Play Journal #2

Today’s Readings: Before the Crash: Early video game history (Wolf), Game Analysis: Centipede (Rouse III), Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade (Kocurek)

Today’s game(s): Hang-On, Super Smash Bros.

For this week’s play journal, I went out with friends and colleagues to Oddwood Ales, a brewery near my apartment with both classic arcade cabinets and older gaming consoles set up at communal stations. There were two significant differences between Oddwood and the arcades we studied this week: all games were free to play (with the expectation that a user would purchase either beer or food), and this was not a space specifically intended for children (though, admittedly, there were children present.) Though there is much to speak of regarding how these aspects (as well as the simultaneous broadcast of the UT-LSU football game) changed our perception of the experience, there are also a number of interesting similarities and comparisons to be made with the readings for this week.

An arcade cabinet for  Hang-On  (Sega, 1985)

An arcade cabinet for Hang-On (Sega, 1985)

Growing up, I occasionally played with arcade machines- the machines at a pizza parlor during a classmate’s birthday party, a retro cabinet in the basement of a family friend, maybe even once at a bowling alley. For all of these experiences, the arcade cabinet I have undoubtedly dedicated the most time and effort to has been Hang-On, released by Sega in 1985. With a set of motorcycle handlebars as controller (see above), the player tilts and pulls back on the throttle to propel their racer around a track filled with virtual opponents. The objective of the game is to pass as many checkpoints as possible, with the game ending when the player runs out of time. Each checkpoint adds more time to the in-game clock, allowing for a greater duration of play before an automatic game over. Hang-On meets many of the same requirements Rouse elucidates in his analysis of Centipede as aspects of a ‘classic’ arcade game. Most notably, there is no story to speak of (465), the game-play is simple (465), the “player can play the game forever” (463) (given they are able to keep passing checkpoints, which I am unable to do for more than two minutes at a time- it “[does] not last very long” (461).) Most importantly, the ability to achieve a high score comes not only with “bragging rights” (464), but monetary compensation; any player who makes it on the high score board is awarded a $50 bar tab (see below).

There is something to be said about tying performance in a racing game to free beer. Kocurek addresses the concept of the modern barcade at length in her book, noting that on particular Brooklyn bar is “a children’s play space reimagined as an adult entertainment venue. It is also a place where the history of the video game machine folds back into itself—here, the video game returns to its origins as a bar amusement” (Chapter 6). The aura of the arcade is partially detached from the concept of being family-friendly in this moment, and yet not completely separated from the white, male bias that Kocurek highlights in arcade games. Though craft beer as an industry is continually growing more diverse and central organizations have continually pushed the fact that it is unprofitable and morally bankrupt to “simply sell beer to young white dudes with beards,” the same boy’s club narrative still persists within the industry. A recent example of this boiling over was when Chris Furnari, the editor of perhaps the most trafficked and respected beer blog for nearly nine years, made misogynist remarks casually in his podcast. Furnary asserted that a top list of beer Instagram influencers “[went] to shit” when it transitioned from male beer authors to “chicks who basically take pictures of themselves in like low-cut tops with beer.” Just as there is the presumption that only men can understand and be skilled at classic games, the corollary that women “fake” their interest in and understanding of craft beer seems to run parallel. Though Furnari has since resigned, the Venn diagram of who certain hardcore gamers think they are and who certain craft beer geeks seem to think they are appears to have a great deal of overlap.

Exclusion in the beer industry. Transcribed excerpt via  Worst Beer Blog .

Exclusion in the beer industry. Transcribed excerpt via Worst Beer Blog.

A final concept worth considering is the fact that Oddwood Ales does not contain a single game made after the year 2000. This makes it a prime example of what Kocurek calls the “nostalgic arcade”, which “seems to express a longing for an adolescent homosocial space” (Chapter 6). Again, a craft brewery seems the perfect fit for a drinker invested in the technomasculine: drink beer with other boys in the bar while you compete against them in games you used to play.

For all of this, I do not mean to assert that either craft beer or classic arcade games are closed to women, people of color, or other historically marginalized identities. Much like Kocurek’s emphasis on “the inclusion of men and boys” instead of “women’s exclusion from gaming culture,” (Introduction) this critique of the intersection of craft beer and gaming can come off looking hopeless at the end. Yet, recent movements such as #IAmCraftBeer prove that while there are horrible people in the subculture, this narrative is potentially on its way out. One can only hope.

Play Journal #1

Hey folks,

It’s sure been a while since I’ve blogged on this site- good to take a little trip down memory lane. I will be posting six weekly “play journals” for a seminar I am taking on the topic of Video Game Studies (grad school? More like rad school.)

