A videogames critical reader, by Liz Ryerson

All the best reading, digested.

Still not satiated with the amount of games writing that there is out there? Liz Ryerson also responded to my piece on videogames journalism with a reading list. I'm putting it up here for your enjoyment. Thanks Liz:

First and foremost there is writing by insiders in the video game industry that directly criticises its practices as a whole. The classic article "The Scratchware Manifesto", written in 2000 by an anonymous group of game developers, is still very much relevant today, and required reading. Here is the original piece with an introduction by indie game designer/critic Anna Anthrophy.

This is a video lecture from Jonathan Blow (creator of the game Braid), and not writing, but it is very helpful for understanding the thinking and philosophy - the "best practices" that are driving the game industry today:

This earlier lecture by Jon Blow outlines the fundamental conflicts - what is often called "ludo-narrative dissonance", at the heart of storytelling in games:

Also in that vein, Tim Rogers's piece "Who killed videogames?" is a wonderful insider account of what goes on behind closed doors at social gaming companies.

 

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On the other end, this article by David Kanaga (who's done the audio in recent indie games like Dyad and Proteus) takes a more academic tone and asserts that meaning is something which arises from a the interaction of the player and the game, not imposed from above by its creator (as implied by Jonathan Blow):

http://wombflashforest.blogspot.com/2012/06/played-meaning-concerning-spiritual-in.html

He also has writing on audio in games on the same blog that is very much worth reading. This short article asserts that the strangeness and feeling of displacement (in horror games, in particular), are what games are uniquely suited towards exploring:

http://voorface.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/unspoken-strangenesses/

Both of these articles eschew the sort of concrete insider details to talk about how games feel to the player, which I think is an extremely valuable theme to emphasise and I hope to see more of this writing.

Stephen Murphy (of Space Funeral fame) has written a few paragraphs that summarise this idea:

http://harmonyzone.org/Other.html

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Also in the vein of feeling - continuing on from the "New Games Journalism" trend of pieces that revolve around personal experiences with games. There are several of these kind of articles around (though there's a gap in my knowledge here so please enlighten me), but this recent one by Patricia Hernandez on RPS about how Fallout 2 awakened her to rebellion against the traditional gender roles her parents imposed on her is good:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/11/23/gaming-made-me-fallout-2/

I also wrote a short, slightly abstract piece for Wolfenstein 3D's 20th anniversary (yes this is the first of several vanity links to my own writing) that talks about the effect that game, and videogames in general, have had on my life, past and present:

http://midnightresistance.co.uk/articles/wolfenstein-jubil%C3%A4um

And, of course, there's Tim Rogers's fairly well-known old article about Super Mario Bros 3 that is probably the archetype for every one of these articles that have come since:

http://archive.insertcredit.com/features/lifenonwarp/index.html

 

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Another emerging theme of games writing is detailed analysis about the moment-to-moment design of game worlds - or "level design". There isn't a ton of this sort of writing out there, but I think is extremely valuable in understanding the sorts of mechanisms games communicate to the player through their moment-to-moment design. Robert Yang does a good job of outlining what he believes makes good writing on level design here (and includes links to some great articles by Anna Anthropy, an old, detailed piece on Thief 3 by Kierron Gillen, and some things I've written about Wolfenstein 3D level design):

http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2012/04/what-makes-good-writing-on-level-design.html

and also has an excellent detailed analysis of one Thief 1 mission here:

http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2012/07/thief-1s-assassins-and-environmental.html

 

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From here, there's general writing that looks critically at different aspects of individual games as a whole. The semi-defunct blog MU-Foundation (maintained by J Chastain) has several different articles on specific games that are worth reading, but these two look to artifacts of the past (Maniac Mansion and the Atari ST game Captain Blood) for an alternative to current game design.

http://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/maniac-mansion.html

http://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/captain-blood-atari-st.html

Speaking of current game design, this recent article on Modern Warfare 2 reveals the game's ultimate failure to in any way comment on warfare in the way that it purports to do:

http://nightmaremode.net/2012/11/call-of-duty-6-modern-warfare-2-ass2ass-gif-23274/

I'm sure at least some of your readers have heard of Action Button Dot Net (run by Tim Rogers). I do sense a strong tendency of this site to make interesting little bits and pieces of a particular game look like grand, profound statements, and the articles articles are often rambling as hell. Still, the Action-Button Manifesto contains a ton of valuable insights about a big pile of different games, and has definitely shaped the way I see games as a whole:

http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=385

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Also worthy of mentioning is the (mostly untold) history of different fan modding scenes. Robert Yang's three-part piece "A People's History of the FPS" outlines the history of FPS modding communities and their decline:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/09/19/a-peoples-history-of-the-fps-part-1-the-wad/

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/09/20/a-peoples-history-part-2-the-mod/

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/09/21/a-peoples-history-of-the-fps-part-3-the-postmod/

Anna Anthropy's book "Rise of the Videogame Zinesters" (link: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Videogame-Zinesters-Drop-outs-Housewives/dp/1609803728) is a great resource for talk about DIY game communities and how to get started making a game of your own, but her site has a recommended list of mods for the game ZZT that's also worth checking out:

http://www.auntiepixelante.com/?p=443

Porpentine (who posts on the website freeindiegam.es and RPS) makes a good case for the accessibility of the program Twine for Interactive Fiction games:

http://nightmaremode.net/2012/11/creation-under-capitalism-23422/

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In this last section I'll link to some of my own thoughts on (what I view as) the destructive nature of the culture around videogames. Much shameless plugging lies ahead, so be warned.

Many people have since written manifesto type pieces to emulate the Scratchware Manifesto. I labored a long time over a lengthy, over-italicised one in this vein called "The Language of Videogames" that is more than a bit over-earnest but I still think has a lot of insights on why games occupy the cultural place they do right now:

http://ellaguro.blogspot.com/2011/09/language-of-videogames.html

This review of the recent indie game Hotline Miami is primarily an attack on games critics for unquestionably extolling the virtues of what I call "stupid games", and also the relationship between gamers and violent games:

http://midnightresistance.co.uk/articles/monster-within

For examples of what I'm talking about in the article, see Tom Bissell's piece on Spec Ops: The Line

http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8157257/line-explores-reasons-why-play-shooter-games

or Brenden Keogh's recent book "Killing Is Harmless", also about Spec Ops: The Line 

http://stolenprojects.com/

Which is excellently reviewed here, by the way.

In my review of Indie Game: The Movie I'm trying to take on what I see as the inherently self-congratulatory nature of much of the so-called "indie scene":

http://midnightresistance.co.uk/articles/indie-game-movie-review

The last article I'll link to is sort of a peculiar, fractured piece that is only partially about games, but makes the (not as often explored) assertion that the endless pursuit of a fantasy of total, perfect immersion within a game ("The Holodeck") is really the pursuit of totalitarianism:

http://ellaguro.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-puzzle-world.html

PS. No, really, finally, this essay about Second Life by Jenn Frank: http://infinitelives.net/downloards/all_the_spaces.pdf

Liz Ryerson can be found on Twitter on @ellaguro and her email is liz dot ryerson at gmail. She would love to hear from you, provided you are not a spam bot and you don't send her any rape threats."

Jonathan Blow's Braid.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism