The Games Industry Is Just A Spectator Sport

It started, as it always does, on the Internet. Xbox fans who moments earlier were imagining clasping their new Titanfall posters, a single community united as one under Microsoft, defiantly pointed to Sony’s business decisions as proof that the Xbox One was no bipartisan healer uniting console owners and guys who just want another way to watch Game of Thrones.

The Xbox fall-from-grace is the Vaudevillian macronarrative we the audience have been watching for, arguably, years. The gripes that persist between Sony and Microsoft are one thing media watchers have always been able to count on, a David/Goliath display normally relegated to the hallowed halls of Pay Per View wrestling narratives. But in recent years we’ve begun to see a new power struggle emerge from that pit. The role of the gamer is shifting, now playing a central part in a seachange in the games industry that is transforming how consumers relate to producers of entertainment.

It’s only at times like this – when the video games industry appears at the height of its own lawless turbulence – that words spoken by Vince McMahon, the heaving and beligerant patron-saint of professional wrestling, can have the resonance of a Zen Koan. 2013, a year that will introduce two new generations of consoles and cultivate two rabidly blustering schools of fans, marks another step in this industry’s transformation into populous theatre, in a way McMahon could only predict.

Because no one knows better just how important an audience is to a spectacle.

In the words of the venerable McMahon, the “crossover of whether [something is] entertainment or news is the biggest crock of B.S. in television today, because it’s all entertainment.” For McMahon, the face behind pro-wrestling behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment, that statement was central to the industry he helped build in the early ‘80s. His vision of the WWE was driven by a stoic sort of principle. “We [in the WWE] look at everything as an entertainment vehicle,” he said in a 2001 interview with Playboy. “Nothing is sacred.”

Today it’s safe to say that same philosophy has independently risen in our own industry. The games industry has unintentionally emerged as a symbol of modern spectacle that shares a defining and universal truth with McMahon’s ideology: It just isn’t clear where the entertainment ends anymore.

Where games once were the centrepiece of our industry, publishers, studios and even individuals are gaining a place alongside them as a part of the show; the result of a new kind of relationship between the participating audience and the entertainment itself.

Likewise, McMahon had made his business in blurring the already murky territory between business and entertainment, something that in an older era of entertainment was referred to as Kayfabe, a term originally used by carnival workers to mean the portrayal of fiction as reality. The walls typically seperating performance, business and audience members could be broken down with this, and as a result McMahon could capitalise on a theatrical call-and-response entertainment with levels of interaction.

Wrestlers assumed two possible personalities intended to either encourage the audience to cheer or to draw the ire of spectators. Narratives would be fabricated, an open-secret in its industry, while writers pieced together in-show subplots that often co-opted real-life problems ranging from contractual issues to injuries.

For McMahon, he used this to show above all a moral plotline of good versus evil. Often, individual matches would be part of a bigger plot arc that followed conflict between characters: the Babyfaces and the Heels, the morally just and the defiantly bad, respectively. The audience would help drive this. The idea of paying up is essential in wrestling, and leads to an immanent kind of justice – the baser the action from the antagonist, the more the crowd calls out for a deserved punishment.

It’s a familiar kind of story. It’s easy to feel the games industry is a spectacle to jeer at.

The balloons have dropped. The party’s over. The last unenthused body with a press pass has politely been escorted out of the conference hall and Don Mattrick stands languid in a dark room waiting for his next day at work to start. It’s months since the first reveal of Xbox One and in the meantime we’ve had all this time to think back on its message while we brace for the next comedy of errors to come out of the bowels of the games industry.

But for all the nihilistic machismo of the games industry, it – like McMahon’s ring-side theatre – is equally rooted in a deep sense of morality and justice.

Game fans – the would-be consumers of the industry – are finding a new role as commentators of our own theatre, and as a result manufacturers of entertainment have become the centrepiece of our attention. Now, seemingly ruled by a mass market that finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the entertainment makers and the entertainment, the games industry appears to be on a trajectory to becoming pure spectacle.

It’s only in recent years that popular social media has shown its talent for irrevocably breaking down the fourth wall separating consumers from the games industry. In an era of TMZ mentality, one where every action is followed by an equal or greater reaction, the Internet has for better or for worse become the world’s greatest barometer for knee-jerk justice. Now, like a theatre of the rounds, audience participation is at an all-time high.

