The Sunday Papers
Sundays are, for the first time in a long time, for doing absolutely nothing. Crisps, TV and Apelegs until bedtime, baby. When I'm not reading the best writing about videogames from the past week.
Rezzed meant I skipped the Papers last week, but I don't want to skip past Jason Schreier's in-depth Kotaku report into Anthem's fraught development. I haven't reached the end yet, but I'm pretty sure Schreier isn't going to turn around and say 'actually BioWare is back on track now'. Not when they're pulling crap like this.
Perhaps most alarming, it’s a story about a studio in crisis. Dozens of developers, many of them decade-long veterans, have left BioWare over the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. “People were so angry and sad all the time,” they said. Said another: “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”
On Timber Owls, 'Lilly' argued that much of the recent discourse concerning difficulty in games conflates approachibility with accessibility. An easy mode in Sekiro would be great for a lot of people, she says, but would do nothing to help people like herself with colour blindness. Games should be designed from the ground up with accessibility in mind, basically. There are exceptions (the weird and wonderful world of alternative controller games, for example), but I fully agree with the principle.
This isn’t to say that an easier difficulty wouldn’t help certain members of the population finish the game, but rather that the ways in which easy mode is argued for as a one-size-fits-all fix for the specific accessibility problems that crop up in these games is a bit like solving a Rubik’s cube by putting a blanket over it. If such a mode was implemented, what it would most likely entail would be a reduction in damage taken, less aggressive enemies with smaller health pools, and more effective healing items – if a person’s ability to perform in these games was limited by their reaction times, this would probably be a decent solution, because the penalty for failure is lowered. However, what it doesn’t fix is a myriad of other problems inherent to many games, not just this one, and it can also create new problems for accessibility and inclusivity in the process.
Everybody knows that Amazon is terrible to its warehouse workers. But does everyone know that Amazon also encourages those workers to play terrible games? Postyn Smith does, because he's one of them. His insights are both galling and valuable.
It took me almost seven months to realize that the designers had gamified feudalism. We are literally serfs helping to mine the quarries and build the castle. My knowledge of the Middle Ages and feudal structures is spotty so perhaps we have actually been given a promotion to build the castle rather than just tend to the lord’s fields, but the narrative is quite clear. My coworkers and I wonder about the game designers’ intentions. Were they trying to be subversively clever and make a point about the nature of our work? Or, were they unconsciously connecting our work relations to those of feudalism?
For The Verge, Andrew Webster spoke to Sokpop, a four-person collective of young Dutch men who make games individually but share the profits. They do good stuff.
They formed the collective, and gained some notoriety on Twitter after posting plenty of GIFs of strange and colorful physics-based games. But turning that into a business proved tricky. They tried making an album of games, and offering tutorials for aspiring developers, but neither venture was very successful. Each member was good at making fun games very quickly, which had to be worth something, they figured. Eventually they decided to test out Patreon as a sort of magazine subscription for games.
Vicky Osterweil's article for Real Life is the most interesting piece I've read for a while. I think the parts I don't agree with distract from a solid underlying point about how games culture revolves around appeasing privileged and toxic white men. There's a lot of truth to that, and at least some truth to the idea that capitalism shapes and endorses games themselves, in particular those that require you to pour in effort in order to extract reward. How could the system that runs our lives not shape the games produced under it? But power fantasies can be valuable in ways that Osterweil doesn't discuss, and there's more to gaining mastery over a system than capitalist-driven compulsion.
Because the fact is that deep forms of play — autonomous, chaotic, queer, and anti-hierarchical — threaten the systems of profit, work, and exploitation. Calls for increased play, joy, and an end to boredom were common slogans and demands among the radical wings of the movements of the 1960s, graffitied on the walls of Paris in May ’68 and broadcast over the radio by the anti-work workers’ movements in Italy. Video games, as designed today, overwhelmingly work to harness and co-opt that energy, to discipline the desire for play into the work ethic, to transform the freedom of creativity, exploration, and questioning into the diligent following of rules and learning of systems.
For Kotaku, Natalie Degraffinried explained why she finds the same satisfaction in volleyball and Sekiro. I think this captures part of what I was trying to get across about the last article, though both have got me interrogating exactly why improvement feels valuable.
The volleyball encounters made me realize just what it was that makes a game like Sekiro, with its constant cycle of defeat and winning and defeat and defeat and defeat, so rewarding. The wins are huge and feel earned. I got this or that win by learning and observing and watching and reacting. I was good, and I was quick, but more than that, I was smart.
Music this week is, of course, from Take A Bite, Holy Moly & The Cracker's new album. You’re only ever happy when you’re Upside Down.