Revisiting my First Ever Conference Paper; on Game Culture, Musical (Sub)cultures, and De-facto Whiteness?

I’ve been looking back at the first conference paper I delivered, nearly 2 years ago, at a really great event about musical subcultures and their portrayal in media. The paper was largely unconnected with my Ph.d. thesis, and there are some glaring flaws in it, but it deals with some things I’ve been thinking about for a while, and could probably have some sort of point to make if I tightened it up, trimmed the fat and made the arguments more explicit. That draft paper is available here, but I think I probably summarize the main points more clearly below. My writing has improved at least slightly from years of supervisors shouting “be clearer dammit” while hitting me with their belts. So feel free to follow the link if the waffle below interests you, but it’s probably not important to understand what I’m getting at. In fact, the original paper will probably cloud the issue.

At the time, the main point I was trying to make was that predominantly “white” musical subcultures seem to enjoy a more naturalized place in gaming culture . Even when a game isn’t explicitly \METAL/ - like Brutal Legend or Rock Band – dark fantasy games like Skyrim, Dishonored, DMC, plus pretty much every post-apocalyptic game (due to the references to punk fashion drawn from 80s-90s films of the genre) readily appropriate elements of punk and metal influence into their world building and character design. Whereas hip-hop has generally had a more marginalized place. For example, there was the fuss some metallers made over the decision to include hip-hop on the Twisted Metal soundtrack, and a lot of sneering at Marc Ecko’s “Gettin’ Up” when it came out. Games like Afro Samurai are generally of niche appeal and slip under the radar, and if you go to any gaming events like an expo or a LAN party it’s generally all heavy rock and dance with the occasional pop track thrown in for taste-trolling.

I think the trouble games have with incorporating hiphop culture in an authentic way is partially down to the social-makeup of dev teams; their own tastes (generally being, if not white, at least middle-class and suburban) mixed with their discomfort with depicting anything that might be criticized as being a negative “ghettocentric” portrayal. It also comes from the fact that fantastical elements like dragons, magic vikings and dystopian cyborgs are more readily visible in the “mainstream” of punk/metal (in lyrics, album art and magazines) whereas hiphop tends to focus on social reality (obviously there are the Dels, the Kool Keiths and the Dooms but these are often dismissed as “backpacker” hip-hop for nerdy white kids). Because angry white music has generally focused on expressing the internal emotional world through grand metaphors, its iconography spills more readily over into the larger-than-life scenarios presented in games, whereas the more well-known rap music has been more concerned with the here-and-now, meaning it (and references to it) only seem to find their ways into games about gangsters, fast cars or street football/basketball.


And before you come at me with “but PaRappa the Rapper, but Jet Set Radio!” I’d like to refer you to a comment from a friend:

“A scant minority of games does not a norm make … PaRappa retains its uniqueness because of the music style (rap and hip hop), which means that it’s not the norm. If it was Parappa the Geetarr Playa, nobody would remember the game to this day, because it’s so normal.” 

Good point IMO.

BTW, if you want to get to the meat of the draft article, I recommend skipping to page 8, where you will find a sweet rundown of enemies in 1980s-90s Beat ‘Em Ups and how they all had mohawks (because that was totally threatening and rad).

Thoughts on GamerGate pt. 1: Different Ways of Evaluating Games

So, as a games researcher person I’ve had a few people Tweet at me asking me where I stand on GamerGate. I’ve been thinking about it long and hard enough now that I feel a need to just throw some of it up on here. This isn’t going to be easy and I will probably revise it as I go along, trying to keep to one issue or theme per post for clarity; so don’t expect me to cover everything here.

Introductions first. I think it’s fair to say that most Gaters would classify me as an “anti” but one who’s fair in my dealings with them. I’m not the sort of anti whose entire view on GG revolves around claims about harassment etc. (and I’m totally open to the idea that those opposing GG might harbor their fair share of bullies, doxxers and careerists). As someone who has written about games journalism’s role in maintaining the “gamer” identity, I came into this with quite a few pre-formed ideas that I still haven’t been convinced to part with.

The first issue I want to talk about is this: even before GamerGate had a name, there was an underlying tension around how people evaluate games differently. Putting aside the initial catalyst of the “gamers are dead” articles and various claims about journalistic corruption, many of the Gaters I’ve spoken to in recent months have a long-standing grievance with sites like Kotaku bringing an “agenda” to games journalism (usually by prioritizing talking about gender or race or whatever over whether a game is actually fun to play). They are increasingly frustrated with accusations from the “other side” (of which I am a part, I guess) that they must be -ist or -phobic because they have different priorities for games writing. /KotakuInAction is a key example of this. GamerGate has given a name to a subset of hardcore gamers for whom the gender or skin colour of characters is dis-interesting. To them, an overbearing interest in a game’s representational content is seen as naive; an indicator that the critic is not a real gamer. This is because of fundamental differences between how different groups are perceiving, talking about, and evaluating games.

This polarization roughly mirrors a sort of non-debate that went on in academic games studies some time back. Pick up most games studies books and there will be a boring section on “the ludology/narratology debate”. “Narratologist” was a term given to researchers coming into games from disciplines like film and literature and looking at them primarily as types of story; analyzing the settings, characters, dialogue and so on. On the other hand, “Ludologists” tried to analyse games based on what they made them unique – their interactivity and rules. The “sides” have since reconciled. Really it was always down to a matter of the individual writer’s perspective and what seemed most important to them.

So, it could be said that a sizeable amount of GG are “accidental ludologists”. Their interest in the hobby – their desire to understand how games work – drives them to perceive games as designers must see them; as mechanical objects. More hardcore gamers tend to be less reluctant to play older games or newer indie games with outdated graphics. They’re in conflict with the console game market’s industrial logic which tells the majority of its consumers “buy this highly-polished bauble – the story is good – but mainly it’s another uninventive shooter”. So here’s my first real point: the type of hardcore gamers who just want to hear “objective reviews” about whether a game is “fun” (deeply subjective anyway but hey) are lay ludologists. They’ve spent enough time playing games in numerous genres to have at least some understanding of how these genres work. Mechanics are their main reference point; what they “see” when they evaluate a game.

Here’s where NotYourShield comes in. You can have games whose representational content is arguably racist toward black people, and you can have black fans of those games who don’t see that, and others who vehemently criticize it. Something like racism is to do with social meaning, so any claim about it is always going to be an interpretation at best. The degree to which those different individuals do or do not perceive that game as racist will depend on how they look at games, the lens that they’ve adopted over the years. They’re an entertainment product, to be consumed with your hands, eyes and ears and ultimately no-one has a monopoly on the “correct” way to evaluate, but that hasn’t stopped people staking their claims.

I DO think the sorts of games writers who have been decried as “SJWs” (a term which, in itself, implies that your caring about social issues is false posturing) need to tread lightly when making logical leaps from subjective readings to claims about the “harm” a game might cause. I already wrote about this in regards to the different types of research conducted around race in GTA: San AndreasI DO think that those who are critical of games’ portrayals of gender, race, sexuality etc. should make efforts to adopt language which clearly indicates that they are working within an interpretivist framework, rather than making claims about a games objective meaning (no such thing can wholly exist). But with this comes the assumption that more clearly signalling a subjective approach will stop criticism of “SJW” reviews; something I doubt will happen as long as games journalism is narrowly viewed by GG solely as “buyers’ guides”. Take, as an example, Evan Narcisse’s piece on “black cool” which frames the portrayal of black videogame characters not as “harmful” or “problematic” but as something which makes the author personally cringe.

I even agree, to some extent, with the idea of separating out a “morality score” where necessary; although I personally fail to see how Metacritic scores lowered by such reviews matter in the grand scheme of this. This is probably because I’m not the sort of person who cares for quantitative evaluations of quality – “6/10″ means nothing to me as a consumer, tells me little about how the reviewer’s experience of the game may or may not mirror my own. The cynic in me says that there is a certain amount of false concern for the economic well-being of developers (“bad scores hurt devs!) being used to silence the type of reviews which might prompt a gamer to consider, for example, what is going on in Bayonetta 2 in terms of gender politics (and no, I’m not 100% sold on the “Bayonetta 2 is sexist!” thing either). It’s difficult to separate the genuine concerns from the silencing attempts. A wanker would be understandably perturbed to open up a buyers’ guide for pornography and find the text replaced with the writings of Laura Mulvey. But is it necessary for all games writing to serve the buyers’ guide function, especially now when Lets’ Plays provide a much clearer window onto how a game handles?

Overall, if you’re a Gater whose perspective is that writers shouldn’t make lofty claims about the societal “effects” of games’ representational content; then I have some sympathy. If your perspective is that social topics should not be broached at all – are inappropriate for games writing – then I am less inclined to agree. The social worlds which games construct are part of how they feel and are, therefore, a valid thing to critique and evaluate. They’re even a valid thing to include in a “buyers’ guide”; if your view of the purpose of games writing is really that narrow. Left4Dead would be a drastically different game if the zombies were replaced with immigrants, or babies (or immigrant babies) even if the game were otherwise mechanically identical. The end-feeling as a consumer/player would be different; some would cry, some would laugh. In addition, you can objectively describe the mechanics of a game (run around the maze and collect the pills while avoiding the enemies) but you can’t objectively evaluate whether these are “good” in the sense of enjoyable. Whether a consumer who has never played an RTS will enjoy Starcraft 2 is really not a case of “good” mechanics.

Here’s my main contention, though. I’ve saved it for last. Something I think people on the GG/KiA side of the the gaming community should really think about a little. You don’t stop being a “real” or “hardcore” gamer when the scope of your evaluation moves beyond “fun” or “mechanics”. Gamers who care about different things from you are not automatically naive noobs. To dismiss them as such because a game’s representative content gave them bad feels is horseshit.

Speaking of horses, I’ve seen “horseshoe theory” thrown around the internet a lot recently. This is the idea that those at the extreme ends of a political spectrum are often ideologically closer to each-other than to the center. There is a thing I think we all have in common, and which ties the current “culture war” (if you want to call it that) to the older ludology/narratology debate in games studies. The hardcore are on the tips of the horseshoe. You don’t get in a position where you’re having a prolonged argument with strangers about a medium without having a deep love and knowledge of that medium. There was a brief window when everyone – whether “cultural marxists” or those who went on to form GG, could agree that most AAA shooter games were repetitive, dumbed-down shite. Whether you’re a “hysterical SJW” or “wailing manbaby”, we are all adult hardcore gamers. By hardcore I simply mean that we talk and read about games a lot; we’re probably a minority compared to the amount of folks who own consoles, play the more famous games but aren’t that invested in the pastime.

A lot of people play as teens and their interest wanes as they get older. I have a three year old and I still consider myself a hardcore gamer even as he gnaws at my available time to play DOTA2 and FTL. The thing that unites us is that we want to have adult conversations about games. We’re unable to have these conversations outside of our cliques because, unlike adults, we’re unable to accept the validity of multiple ways of viewing the thing we love.

And that kinda blows goats IMO.

Here is an Abstract for my Thesis

It occured to me recently that I don’t often write directly about my doctoral research here. I’ve just had to write a quick description for a seminar I’m giving to the institution’s post-grad association next week. So here’s the short version of what-the-bloody-hell-have-I-been-doing-for-3-years;

Reconsidering the links between digital play, social identity and ICT careers through biographical research conducted with IT professionals and students.

Since the late 1990s, feminist studies of videogame culture have suggested that games provide a source of informal learning about technology, and that the perceived masculinity of the medium means that this benefit goes mainly to boys.  Similar claims have been made more recently about the de-facto “whiteness” of geek and gamer cultures, and how this might have an effect on the make-up of the IT professions in terms of ethnicity and social class. My research interrogates this “techno-acculturation” theory of games. Through an exploration of the biographies of IT students and professionals, I explore both the material and attitudinal dimensions of socialisation into IT careers, with a special emphasis on questioning the role of gaming in this informal learning process.

There should probably be one more sentence hinting at findings but I’m still in the process of working out which ones are most important.

Platform-Based Gaming Culture & the “Glorious PC-gaming Master Race”

Some of the interviews I’ve conducted throughout my Ph.D. have revolved around gaming platforms. What follows here is an abridged snippet of the part of the thesis which introduces PC gamer culture, by talking about how it’s discussed and portrayed online. I’ve done this to contextualize the specifics of PC-gamer culture and how it’s seen from outside.

When looking at how people discuss platform preferences, a couple of major themes emerge;

  • economic (which platform is most cost effective and has cheaper games)?
  • technological (which controls are best? which machine has the better graphical capabilities? can it run previous generations of games?)
  • social (can I play with friends I already know, where is the machine located?)

there are examples out there of extreme elitism. I’m not going to link to it here (the ethics of covert forum observation in academic research are a bit murky) but one 2010 thread on a PC-gaming-specific forum illustrates this. The original poster asks whether console gamers as “less sophisticated” and draws historical parallels between console gamers and “barbarians”. They associate the “console crowd” with the worst instances of rudeness, immaturity and racism in online gaming, and associate PC gaming with a stoic mentality. When I say “stoic” I mean that saving up money and amassing technical knowledge on builds and spec is viewed as being more moral; an act of self-improvement and delayed gratification. This is evident from the fact that those who have bought pre-built Alienware gaming PCs are sometimes placed in the same category as the “unsophisticated” console gamers.

pc nazi

This is obviously an extreme example. Various websites do upload opinion pieces or FAQs outlining theories of the PC’s superiority[1]. While many forum users do engage with these debates, just as many are completely indifferent and often see these sort of articles or forum posts at deliberate attempts at starting flamewars (in the case of gaming sites; in order to increase traffic).