We in the games industry have our own morality story, although I’m still unsure whether we’re aware of the narratives we help to build as an audience. Villains emerge, so do team allegiances. Gamers align with a protagonist, take in the inevitable plot twists that unfold moment to moment in sport. Ultimately there’s a feeling that we are directly involved with what we’re rooting for and connected to their rise and fall. Gamers and the media implicitly encourage the industry’s transformation into pure spectacle.

Now more than ever it’s the spectacle that appears to be running the show.

Congratulations, you are now a Kotaku commenter

“Congratulations, you are now a Kotaku commenter” is an interactive fiction game that puts you in the shoes of a Internet commenters during the fallout of the short #1ReasonWhy sociopolitical movement-turned-meme you might remember from earlier in the year. It’s written in response to the Men’s Rights commentators who turned up on games website Kotaku immediately after the site began corralling quotes from this Twitter dialogue which revealed some of the harsher realities of being a woman in the games industry. All quotes used are from actual real-world Kotaku commenters. It also has a great recipe for goulash!

http://writer.inklestudios.com/stories/bpfh

Havisham and Morrissey: A Sims 3 Story

I was reminded about the Sims 3 playthrough I wrote about a few years ago. Placing it here to take up space.

Imagine the magic spawn of Xtreme sports enthusiasts and guys with proto-aspergers and you basically get Robin Burkinshaw’s Sims drama “Alice and Kev”. Alice and Kev was an extreme minimalist playthrough of The Sims 3, a kind of mawkish human interest story about fake homeless people. Now imagine homeless Sims competing to see who can stand around idly for the longest without inevitably dying from insufficient waffle intake and you have what’s essentially the plot arc of Alice and Kev.

Apparently just leaving your Sim in a pool and deleting the ladder is passe and the only way to be venerated by gaming virtuosos is by creating a blog based on watching Sims develop a thick crust of piss fumes around their torsos over the course of months. So I figured while I’m scratching the bottom of the barrel for DreadfulBlog topics I may as well make a desperate grab for attention by repeating more or less the exact same thing.

So hey Robin Burkinshaw. I see your Alice and Kev and I raise you Havisham and Morrissey. Yeah! And the pictures on your blog loaded a bit slowly for me one time. How does that taste?

Like any Greek tragedy Havisham and Morrissey is a multi-layered story about adopting six babies and succumbing to exhaustion and disease after I briefly walk away from the computer. On its deepest level it is a commentary on socio-economic issues in Northern England and therefore much better than whatever is happening here. Unlike Robin’s in-depth study of the harsh realities of eating spagbol out of a bin, Havisham and Morrissey would be an attempt to see what affect family responsibilities and class fatalism had on pre-programmed SimSuccess.

Thanks to the game’s Character Traits and Lifetime Goals attributes I was able to design Morrissey to be destined for musical stardom. Morrissey would enter the game in a relationship with Havisham, a woman whose Character Traits and Lifetime Goals were polar opposite to his own. Her desire for adopting babies would be insatiable but her selfish, child hating and lazy Character Traits would place the onus on Morrissey to do the bulk of child-rearing. So are Sims programmed to have their traits and goals overwritten in this situation? To answer this question I built a house with three rooms and forced Havisham to repeatedly order babies from the adoption agency to rack up maternity leave cheques.

The main protagonist of this story isn’t Havisham so much as Morrissey: a struggling musician who is probably quite good but it’s impossible to tell through his thick veil of twat.

For the most part he spends his time standing about and looking like a bit like a 13 year old Winona Ryder while his wife uses her free time to loiter around the kitchen counter for the three hours that’s required to make a dinner.

I started the game by giving him the ambitious and musically-inclined loner traits which basically forced his reptile brain to pick up a guitar the minute he entered the house, spending the rest of the afternoon strumming for 15 hours to get to the end of one verse of Hot Cross Buns, all while avoiding all distractions ranging from eating to sleep. In fact for the first three days he really didn’t move away from the corner where he spent his hours creating rubbish rock tunes, only stopping occasionally to agonisingly piss himself, just like the real Morrissey. Had I not soon intervened by trying to order babies on the telephone Morrissey would have been destined for stardom, having quickly perfected his musical skills over the course of days.

