Street Fighters: Thoughts on the Video Game Voice Actor Strike

The voice actors strike brings to light questions about the boundaries between work and play

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On Friday, SAG-AFTRA, the union representing voice actors in the video game industry officially went on strike. This comes after breakdowns in negotiations between the union and several major companies in the industry over workplace treatment and safety and compensation for actors. Workers are striking against some of the largest names in the business, including Electronic Arts, Activision, and Disney, companies with large amounts of resources behind them and that set the standards and tone for the industry as a whole. This strike is important not only because it demonstrates the importance of collectively organizing to achieve fair working conditions, but because it also points to broader issues surrounding the proliferation of immaterial labor in contemporary life and the increasingly blurred distinctions between labor and leisure.

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Voice actors are striking over transparency in what roles they are given and the nature of projects and for secondary compensation for successful games that sell more than 2 million units. In addition, they are also striking for better  working conditions, such as limiting  the amount of time actors can perform physically demanding voice and screen capture work. After two years of negotiations, these issues have been unresolved and SAG-AFTRA has initiated a strike in response. The strike seems to have a lot of support from players, fans, and actors themselves. Will Wheaton has voiced his support and voice actress Tara Strong (the voice of all your childhood faves) has tweeted about the treatment she and other performers have been subject to.

Not everyone, however, is on board with the strike.  The Voice Realm, a voice-over casting site, is already positioning itself to take on the work that the striking workers won’t do. In other words, they are willing to be scabs. Others are criticizing the voice actors, calling them ungrateful and reminding them that there are others waiting in line to do these jobs who would do the work for far less. In a time where unions are under attack in many industries, we must fight back against critics who will try to position unions as unnecessary hindrances. Unions exist so that the rights of workers can be protected and advanced against the interests of the company who is looking to exploit them.

This strike is unique because it brings to light many questions about the boundaries between work and play, boundaries that have been increasingly blurred in contemporary life. Video games are a medium that is able to manifest play in countless new forms and transform work so that it no longer appears as such. It relies upon immaterial labor, work that produces immaterial products like knowledge, emotional responses, and relationships. Work and play have blended so seamlessly when it comes to video games, in what Julian Küchlich calls “playbor.” As Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter note, “game making blurs the lines between work and play, production and consumption, voluntary activity and precarious exploitation, in a way that typifies the boundless exercise of biopower.”

The problem that arises is that immaterial labor not only disguises the work that is done by creative types like programmers and actors, but it also disguises the work done by everyone else. While the voice actors are one of the most visible aspects of games, there is a whole chain of forces that must come together in order for a game to be released. This includes actors, testers, programmers, artists, musicians, and designers. But, it also includes janitors, office managers, and the workers who manufacture the physical disks. At all levels, labor is done so that a game can be produced and sold. All immaterial labor has supporting material infrastructure underneath it. Like code itself, you aren’t meant to see its inner workings. When functioning properly, you aren’t meant to see it at all.

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This is a characteristic of almost all digital technology work today, not just video games. It includes non-creative workers like Uber drivers, mechanical Turk workers, writers, Google book scanners, Amazon warehouse workers, and the people who make sure your Facebook feed is PG.  This labor behind it is meant to be hidden and disguised as routine, mundane, and normal. It is disguised by code and design, refashioned as a labor of love, and then made pervasive through exploitative practices like “crunch time.” For players, playing video games can be considered be a “form of consumption that reinforces the pleasures of work.” We are conditioned to believe that in order to do the things you love, they should be done at any cost. But, for the companies, it means we should do them at no cost. This isn’t to say that people should not take joy in the work they do. But, it doesn’t mean you have to accept being exploited by your employer to work in the field you love.

Much of the success of the video game industry relies on the underpaid labor of its workforce and the unpaid labor of fans and players. Corporate managers discourage unionization and are known to remind workers that they are lucky to work in a such a cut-throat field on creative projects that are meant to be enjoyed.  They manipulate the desires of creative workers in order to manufacture precarious working conditions. The joy of play is used against workers by managers and anti-union critics in order to dismiss their serious grievances. They fashion play, a world-building activity that has potential for the radical transformation of people and society, into a weapon to be used against organizing efforts.

We have been given an opportunity with this strike. Situations like this bring to the surface all the small, myriad forces that come together to provide us with consumer products. These are not just the issues workers face in one industry, but the issues of people around the globe. Instead of calling those who demand better treatment and compensation for their work ungrateful, we should stand in solidarity with the strikers and use this as an opportunity to demand better working conditions at all levels.

