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23 February 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:00am

Critical Distance: This Week in Videogame Blogging #7

Ableism in horror games.

By Critical Distance

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 explore the ways games still have to catch up to their audience in terms of race representation, how there is no ‘right’ way to play a game, and what horror games can do to be more nuanced about its depictions of mental health.

We start with Kill Screen founder and PBS Game/Show host Jamin Warren, who in the show’s most recent episode tackles several of the extant issues of race representation in games. As Warren argues, people of color are still dramatically underrepresented in games, and what representation does exist often falls into stereotypes and tokenism.

Back on Warren’s home turf on Kill Screen, contributor Will Partin provides a good companion piece for the above video, going into further detail regarding BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series and their failure to engage with (human) race issues in a non-abstracted way.

Cutting to the heart of the issue, over on Kotaku Evan Narcisse hosts a roundtable with an all-star panel consisting of Austin Walker, Shawn Alexander Allen, TJ Thomas and Catt Small, discussing the shortcomings of black representation in games from their own vantage points, issues which extend much further than (but certainly includes) diversity among developers.

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Responding to the Kotaku roundtable, Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Samantha Blackmon reflects on her recent experience playing Life is Strange and how her experience as a black woman subconsciously inflected how she treated the game’s authority figures. This dovetails nicely with a recent essay by Shawn Trautman, on overcoming the myth that there is a ‘right’ way to play a game:

Based on my experience with the game, the oft-lamented “giant fetch quest at the end” criticism [of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker] makes absolutely no sense. There is no giant fetch quest at the end for me, and there didn’t have to be for you, either. But here’s the twist: that criticism is still valid. If someone didn’t know that the Triforce shards could be gotten earlier, or they didn’t know that they would be important later, I suppose I could do what’s been done to me and say their criticisms are wrong because it’s their “own fault”: they made that annoying fetch quest happen by waiting. But the truth is the game is just as much to blame for not signposting these things well, and “blame” isn’t really the point, anyway. If a person plays a game the only way they know how, and the way that makes the most sense for them, their experiences are valid. Categorically. Full stop.

On As Houses, Leigh Harrison attempts to pin down just what it is about Far Cry 2 which has made it a classic:

It’s a game in which your main objective is to shoot things, but also a game which wants you to question the validity of its own existence and those of its contemporaries. It makes you feel insignificant and weak in a genre built upon power, forcing you into the arms of dangerous strangers to make up some of the deficit. […] Your final betrayal is the game’s way of making sure you’re listening when it tells you for the last time that war is horrible, that it corrupts and eventually makes liars and thieves – or corpses – of us all. In the end, the only source of true conviction is the game itself.

Finally, on Paste, Austin Walker bemoans the lazy design and ableism inherent in the ubiquitous ‘sanity meter’ of horror games, while also looking to more recent titles like Darkest Dungeon to explore how they might offer a more nuanced, culturally responsible representation of mental illness:

Every adventurer starts with an empty stress meter and a few quirks, both positive and negative. These quirks represent a wide range of characteristics, from personal preferences to physical capabilities, from special knowledge to (yes) psychological diagnoses. But mental health isn’t treated as more or less important (or pathological) than other personal traits.

[…]

[One quirk is called] “Guilty Conscience.” The mouseover text says that [the character] “bears the crushing guilt of deeds real and imagined.” I slide the mouse cursor over this long list of red words and sigh. “I don’t even know if ‘Guilty Conscience’ has a real effect,” I say, “but it sounds bad.”

The critique Darkest Dungeon is making is of critique of me, and of the culture that taught me to read words like “crushing guilt” and wonder if it has a “real” effect on a person.

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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