Video Game Literary Classics 101

Imagine it’s 2050 and you’re helping design a course for high-school students called Video Game Literary Classics. You’ve been asked to suggest culturally-significant video games for them to academically analyse and discuss. Which titles would you choose for literary study and why?

It’s a good question, and one posed to the community by Angie over at Backlog Crusader at the end of last month. The aim here is to look at releases which say something significant about humanity; interesting philosophies, ethics or social commentary that’s worth in-depth discussion. The number of responses will determine how long the course will be and, although it’s been a very long time since I was in education, I’m stepping up to the challenge. Here are five games I’d suggest and the reasons why.

From 1993: Mortal Kombat

My brother had a Game Gear when we were kids, and we played the original Mortal Kombat together while news reports appeared on television and in papers to declare it as being a source of corruption. Back then it was considered to be a horribly-graphic release and both parents and politicians were worried about the affect it was having on children. I can remember my sibling and I thinking this was kind of stupid: how would playing a game on a screen make anyone to want to be violent in real life?

It was an interesting time. Society was a mix of excitement for new technology, fear of the impact of digital violence, and mass hysteria about ‘keeping our children safe’. Almost three decades later and the title in the spotlight may have changed but the moral panic hasn’t: we’re still having the same conversations about whether playing video games is harmful or addictive. Fortunately there’s plenty of research now to show the benefits too, so at least we’re able to have a more balanced discussion.

From 2012: Journey

In a complete contrast from the earlier release suggested above, Journey is about a quest to reach a mountain in the distance that contains no violence whatsoever. You’ll meet other players in-game with whom you can only communicate through musical noises made my your character; but far from being an obstacle, it in no way stops you from wanting to them on their way. Does this say something about human nature, that we’re all built with an intrinsic desire to be ‘good’ and do the right thing?

It’s something to ponder over, but one thing we can be sure Journey highlights is that gaming experiences can be beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time. It ignited the debate about whether the medium should be considered as art and has a lovely philosophy at its core. My stepson summed it up nicely in a comment he came out with after completing the title: “So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.”

From 2013: Gone Home

Games like Journey and Dear Esther sparked a trend for narrative titles in the early 2010s which were sadly looked down on by some members of the community. They ended up becoming known as ‘walking simulators’, a derogatory term meant to imply that their lack of traditional gameplay made them less worthy than other action-heavy releases. Could something where the player did nothing but move forward and where there was no need for skill still be considered a video game?

Game, story, art: however you want to define it, the genre is perfect for telling a story and helping the player to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Gone Home in an amazing example as it wonderfully captures 1990s culture and what it was like growing up in the decade. More importantly, it also discusses views on homosexuality at the time and the stigma attached to being anything other than straight. We’ve still got a long way to go but it’s interesting to see how things have changed over the past 40 years.

From 2017: Horizon Zero Dawn

There are so many questions about society which can be explored through the narrative of Horizon Zero Dawn. Where will the relationship between humans and robots ultimately lead, and is artificial intelligence (AI) something to be feared? Will the way we’re treating the planet eventually lead to our downfall? And how does Aloy rappel down mountains, slide into patches of tall grass, go head-to-head with all sorts of dangerous machines and everything else Mother’s Heart throws at her – and still look absolutely perfect?

Jokes aside, this girl is far from being a one-dimensional character who only exists as an object to be rescued or for the gratification of men; and she actually wears something practical rather than being scantily-clad. There have been many discussions in recent years about the portrayal of digital women and just as much abuse thrown at the females who make them. Are protagonists such as Aloy, who we can be proud of and look up to, evidence that both the industry and gaming community are finally starting to grow up?

From 2017: Fortnite

Love it or hate it, Fortnite interestingly highlight several current trends in the gaming industry. The title itself is a copy of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and now other creators are starting to replicate Epic Games’ baby in return. Its free-to-play and cross-platform basis has been a reason for its huge popularity. But there have also been recent reports of the company’s employees being placed under extreme pressure to work gruelling hours too, revealing a darker side to maintaining the success.

It seems as though there’s not a week that goes by during which this game doesn’t make an appearance in the news. There’s a fear about how addictive it is and how it’s going to be the downfall of our children – but not so much talk about good parenting, and how it’s important to know what your youngsters are playing and whether it’s suitable for them. Whose responsibility is it to moderate: parents or publishers? And what impact is this going to have on society in the long-run?

Thank you to Angie for coming up with this collaboration, and for letting me participate! There’s still time to join in: take a look at her post before 23 June 2019 for all the details, and get involved.

An Epic Debate: Kim’s argument

The popularity of Fortnite has been transformative for Epic Games. But with huge success has come rivalry with Valve, gamers unhappy with exclusivity deals, rumours of stressful working conditions and many unanswered questions. Later Levels has joined forces with Dan from for An Epic Debate, in which we’ll be giving our opinions and thoughts on the company over the coming week.

