For years the go-to critique of Animal Crossing has been how it encourages capitalist tendencies such as taking out loans, buying everything possible, and taking natural resources for profit. While these mechanics are undoubtedly a noticeable part of Animal Crossing’s gameplay, the game features other mechanics that encourage a somewhat contrasting ideology. Players are not just encouraged to sell bugs and fish for money, but also to donate them to the museum. Once players donate items to the museum they are rewarded with some fun facts about the donated item, as well as an update to the museum’s appearance. This appearance update takes the form of the donated item living in the museum display. The more things are donated, the more lively the museum gets. This mechanic is an effective mechanism to encourage players to not just use the natural world for profit, but also for education and conservation.
The various motives for reaping the rewards of the natural world do not just end there. Another use for fish and bugs caught in Animal Crossing is as adornments for player homes. If players place fish or bugs in their houses like they would furniture, these creatures will spawn and appear in either an aquarium or a terrarium. This adds another facet to the player’s relationship to the natural world in Animal Crossing. Bugs and fish are not just there for profit or education value, but also can be a part of the more intimate side of things as pets. Finally, the very mechanic of catching bugs has positive implications for player behavior outside of the game. While out exploring the game world, players pay close attention to their surroundings in case they happen across a critter they haven’t seen yet. This attention to the natural world encourages players to appreciate and notice the beauty of nature, something that will likely stay with them once they have exited the game world for the real world.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available for the Nintendo Switch.
Due to the various issues impacting the contemporary world, it has been difficult to decide what topic to use when creating a radical/persuasive game. Initially, I was drawn to critique the tendency of video games to be marketed toward men, and the consequential effect this has had on the video game industry. This would have been explored via an alternative history, where video game companies in the 1980s decided to target girls over boys. The player character would be male, and the game would follow his experience as a male who is drawn towards video games in a world where that interest is dominated by females. It would start in the 1980s with the player character as a young boy who enjoys video games even though they are designed for girls (eg this universe’s version of Duck Hunt is Duck Farm where players are tasked with raising ducks, reflecting the feminine-associated trait of nurturing). The later parts of the game would follow the player character as he tries to pursue a career in the video game industry, which in this world is dominated by women. However, as I thought more about how the mechanics would work, I realized this concept might work better as a piece of interactive fiction or a short story. Apart from exploring the world and talking to other characters, there wasn’t much potential to develop game mechanics with the time frame available.
The second idea I had was a game where players must get past a group of protesters. Originally I had envisioned this taking place in front of a Planned Parenthood, due to the recent laws that have restricted abortion rights. The gameplay would involve the player character trying to get through the anti-abortion protestors to go in for a pelvic examination, or another non-abortion service Planned Parenthood provides. In terms of mechanics, there were several ideas I had in mind. One was platforming or traveling through a maze that was the parking lot, avoiding the protestors who would force you to lose health or start over. This would demonstrate how anti-abortion protesters make life difficult for people and can make people who go to Planned Parenthood feel in danger.
Since the protester-game mechanic seemed like a better mechanic than the one for the alternative history idea, it seemed like the one I would pursue. However, after mentioning these two ideas in class and on Discord I was approached by other people interested in forming a team. While getting to know each other it came up that all of us have a dislike of Karens, which led to the idea of having one of the protesters be a Karen. This led to the idea that it would be fun to be able to play as or against a Karen. After discussing it in a group meeting, this idea evolved into the game we are currently in the process of making: a fighting game between a Karen and a barista. While on the surface humorous, the subject matter is reflective of how service industry workers are often treated poorly. To emphasize this, one of our mechanics is for every hit Karen serves she gains 5 to 10 times more points than if the barista hits her. The key inputs for the barista are also more spaced out than the ones for Karen, making it easier for Karen to hit more often. In addition to this, Karen has double the number of attacks that the barista does. This leads to a game that while technically possible to win as the barista is, like so many things for the Boomer generation, heavily tilted in Karen’s favor. Hopefully after players experience Ultimate Karen Smackdown (working title) they will treat service workers with more respect and empathy.
