I’m a freelance journalist and arts critic, specialising in videogames, music, and film. I’ve written extensively on videogames, videogame culture, and cultural policy over the last few years, especially at Crikey.com.au where I ran the ‘Game On’ blog between 2012-2013. This year, I’ve been writing a lot about classical music, as well as continuing to write about videogames, culture, and politics.
A selection of clips from my writing available online (CLICK TO EXPAND):BioShock Infinite: an intelligent, violent videogame? (ABC Arts)
Few mainstream videogames want to be taken as seriously as BioShock Infinite.
Infinite has the difficulty of an inherited legacy: people like to point to the first BioShock (2007) as an example of how videogames made in studios by hundreds of people and financed by corporations can be artistic. It was, in a way, a beacon of hope for those who dreamed that the sheer industrial scale at the peak of the videogames business could translate into something worth taking seriously. In this case, what was produced by Irrational Games with the first BioShock game was a kind of Art Deco commentary on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, housed within a first person shooter. It was a tipping point of sorts for industrially made videogames—something, its fans insisted, that could be both intellectually weighty and appealing to a mainstream gaming audience. BioShock, so the thought went, let players enjoy twitch reflexes and violence while also providing headroom for those who wanted to reflect and consider. For BioShock, players could have their cake and kill it, too.
BioShock Infinite is a videogame with ideas. Set in 1912, it’s in part inspired by The Devil In The White City, Erik Larson’s 2003 novelistic account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The World’s Columbian Exposition was so named due to the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of Columbus, and as a celebration of American cultural maturity; accordingly, the fantastical BioShock Infinite is set in Columbia, a secessionist American state that floats high in the sky. The city is beautiful, and possibly unparalleled in terms of visual design in a videogame: along with the expected white American neo-classical architecture, we get an astounding array of poster art and fashion, taking in both the decline of the strong silhouettes and Gibson Girl aesthetics of the 1910s, and the Art Nouveau movement, as well as Kinetoscopes similar to the illusionistic films of Georges Melies. Columbia, according to Infinite, is to have set sail at the 1893 Fair, thus opening up a ripe array of potential themes stemming from real world history and politics, all of which get at least lip service in the game: Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, racism, and religious conflict. The set-up has players take on the role of a former Pinkerton agent who has been sent to find a young woman in Columbia. Along the way, the players must manage encounters with Zachary Hale Comstock, the theocratic ruler of Columbia, and the Vox Populi, the non-white revolutionary movement. This all occurs, as with the first BioShock, within the framework of a first person shooter.
You do not engage with this kind of material if you want to make something disposable. BioShock Infinite, as I have noted, wants to be taken seriously, to be held up and applauded for artful substance and narrative as much as its visuals and design. BioShock Infinite wants to be remembered for having something to say.
So, let’s take BioShock Infinite at its word. Let’s take it seriously.
The first major choice that players of BioShock Infinite are presented with is whether they would like to publicly punish an interracial couple or not. You may choose to throw a ball at the couple, who are tied up in front of a crowd at a fair, or you may choose to throw the ball at the man who is asking you to do so. The outcome of your choice is mostly the same.
Let’s think about that for a moment. BioShock Infinite, the game that many would hope to point to as an example of how art and subtlety might be found in expensive, mainstream videogames, sets up its moral stakes by asking the player if they would like to be a violent bigot.
These are the complex and difficult decisions found in videogames in 2013: would you like to be in the Ku Kux Klan or would you like to be Abraham Lincoln? Would you like to join the Nazi party or found the United Nations? Would you like to be for or against?
Do you see the nuance here? Do you see the art?
This is thunderously stupid, and an insipid example of how terrifyingly low the bar is set for ‘intelligence’ in mainstream videogames (not to mention surprisingly accommodating given the widely-publicised problems with racism in online shooters).
It is easy to get lost in the romance and atmosphere of The Rite’s mythic premiere. However, a century’s worth of perspective means that any understanding Stravinsky’s work’s legacy—and continued relevance—can’t hope to be limited to exotic descriptions of riots and perturbed French aesthetes. It’s important to note, above all, that Stravinsky was only 30 years old when The Rite premiered, and despite one hundred years worth of massaging The Rite back into the accepted classical repertoire, this is at heart a young person’s piece of music. It is raw, unpolished, and vibrant. As a 26 year old, it speaks to me like almost no other piece of music I know of.
