Speculating on Player-Character Decline

It is a foundational assumption in countless—if not most—video games: over the course of the game, the player-character will improve.

Of course, the same assumption exists for players as well. By engaging with a game, responding to its demands, practicing, and rising to its challenges, players will come to gain and hone specific skillsets that the game encourages and necessitates. However, players’ increasing capabilities aren’t what I intend to (briefly) examine here (although that is a consideration that merits more attention on its own).


Video Games Exceptionalism vs. Media Specificity

Yesterday, I watched Heather Alexandra’s video “Video Games are Not Special.” In it, she argues against proclamations that video games as an artistic medium are special, unique, or better than any other artistic medium. To declare as much, she says, would be to overlook the histories and qualities of other artistic media. For instance, to insist that video games are defined by their interactivity would be to ignore the ways that all other art forms are also, in fact, interactive. Thus, video games are neither special nor unique, and we should stop saying that they are.

Her sentiment is one with which I’m familiar. Earlier this year, Brendan Keogh arrived at a similar conclusion in his blog post “Video games aren’t special. Video games aren’t unique.” Both authors share concerns with the lack of critical thought behind these gushing exclamations of “Video games are special! They do things that only video games do. These things better than other media. They make us better prepared to live in a world increasingly dominated by procedures and computation.”

But both of these pieces—and other claims similar to them—have left me feeling dissatisfied, unsettled by their conclusions. I think there is more to be said on the matter. So I want to talk a little bit about the difference between video games exceptionalism and media specificity.


Recapturing the First Playthrough

I remember the very first time I played Resident Evil 4. I was in a GameStop, waiting on my mom to finish running errands in a neighboring store. For weeks, I’d been hearing glowing reviews for the game. I wanted RE4 badly. But I was fifteen, too young to purchase the game on my own. Tentatively—fearful I might be observed—I took the controller in my hands and started the demo. (more…)

Why We Need More Subjective Games Criticism

I recently saw a comment about an article on academic games criticism. The comment was an approving one: the commenter believed that the article was a fine example of an approach to games criticism that was not “weakened” by a method that focused on the player as a site of meaning-making.

I was furious. What made me so livid about the comment wasn’t that it was some lone graduate student tossing out an opinion that I happened to find objectionable. Quite the contrary: it was that this opinion is a widespread, domineering one. At its base is a fiercely-defended value: objectivity. According to this assumption, methods of criticism that focus on players and their subjective experiences are weak. That, in turn, must mean that strong methods locate meaning elsewhere—somewhere outside the dark subjective cave of player experience and in the bright objective world of game forms.


Pokemon-Amie: Building Friendships and Guilt


pokemon amie

For a franchise with friendship as a central theme, Pokemon has been shockingly remiss in offering trainers ways to form bonds with their companions. Battling notwithstanding, opportunities to interact with one’s Pokemon have been virtually nonexistent across the series. The games’ plots dictate that the love and trust between player-protagonist and Pokemon are powerful. It is due to those strong bonds, the games emphasize, that the player-protagonist is so exceptional as to both become League Champion and take down the various crime syndicates threatening the world. But the growth of this love and trust between trainer and Pokemon is a gap that players must fill in on their own. It is not developed onscreen.


Unreachable 100%


Since its release in November, I’ve been playing Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. A lot. To the point that I haven’t been playing much else.

It started off innocently enough. It was free on PS Plus and my SO is a fan of the original, so I decided to download it and give it a try. Then it disrupted my entire gaming agenda. I quit The Evil Within and haven’t picked it back up since. I assign Isaac partial blame for causing me to not finish a Pokemon game for the first time in my life. It’s also made the thoroughly tedious Dragon Age: Inquisition seem all the less appealing. I just haven’t been able to put it down.

My friends have been teasing me, asking when I’m going to move on to something else, badgering me to download this or that game (and I do have a long and growing list of games untried or unfinished that have taken a backseat to Isaac’s draw). My aforementioned SO is taking a break from it and is therefore no longer a motivating source of friendly competition. Still, I’ve been logging hours every day trying to accomplish this or that task, returning to the game with a devotion and diligence that has virtually made it into a job.

At some point, I got it into my head that I could finish the game. Finish as in 100% complete it—unlock every item and secret, beat every level with every character, get every trophy.


Excursions on Horseback

Dragon Age horse

When I was a kid, I had Barbie: Race and Ride (1999) for the PC. I despised Barbie. I wasn’t a kid who played with Barbies. But I was a kid who hoarded horse figurines, read books on horse care, studied tack magazines, and asked for a horse every birthday and Christmas. I was also a kid who couldn’t afford riding lessons, let alone an actual horse of her own. So to satisfy my wish for a horse, I had to content myself with my toys and my books and my daydreams—and occasionally a game like Barbie: Race and Ride.


Constructions of Self and Agency in Heavy Rain

heavy rain pic

I’ve recently been doing some reading on symbolic interactionism for one of my courses. To make sure it all gelled and stuck, I thought it might be fun to try to apply it to an analysis of a video game. It may be a stretch. Or it may just flat-out not work. But bear with me—I’m doing this for practice and to develop some ideas that I might flesh out later.

What exactly am I up to here? A critique of Heavy Rain through the lens of symbolic interactionism.


Understanding Humanity Through Doki-Doki Universe

afri doki doki


I really wanted to be able to report that HumaNature Studios’s Doki-Doki Universe is a thoughtful, cheerful, charming—if a bit weird—reflection on the concept of humanity. I wanted to be able to say that it offered nuanced explorations on themes such as bullying, insecurity, friendship, prejudice, and love all packaged in a cute, colorful, innocent, yet profound experience. I wanted to see the human condition in a new way with a refreshing new game.