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Is Anyone Out There?: Alienation in No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky explores the loneliness of the networked life

No Man’s Sky is a lonely game. You wander across vast stretches of plains and forests or barren wastelands of nuclear snow with no end in sight. Often, the only voice you hear is the robotic voice of your Exosuit, informing you of your remaining resources and life support.  Sentient lifeforms are rare.  When you do meet, you don’t understand them. Many planets are barren and void by any sort of life. And, even when life is found, it often takes strange and improbable forms.

No Man’s Sky is a survival and exploration game that drops the player on on the edge of the universe and tasks them with documenting and exploring the game’s 18 quintillion (18,000,000,000,000,000,000) procedurally generated planets. Released only two weeks ago, the game has already caused a bit of a stir. Players seem to love the game for its imaginative and exotic fauna and flora you can find and its immensely open world. But, it also struck a nerve with players who felt the game didn’t live up to its hype or that there simply is nothing to do but explore.

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The game is not generous to its players. Your inventory is small and collecting resources is tedious and time consuming. You must constantly harvest elements (plutonium, carbon, platinum, etc) from the environment and use them to craft new upgrades, fuel, and, most importantly, life support. You can also scan your surroundings and catalogue new species of animals or plants or minerals. The information on the various forms of life you find can be uploaded to the Atlas, a central database that keeps track of the discoveries made by you and other players. In exchange for the data, you are rewarded with credits, the currency of the universe.

No Man’s Sky feels like Minecraft, but without the joy of having evidence of your skill or creativity in the form of an original building or sophisticated replica. What you struggle against are not Creepers, but the hostile elements of unfamiliar territory. There doesn’t seem to be a reward for playing. There is no shelter to build or looming threat to hide from. You are always moving on. Or, you don’t have to. You could explore every inch of the planet. Though, it would take a while.

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Everything about No Man’s Sky is difficult. And this has made many players unhappy, to judge from the many takes, tweets, and an incredibly detailed Reddit thread. You must constantly recharge and reload your tools, life support, and ship. Each planet is too large to explore by foot. While you can make the process easier by flying around with your ship, each takeoff burns a quarter of your fuel. While savvy players have found ways to quickly optimize their inventory and resources, the game doesn’t reward that. After all, there is always another planet to explore.

While this may be a turn off for many players, I’m not interested in reviewing No Man’s Sky for its supposed failures to live up to expectations or, in other words, what the game is not. As Ian Bogost points out, “supporting design novelty risks fetishizing innovation for its own sake over the ways that such innovation helps construct meaningful experiences.” Much like exploring every planet in No Man’s Sky, asking games to constantly redesign themselves towards an unachievable measure of perfection is a task with no end. Instead, I’m interesting in a meaningful engagement with what the game actually is.

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No Man’s Sky explores the feelings of loneliness and disconnection that seem to accompany an increasingly networked life.  While a network of players are contributing to a central encyclopedia and you can visit and see for yourself what others have catalogued, you are still doing the work alone. The game prevents you from meeting these players. But, in a universe with 18 quintillion planets, the chances of meeting them are already quite slim. The language barrier between you and other aliens does fall, albeit very slowly, as you learn a language only one word at a time. While you can sell goods on the galactic market where prices fluctuate, I’m only left questioning where the people I’m selling to are. Robot sentinels constantly scan the environments. On some planets, they attack you but you don’t know why. And, if they are sentinels, what are they guarding? Discovering an outpost or a monolith provides some clues to other forms of life. But, are you discovering the remains of a long gone intergalactic civilization or the outposts of an expanding one?

The feeling of being alone in an alien universe is, well, alienating. Games often try to create relationships between players through competition or collaboration. But, as Bogost observes, some games create relationships through feelings of disjunction and alienation. And, No Man’s Sky is incredibly disjunctive. It reminds players of the “abyss that forever separates them from another.” While players seemingly have a collaborative goal to work towards in the form of the Atlas (a sort of galactic Wikipedia), the prospect is practically insurmountable. It would take maybe 5 billion years for players to explore and catalogue every planet. Coincidentally, it’s going to take 5 billion years for the Sun in our solar system will turn into a red giant, expand, and engulf the Earth.

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No Man’s Sky makes the network visible to the player. Normally, being enmeshed in a network might be a comfort. As Wendy Chun argues, the network dissolves the postmodern discomfort with the idea that the world is too impossible to comprehend. Instead, No Man’s Sky’s network only emphasizes this discomfort. It shows you all the ways in which you’re connected (the Atlas, the galactic trade networks) only to illustrate how distant you are. Not only is the universe of the game incomprehensible, you cannot share in this sublime with others. You are the lonely node at the edge of the network trying to make your way towards its center. And, for the players who’ve reached the center, there isn’t any relief. You are just sent back and made distant once more.

