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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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.