Bioshock Infinite: can it really be called a “living, breathing world”?
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Critical Distance: This week in videogame blogging #1

Are we about to enter an “age of games”?

Critical Distance is proud to bring to the New Statesman a new weekly digest of its popular This Week in Videogame Blogging feature, which promotes the best, often little-known, incisive criticism and cultural commentary on interactive media. This week, we discuss the “ludocentricism” of games discourse and Ian Bogost tackles the idea that we are entering the “age of games”.

First up: a diverse body of games critics and scholars came together over Twitter to discuss the domination of play in critical discourses on games. Lulu Blue further elaborates on the interplay between play and context as the most crucial point of focus:

Much like a face drawn from lines, game systems carry assumptions made by their creators. If a man sets out to draw a woman and he idealizes a certain beauty standard, he's likely to draw women which conform to this beauty standard. If the same man sets out to make an RPG, he's likely to fabricate a world which systematically expresses these ideas about women as well.”

Elsewhere, Daniel Parker offers his own take, suggesting that compromising narrative to offer an illusion of play cheapens a game:

Games that employ post-cutscene design ideology tend to be marketed as ‘immersive experiences’ with ‘living, breathing worlds’. Bioshock Infinite is not a living, breathing world; it is a flashy museum with freaky animatronics.”

At Sufficiently Human, our own Lana Polansky writes that game design is too wrapped up in the fantasy of wealth accumulation to actually communicate anything meaningful. According to Polansky, the time may be to look outside of big-budget commercial games for a meaningful conversation.

At Kill Screen, Ray Graham explores depictions of torture in light of exposed CIA documents and wonders how culpable games are in the widely held (but misinformed) belief that torture is an effective method of gathering information.

Media philosopher Ian Bogost ended 2014 skeptical of Eric Zimmerman's “ludic century”, suggesting that instead of dominating our culture, maybe games should just be a small part of our ever complicating lives:

We don't have to scorn games (or comics, or YA fiction) to feel a little embarrassed at the prospect of a century with them at the center of the media ecosystem. And on the flip side, we don't have to discard games (or comics, or YA fiction) to scratch our heads at the wisdom of feeling satisfied by them.”

Lastly, some further reading for the week. The latest issue of Zoya Street’s game e-zine Memory Insufficient has hit the shelves, tackling alternative and speculative histories of games. The newest StoryBundle compiles ten great ebooks ranging from veteran games journalist Leigh Alexander’s Clipping Through to deep dive analyses of Jagged Alliance 2 and Super Mario Bros. 2. Finally, renowned interactive fiction author Emily Short has compiled a massive list of IF competitions, anthologies and shows for your perusal.

There is much more available in this week’s full roundup at Critical Distance! Tune in again next week and be sure to follow us on Twitter @critdistance for all the latest and greatest games writing from around the web.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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