Every small evidence of the social in No Man’s Sky only makes the loneliness more palpable.  The stations and outposts you find are evidence that other life exists out there in the universe. But, their emptiness is also evidence of life’s absence. You are constantly faced with the fact that exploring the universe is lonely work. Perhaps that’s why many players didn’t like No Man’s Sky. The discomfort with being alone with oneself in a universe of fleeting connection can be a bit much to bear.

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Digital Doldrums: A Review of Ready Player One

Would you like to save your game?

I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in the same fashion that many of us consume culture today: obsessively and all at once. This was fitting, as the culture Cline describes in his novel is one of binge consumption. While I enjoyed the immersive world that Cline portrayed and the extensive knowledge of popular culture that went into its creation, I still put the book down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I was dissatisfied not with the dystopian narrative (which can feel tired due to its transformation into a cliché), but with the banality of its acceptance. Ultimately, Ready Player One is an example of a nerd’s ultimate wish fulfillment – where an obsessive knowledge of popular culture can save the world from tyranny.

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Ready Player One depicts a dystopian future where climate change has wrecked much of the planet and governments are mostly ineffective. Poverty and inequality are rampant and people have taken solace in the online virtual world of OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Originally designed as a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), OASIS quickly took off as a virtual space where  people gather to meet, work, shop, play, and live. When the lead creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a hidden Easter Egg and initiates a global contest where the person to find the Egg and gather the most points will inherit his vast fortune, control of his company, and the OASIS. The protagonist, Wade Watts (or Parzival: his online avatar) is an Egg Hunter who grew up in the OASIS and has devoted his life to solving Halliday’s riddles and finding the Easter Egg. When Wade discovers the first clue to finding the Egg after 5 years of searching, the contest kicks into overdrive as he competes against other hunters and the nefarious Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to solve Halliday’s final puzzle.

The world, the real one, in which the novel takes place is depicted as a horrible place to live.  Hunger is rampant and power outages and food shortages are common. Wade lives in a vertical slum where trailers are stacked in order to save space. Poverty is the norm and debt bondage its punishment. When you fail to pay a debt, bounty hunters are sent to collect you and bring you to a labor facility where you can work off your debt. Of course, you must also pay for the resources the company uses to take care of you, so often you find yourself in a never ending cycle of debt and labor. A debtor’s prison disguised as a company town.

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While people use the OASIS as a haven for escape from the harsh realities of the world, we find that the glamorous world of OASIS isn’t so perfect either. While it only costs 25 cents to make an OASIS account, money (credits) are required to do most things within the virtual world, from travel to buying items to going to a virtual club. At first, Parzival spends most of his time at his virtual school, simply because he can’t afford to go anywhere else. Further, since OASIS credits are the dominant global currency, people who work to pay off their debt often work in the OASIS. The inequality of the real world is also the inequality of the virtual.

Ready Player One fully embraces the logic of digitalism. Digitalism can be described as the belief between a stark, but symmetrical, distinction between the material and the semiotic and what Matteo Pasquinelli characterizes as “the cult of the digital network.” Here, the Internet is conceived as a digital utopia, where we are freed from the confines of our human bodies in order to embrace the superiority of the mind.  From this perspective, human differences are collapsed and race, gender, social class, sexuality, and other embodied aspects supposedly disappear. For digitalists, the development and spread of the Internet is associated with the spread of a global democratic and intellectual culture that focuses on the desire for information to be free. As Wendy Chun describes, this view of the internet “[promises] technological solutions to political problems.” Accordingly, there is no consideration of the amount of offline labor that is necessary to sustain the online world.

In the novel, Wade develops a morning exercise routine and diet using the OASIS in order to lose weight and maintain health, as OASIS players spend much of their time stagnant. He describes his hatred of the routine and the necessity of diet and exercise. For Wade, his body is source of disgust and shame and he longs for the addictive release of logging into the OASIS, freeing his mind from the confines of his physical body. I would argue this disgust and rejection of the body is characteristic of a digitalist perspective. This is evident in the term, “meat space” which refers, usually pejoratively, simultaneously to the body as flesh and meat and the physical world more generally. One can also see this idea in action with the proliferation of products such as Soylent, Silicon Valley’s favored meal replacement drink. With Soylent, foodways involving taste, cultural history, and the joy of a shared meal are dismissed and replaced by nutrition, efficiency, and speed. The body becomes a machine to be effectively supplied with energy in order for the mind to take the reigns.