Disclaimer: I’m not an Epic Games. Let me make that clear for transparency right from the start of this paragraph. Dan mentioned in his post on Wednesday that he doesn’t like having to have yet another store application on his PC, disagrees with the company’s strong-arm tactics and resents not having a choice to buy a game he wants on Steam; and I can see where he’s coming from. As he’s doing himself, I’ll be exercising my ability to make a choice by avoiding the Epic Games Store and voting with my wallet.

On the other hand though, I find myself agreeing with Ben on certain aspects too. I understand I might not like certain decisions but they do make business sense because competition can be positive. As my blogging-partner-in-crime pointed out on Monday, Epic is trying to get a foothold in a market dominated by Steam since 2004 and has the bank-balance to be able to do so. They’re challenging Valve to change their ways by offering developers a more favourable split of the revenue, and that’s great for all the indie creators out there.

Although the three of us have different opinions, there’s one thing we can all agree on: that crunch is never good and shouldn’t be a part of the development process. Recent news articles have highlighted how the company’s employees have been under extreme pressure to work grueling hours to maintain Fornite’s success in a hostile environment, where completing overtime is expected even though it’s officially voluntary. Crunch is destructive. It hurts both mental and physical health, damages relationships, and should never be forced on people.

But putting terrible working practices to one side for a moment, and as much as it pains me to say it, Epic does get the blunt end of the stick occasionally. Every time the dangers of playing video games are discussed by the media, politicians and even our royals, Fortnite seems to make an appearance. I remember watching an episode of the ITV News last year where Correspondent Martha Fairlie reported that the game could be ‘dangerously addictive’ and is exposing our children to all sorts of terrible risks.

Time for another disclaimer now: I’m not a fan of Fortnite either. There’s nothing enjoyable about the gameplay for me and it’s a rip-off of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) anyway. I’m fed-up of arranging tickets to expos and then finding the exhibition hall filled with numerous stands featuring the title, when it’s free-to-play and already available to the public. At Insomnia63 last August we counted five separate areas, and that’s not to mention the fact it also made several appearances on the BYOC timetable for the weekend.

But regardless of my feelings towards the title, it’s important to set the record straight – particularly when a slow-news-day results in unjustified reporting. Fortnite isn’t going to bring about the downfall of our children, especially not if parents are aware of what their kids are doing. News reports back in the early 1990s would have had you believe that seeing Mortal Kombat on the Game Gear was going to cause me harm; but almost 20 years later, I’m still involved with video games and think I’m doing alright when it comes to functioning as a member of society (maybe).

At the EGX Rezzed event in April, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion by Dr Pete Etchells called The psychology of gaming addiction. He feels that the World Health Organization’s (WHO) formal classification of gaming disorder was too pre-emptive and that moving from research to disorder requires a much stronger evidence base than is currently available. I was shocked to hear that various papers have indicated that as much as 46% of the population could be addicted, so there’s a danger we’re over-generalising along with a risk of abuse of diagnoses.

It’s studies like these which get politicians and parents declaring that Fortnite will ruin us all; and public figures who feel they need to wade in on the discussion aren’t helping either. While at an event at a YMCA in London last month, Prince Harry said: “That game shouldn’t be allowed. What is the benefit of having it in your household? It’s created to addict, an addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible. It’s so irresponsible. It’s like waiting for the damage to be done and kids turning up on your doorsteps and families being broken down.”

All comments like this do is reinforce the negative stereotypes about gamers and their hobby that we’ve been working so hard to dispel in recent years. It’s even more frustrating when they appear to have come from someone who’s far removed from video games or seems as though they’ve never played a single title in their life. I’ll tell you what, Harry: spend a day playing and if you can tell me you didn’t take something positive away from the experience, then we’ll chat your idea for banning Fortnite.

The things that grinds gears the most about all of this is how it feels as though the title is used as a scapegoat to cover up a lack of parenting. Let’s take a comment from that ITV News report as an example: “It takes away from precious study time.” Give a child a choice between homework and gaming, and I bet I can predict with a startling degree of accuracy which they’re going to pick. If your kid is meant to be studying but is instead playing – and you’ve provided them with the means to do so – then perhaps it’s not Fortnite which should be blamed.

It’s important for parents to be aware of the risks of any title. Whether it’s free-to-play or purchased, online or offline, multiplayer or single-player; it’s up to you to understand what your child is playing and find out whether the content is suitable. We shouldn’t be leaving it up to an age-rating on the packing, a poorly-researched report on the evening news or someone who has limited knowledge of video games to do our parenting for us.

Yes, parenting is hard. But blaming Epic and Fortnite is far too easy.

Insomnia63: the trouble with Fortnite

My current obsession is Guns of Icarus Alliance. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually play as I tend to shy away from anything competitive; but after getting roped into a match at Rezzed, I purchased a copy and have been hooked since.

So does this obsession mean I’d make a beeline for the stand if Guns happened to be on show at the next expo I’m due to attend? As much as I’m enjoying it and look forward to spending a few nights each week as an Engineer, probably not. I might wish to visit the developer at some point to give positive feedback about their project, but it seems strange to spend time queuing up for a ten-minute session on a title I could switch on as soon as I got back home to the comfort of my own sofa.

