Why Write for Armchair Arcade?

Matt Barton's picture

Author: Matt Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Matt Barton

Welcome to the third issue of Armchair Arcade. If this is your first visit to our Website, or even if you are a regular on our forums, you may be interested to learn about the history of this publication and what could possibly obsess three otherwise sane gentlemen to dedicate so much of their free time and energy to lovingly prepare articles and commentaries on such a seemingly frivolous topic as videogames. Why Armchair Arcade?

The editors of Armchair Arcade, Buck Feris, Bill Loguidice (pronounced low-joo-diss), and Matt Barton met on a retro-gaming Internet forum. This forum was noted for its intense and highly prolific community of participants, who often found themselves moving far beyond simple discussions of how cool old games were to in-depth analyses of what makes games tick; indeed, the participants often found themselves pondering the ontology of videogames themselves (the being of videogames). The philosophical and critical climate was so rich that it seems inevitable, looking back, that some of those board members would wish to move beyond a discussion-based format to something a bit more solid and lasting; namely, an online publication with well-researched and professionally edited articles. Buck Feris (then known only as Xyzzy) finally officially proposed the idea, and it wasn’t long before the other two members—Blacklily8 (Matt Barton) and Bill Loguidice joined the fray. Buck rented the Web space and installed a content management system called e107, and soon afterwards the team went to work.

Emulator screenshots of Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders, and Super Mario Bros.
Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros.

Armchair Arcade has never been a commercial project, and the current editors have no intention of converting to a pay-model. Instead, our reward is simply being read as widely as possible. We enjoy sharing ideas and participating in fruitful discussions of our favorite topics: Videogames and Computers. Indeed, our readership has risen far beyond what we ever expected when we began our ambitious quest; hundreds of readers just like you have visited the site, read these articles, and contributed to the site either by adding comments or joining our rather bustling forum. Of course we welcome such participation, but I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to submit a full-length article to Armchair Arcade. First, let me answer the obvious question: Why write for Armchair Arcade?

Well, I wish I could say that doing so would bring you great money and fortune, but that is unfortunately not something we are able and, as stated, willing to provide, even if you are a Famous Author. Likewise, it seems foolish of me to even guarantee fame, since our readership is hardly the type to be taken in by glitz and glam, and tend to praise only works that deserve such praise. Finally, I can hardly even promise that you will be widely read and referenced, since our previous success was hardly expected (though greatly appreciated). Why, then, submit an article?

Let me give you my own reasons for writing articles for Armchair Arcade. First of all, I do not consider our subject matter to be either frivolous or a simple matter of entertainment. Videogames are no longer the toys of geeky young men who spend far too much time in Radioshack. Rather, they are an important part of our culture; indeed, the videogame market has lately been realizing a far greater profit than Hollywood. Videogames, and characters, themes, and styles derived from videogames, are everywhere. Chances are, more people have played Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or Super Mario Bros. than have experienced any single motion picture or novel. Videogames have penetrated very deeply into the American psyche, and, just as important figures arose in the early days of novels to consider their impact on society and room for development, and a later era saw the growth of a healthy market for film criticism, the current era is birth to a whole new generation of critics eager to do the same for videogames. Slowly but surely, videogame criticism is moving from the realm of teen-age ranting “This game rawks!” or “This game sux!” to sophisticated and intelligent aesthetic and theoretical discussions. Furthermore, as the success of such books as The Ultimate History of Videogames and Dungeons and Dreamers reveals, a steady market is growing for works on videogame history and cultural development. People are getting excited about videogames—and not only playing them more than ever, but also reading and writing about them.

Certainly, some people have noticed the powerful effect videogames are having on our culture, particularly their alleged harmful effects on young people. One certainly does not need to read Armchair Arcade to be aware of all of the negative publicity videogames have received as a result of the tragedy at Columbine. Concerned parents have lobbied Congress to carefully monitor the videogame market and censor videogames they consider to be corrupting America’s youth. A rating system was adopted for videogames very similar to the one developed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for movies. Still, kids get access to violent and adult oriented videogames as easily as they can visit pornographic Websites. Inevitably, if a game developer releases a title allowing players to rape, murder, and commit despicable acts of terrorism, some children are going to play it. The question is, will these videogames have a psychological effect on these impressionable young players, and who is ultimately responsible for disasters like Columbine?

