Sega's 2001 rail shooter game Rez.
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Critical Distance: This week in videogame blogging #3

The academic side of gaming, from the formalism debate to hermeneutics in game criticism.

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 role of formalism as an analytical tool in game studies and follow up on Spawn on Me’s #BlackLivesMatter gaming marathon.

Games scholar Frank Lantz went back to the well on formalism, an academic lens with a long history in games studies. His argument is that mechanics can and should be formally discussed without painting people who do so as a conservative gatekeeper. Heather Alexandra responded with the argument that it’s not so easy to separate mechanics from anything else without implicit value judgments. Daniel Joseph drew on some past arguments to add context to the formalism debate in games.

Maybe the real problem that the advocates of ludoessentialism are worried about is a hegemony of thought, much like what Brandon Keogh criticized in his journal article last year. I responded by contextualizing the historical context of the various disciplines that make up game studies. I thought the problem wasn’t so much that there were authoritarians telling us not to conduct close readings of videogames in academia, but that the institutional cultures of our various disciplines alongside the political economy of the university was more the culprit here.

Continuing in an academic vein, The Journal of Games Criticism has released its newest issue, offering up articles ranging from hermeneutics in games criticism to pedagogy and tangential learning through games.

Mary Lee Sauder goes into art history, and derives the term “gamerliness” based off the term “painterliness”:

If you’ve ever studied art, you may have heard of the term “painterliness” used to describe works of art that derive meaning from drawing attention to the fact that they are just paint on a canvas or clay molded by human hands. “Painterly” art doesn’t try to look realistic – instead, it uses its unique aspects as a constructed object to its advantage.

Lastly, a couple articles continuing the conversation on representation in games. Shonte Daniels discusses race in games through the lens of Spawn On Me’s recent #BlackLivesMatter gaming marathon. Meanwhile, Adrienne Shaw discusses the outcomes of her research on representation in games, and addresses common criticisms of advocating for representation.

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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Vinyl makes us happy, here's why we're buying more of it

This once retro format is no longer the preserve of hipsters and music heads. 

So, vinyl sales are up again, with data today showing that sales of records have exceeded that of downloads for the first time. The forces behind this are a combination of the rational and the fashionable, to quote my friend Jim, a Glaswegian music nut in his mid 40s with a family and a sideline in buying and selling records on online marketplace Discogs. He packages up records to men like him who spent a lifetime in clubs and record shops but don’t go out any more, and who crave the cultural connection and community that music offers. Jim’s Discogs sales spike on Friday and Saturday nights when aging music heads drunkenly add another of his vinyl gems to basket. Sales drop off in January, he hypothesises, because his buyers are too sober and broke to pick up that Can “Tago Mago” UK original pressing in envelope sleeve for £140.  

Music released on vinyl is purposefully, trenchantly niche. It celebrates the fact that music isn’t for everyone: a limited edition pressing of a few hundred copies on Bradley Zero’s excellent Peckham label Rhythm Section International may only have an audience marginally above that number. But that doesn’t matter because there are thousands of niches being covered by record labels and private presses releasing new vinyl onto the market, as well as a mixed economy of places to buy a Guadeloupian zouk reissue (highly recommended) or a limited split 7” from Savages. Established record stores like Rough Trade continue to thrive in parallel to their own digital operations. You can buy vinyl direct from the artist on Bandcamp. The Independent Label Market host events across the UK which transform independent labels into market stall holders where they can sell their fresh musical produce direct to shoppers who have record bags not wicker baskets. It might be pricey, but the high resale value of your new vinyl means you can’t really lose, even if you decide that you spent £20-30 on a duffer.   

There’s also a practical reason for releasing music on vinyl, simply because there’s no point putting niche releases on streaming services because the returns are so low. CD sales are falling – they’ve dropped 84% in a decade in the US – although that hasn’t stopped French band Justice from hedging their bets: their last release “Woman” came on a new format that was one side CD and one side vinyl.

A caveat: don’t take the figures at face value. Record sales are overtaking downloads – but that’s also because no-one buys downloads any more. Why would you when you can stream the new Solange album on Apple Music or get lost in the Bandcamp rabbit hole for happy hours at a time?

There’s also a caveat on the quality thing. People often say that music sounds better on vinyl, and there is some truth in it, particularly if you’re a fan of the warming tones of a lovely crackle – but the argument fails to hold water when you’re talking about buying music on high quality wavs. These files, which contain more musical information than MP3s, which are known as “lossy” files because they literally chuck out a tonne of the sonic information in order to create a smaller file, sound great. But they kill your storage and most laptops and phones start to complain pretty damn quickly if you buy too many – unless like the record-buying hardcore, you’re also shelling out on giga-massive external hard drives. The quality argument doesn’t explain the popularity of coloured vinyl and picture discs either, which audiophiles will tell you sound distinctly inferior to gold-standard 180g black vinyl.  Something else must be going on, and our desire for vinyl tells us something about what we’re missing.

“I think people are bored of a digital way of listening,” says Nina Hervé of Rough Trade. “People want community again. Vinyl is a way of sharing your music with people in a communal space or by sharing pictures of what you’ve bought on Instagram. Records are the opposite of listening to music on headphones, which is a way of not talking to people on a train or in the office. It’s communal.”

Essentially, vinyl is a type of plastic, made from oil-derivative ethylene. Plastic is basically compressed sunshine, the product of ancient forests and the sunlight they absorbed, transformed into a conduit for another ancient human need – music. No wonder it makes us happy, and no wonder we’re buying more of it right now.

Emma Warren is a freelance editor and journalist.