The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring

the purpose aimed at by Mantegna and Pozzo was not so much “to simulate stereopsis”—the process by which we see depth—but rather to achieve “a simulation of the perceptual effect of stereoptic vision.” Far from being visual literalists, these painters were literal illusionists—their aim was to make their audiences see something that wasn’t there.

CABINET has a nice essay by Margaret Wertheim connecting Bacon to Renaissance perspective to video games, The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring. Wertheim argues that starting with Roger Bacon there was a growing interest in the psychological power of virtual representation. Artists starting with Giotto in Assisi the Mantegna and later Pozzo created ever more perspectival representations that were seen as stunning at the time. (Pozzo painted the ceiling of St. Ignatius Being Received into Heaven in Sant’Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio, Rome.)

The frescos in Assisi heralded a revolution both in representation and in metaphysical leaning whose consequences for Western art, philosophy, and science can hardly be underestimated. It is here, too, that we may locate the seed of the video gaming industry. Bacon was giving voice to an emerging view that the God of Judeo-Christianity had created the world according to geometric laws and that Truth was thus to be found in geometrical representation. This Christian mathematicism would culminate in the scientific achievements of Galileo and Newton four centuries later…

Wertheim connects this to the ever more immersive graphics of the videogame industry. Sometimes I forget just how far the graphics have come from the first immersive games I played like Myst. Whatever else some games do, they are certainly visually powerful. It often seems a shame to have to go on a mission rather than just explore the world represented.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019

Modern Warfare 2019 (MW19) illustrates the difficulties of trying to create a first-person-shooter (FPS) that meets player expectations of the genre while also making it politically sensitive. On the one hand players expect a campaign of set pieces with different weapons (from silenced pistols to drones), different types of action (stealth to blowing things up), and different settings around the world (or off it.) On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a story which would justify the killing of so many people – so many that you can have “fun.” Without zombies or nazis it is hard to find clearly bad guys.

MW19 tackles this by trying a post-modern “forever war” setting. Most of the scenes take place in a fictional Urzikstani which feels like some mix of Kurdish Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A central character is the leader of the Urzikstani resistance, Farah Kadim, who seems modelled on the Kurdish women fighters fighting in Syria. She leads the Urzikstan Liberation Force (ULF) and you actually get to play her in a couple of the scenes.

A forever war setting like Urzikstani makes sense if you are trying to reboot a franchise by creating a setting that can sustain lots of subsequent games. It creates a context for special operations forces of the sort that people like to play. You can have all sorts of different missions with interesting playable spec-op/SAS type characters drawn from earlier instalments and remixed. Above all you can have a combination of lots of Russians and terrorists to fight.

The depressing thing is how the game draws attention to what seems to be a never ending series of conflicts set in motion by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The game, deliberately or not, serves as an essay of how forever wars keep going and metastasizing – how they are maintained by superpowers and others who can’t avoid meddling, even as objectives change. In the Piccadilly scene of MW19 you see how these distant wars on terrorism don’t end anything, but can engender more terrorism brought back home to haunt us. Forever wars are not just convenient fodder for FPS games, they are hell for those living in the war zones and one thing the game does a good job of showing is that hell. What it doesn’t do is show the longer term effects from mass migration to trauma/PTSD.

There are some deliberately disturbing scenes like where you are waterboarded and a scene where you can choose to participate in the using of family hostages to extract information. There are times where it is hard to tell the difference between civilians and combatants and part of the game is not killing the innocent. There is a scene called the highway of death which is visually modelled on the original in Iraq, though the game scene takes place after the massacre; but here it is the Russians who were the perpetrators which conveniently rewrites history. Reviewers have questioned what could be called this gamification of torture and history (see this interview with the narrative director).

To me this game nicely raises the question of whether a game in general, or an FPS in particular can deal ethically, accurately and sensitively with war. MW19 doesn’t look away from the horrors of modern war, but risks minimizing them as entertainment. MW19 tries to deal with this new state of never ending war, but doesn’t really say anything about it. It doesn’t want to glorify war, but it does want to make the simulation fun so it has to be careful not to condemn shooting. Like any expensive game/movie it seems to carefully step back from any conclusions that would alienate customers other than the game legitimizing rhetoric of exceptionalism. This is where the heroes that you get to play somehow are justified in “taking the gloves off” and doing things that would be war crimes, or at least against orders. This rhetoric of exceptionalism, where you the player are always excused from the rules that others live by, can desensitize us to the importance of rules, processes and orders. It encourages us to think everything can be solved by a Rambo figure who does what no one else can. What would the world be like if everyone did so? Why don’t we look for reliable solutions to things like wars rather than exceptional heroes that will solve it for us? Can games deal with the complexity of systems and wars?