This hopefully explains my confusion when entering the NEC Birmingham last weekend for Insomnia63. After a short tour around the exhibition hall, we counted five separate areas dedicated to Fortnite: two full rows in the PlayStation zone, a couple of stands from Nintendo, a line of computers in the middle of the show and two merch sections where it was playable on gaming laptops available for purchase. And that’s not to mention the fact it also made several appearances on the BYOC timetable for the weekend.

Insomnia63, video games, Fortnite

Let’s get one thing straight before we continue: this post isn’t now going to turn into me ranting about how terrible a game Fortnite is. Yes, I’ve played it and no, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. But I’ve actively defended the title in the past when it has been the subject of outraged news reports and I don’t believe it’s going to bring about the downfall of our children (bad parenting will be able to do that on its own without too much help).

What I feel irked about is it being given so much coverage that it’s then turned into the ‘highlight’ of a show by proxy. I noticed the same thing done with Minecraft at Insomnia61 last year, along with other past events: row after row of monitors displaying the same badly-pixelated pigs. Although there may be a competitive element to these titles which doesn’t appeal to me, it strikes me as discouraging that so much floorspace is devoted to games which are readily available and most attendees likely already own.

Maybe I’m being cynical but it just seems like a cheap and non-creative way to fill empty areas in an exhibition hall. Tickets for myself, my other-half and stepson for Insomnia63 cost around £80 (including booking fee) so to part with that much and then be greeted with so many machines running Fortnite was a disappointment. And it’s not just the cost in terms of money: it’s also that we made a six-hour round trip and spent half of our weekend together at an event which promoted a game we could have stayed at home to play.

Seriously though, I think the worst thing about expos resorting to existing titles like this is the fact that new and unique projects then get overlooked by a good portion of attendees. Indie developers put so much time and effort into the games they’re working on, and those I’ve spoken to previously about the subject have revealed just how much commitment and organisation it takes to appear at a show. I can only imagine how disheartening it is to finally get there and realise you’re competing with 20 instances of the latest fad.

Attendees should be free to discover their own highlight of an expo rather than having something like Fortnite or Minecraft foisted upon them. Let’s hope we get to EGX next month and don’t find more than few machines dedicated to either of them.

Fortnite: the downfall of our children

Fortnite, said to be the most addictive video game of all time, is surely going to be the downfall of our children. parents should be aware of the risks, not least because it distracts from study-time: youngsters can be contacted by strangers through apps sites and games.

This was the story featured on an episode of the ITV News yesterday evening that my other-half and I happened to watch (we’re usually far too busy playing those damn video games ourselves). Reported by Correspondent Martha Fairlie, the gist of it was that Fortnite could be ‘dangerously addictive’ and is exposing children who play it to a number of dangers. The video is below for anybody who’d like to watch it.

For transparency, I’m not a fan of this title and it’s not something I play at all often. I prefer games which feature narrative over competition and have an objective other than simply winning. But it’s important to set the record straight, particularly when a slow-news-day results in unjustified reporting; and who knows, maybe those experienced correspondents could learn a thing or two from us bloggers.

False: “It takes away from precious study time.”

This isn’t down to Fortnite itself: let’s cut to the chase and admit it’s the result of poor parenting. Give a child a choice between homework and video games, and I bet I can predict with a startling degree of accuracy which they’re going to pick. If your kid is meant to be studying but is instead playing – and you’ve provided them with the means to able to do so – then perhaps it’s your parenting skills which need to be investigated.

False: “Communication is an integral part of the game experience.”

It’s an option but not essential. My stepson Ethan has never played a Fortnite match where Pete or I haven’t been watching him, or have allowed him to communicate with other participants; but this doesn’t detract from his enjoyment and it’s still the game he currently asks to play most frequently. The appeal comes from competing against 99 other plays for first-place, not necessarily from talking to them through ‘voice chat and text chat’.

True and false: “It’s really important parents are aware of the risks of this game.”

It’s actually important for parents to be aware of the risks of any game. Whether it’s free-to-play or purchased, online or offline, multiplayer or single-player; it’s up to you to understand what your child is playing and find out for yourself whether the content is suitable. Don’t leave it to an age-rating on the packaging or some poorly-researched report on the evening news to do your parenting for you.

True: “One in four children have been contacted by someone they don’t know.”

Similar to above, it’s also important to know who your kid is talking to and what they’re getting up to. We’ve been careful to teach Ethan that it’s not ok to talk to strangers online or accept any kind of friend request until we’ve properly checked them out. I’m well aware that his obedience will likely change as he moves into his teenage years, but that won’t stop us from making sure we’re aware of what he’s playing and who he’s interacting with.

False: The controller doesn’t need to be turned on.

Come on, ITV News: if you’re going to report on a video game then at least make sure you’ve done your research properly, because we’re going to notice if you haven’t. Two gamers can’t play the same title on the same screen when it doesn’t contain a split-screen mode. And the controller does actually need to be turned on in order to be of any use, so you might want to edit some of those clips used in your video.

Next you’ll be telling us that games incite violence and property damage