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” »

Playing Games with the Cold War: Introducing ‘WarGames’

LUDUS is the UCLA Cinema and Media Studies program’s graduate student organization dedicated to video game theory, history, and play. LUDUS members are video game enthusiasts who have, over the past several years, sponsored lectures from industry professionals, programmed machinima screening series in conjunction with Melnitz Movies, worked closely with designers in the UCLA Games Lab, and coauthored publications and collaborated on conference presentations with one another.

The WarGames screening on November 26th was part of a continuing series that interrogates how cinema has engaged the medium of the video game. This text is an embellished version of the introduction I gave the film prior to the screening. —Harrison Gish


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Good evening and welcome to WarGames, and what will hopefully be the first of several LUDUS screenings that will, as a whole, interrogate the intersection of cinema and video games, displaying the numerous ways in which cinema has represented, adapted, and translated game play and game culture into film form.

To understand WarGames, one must understand that the early 1980s was a period of transition for both Hollywood and the growing video games industry. Both Star Wars and the contemporary blockbuster were less than a decade old, and Hollywood producers were still attempting to figure out the best way to monetize the suddenly massive genre of spectacular science-fiction. Well aware that the video games industry had made more money than Hollywood’s collective box office in 1982, film producers were eager to play upon the growing interactive medium to appeal to youth audiences. Results vary: while many of my friends’ childhoods were defined by The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984), and numerous contemporary scholars have a love/hate relationship with Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), no one remembers the teen sex comedy Joysticks (Greydon Clark, 1983), for good reason. In a period prior to Nintendo’s U.S. release in 1985 and the sweeping penetration of game consoles into middle-class living rooms, Hollywood attempted to draw youth audiences out of the home and into the movie theater by representing and idolizing the game culture of which many from that demographic were a part. Released in 1983, John Badham’s WarGames is emblematic of the time. Continue reading “Playing Games with the Cold War: Introducing ‘WarGames’” »

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’” »