Sadly, almost all critical discussions of videogames have focused on the negative aspects of videogames. We see study after study on the news of the role videogames have played in crimes or childhood obesity. Kids need to get out more. Kids need to be protected from videogame violence. Videogames are a dangerous addiction that splits up marriages and turns children into mindless zombies. What we have here is a political discussion of videogames, which is usually only as enlightened as the next available politician.

Cover of Issue #1.
Issue #1

This sort of paranoia is nothing new to literary critics, who realize that every new literary genre has been pummeled by those who fear or despise it. Certainly a work of vitriol like Sven Birkert’s Gutenberg Elegies, which warns (or laments) the computer’s debilitating effects on literacy as powerfully as Plato condemned another new technology, namely writing’s, effect on orality (see Plato’s Phaedrus or his Seventh Epistle) is sure to influence the public’s attitude towards videogames. One of the most popular books ever written about videogames is David Sheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children. The arguments always amount to the same thesis: The old system is wonderful, the new system will destroy society as we know it. The problem is that most people who embrace the new technology don’t seem to mind the changes it brings to society. If children stop reading fairy tales and experience them as videogames on their television, does this necessarily spell doom for humanity?

Frankly, those of us who have grown up doing this very thing know better, and, furthermore, we’re getting fed up with these assertions. That’s one reason we want to introduce a new strain of criticism of videogames that gets beyond such simple, negative “gut” reactions and moves into the relatively unexplored territory of serious, thoughtful, sincere analyses of videogames from the perspective of people who have actually played and enjoyed them. This is not to say that we’re blindly positivistic or naively certain that videogames have no negative consequences whatsoever. What it does mean, though, is that we do not approach the topic with the simple prejudice that videogames are evil. I can discuss the political problem of “Gay Characters in Videogames” without concluding that we ought to ban videogames. In the same manner that a scientist sees evidence for evolution in a pile of fossils, or a Christian fundamentalist only sees evidence for the devil’s handiwork, the videogame theorists writing for Armchair Arcade are willing to move beyond “common sense” and try to get at rational (or at times, irrational) theories or criticism.

What is really interesting about videogames? Well, there is that small matter of definition. After all, what are these strange things we call “videogames?” Is a Simon handheld a videogame? Can the interactive menus on a DVD be called a videogame? What about a “videogame” for the blind, in which no video is ever displayed? These questions, called ontological questions, are simply trying to get at what the being of videogames really is. At what point does something stop being something else and become a videogame?

Besides these ontological questions, there are also aesthetic considerations. When people hear this term, they may think of the phrase, “That’s aesthetically pleasing” uttered in the context of a work of architecture. I tend to think of the effects a work has on the senses; not only how it looks, but how it makes us feel. There are obviously many aesthetic considerations to take into account when one studies videogames; graphics, are obvious, but also subtler details like the texture of an object or even the ergonomics of a joystick. What really makes a game aesthetically pleasing? Are games that appear three-dimensional, like Doom, intrinsically better than two-dimensional games like Metroid? This very discussion took place long ago in another context; namely, the use of perspective in Renaissance painting. Naturally, painters like Alberti favored the new methods, but modern artists employ a variety of techniques and can hardly be measured (at least by enlightened critics) by the proximity of their paintings to objects or scenes in the real world. Whether one talks about cell-shading techniques in the latest Microsoft XBox title or the use of color in an impressionist painting, one is having a discussion about aesthetics. Perhaps what makes videogames such an appealing subject for aesthetics is that so many senses are involved; players not only see a game, but also hear it. In a way, they also touch it, that is, they must be allowed to interact with objects and scenes in the gaming world. In these ways, aesthetic discussions of videogames are much like similar discussions of architecture.

So far, we have discussed political, ontological and aesthetic aspects of videogames. There are also phenomenologist studies, which might be thought of as psychological. Try to imagine what takes place in your brain when you play a videogame. What actually occurs as you move that frog across the street, dodging cars and hungry alligators? What is the nature of the interplay among your eyes, ears, hands, and that collection of pixels on the screen? How is that you are able to conceive of that blob of colored pixels as a frog in the first place? Imagine if someone walked by a child playing Frogger and asked, “Which one are you?” The child would point to the frog, of course, and say “That’s me.” If this question was enough to distract the child, and the frog met its untimely demise under the wheels of a semi, the child may say, “Look! You made me die!” Isn’t it a bit strange that the girl is so immersed in the game to refer to herself as a blob of pixels? If one of the main characters dies on a television show, the audience doesn’t say “I died,” but “Who shot J.R.?” There is something strange taking place with videogames that gives players the very real sense that they are the avatar. No other genre allows for this kind of identification. Trying to find language to describe this phenomenon is difficult, but I don’t think you need me to tell you that it can sure get interesting in a hurry.

Cover of Issue #2.
Issue #2

A fourth category of videogame criticism is motivated by those little green slips of paper in your purse or wallet—or, more likely, that thin plastic card. Why are people plunking down $50 for one game and letting another drift to the bargain bin and finally to a landfill? Here, of course, we are talking economics, or rather the marketing aspects of videogames. As I wrote earlier, videogames have come a long way since Ralph Baer’s Odyssey. Billions of dollars are spent each year as players scramble for the latest consoles and the CD-ROM's or cartridges required to bring them to life. Countless PC gamers spend hundreds, if not thousands, every few years just to keep their machines updated enough to enjoy the latest titles. The economic considerations are thus very serious, but also highly perplexing. Why are so many new videogames “unoriginal,” and merely the latest entry in a long string of “clones?” Why do some videogame critics speak so vehemently about “engine whoring,” that is, taking an established game and re-working it with different characters, plots, features, and the like? What is more important: Blazing hardware, or popular software? What is this strange thing called “open source,” and why are so many small-time videogame developers worried about software patents and copyrights? For that matter, what is this thing called “software piracy,” and does it hurt or help the videogame industry? Again, thoughtful discussions of these questions quickly lead to complex, enriching, and thoroughly enjoyable evenings. This is fascinating stuff!

This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. I get under the hood of my PC and spent last summer building a Doom clone for an Atari Lynx emulator.

Oh, yes, I say, there are also the technical discussions about videogames. Just as some people can wax eloquently for hours about the virtues of acid-free paper or the mechanics of a novel’s plot, there are plenty of videogame enthusiasts who enjoy nothing more than learning about the technical aspects of videogames and the hardware required to run them. What, technically speaking, is the difference between a ColecoVision and an Atari 2600? What are the virtues of the Commodore 64’s SID sound chip, or the Amiga’s Paula? How does one go about making a videogame? I hope I am not implying here that all technical discussions of videogames amount to highly esoteric conversations about microchips and machine language. The human brain is discussed differently at a neurobiologist conference than it would be at a Star Trek convention, or even in a college biology course. I am proud to say that, while my technical knowledge of the games I play and the hardware I play them on is considerable compared to those who know absolutely nothing about them, I am stupefied by many of the statements uttered by several regulars at Armchair Arcade. Some of the technical details in the articles elude me. Is this a problem? Well, perhaps it would be if someone got the technical details wrong, and I ended up formatting my hard drive while trying to burn a homebrew Dreamcast CD. Otherwise, I don’t have a problem. Those who will only write an article for Armchair Arcade after they’ve mastered all of the technical details of every game and game system to date will never open their word processor. Learn from what others have written and write what you know, so that others may know.

Cover of Issue #3.
Issue #3

Whether you are interested in the political, ontological, aesthetic, phenomenological, economic, or technical aspects of videogames, if you care enough to write about it, please consider submitting an article to Armchair Arcade. We are always on the lookout for well-written, knowledgeable articles that will make a valid contribution to videogame criticism. While we aren’t an academic publication like Espen Aarseth’s Game Studies, we take pride in our writers’ willingness to delve into deeper topics and take videogames as seriously as their ubiquity in our society requires. If you have an idea you would like to share with us, please submit it. If we like what we see, we will certainly work with you to develop a fine, publishable article. As those of you who have tried to publish commercial articles are well aware, the value of good editorial feedback is not to be taken lightly. Please keep in mind, however, that we keep our standards high in regards to quality writing, and will reject a piece if we deem it hurriedly produced or clumsily edited. Writing a quality article takes time and effort, but, here at Armchair Arcade, we feel the results render the cost negligible.

Thank you for reading this issue of Armchair Arcade, and please accept our invitation to write an article for future issues.