Chungking Espresso

How To Write A Book About Games

Posted in Game Analysis, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on February 28, 2011

This is my informal, uninvited rant for the week of GDC 2011. A few months ago, I signed on to serve as a technical editor on a book project being undertaken by two of my favorite game designers. In order to help them on their way, I scrawled an early form of this article on a napkin. This isn’t meant to lambast any one book in particular; rather, it should be taken as a broad diagnosis of what happens when one begins a book with the idea of writing about games-in-general, perhaps with the goal of authoring a text that will be “foundational” to the field.

First, select your “-ism.” Google your “-ism” plus “games” to make sure nobody else has used this “-ism” already. If they have, and it’s the only “-ism” you’re familiar with, just find a synonym or portmanteau. This will define your entire project. It’s important that you’re absolutely in love with the way you write about your “-ism.” You don’t have any clue what your readership might be, so get a name from another field to write on the back of your book that you are “essential reading for anyone studying games.” Another viable strategy is to write about “Games and X,” with X being a bad paraphrasing of three or four thoughts from an old/dead white dude.

Open with World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is to game studies what Heart of Darkness was to your AP Literature exam in high school: it’s the perfect example no matter your “-ism.” Lay on us the existence of gold farming and the fact that Azeroth’s economy feeds into our own right away, because that’s heavy as all get out. Be sure to forget the difference between classes and races when you gloss “things you can play as.” Be sure to mention the number of hours you’ve logged in Azeroth; everyone will be impressed, really.

If you have to mention earlier MMOs, just say something about Everquest widows. This will serve as your segue into the topic of problem gaming. If you’re writing about game development ethics and practices, you can combine the subject of Everquest widows and EA Spouse into a subchapter titled “Widows and Spouses.” Pretend MUDs never existed, because otherwise you’d have to actually read something by Bartle post-“Players Who Suit MUDs.”

Within your first 20 pages, you’re going to need to type the names “Jenkins” and “Bogost.” Next, you need to find some kind of ridiculous reason to disagree with them, because they are the establishment, and you hate having to type their names. Popular choices include attacks against fandom for the former and claims of neoliberalism for the latter. Quotes from Raph Koster should be considered mandatory. But don’t talk about Chris Crawford, because then you’ll never finish your book.

Unless otherwise noted, these are the games you are allowed to write about: Halo, Grand Theft Auto (just pretend Grand Theft Auto III is where the series started and stopped), Civilization, Doom, Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and September 12th. No other game deserves more than one sentence (non-compound).

If you’re a male writer, cite vague feminist concern about both the game industry and gender representation in mainstream games. But, whatever you do, don’t acknowledge the vital contributions of female academics and designers including Flanagan, Taylor, Consalvo, Pearce, Brathwaite, Anthropy, or Laurel (and on and on). Instead, just copy-paste some ethnographic survey numbers. The older these numbers are, the better. Or, make some up: “.06% of female fetuses played Gears of War vicariously through their mothers in 2009.” Be creative.

Do mention Murray, though, because everyone loves Tetris. And because, if you don’t mention her, she will eventually find you, roll her eyes, and shrug.

Just pretend that fighting games and shooting games are the same kind of simulated violence. And only use examples from the latter, because none of your reviewers have any idea how fighting games work. Find some egregious quotes from over-caffeinated suits at a major publisher, to show how despicable action games really are. Then mention that the U.S. Military uses shooting games for recruitment and training, because nothing the U.S. Military has ever used or created could be seen as good in any way by anybody. If you talk about competitive gaming at all, pretend that it only exists in Korea. That way, you can derail the discussion with a rehash on problem gaming in PC bangs (they smoke cigarettes in those places!).

When in doubt, “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high.”

If you’re a neo-Marxist, certainly include a throwaway quote from Galloway. But don’t, under any circumstance, cite Wark. In contrast to his radical, expressive prose and brilliant digital peering scheme, the Word document that only you and your editor will ever see becomes unbearably depressing. If you were Ivy League-educated, be sure to disdain the upper middle class as constantly as possible. That will show daddy who’s boss now.

Inconsistent referencing is a must. Include hundreds of meaningless quotations from Nintendo and Sony representatives, preferably taken from the New York Times or Wired, to get your readers as hot and bothered about videogames as possible. But, when you make broad claims about how games work and what people do with them, don’t cite anybody. Especially not another academic.

At some point, you’re going to feel tempted to talk about how computers work. This is going to be a disaster if you try to go into any detail whatsoever. Instead, your mantra here should be “Moore’s Law.” Just type it out a few times, then scribble something about “artificial intelligence” and “graphics and audio” in between. You will need to mention that, at one point, computers used to fill entire rooms.

Woah, just think about it for a second. Woah.

Moore’s Law is actually an inverse metaphor for your entire project, because you’re essentially spinning a page-length abstract’s worth of new contributions into 200 pages.

You have to decide which Will Wright game to “critique.” Go with Sims if you’re looking for a wide readership. But if you’re writing this book about videogames primarily for nerds, do Sim City. Don’t even think about analyzing Spore if you’re valorizing hackers or modders anywhere in your book, because then you’d have to admit that most hackers, modders, and user-gen creators care almost exclusively about stuffing phalluses into every game possible.

Try not to normalize your spelling of common terms. For example, within any given page you should include all of these: “digital games,” “computer games,” “digital computer games,” “video games,” “videogames,” “games,” “hardcore,” “hard core,” and “hard-core.” Use the words “mechanics,” “rules,” and “features” interchangeably.

Finish with a note on your optimism for the future of indie game development.

Just kidding, you’ve never played an indie game. Go with ARGs instead.


Win Win @ Cleopatra’s

Posted in Game Analysis, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on June 25, 2010

Filmic Connections, the Dead & the Needing-to-be-Shot

Posted in Film, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on May 3, 2009

Responding to this post by my man LB Jeffries; re-posting here so I’ll remember it.

Only two arguments with this. First: “And yet in a video game it is ourselves we care about. It is our own character or the person we are playing with whom we connect first.”

That isn’t a distinguishing characteristic, and it isn’t necessarily true, either. Ebert is wrong to say it’s “the people” that are important in film. Most films ask you to identify with a single protagonist and stick with them despite their actions. The body count metaphor for success you use is echoed exactly in Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and any number of spaghetti westerns. The unique thing isn’t that these same systems aren’t represented, but that you can force the player to confront their own actions (physically, as they hold the controller) rather than the actions of somebody else who they’ve only identified with mentally/emotionally. My thinking here probably has something to do with the fact that my favorite games and films are the ones that attempt to manipulate your identification with the protagonist.

Second: it never struck me until today that Steve Gaynor’s description of the immersion model is basically the summary of how to create travelogue cinema verite documentary films. I suppose this isn’t so much an argument with either you or him, but perhaps something we should study if we hope to achieve this wonderful Promised Land where AI doesn’t totally suck and do and say the same stupid things with every playthrough. Certainly the illusion of spontaneity is there if you’re willing to bite, but game AI still usually follows the rules of “if the player can’t tell it’s stupid, make it stupid to save cycle counts.” We need to get to a stage where we’re willing to give up narrative continuity and a few really great textures to waste processing power on AI that’s disruptive and therefore enlightening.

Also, Celia Pearce and Henry Jenkins came up with the idea of game design as narrative architecture a really, really long time ago. It’s a shame to attribute it to anyone else.

Finally, this article is a really great summary of the pieces you’re covering, but I don’t think any of these pieces are attacking the questions we need to answer (with the exception of positing procedural rhetoric as our analogue for editing, which I think is an important connection). For instance, how are all the psychoanalytic connections we’ve made in film over the past 40 years altered by games? We could write for a lifetime just analyzing these differences (there are quite a number of feminist game theorists doing just that, but these ideas have yet to enter popular writing).

You mention Mirror’s Edge, right? So the other day this incoming 1st year is talking to me about the male gaze in Mirror’s Edge and Portal. And I ask, but the game camera and the cameras watching the female protagonists are different. How do you address the fact that Glados is female? How is the first-person camera acting different following the fact that we are identifying explicitly as female? Do we necessarily sexualize/objectify a female protagonist if she’s in third-person camera, or only when the creators want us to (ie Lara Croft’s muddy bottom in Underworld)? So here’s a short conversation in which Laura Mulvey’s idea of visual pleasure in the cinema is completely destroyed by the examples of two games. These are the filmic connections that are important to distinguish between and analyze.

Cut scenes and linearity in games have been dying for awhile. Time to put some bullets into the kneecaps of other cinematic tropes we’ve carried over.

EDIT: I’m actually working on killing one cinematic trope next semester: the idea of a continuity of space established by Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lev Kuleshov in early Soviet Montage film and then carried over directly into the shifting frames of Adventure and Zelda. Not going to tell you how I’m going to do it; gotta figure out how to program it first, then I’ll show you!

Tagged with: , , ,

Retro Chic

Posted in Gaming, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on February 26, 2009

Busy working on midterms still. I finished my Daniel Petric newgame Unreal mod today, which was absolute hell because everybody has a tutorial for Unreal Ed 3 now instead of 2k4 (all we had at the lab). Starting on my Semantic 360 Achievements widget for Leopard tonight; that’s due on Monday, so I hope I find some way to access Microsoft’s databases while logged into my Live account… instead of having to fake the database in mySQL. Also, I’m going to crack open Processing to do a text-adventure prototype to compliment my article on Fable II and urban dynamics. In other news, Googling “simon ferrari” now lists my blog before mentioning any of my esteemed name-brothers the Simon Ferraris of Italy, New Zealand, and Bournemouth

Here’s a comment I wrote on Brainy Gamer, the only game writing I get to do today:

“About Half Life 2: the great thing about this game’s cutscenes is that they are ludically-motivated. You have to sit and watch the action, because Gordon can’t move (locked in the teleporter, pinned by a Hunter, etc). This is not “minimally important;” usually we get cutscenes before boss fights and in between stages, or just because a level was boring and needed some spice. Cutscenes aren’t going to go away, no matter how many awesome papers Jesper Juul writes… so we might as well recognize and develop the good ones.

I’d also like to suggest that the common feeling among us experienced gamer theorists that retro games were better because they presented a pure ludic experience is nothing but nostalgia and short-sightedness. The retro framework is great because hardware limitations lead to particular innovations. We see this in film history, for instance, in the Impressionist, Expressionist, and Soviet Montage films; however, this doesn’t mean that this is the only innovation possible.

Artificially constraining computing power to distill the essence of games-that-compute is not the answer. At least, it’s not the only one.”

Tagged with:

Dead Rising & Interventionist Media Ethics

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on February 6, 2009

(originally written for

I’ve put off writing about Dead Rising in the context of journalism and games for awhile. It pained me to think of the negative review I’d have to give a game that I enjoyed so much. Luckily, in the past few weeks Capcom has released some information that helped get my ball rolling: Dead Rising’s port to the Wii (Dead Rising: Chop ‘Til You Drop) will not feature the ability to take snapshots with Frank’s camera. Cue Chris Hecker sound byte about the Wii’s processor not being able to handle a virtual camera (also, the Wii won’t be able to render nearly as many zombies in one location as the 360 could).   

This news begs the question: does the exclusion of the photography mechanic in the Wii version of Dead Rising change anything about what the game says about photojournalism as a practice? Let me first explain what the game is.

Dead Rising is a survival horror third-person action game produced by Capcom, the makers of the popular Resident Evil series. You play a photojournalist stuck in the middle of a zombie outbreak in a shopping mall. Much of the gameplay is hack-and-slash: the mall is littered with hundreds of consumer goods that the protagonist Frank can use as melee weapons (hockey sticks, baseball bats, antique samurai swords). Gunplay in the game can be frustrating at times, as anyone used to the shooting in Resident Evil games can attest. Being a photographer, Frank can also snap shots of the zombies terrorizing human survivors. The idea is that he’s going to eventually leave the mall via helicopter and break the news story to the world.
My formative opinions on the subject of photojournalism and media ethics come from a dinner I shared once as a college freshman with UGA journalism professor Conrad Fink, the author of Writing Opinion for Impact. The opening words to this book are almost inflammatory:

“The first thing to learn in opinion writing is that you must unlearn one thing probably central to your idea of what a journalist is all about. You’ve picked it up in journalism courses: A journalist must stay out of the story, stay objective, stay dispassionate. Right?

Well, that was then – in reporting or newswriting courses – not now, when you must move from objective into subjective writing, when you must insert your ideas and your emotions into your writing, not eliminate them.”


Fink (pictured in the middle) has numerous other publications on the subject of media ethics under his belt. The night I met him, he goaded me with a question while I stuffed my mouth with baked ziti; I paraphrase:   

“You’re a photojournalist, right? In another country. And there’s this humanitarian crisis going on. Do you try to help out, or is it your duty to just take the pictures now and hope they influence policy later?”

I had no idea how to answer. A few years later I attended the premiere of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Julie Delpy’s character can barely contain her contempt for her photojournalist boyfriend:

“Well, once we were in New Delhi and we pass a bum, that was lying down the sidewalk… Anyway, like, he looked like he needed help, but his first reaction was to photograph him!

He went, like, really close to his face, fixing his collar, to make it look better. He was like totally detached from the person.

You know, I’m not… I’m not judging him for it, you know, what he does is essential and incredible.

…All I’m saying is that I could never do it.”

Before Sunset.jpg

In Dead Rising, your character hitches helicopter ride past a military blockade and into a shopping mall at the epicenter of a zombie holocaust. The scenario is familiar to any fan of zombie films: Dawn of the Dead famously features a helicopter landing onto a mall occupied by the zombie horde. The setting immediately associates consumerism with a braindead mentality; zombies are drawn to the mall, because in their undead stupor they seek the solace of the only place they were happy when they were alive.

The game begins with a tutorial on how to take photographs. Frank, hanging out the side of the helicopter, snaps a few shots of the zombies slaughtering the few remaining humans and coursing toward the shopping mall. Extra points are rewarded for viewing greater numbers of zombies, zooming in to frame the shot properly, and capturing particularly gruesome or otherwise evocative (sexual, pyrotechnic) imagery. Players raise their camera at risk of being attacked while framing their shot (they cannot shoot/bash while taking a picture). The basic controls allow zooming in and panning/tilting/tracking to set up the shot; focus and lighting are adjusted automatically. Being a Japanese game (har har), you gain experience points for taking better pictures and slaughtering zombies; these points lead to gaining levels that grant health, combat, and inventory bonuses.

