Mortal Kombat's Kung Jin.
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Critical Distance: This Week in Videogame Blogging #15

Introducing Mortal Kombat’s first openly gay character.

Critical Distance is proud to bring to The New Statesman a 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 look at the writing behind notoriously difficult games Bloodborne and Dark Souls as well as Mortal Kombat’s first openly gay character, Kung Jin.

The critical excitement about Bloodborne is still in full force this week, as well as interest in its lineage of other devilishly hard games by From Software, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. First up, Brad Gallaway writes about Bloodborne's storytelling, as does Reid McCarter. Meanwhile, Corey Milne departs from the newest entry to discuss place in Demon Souls and Dark Souls.

Mechanics and narrative have been another hot topic this week. Over at Pop Matters, G. Christopher Williams writes about narrative and storytelling in The Charnel House, pointing out the debt it owes to writers like John Barth and House of Leaves’s Mark Z. Danielewski. In a somewhat similar vein, Ben Chapman applies Stephen King's adage to avoid adverbs to video games, exploring the ways in which video game dialogue choices sometimes eschew nuance at the expense of more impacting and interesting moments.

At Offworld, Leigh Alexander picks up a similar thread to look at the effects of typography in Kentucky Route Zero. And Mattie Brice looks at interactivity in games and tarot through the lens of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, pointing out how comics' understanding of "closure":

[I]s the kind of interactivity that is shared by all mediums, where the piece requires imagination, for people to fill in themselves in the blanks knowingly or not. I’m starting to think that play is games’ version of closure, if it isn’t closure in and of itself.

Back at Offworld, Gita Jackson writes movingly about games and failure, musing: "I wonder how seeing yourself die -- because your avatar is you, in a sense -- changes how we see our failures in our own life."

Meanwhile, Nick Hanford at Higher Level Gamer writes about identity tourism and Never Alone, drawing connections between high school community service trips and the game's critical reception, raising important issues about how we engage with diversity in games. He writes:

I’m afraid that Never Alone is like that weeklong trip I took to Pine Ridge. I feel like I’ve done a few hours of work and have gone back to my comforts, but I’m not sure about what comes next-- if anything. I fear that like the tattoo that I have, I, or other players, will quickly allow the experience of this game to be reduced down to objects that we can easily pick up and examine, removed from their context. I fear that other players will look at it and boil down the Iñupiat to scrimshaw and caribou-skin clothes. I fear this because I’ve personally done it before, albeit with different experiences and outcomes.

Along similar lines, Todd Harper complicates the reveal that Kung Jin in Mortal Combat X is gay, asking questions about how representation in games is a complicated affair. He writes, "The point, though, is to keep trying. To acknowledge forward steps and course correct after backwards ones. To keep forward momentum going and not be satisfied."

At Vice, Soha Kareem writes about altgames, taking care to point out particular works by diverse creators, as well as the new forms of journalism surrounding them. There's also been some interesting writing about religion in games this week: Grayson at Video Game Heart writes about games' potential to encompass spirituality, and over at Game Church, Christopher Hutton provides a brief but comprehensive overview of the history of Christian videogames.

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. Critical Distance is a reader-supported publication. If you like what you see and want to help support this ongoing free content, consider pledging a small monthly donation to our Patreon.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.