What is most immediately noticeable (and indeed, most commonly celebrated) about The Rite is its rhythm. The whole piece thunks and clunks with deliberate harshness, at once elegantly calculated and profoundly crude. Stravinsky takes the delicate organism of the symphony orchestra, refined into delicacy and majesty over centuries, and turns it into a crude, primordial machine. Rhythms build and layer on top of each other, uncertain and unstable, yet still capable of unsettling a listener even today. The early ‘Augurs of Spring’ section is probably most famous in this respect, where muscular, stabbing strings attack the listener with a constantly rotating rhythmic emphasis. As New Yorker critic Alex Ross once put it, it feels like a boxer sparring with a punching bag: one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight one-TWO-three-FOUR-five-six-seven-eight one-TWO-three-four-FIVE-six-seven-eight, and so on. The effect is both keenly historically situated and highly contemporary—it’s somewhere between the sound of an early twentieth century factory and a shark attack scene from Jaws.
It’s this rhythm above all else that allows The Rite to sound so fresh even today. In a way Stravinsky’s rhythmic focus served as a prelude for the popular music of the twentieth century and beyond, as such chaotic and racy sounds began to dominate in almost every genre. From jazz to rock to soul to pop, the tendency for the musical genres of the twentieth century to gradually move from a harmonic and melodic focus towards rhythmic complexity is one presaged by Stravinsky. Here was a piece of concert hall music that dealt in motion and kinesthetics, at the beginning of a century of popular music often primarily composed for dancing. Stravinsky’s influence was sometimes acknowledged more directly, too: when Charlie Parker caught sight of Stravinsky at the New York jazz club Birdland in 1951, the alto saxophonist quickly threw a few lines from Stravinsky’s The Firebird into his solo for the evening. And when John Williams had to compose music that suggested the desolation of a desert planet for Star Wars in 1977, he returned to The Rite, referencing (or perhaps lifting) the first few bars of the piece’s second part.
Imagine this: Dmitri Shostakovich, the iconic Russian composer, is sitting in a Waldorf-Astoria lecture theatre in New York in 1949. Shostakovich is giving a speech attacking Igor Stravinsky, the famous Russian composer who now lives in America. But it is not Shostakovich who speaks — in fact, he hasn’t said a word all afternoon. Instead, Dmitri Shostakovich sits silently, impassively, listening to his translator read his speech out loud to an unimpressed room. It is a moment of propaganda: Shostakovich is part of a Soviet contingent sent by Stalin himself to display the USSR’s proud cultural face to the world.
Surely, the anti-totalitarian historian in us says, Shostakovich doesn’t believe it all. This is a speech written by Stalin and his agents, and it is propaganda. This is not Shostakovich. He is not even reading it.
An audience member, incredulous at the speech, stands and asks Shostakovich a question: Does he really agree with the Soviet denouncements of great composers?
Dmitri Shostakovich gets to his feet, pauses, fully aware of the Soviet minders behind him, and speaks for the first time. ‘I fully agree with the statements.’ He sits down.
Shostakovich is a confusing figure. Condemned early in his career for supposed anti-Stalinist works (an article in Pravda that some contend was written by Stalin himself declares ominously that Shostakovich is playing ‘a game…that may end very badly’), Shostakovich’s creative life has long served as a ripe battlefield for those who would condemn him for cowering in support of Stalin, and those who would instead paint him as a clandestine protestor, hiding secret messages of dissent within his great music.
Yet Shostakovich himself is inescapably vague. Maybe, yes, maybe he privately abhorred the things he was asked to do. But publicly, he usually did what he was told. Imagine his body language as he sat in the Waldorf-Astoria, hearing ‘his’ speech read aloud. Protestors outside the building carried signs that in retrospect seem almost ironic: ‘Shostakovich, we understand!’
Every so often an advert pops up in the upper left corner of FIFA 13.
“Win money playing in the EA Sports Arena Online Game Mode,” it reads.
The EA Sports Arena is a few menus deep within FIFA 13, but it’s visible enough. Through it, players can connect with a service called Virgin Gaming, which is aligned with Richard Branson’s Virgin mega-brand. Virgin Gaming enables you to bet real money on multiplayer games of FIFA 13, Madden 13 and a number of others. Thus, it allows you to win real money. It also allows you to lose real money.
Virgin Gaming is a service that exists within a strange middle ground of gambling and classification regulation in Australia. Few can or will take responsibility for how it interfaces with games like FIFA 13.
EA Sports argues that such gambling is purely a third party service. The Classification Board has concluded, after being approached by Crikey, that it has “a very mild viewing impact and can be accommodated within the G (General) classification.” Further, videogames are themselves outside the boundaries of federal gambling law, and thus Virgin Gaming does not fall within the jurisdiction of a regulatory body like ACMA.
And so, every so often, an advert pops up in FIFA 13 that calls on players to gamble. And gambling is what players all over the world have been doing.
It took me a while to realise that Robin Hunicke was crying. She speaks with such a steady and eloquent passion that the first time she brushed at her eyes, I thought she was just cleaning her glasses.
“I’m here with my daughter. We’re making a game together,” a man in the audience had asked.
“But one of the problems we frequently grapple with is the idea that games are for boys.”
Maybe we’re used to talking about gender and culture in a wider sense, but for that evening, this man and his daughter’s question was arresting, and almost out of place. Let me give you some context.
Robin Hunicke is a globally successful videogame designer and producer, having worked at EA, thatgamecompany and Tiny Speck before recently moving on to form her own company, Funomena. She is an impressive person, as renowned as a speaker on the subject of videogames as she is for the videogames she has made. Hunicke was at ACMI that evening to play and talk about Journey, an extraordinary videogame that she worked on at thatgamecompany.
It is Journey as much as Hunicke or the questioner that made this moment remarkable. There is not an ounce of exclusion in Journey’s blood. It is a game that has the warm embrace of pensioned romance, or the familial caress of shelter from cold rain. The moment that Hunicke began Journey was a familiar kind of homecoming, as if the game does not so much open for the player as it enfolds them. It is a piece of software that has been crafted to allow two perfect strangers to share attachment and intimacy across a high-speed broadband connection. It is something that gives a perfect stranger the power to love you.
Hunicke’s answer: “Games are for everyone. That’s like saying food is for men, or fragrances are for women. It’s just not true anymore. We all have feelings, we all have emotions. We all want to play. You wouldn’t tell kids that girls can’t jump rope.
“You don’t say those things.”
It was fervent, and it was honest. It was an hour and seven minutes into the evening. But it was, in a way, only a warm-up for what was to come.
And, everything I’ve ever published [updated June 2013]:
ABC Arts (3 articles)
BioShock Infinite: an intelligent, violent videogame? (9 April 2013)
Videogame makers are essential to a Creative Australia (15 March 2013)
Crikey (110 articles)
From January 2012 to April 2013, I ran Crikey.com.au’s Game On blog. Crikey is a well-known Australian politics and media website.
Music by Steve Reich: A Conversation and Concert [Guest post on Crikey’s Earworm blog]
Kill Your Darlings (7 articles)
The soundscape of spectacle (June 12 2013)
Military Vision: Embracing accelerated change (May 9 2013)
Can you separate the art from the artist? (March 21 2013)
Everything you ever loved is hated by someone else (February 5 2013)
“‘Music Will Be Enough Here’: Remembering Bernard Herrmann.” no. 7 (October 2011): 139-147.
“Not Art, You Say?: In Defence of Videogames.” No. 5 (April 2011): 79-85.
Meanjin (2 articles)
“Listening to Proteus,” Vol 72 No 2, Winter 2013, pp. 108-115.
“The non-violent videogames of 2012,” Meanjin online, January 10 2013.
Screen Education Australia (3 articles)
“Arcade Projections: Wreck-It Ralph and the Cinema of Gaming,” 69, Autumn 2013, pp. 39-45.
“ACMI’s Game Masters: Playing By Their Own Rules,” 68, Summer 2013, pp. 38-45.
