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YES, VIDEOGAMES ARE POLITICAL
October 5, 2009, 9:55 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,

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In a recent piece over at Bitmob, Christopher Quach discussed the validity of conveying political messages in videogames, essentially concluding that the industry’s reputation as disposable entertainment, along with its desire to cater to as wide an audience as possible, precludes it from ever engaging in political discourse.

It is an interesting piece, well argued and certainly representative of the majority of mainstream opinion, but it is also flawed in a number of ways.

Perhaps most obviously the piece overlooks the work of many independent videogame developers. Games like Cutthroat Capitalism, Kabul Kaboom! and Super Columbine Massacre RPG! go some way to challenge the idea of an apolitical videogame landscape. With varying degrees of success and tastefulness, these modestly sized games use the medium to communicate overtly political statements, encompassing military, economic and social issues. There are many more examples out there.

That these games operate on the peripheries of the industry should come as no surprise. The same is true of all media, where overt political statements are best explored on the margins. But that doesn’t mean that mainstream games are bereft of political content, anymore than big-budget movies or the best-selling comics and novels.

Videogames, as cultural artifacts, are unescapably political. Even the most vacuous of games, despite their ostensible mindlessness, cannot fail to reflect the politics of the culture in which they were produced.

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Take this example. In the Eighties, western politics were dominated by two figures; Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The US President and the British Prime Minister’s relationship was a close one, due in large part to their advocacy of a particular brand of conservatism. Though they chose to express these beliefs in slightly different ways, their ideology was the same.

This quote from Margaret Thatcher conveys the message most concisely;

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.” (M. Thatcher, Woman’s Own, October 31, 1987)

What Thatcher is trying to communicate here is that a successful country, indeed a successful world, is the direct result of individualism. Do not rely on others, just be the very best you can be and everything will fall into place. In short, look after yourself.

Similarly, Reagan’s ‘Social Darwinism’ embraced this notion of the individual, perhaps most obviously in the field of economics. Reagan stimulated the entrepreneurial realm by rewarding it with economic gain, while simultaneously cutting several welfare programs. The message was just the same as Thatcher’s; strive for personal glory, for individual gain. Look after yourself.

This is the reason that Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” protagonist of 1987 film Wall Street, is rightly identified as a symbol of the decade. He was primarily self-serving in his quest for power and wealth.

pitYou can see this notion reflected clearly in the western videogames of the period, although in a less sophisticated way. The vast majority of these games employed a lone hero protagonist. While co-op games existed and were technologically possible, single-player reigned supreme. Regardless of the narratives and their sci-fi/world war/fantasy archetypes, the central political message was the same; You and you alone are capable of saving the world. Do not rely on help, do not rely on others – success, glory, riches, empowerment – all of this will come through your individual efforts.

Oh and there is a good chance you’ll be a white man too.

Fast forward 20 years and the political landscape has changed dramatically. While Thatcher and Reagan’s legacy is still apparent, attitudes are different. Most obviously, both countries are now run by liberal governments. As a result, notions of society and community are once again on the agenda. Just look at President Obama’s current efforts to introduce universal healthcare, funded by the taxes of those who have achieved their individual wealth. The language of Presidency has changed from “I” to “we.” Now we strive to look after each other.

Similarly, race and gender politics have progressed in the intervening 20 years. While inequalities still exist, the gap is closing. Racial tolerance and gender equality have vastly improved since the Eighties. All of this can be seen in current-gen videogames.

Perhaps the most profound shift in the games industry in the last few years has been the explosion of co-op. Not only are developers dedicating more and more time to providing co-op experiences in their games, they are also finding new ways of exploring the dynamic within it. Perhaps the best example of this is the work by Valve in the Left 4 Dead series. Here, rather than just providing a space for a team of individuals to progress through the game, they are explicitly designing them to punish those who do not co-ordinate their efforts.

In Left 4 Dead, the term co-op is not used as shorthand for campaign multiplayer, it is truly co-operative. You cannot look after yourself anymore, you have to look after each other. Only by communicating, compensating for team-mates weakness and working as a unit can you survive and ultimately ‘win.’