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The contradictions of his world never seem to shake Parzival. When Wade learns his best virtual friend is not, in fact, a man as he assumed, but a black lesbian, she explains that the OASIS was the best thing to happen to people of color because it allowed them to hide their race. Here, racial difference is not so much as collapsed, but further reified, as discrimination is seen to stem, as Chun puts it, “from the presence of raced bodies rather than racist institutions.” Of course, none of this matters to Wade, who doesn’t feel betrayed and immediately accepts this truth about his friend. Yet, Wade agonizes over the true identity of his love interest, Art3mis/Samantha. He often wonders if she is really an old, overweight man named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement just pretending to be a woman online. Even though he repeatedly states that he likes Samantha for her mind (her true essence), he only reinforces a vision of heteronormative (online) relations, where the worst thing that could happen is that he might discover the mind he is in love with is in a man’s body!

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Despite Parzival’s fierce desire to protect the OASIS, it ultimately is just an expression of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” the notion that capitalism has not only taken over the present, but the future as well. Fisher observes that it is almost impossible to conceive, let alone actualize, alternative social structures outside of capitalism. As alternatives become unthinkable, we seek only to modify the existing system, which, as Fisher points out, will never achieve anything beyond a seemingly permanent status quo. This is evident in Ready Player One. Wade and his friends are only interested in maintaining the fantasy of the OASIS as an “escape hatch into a better reality” (18), even as it is entirely enmeshed in and constitutes real relations. But, none of the contradictions of the world seem to cast doubt on their vision of the OASIS.  They contradictions only strengthen their resolve. It is very much as the acronym OASIS describes: ontologically anthropocentric.

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At the end of the novel, there is an epic battle where the gunters (egg hunters) fight the IOI empire.  The battle is a nerd’s dream come true – all of your favorite technology, magic, weapons, armor, and the like from every possible video game or book or movie or TV show are used in the same battle. Voltron fights Mechagodzilla while spaceships from Star Trek do battle against arcane wizards who have access to lightsabers and the battle culminates with the detonation of the virtual equivalent of a nuclear weapon. The postmodern pastiche at its apotheosis. Cline uses the climax of his novel to show off his impressive knowledge of pop culture and his own personal canon. And, ultimately, that’s what I felt that the book was about – the establishment of the author’s nerd cred. Any critical element that the author alights upon is quickly lost in the next obscure reference.

And there are just so many references! In the effort to establish a breadth of encyclopedic knowledge, the author neglects to develop any sort of wisdom and reproduces the logic he seems to challenge in the first place. And, much like the OASIS itself and even much of popular culture today, there isn’t anything new. There is only an an obsession with the past, what Simon Reynolds calls “retromania,” and the recreation of existing social relations. Like all of our remakes, reboots, and adaptations of our favorite series, we just have more of the same.

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The Hunt for the Familiar: The Nostalgia of Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO brings players familiarity in an increasingly uncertain world

Pokemon GO has swept the globe in the past few weeks. Lest you doubt it’s success, it’s now even more popular than porn. And, of course, with the popularity comes the raging criticisms and impassioned defenses: Pokémon GO either turns us into zombies, or it is the perfect nostalgia. It brings happiness and familiarity in these dark and unpredictable times, or it is the armageddon.

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As an avid player, I lean towards the impassioned defense. It’s not surprising to me that many would embrace Pokémon GO as a realm of safety and entertainment. With mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and politics run amok across the globe, Pokémon GO gives players a portal back into our childhoods. It fulfills our desire to be like Red, the silent protagonist of the original Pokémon games. We can finally be Pokémon trainers in real life (or at least, in augmented reality). The sheer joy and giddiness I felt in seeing and capturing my first Pokémon in GO was undeniable. Now, like Red, I can finally wander the streets and countrysides rediscovering the Pokémon that are now hiding in plain sight.

But on second thought, is the world that Pokémon GO revives that reassuring? In her book, Updating to Remain the Same, new media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that, in the time since its inception, the dominant perception of the Internet has shifted from a focus on anonymity to a focus on authenticity. In the 1990s, cyberspace emerged as a space characterized by freedom through anonymity. But today, the Internet is seen as a place where the authentic self is revealed through transparency and practices of authenticity. Far from being a symbol of freedom and security, anonymity is now seen as a danger that abuses trust and endangers security. In this new vision, practices of authentication, such as using real names and linked accounts to link together offline and offline personas, are seen as methods to foster responsibility in Internet users. Chun goes on to argue that the desire for authenticity, authenticating practices, and authentic intimacy makes the Internet more dangerous as we assume that danger lies only on the outside and from those whom we don’t know.

