Category: pseudo-intellectual rant

Ideology, Literary Criticism, Academia, and Video Games, Pt. 1 – How US politics influenced a medium

I’m writing this as the first piece of many, not entirely knowing where it is going to go in future. Its probably going to be a straight-from-draft published work like the other two things I have on here, but this is largely just so that I can get my thoughts straight on the matters at hand.

This series (hopefully, but with my publishing schedule I have no idea how likely that is) of articles are going to be about exactly what the title says they will be. I have to keep it that broad and vague because its basically a working concept for how to talk about this kind of stuff. To get more specific; I’m going to be addressing the role of political and otherwise (see things like religion) ideology, branches of literary criticism, and the notion of pseudo-academic assessment and their role on the current state of ‘video game culture’ present on the internet. ‘Video game culture’ will refer to the interactions around video games in online forums, video game journalism from outlets and prominent personalities and pundits, and most importantly the content and environments of video games themselves.

In this first article I want to address some thoughts that I’ve had developing for a while around the bleeding of US politics into ”video game culture’. As an Australian, and as a politics major in an under-grad degree, its somewhat frightening to see the United States’ progression into an ideological dumpster fire over the course of the two Obama administrations bleeding internationally into video game culture. Its no overstatement to say that we live in turbulent times, but that being said it probably hasn’t actually been an overstatement the last few times that’s been said either. In what I see personally as a suppression of ideological difference and the extreme by US state actors from… well being realistic you could say that it started as far back as the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, but with particular focus from Reagan onward, you now see a rise in volatile expressions of ideological and philosophical differences from the American hyper neo-liberal, globalist, capitalist imperialism (in any other name than that) which has had basically two pretenses in the ‘democratic elections’ it presents its citizens with as opposed to any substantial difference. This is not unique, in any developed democracy its kind of to be expected. Its impact on my preferred medium of entertainment, however, was something I wasn’t expecting.

For this article I want to examine the dichotomous cabals of the alt-right (see: fascists) and the new-age (‘idpol’ if you want) liberals and their impact on the ideologies of video game culture. I’m not going to turn this into a 4chan & Reddit v.s. Tumblr & Reddit analysis because, to be fair, I’m not here to insult either your intelligence or my own by writing that and trying to convince you to read it.
I did figure it worth mentioning though because Reddit always comes up on both sides, because everyone hates Reddit.
Funnily enough I’m bringing this up mostly because of how reactionary (whoop there goes all my Marxism all over the ground oh dear) these two groups are, with particular focus on the fascists because of course they’re reactionary its the definition of their ideology. I’m not going to say that either of these are right or wrong to hold in this article either, I want this to be just an expression of how I’ve seen the culture evolve in this area with a critical assessment of expressions I’ve seen from either camp, since they mostly fight each other in some weird, nebulous kind of war with no real aims or goals.

I watched this video essay by Troy Leavitt, a game developer who’s worked on Disney Infinity (2013) and WWF Warzone (1998), called ‘Anita’s Pinhole: A Veteran Game Developer responds to Feminist Frequency (Finally!)‘. I held hope that because it was an industry veteran the analysis would be somewhat more nuanced than the standard criticisms of Sarkeesian’s work, which it wasn’t really, but the amount that Leavitt spoke about Sarkeesian’s ideology influencing her work the more I thought about finally writing this article, which I have been thinking about since February. Criticising Sarkeesian’s works, with Feminist Frequency in particular, for being incredibly selective in its analysis of video games and being an ideological megaphone for that big, bad, and scary thing called Feminism that makes white men’s willies fall off and your childhood sweetheart start seeing a dark skinned man named Tyrone. Which, hyperbolic character assassinations of Sarkeesian’s critics aside, I would say that from the (admittedly limited) evidence I have seen from watching a couple of episodes of her show in past and seeing some of the public statements that she’s made this criticism seems legitimate. When it comes to her ideological focus, though, what critics of her seem to miss largely is that I think that’s the point.

