Kinship Commodified – YouTube and the Parasocial Arts

Image 1: YouTube logo on an antique television set

When I was very young, maybe four or five, I adored the Wiggles. A Wiggles bedspread, Wiggles band aids, a stuffed purple octopus that I dragged with me everywhere. One lucky day, my parents took me to see one of their live shows. They performed, and the crowd of children around me jumped and sang along, while I sat in my chair with what my mother recalls as a “look of concern” on my face.

Fast forward fifteen years or so, and I’m at the Brisbane convention center for a comics expo. Walking between the booths, I see two men standing behind a counter – two internet personalities that I had watched for hours on-end growing up. When I approached, they said hello, and asked if I wanted anything signed – I said no, and then… what? I paused, they looked uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable.

I asked if I could shake their hands. They obliged, and I thanked them for sharing their work for so many years. At the time, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was deeply strange about the encounter – that I had done something wrong. But wasn’t I just doing what a fan would do? Isn’t that normal?

Digital Friends, the New Normal

The phrase “parasocial relationship” has been written about for years in the world of academia, though it is only recently becoming a commonly-understood phenomena (StrucciMovies, 2017). Horton and Wohl coined the term way back in 1956, using it to describe the new kind of relationships they observed between audiences and the popular personalities of radio, television and cinema. They noted that the audience responded to performers in a way that was “analogous to those in a primary group” (Horton & Wohl, 1956).

I’m having the time of my life doing this stuff, and I never want anything to change too much. I want to still do it for fun, I want to still be… I want to still feel like a friend to all you guys.

YouTuber Jacksepticeye, addressing his at-the-time 4-million-subscribers

Importantly, they also identified a significant distinction between “personality” and “personae” led programs. A “personality” program is a soap opera, a serial drama, a theatre performance. It is an “ambiguous meeting ground on which real people play out the roles of fictional characters” (ibid.). This interaction is described as temporary and magical, even the most engaged and invested viewer knows that Dr. House and Walter White aren’t real people.

This is in stark contrast to the “personae” program, one initially led by “quizmasters, announcers, ‘interviewers’ in a new ‘show-business’ world,” performer’s whose work and role in it is “a function of the media themselves” (ibid.). Here, the personae addresses the camera with “undisturbed intimacy”, speaking to each viewer individually, instead of to a crowd of thousands.

This second approach to audience-interaction began as a novelty, but in the years since has become a new kind of normal. Podcasts, vlogs, Let’s Plays, reaction videos, house tours, day-in-the-life-of videos – this kind of immediate, direct, ‘intimate’ content is everywhere. And it is powerful.

“[The audience] is expected to benefit by [the personae’s] wisdom, reflect on his advice, sympathize with him in his difficulties, forgive his mistakes, buy the products that he recommends, and keep his sponsor informed of the esteem in which he is held.”

Horton & Wohl, 1956

Familiar Strangers

Over the years, we have seen the danger that can come from parasocial relationships taken to the extreme. In 2018, a man broke into the apartment of Free and Turney, two internet personalities, armed with a gun and intending to kill Free (Spangler, 2018). Popular YouTubers Pewdiepie, Jacksepticeye, Markiplier and countless others have reported ‘fans’ finding their addresses and waiting outside, calling out to them, or even scaling fences just for a chance to meet their idols, or for a chance at becoming their friends (StrucciMovies, 2018).

Not everyone is Misery’s Anne Wilkes. The majority of people, myself included, cannot imagine ourselves going to such extremes, or being so deluded. However, that does not mean we are above this phenomenon. Psychologist Stanley Milgrim coined the term “Familiar Strangers” when studying people who routinely gathered in public spaces, like subways. He and his students found that people were able to recognize photos of others that regularly caught the same train, even though the pair had never spoken (Milgram, 1977). He also noted that it was not uncommon for people to “personalize their Familiar Strangers by “giving them names and/or concocting fictitious stories and backgrounds of their personal lives” (Paulos & Goodman, 2004).

