Interesting Games of 2017: Labor Party

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‘Tis that time again: the waning days of December, when the unwrapping of gifts is accompanied by the wrapping-up of a year. I have been trying to keep up with interesting releases this year, and over the next several days I will be attempting a final run-down.

(Just to be clear: “Interesting” is my way of circumventing the “best” trap. There are hundreds of voices you could find promising to reveal the “best” games of the year. These, by contrast, are games that made me think—about the subject matter presented, and/or the possibilities and limitations of the medium. Some of them are noble failures. All of them deserved to be remembered in some way, as a game that contributed to the medium in 2017.)

These little retrospectives will undoubtedly stretch into January, as there have been exciting releases stretching all the way into December (Finding Paradise!) that I will need to catch up on. 2017 has been, overall, exceptionally chock-full of exciting indie releases. Back when I was doing my “Games of the Decade” retrospective, I wrote that, following tremendous excitement about the indie scene in 2012–2013, the diabolical duo of Gamergate and the Trump election put a damper on my naïve enthusiasm for this budding art form. And yet, while the current moment certainly finds me hardened, pessimistic, and politically preoccupied, I also can’t deny that 2016 and 2017 have witnessed the release of an inordinate number of truly superb games. It really does seem that the medium is rediscovering its creative mojo, a few years after everyone had to go into hiding from being harassed by ‘gaters. Best of times, worst of times, and all that.

Anyway, I have a lot of ground to cover, and I’ve chosen to split my retrospective into themed posts. Up today: games about labor, a topic I have developed something of an interest in over the course of 2017.

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Videogame Cat of the Week: The Fabulous Screech / Remembering Hannah Frank

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I began this series as a lark, inspired by my friend Hannah Frank’s Tumblr omgcatrevolution. I linked to her Tumblr here, she reciprocated by posting some of this material over there. We chuckled about trading some of the meager traffic our endeavors attract; it gave us a chance to chat. A chance to chat with Hannah was always welcome.

Today, omgcatrevolution posted its final post. This morning, at 1 AM, Hannah Frank passed away from a sudden illness. Her death has come as an utter shock to her friends.

Last week, I promised another “sad cat tale” in this Monday’s spot. I had planned to reserve this spot for Jonas and Verena Kyratzes’ The Fabulous Screech (2012), a point-and-click tearjerker about a cat’s adventures through heaven and hell, and eventual decline into old age.

I cannot, at the moment, bring myself to write about The Fabulous Screech. But I think I will leave the screenshots in, and leave the title of the post as it was (with a new acknowledgement). I can think of plenty of people who wouldn’t want to be eulogized in a blog post about a cartoon cat. Hannah Frank was not one of those people. And so that is where I have decided to take this post.

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Playbor in the Loop: eSports and Athletic Scholarships in Chicago Education

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Ian here—

What follows is my talk from SCMS 2017 in Chicago, IL. It was part of the panel I organized, “Gaming’s Midway Point: Games and Game Culture in Chicago“—and I’d like to thank Julianne GrassoDaniel Johnson, and Chris Carloy for contributing papers and making that panel the success that it was.  You can follow along with my visual presentation here.

This is the website of Collegiate Starleague, a league for competitive, professional-level videogaming, or eSports, on college campuses. Collegiate Starleague holds tournaments for college players of games such as League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009) and Dota 2 (Valve, 2013), two enormously popular games in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre, which has dominated eSports in recent years, as well as the first-person shooters Overwatch (Blizzard, 2016) and Couter-Strike: Global Offensive (Valve, 2012), and the digital collectable card game Hearthstone (Blizzard, 2014).

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Sunset

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In all seriousness, call your elected representatives and tell them to oppose defunding the NEA and NEH.

Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

I reserve the right to sporadically post future entries in this series, but with Sunset (Tale of Tales, 2015), it really does feel as if things have come full circle. As I laid out in the first post in this series, the process genre finds its most archetypal manifestation in Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), and Skvirsky has been tracking its development in contemporary Latin American cinema. Sunset was created by Belgian artist duo Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, and is about the daily life of a housekeeper in a (fictional) Latin American country. The parallels are easily drawn, but there’s also more going on here than this brief description suggests.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: In the Shadow of Papers, Please

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The Westport Independent (Double Zero One Zero, 2016)

Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to its completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that strike the same notes? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

In this entry, I turn not to one game, but to a whole slew of them. Particularly, I will be looking at games that have popped up in the wake of Lucas Pope’s lauded Papers, Please (3909, 2013), which I considered earlier in the series, here.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Skulljhabit

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Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

The games that I have dealt with so far in this series—ShenmuePapers, Please, and Cart Lifeall enforce some sort of time pressure on their players. They don’t operate in any sort of 1:1 “real time” (their workdays last in the range of 5–45 minutes), but they do have their own internal ticking clocks, enforcing a certain pace. Cart Life‘s accelerated workday doesn’t even go so far as to pause while players are navigating its menu screens.

Skulljhabit (Porpentine, 2014) breaks this trend. It was made in the interactive fiction platform Twine, so player activity consists of clicking on hyperlinks, sans any ticking clock. It is bound, in this way, to the constraints of its platform. But what Porpentine achieves within those constraints is nevertheless quite remarkable, pointing toward the outer limits of how we can think about labor in videogames.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Cart Life

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Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) was part of the opening volley of what would eventually be termed “personal games.” Although some of the best known games slotted under this designation told stories of queer lives—for instance Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012), Consensual Torture Simulator (merritt kopas, 2013), and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013)—this is far from a requirement. Hofmeier’s game pursues an alternate tactic, telling the personal stories of characters whose lives might normally be overlooked, considered too humdrum for the purposes of mass entertainment. If you squint, you can see Hofmeier importing aspects of cinema’s neorealist tradition to the medium of videogames, in the game’s focus on the working class lives, on the effects of financially precarity on family relations, and even its use of black-and-white imagery. There is one major difference, though: The neorealist tradition in the Cesare Zavattini mold was often devoted to slow pacing, using empty moments to model the often-incident-free rhythm of everyday life. (Contemporary films in the process genre continue this tradition, hyperbolizing it beyond anything found in 1940s-era neoralist cinema.) Hofmeier, by contrast, enforces a frantic pace. In Cart Life‘s version of working class life, there is no time for idleness. When you’re trying to prove to a judge that you’re financially stable enough to have custody of your daughter, or trying to save up enough for a security deposit on an apartment so that you can move out of a hotel, every minute counts.

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