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If we take into account Chun’s argument, we might posit that the popularity of the Pokémon GO revives the original dream of the Internet as a cyberspace of anonymous freedom only to place it inside the newer vision of the net as a place of authentic engagement. Only with this critical difference: Pokémon GO functions by making the landscape, not the player, anonymous. In this new “augmented reality,” the landscape itself is uniform, with few textures that suggest differences between architecture. Pokémon Stops can be practically any landmark or even just someone’s home. While the appearance of the player character is customizable, the customizations are limited, so trainers generally look the same.

Despite this generic landscape and player character, the player can never be completely anonymous: you are identified by a unique name and you must login to play using a Google or Pokémon Club account. This is a change from the original Pokémon games, which were not network games. Gameplay was primarily single player and you could only interact with other players directly using cables to connect devices. With the advent of network technology in handheld consoles and the jump to the mobile phone, Pokémon has transitioned to a networked game where play is now seemingly global. It brings back the feeling of anonymous connectivity that characterized the perception of the Internet in the 1990s. Yet paradoxically, it is transparency and authenticity, not anonymity, that characterizes today’s perception of the net.

We see this in the public debates and discussions. Players are not arguing for their desire to play Pokémon GO anonymously, but for their desire to play Pokémon authentically and enthusiastically.  It is not enough to simply play, after all: one must defend one’s desire to play in troubling times. It makes us feel sane in a world seemingly gone mad. It revives the original Pokémon games vision of the world as completely mappable and knowable and the dangers obvious and catalogued. As the world seems to become more and more unpredictable, Pokémon GO taps into our desires for authentic engagements with the present and the past. It is a beacon of safe haven where everything is familiar once again. And, it is this enthusiastic desire for the familiar in the form of little familiars, for an authentic form of nostalgia, that players defend.

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But, as Chun observes, this desire for authenticity can actually be a site of danger. Chun observes two assumptions that underlie this desire: that the worst dangers online come from strangers and that transparency breeds responsible and acceptable behavior. As we place our trust in the familiar, friendly monsters of the past and when we search for genuine and authentic social relationships along with them, we might not realize the risk we place ourselves in.

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In Updating to Remain the Same, Chun observes that the present is characterized by constant crises to which we constantly habituate ourselves. Crisis is the new normal and adjustment to crisis a form of survival. Chun doesn’t argue for enhanced privacy and security in the face of insecurity, but for embracing the revealing nature of the networked life and the right to be vulnerable. Similarly, in Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda argues for a politics of ambivalence in which we inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that accompany networks. I agree with their approach of inhabiting these ambivalent technologies in order to work through the strange and contradictory feelings they bring.

As Pokémon GO slowly fades into ubiquity, becoming just another daily habit, we should take seriously the nostalgic call it sounds. Everyday life now becomes a Pokémon journey, augmented with layers of green that make the world brighter and more familiar. As AR games continue to blur the already blurry distinction between offline and online, the virtual and the real, we should pay close attention to the ways in which we habituate them into everyday life. We should pay close attention to the feeling of nostalgia Pokémon induces and the ambivalence that may accompany it.  Pokémon GO sounds the call of the safe and the familiar in a world punctuated by crisis after crisis. Yet, Pokémon GO will not bring clarity to the future. It only revives the past to cope with an unclear present.

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No Solace in Shadows – A Review of Liyla and the Shadows of War

Much of the current debate around video games revolves around whether or not games should be viewed through a political lens. There are many gamers who advocate for better representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in games, and there are others who reject these demands as “politicizing” the ostensibly non-political. For those who argue for representation, representation is necessary in order to allow new bodies and experiences to be brought to the fore in our virtual worlds of gameplay. In addition, representation can also be about giving voice to marginalized and little-heard perspectives about gender, sexuality, and geopolitics.

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Recently, game designer Rasheed Abueideh came into conflict with Apple over the placement of his new game, Liyla and the Shadows of War, in the App Store. The reason for this conflict: Apple considered his game too political for the Games category. Liyla and the Shadows of War is about the war in Gaza (also knows as Operation Protective Edge) during the summer of 2014. Though based on real events, the player explores war-torn Gaza through the fictional story of Liyla and her family as they attempt to escape the ensuing violence. Although Apple eventually reversed their decision and categorized Liyla and the Shadows of War as a Game (as opposed to an Educational app), this situation sheds light on the current questions over the political content of video games.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for the game. Though the game is quite short, if you want to preserve the narrative, I recommend playing it before reading on.

But what is Lilya and the Shadows of War like to play? For an experienced gamer, there are certain features that stand out. The game has no introduction or tutorial. Instead, the player is thrown right into the thick of things as you take the perspective of Liyla’s father and attempt to guide him home to his family. As you do so, warplanes and drones fly through the air, firing missiles in your direction. At one point, you push a dumpster in order to use it as a shield against gunfire. Upon meeting Liyla and her mother, you attempt to flee as your home is destroyed. Yet soon after, Liyla’s mother is killed and you must leave her behind as you search for safe haven.

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In each of the subsequent scenes, Liyla and her father must run through the war-torn landscape, avoiding fire, missile-bearing drones, and white phosphorous. And unlike games that reward clever game play, in this game you are often placed in the proverbial no-win situation. When you come across a group of boys playing soccer, Liyla asks her father if they can accompany them and the player is offered a choice: Approach the boys and encourage them to join you in your escape or leave them behind. No matter the choice, however, the boys are killed with missile fire, the only difference being that if you elect to have them join you, Liyla is killed as well and you must start over.

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In another scene, the player is given another no-win choice: Hide in the UN school or keep forging ahead. As soon as you make your decision, the school is also bombed, leaving it in ruins. Finally, you come across an ambulance where the father gives the last remaining space to Liyla. Upon the ambulance’s departure, it too is bombed, killing the passengers and Liyla. You look on as her father holds her lifeless body and watch her soul, along with those of many others, float up towards the heavens. As the credits roll, statistics about the war in Gaza play across the scene, each statistic related to a particular scene from the gameplay.

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The game recommends that you play the game with headphones in a dark room to complement dimly lit, gray scenes.  War casts a shadow over the entire landscape, from the silhouetted characters and platforms to the shadows where you hide from gunfire. The scrolling backgrounds paint a grueling picture of a war-torn Gaza. You run by crumbling houses, burning vehicles, and the ruins of what used to be towns. A harrowing tune plays as you run across the dusty plains escaping danger. Yet, in some scenes, the game is silent. leaving only the eerie sound of crackling electric wires and the sizzle of white phosphorous. The final scene where the souls of the departed float into the sky is heart wrenching, as the blue wisps are one of the few sources of color in the entire game, and even they slowly fade to nothing.

While Liyla and the Shadows of War follows the gameplay structure of a platformer, (a game where the player must navigate around platforms and obstacles to advance) the game primarily functions as a way to deliver a general overview of the Gaza War. No skills are acquired, insofar as most situations, such as hiding from a drone or jumping over fire, only occur once. Furthermore, the use of the statistics at the end drives home the idea that while you are meant to play the game in order to very briefly view the life of a resident of Gaza. The game’s short length (in contrast to others video games designed to be played for dozens of hours) prevents you from inhabiting that role for too long.

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While brief, Liyla and the Shadows of War is an excellent, though haunting, portrait of the Gaza War and life in the occupied territories. While certainly a political game, I do not accept the belief that such a designation is a criticism. Indeed, Liyla and the Shadows of War helps illustrate how gameplay is “always already” political, as Derrida might say.

Video games, I would argue, are useful sites for the “playing out” of politics, because their interactive elements allow players to take on and explore a range of roles and experiences. Liyla both resembles and diverges from the typical manner in which roleplay occurs, and this allows for an “estrangement effect” in the Brechtian sense: you are not given catharsis or resolution, or even the pride of gaining mastery over a virtual environment. Instead, you are boomeranged back into the real world of political conflict and devastating war.

As the culture war over the occupation’s legitimacy grows more fervent, Liyla can serve as a cultural artifact that attempts to amplify the voices of the Palestinian people. Liyla feels to me like a necessary response to Israeli State propaganda, whose heavy machinery funds anti-BDS trainings across college campuses, pushes for anti-boycott legislation in various states and countries, and works to undermine the cultural legitimacy of Palestinians within Israel itself. The game is probably not for the residents of Gaza – they know what that life is like. The game is also not designed for Israelis, as Hebrew is not a language option, only English and Arabic. The audience rather seems to be for those outside the region who might need a different sort of knowledge and experience that the news cannot deliver.

As I mentioned, the audience is not delivered a happy ending, and that may the most political thing about the game. There is no politics of peace or reconciliation or hope. This absence reflects the ever growing rift in Israel-Palestine over the broken peace process, where peace seems impossible. There is no return to daily life, no repairing of the social fabric. There is only endless war and occupation.

Edit: I edited this piece on 2/13/17 for style and to add some new links.

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The Internet of Despairing Things

“Hi, thanks for checking in. I’m still a piece of garbage.”

Is melancholy a dominant emotional state of many internet users? Why does everyone seem so sad and depressed? Are websites like Upworthy a response to this negativity? A feeble attempt to inject the positive into an all-consumingly depressing world? We all see those Facebook memes about positive thinking. Or people declaring that they’re going to start posting pictures of baby animals to interrupt the stream of negative images and stories. But whatever happy place we flee to, there still seems to come that periodic “knock knock.”

Who’s there? It’s depression.

While melancholia is a classical malady, something I have noticed over the past few years is the proliferation of posts online that feature extremely negative content. Posts related to depression & anxiety (in both their clinical and everyday senses), death, despair, and hopelessness gets tens of thousands of shares and likes.

These posts paint pictures of young people barely able to get by, suffering feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and an intense desire for death. These feelings may stem, in part, from the proliferation of micro-experiences online. As Dominic Pettman argues in his book, Infinite Distraction, new media increasingly modulates everyday social experience. Specifically tailored and modular feeds disperse people into micro experiences, where no one is seeing or feeling the same thing at the same time as others. This may lead people to develop an agonizing sense of isolation.

While social media seems to engender a sense of immediacy to social contact, in reality, it may, at the same time, widen the gaps. As some of the posts show, others often respond with encouraging messages and GIFs, but often that may not be enough.  We despair that our favorite followers are in different states, countries, and time zones. For those who might face harassment online for their opinions or identity, being online sharpens the double-edged sword, where threats encourage victims to log off and eschew contact of any kind altogether.

Some come to feel that they no longer live, they just exist. There is no joie de vivre, just an existence that will hopefully come to an end sometime soon. In this existence, life seems to happen only to survive.

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These micro-experiences create a feeling of distance between people that can become unbearable. But, the problems of social distance alone cannot account for these intense feelings of despair. In a political economy where the social safety net has been eroded, precarity is the name of the game. The fear of failure is enhanced not only because we witness the Hollywood highlight reel of other’s success, but also because failure can have dramatic consequences. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Further, student loans cannot be easily forgiven in bankruptcy, demonstrating that even when young people hit rock bottom they now have to start digging. Most Americans don’t have enough in savings to survive any sort of emergency, while stagnating wages prevent most from saving hardly anything at all.

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It’s not surprising that being able to simply manage is considered a daily achievement. Video games such as Animal Crossing allow players to tap into the everyday successes and pleasures that usually come with a secure life: home ownership, planting a garden, civic engagement, and leisure activity.  Games like these are designed to be played in the spare everyday moments of leisure that have become increasingly sparse and give players a feeling of discrete and visible success in a world that seems so uncertain.

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Where do we go from here? I am far from a technological determinist who believes that social media can only dictate these kinds of feelings and situations. Yet, I have also felt these feelings of despair and isolation acutely as I refresh Twitter feeds and my Tumblr dashboard.  While cutting ourselves off from social media and taking a digital detox may help some, others find that their only meaningful experiences are found online, however fleeting and distant. In a world that is increasingly connected through such forms, unplugging may be just as isolating as being plugged in. As Pettman notes: “Social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

In light of this, I’ve become interested in the idea of ambivalence. In Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda turns to the idea of ambivalence as a “mode of extreme presence”: a way of negotiating and thinking through an unclear present. Resisting the urge to opt out of networks (if that is even possible), Jagoda argues that approaching network totality through ambivalence requires learning to inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that come with it. By taking up ambivalence, we open ourselves to possibilities that are not yet clear, ready, or available.

War Games – Gender and Violence After Gamergate

Why are political criticisms of video games so often treated as declarations of war?

Gamers may understandably find the question of politics to be rather tiring. To debate whether or not video games are political is, in itself, an exercise in politics, insofar as debate is the process by which the limits of acceptable speech and criticism are negotiated by the community of of discourse. But if the debate about video games is intrinsically political, what kind of politics are we talking about? And if war, as Clausewitz said, is politics by other means, then what is the connection between video games and war?

Some gamers not only object to considering video games political, they object to reading video games politically. They reject both feminist and queer readings of video games and the presence of explicitly feminist or queer things in them. One player got so upset by the inclusion of a transgender NPC (non player character) in the recent expansion of the game Baldur’s Gate that he uploaded a video of him killing the character. After conversing with the NPC, the player directs his party to attack her. Graphically, she is torn to pieces. The video is titled “Tranny Abuse” and has over 30,000 views. This gamer rejected politics by turning to war.