Hyper Magazine (33 articles)
Hyper Magazine is Australia’s oldest independent videogames magazine, having first been published in 1993. Since February 2011, I have had a monthly ‘Game Theory’ column, in addition to other standalone contributions.
Game Theory 028: “If At First…” 235, May 2013.
Game Theory 027: “Look At Me” 234, April 2013.
Game Theory 026: “Kill Your Television” 233, March 2013.
Game Theory 025: “Repetition” 232, February 2013.
Game Theory 024: “The Paradigm Shift” 231, January 2013.
Game Theory 023: “Disneylandia” 230, December.
Game Theory 022: “The Neoliberalisation of Player Choice”, 229, November.
“Screen but Not Heard: Interview with Indie Game: The Movie’s directors” 228, October.
Game Theory 021: “Freaks and Geeks – But if we’ve reached ‘peak geek’, is the geek no longer a freak?” 228, October.
“You’re an Adult Now: How Australia Emerged from Gaming’s Dark Ages” 227, September.
Game Theory 020: “Really Scrape The Sky – How the heights of the city allow us to take in the big picture” 227, August.
Game Theory 019: “All Work and No Play – The insidious parallels between labour and videogames” 226, July.
“Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark” 225, July.
Game Theory 018: “Rules of the Games – If a game is defined as play within a set of rules, are videogames even games at all?” 225, July.
Game Theory 017: “Public Performance – Videogame and public institutions are strange bedfellows” 224, June.
Game Theory 016: “Uncharted Worlds – Playing a game can feel like conquering a new world, but perhaps it’s the world that conquers us” 223, May.
Game Theory 015: “Propaganda – Videogame aesthetics and the art of manipulation” 222, April.
Game Theory 014: “A Matter Of Taste – At what point does a videogame become so bad it’s good?” 221, March.
Game Theory 013: “From There To Here – Why the history of videogames doesn’t tell us everything” 220, February.
“The Magic of Mario”, 219, December.
Game Theory 012: “Playing By The Rules – Inside the courtly games of Batman: Arkham City”, 219, December.
Game Theory 011: “Modern Spectacle – When too much Shock and Awe is barely enough”, 218, November.
Game Theory 010: “Hyper-Violence – The action hero and vulnerability in a new global reality”, 217, November.
Game Theory 009: “Kinect and Class – In which assumptions are made about broad swathes of individuals”, 216, October.
“The Legend of The Legend of Zelda: The Myth and Metaphor of Shigeru Miyamoto’s own Cave Story”, 215, September.
Game Theory 008: “Simulating the Silver Screen: Rockstar’s homage to film noir joins a long line of Hollywood-inspired games”, 215, September.
Game Theory 007: “Playing Bin Laden: Real-life warfare plus time equals videogames”, 214, August.
Game Theory 006: “Allegory of the Cave: How Portal 2 is the ideal exhibit of level design science”, 213, July.
Game Theory 005: “An Avian Addiction: Where the casual meets the hardcore in Tiny Wings”, 212, June.
Game Theory 004: “Living in a Utility Closet: Is a pet fish enough to call a place home?”, 211, May.
Game Theory 003: “Invisible Interfaces – When too much reality gets in the way”, 210, April.
Game Theory 002: “Ezio Owed To Turing – Parsing the human in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” 209, March.
Game Theory 001: “Thinking Inside the Box – Possibility space and ball games” 208, February.
Kotaku (2 articles)
PC PowerPlay (4 articles)
“Black Mesa’s High-Def Hazard Course,” PC PowerPlay 209.
“Leap of Faith: How the architectural design of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations reveals the multicultural constants of Istanbul,” PC PowerPlay 199.
“First-Person Commuter,” PC PowerPlay 200.
Melbourne International Film Festival 2012 (2 articles)
The Conversation (4 articles)
“Caught in the Red Cross hairs: gamers and the Geneva Convention” The Conversation, 16 December 2011.
“‘Gamers’ tag is a poor fit, whichever way you Foldit” The Conversation, 27 September 2011.
“Video games and creative culture: independent or bound by a common shoestring?” The Conversation, 29 August 2011.