This is what the vast majority of parasocial relationships look like; someone who feels a kinship with a stranger, but who can on some level acknowledge the absurdity of that. Heartfelt comments below the videos of massively-popular YouTubers often start with “I know you’ll never read this” or “Please upvote so X sees this!”

While fandom and obsessive behaviour is by no means a new phenomenon, it is clearly a behaviour that is being encouraged or sculpted by the hyper-intimacy of YouTube and similar platforms – “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us” (Culkin, 1967). Early scholars noted the power that radio and television had over audiences, the immediacy and intimacy; what would they have thought of the smartphone? Of the podcasts that accompany millions of people to work, or the YouTube videos that serve as entertainment over millions of people’s meals?

Just treat it like you would treat the TV show Madmen. You shouldn’t form a relationship with me, at the end of the day I’m entertainment – if I stop entertaining, you stop watching. That’s it. That’s what I want from you guys, because I’m not your friend. I will never ever hang out with you, and I don’t care about you – because I don’t know you, I can’t. There are 13 thousand people here, I can’t care about all of you because I don’t know any of you.

Twitch streamer ‘Ludwig’ when asked by a fan how to avoid forming a parasocial relationship

If more people are willing to ask questions of themselves, to challenge their habits and stay conscious of the way they think and speak about their favourite personalities, perhaps there can be a comfortable medium between the obsessive and the recreational. The trouble, as is so often the case, is that there’s nothing profitable about a healthy mindset; obsessive fans are reliable, and valuable

An algorithm will never ask you to disengage from it, and neither will a content creator.


Culkin, J. M. (1967). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan.

Horton, D., & Richard Wohl, R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. psychiatry19(3), 215-229.

Milgram, S. (1977). The familiar stranger: An aspect of urban anonymity. The individual in a social world, 51-53.

Paulos, E., & Goodman, E. (2004, April). The familiar stranger: anxiety, comfort, and play in public places. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 223-230).

Spangler, T. (2018, February 13) YouTube Star Couple Targeted by Gunman in Home-Invasion Attack. Variety.

StrucciMovies (2017, August 28) FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE ONE: intro to parasocial relationships [Video]. YouTube.

StrucciMovies (2018, August 12) FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE TWO: parasocial hell [Video]. YouTube.

The Mark of the Beast

“Cal can have periods where they will struggle with feeling anxious.”

Student Services Adviser

I refer to the time between March and October of 2020 as “the really bad stretch.” You reading this aren’t my therapist, so I’ll spare you the details. During this time, I would be checking Twitter and the news for an hour or so before bed, and for upwards of an hour in the morning. This began the moment I would wake up.

My best friend lives in America. In COVID America, in the Thin Blue Line America. I met this friend through Twitter, and we are so close I cannot imagine my life without them in it.

I uninstalled Twitter from all my devices and blocked it on my computer at the start of 2021.

In my life, it has been a source of joy, levity, cruelty, compassion, outrage. I found community through it. I saw video of the Beriut warehouse explosion only two minutes after it happened. In Australia, it was 1 am.

I cannot possibly speak on the merits of Twitter. If it is ever put to trial, I would be too invested to serve in its jury. All I know is what it has done to me, or what it let me do to myself.

I am glad to be rid of it.

I miss it.

I don’t know what to do without it.

Fear of the Known

Image 1: Bolaji Badejo, behind the scenes of ‘Alien’

“[O]ur brains are programmed to tune into stories with an intensity that can obliterate the world around us… The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content. We refer to this experience as immersion.”

(Murray, 1997, pg. 98-99)

Immersion is an important part of what can make games really resonate with audiences. In modern, triple-A releases (‘AAA’ here referring to large-budget, studio-lead games) there is a great emphasis placed on photorealism, dynamic lighting, intricately-detailed environments – see Resident Evil Village, Far Cry 6, Hitman 3, or most of the entries on the ‘new releases’ shelf at your nearest EB games.

As I was brainstorming different approaches to this blog’s prompt (and reflecting on the ‘obligation’ I felt as the only games student), I was thinking about how horror works. Aesthetically, tonally – but also how differently it can manifest between mediums. A movie can be unintentionally funny (see The Room, Wickerman), but has a film ever been unintentionally scary? To ask another question – if one watches a scary movie, then dives deep into behind-the-scenes footage of animatronics, concept art of the monster, sees actors laughing in their gore makeup; that would make the film less scary for them, surely. Lifting the veil to such a degree would shield the frightened viewer from the horror, would lessen the depths of their immersion.

