Twilight is a love story between a girl and some vampire, but it’s also about the effect of personal choices, about facing one’s fears, about isolation, about the linguistic process, morality, family vs romantic love, the self vs the natural world, memory, and how one defines self identity. Most of these themes go over the head of most readers, and it takes a critic or scholar to explicate these themes.
The same is true of video games.
When a player plays through a game, they experience the game at the most superficial of levels. The messages, arguments, themes, and ideas in the game, more often than not, go over the head of the player (and of my colleague). That’s why there is Ian Bogost and Janet Murray and Noah Wardrip Fruin and Daniel Floyd and Chris Franklyn and Matt Patrick. These are the critics and scholars. They are the ones who unlock the meaning of games. They are the ones who make it obvious that while yes, Gears of War is about “shooting the aliens in the face”, it is also about the repercussions of imperialist conquest and manifest destiny. They explain that Watch_D0gs is about “hax00rz”, but it’s also a commentary on mass surveillance and the dependence of computerized systems in our lives. They show that The Last of Us is about killing zombies, but also about questioning the nature of humanity and exploring how we define groups.
My acquaintance was writing about Bayonetta 2 when he made his comments. He said it was nothing more than an action game pandering to teen boys. However, I’m pretty sure that if the themes explored in it are anything like the first game, it is about female empowerment along the lines of sex positive feminism and that it also makes some sort of theological commentary on something. Here is what a friend replied to the acquaintance:
Games have grown up. It’s the ability of players to understand what they say that hasn’t because they can’t seem to get past a game’s visuals. (Ok, it’s not players, it’s just my one acquaintance).
I mean, Eternal Sonata may not be “in your face” about its anti big pharma message, but it doesn’t need to be. Some games are made to entertain and at the same time make a commentary about the horrors of war (Vakyria Chronicles). Others want to hit you over the head with “the point”. There is enough space for all of them. As game designer Greg Cotskyan said, “Play games. Love games. Understand that not everyone will love the same kinds of games that you love — and that this is okay. All games are good.”
I actually had a decent experience with the school system in my state. When it comes to Texas, however, I have often commented on how some of the practices and policies put into place are ridiculous. A few days ago, a friend of mine shared some reflections with me that I thought were interesting. I should note that I don’t agree with her proposal of “voluntary schooling”. However, I do agree that everyone should be held accountable for their schooling, that some kids should be “left behind” for as long as it takes for them to “get it”, and that the school system should implement real (that is, not politically, ideologically, or economically driven) reforms. At any rate, here is my friend’s comment (name erased to preserve her privacy).
I often times think back on the way I approached high school versus the way I approached college, and it was something like this: high school didn’t mean anything, so I didn’t try at all; college meant everything, so I gave it my all. In high school, I made Bs and Cs in Calculus. In college, I had the highest grade in my calculus class (over 100). In high school, I barely popped open a book. At A&M, I graduated summa cum laude. At UTA, I had a 4.0. Why the difference? Because high school did not feel like a place to learn. High school often felt like it was a joke. That there was cushion along the way to make everything fine and nice and wonderful, and it didn’t matter. Didn’t really matter at all.
I often think the thing that might have helped me most is for a teacher to sit down with me and admit the farce. For someone to say, “You’re right. The academic system here is a joke. None of the students take anything seriously. There is no hard core learning to be done. The teachers are spread thin and underpaid. It’s all hanging together via band-aids. But, you can nevertheless work within the ridiculousness. Now that we have admitted that it’s ridiculous, let’s move beyond that and get some practice in for when it’s not one big joke.” Someone admitting reality would have helped me.
And, frankly, it was not a single teacher’s fault. They seemed as helpless as the students in terms of the core of the problem.
What do I think the core of the problem is? Education should be free, but not mandatory. If it’s mandatory, and passing students on to the next level is encouraged if not pressured, then students are not there out of their own desire. They are there for the system’s desire. It reeks of being contrived. And what it needs is to be real. What there needs to be is real-world pressure. And pressure can only really be applied if a school could take or leave a student.
If a system allows kids to stay in high school who take education to mean nothing, I have no respect for that system, and there is no obvious reason for me to put forth effort within that system. High school should be as difficult as college and completely voluntary. You go there because you want to. You stay there because you are actually accomplishing something, not coasting. It’s the atmosphere that’s the problem.
That being said, I had fun in high school. I may not have found a reason to care about it, but it was fun. So, maybe that’s something – having four years of your life to devote to having a good time before the next four are devoted to actual work and self-improvement.
Gender Equality through Progression Mechanics – An Analysis of Final Fantasy II’s Progression System
Building on the traditional JRPG elements found in the first Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II gave readers a more detailed narrative, characters with a purpose beyond that of rescuing crystals and saving the world, and elaborate and complex progression mechanics. Released on 1988, the narrative of Final Fantasy II begins as the three main characters, Firion, Maria, and Guy, are in the company of the temporary character Leon and are attacked by knights of a rival kingdom and left for dead. The three main characters, Firion, Maria, and Guy, are rescued by the Princess of Fynn, Hilda, who is at that point in the narrative serving as the leader of a rebel base in the town of Alatair. the three main characters ask Hilda to join her army of rebels, but she declines, as the characters are too inexperienced. The three characters then set off on a quest to attempt to rescue Leon.
Each of the three main characters have a core motivation that spurs them on their quest. Firion, a friend of Maria and Leon, is driven by the desire to seek out revenge. He hopes to destroy the empire in hopes of avenging his fallen family. Maria, Firion and Guy’s childhood friend, is the female lead of the game. Her motivation to embark on a quest involve an attempt to rescue her brother Leon who disappears during the opening sequence of the game. The third main character, Guy, doesn’t have much of a historical background. All that the player knows is that he is a friend to Firion and Maria, and that he has an ability to speak to animals.
It would be simple to state that there is no evidence in the narrative or in the design of the characters that shows objectification of the characters. Indeed, the design of the characters – both the in-game sprites as well as the game art – treats both genders fairly. However, it seems to me more prudent and exponentially more fruitful to turn our gaze towards the integral elements that make a video game a “game” – its mechanics. In order to fully understand what Final Fantasy II suggests about women, it would be prudent to see how the game mechanics affect character progress throughout the game. We will, then, use the approach advocated by Ian Bogost in Persuasive Games (2006), where he suggests that to find out how a video game makes arguments, the player should consider game mechanics and how they act in relation to the message being explored.
This post was originally published in Gamasutra, but at the recommendation of a friend I have decided to re-post here.
There are recent prognostications by industry analysts arguing that video games as we know them are on a lifeline and that the current generation of hardware is the last gaming generation. Their predictions are often accompanied with grandiose statements about how the future of gaming will be found in the mobile market. This most recent round of doom-saying is spurred by Michael Pachter’s recent comments in a Cloud Gaming USA, where he argued that because the most recent Call of Duty only has 25 million players while Candy Crush Saga has 350 million, video game publishers should go into the mobile market and disregard console gaming, as “there won’t be a next cycle” [of video game consoles]. Analysts and game journalists alike further argue that another reason that will precipitate the death of the console are the alleged low sales numbers. Buzzwords like “low adoption rate” and “small user base” seem to flood publications. Last time that someone made this argument, I offered a counter-point using available data. This time, I will use a comparative approach to show that based on the current sales numbers, the gaming industry as a whole is just as healthy as it was at this point in previous cycles.