Video games and the baroque

Often has the question been asked “are video games art?” The answer each person gives to that question depends, as it often does, on their personal definition of the terms. What defines art? How do we know when something we see is or is not art? To each person it seems some things simply ‘are’ art and some simply ‘are not’.

If you think about it, games themselves are subject to the same problem of definition. Why is Second Life a game but facebook is not? Battlefield is definitely a video game, but what about online poker applications?

Back in the mid-fifties Wittgenstein noted that the word ‘game’ is used to describe a multitude of different phenomena, from chess to ring-a-ring-a-roses to hitting a ball against a wall by yourself. Games, like art, are an elusive kind of cultural phenomena that you know when you see it but that defy a concrete definition. We learn to recognise what games are by compiling the attributes of objects our peers agree ‘are’ games and rejecting those from objects that ‘are not’. We do the same with art.

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The power of immersion

Immersion – the diminishing of one’s awareness of their physical self in favour of a virtual one – is big money in games and always has been. In the arcades immersion meant more coins in the slot. Today it means greater hype, better brand loyalty and a more satisfying final product. You know this.

What’s interesting about immersion (and if past jarring FMV atrocities like Tomcat Alley or Night Trap have taught us anything) is that the worlds don’t have to be convincing visually, aurally or thematically in order to suck you in. In the 90s, with the advent of disc-based media and powerful home-computers, game designers thought they could manufacture more immersive gameplay through recording real life. Even their best attempts have been thoroughly eclipsed by modern games that eschew conventional realism and realise that communicating experience and emotion is a much more complicated business.

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Myth of the talking ball – a brief history of ludology

Although the modern video game is a digital entertainment medium that is in some ways comparable to other entertainment media, it was long before that (and remains today) a modern sub-stratum of imaginative ‘play’ as well as of technology and story-telling. This play is unique to games as a medium and is an aspect often neglected by those seeking to compare it to other media or situate it in a cultural context.

This is one of the ideas underpinning the research I’m currently involved in. While I’m busy procrastinating from that research by blogging, and while I already have all the reference materials spread out on my desk, I thought I might take an abridged look at the development of ludology – the study of play.

As long as there have been games there have obviously been those who seek to understand them. In the case of video games, the two main camps of academics are narratologists – who study games in much the same way as one studies other media, by the themes and narratives it conveys to the user – and ludologists – who think the heart of the game and therefore the rightful thrust of the study is the play, not the narrative.

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Software review: Dropbox

10:00am

There was once a time, I assume, where one’s level and kind of productivity was limited by geography. Today, for example, I’m taking a trip from Melbourne to Bendigo. It’s easy to imagine a pre-internet time where such a trip would separate me from my work and my more productive hobbies, making for a large chunk of totally fruitless time spent on public transport with only a newspaper or book or other people to keep my mind occupied.

This is today however, and today we are blessed with advancements in the field of mobile productivity including the Dropbox suite of cloud-storage applications. Today, by the time I reach Bendigo, I hope to have written, edited and published a full review of this software.

I’m still at home now, having begun this review in the plain jane Windows notepad on my laptop. The Dropbox Windows application is always open, embedding its icon alongside ‘my documents’ in all the contexts one would expect. Uploading any file is literally as simple as creating, saving or moving a file would be in any other situation. Anything you place or save in the Dropbox drive (2 gigabytes with a free account) is sent straight to the cloud for retreival on any of your devices. Such is the fate of the words I am writing now.

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The issue with the word ‘play’

I recall some time ago a movement among so-called ‘hardcore’ gamers to eschew the word ‘play’ as it pertained to games. Instead of, for example, saying “what have you been playing”, they would say “what have you been gaming”. The problem with the phrase ‘playing games’ of course is that it’s very close to ‘playing with games’ in the same way one might play with a set of blocks or a stick with a ball on the end of it. To be constantly reminded that games are for ‘playing’ allows for the reinforcement of the idea games cannot be serious art or convey worthwhile or complex ideas.

So in theory I support the people who rejected the word, though they have long since given up the fight. This is probably for the best since their choice of replacement was completely ridiculous.

Honestly if I was ever to actually witness one party suggesting to another party “let’s go game some games”, I’d consider it the most heinous crime of conflationary verbiage this side of my own convoluted sentences.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d take a closer look at the word ‘play’ as it relates to games and other media.

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Representing subtle emotion in games – a pitch

Most anybody who has undertaken any form of study will recognise the quandary I faced last night: the over-specific assignment brief.

I was asked to pitch an “interactive space (game/story or experiential) where movement is exploited to create a rich, engaging user experience”. On top of this I was tied to a very prescriptive writing form and given three completely arbitrary and pointless themes to choose from: ‘The Mistake’, ‘Above and Beyond’, and ‘Gravity’.

I chose the former, as it seemed the most vague, and resolved to construct an experience that I felt had worth outside the questionable constraints of the assignment. The idea I pitched not only exploits movement but exploits an aspect of human movement most of us understand instinctively – the reassuring touch of another human hand.

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Society and techno-fashion

With a new iPad on the way, representatives from both the ‘Apple sucks’ and ‘yay Apple’ camps have dusted off their banners and begun their march through basically every form of discussion we have as a society. I’ve heard propaganda for and against on trams, at work, at uni, in my house and on TV, plus of course there’s the never-ending churn of content on the web.

The majority of us most likely sit in neither camp and may like to think of ourselves as brand agnostic, getting an Apple product if we feel it’s best for us and refraining if we can do without or there’s a more suitable alternative. To some extent though, I think we are all subject to the same social forces that make some people Apple freaks and some total deniers. The decision whether or not to purchase has gone way beyond  perceiving if a product is good and useful or not. Whether you like it or not personal electronics are not only necessary for modern life but they’re inexorably linked to your social being.

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