Can the same be said for games? Is there something special about the way that games connect and interact with their audiences that allows for a different type of horror, a different way to be scared?

The Two Types of Immersion

Crucial to the understanding of a player’s investment in a game is the definition of immersion, and the two different forms it can take. The traditional definition, that of being “temporarily transported from life’s problems by […] playing,” (McMahan, 2013, pg. 67) can be referred to as diegetic immersion, which is to say an investment in the world as fantasy; this is also referred to in the field of Virtual Reality as presence, a “feeling of being there.” (ibid., pg. 68)

However, there exists another type of immersion – non-diegetic immersion, which is an investment in the world as strategy, as a sandbox or a toy that one can interact with. J. Bentham coined the term “deep play”, which he used to describe the phenomenon whereby players would enter a low-stakes game of chance that held poor odds, merely for the pleasure of playing (Bentham, 1908). The term was later expanded by Clifford Geertz and Diane Carr, leading to its modern definition; a state in which “a player accumulates and assesses layers of meaning that have strategic value, […] A measure of a player’s level of engagement.” (McMahan, 2013, pg. 69)

So, there is an interesting conflict at play here – the word immersion can at once refer to two completely distinct forms of engagement; one that treats a game as a world, and another that treats it as a game. The question then is: are both forms of engagement able to affect players? Can both be scary?

Can a Game be Scary with the Lights On?

Diegetic immersion is the easiest to analyse, as it bears the most resemblance to the ways in which people engage with traditional media. Everyone has lost themselves in a book or a movie, laughed as they caught themselves crying over a character’s death or scared by a monster. To say that evocative and atmospheric stories can be moving is to state the obvious.

But non-diegetic immersion, I would argue, can be even more powerful. In Sea of Thieves, a light-hearted pirate adventure game, I have built up a sweat hiding on the ships of enemy players, knowing that they could discover me at any moment. In Among Us, I’ve let loose undignified screams as little cartoon spacemen approached me in a hallway, fearing that they were the hidden impostor. In Nauticrawl I have been terrified by little icons on my radar display, scared by text-descriptions of enemies I couldn’t see.

When a player is sufficiently invested in the systems of play, of deep play, they can conjure in themselves a type of intensity, of excitement, and of fear, that feels as or more powerful than what any cinematic or aesthetic horror could give – even if it was not intended by the developers.

The Best of Both Worlds

Image 5: Alien Isolation

Alien Isolation is a masterclass in horror, and it showcases a complete mastery of both diegetic and non-diegetic immersion. It is set in a lovingly-rendered derelict spaceship, taking great inspiration from Ridley Scott’s original Alien. It is haunting, atmospheric, rich and tense and gorgeous to look at. And it would still be the scariest game I’ve ever played if you took all that away.

The Xenomorph, the titular alien that serves as the game’s antagonist, is the result of several intricately-designed layers of artificial intelligence. It never cheats, it plays the same game as the player, by the same rules. It uses sight, smell, hearing and touch to search the spaceship, and throughout the game’s 18 hours of runtime, it is looking for you. It learns the places you like to hide, it learns the tricks you like to use to distract it, and it gradually gets better at tracking you down. It is scary not just because of the aesthetic presentation, but because it is a game, in the truest sense of the word.

By embracing the dynamic and interactive nature of games, Alien Isolation is able to create an experience that is as daunting and as terrifying the 10th time around as it is the 1st. It uses masterful aesthetic design principles to create a fantastic world that is easy to fall into, and then it asks you to try and get out. 


Bentham, J. (1908). Theory of legislation (Vol. 6). K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company Limited.

Geertz, C. (2000). Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight. In Culture and politics (pp. 175-201). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

McMahan, A. (2013). Immersion, engagement, and presence: A method for analyzing 3-D video games. In The video game theory reader (pp. 89-108). Routledge.

Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. MIT press.

Recreational Labour – How Games Make Work Fun

I’ve made several attempts to write this post over the last few days, each abandoned after some time. There is a familiar shade that has loomed large over me in recent weeks – burnout, like a shadow passing before the sun. I am tired, I feel distant from the world around me, and I have to drag myself to my desk whenever there is work to be done. Yesterday, when I made my most recent attempt to write this piece, I decided to take a break – I decided to play a game.

Image 1: Deep Rock Galactic, a game about dwarves mining for precious metals deep in an alien-infested moon.

We are all familiar with the notion that games, or any art, can be used as an escape – something one does after work “to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997, p. 9) Why, then, would I turn to a game about labour? One about working under stressful and dangerous conditions, under management that dehumanizes me and values capital over my safety? Or rather, how did its developers make working as a dwarf feel so fun?

Aesthetics, Affects, and the Atlas of Emotions

Of the emotions under the Enjoyment umbrella, the three that I associate most with labour and work are Pride, Naches and Fiero – in the Atlas of Emotions they are defined as: Pride, “deep pleasure and satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements or the achievements of an associate,Naches, “joyful pride in the accomplishments of one’s children or mentees (a Yiddish word),” and Fiero, “enjoyment of meeting a difficult challenge (an Italian word).” (Atlas of Emotions, 2021)

When I reflect on the years I’ve spent working, I don’t think of paychecks and meetings, nor frustrating customers or office politics – I think of the people I worked with, and the obstacles we overcame. I think of the 2IC at Woolworths who always had time to answer my questions, the software engineer at my first internship that refused to go home until he & I had solved a problem, the support team at a tech company who worked the hardest and received the least credit. That, in my mind, is labour in its most pure and cathartic form – camaraderie, people coming together to achieve things they never could alone, in spite of power structures that see them as little more than human resources.

So – how would one evoke these feelings in games? What does labour look like, aesthetically?

Deep Rock Galactic

In ‘DRG’, the player takes up the role of a dwarven employee, working for a company called, aptly, Deep Rock Galactic. As a miner, the player has been stationed on the “Space Rig”, a base in orbit above a mineral-rich planet that is the stage for the game’s many missions.

From the Space Rig, players can assemble teams of fellow dwarves (other players) and choose what missions to embark upon. Different missions will pose new dangers and hazards, although the most perilous missions offer the greatest rewards.

The Space Rig is not a store, it is neither corporate nor sterile – it is a place of work. There are grease stains under repair stations, there are tools scattered about busy workbenches, pipes strewn about the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Great care has gone into this area’s construction in order to make it feel lived in, worked in. It has the air of a break room – something that management owns, but undeniably a space that belongs to the workers.

This alone would not be enough to make DRG as beloved as it is – there is a profound sense of community and cooperation that runs through the game and its world. ‘Management’, the corporate powers that hold sway over the game’s world, are quick to remind the player that they are expendable – in a mission to gather ‘Morkite’, the escape pod will happily leave once it has received the gathered resources, regardless of whether or not the miners are aboard. 

In a single-player game, this would quickly feel demoralising – not an escape from reality but a grim parody of it. However, DRG is first-and-foremost a game about teamwork – every dwarf has different abilities, and every team needs to work together to thrive. It is a game about communication, collaboration, weathering through tough times, and… about unions.

In the game, a player can press a button to have their dwarf shout. While there are many voice lines that this command can trigger (“Leave no dwarf behind,” “We are unbreakable,” “Rock on!”, etc.), the vast majority of them say “Rock and Stone!” in one form or another. While this could be read as a corporate slogan, it is never associated with management – it, like the Space Rig, belongs to the dwarves. The game never prompts the player to press this button, but if you hopped into a game right now, without fail you’d be met with a chorus of “Rock and Stone!”

It likely sounds silly to an outsider, but these simple things – a messy workspace, a dedicated button to celebrate, having agency over what work you do and when you want to do it – the result of all of this is a utopian workplace, labour at its most idealised and wholesome. I am proud when I see a fellow dwarf succeed, and thrilled when I overcome a difficult challenge alongside a handful of strangers – just as I was at the end of a 10-hour shift on Christmas Eve, or when an infuriating bug was finally solved only hours before a deadline.

