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Critical Simulation stuff April 22, 2007

Posted by joshg in General.
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I’ve been working my way through First Person, a collection of essays on new media, games, and related goodness. A chapter which I meant to blog about immediately after reading was Gonzalo Frasca’s “Videogames of the Oppressed“.

Unfortunately one point which he briefly mentioned got under my skin so deeply that I wanted to read his full thesis which this paper was based on before trying to respond. Since his thesis is, well, thesis-sized and my attention span is limited I haven’t gotten that far yet. So rather than nitpick on the ability of games to make moral statements, I’ll come back to that at some other time so that I can get on with the business of recommending the rest of the paper.

I love his concept of creating an open forum where people modify each other’s game designs as a method of communicating different points of view on a problem or situation. It would be great if someone would set up such a website, where games that were uploaded would have source included and allow people to upload modified games that would be referenced by the site to the original. On the other hand, aside from some of the cross-referencing features it’s possible that such a discussion forum could be created on an existing online community such as the art-focused CodeTree or the relatively open games portal Kongregate.

Anyway, if you’re interested in ideas of games as critical simulation, go give Frasca’s paper a read, and the rest of the section on Critical Simulation is worthwhile as well.

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The Escapist on faith and philosophy in games April 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, Judaism, mainstream games.
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The newest issue of online gaming publication The Escapist focuses on religion and philosophy within gaming. The articles vary from thought-provoking to curious to strangely silly. The two articles that I found the most worth reading were “Jesus was not a gamer” by Joe Blancato, and “A Lack of Faith: Why Christian Games are Doomed to Fail” by Lara Crigger.

“Jesus was not a gamer” pokes a bit at the tendency we have to pray to whatever god/God we know of for help in winning games, and then dives into a survey of how religion and games have mixed historically around the world. The article gives some fascinating examples. I finally have some clue as to what a dreidl is, and while I had heard of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet before, I didn’t realize that the rules had actually been reconstructed. (The article links to a Flash version of the game, but at the time of writing this it seems to be down.)

Interestingly, Blancato looks for a gaming connection to Christianity and finds that there seems to be none. He attributes it at least partially to Christianity’s underground beginnings, but isn’t that the exact circumstances in which he says that Judaism invented the dreidl? I don’t know how deeply the two situations are parallel, though, so maybe I’m misunderstanding.

“A Lack of Faith” is, initially, a pretty harsh criticism of the current state of Christian games. But looking past the nasty subtitle and the Left Behind: Eternal Forces abuse, Crigger actually dives into what I believe to be a fundamental challenge for Christian games, or faith-based games in general. Are Christian games willing and able to create a deep and meaningful look at what it means to have a crisis of faith? The article takes a close look at the story of Job as an example of what a truly challenging faith story looks like, and holds that up as a measure. Ultimately, Crigger is advocating what (I think) I’ve been trying to cheer on via this blog all along – for games to create a deeper and more meaningful representation of what faith is, how it turns your life inside out.

One thing I’d mention is that I think the article doesn’t do justice to just how hard that goal might be to achieve, especially in a Christian context. Crigger brings up this core question from the look at Job:

If by being good, you can entirely avoid misfortune, what distinguishes righteousness from commerce, a mere business transaction between you and God?

Certainly struggling with this question is what makes the book of Job so challenging. Unfortunately, in a slightly different light it’s also what makes creating a compelling Christian faith story so challenging as well. Both game rules and computer systems are excellent at creating representations of predictable, mathematical relationships. But if we try to embody a story of faith with a living and incalculable God in the rules of a game, how do we distinguish righteousness from commerce? How do we keep our representation of prayers from being “mere business transaction(s)” in an economy of game mechanics?