One 2011 Destructoid article suggested that the PC platform had higher revenues from games software that year, and that PC gamers were spending, on average, twice as much time playing as their console-only peers – showing a relationship between higher investments of time and money. In some of the online discussions about gaming platforms, PC gamers express a sense of betrayal toward the games industry, perceiving themselves as having invested more time and money into an industry which, in turn, caters primarily to the more limited tastes of the console audience, with risk-averse practices which favour the production of a few more popular genres over creativity and experimentation.

In a series of articles on gamer types, David Houghton (2007) describes an archetypal gamer type - the“PC “snob” – who believes that “complicated technological issues are the only way to earn the right to play a game” and therefore only plays games with “bleeding edge hardware specifications”. Houghton’s article attempts to explain how someone comes to be this sort of gamer;

“It may be that his parents didn’t want him wasting his time playing video games, and so sneaking a copy of Doom onto the PC they bought him to do his homework with was his only option for a long time, leading to a lifetime of repressed console jealousy. Or it’s entirely possibly that he’s always been a diehard techie at heart, and that gaming became just one of his uses for the machine he proudly built with his own two hands. He may even simply be an over-achiever, finding insufficient satisfaction in merely mastering a game, and thus feeling the need to make the actual process of gaming a challenge in itself.”

pc master

In its original context, “glorious PC-gaming master race” was meant to sarcastically describe this same set of tastes, where complexity (in terms of hardware and game mechanics) becomes a stand-in for fun. The phrase and its associated images (above) originally came from Yahtzee’s review of PC game The Witcher (2007, CD Projekt RED/Atari):

“… Witcher is very much a PC-exclusive game, which are typically designed to be as complex and unintuitive as possible so that those dirty console-playing peasants don’t ruin it for the glorious PC-gaming master race. The first warning sign is that the manual is thick enough to beat goats to death with, and then once you get into the game the interface is just a few steps shy of Microsoft Access in terms of friendliness […] If disliking this sort of shit makes me stupid, then call me Retard McSpacky Pants, but I’d rather be stupid and having fun than bored out of my huge genius mind.”

The glorious master-race meme went on to be repeated in other publications and artworks (Plunkett, 2012; Oh, 2012) as well as finding its own subreddit, which has around 170,000 subscribers at time of writing. In the case of the subreddit, the phrase lost most of its intended critical irony and is instead used to earnestly describe the supposed technical, moral and intellectual superiority of PC gamers over “console peasants”.

In some ways, PC gaming communities hark back to the pre or early-internet period of the 1990s, when geekdom was seen as some sort of elitist, esoteric cult (Kelty, 2013, p102). I think what we see when we analyse the tastes of the self-proclaimed master race, isn’t really entirely about gaming. In the same way that certain groups believe that consuming a particular type of art or literature (usually the kind which is particularly obtuse and difficult to enjoy) is associated with “self improvement”, having a hobby which requires more legwork is seen as being less lazy and therefore more moral.


[1] (e.g., 2008;, 2012;, 2012;, 2012;, 2013)

Destructoid (2011) “PC gaming comeback”

Kelty, C. (2008) Geeks and Recursive Publics: How the Internet and Free Software Make Things Public’ in Beyond Habermas: Democracy, Knowledge, and the Public Sphere. Emden, C. J. and Midgley, D. (eds.) pp99-115. Berghan Books.

The Value of Conferences & Blogs for Ph.D researchers


Picking appropriate conferences for your papers is super important too- I’ve had a couple of right changers in this regard- met some good interesting and kind people but got the impression they were totally disinterested in the work I was doing.

Originally posted on plasticdollheads:


I explain to first year theory students that sociological theory is like lego blocks. We use them to build our knowledge. These blocks are our foundation, and also our tool for building our ideas and presenting them.

Well, being a Ph.D student is no different. We have to be the complete package, market ourselves as independent researchers. We need to collect and know how to use different blocks in different formations. We have to build ourselves. I have written on the value of conferences here, and list my papers and experience here. (Shameless plug for guest lecturing opportunities and other chances to boost my CV).

I also recommend Dr Nadine Muller’s blog on academia for excellent advice and tips on the academic world.