Let’s not overestimate the imagination that went into incorporating the camera mechanic into the gameplay. The system of scoring points is identical to its earlier implementation in games such as Pokemon Snap. This N64 safari-on-rails game allowed players to goad various Pokemon into striking poses that one then attempted to snap photos of at ideal times. Extra points were awarded for capturing herds of the animals or catching them in interesting situations (eating, doing a mating dance). Snap was innovative because the N64 was one of the first consoles that allowed players to move through realtime 3D environments. What’s most interesting about the mechanic in Dead Rising is the tight coupling between taking pictures and the overall goal of the game: to break news of the zombie uprising despite government black-boxing. Now, what changes the Wii port of the game by taking the camera away from the player? 


One can assume that this decision will streamline the action of the game and reward proportionately more experience points for battle prowess. Just as in the Resident Evil 4 port to the Wii, I expect that the shooting controls will improve with the Wii’s ability to point and shoot like a mouse; the difficulty of aiming a gun in the original 360 version was incredibly frustrating, especially considering how seamless the photography controls were (we can assume that these would have been more intuitive with the Wii-mote as well). Melee fighting will in the Wii version will, of course, be comprised of shaking the remote – though the coupling between shake and game action will be more akin to Mario Galaxy‘s simplistic spin attack than the tightly matched controls of Wii Sports.

Also, changing Frank’s camera batteries presents quite an aggravating task for the player; one constantly finds oneself running out of batteries and having to trudge to a few key points in the mall with hobbyist camera shops. The bigger change may come in yet-unseen changes to the storyline to make the game more linear (instead of having objectives emerge and disappear in realtime, players will be able to take their time and accomplish all the game’s many goals).
Besides these gameplay changes, it becomes more difficult to see greater effects to the game’s rhetoric. This is because the game’s narrative embraces the ethic of Fink and Linklater: a (photo)journalist in the field has the duty to insert themselves into a crisis (somehow).    

Running around the mall in Dead Rising, players are constantly given “scoops” or changes in the game state that provide meaningful action to the player. Without these scoops, there would be little to do in the game beside the objective of survival (Frank must wait 3 days for his helicopter to return). Scoops can include any of three things: survivors located in temporarily safe nooks and crannies of the mall that must be escorted to a saferoom, psychopaths slaughtering zombies and survivors alike in their PTSD-induced mania, and story progression points. There is a strong narrative motivation for these scoops: two NSA agents in the saferoom constantly monitor the mall through security cameras and send information to Frank via walkie-talkie.


Frank only has a short time to complete the tasks sent to him. Most of the gameplay is a difficult yet mentally stimulating exercise in time management. If Frank fails to reach a survivor in time, their blockades are overrun and they become zombies; psychopaths will disappear into deeper recesses of the mall to either perish or continue torturing unseen survivors. Missing the story progression points has a more concrete consequence: players are given something similar to a “Game Over” screen telling them one thing only: “The truth has faded into darkness.” One can continue to play out the three-day survival experience, but your failure to uncover the governmental-conspiracy causes of the zombie outbreak will result in a highly unsatisfactory ending.
Trying not to spoil much, the player does not merely collect the interviews and photographs required to discover “The Truth.” Rather, Frank becomes the key figure striving to prevent a terrorist attack that threatens to spread the zombie plague outside the no-fly zone cordoned off by the military. This thoroughly mainstream third-person action game somehow manages to model the experience of being a photojournalist in a way that we don’t see in many explicitly educational games. Dealing with stringent deadlines, finding the safest or quickest course through potentially hostile territory, time management, the idea of missed journalistic opportunity, and the sometimes tedious necessity of arriving for a scoop prepared with adequate battery power and room in one’s camera for enough shots to capture the situation – all of that is there.   

The act of taking photographs of the slaughter does help couple the photojournalistic narrative trappings of the game with its gameplay, but the game’s more important argument about media ethics will likely remain intact when the game’s Wii port goes to shelves. One can certainly subvert the narrative of the game’s current Xbox 360 iteration by avoiding involvement in the crisis altogether and just snapping evocative photographs for three days – in fact, this strikes one as a much more intriguing utilization of the game’s affordances than, say, pretending to be a snap-happy tourist in a Grand Theft Auto game; however, this would be an exercise in purposefully arguing against the interventionist rhetoric of the game.

At the end of the day, the question still remains unanswered: “To what degree is a photojournalist morally compelled to become an agent of goodwill during a humanitarian crisis.” Because Dead Rising takes place during a fairly cut-and-dry zombie apocalypse, Frank’s decision to act for his survival is trivial. It will take newsgames that incorporate the strong points of this game to truly delve into the question of how far a photojournalist can go before risking manufacturing news through her ethically-motivated action. I’m sure Fink’s books go into details and practices that would help make this decision more clear, but an analysis of these works escapes the scope of this article. What I can say is that it is a shame that the Wii version of Dead Rising will only incorporate the photojournalist’s role in narrative as opposed to coupling it to gameplay with the camera mechanic and the realtime scoop system. Luckily, the narrative’s connection to the media ethic I’m suggesting is hiding beneath the thin veneer of zombie horror will likely remain intact.

Left 4 Dead, Subverting Horror Genre Conventions

Posted in Game Analysis, Papers, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on February 3, 2009

You know how the first big news item about a game (after its announcement, that is) is always a post of beta-build screenshots? In this assignment, I show just how much information about a game one can draw from just a still image.

Assignment: Using the ACM format, analyze a videogame at an unusual level of granularity: the still image.


Left 4 Dead: Subverting Horror Genre Conventions

Left 4 Dead subverts key “survival horror” genre conventions from both film and previous videogames in order to create a first-person cooperative experience more akin to war movies and games. The example image shows how spatial and lighting cues promote visual clarity over the construction of suspense; furthermore, the first-person perspective strengthens personal presence and agency over the horror genre’s typical simulation of helplessness.
L4D, Valve, zombies, videogame, Left 4 Dead, xbox 360
This article deals with the construction of the image in the videogame Left 4 Dead (referred to as L4D). This analysis draws from the fields of visual rhetoric and design in both cinematic and ludic arts. An introductory understanding of 3d modeling and lighting in the reader is assumed.
L4D is an important recent example of the first-person shooter and survival horror genres. Relevant games in these genres include Half Life 2 and the Resident Evil series, respectively. Specifically, my analysis of the construction of this image will show how the narrative and visual trappings of survival horror can be manipulated and applied to create another (the first-person cooperative shooter) experience altogether. This article will focus primarily on how lighting and spatial cues accomplish this goal.
Camera Eye versus Human Eyes
The defining aspect of first-person games is their point-of-view perspective. In film history, it took a half decade before Robert Montgomery directed Lady in the Lake (1947)1 entirely in a first person perspective. In this film, viewers only saw the protagonist’s face when he looked directly into a mirror. This is the same completely first-person experience perfected by Half Life 2. It took significantly less time to develop the first-person perspective in the field of videogames: Maze War (1973) was developed only twenty years after the first graphical game OXO (1952).

The reason we see so few examples of first-person horror games is the importance of directorial control in creating suspense. Alfred Hitchcock stands as the master of this almost perverse cinematic pleasure. Among horror games, Doom 3 stands out here for its low-key lighting and first-person perspective. The Resident Evil series (prior to the 4th, using an over-the-shoulder camera), on the other hand, exploits the third-person camera in order to set up cinematic angles and limit the player’s visibility control. L4D combats this directorial control (despite the presence of the sinister “AI director” that we will explain in our later discussion of gameplay) by allowing players to pivot and turn their field of vision at will.