Kind of an interesting parallel- this blog will also take place while I apply for (a.k.a. chase) the next level of graduate school, and have a marginally similar semi-academic tone. You’ll find the body of my first entry below.

Cheers,

Andy

No Panic.jpg

Today’s readings: Nature & Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon (Huizinga), The Defininition of Play, The Classification of Games (Caillois), Flow (Csikszentmihalyi)

Today’s game(s): Borderlands 2, Candy Crush Soda Saga

Today’s readings are the structural building blocks for establishing a theory of playing, and playing games. We begin with Huizinga attempting to classify the concept of ‘play’ as a cultural object, primarily noting that play does not involve capital or a material object (99) or any seriousness (101), yet relies on following certain rules (105) and existing in certain times (103-04) and spaces (105, 114). These concepts are fascinating to me, particularly the bounding of the “magic circle” (106) that Caillois notes creates a space for play, a “consecrated spot” (105) in time and space where play exists as ritual without any value, or where “one chooses to be the dupe” (116) in religion and ritual. Building off of this roughly 20 years later, Caillois sharpens up Huizinga’s work by forming subcategories of ‘play’ and significantly adding in aspects of potential gambling and capital acquisition (124-25). Play, according to Caillois, must meet a set of requirements: it is voluntary (“free”), is separated from everyday life (“separate”), leaves room for exploration (“uncertain”), has no use-value ("unproductive”), is “governed by rules,” and creates a second reality (“make-believe”) (128). Though Caillois goes on to classify different aspects of play (130), I want to pause for a moment and pit these requirements against the games that I played this week.

A screenshot for the PC version of  Candy Crush Soda Saga

A screenshot for the PC version of Candy Crush Soda Saga

Using my iPhone, I played King’s “Candy Crush Soda Saga,” a non-canonical sequel to the successful mobile game, “Candy Crush.” In this game, the player must match combinations of items in a grid to accomplish objectives such as dropping items to the bottom of the grid, destroying certain obstacles, or simply achieving a certain target number of matches. While there are certainly rules for this make-believe world to be explored according to the path set out by the developer, I want to challenge especially that the gameplay is separate, free, or unproductive. Both Huizinga and Caillois base their concepts of play on the fact that play exists outside of ordinary life (Caillois 123), but playing on a device that also acts as part of my own day-to-day routine (used for calling, texting, and emailing) represents an erasure of difference between play-space and serious-space. That is to say, the difference between these two spaces is no longer physical space, but only different software and different times of use (which, with concurrent app usage being possible, becomes even more narrow.)

Speaking now to freedom, I turn to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow,’ the force that keeps individuals engaged in an activity. Though I generally find Csikszentmihalyi’s concept that happiness requires primarily a great sense of self-control wildly problematic (23, 40,) his notes on flow and addiction later on can be useful. If using the Candy Crush Soda Saga app is not simply playing, perhaps progressing is to be in flow; as the game displays its well-polished mechanics, it may also encourage an obsession that keeps a user “captive of a certain kind of order… unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life” (62). This is certainly a large ‘if,’ but perhaps worth considering in conjunction with the concept of a “flow channel” (74). Simply explained, in order to be in flow, a player/user must be appropriately challenged by the task at hand with too low of challenge resulting in boredom and too high resulting in anxiety (74).  As the user keeps playing Soda Crush, the game’s difficulty continues to increase with more and more demanding tasks. Yet, the user is not necessarily able to make more skilled decisions thanks to the random element of the pieces dropped into play (what Caillois might call “alea” (133).) In order to reach back into the flow channel, a user must purchase products from the game, including fresh lives to help them keep trying, gold to give them an extension on the particular round’s limited turns, or items that move or destroy certain pieces. The path to continuing in the flow becomes most accessible through monetary contribution, something highly problematic when considering that play is meant to be without monetary considerations. Here playing the game becomes akin to a gambling addiction: “property is exchanged, but no goods are produced” (Caillois 124).

Publicity image from  Borderlands 2

Publicity image from Borderlands 2

To contrast this model, I also played Borderlands 2, a modern first-person shooter that I have played for many hours (between all of my characters across Borderlands and Borderlands 2, I have played literally hundreds of hours.) This game, released in 2012, came before the surge of micro-transactional gaming that now so permeates gaming, meaning that the only money I have spent on this game was acquiring it used for $20. The game does not hold any more surprises for me, nor any intrigue of hidden events, and I know exactly how to power level my characters in order to make the game as unchallenging as possible; this is a game I play by rote, to kill time, in the same way that others watch a sitcom they have already seen. Perhaps this is closer to Caillois’ definition in certain aspects, but the separation and creation of game world suffer by integration into my everyday life.