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.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times