Unlike film, where the “camera eye” necessarily extends about a foot (the length of the camera) away from the operator, in games the eye can be realistically located in the face of the avatar. It is important to distinguish this “eye” from actual human “eyes:” the image created here is monoscopic (as opposed to the way we see, stereoscopically) [Arnheim, 1974].

The major downside to monoscopic visualization is that it frustrates depth perception – leading to the increased importance in film and games for space and lighting cues [Arnheim, 1974 and Bordwell, 1985].

Space Construction and Cues
We can see how the camera in L4D simulates linear perspective in order to render a rectangular room how a human would actually view it. The strong diagonal view of the room I have used in my screen capture replicates the effect of the first visually dynamic film image: The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat. A diagonal static image renders actual space far more accurately than looking at the same space straight on [Arnheim, 1974].

L4D constructs an image of both deep focus and depth of field. The degree of focus on the avatar’s hands in the foreground is roughly equal to that of the old man and zombies in the middle ground; however, textures do become less defined the further away we look from the foreground. This progressive decrease in texture aids in the mental construction of depth [Bordwell, 1985]. Beyond the flames and out into the foggy night forest outside, one can make out the trees closest to the player because of their sharpness compared to the deeper forest fading into a haze behind them. This phenomenon is called atmospheric perspective [Bordwell, 1985].

It took Gregg Toland remarkable amounts of image manipulation in order to attain the famous depth of field and deep focus displayed in the famous opening to the childhood sequence in Citizen Kane. In videogames, deep field and focus are only limited by processing power in relation to draw distance. In more recent games this visual clarity over great distances needs to be purposefully distorted in order to create suspense. One example of this purposeful distortion or concealment is the fog of war (players cannot see the current state of a location without a unit nearby) mechanic in most RTS games. L4D instead embraces advances in processing power and draw distance.

Another important spatial cue in this image comes from familiar size of “props” in the mise-en-scene [Bordwell, 1985]. David Bordwell writes that viewers rely on familiar objects on the screen in order to calculate depth. The objects in this room are ideal toward this end because they are what most of us see constantly in daily life: folding tables, boxes of file folders, and waiting room chairs. The dead bodies on the floor also provide key information; we all know the length of the average human body. In videogames these spatial cues provide a tactical advantage as well as aiding in depth – a player relies on this to see how close a zombie is and how quickly it moves.

Horror Lighting Conventions Disrupted
One of the things an experienced player or viewer of survival horror will notice right away on viewing this image is the high key lighting of the scene. Key lighting comes from the avatar flashlights, creating the exaggerated candle power of a spotlight. Ceiling flourescents act as a soft fill and top light here. Despite being reasonably high key, the harshness of the key flashlights does create strong cast shadows on the walls – nobody would mistake this for classic Hollywood three-point lighting [Bordwell & Thompson, 2003]. Another minor lighting element comes from the gun flare; this acts as a subtle backlight creating the luminous contour of our avatar’s hands.

The image does feature some attached shadows on the hands of the player’s avatar and the realistic contours of the other avatars and their clothing; however, L4D avoids the horror genre convention of using expressive attached shadows and underlighting to convey ambiguously sinister motives in other characters [Bordwell & Thompson, 2003]. In the horror genre, other humans frequently pose just as much (if not more) of a threat to the protagonist as the monsters do. L4D’s lighting emphasizes the bond between its heroes – reinforcing for players that they have no need to fear each other.

Focusing on the environment outside the room, one will notice that the light is unrealistically bright and even for a forest at night. Although some of the game takes place in darkened sewers and office buildings feature low-key lighting, much of the action takes place in evenly lit exteriors. Just as in the tradition of using high-key “day for night” filtered lighting in the cinema [Bordwell & Thompson, 2003], the exterior we see through the doorway supports viewer clarity over suspense-building.

Finally, the flames in this image do not realistically distort our field of vision or even produce enough light to disrupt the shadow on the wall in the back corner of the room. One recent game, Alone in the Dark, boasts realistically propagating fire as its primary source of light through much of the game. The fact that L4D ignores this reflects either a difficulty in the programming of such a dynamic light source, or again a choice to not limit viewer clarity with heat distortion and erratically shifting light.

Presence and Agency
Finally it stands to take a look at “presence” in this game world. Although this will become more important when we return to this game as a moving image and interactive experience, the still image does provide a modicum of sensory immersion and mental engagement for the viewer.

Heeter’s examination of VR in the early 90’s distinguishes between first- and third-person VR configurations, and it also parses presence into its personal, social, and environmental modes. Photorealism is not nearly as important as realistic motion and tightly coupled action for creating a sense of presence in games [Heeter, 1992].

The primary method of creating personal presence in first-person VR is the visualization of the user’s hand. In our still from L4D, we see that our hand and gun occupy 1/8 of the entire frame. Its realistic texturing and the lighting mentioned earlier lends believability to the simulation. Janet Murray’s definition of agency – a user being able to make meaningful action with appropriate feedback inside the digital artifact – also informs our reading of the image. Even though our view here is static, the flare from player’s gun shows that we have captured an instance of meaningful action within the image [Murray, 1997].

We can also derive social presence from this still. Horror games typically pit a single human against innumerable monsters. The lack of social presence (zombies are usually assumed to lack reason and empathy) helps create the feeling of solitude and danger. It is obvious that the three humans with guns in this image are our comrades here. The line of sight from all of the avatars toward the old man in the center of the image conveys a common focus and struggle. Despite the presence of a raging wall of flame and intruding zombies, the image feels almost “safe” because of the reassuring social presence of the other human avatars. This social presence is clearly reinforced by the advanced 3d representation of the avatars, explorations into the pitfalls of the “uncanny valley” aside [Atkins, 2003].

Through spatial cues and lighting, Left 4 Dead effectively subverts the genre trappings of survival horror into a cooperative action experience.

The first-person perspective disrupts directorial control over the mobility of the player’s visual field, an essential tool for creating suspense. Deep focus and depth of field allow for an easy survey of the game state. Spatial cues such as texture and the familiar size of common objects enhance the player’s ability to construct coherent space and depth in their minds. Relatively high-key lighting grants players visual clarity, reducing the emphasis on surprise and allowing control of the environment. Finally, the feeling of helplessness typically constructed by horror films and games has been replaced in this game by a sense of agency and relative safety through strong personal and social presence.
Future writings on this game as a moving image and as an interactive experience will serve to support and expand  this conclusion.
[1]Arnheim, R. “Film and Reality,” Art and Visual Perception, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 8-34.
[2]Atkins, B. More than a Game, (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2003), 1-26.
[3]Bordwell, D. Narration and the Fiction Film, (Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 113-125.
[4]Bordwell, D and Thompson, K. Film Art: An Introduction, 7th edn, (New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 2003), 191-198.
[5]Heeter, C. “Being There: The subjective experience of presence,” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, (Cambridge: MIT Press, Fall, 1992).
[6]Murray, J. Hamlet on the Holodeck, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 128-132.
[7]Source image acquired from