What Sarkeesian does is literary criticism, but for video games. To make her criticisms she uses a feminist lens. This is something I was taught in high school about how one analyses fiction and poetry, and now in university I use a similar set of tools to analyse policy. EVERYTHING is informed by ideology, even if you think it isn’t, and, since the author is now well and truly dead, we have free reign to use our own ideologies as interpretative lenses to inform what we take away from both fiction and reality. Trying to use Marx to analyse the current state of Australia’s awful welfare over-payment debt collection system, for instance, is just as valid as using Webber. The lens doesn’t matter, its all just interpretation. The criticism of Sarkeesian which isn’t just rape threats (such a lovely community) seems to ignore this idea, or fact of criticism, which is astounding since its taught in high school. I assume the veteran game designer Leavitt would know this, since he presumably would have had to work on it in his B.A in English from the University of Utah (LinkedIn is a gold mine). He even acknowledges that his own ideology weighs heavily on his response to Sarkeesian’s, which brings into further question why he’s treating her arguments as if she is presenting scientific fact as opposed to criticism of media. Leavitt’s constant labeling of Sarkeesian’s work as “propaganda” further displays his absolute ignorance to Sarkeesian’s work and media criticism in general. By his own substantially lacking accusations he basically finalises his video by categorising his own work as propaganda without meaning to. If one were to criticise Sarkeesian for being a bad critic because her arguments are so painfully selective they make her interpretation limited and leave it lacking substantial nuance, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, but time and again criticism of her seems to be based on her wanting to use that ideological lens in the first place, not her lack of substance in using it.

So if Sarkeesian is our new-age liberal stand-in for this loose-form analysis, then the alt-right is who need to be discussed next. Its on forums that I find, personally, most of the criticism against Sarkeesian’s ideological perspective, and this is where it starts to get politically complicated. The alt-right would not exist if they didn’t have anything else they can view as extreme to push back against. Without getting too in-depth into the politics of this, what seems to have happened in the US over the past 4 decades or so is a progressive rise of social protectionism. Theirs is a weird culture, I’ll never understand the idea of changing university content to be less confronting because in a lot of specialist professions your job is confronting, but there is definitely an anti-empiricism bent to their national identity. If you want proof; creationism in schools. So when you have a nation steeped so heavily in ideology its understandable that its ideologies become more extreme, and that they would begin to become dichotomous. Hence we have a nice parasitic ying yang going on between the new-age liberals and the alt-right because they have come to shape their identities from resistance to the other’s ideas. This is more so the case for the alt-right because they’re fascists and fascism defines itself through ethnicity-based class systems and an inherent resistance to anything that makes ethnic lines less defined.

Instances such as ‘Gamergate’ and JonTron being a racist fool (because I’m trying not to swear as much in my articles as of late <3) on a podcast can tell you that the alt-right and reactionaries are very vocal and prominent in video game culture. So the question then becomes “why?”, and I think the answer is a misunderstanding and perhaps, even though I haven’t addressed it in this article, misrepresentation of the works of people like Sarkeesian. Their prominence in the culture is a push-back against interpretation and critique that they see as being wrong in an objective sense, it seems. I think that this might be the same reason you have people DDOSing websites that give games lower than the average review score from other critics. There seems to be this inability within the culture by a worryingly active community to view criticism as criticism and not as a scientific review. Then that seems to get layered with this weird American bent on the irrelevance of science itself, a position that is culturally entrenched where something is correct, no matter what others may say, if I believe it. The alt-right seems to exist in gaming to basically serve as the world’s largest confirmation bias you’ll ever see; feeding off anything that conflicts with their ideology, calling it incorrect based on values which are presented as fact, and then using to further fuel some pseudo-revolutionary fire so that the cycle continues….
Or at least that’s what I can make of it.

The truth is the more I look at this, which is nearly on a daily basis because I enjoy video games (and if you commit the sin of wanting to dare engage with other people about that and having a differing political alignment may god have mercy on your soul), the more I am confused. There seems to be so many factors influencing this, unsurprisingly, but I felt like I needed to write something about this whole criticism thing even in as round-about of a format as this because I really needed to express my irritation somehow.

I hope this was somewhat enjoyable to read, and I’ll try to write more of these soon so any feedback to improve is more than welcome as well as discussion about my writing topics.

Link to referenced video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMaaDav46gM
(As an aside, I just wanted to note something else that really irritated me about this video: the music used. Why Leavitt chose to put Flight of the Valkyries and In the Hall of the Mountain King in this goddamn train wreck of a video I will never know. I also sincerely hope he has a new microphone now.)

Fallout 4 is boring, so is Skyrim, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves for liking such trash

*Ahem*
Now that I have your attention, let me begin by saying that I don’t hate Fallout 4. I hate Skyrim (not really for any logical reason I just think its fun because a few of my friends and a lot of other people really enjoy it and its funny to see them get so worked up about my opinion, which doesn’t at all make the game any different for them, it only affects me), but Fallout 4 for all its similarities with Skyrim and departures from the ‘original’ first person Fallout games isn’t actually as bad of a game. In fact its pretty fun vanilla, and has quite a good deal of play time value at least on a single character.