While many have bemoaned the lack of creativity in some game genres, the fear that lack of originality and creativity leads to artistic decline is nothing new. In 1946 Marcel Duchamp warned “a creative lull” will occur when artists merely continue the work that those who came before them had done. (Flanagan, 3) That said, Duchamp also points out that there is hope. Artists can still take from previous creators, they just must adapt what they take to make it their own. Duchamp’s critique is especially true today. So many games, especially those from large studios, are not of the mold-breaking variety. They are either just part of an existing series or so similar to competing games in their genre that they become indistinguishable from their competitors (eg Battlefield vs Hali vs COD). The homogeneity of games can be confounding and irritating, especially given how game-changing (pun intended) having just one radical element can be.
Take for example Bioshock. Parts of it very much fall in line with first-person shooter and action-adventure conventions. While it does take some aspects from previous titles, Bioshock’s creators also adapted it into something unique that makes it more of a critical game than your average shooter. One way they did this was by the little sister gameplay mechanic. In Bioshock the little sisters are young girls that have been bioengineered to grow ADAM (a substance used to make plasmids, which players need to use special abilities) in their bodies. Players can choose to “harvest” the little sisters, which kills them but awards the players more power.
There is also the option to save the little sisters, which allows them to live and cures them of having to grow ADAM.
Having to choose between saving or harvesting the little sisters forces players to grapple with the moral question of how much they value human life over power. (6) What makes this question so powerful in Bioshock is it is both concrete and abstract. Players experience the tangible consequence of gaining a large amount of ADAM should they harvest a sister, but should they choose to spare them then they will get to see the sister return to being a normal little girl (as opposed to a sickly glowing-eyed incubator). On an abstract level, players deal with either the guilt that they killed a child or the heartwarming knowledge that they have done the morally right thing. In addition to these consequences that occur immediately after saving or harvesting a sister, there are also implications for the game’s ending. Should players choose to save the little sisters they will get the “good” ending, but if they harvest them they will get the “bad” ending. This further drives home the importance of making moral choices by highlighting the impact they have beyond the single moment when they are made.
As technology has become more a part of our everyday lives, people have become accustomed to it accurately simulating our humanness. At the dawn of the video game era visuals that were not anatomically accurate where to be expected. In the early 1980s if a sprite in an arcade game became visually distorted it would not have been that off-putting due to its already pixelated nature. However, if at that time there was a sprite that depicted highly accurately a human visage this would have been uncanny to users. That was in a pre-digital world, but as Ferreira and Ribas argue we are now living in a post-digital world. This post-digital world is one where we are surrounded by technologies that can accurately depict real world images. Because of this, when glitches occur that distort this intended realism they are especially off-putting.
This is the case with the invisible face glitch from Assassin’s Creed Unity. A fairly famous glitch that was present when the game first released, this glitch causes characters’ faces to be invisible except for their eyeballs, gums, and teeth. Players found this glitch to be unsettling and horrifying, though I believe for more nuanced reasons than its pure grisly image. By removing the digital features that covered the eyes and mouths, players are faced with features that they clearly identify as human parts. Like humans, Unity’s characters are made up of separate parts that combine to make a whole being. The invisible face glitch highlights these parts, which in turn remind players of their own body parts, which could technically be dissected if so desired. As players face the levitating eyeballs and gums of Arno, they are reminded of their own mortality by the image’s uncanny reflection of themselves. While this could have acted as an opportunity for reflection on human experience, it was not welcomed by many Unity players due to them not going into the game expecting an existential experience.
A glitch is a type of noise, both in the positive and negative sense. In terms of the negative, a glitch is something powerful and alarming. (Menkman 340) However, these negative qualities also can have positive consequences. It redefines the meaning of normal and what is thought of as good. (ibid) This is seen in a number of video game glitches. Such glitches are almost always unintentional and are frequently immersion breaking. While not all glitches are welcome (especially the game breaking kind), it is not uncommon for gamers to react to them in a positive way.
An example of one such positively received glitch was found in the initial release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While Skyrim has a number of noteworthy glitches, the one referred to by the community as the Skyrim Space Program is particularly noteworthy. When players were fighting one of the game’s giants, a certain attack from the giant would send them flying into the air. At first glance this would seem like an immersion breaking bug that needed to be fixed. Bethesda did not design Skyrim to appeal to the same audience as Goat Simulator. Recognizing it as a disruption to the type of gameplay Skyrim players expected, Bethesda put out a patch removing this glitch. However, community backlash at the removal of the feature led Bethesda to add it back in a following patch. Despite disrupting the typical, more realistic gameplay that makes up most of Skyrim, the Skyrim Space Program glitch is a feature many players enjoy for a number of reasons. Some feel it adds to the game’s immersion by showing how strong the giants are, while others enjoy the humorous visual of their character rag dolling hundreds of miles into the air. There are also those that utilize it as part of gameplay, luring enemies to giants who send them flying far away from the player. While it is undoubtedly an alarming visual, the positive consequences of this glitch have surprised the negative in such a way that it has been embraced by the game’s community and developers as a feature.
Given the nature of counterculture games, it can be difficult to find mods for “normal” games that encapsulate the essence of counterculture. This is because counterculture games subvert an original game’s framework and tone, which can lead to the original game being barely recognizable or even playable. Thankfully, not every counterculture mod is as hard to play as JODI’s Untitled. Although originally intended for counter-cinema, Peter Wollen’s theses can be applied to countergaming as well. In addition to providing specific characteristics of countergaming, Wollen’s theses open up the possibilities for what could be considered countergaming. This is seen in the description of countergaming as “foregrounding”, “reality”, and “unpleasure.” (Galloway 110) Based on these characteristics, a mod that breaks the fourth wall could be considered an example of countergaming. This is because fourth wall breaking is upfront (foregrounding), breaks immersion (unpleasure), and causes the player to face the fictitiousness of the game (reality).
There are a wide variety of mods that break the fourth wall. While there are some that are more complex, these are not as common or plentiful as those that simply replace or add un-immersive assets to games. Due to the intention of many of these mods being comical, often the replacement or addition is from a source with an opposite tone of the game. For example, the Buzz Lightyear paladin armor mod for post-apocalyptic open world game Fallout 4 is inspired by the titular character from the children’s film Toy Story.
There is also the mod that replaces the death sound with the iconic clip of Steve Carell’s character shouting “No” from the sitcom The Office.
Other mods are even more upfront about their breaking of the fourth wall, such as a t-shirt which openly references itself as a mod, or the one that proclaims it’s immersiveness despite not being so at all. There are also those that refer to real world individuals, such as the Nicolas Cage paintings mod (which has echoes of Velvet-Strike’s plastering of off-putting images). While these examples are not as grand as some of the more ambitious mods for Fallout 4, they still hold importance as representatives of countergaming culture.
The modding of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim offers a unique opportunity to observe all three types of modding as described by Anne-Marie Schleiner. As described by Schleiner in “Game Modding: Cross-Over Mutation and Unwelcome Gifts”, modders have a parasitic relationship with game designers which comes in three forms. The first one, “noise in the system”, exists purely to disrupt the intended experience of a game. (36) We see this in Skyrim mods that radically change the tone of the game from serious to comical, like the much beloved dragon to Thomas the Tank engine conversion mod. While this is perhaps the most famous example, other mods take it even further, such as one that overhauls the game’s graphics to give it the feel of a Pixar movie. There are also plenty of examples of the second parasite type of “biological infiltration”, meaning a change of the core gameplay. (ibid) Over the years a plethora of mechanic mods of been created, ranging from role playing additions like more complex religions to converting combat to resemble that of Dark Souls. The third type of parasite is one which Schleiner describes as one which takes advantage of and feeds off the wealth of the game creators. In the case of Skyrim, however, there’s a twist.
In the years following its release, the relationship between Skyrim’s modders and creators fit Schleiner’s description to a T. Bethesda generously gifted modders the wealth of resources that is the Creation Kit. It was a typical example of “a symbiosis of reciprocal, circular, cultural gift-giving.” (37) With the resources shared by Bethesda, modders fixed un-addressed bugs, created new lands, and updated graphics, just to name a few. This lush modding community also lured in new players for years after the game’s initial release, extending its lifespan and popularity more than many other games. I myself first played and fell in love with Skyrim in 2018, 7 years after it’s original release. Modders found that they had turned the tables on their so-called parasitic relationship with the game’s creators. In 2017 Bethesda released the Creation Club, a collection of paid mods for Skyrim and Fallout 4. This marked a turning point. Now it is the creator who is obtaining wealth from the modders in the form of both inspiration and producers (several pieces of Creation Club content were made by well-known Skyrim modders). While this new development in the modder-creator relationship has come with some controversy, it’s was not totally unexpected. Mods have kept older games relevant and interesting to new and old audiences for decades. It was only a matter of time before creators attempted to reap the wealth they sowed by gifting modders the power to alter digital creations.
Deathloop stood out among other game’s in 2021 for it’s unique time loop based gameplay and 1960’s aesthetic. However, not all parts of this game are as unique as they appear. Most notably the creators of Deathloop, Arkane Studios, reused several assets from their previous games. For example, several pieces of furniture from the Dishonored franchise are used in Deathloop’s levels. At first glance this wouldn’t seem like a good idea, as Dishonored takes place in the 19th century and Deathloop takes place in the 1960s. Despite this, Arkane Studios were able to utilize Dishonored’s assets in a way that didn’t make it obvious that they were originally created for a different game (unless you’re a huge Dishonored fan). This was done by improving the asset models and textures to be on par with the newer assets made specifically for Deathloop along with placing them in areas where their 19th century style isn’t that jarring.
While some players may find reusing assets immersion breaking, there are a number of benefits that justify the practice. Because both Dishonored 2 and Deathloop were made using Arkane Studios Void engine, which made it very easy to simply import assets from Dishonored 2 into Deathloop. This much less time then it would have for Arkane’s artists to create all new furniture. This in turn made things easier for Deathloop’s level designers, as they didn’t have to wait as long to start creating levels. Taking advantage of an engine’s affordances when designing a game is nothing new. For example, level designers of Doom took into account how id Tech 1 (aka the Doom engine) rendered spaces when they were making levels in order to get the most out of the engine. Despite some players finding the reuse of assets off-putting, it’s an effective way to make the most out of a game’s engine. Considering that using a game engine to its fullest is something game designers have been doing since the days of Doom, it’s unlikely that such practices will stop anytime soon.
Old School Runescape (OSRS) is an MMO that fosters the two different types of personalities described by Dovey and Kennedy in Game Cultures: the Cyborg and the Hacker. One of the biggest goals for Old School Runescape players, myself included, is to acquire more in-game wealth. To do this often involves long sprints of grinding for resources. On it’s own this tends to be fairly tedious and take a long time, so often I try to have time in my schedule where I can simultaneously do grinding heavy OSRS tasks and “real world” tasks. This has had the interesting side effect of two parts of my life, gamer and student, becoming symbotic. From the gamer side, by doing AFK tasks in OSRS while I work on an assignment I’m increasing my in-game productivity. Looking at it from a real world perspective, I’m giving my brain a brief respite when I take a few seconds to deposit items from my inventory or click on a newly spawned resource. These small detours from my primary task allow me to work for longer periods of time, as they stave off the feeling of being burnt out. By emeshing my virtual and real world work I’m simultaneously in both of these worlds, which is in line with the fluid identity of the Cyborg. (Dovey & Kennedy 68) This phenomenon is not isolated to just myself, as conversations with other players of OSRS revealed that the practice of AFK resource gathering while doing real world tasks is a relatively common practice. (personal communication)
While engaging with OSRS from a Cyborg approach allows for an increase in productivity, and by extension earnings, other players choose to go a different route. This is that of the Hacker, where players use outside technologies to advance their productivity and earnings. Unlike Cyborg players, Hacker players use technology that is not part of the game’s original design to circumvent grinding. The most common way to do this is by using bots that automatically gather resources. Some might argue that this is not that different from the AFK routine Cyborgs utilize. The difference lies in how bots remove the necessity of shifting from real world tasks to manage game tasks, thereby making the player’s identity less fluid and more static in the real world. It should also be noted that the designers behind OSRS never intended it to be a game where players can completely disengage from their tasks, as seen in early versions where players had to click a resource almost continuously in order to keep harvesting. (Calvin 44) Someone using bots does not have to worry about periodically checking in to manually empty an inventory or click a respawned resource. Because of this they are changing the technological systems of OSRS in a way that was not part of the original design. (Dovey & Kennedy 67) Another, more nefarious type of Hacker approach is the use of scam promoting bots. These are often seen in popular areas for player to player resource trading, such as outside house portals or the Grand Exchange. These bots will spam messages promising fast cash and valuable items, often embellished by flashing colors and fonts. While some of these are real players who are liquidating their wealth prior to quitting the game, many more are just get rich quick schemes that at best will rip off players and at worst steal their personal information.
It may be surprising to those outside the OSRS community to learn that removal of these Hackers is something many OSRS players are not 100% in favor of. The use of bots has been going on in OSRS for so long that they have become part of the game’s cultural landscape. Whether it’s 2007 or 2022, every time I walk up to the Grand Exchange I’m filled with eager anticipation, excited to see what dazzling display of multi-colored flashing posts promising quick and easy gold I’ll be greeted with this time. The spamming of “EZ 1 MIL” and “FREE LAVA CAPE” are enticing reminders of the riches one can acquire. Visiting the Grand Exchange is a lot like going to the Las Vegas Strip. Most players know not to fall for the flashy ads for coin and loot, but knowing that doesn’t stop them from getting amused by the Hackers’ hustle. It may not be the approach to gathering wealth the game’s creators intended, but it’s one that enough players have acknowledged as a legitimate option that it has become accepted by the community. Just as Hackers and Cyborgs play an integral role in shaping overall game culture, so too have they had a hand in shaping the economic landscape of Gielinor.
Why is the Mona Lisa smiling? What is Banksy’s newest work satirizing? At times it seems the vaguer a piece of art’s meaning, the more it is valued. Perhaps this is why many consider What Remains of Edith Finch to be a prime example of video games as art. It is not only beautiful, but also opaque.
At the start of the game the narrative seems straightforward enough: after the passing of her mother, Edith Finch returns to her childhood home to learn about her family. Upon arriving at the family property, a somber and mysterious mood is swiftly established by lack of other living beings and the imposing presence of the Finch house. Before the player even enters the house, questions arise about their surroundings. Why are there missing person posters clogging the creek? What is with the decrepit dragon structure in the front yard? Were the appropriate building permits obtained to add the precariously placed additions to the house? Things get even stranger when the player gains entry to the house’s interior. Why are local restaurants afraid to deliver to the Finches? Why are there references to Norse culture? What’s in the basement? What’s with the sealed off rooms? Is the strangeness surrounding this family supernatural, or something more “real”?
Not all of these questions are answered during the game, and the ones that are addressed are not answered completely. We learn that the Finch family is seemingly cursed, with only one member of each generation surviving to adulthood. The rooms belonging to deceased family members were sealed away by Edith’s mother in the hope that by hiding their untimely demise the curse can be forgotten, and therefore broken. Unfortunately, this tactic does not seem to work as Edith is apparently the last member of her family left alive.
While this information satisfies most of the broader questions posed, it fails to address some of the more intriguing aspects of the game. For example, it remains unclear if the family really is cursed or if the youthful deaths of many of its members is due to a placebo effect from belief in the curse. For some of the family it is not even clear how they passed away. An example of this is the death of Molly, who recounts in her journal turning into various animals before becoming a monster who eats herself. Given the eerie mood of the game at first I was under the impression that Molly’s experience was to be taken literally, but after doing some research I found that the general belief is Molly was hallucinating after eating poisonous berries. Yet after learning this I still feel there is more to Molly’s visions. What she experienced felt so real, and I’m skeptical that a young child would so cheerful write about eating a human even if she wasn’t in a normal state of mind. This dissonance in interpretation is what I believe truly makes What Remains of Edith Finch a work of art. By intentionally leaving so much of its narrative, events, lore, history, and outcome open to interpretation, players can’t help but continue to think about the game even after their time playing it is over.
Over the course of human history, a plethora of aesthetically pleasing visuals have been produced, and now more than ever people have access to works of art. Whether it is by a Renaissance master or an Indie game studio, most people can claim that they have experienced “art”. Despite this, if you were to ask a random individual on the street or in a chat room to name the title of their favorite artwork it might take them a minute or a quick Google search. We are surrounded by beautiful yet forgettable images. This is true of video games as well as more traditional art forms. Most games available today would fall somewhere in the range of looking “good”, but the ones that will be looked back on as pinnacles of art history are the ones that make us think. This is why What Remains of Edith Finch is art. It leaves things open to interpretation to force the player to think, and thereby staying in their mind long after the game has ended. Like other great works of art before it, What Remains of Edith Finch leaves a lasting impression on the audience.