Newsgames and Documentary

Posted in Columns, Film, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
I know you’ve already looked at the title and exclaimed: “Cinema Envy!” Well step off it for a moment, because I’m not going to sit here and lament how newsgames “aren’t as good” as documentaries. Rather, I’d like to take a look at the various sub-genres of documentary in order to identify some room for new types of newsgames that we might not have seen yet. Along the way, I’ll make some  comparisons between works in both media. I promise not to analyze them using the same standards or theories. I’ll also try to avoid stepping on Ayo’s toes here, because she’s planning on upcoming post on the value of transparent bias and reflexivity in film and games


There are some games that are painfully reminiscent of the cliché of “talking head” documentaries. Ian and I examined a game called Homeland Guantanamos earlier in the semester about an alien (both legal and illegal) detention facility and one particularly troubling death that took place there. What started out as an intriguing investigation simulation quickly turned into a series of poorly motivated fetch quests linking together video clips of interviews with detainees. The makers almost seem to have given up on editing a properly engaging documentary and instead “settled” on making a video game, a medium they apparently associate with sloppy narrative and multimedia-happy tedium. The idea of going into a detainment area for unwanted or criminally suspect aliens does however call to mind Fred Wiseman’s work on High School and Titicut Follies. These are basically one of the precursors (print muckraking or “yellow journalism” being the other) to investigative TV reporting.


Investigative journalism works in any medium – for a time. By transposing oneself onto the camera’s POV, both Wiseman films and investigative news allow one to gain access to secret or contested spaces; however, recent studies have shown that TV viewers are perceiving such “soft journalism” as a poor turn for television news. And we don’t see documentaries like Born Into Brothels or Iraq In Fragments causing the same amount of public commotion as did Titticut Follies, which – along with works such as Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish – raised widespread concern over the well-being of people held in mental health facilities.

Perhaps its time for serious games to step up to the plate and take on the muckraking mantle? I don’t think it’s diminutive to say that what counts as soft news in TV and film is much “harder” than most of the material one comes across in video games: it’s a nice place to start and develop from. Video games simulate processes and spaces better than any other medium, and they grant a modicum of control that aids engagement with an issue. What I’m saying is, Homeland Guantanamos could have been a really important newsgame. If a game similar to Molleindustria’s McDonald’s tasked itself with focusing on one of its four mini-simulators, say the cattle processing plant, then something far more meaningful than an investigative report would emerge. PETA’s Mama Kills Turkeys pairs the familiar Cooking Mama sim with shocking video footage of poultry plants. This could have been a really persuasive piece, but the work falls mostly on deaf ears because the game itself doesn’t focus on the troubling part of the cultural phenomenon (namely, the mistreatment of animals in processing plants).


Moving on, “intimate” documentaries are an intriguing branch of the genre that we really don’t see converted into the newsgame medium. Art video games such as Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation and Passage seem to share a lot in common with the experimental home movies of Stan Brakhage, but this kind of document doesn’t really count as news. I’m talking more about games that would relate one person’s own point-of-view on a current or historical news story. If you’re my age, then you hear all the time about our parents were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination or the Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Lots of films dealing with the period call upon these nostalgic moments, so it’d be exciting to play a game that simulates the feeling of anxiety or wonder at watching these events unfold.

Ross McElwee makes some of my favorite intimate documentaries, and he deals with many issues that would fit comfortably within “serious” gaming: love, death, religion. His Sherman’s March starts off as an exploration of the historical event and quickly spirals off into his own march through legions of “eligible” Southern bachelorettes. It might seem like I’m harping for more first-person perspectives in newsgames, but it seems like the metaphor used in McElwee films is an entertaining and accessible way to approach historical and current issues. One game called Medieval Unreality, a collection of personal reflections on blood feuds in Albania created as an Unreal mod, replicates this model (in a necessarily less humorous way than McElwee). What we have here is a violent FPS being turned into a non-violent, collaborative meditation on loss and reconciliation – accomplished through metaphor and evocative imagery.


Next, some documentaries seek to muddy the waters of truth and falsity about a news event. The Thin Blue Line and Capturing the Friedmans are some good examples of this. The latter reminds me of a nightmarish nonfiction version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where each new firsthand account of a supposed mass molestation brings the viewer further and further away from understanding the “facts” of what happened. A game like Kuma’s John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission could have accomplished something like this. The company claims that their game will “present the player with the facts needed to decide what happened” the day Kerry supposedly ran a swiftboat nose-first into an embattled beach and shot a fleeing Viet Cong at great personal risk. In the middle of Kerry’s presidential race, conflicting perspectives on what exactly occurred during that mission arose and brought into question whether or not he deserved his Silver Star. Instead of showing both accepted and dissenting versions of the events, the game simply regurgitates Kerry’s own story.


Another example, closest to the goal of The Thin Blue Line, is the JFK Reloaded game that seeks to show how hard it would have been to make the Oswald’s killing shot from the depository. This was to be the world’s first “mass-participation forensic construction” of a historical crime, and a contest was held to see who could get closest to matching the conditions claimed in the Warren Commission. Ian’s written before about the shaky ground on which video “evidence” stands in court cases and the rising acceptance of simulations in courtrooms, and I’ve also read a bit about the Innocence Project that seeks to get convicts off of death row by exposing flaws in their legal proceedings. Newsgames dealing with such contested court cases seem to be an obvious direction for such simulations to develop.

Finally, many newsgames seem to follow the “Michael Moore” style of wildly biased “documentary” work. Moore’s early work on Roger and Me and The Big One cast the director as a crusader for the underdog on a highly personal quest. For a few years, it was touching to see him approach the business leaders he criticized with pleas for their participation in the work. Since Bowling for Columbine, these pleas have struck a discordant tone with more and more viewers – raising such questions as, “is a senile old bat like Charlton Heston really the bad guy here?”


I personally think that September 12th makes its argument against “tactical bombing” pretty well, but that might only be because I already agree with its premise. Someone trained in counterterrorism or ballistics might have good reason to disagree with this premise – namely, it’s blatantly reductionist and it doesn’t propose an alternative solution to the war on terror. Some of Molleindustria’s work can also be seen in this light. See my post on their McDonald‘s game and how it ignores some verification work that might otherwise strengthen its model. These games are most similar to Moore’s Sicko and Fahrenheit 9/11: we know what they’re arguing against – and they do it well – but whether we agree with them in the end is usually reliant on the opinions we enter into playing/watching them with.

These Moore documentaries, and the newsgames I’m comparing them, work because their bias is transparent. Moore’s habit to skew the order of certain timelines in his films aside, everybody knows what they’re getting into when they pay ten dollars for a ticket. As long as the makers of these newsgames don’t actively seek to decieve their players, then I can’t see anyone mounting a strong opposition to them based on bias. Newsgames aren’t satisfied with presenting facts. Unlike traditional print and TV news, they task themselves with persuading players to see an issue their way. It might be necessary to take a more nuanced or balanced approach – presenting both sides of a contentious subject matter and letting the player decide which is more plausible – before we see these games make any converts.

A Game Has Made You Cry, But… Procedural Rhetoric’s Value

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on December 13, 2008


This is a response to the “games as systems” argument in a “A Game Has Never Made You Cry” by Chris Bateman.