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Even in games where the co-operative element of co-op is less pronounced, the ideology is the same; you are not on your own anymore, you are part of a team. What’s more that team is more than likely multi-cultural and/or multi-gender. Don’t dismiss the presence of the Hispanic Dom in Gears of War, Black-African woman Sheva in Resident Evil or Afro-American Louis in Left 4 Dead as tokenistic additions. In today’s political climate it is expected that any representation of a group in any medium will be reflective of the society we live in. It is politically correct.

Now, this isn’t to say that the lone white-guy hero has been eradicated. Far from it, the bald, white space-marine is one of the most over-used characters in modern gaming. But it increasingly rare that they are lone heroes. A shift towards team-based, co-op featured games is undeniable.

In this way, mainstream videogames, even those seemingly void of political statement, are implicitly political. While for the most part they are not designed to tackle political issues head-on, or carry overt political messages, they do reflect the values and the popular ideology of the culture in which they were created. Be it the conservative, economically focused Eighties or the liberal, increasingly tolerant Noughties, politics are ingrained into the very code of the games we play.

So the problem with Christopher Quach’s article is not that it comes to the wrong conclusions, but perhaps that it asks the wrong question. Mainstream videogames are political, but can they be subversive or controversial? Can they challenge the popular ideology? Can they engage in discussion of a difficult political debate? It’s highly unlikely.

Subversion and controversy are divisive acts. Division means a smaller potential market. With publishers falling over themselves to make videogames as accessible as possible, and with the increasingly high cost of bringing games to platforms such as the PS3 and Xbox 360, only a profound shift in the industry would allow it. In this respect, Quach is absolutely, depressingly, right.

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A YOUTH WELL WASTED / CHAPTER 3
October 2, 2009, 8:45 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,

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In a particularly grey and drab spot of West London sits Earl’s Court, one of England’s largest and oldest indoor arenas. Over the years it has been home to a massive variety of events, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 19th century, to Metallica gigs and WWE Smackdown in the present day. It’s a bit of a British institution.

Another, slightly less glamorous sounding show held there is ‘The Amusements Trade Exhibition International.’ As the name suggests, the ATEI is an industry expo in which various coin-operated machine manufacturers get to show off their wares to potential buyers.

Sadly, a quick search through the list of confirmed exhibitors for 2010 reveals that not one single videogame company will be present. Not one. Instead, tens of thousands of square feet will be taken up with air-hockey, fruit machines, pool tables and kiddie rides.

It was not always like this.

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Back in 1989, the event was completely dominated by videogames, with just about every single manufacturer, including Sega, keen to show off their latest machines. It was an infinite sea of arcade games, with classic, stand-up cabinets, massive, hydraulic-powered driving sims and everything in between. Year after year, every new game of note from around the around world would be there.

The ATEI was, without a hint of hyperbole or exaggeration, a 10 year-old boy’s gaming nirvana. The holy land. And, in an act of unprecedented awesomeness that I am thankful for even 20 years later, Damian convinced his Dad to take us. We were actually going.

What’s more we were going on the Thursday, when all the exhibitors would be putting the final touches to their stalls before the influx of potential buyers the next day. With Damian’s Dad busy doing whatever it is Sega Europe V.Ps do, we would have hours of unfettered access, without queues or interruptions, to every single game on show. I honestly can’t think of a time in my life when I have been more excited.

The night before the show we stayed at Damian’s castle. Staring into the darkness, we whispered across the room until the early hours, alternating between hushed excitement for the next day and musing over what terrible accidents might stop us going.

– Maybe the car will break down…
– Or explode!
– Oh god yeah, it’ll blow up.
– In the car park as we arrive.
– Definitely.

We simply couldn’t believe our luck.

AAAAAA

Entering the massive hall was as intimidating as it was exciting; a cacophonous jungle of bleeping, blaring, flashing, strobing machinery. We didn’t know where to start. Each machine screamed louder at us, desperate to be heard over all the others. It was too much.