The DreadfulBlog XTREME social experiment would see whether the family life forced on him would cause his dreams become dashed on the rocks. The answer, poetically, was actually that he would starve to death in front of a herd of toddlers who wouldn’t move out of the way of the fridge.

Part II

A few years ago after starting the episodic Sim epic and introducing the story’s sulking kitchen boy, Morrissey, I introduced Havisham.

Havisham is Morrissey’s horrorwife.

Havisham is like what you would get if you crossed The Penguin with a sticky theatre curtain from Nevada rockabilly club. Her personality traits were meant to make her the worst person imaginable: a sort of venomous, black eyed widowmaker who is too lazy to cook actual meals so she just eats fly-laden leftovers that were never thrown out because I forgot to buy a sink. She briefly worked as a cook when I accidentally clicked something.

As far as I can tell, once your Sim has a job, at any point that you manage to get a baby you’re automatically given a weekly allowance as some kind of child care policy designed in to the game. Also part of The Sims’ deeply ingrained child rearing policy is that baby adoption is a service run with the same efficiency as pizza delivery.


Out of Africa

Other useful true-facts:

  • Babies don’t need diapers changed!
  • Babies are immortal!

In fact it seems that in between feeding sessions you can largely ignore them until their toddler years and they only seem to come out of it lightly unhinged as evidenced by a previous game where I tried this and he just grew up to be actor Steve Buscemi:

However, even after programming Havisham to hate, she automatically coos and picks up the nearest doll-faced adoptee she sees when it starts to cry. Regardless of how the character’s traits were formulated all Sims appear identical in how they react tenderly to the endless deathpit of baby screams. What resulted was a treadmill of coddling and forcefeeding babies over 18 hour stretches, pushed by the game’s inherent pro-baby protocols and resulting in mass tragedy for Havisham and Morrissey.


Part III

Arise fair Havisham

Havisham is a gentle pink siren and she wants you to know how hard her love can be. Havisham wants you to lay your eggs in her, then she’ll recharge and refuel on the liquid in your spine.

Morrissey and Havisham are star crossed lovers, crossed because Havisham is out of her mind while Morrissey’s heart beats only for the sound of passable but largely rubbish mid-eighties rock. It’s a complicated relationship and like any 90lbs schoolboy in his position Morrissey treats their hideous, unemployed, unhappy, unloving love with the scared eyes of a large lost deer, bolting between the two giant passing vans of Havisham’s hammy thighs.

As I explained previously, their house is a handsome combination of a room with a guitar in it, a bar and a toilet-kitchen with beds that I would later delete as part of a sinister test to see how many phone-ordered babies it would take to break Morrissey.

The house that love built

I posited that he’d turn to the drink in a matter of days, hoping it would turn in to an interesting commentary about Simclass undermining Simtalent and its effect on the Simwill-to-live.

At the start of this playthrough, Morrissey spent most of his time outside in a park, taking hour after hour to perfect his guitar skills while slowly starving to death. Unemployed, he spent most of his time in a park somewhere where I couldn’t be bothered to scroll around looking for him. After a day and a half of him trying to avoid Havisham, his SimAtrophy finally kicked in and I found Morrissey a couple of blocks away passed out on a bench and drenched in his own stinking fluids.

In the meantime, Havisham had already begun to accumulate her spawn over the phone, along with the free maternity leave cash the game provides when Sims with a previous career start adopting children (see: Accidental Cook). Luckily Sim Government laws are lax enough to not enforce any sort of adoption check-up that might look into if she’s melting babyskin into lamp covers.  When the adoption agency shows up to the door with a basket in hand no questions are asked.

Havisham lovingly assembles all of her new babies on the floor.

The adoption service came by on an hourly basis until their carpets looked like a bioluminescent ocean floor with babies growing out of it like stinging fronds and I had to move out most of the furniture to make room. Then the game stopped letting me order babies.

Evening sets on Sims 3.

After pressing something in Build Mode Havisham and Morrissey’s dole bunker now opens out onto a spectacular view of lawn jutting out through SpaceTime from a cosmic forge in their front yard. Thanks to the truly amazing customisation options now their patio pond towers like a giant weird finger over the neighbourhood, keeping silent watch over the six baby adoptees.

Baby JohnMaddenXXL gets left in the specialty leaking shower room

Like the devil himself Havisham has many faces, but the most prominent one is unconscious on the floor. Since the adoptions she now takes turns with Morrissey to feed the babies then pass out in a wintery slumber, eating only food I left on the ground at some point.