Many of you probably read this article and thought, “His logic sounds right, but something about his conclusion didn’t ring true for me.” This is because his logic is actually sound, and his conclusion is actually untrue. There are in fact two arguments hidden in there. One note before we begin (in case you haven’t take a logic class), an argument’s validity (that it “follows”) is separate from its truth value. Here is his first:

1 Narrative is not the essence of a videogame (valid premise, true)

2 Procedural Rhetoric (the “system” view of what makes a game unique) is an important component of a videogame (valid premise, true)

3 Therefore, If narrative is not the essence of a videogame, then procedural rhetoric is the essence (invalid conclusion, unknown truth value)

Here is his second:

1 Procedural rhetoric is the essence of a videogame (valid premise, unknown truth value)

2 Procedural rhetoric (ie, a game mechanic or the game’s computational system) has never made you cry (valid premise, unknown truth value)

3 Therefore, a videogame has never made you cry (valid conclusion, unknown truth value)

As you can see, his logic for the second argument is impeccable. But the truth of his conclusion cannot be confirmed. Furthermore, it can be refuted if it can be shown that a game’s mechanics or computational logic have made one person cry. Here is my counterargument:

1 Narrative is a part of a videogame (excluding “abstract” cases such as Tetris) (valid premise, true)

2 A videogame’s narrative has made one person cry (valid premise, true)

3 A videogame can make you cry (valid conclusion, true)

My conclusion trumps Chris’s, because mine has a confirmed truth value while his does not. The other difference between the two arguments is that his is actually interesting, while mine is not. All I do is regurgitate a simple fact; I don’t further any investigation into the strength or nature of videogames. As has been stated time and again, the question “Can a videogame make you cry?” is both boring and of little value. Chris has stated that the purpose of his piece was to inspire valuable debate. I don’t intend to stop at disproving his conclusion.

The value of writings such as Chris’s is that they challenge players to find examples (instead of arguments) that disprove his statement. I have the pleasure of studying under Ian Bogost, the Dean of Procedural Rhetoric himself. As such, I get the chance to violently disagree with him on a daily basis. See, I don’t personally agree with essentialist statements such as “Procedural rhetoric is the essence of videogames.” All such statements are derived from Aristotle’s first argument on the essence of man: “The essence of a hammer is that it hammers (nails into wood); the essence of man is that he reasons.” He draws the second statement from the first, because he saw reason as the only thing that seperated man from other animals. The mistake he makes is that he’s taken a premise that’s true about a simple system (the hammer) and applied it to a complex system (humans). It’s not necessarily true that reason is the only thing that sets us apart from animals. The specific structure  of the languages we’ve devised, our use of medicine and other technology to expand our lifespans and trump natural selection, and our prediliction to create “art for art’s sake” are all examples of things that also make us unique. Likewise, videogames are complex systems that cannot ultimately be boiled down into any “essence” (procedural rhetoric, in our case).

But here’s the key to Chris’s and Ian’s writing on the issue: they both utilize “Procedural rhetoric is the essence of videogames” as a working premise (of unknown truth value) in order to explore the aspects of games that usually go unnoticed. You don’t see professional video game criticism that simply rehashes whether or not the story was any good. They consider the multiplayer aspects, the replayability, the degrees of freedom, the game mechanics, etc. These things are what make games interesting. So it’s not entirely honest to make a statement like “Videogames have never made you cry,” but it forces you to examine his argument and see if you can find gems among the games you’ve played that disprove him – and thus move the study and development of games forward.

A few people commenting on his blog mentioned Jason Rohrer’s Passage and Gravitation as exceptions to his Chris’s rule. I’d like to add Jon Blow’s Braid to this short list.

What do these three games have in common? “Well they’re overrated,” you might say if you’re a hardcore gamer tired of hearing about how these games have made your favorite online shooters or role-playing games “trivial.” Let me explain one reason why they’re not overrated, related to the question of whether a game’s mechanics alone can make you cry.

In Passage, you can choose to avoid the “spouse” character or join with her. Coupled with her, you gain more “points” from moving rightward and colleting “score stars” than you would have if you’d played through the game without her; however, pairing with her increases the size of your sprite’s “hit box,” which means that you can’t move through some cramped spaces like you could when you were alone. This is an example of a game’s mechanic relating to a fact of human relationships by itself (without any need to allude to story or character). It is possible that this realization made you cry – you were struck by how “true” it was.

In Gravitation, playing catch with the “child” character expands the game’s visual space and opens up new procedural music tracks. It is possible that this mechanic made you cry by itself – you were struck by how simply it simulated the effect of joy on your life.

In Braid, you come to a level called “Irreversible” in which your safety blanket – the mechanic that allows you to reverse time and fix any mistake you made – is taken away from you on purpose. Blow structures this instance of the game’s primary mechanic breaking in order to make you realize just how important it’s been to you. It is possible that this made you cry, because it’s the one instance of a game mechanic (and it’s purposeful destruction) that has actually caused me to cry – by itself, seperated from the narrative and my attachment to Tim and his Princess. I can’t explain exactly why this made me cry, of course. I don’t believe it was emotional – I wasn’t upset or angry with the level. I suspect I can connect this kind of reaction with theories of the sublime – the idea that an aspect of a work of art impacts one because it connects them to something greater (in the same way that religious people feel God’s presence in awesome sights such as mountains or the sea). So what this mechanic did was give me an insight into all the work that had gone into crafting the experience, all the code and thought behind the thing.

What’s the point of these examples? Well, I don’t know if I would’ve ever thought to look for them if it hadn’t been for Chris’s article. What it makes you realize, if you’re a game designer, is that these are mechanics that you can develop from in your own work n order to make them more meaningful or effective from the perspective of procedural rhetoric. It’s true that narrative in games has come a long way, and it has a long way to go still. But games as a whole won’t achieve the amount of respect – as works of art – that they deserve until their every aspect seeps value. Thank you for reading. Please post any examples of game mechanics striking you as truly unique and beautiful in the way that I’ve shown above, if and when you find them.

Newsgames in the Pipe

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on December 11, 2008

(upcoming post for – please email me if you want to link this, because I need to post it to the JAG blog before that happens)

Every once in awhile, I struggle with the idea of the breaking newsgame. How could a newspaper, or an independent game developer, possibly make a game on the fly that was both “worth playing” and directly relevant to the news of the day? The makers of newsgames have, for the most part, freed themselves from worrying about this problem by dealing mainly with ongoing, long-term public issues; however, I constantly have the nagging feeling that these games need to become quite a bit more timely before being attractive as a regular feature for a news source. Let me share the story of a recent flurry of ideas exchanged on this subject.

6a00c22522e470549d00d4144918623c7f-500pi.pngWe recently had a demo day here at Georgia Tech. Sitting in the corner of the room at our News Games booth, I watched (with a twinge of jealousy) Raph Koster and some dudes from the EVE Online team celebrate the accomplishments of some of my classmates on a board game they’d been working on all semester. None of the famous folks were coming up to ask me about my thoughts on the crossroads of news and gaming. Maybe this just isn’t something that has a direct impact on their work? Just when I thought I wasn’t going to be having any good conversations that day, a middle-aged man shuffled toward me and asked, in a British accent, if I had anything interesting to show him. It took me a few moments to spy his name tag.