Thankfully, Damian’s Dad had arranged for one of his team to give us a guided tour of all the must-play titles at the show.

We saw a lot of games that day, many of which have since fallen to the back of my mind, collecting in a messy heap with a million other random arcade memories. But I remember one very, very clearly.

Led by our tour-guide, we were introduced to a spin-off game from some bizarre American TV show. “It’s going to be absolutely massive, a phenomenon. The American kids are nuts about it,” he said.

Damian and I shared a cynical look. The machine was splashed with an image of a questionable looking green thing and it had the most ridiculous name we had ever heard, the ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.’

Heheh – silly Americans.

We played the game anyway, clicking the free credit button more out of politeness than desire.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (Europe thought the word ‘Ninja’ would warp our souls), is of course, one of the most fondly remembered arcade games of all time – providing the blueprint for such massively popular beat-em-ups as X-Men and The Simpsons. Turn up to any battered, decaying old seaside arcade in England to this day and the odds are you’ll find one of these games sat in a corner, clinging to life among the fruit machines, Dance Dance Revolutions and sandy, trampled chips.

So we played through the entire thing, marveling more at the graphics and characters than the limited, slightly repetitive gameplay. It was just so bright and colourful, populated by bipedal hogs with guns, masked foot-soldiers, and the kind of samurai/ninja hybrid boss that made our young, kung-fu obsessed brains pop.

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You could choose characters with katanas, a bo, funny fork things and even nunchucks! It should be noted that up to that point, British television removed nearly every nunchuck reference, most famously censoring the Enter the Dragon scene where Bruce Lee uses the weapon against some guards. Rather than block nunchucks from our consciousness, this treatment afforded them an illicit thrill that only served to make us more fascinated with them. Nunchucks were cool.

TMHT only has 5 levels, it isn’t a particularly long game. But in that old-school arcade way, it’s despicably cheap in it’s attempts to rob you of money. It was a good job we had free credits.

We died and died and died again until finally we beat the game, rescued April, and stumbled off to find something else. The whole experience can’t of been more than 30 minutes from start to finish, but it is something I will never forget.

Returning to school and boasting of my experiences brought the now familiar mix of scorn and disbelief. Because my school friends had never met Damian, they simply didn’t believe my increasingly outlandish stories. For a while they even took to calling him my “imaginary friend.”

They laughed even harder when I told them about the four pizza-loving turtles who talk and know ninjitsu.

Just a few short weeks later and the last laugh was mine. They had no choice but to believe. The turtles had indeed turned into the phenomenon the arcade man predicted, selling a crap-ton of merchandised tat and mesmerizing a million kids with their adventures. I was vindicated. Finally, they believed me.

But it wasn’t all good. Having such close links with Sega had certain disadvantages. The late Eighties saw the first Nintendo v. Sega console skirmishes break out in playgrounds across the world. War was coming, and at one small school in London, the Sega supporters had a reluctant leader.

(Chapter Four… Coming Soon)
(Chapter Two)



AN ODE TO THE UNFINISHED GAME

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Some people feel the need to finish every game they start; it’s a odd compulsion. Some also won’t walk out on a bad film because it’s been paid for, or put a book down when they fail to connect with it. But if a close personal friend didn’t make the game, take you to the cinema, or write the book, why care? Why put yourself through the slog of reaching the end of a game you stopped enjoying or caring about 20 hours ago?

I used to be like this. Until recently, I simply had to finish every game I played. More than that, I had to get at least 500 achievement points on each one. It was horrible. Like some kind of self-inflicted, life-sapping, terminal illness. It meant that not only did I have to slog my way through games I tired of quickly, or just lost interest in, I then had to go back again afterwards on a depressing fucking collection hunt.

The fact that F.E.A.R. 2, long since traded in, appears on my Gamercard with a mere 380 achievement points, used to keep me awake at night.

But now I’m free. I’m an inveterate unfinisher and I’m encouraging others to be the same. Now once I cease to be interested, a game is usually finished for me, no matter how much of it remains. So, for me, Assassin’s Creed will always be a beautifully rendered vision of the holy-land, with one of the most fully realised environments I’ve yet encountered. Not the dull, repetitive snorefest I know it becomes. Similarly, Lost Odyssey will forever be a gorgeous paean to a bygone era of JRPGs, rather than a long, over familiar trawl through outdated game mechanics.

Until relatively recently, my new attitude would not have been remarkable. Games just were not supposed to be completed. Indeed, they employed just about every tactic they could to make it hard as possible. With infinite levels, super-spamming bosses, insane bullet hell and even Ghouls and Ghosts‘ nasty trick of making you do it all over again upside down.

Now, as we find ourselves slaves to the videogame narrative, we are eased towards completion, given infinite lives, or even invulnerability. Anything to get us to the end.

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Was I being unfair to Rockstar by abandoning Grand Theft Auto IV at around the midway point? I didn’t have the will to play it any more. Especially as the narrative, so engaging and propulsive early on, was quickly beginning to derail itself. I’m sure they don’t care. After all, they were the ones that picked up all those awards, critical adulation and an impossibly large truck full of cash.

Would the guys at Bethesda care that I never completed Oblivion, instead spending about 20 glorious hours exploring and encountering a wonderfully diverse set of distractions? I doubt it.

I don’t hold it against people, that I didn’t finish their games, nor do I proclaim a lack of talent. Like Oblivion it’s sometimes just a matter of time. So many titles drag on and on and while the core of the game is compelling and fun, it wears a little thin after the 30th hour. Fallout 3 is a undeniable masterpiece. But it sits there on my shelf, untouched for months, after my attention was diverted by some other shiny thing.

Some days, on the other hand, I’ll start a game only to decide I’m not in the mood for something new, and return instead to an old favourite to revisit a cherished opening level or scene. Occasionally, friends are surprised and annoyed when I return a borrowed game and admit I couldn’t get through it. These might be the same people who don’t share my passion for the work of Petri Purho or Jason Rohrer, so it evens out in the end. There is, after all, no accounting for taste – as a friend who saw Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus on my recommendation will never let me forget.

So I toast all the half-finished, half-played games that have passed through my hands, saluting both the creativity of those who made them and the fortitude of those who completed them. And finally, I confess to having played every last second of Sonic Unleashed. I could have stopped after the first appearance of that damned Werehog, but I found it, like a gruesome highway accident, horrifying yet impossible to look away from – until I defeated the final boss, ripped the disc from the tray and hurled it across the room in disgust.



A YOUTH WELL WASTED / CHAPTER TWO

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A YOUTH WELL WASTED / CHAPTER ONE

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15 MINUTES – USA TODAY EDITION
July 20, 2009, 10:05 pm
Filed under: meta | Tags: , , , ,

I’m in USA Today!

Well, not actually USA Today, but their Game Hunters blog.

Also, technically speaking, I’m not in it, Dan Hsu and Demian Linn are.

But something I wrote is!

Hmm, that’s not true either. It’s just a link to something I wrote.

Whatever.

When I told my Mum the news (omitting the above caveats), she was very proud. Never mind that she had never heard of USA Today, the very title of the publication suggests mainstream success. In her eyes, I have arrived. Bless her.

The truth is that ‘The Highest Arcade in the World,’ a story I wrote right here on Collect a few months back (then submitted to BitMob) was selected as one of Dan Hsu and Demian Linn’s favourite BitMob community posts.

No, I’m lying again. It was used as an example of a successful community post. Sheesh!

In the interview with Game Hunter’s Mike Snider, Hsu and Linn said:

Lee Bradley’s story about playing videogames in a young boy’s high-altitude, makeshift arcade in Darjeeling, India is absolutely fascinating and extremely well-written.

Yup, the least believable bit of this entire story is actually the true part: somebody said I wrote something well. I don’t think anyone’s said that since the legendary ‘What I Did on My Summer Holidays’ essay of 1989. That was a damn good essay though, the Natural History Museum rocked.

I’m done gloating.