My problem with Fallout 4 is that its trying something new in its narrative design but not trying to change its mechanics to emulate this. This is a problem that Skyrim doesn’t have, and no other Bethesda RPG that I’ve played seems to have it either. In Skyrim, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 and New Vegas, you play as a blank slate. Your dialogue and choices throughout the game of who to help and who to hinder as well as how you talk to people give you a greater sense of who ‘you are. Your character doesn’t really come in to the world with any direct goals other than self-preservation or personal interests. In Skyrim you’re escaping from being executed/dragon attack, in Oblivion you’re escaping prison/assassination attempt (both of these openings are very similar in their game play and architectural design despite the location difference and make me wish that more fantasy games could start without your character escaping or being released from a fucking prison like so many of them do).

In Fallout 3 you’re escaping being shot during a riot; running out of your ‘home’ in a sealed-off underground vault which you and your family have been detained in indefinitely by the crazed Overseer with the rest of the population who all preform largely menial tasks and guards who work for the Overseer keeping them all in line with no proper escape for the people inside unless the warden-I mean Overseer wills it and everyone has to play by the same rules otherwise the guards will make your life worse and you might get smaller food portions or be socially ostracized, either way the Overseer will make your life hell…

Why does everything have to start in a fucking prison?

In Fallout New Vegas you’re a courier who’s been shot in the head and you can go find your killer if you want to I guess. Either way you should probably leave town because there is fuck all to do there.
You can tell which one is my favorite because it doesn’t start in a fucking prison.

The commonality between all these openings is that even though you get this clear directive of what to do you still feel universally invested in what you’re doing because its “you” who is in danger/has been wronged/had the bad thing happen to you. Only “you”. Your “you” in the game doesn’t have to care about anyone but themselves unless you want them to. You have a blank slate that you can write your story on in your own head and act like the character you made because role playing characters that you came up with yourself is fun (think I’m wrong? Play D&D. That shit will have you so engaged you might forget your corporeal form after a few hours)

And then there’s Fallout 4. Not that its opening is bad at all, or even that its main quest line is bad, its just so not a game for your own personal character. The game opens with “your” wife/husband being killed and “your” son being kidnapped. The aim of the game is now to get your son back, because that is what the voiced protagonist is telling you to do and WAIT A MOMENT WHOAH THERE LADS AND LASSES VOICED PROTAGONIST WE HAVE TO DISCUSS THIS SHIT… BECAUSE ITS FUCKING DUMB!

I’ll try and keep this brief, because I’m already writing more than I wanted to on this. Giving the protag a voice actor is an alright idea, the same as with the idea of the personal engagement in the McGuffin of your son in a game which isn’t mechanically designed around creating your own person. Take the Mass Effect series as an example of this. Limited character creation, such as not being able to choose a last name lends to the character feeling like their own person, which ties in with the voice actor and the limited dialogue options. You have two set paths to go down which will get you outcomes to your tastes, indicated by the paragon and renegade morality system. In the end, though, your Shepard isn’t evil. They can be an arsehole, sure, but the game’s objective is to save the galaxy and that is a good thing. Saving all life in our galaxy is good! So you can’t be evil. You can’t join the villains. The game tells you where to go and in the end you hit an option where your choice is which colour filter you want the game to have in the end (I chose green, because being one with the machines sounds SIIIIIICK) and you get to watch a little “Where are they now?”-esque film clip which gives you some closure. There. Done.

Fallout 4’s story is like Mass Effects in the way that it gives you an ultimately at least part-way altruistic goal. You want to save your son, or find them at least. That’s really it. Its not like Fallout 3 where finding your” dad could be to confront him on all the lies he’s told “you” over the years or out of care and love, and you end up getting wrapped up in a bigger conflict that is beyond this personal struggle on the way. This is directly about someone other than you” and its the first thing you have to do in the game. Now I know that later on you can get the option to say “fuck my son, you cunts killed my s/o!” but that still doesn’t really cut it because by that point: 1-You’ve been saying “MY SON!!!! WHY MY SON I WILL FIND YOU MY SON!!!!” for so damn long that this one dialogue choice out of the four literally means nothing, it doesn’t change your character’s motives at all, and 2-Even if “you” are going after them for revenge, the fact is “you” had someone “you” cared about before the role playing part of the game actually started and you, the player, couldn’t decide who that was past their sex (which has to be the opposite of whatever you are) and what they looked like.