Havisham’s deep outdoor hibernation is peppered with occasionally waking up from her induced coma to spend time making a Geocities shrine for the actor who played Andrew on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

While Havisham is busy in her coma during the day, Morrissey becomes the brains and driving force of the family at night. Now instead of busking in forests, he spends hours on end holding babies while his Mood – which represents his need to eat and sleep – drops to a dangerous red-coloured low. Even Havisham would make a bee line for the nearest Simbaby when she was conscious. They would do this for hours when awake, moving from one baby to the next in an endless production line.

VISUAL METAPHOR

He hasn’t touched his guitar in days. He does not sleep. Morrissey wanders the moors of his offspring and takes an hour trying to get from the fridge to the toilet while avoiding the stacks of plates and newspapers that have been accumulating like a defensive border made from bits of stuff found in an Olympic vomitorium. The ground is crusty with newspaper that hasn’t been recycled since they moved in.

His vital signs have plummeted and he hasn’t been able to eat since the babies created a human wall by sleeping in front of the fridge. Eventually child services returned.

Soon after the babies were whisked away into some sort of portal by an adoption agent, as apparently by a certain point you’re not meant to tab out mid-game. Then, with only salad made weeks earlier to sustain them, Havisham and Morrissey died.

SHATTERED DREAMS

The playthrough lasted roughly two days in real-time, with both Havisham and Morrissey having their pre-programmed needs largely overwritten by the robotic obligation to pick up babies until their clockwork wound down. Silence now covers the house and Morrissey’s tombstone sits next to his untouched guitar.

Remembering Matt Hughes – Depression in the Games Industry

About four weeks ago Matt Hughes’ death was all but passed over thanks to another industry talking point that’s bellyached its way to top of games journalists’ list of professional tragedies.

Hughes was a freelance games journalist whose work appeared on Joystiq and GamesRadar among other sites. His apparent suicide, which was first reported all the way back at the beginning of November, should be remembered for two reasons.

One, because like most dealing with depression Hughes suffered it in silence, making it all the more necessary to put it back on table and onto the blog circuit where with any luck it will keep from getting swept back into obscurity. And two, for making almost no visible impact on the industry whatsoever.

Hughes’ death roughly coincided with the start of DoritosGate one month ago, out of which was born a full-blown journalist-led investigation into the blurring lines between professionalism and commercialism. Fits of anger are de rigueur among games bloggers right now. While the industry is being hauled out to the Stocks for possibly aligning itself too closely with commercial entities, particular effort has also gone into providing a cold bucket of water for any journalist who’s still enamoured with the way things are.

Regardless of where you stand on all of this, the result, at least in retrospect, has been an impressive show of what can happen when journalists throw their weight into their favourite pet issues. Weeks of extensive self-analysis in the industry.

About the same amount of time has passed since Hughes’ suicide, but the significance of this whole dreary saga of Lauren Wainwright, of corruption, and the now semi-iconic Geoff Keighley Emperor Palpatine impression has continued to read fresh because of the work of a few impassioned Internet users who have been burning the midnight oil on this stuff.

Comparatively, one week and a few blog posts following Hughes’ suicide, his death was already downgraded from a few online eulogies to a passing human interest story. It comes down to priorities. It’s nearing December now and the neighbourhood watch surrounding the Wainwright narrative seems to be quieting down. But now even in these brief moments of tranquility, of which in this industry there are very few, I think we’ve got our priorities all wrong.

Take it from me, depression is a monster of a thing but it can’t be dealt with alone.

It’s been sarcastically referred to as The Artist’s Reward, but I prefer this description, which I’ll paraphrase:

In military vernacular there is a term called “the fog of war.” This originated after the Napoleonic war, at a time before the invention of smokeless gun powder when shots from muskets would result in a fog so thick soldiers would lose sight of the enemy, making it impossible to tell apart friend from foe.

The first person to write about this in depth was the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, whose solution, in part, was this: “The first thing [needed] here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”

Which makes Depression, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the fog of war. You can see the result of that enemy’s attacks but you can’t see the enemy, and worse, that fog can become your reality; Worrying then, when as Clausewitz says, we can only rely on our heads – Because it’s hard to rage against a war when it’s going on in you.

Which is why we need to rely on each other. And in the past month we’ve shown, even at its most maniacal, the industry can make a difference just by talking.

Date-A-Gamer From All Corners of the North

Internet website sensation Date-A-Gamer has had its video series teaching gamers how to fuck living women  pulled from YouTube, so DreadfulBlog commemorates it in text.

Exactly Why I Play League of Legends (or Lonesome No More!)

Whenever I see a fight break out I usually watch it unfold with the passivity of one of those characters you see drawn into the backdrop of Marmaduke cartoons. My arcane talents for looking disinterested even at the event horizon of unfolding shit will one day be studied by shamen, but the most notable thing about this is that lurking behind my zen apathy is a fuck lotta irascible bile.

I hate conflict. Like most pointless wars, they’re a dull battle of attrition, and with Internet conflict it’s cyclical, and it ravenously consumes itself, which results in impossible and cloudy ambiguities – I hate it. With that in mind, this is one of the first lines of an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut that makes up one of my favourite pieces of common sense:

Please – a little less love, a little more common decency.

The book is called Slapstick, on the basis that life shares similarities with the slapstick comedy of classic American comedians Laurel and Hardy – “because it is grotesque, situational poetry,” he says. I like this, because I think it offers a precise definition to what I consider generally indefinable. I like this too:

“The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test. They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies…”

Because it offers a recipe for success in what I generally consider a bewildering web of uncertainties.

I’ve spent the last month singing the praises of League of Legends for the same reason. I like LoL a lot. I like it because for all the bellyaching about parroting DotA, and for all the low-tier self-trolling from a thick-as-shit community, it’s still the antidote, the hemlock in the cup to all the ambiguity in the world I spend most of my time avoiding.

LoL is conflict streamlined into a series of quantifiable solutions. LoL caters to the reptilian part of the brain that looks for nothing more than the clarity of maths, mechanical down-to-the-second timing, and the sort of in-depth game theory that could have sorted Nam out in a matter of hours.

Got a problem? Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on to your calculator, John Nash – Spreadsheet it, calculate it, follow the meta that was formulated and modified by players thousands of hours before you ever logged on. LoL is black and white in its darkest and lightest and biggest and baddest, and all the grays have been relegated to the lowest Accrington Stanley division of irrelevance.

The result, granted, is like a broken fire hydrant, but the seemingly endless gallons of chaos pouring out its community are something you can trust will be just as unambiguously chaotic with or without your participation. The first rule of LoL is you are a turd, whether or not you really deserve to be called one – And if you can place your bets on anything it’s for LoL’s attitude about this to be consistent. The game breeds that special kind of Internet Toughguyism usually grown in the sublayers of 4chan and B3ta posts, and now comes to a rolling boil thanks to a combination of boilerplate free-to-play and online competitiveness. There’s a purity to that: if those sites are the Internet’s Id then LoL is the part of the system responsible for a kind of competitive Tourette’s, chronic tics which force it to be eternally direct with you.

Your place in its hierarchy is unambiguous  – You are a turd, but this is an extension of the game’s community, and those words can describe the lot of it, the special sort of nihilistic and meaningless trolling that drives it, and the grotesque, situational poetry that it consistently imitates. In reality the only identity that matters will rise to the top once your character is chosen, whose exact role was perfected after hours of being cultivated with strange maths in a crucible of nerd love-compulsion by people who do their best with every test and never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies.

That’s why I play League of Legends; Please –  a little less love, a little more LoL.

Congratulations, makers of Tomb Raider!

Congratulations, makers of Tomb Raider!

Game developers have gone through growing pains for as long as they’ve been forced to acknowledge women exist. But this month Crystal Dynamics went further than any other studio when it discovered the mythical fourth wave of feminism which celebrates womanhood by triggering the deep reptilian part of the human brain which likes things that don’t largely feature the threat of fucking a woman to death.

Now thanks to recent comments relating to the upcoming Tomb Raider it turns out all we had to make a strong Fem lead was re-appropriate the entire gender so it can finally render out as a dramatic narrative device of the Zack Snyder oeuvre. Some people say using cheap gender ploys isn’t art but how else are we going to push games to the point that Michelle Rodriguez can continue getting acting jobs in the movie version?

Here is Dreadful Blog’s honorary award for Excellence in Giving It The Good Old College Try (EGITGOCT):

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