This was Richard Bartle: one of the early online gaming movers and shakers, and architect of my ten long years of MUDding (I played Gemstone and Mihaly’s Achaea). This man was a personal hero of mine, sure, but did the old Wizard have any tricks up his sleeve when it came to thinking about newsgames? As it turns out, he did. It also turns out that he was only talking with me for so long to avoid the pesky necessity of leveling his warlock up to 80 in WotLK (joking). Perhaps all the little esoteric niches within the critical gaming community were closer together than I’d previously thought. After some polite conversation on the nature of our research, I shared with Bartle some of the roadblocks we’d been coming to. On the subject of the absence of the breaking newsgame, he had this to say:

“Well, we all know the Queen is going to die someday. So we could make a game about it today, and release it when she does.”

This seems like such an obvious partial answer to the  problem – one which Ian hints that he already might have been thinking of – but it’s one that we really hadn’t talked about in discussions of the topic before. At first I thought making such “predictive” games might somehow violate journalistic integrity; however, it turns out that this would fall squarely within the practices of most news outlets. There are a few different manifestations of this. First is the article on something one knows is going to happen once. Obituaries for famous people are commonly written long before their actual deaths, and they are constantly updated as these people continue to survive and add to their accomplishments. The second case is when one knows that a decision or outcome will fall in only a small number of ways. One such example of this is the tradition of pre-making two headlines for the two possible resolutions to a presidential race. And then there’s the pre-making of material for events that are known to occur cyclically: weather, economic activity, politics, etc.

When we start looking for examples of games that might fit this predictive mold, we run into some initial hiccups. Take, for example, the “obituary games” dealing with Steve Irwin’s death by stingray. How could one possibly have predicted that he would die this way, let alone made a game about it beforehand? This isn’t as big of a hitch as one might initially think. You simply have to choose which information you can be most sure about. For example, Paul Newman was pretty old when he died. You wouldn’t have had to predict exactly what he would die of to be able to make a great video game where an old man surrounded by salad dressing bottles fantasizes about his early days as a cowboy or Cool Hand Luke. In the case of Steve Irwin, it was likely that he’d die playing with dangerous aquatic animals. Despite being unable to know which animal would manage to penetrate his catlike reflexes, one would still be able to create most of the underwater gameplay mechanics, placeholder art, and sound bytes before the actual event occurred.

For the second case, that of pre-making a news story that will assuredly break in one of only a few possible directions, I’d like to take a look at some of the media surrounding Obama’s recent election. When it comes to biting, timely satire on a public issue, nobody can really hold a flame to Comedy Central’s Daily Show and South Park. The night after polls closed South Park aired an episode (click on “About Last Night…”) wherein Obama wins the election, liberals get drunk and riot in the street to celebrate, and conservatives fear for the end of the republic while locking themselves away in a fallout shelter. Now, it’s possible that Parker and Stone have such an ace team on their hands that they were able to make this episode in one night’s time. But it’s more likely that they’d pre-written the shows for either decision (and had of course already prepped the art for both).

Picture 1.png

To my knowledge, there weren’t any games that addressed the public hype over this event – probably because we were all celebrating or cursing the event in “real” life. But that’s not to say that such games wouldn’t be enjoyable and interesting to experience. We’ve talked a lot about how great it would have been if the CNN “holograms” on election night had simulated for viewers the experience of being in Grant Park that night. It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for somebody in Second Life or to have recreated this space inside a virtual world for people to experience in real time (please drop a comment if this was actually done in some way). Of course, it is an incredible asset for virtual worlds that they can play host to post-election celebrations and grumbling drunken escapes in ways that the South Park episode did. Doug Wilson is planning a series of posts on our explorations into the world of Kuma Games and their re-creation of current and historical war zones. They do some decent work toward trying to allow players to “take part” in actual military encounters (like the capturing of Saddam’s sons, for instance). It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for such a company to make the kind of predictive leaps in game development that I’m talking about here.

Finally we come to the idea of games about cyclical events. Doug is also planning a post on hurricane and meteor-strike calculator “games.” Such simulators, which allow users to input various sorts of data about the size and location of storms or extraterrestrial objects in order to see the amount of havoc they might wreak, could easily be expanded into games about actual events. We’ve played some games that retrospectively look back at the events in New Orleans during Katrina, but there’s no reason that such games couldn’t have been made on a “breaking news” deadline: “Try to rescue survivors from rooftops… but beware, some of them will shoot at your helicopter as you attempt a descent!” On the subject of the cyclical nature of the economy, we have the fact that most everyone knew we were headed into a recession many months (or years) before feds actually announced that we’d officially landed in one. Newsgames about the recession and its impact on various sectors of the corporate and public world could have easily been pre-made for this event.
Katrina Game1.jpg
Now, it’s one thing to come up with the stories and core mechanics for games such as these before the event strikes, and it’s another thing to have the art and assets ready and up-to-date when the final details are reported. Bartle also addressed the subject of content creation for breaking newsgames. Advocating a Farmer & Morningstar-style approach (introduced in their Lessons from Lucasfilm’s Habitat), he asserted the fact that the core game mechanics should be separated from the graphical content should there be a technological leap in the latter before the predictive breaking newsgame can be published. He entertained my idea of multiple news sources outsourcing the work of creating newsgames to an independent company supplying the lot. This is probably the only conceivable way that a newsgame developer would have the fiscal security and size to hire the amount of people required to make games on a regular or breaking news schedule. If the people who pioneered info-visualization in newspapers and their websites (Alberto Cairo is our preferred source of information on the subject) could figure out a working model for their work, then there’s probably a solution to this problem out there in somebody’s head as well. What I’ve written here is only a tentative first step in that direction.

We wrapped up the conversation by talking about (non-video game) journalists and their standing disdain for games as trivial. Bartle seemed to think that this was the largest obstacle toward making games a common sight on news websites. We can only hope that more journalists will pick up on the potential for video games to address serious or personal issues, following the odd example of the BusinessWeek Arcade that Ian posted about. One disconnect here might be the fact that a reporter has to work on strenuous daily deadlines and sometimes pull all-nighters to bring a story to print, while most makers of newsgames have no such deadlines and can therefore be seen as pronouncing judgment from a temporally distant Ivory Tower. Perhaps the availability of breaking newsgames might interest or satisfy journalists in a way that current such games do not.

EDIT: Richard wanted me to know that he thought it was funny that I’d described him as a “shuffling, middle-aged” gentleman. I wanted to note that I would never describe the man as “shuffling” in general. He’s as regal as they come. If he denies that fact that he’s quite a bit older than I am, then I will also go along with him on this point. The man is damn sprightly.

Molleindustria’s McDonald’s Game

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on December 11, 2008

(upcoming post for – please email me if you want to link this, because I need to publish it on the JAG blog and redirect traffic to that site before you do so)

Sitting in McDonald’s on the morning following a night where I stayed up until 2:00am playing Molleindustria’s McDonald’s game instead of sleeping because I’d been too drunk and angry from a bad football game to sleep, I was more angry at McDonald’s for switching out their breakfast menu at 11:00 am­ than for corrupting my youth. Something that Molleindustria never mentions is the fact that all McDos have free wireless internet. This is perhaps not worth noting if you live in a concret­e jungle or have enough money to pay for internet service at Starbucks, but in smaller towns McDo and Dairy Queen are some of the only places people can go to get free web access. I’ll take one more cheap shot here before getting serious: every time I stay in Europe for an extended period of time, I end up eating at McDo at least once a day. Why? Because McDonald’s will give me a free soda and infinite refills if I buy a sandwich and fries. If I went anywhere else, I could be paying upwards of four Euros for each such cup of fizzy goodness. Also, this is what McDonald’s looks like in Europe:

1240783744_d39be5d923.jpgAs you will see below, I don’t think Molleindustria’s McDo game is a bad game by any stretch. It does what it sets out to do remarkably well, and I wouldn’t go into such depth to analyze a game if I didn’t love it on some level. What I want to show is how a journalist working under a discipline of verification (getting the facts right) would see this game. My goal is to use the following observations to help teach potential future newsgame developers how to carry a tradition of verification into their ludic work – if being taken seriously by news journalists is even important to them (which it might not be, for understandable reasons).


