Friday, January 15, 2016

Truth through systems

Game systems often seem to be telling me something or try to convince me of something. But almost always the argument made is an emotional one or one that appeals to my own ideas about the systems simulated away from keyboard. Anestesia, a 1 minute game by Pedro Paiva about addiction, self-hate, alienation and consumption in a modern capitalist setting can serve as an example. I'll also provide a video of a playthrough since I cannot seem to get the game working properly right now.

I think it's an awesome game, succinctly and swiftly juggling complicated concepts and their relationship to one-another. I mean it's also very on the nose, but in a span of a minute or two it manages to explore quite a lot of ideas, and being quite terrifying in the process - even if it does so with the help of text and equations. It really does feel like a slap in the face, in more ways than one, and not only because it's very much in-your-face, but because it is just that and also speaks to my own experience which informs my understanding of the mechanics (understood as arguments/explorations) presented. But what kind of arguments does the game propose that might convince someone of something concerning its subject matter by virtue of its system, really?

It's not easy to separate "the system" from "the rest" of the game, but at all points during the game one could easily interject and claim that the systems prestented are misconstrued - because there is too little agency, because it misrepresents communication between the involved parties, demonises capitalists, working conditions, media, etc. And although I can both agree and argue with those criticisms (I understand that the game simplifies things in order to make a point), I cannot truthfully say that the mechanics of the game make good arguments in the sense that for example Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart & Nicky Case does. Then again, that game is more of an interactive spreadsheet than something that feels like a work of art. It employs more of a didactic method in its truthsaying than the Socratic questioning more common to art with its many ambiguities.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to Anestesia here. Perhaps the fact that it manages to raise so many questions and topics for discussion is its strength, is in fact its method of teaching. We are dealing with two different beasts here, even if both approach the seemingly scientific by incorporating using the language of mathematics. I guess I would just like to see more games trying their hand at explorable explanations, newsgames, serious games. Remember those1? It was a while ago we saw September 12th or JFK Reloaded. Those two examples might actually be good to put side to side when I think about it. September 12th claims that for every terrorist that is killed by bombs, some civilians die, and they in turn become future terrorists. I find this idea fascinating, but once again the argument seems more in the vein of Anestesia - it takes a lot of context for that argument to make sense in my world, context which I take for granted, but context nonetheless. The game claims that it isn't a game but a simulation, a simple model one can use to explore some aspects of the war on terror, but I mean as a simulation it's just piss poor, honestly. It doesn't give me any reason to believe that the model it uses for simulation has any credibility. It's mostly a think piece.

JFK Reloaded on the other hand tries to recreate the actual day that JFK was murdered with the "facts" US citizens were told about the murder to either make the player recreate that scenario, or realize that in fact it couldn't have happened. It is journalism at play, basically. Or scientitic inquiry at play, rather. A similar game but placed in the here-and-now with another topic is Spent - The Interactive Poverty Experience (McKinney), an online game about surviving poverty and homelessness created by ad agency McKinney for pro bono client Urban Ministries of Durham (basically Cart Life but with actual statistics and actual examples).

Could one combine these type of games with more traditional storytelling? It wouldn't be an easy task, going from all those macro perspectives, bird eye views and exteriors to micro perspectives, phenomenological truths and interiors. I would like to see people try, though. Another missed opportunity seems to be the way in which the controls of games and the actual playing of games can inform the systems we toy with, the narratives which emerge from those systems. I watch playthroughs of video games on youtube sometimes, and very seldom do I think I miss out on something relevant by my not actually holding the controller in my hand. There is the obvious example in Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, but other than that, it's often quite optional to actually play the game in order to understand the systems of a game as it relates to the themes it might explore.

1One could speak of influence transparency, construction transparency, and reference transparency. In video games, assumptions about the source and consequences of for example technological advancements are sometimes presented, as in Civilization 4, and are indeed needed to take into account to be successful at the game. In Crude Oil, the authors assumptions about the nature of oil prices, supply, and demand are all there, and being transparent about the simplicity of hir formulas, zie is in fact elucidating that it is possible for oil companies to operate on similarly simplistic models for their own business operations. Games such as these (Democracy 2 being a prime example) exemplifies a different kind of citation than those in books, one that resembles a journalist opening hir notebooks of interviews and research instead of cherry picking a convenient quote.
Newsgames, Journalism at Play, Ian Bogost/Simon Ferrari/Bobby Schweizer

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