THE NOSTALGIA BUSINESS

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(This article also appears over at BitMob. Should you lose your mind and decide to read it twice, you can find it here)

A quick glance at the flood of wistful reminiscences pouring into the Mobfeed reveals one thing; gamers are a nostalgic bunch. Give us a chance to write anything we want about videogames and we’ll jump at the chance to get all misty-eyed about ’the good old days’. I should know, I’ve indulged in a fair amount of it myself.

We are the first generation to grow up with games. It has been a part of our lives since before we can remember. Whether it’s the blocks and bleeps of the pre-8-bit era that first fired out imaginations, or the dawn of the PlayStation, gaming and our childhoods are inextricably linked.

It is possible that we may never recreate the excitement and wonder of the first game that got its claws in us. Like heroin addicts we are destined to keep coming back for more in an attempt to recreate the high of that first hit. But the rapid pace of technological progress can only just keep up with the rosy-tint of our memories.

Take a look back at the games that meant the most to you as a child. If it’s one that you haven’t seen in a while, you’ll doubtless be amazed by how bad it looks. I had this experience recently, while talking about the old Master System shooter, Fantasy Zone. Not the best game I have ever played, admittedly, but nevertheless one that I devoted many hours to as a kid and then promptly forgot. I remember it as a cutesy confection of brightly coloured, curvy wonder. Looking the game up after 20 years, it now looks like 3 year-old’s crayon drawing.

It’s a fact not lost of the games industry, with a growing rush to re-boot, remix, re-release and re-invent the games of our youth. As the gaming kids grow up and get jobs, the industry is falling over themselves to sell us back our childhood. It’s a seductive proposition.

But there are right ways and wrong ways of treating our revered classics. Projects like Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Super Street Fighter II: Turbo HD Remix get it right. They are the perfect way to address our gaming sentimentality. Developed (or rather, redeveloped) with genuine love for the original, these games are re-presented just they way we remember them. Perhaps my imagination has died since I was a child, or perhaps my memories are just completely skewed, but I remember SFII: Turbo looking exactly like HD Remix does now.

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These games, and those that display a similar approach, are utterly respectful of their roots. They tidy up the visuals, refine the gameplay and only mess with what was broken in the first place. Think of it as preservation. This is how it should be done.

Punch Out!On Wii follows the lead of these two re-imagined classics. The visuals, the ‘enemies’, the music and the sound remain essentially thematically familiar, with just a few concessions made for the platform’s new control scheme. It doesn’t attempt anything ridiculous like facial damage health meters or boxing manager metagames that follow your career. It keeps things nice and simple, just like the original game did. As a result it’s rekindling old loves and creating new ones even as we speak.

But not all remakes/reboots get it so right. Some get it wrong. Some concentrate so hard on one element of gameplay from the original, or so hard on trading on a well-regarded title, that they forget what made it fun in the first place.

Take Bionic Commando. Despite the difficulties of implementing a functioning arm in a 3D world, Grin do a remarkably solid job. If the project was to be judged on that element alone then it would be considered a minor success. But the original was far more than a grappling gimmick.

By relocating a classic game in the realm of third-person shooter aesthetics and online-multiplayer, Capcom believe they have a recipe for commercial success, combining the love of the old with the lust of the new. But judged against their own remix of the original game, judged against Punch Out!, Bionic Commando is a failure.

The current iteration of the series is too much of a departure to be called Bionic Commando. It takes the central premise of the original and distorts it, stretches it so think it almost snaps. Sure it has some of the same characters, yeah it carries over a little of the first game’s legendary toughness, and of course it has the arm and the music. But it lacks qualities that its progenitor showed in abundance; charm, character and near faultless design.

This game isn’t Bionic Commando; it’s a focus-grouped ‘cool’ guy with inspector gadget’s arm. Call it something else Capcom, and quit fucking with my memories.

I will happily part with my cash for the games of my childhood to be polished up and squeezed down my broadband. I can’t help but be seduced by the promise of being beamed back to my carefree youth. But it needs to be done right, it needs to be done with respect. These aren’t merely ‘products’ or ‘franchises’, they are our collective gaming history. Please don’t mess them up.