The game starts out calmly: you have to buy up plots of land in South America in order to grow soy and raise cattle. This quickly infringes on a nearby city and the rainforest, and eventually the player must deforest and despoil in order to maintain a steady profit. At the time of the game’s release this was an actual practice of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Greenpeace and others raised so much fuss about it that in mid-2006 McDonalds agreed to cease Amazon deforestation for soy production. Off to a good start; we can see some change being enacted by the combined cultural influence efforts from Molleindustria and like-minded activist groups.

We can observe some mis-steps in the next section. Molleindustria here allows the player to manage a feed and slaughter factory for cows. The object is to grow the cows quickly and to incinerate them if they develop mad cow or become ill from poor feeding. Molleindustria ignores the fact that McDonald’s was one of the first large corporations to press for humane slaughter from their meat suppliers. Temple Grandin, an autistic savant working for McDonald’s whose passion was easing meat stock into the afterlife,

“designed this system herself. The cows walk into the plant single file, up a curved ramp–she says curves comfort cattle, it makes them think they’re going back home. Then, as they’re moseying along, the animals ease onto a conveyor (they don’t even seem to notice), a moving harness cradles their stomachs and ribs, and lifts them gently off the floor. Suddenly, a man presses a machine between the next cow’s eyes, there’s a pop, and a retractable bolt shoots into the steer’s brain; and the animal slumps, silently. Grandin says when she started these audits a few years ago; the workers who shoot the bolts were missing, a lot. In fact, federal inspectors cited this slaughterhouse for skinning animals that were still alive, although Excel executives disputed the charges. On this day, the slaughterhouse gets a perfect score.”


Anyone who’s read a newspaper during a Mad Cow or Foot & Mouth Disease crisis knows that you kill an infected animal with a bolt gun and then quarantine the entire herd. McDonald’s has never been shown to have violated this procedure, so I don’t know why Molleindustria uses the charged “mad cow” to illustrate dealing with disease in a cattle factory. The problem with adding questionable materials to the animal feed is more complex, and it takes an understanding of meat trade between the EU and the US in the past six years to grasp completely ( can discount the “industrial waste” option as humor, I hope, because either it’s hyperbolic comic flair or a misinterpretation of the use of sewage sludge as “organic compost” on some American farms.

The criticism of rBGH use in this game is much more honest. This has been a contentious issue in American food production for awhile now, leading to the aforementioned ban on US beef in the EU. I have firsthand food retail experience on this matter, because only this year did Starbucks stop using milk tainted by rBGH. I had a male roommate who actually claimed that drinking too much milk as a child caused him to develop lactating breasts, but I suspect that his claim is half imagination and half XXY genetics. The problem here isn’t so much McDonald’s use of hormones in their cattle feed, but in the FDA’s staunch approval of its usage despite research done in the EU (remember that Molleindustria is an Italian company). I totally agree that this is adequate enough of a controversy to support its implementation in the game.

I think the McDonald’s store segment suffers simply from a lack of personal experience by the staff of Molleindustria in the workplace of fast food chains. This could even be another instance of the US/EU divide. Many states are “right to work” states. A retail manager can fire an employee for any reason (other than race, creed, etc). Because this has been passed in legislation, without being overturned at the national level, a worker’s rights organization has no recourse to protest this outside of lobbying government officials. For all the states that aren’t “right to work,” there’s the simple fact that if a manager sees an employee spitting in food (which is what they do in the McDo game) there’s no reason to fear rebuttal for firing said employee. The disgruntled employee is the one in trouble here, because he’ll probably never be able to get another corporate retail job (ie, the ones with health benefits for full-time employees) after being fired for food contamination. Also, the game mechanic of either chiding or rewarding an employee to make them more happy or productive, and only being able to do either of these actions once before firing an employee, doesn’t come anywhere close to constructing the actual practices used to influence workplace morale.


The final segment is the most problematic for me, because doing my preliminary Internet research I couldn’t find a single substantiated claim that McDonald’s bribes health, environmental protection, or government officials. One McDonald’s executive did accept bribes from a Chinese cattle supplier in 2007, but this was a year after the game was made and isn’t what Molleindustria is talking about at all. The idea that bribing a health official would even make a dent in the already negative public opinion of McDo products is ludicrous. The same can be said for the effects of bribing a single government environmental protection enforcer (on the issue of deforestation, for instance). Unless one can verify that McDonald’s has bought the entire Environmental Protection Agency of this country or of a South American nation, then a journalistic game developer shouldn’t make game mechanics like this. The ad department that develops marketing strategies based on appealing to children or manipulating packaging to be reminiscent of the food pyramid are apt and effective by contrast. I think more emphasis should’ve been placed here than on the tenuous bribing scenario.

What’s the upshot of all this? Molleindustria’s work here is important, and its a brilliant model for pointed journalistic game criticism of particular companies in their manifold offenses. The problem is the uneven attention to verification and nuance in various game segments. I’m proposing a model based on Alberto Cairo’s abstraction practice in infovisualization work to deal with covering aspects of a game like the McDonald’s game when the verification work simply can’t be done. Let’s take a look at Ian Bogost’s Oil God game. Why can’t I criticize this game on the same grounds? Certainly one can’t verify that a deity is responsible for causing wars and disasters in oil-producing countries and their importers in order to drive up the price of a gallon of crude. But Bogost has abstracted where he can’t point fingers. Certainly this game plays off popular liberal opinion (and substantiated historical evidence) that the United States, through the CIA, has fomented civil war and supplied weapons to antagonistic nations in order to create opportunities for US companies to move into a disordered nation and grab up oil contracts. But Bogost doesn’t even go this far. He allows the player to explore the controversy without necessarily alienating staunch pro-American-business-and-government players.

I think this is important when one desires to persuade a player than there might be a problem with the way, for instance, that the world economy works. The game allows for different levels of interpretive work in the player. Molleindustria’s McDonald’s game doesn’t, and it also stands on the questionable verification grounds that I mentioned throughout the article. So, by all means, form a game development company and do important work like Molleindustria at going after corrupt corporations. Or integrate a unit like this into your media holdings if you’re a news provider. But remember to keep the discipline of verification intact when you construct simulations like this game. And if you can’t verify something that you want to include in the game in order to deepen the controversy and visibility of the problem, practice a method of abstraction (as Bogost does) and allow interpretive depth to do the work for you.

In my post on choice in newsgames I note that I see Oiligarchy as a major step forward for Molleindustria, and I’m sure somebody will eventually write a proper analysis of that game on this blog.

%d bloggers like this: