Tag Archive: games

Roundtable at NCEAS

If you’re in the Santa Barbara area, I’m giving a lunchtime talk tomorrow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), located downtown next to the Paseo Nuevo shops. Information here: http://roundtable.nceas.ucsb.edu/2016/08/30/greening-games/.

CFP: Queerness and Games Conference 2015


Passing this on from conference organizer Bonnie Ruberg:

“The Queerness and Games Conference, an annual, community-oriented, nationally-recognized event dedicated to exploring the intersection of LGBTQ issues and video games, is accepting submissions for presentations at the 2015 conference now through June 15!”

Full details here.

The Game Without Us

This March, I’m fortunate to be presenting again at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference (in Montreal 3/25-3/29). As usual, the program is so packed with goodies that conflicts are inevitable, but this promises to be a stellar panel, on a topic that remains largely unexplored in academic game studies. The original CFP and my talk abstract are included below.

Thursday, March 26, 2015 05:00PM-06:45PM (Session J)

J16: You Only Live Once? Permadeath and Video Games
Room: 16
Chair: Braxton Soderman (University of California, Irvine)
Alenda Chang (University of Connecticut), “The Game without Us”
Jesus Costantino (University of Notre Dame), “Death by Design: Permadeath and Precarity in Indie Games”
Braxton Soderman (University of California, Irvine), “No Room for Play: The Politics of Permadeath”
Respondent: Peter Krapp (University of California, Irvine)


CFP: Video Games and Permadeath

It has become a cliché that games are attractive to players as forms of risk management—they can venture out with avatars because even if they get wounded or killed, the game allows you to continue from the point of failure. And right away we are confronted with the next “entrepreneurial” cliché—that what one learns from mistakes is not their avoidance but the allowance for some room for error. Even in more extreme cases such as the game Braid, death itself is nullified and removed in order to elevate the logic of puzzle solving over the thrill of potential (and sometimes devastating) failure. But what if games did not allow for easy recovery, continuance, and persistence of accumulated resources and identity?

Yet, this is nothing new. Permanent death or permadeath (PD) was widespread in the early days of video games and coin-op machines before being considered a “dead-end” for game design and going “underground” (e.g. in roguelike games). Yet PD has recently respawned and is experiencing a renaissance with the release of games such as Heavy Rain, DayZ, Don’t Starve, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, One Chance and others. Why is this the case? What does PD teach us about the current state of game culture and its future? How does PD illuminate the history of video games?

This panel will not only explore what perspectives PD games open up in terms of game design, the psychology of play, and interactive narrative in single-player games, but we also seek proposals for detailed discussions of why PD is less prevalent in multi-player games (though this might be changing), and what limitations the option imposes on what is (or is not) likely to be a part of designing playable characters in the future. Proposals should discuss at least one concrete example of PD in video games in some detail.

Some potential ideas (though certainly not exhaustive):

The history of PD

PD and narrative

PD and avatar identification

Cultural determinates of the rise of contemporary PD

Player preservation vs. player persistence

PD as a difficulty setting (hardcore mode in Minecraft, Diablo, etc., or as a player imposed goal such as a “no death run”) Player responses to PD “Save scumming”

PD as an emerging genre (as opposed to PD as a feature across game genres) PD as a feature of roguelike games (or part of “The Berlin Interpretation” of such games) The concept of PD in relation to ideas/concepts such as thrill, tension, frustration, failure, risk and mastery A close reading/playing of a game related to PD

From The Last of Us

“The Game Without Us” (A. Chang)

Consider two recent, related thought experiments:

  • Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which imagined what Earth would eventually look like if humans vanished all at once, leaving their wheatfields and plastics, ranch homes and land mines behind (the short answer: just fine, albeit with lots and lots of rotting wood and a depressingly stable smorgasbord of synthetic chemicals), and
  • Eric Zimmerman’s “real-life permadeath” game design challenge at the 2010 Game Developers’ Conference, which asked its competitors to pitch games incorporating death in the real world. The three entries, Last Game and Testament, HeavenVille, and Karma, tackled the composing of wills, building social networks out of dead people, and facing death as the terminally ill.

Given this, we might be tempted to read permadeath’s resurgence symptomatically, as evidence of a growing awareness of the precarity of human existence in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene (or the sixth megaextinction). After all, permadeath games are often survivalist dramas, pitting people against each other or against environments characterized by scarcity and unpredictability. But while player-character permadeath is usually the necessary corollary to ecological permadeath, current definitions and realizations of game permadeath remain narrow-mindedly anthropocentric—this despite many of the most compelling permadeath games (Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, Don’t Starve) featuring complex natural environments. The winning GDC pitch, the parodic HeavenVille, dreamed of awarding points for famous dead people, not the rapidly growing ranks of extinct species. And even when permadeath explicitly confronts ecocide (One Chance), salvation lies in the preservation of a human cellular blueprint.

What would an expanded notion of permadeath allow, one that placed the nonhuman (Shelter) and even the nonliving on par with the human (death is, by definition, not just the end of life, but also the termination of the existence or duration of things)? How might permadeath force a rethinking of resource management (expendability, limitation) or survival or even win/fail states in games? While the permadeath conceit of randomly generated worlds obscures both a generic impulse and what we might call the hyperobjective operations of games’ environmental logic, games in this genre testify to the fantasy of permanence and how inseparable contemporary notions of individual risk are from narratives of global environmental change.

A new school year at UCONN is underway, but I will be making a trip up to Bangor in September to give a talk and run a workshop for University of Maine students and faculty. I’m particularly excited to be using the new IMRC Center for my workshop on environmental storytelling through games. For details, see the linked poster: UMaine_EcologyofGamesPoster.


The Secret Lives of Objects

Time is scarce these days, but I finally finished my first play-through of an indie game called The Novelist, developed by Kent Hudson. The game is essentially an interactive drama that chronicles the lives of one family during a summer on the Oregon coast, revealed from the viewpoint of some kind of spirit (a.k.a. you) that inhabits their vacation rental home. Dan Kaplan, the father, is a writer struggling to complete his latest book. Linda, the mother, is an aspiring painter. And their son, Tommy, is a young boy having a tough time with school, his parents’ evident preoccupations, and the isolation of their temporary summer place. As one learns, Dan has brought the family to this beautiful but secluded location in order to dislodge his writer’s block, so as each chapter of the game unfolds, he must make difficult, often heartbreaking choices between the demands of his career, his marriage, and his child. Each narrative episode permits only one primary desired outcome (Dan’s, Linda’s, or Tommy’s), as well as one subsidiary compromise–in other words, one family member will always be disappointed, and another only partially mollified. Though the exact options shift from segment to segment, Dan always faces the same basic dilemma: work on his book by sacrificing quality time with his wife or his son, or not.


Dan Kaplan ponders the imponderable as he looks out at the Pacific Ocean. Screenshot from thenovelistgame.com.

First, let me say that this game hits uncomfortably close to home for me, having just moved my own family across the country for my career as an academic. Like Dan, I often feel paralyzed by fears of mediocrity and the inevitability of letting others down. (SPOILER ALERT) Frankly, when the last decision Dan must make was revealed as whether or not to accept an assistant professorship in literature, which would require relocating his family and thereby squelching his wife’s painterly ambition and his son’s tenuous progress in school, I nearly groaned aloud.

I could take issue with the game’s ruleset, or its assumptions, of course–why must life be zero-sum, with someone always gaining via someone else’s losing? Should I experience a certain schadenfreude now that fathers can apparently join mothers in the murky depths of career-family negotiation? But I understand that the game’s constraints are designed to wound. They are inflexible to the extent that deadlines, schedule conflicts, and human potential itself require us to pick and choose. Though we might like to reassure ourselves that, were it us, WE would find the time to tutor Tommy between insanely productive bouts at the typewriter, while also helping Linda with her art show, this game renders its choices starkly. We could even say that The Novelist is foremost a resource-management game, if we consider Dan’s attention the scarce resource in question (something that Kate Hayles has argued is a feature of our contemporary media- and technology-saturated environments).

Perhaps most interesting to me is less the game’s branching textual structure or dramatic content than its use of matter and environment. Ordinary objects take on numinous significance, including a whole host of documents (diary entries, letters, shopping lists, post-it notes, magazines, books, etc.), images, and personal belongings. Some of these are manifestations of the creative process, like Dan’s scrawled ideas for plot points or Linda’s half-finished canvases. Others are prized possessions, like Tommy’s favorite toys. Some are conduits for particular activities, like firewood for a campout on the beach; and still others are almost threats, like the whiskey Dan begins to overindulge in as his deadline draws closer. Many of these are actionable, their glowing or flickering forms indicating to the player that they may be read or otherwise inspected. Often, the window of their narrative efficacy is short–a single chapter–so at all other times they lurk in the background as evidence of decisions already made or still-to-come. The story advances when, in each section, after exploring all the available options and discovering each character’s preferred outcome, you select an object that will set in motion the outcome you deem best (e.g. Dan’s jogging shoes, instead of the whiskey bottle, if you want him to lay off drinking and revert to a healthier lifestyle).


An epistolary game. Screenshot from thenovelistgame.com.

As the presiding player-spirit-author-voyeur, you may quickly roam the house by “possessing” lights or choose to “emerge” from the nearest incandescent bulb to creep about. The game can even be played in stealth mode, so that the family members can actually spot you during their peregrinations.

While The Novelist isn’t an ecological game, since the player-as-spirit stays resolutely bound to the home, it is arguably an environmental one. Beyond the clear metaphorical importance of the game’s isolated forest setting and spectacular but also eerie coastal bluff views, it is because the game emerges through the hidden lives of objects, rather than explicit conversation, that it seems to celebrate the nonhuman. The characters’ default verbal exchanges verge on the inane, but in their memories and thoughts, and the emotional and historical residues of the property, surprisingly profound situations unfold. In fact, though the story is ultimately a human one, The Novelist might qualify as an example of speculative realism, or object-oriented ontology.

Want to try it yourself? It’s on Steam.

This fall’s SLSA conference will take place September 27-30 in Milwaukee, WI, on the theme of the nonhuman. Since nonhuman agency or an ethics of digital interaction with nonhuman entities (environments, organic and inorganic processes and forces, our world conceptualized as data) is an important component of my work on games, I can’t help but appreciate the organizing concept. (Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, among others, undergird my criticism in often implicit ways.)

Furthermore, Patrick Jagoda and Stephanie Boluk have assembled another fabulous proposal for a critical game studies stream, panels below (I’m listed in #5). Game studies truly has some traction, now. It should be a great start to the year!

1. Virtual Worlds and Procedural Stories
Chair: Priscilla Wald
– Stephanie Boluk/ Patrick LeMieux: “Dwarven Epitaphs:
Procedurally-Generated Storytelling in Dwarf Fortress”
– Victoria Szabo: “The City Talks Back: Traversing Annotated Landscapes”
– Katherine Hayles: “Mapping Daemon : Geography, Power, and Mixed
Reality in the New World Order”

2. Aesthetics of Play
Chair: Patrick LeMieux
– Patrick Jagoda: “Games of Failure: Thresholdland and Transmedia
Aesthetics of Play”
– Mary Flanagan: “Playful aesthetics”
– Eddo Stern: “The design philosophy behind Darkgame”

3. Family Resemblances and Videogame Histories
Chair: Patrick Jagoda
– Ian Bogost: “Bone of My Bones and Flesh of my Flesh: The Genesis of
Ms. Pac-Man”
– Zach Whalen: “A Counterfactual Historiography of Three Game Platforms”
– Nick Montfort: Three Family Reunions and Some Black Sheep”

4. Simulation and Its Discontents
Chair: Stephanie Boluk
– David Golumbia, “Game of Drones”
– Ed Chang, “Gaming the Posthuman”
– Luke Caldwell and Tim Lenoir, “Reality is Expensive: Making a Better
Military-Entertainment Complex”

5. E-Cologies and (Post)human Nature
Chair: Mark Marino
– Lisa Nakamura, “Sexual Harassment and the Discourse of Indigeneity
in Digital Game Culture”
– Timothy Welsh, “The Vitality of the Digital: Bioart and Videogames”
– Alenda Chang, “Playing Nature”