I must confess that I found Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic tiresome and frustrating to play, and I gave up quickly on the third or fourth level when I simply couldn’t complete an annoying level that requires you to jump onto moving lines after attempting to do so for 20 minutes (this was before I read that there was a “cheat” that allowed you to jump on the cross that zapped you whenever it touched you). I puzzled over why the game was assigned, and I knew that I wouldn’t have known and wouldn’t have played the game even if I had known that this game existed.

Only after reading up and realizing that the game was supposed to be a metacommentary on Braid and it was a feminist intervention on Braid and platformers in general, did I realize how the game was to be played, and how it was supposed to be experienced. Even Emily Short, who was quoted in class on Wednesday, described the gameplay of Problem Attic as occupying a “space between power and powerlessness”, and is about “making use of the very things that cause you pain.” I learnt that Short herself only found the game when Liz Ryerson introduced the game personally to her in response to another of Short’s blog post, which raises the question of the status of such “activist” games: how do we obtain the encoded interventionist message of games like Problem Attic when the game and its context need to be given? How can a game achieve its “activist” or “interventionist” intent if it is not played nor discussed by many people, as Short mentions in her blog, and even when people come across it, many get turned off by the bad UI before they even get into the game?

I honestly don’t have an answer for this, since games, like all kinds of media artefacts, only make some sort of impact when they can have a wide distribution, not least for activist games whose sole purpose is to contend and contest within a social space. Games as activism also seem to have an added disadvantage versus other kinds of media such as online articles and videos, since games have to be played and experienced before its message can be understood, and that further limits its value as a form of activism especially when not many people (like me) have the patience or mastery of the mechanics to get to a point where we can even begin to understand a game.

In addition, I am not too sure about Short’s close reading of Ryerson’s game (she admitted that she hasn’t played the game herself), especially when she is talking about how Ryerson’s game is unique in that it gives the player some but not full control over the surroundings. Most horror games have to give players limited control as well, because part of the horror lies in not having full control of one’s surroundings or the narrative. Considering that there are some horror games that rely on the vulnerability of female protagonists as well for horror, would they provide a better medium to discuss and problematize trauma, pain, and gender violence?

It makes me wonder if Short would have even given her interpretation of the game had Ryerson not contacted her (since there are stakes for Short to review the game and provide a close reading of it), or had she found the game on her own without realizing what it was.

2 thoughts on “Gaming, Activism, and Value

  1. i also was super frustrated playing the game. i thought the mechanics of gameplay were cumbersome– it felt like when i jumped, i was always slightly off despite trying to time and land jumps perfectly. every movement felt disjointed from the physical space the avatar is in. if i ignore the chances of my frustration being a keyboard or user error, i’m guessing it’s an intentional design choice to have the player feel out of sync or frustrated given the rest of the game’s design and overall function. your point about horror games potentially being a better environment is spot on, which makes me wish i could like this game more. in a way, i think ryerson is totally successful in her goals with problem attic because of the kind of responses you and i had to it.

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  2. I was likewise very frustrated while playing Problem Attic. I am dreadful at manipulating game characters in space at the best of times (I’m good at Wii sports, though! Thank god for motion sensors…) and gave up fairly quickly. I’m intrigued both by the previous commenter’s theory that perhaps the design is mean to frustrate a player. But then, as the OP points out, can a game that is intensely frustrating to play truly cause any kind of social change? Is social change the goal? Or does the game fall into the category of “art” that, while providing a fascinating commentary upon a given issue, is unpleasant to spend too much time with? As gaming is a mass culture medium, it does have the agency to change certain social dialogues (as we’ve discussed in class). I echo the OP’s question about Short’s piece and whether her reading of the game might have been swayed by how she came to it.

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