Tonight I have been reading tweets from We Are Humanities and it inspired this post. I sent a few tweets myself on conferences which I will…

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TGA’S 2nd Anniversary: a Journey of Anthropology Blogging


Happy birthday to TGA!!!

Originally posted on The Geek Anthropologist:

On September 12th, 2012, I decided to act on an idea I had been reflecting upon for a long time: creating a blog where I could share my anthropological reflexions on all the geek things I love and geek culture itself. I explained my intention in my very first post, The Geek Anthropologist: What and Why?

My project was humble. I had no blogging skills, barely knew what the anthropology blogging scene was like, and rarely used social media.

One of the first things I learned when I started blogging is that it demands a lot of work.

Especially if one wants to do it well. There are many things to consider: the frequency of posting, the visual layout of the blog, the visual aspect of posts themselves, connecting with readers on different platforms, respecting copyright laws, backing up the contents of the blog, etc. and etc. and etc.


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Playthroughs vs Sessions – Re: Replayable Narratives

“… I’ve been thinking about how you make narrative replayable. And that’s not a simple problem. It’s fairly complex. The combination of content and technology – I’ve been thinking about that.”

So I saw this Ken Levine quote pop up on a couple of articles and I think I’ve got a very ham-fisted response that involves a couple of design ideas I’ve had for a while. I don’t really want to spend ages defining narrative, because I think we all have a vague idea of what Levine means when he says narrative games. I personally love a lot of narrative-heavy games, and them not being re-playable isn’t really a big deal. Where replay-ability matters more, I think, are games like Dishonored, or Deus Ex, or any of the Bethesda action-RPGs, where you’re given the opportunity to build different types of characters. I think Fallout: New Vegas did a good job of providing really meaningful narrative branches that made starting again not just a matter of playing through the same story with a different set of skills.  Elder Scrolls games, on the other hand, are infamous for not constraining players enough; allowing them to join every faction and learn every skill in a single play-through.

One obstacle is that a lot of RPGs and action adventure games don’t differentiate between finishing “a game” (session) and finishing “the game”. One way to combat this is to drastically reduce the intended playthrough time and to only allow players to see a small portion of the game-world each time. The first Dragon Age’s “origins” stories where a great innovation, but can you imagine if the rest of the game followed a similar pattern? Imagine a DA:O with identical content, but where the narrative only allowed time to visit one of the allied races/cities and maybe one or two side-quests before the endgame? Shorter, yes, but with lots more replay value.

Permadeath is another way to differentiate between completing a game and finishing a game session. Spelunky would be a drastically different game if it saved at the start of every section (i.e. Mario Bros.) and having such a feature would make the procedural generation of levels unnoticeable and redundant. Similarly, in Levine’s hypothetical game, the more time a player spends in one session, the less likely they are to appreciate how different the game is each time they play it, and I think that same thinking can be applied to either the procedural generation of terrain, or to the random or semi-random branching of a story.

My ideal open-world RPG sort of fits the bill for what Levine is describing. Firstly, imagine an Elder Scrolls or Fallout game. Now, add permadeath. Lock the player out of the quests for all but one guild, and use a morality system like Mass Effect to prevent them from making wildly out-of-character choices. Make the end-quest for each guild feel like some sort of epic, world-changing event. Now (and here’s the clincher) you create a historical timeline where each character’s actions affect the world inhabited by the next (completed quests are unavailable to all future characters). That way you cut out a lot of repetition and draw a line between finishing “a game” and finishing “the game”.

Maybe I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick about what a “replayable narrative” is. But I’m part of a growing population of aging, time-poor core gamers who would probably throw lots of money at the sort of game described above. And I think the key to making any game replayable is making each playthrough short enough so that replaying doesn’t feel like a massive effort of geekdom. Also:


- Joe

Gamers vs. Academics: Was GTA: San Andreas Racist?

David J. Leonard has written about the issues surrounding a predominantly white industry producing games like GTA, which he claims re-inscribe stereotypes of African American males as criminal and violent (e.g. Leonard, 2003). Paul Barrett (2006) is similarly critical of “ghettocentric” imagery in video-games. One of the main criticisms of gangsta rap was that, from the outside, it looked like it was produced by black artists as a reflection of the black American experience, but it was disproportionately owned/funded by white record labels and often consumed by white fans. Critics of San Andreas (and any other GTA title, although SA had a particularly strong focus on black/Latino communities) suggest that presumed white players are going to have any existing racial prejudices reinforced. This is the sort of media-centric reading which still seems to get trotted out when academics write only about games/music/movies without ever speaking to the audiences who are playing/listening/watching. Authors like Leonard and Barrett, who write as if the game’s “meaning” is inherent to it, tucked away inside the story and characters themselves, don’t leave much room to discuss what % of players actually take in that version of the game’s “meaning”. There’s also a really problematic assumption that these young, impressionable “gamers” are disproportionately white suburban kids who don’t know any poor, black kids and are therefore going to base their entire view of impoverished black males on a collage of videogames and other media representations. The whiteness of the “gamer” might have some truth about it if we’re talking about the geekier end of the spectrum – MMOs and MOBAs and stuff you play on a PC and read wikis about – but it’s certainly not true of the vast proportion of kids who play console games (citation needed, I guess).


On the other hand, DeVane and Squire (2008) interviewed different groups of American boys about their experiences with the same game, finding that Black youth from poorer backgrounds generally had less access and thus tended to play in groups. Those who did enjoy enough access to play the story were likely to see it as a sympathetic representation of Black street culture, where the police were [accurately] portrayed as racist and corrupt (GTA:SA even contains a fictionalised reinterpretation of the events surrounding the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles in 1992). DeVan and Squire’s white, suburban participants saw the game more as a pastiche of gangsta rap and Hollywood movies like Boys In Da Hood – a media text referencing other media texts – whereas the black boys from poorer neighbourhoods were more likely to view it in relation to their own community’s real relationships (or lack of) with the police etc. In addition, only a few of them had the level of access required to play the game through, meaning that only these few had interpreted the games protagonist as justly fighting a deeply corrupt and racist police force. Different levels of income mean different levels of access to the tech, leading to drastically different “readings” of the games, and those who were poorer tended to play the game communally and spend more time messing about, showing off to eachother, causing sandbox carnage in the city as opposed to following the story. Jesper Juul (2010) has in fact described the GTA games as “hardcore games with a casual audience” for exactly these reasons – they present a challenging series of missions alongside a narrative but many folks can easily play for hours without even touching these. As the authors put it:

“For the most part, then, game play for the Casuals was social, competitive, and performative. They were most interested in exploring and expanding the boundaries of the game’s possibility space in front of their peers. Such ambiguity of play is what problematizes attempts to assign singular “effects” and meanings to games.” (ibid, p276)


The meanings surrounding expressions of race within Western videogame culture are complex. Is there a singular, “correct reading” of the game as racist or otherwise, and if so, does it lie in the hands of some academic expert or the expert audience? Just googling “is GTA San Andreas racist?” brings up a ton of discussion on the same subject without any academic interjection whatsoever. We live in an age where everyone and their nana has a cultural studies degree and an opinion on whether Media Text X is -ist. At what point do researchers whose main shtick is the tricky task of “decoding” these -isms become redundant? At least five years ago, IMHO.

I also think that criticising ghetto-centric portrayals in games can push too far. In recent years we’ve started to see another phenomena in gaming when race comes into the discussion, and that’s the celebration of the black nerd. Go on any forum discussion about the characterization of black guys in games and you’ll usually see a lot of posts praising the makers of Walking Dead (Telltale) or Left 4 Dead (Valve) for having black male characters that don’t fit the loud, muscular, slang-talking “stereotype”. Of course, one persons idea of a “stereotype” is another’s actual way of life. It’s this sort of attitude to ghetto blackness that brought us the “hilarious” Bed Intruder Song (whose whole purpose is to poke fun at the way a group of actual people actually speak and present themselves). I call this the Uncle Phil / Bill Will dichotomy: the idea that black American men have to either be loud, egocentric gansta/athlete hybrids, or they have to lose some of that identity and be middle-class guys who wear ties. There’s very little space for ambiguity in the middle. This is perhaps why there are so many rappers who went to college but rarely talk about it in their music. It’s fine to criticise games made by white guys which portray black guys in a negative light, but recognize that there’s more than one reading, and don’t call for the total erasure of all representations of poor people just because it hurts your sensibilities or makes you feel guilty.

Another useful concept might be “liquid racism”. Simon Weaver (2011) applies this concept to the British “urban” comedy character to Ali G to refer to the multiplicity of available readings of the character – is Ali G a “wigga” (his full name is Alistair in the movies) or is he a representation of an Asian boy affecting a black British identity, or is he an autobiographical self-parody of a young (Jewish) Baron-Cohen doing the same? “Liquid racism” is a useful concept because it means a media representation can simultaneously be racist in several ways and not racist in several others, without having the problems I’ve outlined with Leonard and co.’s reading of GTA as categorically racist.