See reviews like:

HyperCard at the Internet Archive

Screen Shot of Internet Archive HyperCard Collection

The Internet Archive is now collecting HyperCard Stacks and has an emulator so they can be run in the browser. If you have old ones to contribute you can upload them to hypercardonline.tk (which has a nerdy HyperCard like interface.)

Like many, I learned to program multimedia in HyperCard. I even ended up teaching it to faculty and teachers at the University of Toronto. It was a great starting development environment with a mix of graphical tools, hypertext tools and a verbose programming language. It’s only (and major) flaw was that it wasn’t designed to create networked information. HyperCard Stacks has to be passed around on disks. The web made possible a networked hypertext environment that solved the distribution problems of the 1980s. One wonders why Apple (or someone else) doesn’t bring it back in an updated and networked form. I guess that is what the Internet Archive is doing.

For more on the history of HyperCard see the Ars Technica article by Matthew Lasar, 30-plus years of HyperCard, the missing link to the Web.

What is cool is that artists are using HyperCard to make art like Formality* discussed in the previous post.

Formality*

Formality* Screen Shot

Formality* is an interactive in browser art work about filling out forms to apply to “The Neighbourhood”. Formality* was developed in HyperCard by Ewan Atkinson and plays with the retro development environment. Having spent a lot of time on HyperCard I loved Atkinson’s use of the environment – he even has agents that can advise you (reminiscent of Brenda Laurel’s work). Formality* is part of a larger work called The Neighbourhood Project – it makes you wonder about how one becomes part of communities and the processes of applying to belong.

Hutchinson: Japanese Culture Through Videogames

Examining a wide range of Japanese videogames, including arcade fighting games, PC-based strategy games and console JRPGs, this book assesses their cultural significance and shows how gameplay and context can be analyzed together to understand videogames…

I’ve been reading Rachael Hutchinson’s Japanese Culture Through Videogames and it is excellent. The book nicely does three things:

First, it is about important Japanese videogames like Katamari Damacy and Okami giving them a serious reading. Hutchinson treats them as art, but videogame art. She clearly plays the games and writes about the way the mechanics are important to the experience.

Second, she deals with the ways these games are interpreted by both Western and Japanese critics (and fans). This book could serve as a great introduction to Japanese game studies, weaving important Western and Japanese theory into a dialogue around individual games.

Third, and most importantly, she connects the games to reflections about Japanese culture, or I should say, she shows the different ways these games reflect Japanese culture. She deals from the beginning with the way some Japanese games are designed to be mukokuseki or “culturally odourless.” She also talks about how games can have the culture washed out of them in localizations. Above all, she shows how Japanese culture comes through games. This book, as the title suggests, introduces approaches to Japanese culture as seen through games by introducing larger discussions about space and time.

I particularly liked the generous footnotes that allow one to follow up on the critics and cultural theory she weaves in. This is an academic book at its best where every footnote promises a pleasurable exploration of some facet of game studies or Japanese culture.

I have taught a course on Japanese Game Culture a couple of times and always felt that I wasn’t well enough prepared for the potential of the course. This book strikes me as a perfect guide and text for such a course. It is clear that Hutchinson has taught Japanese games for some time and this book benefits from the experience. She talks about how students might interpret a game and contrasts that to more obscure interpretations in a way that hints at how one might teach Japanese games. One senses echoes of class discussions in the balanced way she handles questions about games and I can’t help feeling that she has a rich syllabus up her sleeve for teaching the subject.

In short, this book does what I’ve felt we needed for some time: it provides a serious and rich introduction to Japanese game studies suitable for scholars and useful as a textbook. (Full disclosure: I know Hutchinson from the Replaying Japan conference series and she thanks me in the Acknowledgements.)

Update August 25th, 2019: If you are interested in Hutchinson’s ideas about teaching Japanese games see the YouTube video she recorded, Teaching Japanese Videogames: Why, How and an Example of What. She describes her philosophy of teaching Japanese games, the issues around teaching games, the issues discussed, the “texts”, and she gives some in-depth examples.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Screen Shot of Harry Potter: Wizards UniteI’ve been playing the augmented reality game, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and rather enjoying it. It is a locative game that resembles Ingress and, in fact, is from the same company Niantic which also made Pokémon Go. It encourages you to walk around to finish daily goals and to get portkeys.

In the game you trace spells to free people who have been confounded and you get into duels. It is free to play, but you have to buy gold with which to buy other things if you want to move the game along faster. I found that I didn’t need much gold as long as I didn’t want to play for more than an hour a day.

