Australian Game Developers and Skills Transfer: Diary 1

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I want to get in the habit of writing semi-regular public updates about my current research. I feel like this is an important thing to do in part to help me work through my evolving ideas and in part because I’m using a large chunk of public money to do this research so some public reflection on it seems fair.

I mentioned previously in my general life update about the new project I’ve started. I’ve received funding through the Australia Research Council to undertake a three-year research project titled “Informal, Formal, Embedded: Australia Skill Developers and Skills Transfer“. The idea is to paint a more nuanced picture of what videogame development is, who does it, why they do it, and how it is contextualised within the broader Australian culture and economy. The focus on ‘skills’ is in part to get away from a focus on ‘jobs’. There are more people using ‘videogame development skillsets’ than there are people employed in ‘the videogame industry’. So focusing on skills and experiences is a way to draw that out.

I’m now about four months into the project. So far it has been a lot of project design, planning, and general administrative processes like sorting out ethics approval and budgeting. Most of that is pretty boring. Here’s some of the more interesting methodological/theoretical stuff that I’ve been working through: Continue reading

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An Update

2018 is bringing with it a whole lot of changes for me, one of which is trying to use social media a whole lot less while still maintaining relationships and friendships and discussions online. So that partly means a return to semi-regularly blogging, hopefully. So towards that, here is an update about some of the various big changes 2018 is bringing to my life:

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Wolfenstein 2 and Mending Broken Things

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Expect spoilers.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is about the ultimate fragility of two types of bodies that underpin Western values: the male adult and the liberal state. Each is a conceptual object that we expect to function perfectly—right up to the moment that they break down completely when confronted with something they were never built to deal with. The New Colossus is interested in what it would take for either of these to fall apart.

William “BJ” Blazkowicz is the quintessential videogame protagonist: a large, rectangular slab of white man-meat whose very shape belies how he has been a part of videogames since his flesh was square pixels. In the previous game, The New Order, he was an unstoppable hero—right until he was stopped, at the end of the game, by a lone grenade. That game saw this relic of the past of both his own world and videogames, revived after 20 years in a coma, left behind for dead. But sequels do what sequels do, and BJ was rescued, if not salvaged. When The New Colossus starts, his body is still destroyed. The opening stage has you pushing BJ’s heavy body through the level in a wheelchair, shooting Nazi’s with one hand while the other is on the wheel. Stairs are inaccessible and when the wheelchair inevitably gets tipped over, BJ is helpless. For a significant portion of the game, you are stuck with 50 health, instead of the typical 100, in levels that feel like they were balanced for a character with 100. It’s frustrating. It feels like it shouldn’t be this hard. It’s the frustration of a perfect, white male body encountering something unfair that is just a typical day for anyone forced to live in this society with any other form of body.  Continue reading

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This week, my Studio 2 class have been working on their ‘Art Game’ brief. This is one of my favourite briefs of the trimester. My students must visit the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, choose an artwork that speaks to them, and adapt this artwork into a videogame work over the course of a single week. I assess the term ‘adapt’ pretty loosely. They might consider how the meaning of the artwork is altered by the medium of videogames. They might find something interesting in the artist’s intentions or story that they want to draw from. They might find something in their own response to the artwork they want to explore. They might try to simply recreate the experience but in an interactive or navigable manner. All I really want from the project is for them to consider how art expresses ideas broadly and the relationship between videogames and other creative media. And for them to make some weird, experimental stuff. In the past, the brief has produced some really great works. The combination of the short turnaround and the ‘arty’ tone of the brief allows the students to just take risks and make something really out there. Here’s a collection of what they made.

As I did with Edge in a previous trimester, I also wanted to do this project myself. When we IMG_1753went to GOMA, there was a small exhibition on perspective that included a range of interesting video works. One in particular really captured my attention: The Fall From Raiatea by Denis Beaubois, as part of the Terminal Vision project. For this work, five cathode-ray tube televisions sat side-by-side with fuzzy, distorted VHS footage on them. Each television shows footage from a different camera capturing the same event from different angles: the cameras themselves being hurled out the window of the 27th floor of an apartment building. At the start of the work, each camera is turned on, each TV flickering to life. Then Beaubois just sort of holds the rig of cameras out the window for a while, giving a real blurred look at the surrounding suburbs. This footage is already low quality, I assume, because when the cameras impacted the ground, the existing footage was affected as well. I like this idea of the future event impacting the current footage. Eventually, Beaubois flings the cameras from the window and we get this kaleidoscopic, vertigo-inducing sense as the cameras plummet to Earth, each facing a different direction. Continue reading

Who Else Makes Videogames? Considering Informal Development Practices

This is a modified transcript of the presentation I gave at DiGRA 2017. It marks the start of a new trajectory of research for me, but is also in a very preliminary stage. One day soon this will hopefully form the foundations of an actual academic publication, at which point I might have to take this page down temporarily for the sake of the blind peer review process. In the meantime, here is what I spoke about at DiGRA and what I am currently interested in.

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Why Hitman (2016) Works

hitman-episode-one-review-501715-22The superpower of the protagonist of most challenge-oriented videogames is time travel. Through the loops of failure and dressage that conventional videogame design depends on, the player fails at a task again and again until they have memorised how to proceed through the events that, on the current playthough, have not actually happened yet. This might be a muscle memory, ingraining in your hands the exact rhythm of movements required for a Rock Band track or a Super Meat Boy level. Or it might be a more traditional memory of remembering placements and patterns: the trap door full of monsters you could not have predicted in Doom kills you once and then, on the next attempt, you’re ready for it. Instead of dying you get a glimpse at what is about to happen. You remember what hasn’t happened yet.

The analogy has been made by various critics in the past (I think Janet Murray might have been the earliest) that the videogame player is not unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, repeating the same system over and over again: at times taking it seriously, at times playing with the system, at times bored and frustrated by it. The more recent Edge of Tomorrow provides a similar conceit, but is I think more accurate of how videogames train players, killing Tom Cruise over and over again on the battlefield until he makes the exact right movements to get through it alive—exact movements he can only make with the memories possessed from the previous attempts. Edge of Tomorrow is how videogames work to train their players; Groundhog Day is more the wide range of emotions that players go through while existing in such a temporal spiral.  Continue reading