References (apologies for any pay-walls)

Barrett, P. (2006) ‘White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies‘. Vol. 28. No. 1. pp95-119.

DeVane, B. and Squire, K. (2008) ‘The Meaning of Race and Violence in GTA: San Andreas’ in Games and Culture. Vol. 3. No. 3-4. pp264-285

Juul, J. (2010) A Casual Revolution. MIT Press.

Leonard, D. (2003). “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education, Vol 3. No. 4..pp1-9

Ritsema, J. and Thakore, B. K. (2012) ‘Sincere Fictions of Whiteness in Virtual Worlds: How Fantasy Massively Multiplayer Online Games Perpetuate Color-blind, White Supremacist Ideology’ in Embrick, D. G. Talmadge Wright, J. and Lukacs, A. (eds) Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Weaver, S. (2011) “Liquid Racism and the Ambiguity of Ali G” in European Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol. 14. No. 3. pp249-264

Some Strengths and Weaknesses of Stencyl for Game Development

4 years ago when I was supporting classes in an IT department we started using Scratch to teach basic game-programming stuff to kids aged 11-16. Some of them took to it, some of them didn’t. This rekindled a love of making game-like-things (I won’t called them “games” because none of them ever reached a state of playability) during my teenage years. I would spend hours make environments in HalfLife’s editor, and bending Warcraft 3’s engine to try and make genres it wasn’t really intended to make – a practice that gave us the MOBA genre and the (re?)birth of tower defence. Scratch was particularly easy to pick up because the “coding” involved simply involves clicking together blocks of logic into a sort of flow-chart structure. It’s cheating, and its severely limiting, but it’s a nifty shortcut to get to grips with the basics.

About 18 months ago I started playing around with Stencyl. Stencyl is ostensibly a “grown up” version of Scratch. Whereas Scratch games were (last time I checked) only playable in Scratch, Stencyl can export to Flash and various other file formats. It can make iOS or Android or native PC games (with a reasonable additional upgrade fee for these formats). Stencyl is still essentially “cheating”, allowing me to make my game-like-objects without having to learn to program.

Below there’s a short video of something I started making back before I was confident in my own art assets – probably my most accomplished Stencyl project. The planet is procedurally generated from a solid wall of tiles plus a script which digs out various winding caves and tunnels and places ores at different depths. The player’s ship controls in a “floaty” way similar to the older Lander and Thrust games and has an elemental damage system lifted straight out of Borderlands.  This is the sort of game where Stencyl’s built in box2d physics system really comes into its own. Rogue-likes (where the game environment is generated in-game rather than authored) are do-able, and having planets you can only visit once was both a nod to rogue-like conventions and also a response to limitations in the system. Unlike RPG Maker, Stencyl has no built-in functionality for remembering what the player did last time they were in the current room.

The strengths of the program are very much a case of “the proof is in the pudding”. People thought you couldn’t make decent stuff in GM:S until people started doing it. One of the more bizarre things I’ve seen trotted out in Stencyl vs Gamemaker debates is that you can’t code in Stencyl. This simply isn’t true. I’ve looked at both programs, both have a “drag and drop” lego-brick style kiddie language like this one, and both also allow you to code from scratch, it’s simply that Stencyl has been marketed along the same bright, simplistic, kiddy-friendly lines as Scratch whereas GM:Studio looks a lot sleeker. Any “proper” game developer will tell you that working without code is severely limiting in a lot of ways but, to be honest, that isn’t my main bugbear with the program. You sort of expect ease-of-use to have some sort of cost. The main issues which stand out to me are more related to general usability and workflow. There are so many keyboard shortcuts that are generally thought of as universal to anyone who uses Adobe or Office which simply aren’t there. Stencyl is also programmed to assume that you’re making a physics-enabled sideview action game. Want to make something top-down? Something turn-based? Something like a board game or which is heavily dependent on GUI? Have fun de-checking all those default boxes that ensure every object you create initially behaves like a bouncy ball!

I might go back to my StarBastards game one day and have a crack at some pixel-art for it. At the same time, I’m slightly wary of using Stencyl for something like a PC indie game because it currently doesn’t handle console controllers (which is sort of a must) and I’m also wary of how it handles resolution changes. In the long run I would love to see its developers concentrate a little bit less on the “get rich quick by making a small iphone game” and to see some Stencyl made games breaking the misconceptions that people have about the engine (in the same way that Hotline Miami and Spelunky did for GameMaker). I think the developers have tried to portray Impossible Pixel in this light but it seems very similar to Super Meat Boy. Personally, the most impressive Stencyl game I’ve played so far would probably be something like Quantum Corps which has some genuinely fresh mechanics and not a whiff of Stencyl’s frankly overused platformer template.