The game has a Harry Potter feel with a certain amount of humour. At times I felt I was grinding and there were bugs. I liked the portkey idea which lets one see through to another space.

Di GRA 2019 And Replaying Japan 2019

Read my conference notes on Di GRA 2019 And Replaying Japan 2019 here. The two conferences were held back to back (with a shared keynote) in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan.

Kieji Amano deserves a lot of credit for putting together the largest Replaying Japan programme ever. The folks at the Ritsumeikan Center for Games Studies should also be thanked for organizing the facilities for both conferences. They have established themselves as leaders in Japan in the field.

I gave two papers:

  • “The End of Pachinko” (given with Amano) looked at the decline of pachinko and traditional forms of gambling in the face of the legalization of casinos. It looked at different types of ends, like the ends of machines.
  • “Work Culture in Early Japanese Game Development” (with Amano, Okabe, Ly and Whistance-Smith) used text analysis of Szczepaniak’ series of interviews, the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, as a starting point to look at themes like stress and gender.

The quality of the papers in both conferences was very high. I expect this of DiGRA, but it was great to see that Replaying Japan, which is more inclusive, it getting better and better. I was particularly impressed by some of the papers by our Japanese colleagues like a paper delivered by Kobayashi on the “Early History of Hobbyist Production Filed of Video Games and its Effect on Game Industries in Japan.” This was rich with historical evidence. Another great one was “Researching AI technologies in 80’s Japanese Game Industry” delivered by Miyake who is involved in some very interesting preservation projects.

WINDOWS 93

Screen Shot of Windows 93

hug + hack = infinity

At one of the talks at CGSA 2019 I learned about WINDOWS93. It is an emulation of a non-existant early version of Windows that looks a bit like Windows 95, but has all sorts of joke applications in it.

This and other examples of interactive games that mimic everyday software was presented by Benjamin Unterman in a paper titled, “Games Imitating Life.” Unterman theorized that there are three types of such games:

  • Realistic interface designs where a game pretends to be a real interface like that of a cell phone, but you end up messaging fictional people.
  • Complicit designs use realistic interfaces to bring people into a satire or joke interactive. I think Windows93 would be such an example.
  • Antagonistic designs pretend to be some productivity tool, but they subvert the interface as you play.

My conference notes for Congress 2019 are here.

Doki Doki Literature Club!

The Literature Club is full of cute girls! Will you write the way into their heart?

Dr. Ensslin gave a great short survey of digital fiction includ the Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC) at the Dyscorpia symposium. DDLC is a visual novel created in Ren’Py by Team Salvato that plays with the genre. As you play the game, which starts as a fairly typical dating game, it first turns into a horror game and then begins to get hacked by one of the characters who wants your attention. The character, it turns out, has both encouraged some of the other girls (in the Literature Club) to commit suicide, but they edits them out of the game itself. At the end of the game she has a lengthy face-to-face with you breaking the fourth wall of the screen.

Like most visual novels, it can be excruciating advancing through lots of text to get to the point where things change, but eventually you will notice glitches which makes things more interesting. I found myself paying attention to the text more as the glitches drew attention to the script. (The script itself is even mentioned in the game.)

DDLC initially mimics the Japanese visual novel genre, down to the graphics, but eventually the script veers off. It was well received in game circles winning a number of prizes.

The Unpredictability of Gameplay: Mark R. Johnson: Bloomsbury Academic

The Unpredictability of Gameplay explores the many forms of unpredictability in games and proposes a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding and categorizing non-deterministic game mechanics.

Today we celebrated the publication by Bloomsbury of Mark R. Johnson’s The Unpredictability of Gameplay.Johnson proposes a typology of unpredictability:

  • Randomness (initial conditions of the game)
  • Chance (during play)
  • Luck (in/ability for player to affect final outcome)
  • Instability (outside the game)

Mark’s book nicely connects gaming and gambling. It helps us understand the way microgames in larger videogames can become a form of gambling. He looks at loot boxes where players are encouraged to spend small amounts of money over and over to get virtual goods inside a larger game. In Japan Kompu Gacha (or complete gacha) was eventually discouraged by the government because too many people were effectively gambling in their attempts to collect complete sets of virtual goods by paying over and over to open loot boxes. Compu gacha and other forms of loot boxes in videogames are a way for developers to monetize a game, but they also create metagae contexts that are, in effect, gambling. What is interesting, is that people don’t think of videogames as sites for gambling. One wants to say that this is another  (micro) form of casino capitalism.