“Playing” Mexican In ‘Guacamelee!’

Video games routinely play with representation and the ways we engage with our own perception of the world around us. In this article, Cinema and Media Studies doctoral candidate David O’Grady pursues this line of thought further, examining what “Mexican” means in the context of the mainstream game ‘Guacamelee!’ (2012). The article was originally published on the UCLA Game Lab blog and we thank the author and editors for the right to share it here. —Matthias Stork


Mainstream videogames often shy away from interpretative ambiguity, finding commercial safety—and ludic economy—in well-worn generic personas and dramatic milieus. Terrorists, monsters, aliens, Nazis—these are the culturally uncomplicated enemies who, in stereotypical scenarios and archetypal narrative arcs, must be slain by the solitary hero (i.e., the player) on a quest to save the princess/community/world.

But what happens when a videogame uses people, places and contexts that aren’t so culturally clear-cut or historically remote? This is often the space in which indie and art-project videogames operate, offering through simulation various interpretations of real-life people, issues and events. When big-budget games do attempt to play with ongoing social conflicts, or with aspects of race, gender, class and other complex cultural representations, they do so at great financial risk and critical punishment. Certain titles justifiably earn our scorn for their cultural callowness: consider the first-person shooter Call of Juarez: The Cartel (Ubisoft, 2011), a game that twists the real horrors of cartel violence and human trafficking on the Mexican border into a racist, clichéd, fear-mongering narrative about white slavery. For a stirring takedown of the game—and remarkable analysis of the drug war in Ciudad Juárez—see the compelling Extra Credits review. Continue reading ““Playing” Mexican In ‘Guacamelee!’” »

Playing in Public: Reflections on IndieCade 2012

“Playing a game in public is a political act,” asserted games evangelist Bernie DeKoven at a keynote event of IndieCade 2012. In the particular context of his discussion with game theorist and designer Eric Zimmerman, DeKoven was referring specifically to the “New Games” movement of the 1960s and 70s, which promoted a philosophy that group play was vitally important to both adults and children.

IndieCade 2012

IndieCade 2012

Yet the statement also resonated strongly with the weekend’s festivities in general. IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, held October 4–7, 2012, in Culver City, California, was not held at a typical conference venue, but rather overtook the city itself: a fire station, a recreation center, a Masonic Lodge, a parking lot, and a former-railway-substation-turned-theater. Every fall, games of every kind overtake downtown Culver City and are showcased, discussed, played, watched, and sold: video games, board games, live games, hand-made cardboard arcade games, card games, and night games. A variety of events surround this gaming revelry, including a conference for industry professionals, awards voting and galas, public panels and workshops, and a series of tutorial events for game design novices and dilettantes. Continue reading “Playing in Public: Reflections on IndieCade 2012” »

The Topography of Risk: Time and Punishment in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’

Image 1: Giant, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

“Failure adds content by making the player see nuances in the game.”1
—Jesper Juul

“I wonder if I can kill that giant…”2
—Ozrek, Skyrim player

In “Fear of Falling: The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games,” Jesper Juul outlines a detailed theory of the role of failure and difficulty in tempering and enriching the gaming experience. For the purposes of outlining his theory, Juul more or less explicitly limits his discussion to casual games; however, I believe that his model of punishment and the correlation between difficulty and enjoyment requires certain adjustments to long-form gaming. The notion of punishment in game such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is heavily mitigated by elements of time, especially the save point and the nonlinear narrative. Juul acknowledges at least the first of these two gaming elements near the beginning of his essay, but redirects his attention and leaves room for further discussion.

I would argue that the introduction of temporality to a video game, particularly in the form of the save point and nonlinear goal structure, changes the tenor of the gamer’s relationship with the game. The possibility of temporal manipulability, generated by the save point and the nonlinear narrative, transforms a video game from a deadly gauntlet of obstacles into a four-dimensional map of gradations of difficulty. Ultimately, this form of gameplay (and the system of punishment that accompanies it) converts challenge and failure into an elaborate bartering of time. Skyrim exemplifies this relationship: no one truly loses at the game, but the efficiency of a player’s success will depend heavily on the temporal investments made. Continue reading “The Topography of Risk: Time and Punishment in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’” »