Some of my Stencyl Projects

G315T! was an attempt at a sandbox physics game where you play a poltergeist. I didn’t get very far with it. The first Stencyl project I made which actually started to look like a game.


Next came Beatopia, which was an attempt at a minimalist, squad-based puzzle platformer. You click the guys and then use the arrow keys to move them. I wanted to make music integral to the game but wasn’t sure how, might revisit it at some point.


the Brewdem Bar-o-matic was an attempt at creating a generator of random battle raps. The things it produces contain a lot of British slang and are usually nonsensical, scatological or otherwise offensive. You have been warned.

VR Tycoon (shown below) was another recent project I built in Stencyl with a friend providing graphics and helping design the actual gameplay. I learnt a little bit about pathfinding through this project. I also learnt that Stencyl is a bit of a pain in the ass when it comes to text-heavy genres of game.screenshot1

Where Are The (Mainstream) Games Where You Program Stuff?

Every couple of months I have to do a quick nose to see if there’s much new stuff on games and learning. We’ve got a load of material on how you could use this or that particular game in education (e.g. Kirriemuir & Mcfarlane, 2004). It’s argued that gameplay can be a useful way of introducing young minds to knowledge which is otherwise too abstract(Ceci and Roazzi, 1994; Gee, 2003; Arnseth, 2004). We’ve also got an underlying trend towards using kids’ enthusiasm for making games as a way of sneaking in computing concepts (although, surprisingly, most studies I’ve read on game design with kids tend to focus on areas like narrative etc. with the acquisition of programming skills usually being a secondary goal).

I’ve been thinking about whether there are any good examples of commercial, mainstream games which require the application of some sort of programming concepts, but which aren’t necessarily bundled as edutainment products (ruling out software like Kodu Game Lab, for example). There is a pretty extensive list of freeware games like RoboWar (1992) where players compete by programming in-game actors. There’s also a great list over here of “games in which one competes by writing code and and having the programs then compete against each other”. As you’d expect, games fitting this description are pretty rare in the flashy ‘splosions space of mainstream console gaming. And I think it’s important to focus on consoles sometimes, because for a lot of kids, that’s their main thing.

carnage heartcarnage screen

Carnage Heart: A Weird Little Japanese Gem

My big brother bought Carnage Heart (1997) for the PlayStation in the late 1990s when I was small-ish. The cover art indicates a Japanese game about big robots, possibly featuring at least one explosion. No points for originality there. But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill game about directly piloting said robots. Oh no. You had to program them, using the flow-diagram style system shown above to create series of conditions and actions which will hopefully (but probably not) result in victory. Probably the closest you’ll get to one of those aforementioned games on a mainstream console. There’s a PSP/Vita version out too, which is seriously making me consider eventually getting a Vita.


Any Other, More Recent Examples?

Could you go as far as saying that the tactics screen in DragonAge 2 (arguably the only improvement on the first game) involved some entry-level programming concepts? What most squad-based games do is have a series of sets of AI behaviours which you might trigger with a button (e.g. up for attack point, down for cover/back, etc.) But what happens in DA2 is a much closer defining of the parameters of the characters’ actions. I think it’s interesting because it’s unusual for a mainstream, cross-platform release to have this level of “under the hood” involvement. LittleBigPlanet incorporates AI-programming nicely, too, and gets away with it because a. it’s a game about creativity and b. it’s a non-essential advanced feature that a lot of players won’t touch, not a core part of the game as with Carnage Heart. (Also, here’s a pretty good tutorial for LittleBigPlanet, where the author explains how program a sackbot to emote using the game’s inbuilt logic boards.)


It’s Not The Real Thing (Well, Duh)

I’ve used a lot of visual game-making software like RPGMaker and Stencyl over the years. I’m fully aware that there’s a limit to what you can do without actually writing in a programming language. I’m just interested in whether we can find examples of games that kids already know or love, which can get them started on the first couple of steps toward coding.




Ceci, S. J. & Roazzi, A. (1994). The effects of context on cognition: postcards from Brazil. In R. J. Sternberg & R. K. Wagner (Eds.), Mind in context. Interactionist perspectives on human intelligence. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kirriemuir, J. & McFarlane, A. (2004). Literature Review in Games and Learning. Bristol: Nesta Futurelab series, report 8.



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