Those who question why women in video games are scantily clad in the heat of battle, or bent into literally back-breaking poses, are frequently dismissed as reading too closely. The anti-political appeal to what John Huizinga called “the separateness of play” (“why do you have to analyze it? It’s just a game”) not only becomes part of a struggle to negotiate the boundaries of acceptable speech about video games but it also frames the boundaries of acceptable experience of the game itself.
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The most notable example of the gamer war against politics is the criticism and harassment critic Anita Sarkeesian faced when she began a web series on Youtube called Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. In these videos, Sarkeesian analyzes various tropes that designers of video games often appeal to in the creation of female characters. They present an analysis similar to what one might find in an undergraduate gender or media studies class. Despite this, she received such a flood of vitriol that she was forced to temporarily flee her home. War games shut down politics.

Critics of video games are not only deemed killjoys who are not only unable to enjoy games; they are viewed as existential threats to video games, justifying symbolic and actual violence. The act of criticism is treated as a declaration of war. And, this language of warfare is important. War talk legitimizes the mobilization of hordes of trolls in order to fight back in the war on video games and the enemy in this culture war are the Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative based on a caricature of socially progressive and feminist views. The warriors are organized into a feminist army, who collaborate to create false allegations of sexism or create a protectionist racket.

Harassers even speak of false flag operations, where victims of harassment are accused of faking the harassment for attention and money. When a group of people coordinate attacks on a particular person or forum, it’s called brigading.

The conflation between war and social justice allows gamers to perceive criticisms as clarion calls. Forums and subreddits become the battlegrounds where the culture war is waged while doxing (the publication of personal and identifying information) becomes espionage and military intelligence.

When your critics are warriors, violence becomes acceptable and normalized. Soldiers are expected to be casualties and character assassination borders on the real.

The pejorative use of SJW points to a rather disturbing characteristic of these purist gamers: creating a link between war and cultural critique, with a heavy dose of misogyny. Originally coined as a compliment, only in the past few years has the term Social Justice Warrior become an insult. It gained mainstream popularity during Gamergate. In short, the SJW is any individual or group (usually women) who holds, and is vocal about, socially progressive or liberal views. In practice, the insult is levied at any sort of feminist criticism of game design, development, gameplay, and/or the social practices of gamers and communities which someone disagrees with. These SJWs make up the feminist armyan army that takes only offense, not prisoners.

Conflicts like GamerGate were organized by relatively small groups of gamers who search for and manipulate information in order to attack perceived enemies. These enemies are almost always women and minorities and the attacks overwhelmingly feature gendered threats of violence and rape. While Gamergate as a named movement seems to have subsided, its supporters are still heavily invested in harassing women in the video game and tech industries and it seems to have morphed into a neo-reactionary movement poised to quickly jump on any new perceived threats.

What are the results of such movements? Death threatsRape threats. One person threatened to massacre the attendees of a talk Sarkeesian gave (she canceled it). Doxing. Bomb threats. Others have lost their jobs. In a note explaining why she dropped a lawsuit against her harasser, game developer Zoe Quinn said that she received an “almost one foot stack of threats and photos of me that people had printed out, jizzed on, and sent to my family.”

Do these voices speak for all gamers? Ian Bogost writes that the proliferation of video games into the wider public sphere is leading to a breakdown of the gamer as an identity category. The boundaries of the identity change not only as more people begin to play games but we realize that people traditionally excluded from being gamers have been playing all along. As gamers seek to navigate their  unraveling identity in the face of new players and critics, tension increases and violence ensues. And, as many have observed, the policing of group boundaries seems to be fiercest around the periphery.

But, I’m not sure if this policing of identity is enough to account for the level of vitriol and hate that is directed at critics. It’s one thing to let people know you are dissatisfied. It’s quite another to send mountains of death threats. China Miéville (s/o to Jennifer Doyle for this reference) might describe this as social sadism – the proliferation and excess of public cruelty.”Anyone who doubts that everyday surplus sadism is everyday need only read the comments below the articles, follow threads, brave twitterstorms.” What makes this form of sadism so pernicious is the speed at which it excuses itself: shifting the grounds (“its about ethics in gaming journalism), downplaying the abuse (“it’s only words on the Internet”). It’s not only the boundaries of the gamer identity that are shifting, but the “boundaries of permissible punitivity are constantly stretched.”

The excuses act as a veil of plausible deniability, which the gaming purists drape over their acts of violence. As Miéville notes, the veil is extremely thin and meant to be uncovered, which is what makes dog-whistle politics successful. Just a trace of deniability is enough for the tactic to work. The war against SJWs is waged not only through violence but through the manipulation of the language surrounding it. And it’s in these excuses, the shifting grounds, where we find Michel Foucault’s reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum: politics is war by other means.