(To continue this explanation, we’re going to assume that the player is male, because I played through as a man and it makes it much easier to talk through my own experiences)

This kind of thing is persistent even in the little parts at the beginning of the game. For instance – you are an ex-soldier and your wife is a law student who has passed the bar and has started practicing (or at least it seems like she practices). That right there is your backstory. That’s something that games like Mass Effect have, where you are playing a set character. Then all of a sudden it shoots you to a stat allocation screen where you don’t have any points filled in. This is something you put in a game where you make someone from scratch. For instance, in Mass Effect, you have to pick a class. These classes have proficiency and weaknesses, but they are all just different types of people who could do the same job. Now look me in the fucking eye and tell me how a man with 1 strength, 1 endurance, and 3 agility could get into the fucking US army, unless its that easy that my 86 year old grandmother could make it. And don’t tell me its because of his 10 luck, because that shit ain’t magic.

My point here is that the character you play as is essentially constructed for you as a character. You just have to insert yourself in that character. Its role playing in its most basic, which is fine if you don’t keep systems which make you want to make your own character. This also doesn’t lend very well to multiple playthroughs, something which I loved doing in the games I listed earlier, because it means that there are limited outcomes to experience because almost every decision is binary. For a game without a morality system, Fallout 4 sure has a lot of binary choices. I was really taken aback with the fact that they just had a crime list and no karma scale like the other two first person Fallouts. Especially since there is not organised rule of law in Boston so who the fuck is going to ring you up on charges? Who is even writing these laws? Is my character so scarred and guilt stricken that he keeps a list of actions that would have been illegal back 200 years ago and then just makes little tallies next to them every time he does one of them? This is something which fits better in a game where I can be good or evil or whatever and don’t need to be told so, like an RPG where you create your own character from scratch. It doesn’t work very well when you are playing a character.

The limit on dialogue options in conversations also makes the game have the feeling of a Mass Effect style RPG, except Mass Effect did it so much better I kind of feel bad making the comparison. Fallout 4’s choices and dialogue options feel more like that of a Telltale game than an RPG’s. In the end, no matter what you choose, the ending is always the same. There is no consequences for your actions, no visible change, you are still an embodiment of the same overarching character, except your outlook on life changed slightly now and the game isn’t even going to bother keeping track of that for you so its really for your internal role playing which should be integrated into the game because its a fucking role playing game for Christ’s sake!

I think this is largely because the game doesn’t end after you finish the main story so in spite of some minor changes like which faction you side with effecting what places you can go in to without having to shoot your way out, which is good, there isn’t much feedback for your decisions. I feel like they knew this was a problem so they went with making the companions approve or disapprove of your decisions, but what if I’m using the dog or I’m on my own? Then I have no feedback for nearly every side-quest in the game. This isn’t dissimilar to the other RPGs I listed earlier in design honestly, but something about the bland 4 options for dialogue make every conversation feel so samey that it feels like nothing changes whether I have the conversation one way or another.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE NEXT 2 PARAGRAPHS FOR THE ENDING OF FALLOUT 4

So this all really comes to a head when you find out that your son is an old man and leads the Institute and then offers you to join him, essentially making the character’s purpose, as far as the game’s dialogue and writing is concerned, pointless. Honestly, by that point in the game I didn’t give a frank fuck about my kid. I was just curious to see what the twist was going to be when I got there. I wanted to blow up the Institute because I was trying to make my guy a military dog for the Brotherhood and I like killing things, not because my ‘son’ was kidnapped by them. The moment that went from being an investigation to a rescue mission I got disinterested. Why? Because I was trying to play as me and the game wouldn’t let me. I just wanted to work for the Brotherhood. Instead I still have to look for this shit kid that I lost at the beginning of the game and never really gave a fuck about. Furthermore, the game is geared for you to join the Institute. I say this because the entire reason for being of your character up until this point has been for Sean, your shitty son. Finding him and… well just finding him honestly. That is what your character says when he meets people. Its a dialogue option to talk about him to nearly every major NPC. You meet a good 4 of your companions directly through searching for him. He is the game! And then you meet him and he’s the leader of the bad guys, explains that they aren’t completely evil and its just a complex philosophical difference, and that you can join him.

From the moment you meat Sean as an old man, any reason you had for doing literally anything as a character left. Sean was the driving factor of every action you took; every move you made was to get you closer to him, whether good or bad. Finding your son is your motivation, and the Institute is your enemy because they took him from you. And then you find him, and he tells you the people who wronged you are long dead and that he’s trying to fix things. And its just like “Oh… ok. I suppose I have no reason to do anything anymore.” If that conversation ended right there, after he explained things for you, the protagonist would have absolutely no reason to do anything. You used whatever faction you were with and did everything you did just to get to him and when you got there you basically got an answer which told you that it was all for nothing. But then wait! A light in the darkness! Your son asks you to join him. Remember when I said that Mass Effect was smart in not letting you join your enemy as an option for allies, well I said that because of how stupid this is. The Institution was the only seemingly legitimate evil force in the game and it was built up as such, and then they just dismantle all the established hate in a few very reasonable sentences and leave the game without an antagonist. This siding with the villain thing worked in New Vegas, primarily because the game made you evil for it and that said faction was not your personal villain, Benny was. If you want to make a comparison to personal villains you kill Kellog like fucking 5 quests in to the main line or some shit, so the specific guy who wronged you is out of the question entirely, yet you still have to progress with the main quest line to complete the faction quests which is bullshit because at this point the personal conflict you as a player had with another person is gone, and now all that’s left is essentially the concept of a family bond with a son, need I remind you, you as the player do not have.

And worst of all is that right there is the only faction invitation you take on without the backing of finding your son. You have no ulterior motive at this point. So its the only one the character can accept genuinely to give them new direction. Now, to be fair, you can role play here a bit and pretend that you have found greater calling in the faction you are already with, like what I did, but there is no dialogue up to this point which gives a strong indication that you would be willing to give up on Sean for the faction of your choice. There are lines, sure, but they are throw away and starkly lacking in the emotion which is given to lines about Sean. It is so obvious how the story is supposed to play out, which irritates me because it shouldn’t be in a game like this.

SPOILERS OVER

Fallout 4 was, to me, pretty disappointing. It lacked a lot of what I liked about New Vegas and even 3 in terms of how you interacted with the world and NPCs. But it also had a lot of fun elements too. The point of this blog post was more to talk about what I found a really jarring use of character development in a game which should honestly have given more agency to the players to have their own character development instead of just giving a set story arch in writing and providing minor variations in how that can transpire. I’ve had this on my mind for a while so I needed to get it out somehow. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it. Peace out.

It’s been one year.

I sit alone staring at my monitor yet again, with another weekend night wasted attempting to continue to express myself through a medium other than the screeching machinations of my own internal monologue. Another attempt at conveying ideas which I want to express onto the blank canvas of a page.

Yet I cannot.

I’ve never had trouble with making up stories in the past, especially not stories that I wished to tell. Asking those who knew me at my youngest would garner you answers to the affirmative. Yet somehow now I find myself at a blockade. A great wall which taunts me with its height, breadth, and density. When I consider scaling it the feat seems impossible, and I’m confounded by the notion. Inner turmoil strikes me as I believe myself unworthy of even attempting the challenge ahead at some times and at others too inferior and unskilled to scale the entire looming structure once I have begun. There is no way through this problem and no way around it, no shortcuts to be taken or alternate paths. The beast I fight in my attempts to scream myself at the world is a beast that can only be fought directly; challenged head on.

Writer’s block is a bitch to deal with, especially when you have things that you want to say but feel like there is no proper way to say them.

Or, when you feel like you do not have the finesse to execute them. I don’t know if its a bi-product of aging and losing some of the naivete which I had up until now, or maybe its the better understanding of storytelling which I gained through the last years of my schooling, (or perhaps even both (or neither)) but the potential I used to see in my own work and in myself as a (very very VERY) amateur writer has dwindled to a level of self doubt which is alien to me.

It feels like something is missing, something which I should have but I don’t, something I’ve carried on me for years like a child carries a blanket, but then another week reaches its close and my ideas which I want to express go silently into the back of my mind; out of the reach of my fingers on my keyboard.

I feel like the child after the blanket is lost. I feel like I’m a runner, those who would deliver messages between towns and cities in ancient Europe, and I’ve traveled hundreds of kilometres on a journey only to forget the message I was supposed to deliver at the destination. There is more of the journey left but its pointless if I have forgotten the message, and I can’t turn around and go back to ask what the message was because by that point the message will have no meaning. So now my task becomes to not only continue on but also remember the message I was tasked with expressing!

This feeling which is not even in my opinion worthy of being called writers block for its lack of actually being any form of creative stifling (yet this is still an easier way of identifying it than to come up with a new name) rips at me and tears at me and confuses me all at once, which is beyond infuriating.

Its a really long, pretentious, and largely hyperbolic way of saying that I am stuck on the why of my inability to write fiction and not actually solving the problem.

I’m struggling to come up with stories that live up to my expectations, and now that my rant is done I’m hoping this blog can change that. Whenever I get a chance to write something I think is cool down, I probably will. Its just going to be a way of shooting ideas out and letting them be accepted or rejected as time continues. An exercise in exploration of the characters I can create. In between that stuff I suppose I’m going to write about things that interest me. If you’ve read this bitch-fest and like the way that I complain melodramatically about a mild problem which I’ve had for the last 12 months or so, feel free to stick around and look at my other stuff when I post it. Hopefully you’ll like that too.