Lessons and Warnings

By evoking union imagery, by empowering the player with choice and freedoms, by giving players the tools to both communicate with and help one another, DRG evokes the aesthetic emotions of camaraderie, accomplishment, pride and teamwork – turning labour into something people actively seek out during their recreation.

A cynical reader may see this and wonder: “how could this be used in real workforces?” ‘Gamification’ is a term used to describe the application of game design to menial or mass labour – it is a ‘buzzword’, something that promises increased productivity and worker satisfaction. On a personal note, it is something I have been asked to implement in two different software jobs, and the tone of these requests were dehumanising and pandering.

Because that is the trick with DRG, that is the magic that makes it work – it isn’t real. There is no way to spend real-world money to buy progress, there is no nepotism or exploitation, there are no union busters and no layoffs. Games cannot be used to augment real labour, because they each exist for very different motivations (Bulut, 2013). 

R. G. Collingwood says that commercial art both is and isn’t art, that it is “denatured by subordination to a non artistic end; the end of representation.” (Collingwood, 1958, pg. 44-45) There are many lessons to learn from the aesthetic design of DRG, but the greatest is perhaps its simplest – stay together. Never leave a dwarf behind, join a union.

Rock and stone.

Image 8: Rock and Stone!


Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (1997). Dialectic of enlightenment (Vol. 15). Verso.

Atlas of Emotions. (Accessed August 1st, 2021) Enjoyment 

Bulut, E. (2013). Seeing and playing as labor: Toward a visual materialist pedagogy of video games through Walter Benjamin. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 35(5), 408-425.

Collingwood, R. G. (1958). The principles of art (Vol. 11). Oxford University Press.

Semiotics, Character Design, and the ‘Tank’ Problem

Image 1: Merciless Wanderer, Bloodborne

It is important for many games to convey a lot of information quickly. In Bloodborne, if a player runs into this fellow (see above), they’re going to be making a lot of decisions in a very brief span of time. Will they be able to block this creature’s attack? Likely not, its weapon is both huge and blunt. Will they be able to quickly kill it? Again, no – it is hulking and heavy. But will they be able to outrun this creature? Definitely – it is big, lumbering and covered with chains, which means it must be slow.

This… all sounds a bit obvious though, doesn’t it? Of course this big creature is slow, of course it will take some effort to defeat – but why does that feel obvious? How can a still image carry so much mechanical, functional knowledge? Enter semiology, the study of signs – when properly utilised, by understanding the myths and meaning behind signs, a character’s design can convey so much information at just a glance.

The trouble is, when a sign is used for long enough, it can grow… complicated.

Signs, Signifiers, and Social Constructs

Before we dive into another piece about how video games hate women (fear not, we’ll get there), it’s important to establish what is meant by the word sign. Saussure wrote that signs are made up of two parts: the signifier, which is the thing that conveys information, and the signified, which is the information being conveyed (Saussure, 2011). A big red octagon is the ‘signifier’, and the request that an approaching car stops is the ‘signified’.

Barthes argued that there was a third part, one that must not be lost in the analysis – the sign itself. It is not merely that a signifier expresses the signified, but that there is “a correlation that unites them” (Barthes, 2014, pg. 263). The sign, the “associative total of the first two terms,” (ibid.) is inseparable from its component parts, and vital to Barthes’ concept of “myth”.

“Myth” here refers to a way in which signs are gathered together to convey a message, a thing “constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it” (ibid.). A sign (signifier and signified) is “caught” by a myth, folded into it and built upon – what was once a complete sign becomes only a signifier, a building block, in a greater myth. 

He uses a bouquet of roses as an example; the signifier is the roses, the signified is an expression of romantic affection, together forming the sign of romantic flowers. However, when caught by the myth of traditional romance, the bouquet sign is reduced to a signifier, its paired signified being a grand romantic gesture, likely coinciding with an anniversary or important date. This grand romantic gesture can then become a signifier, denoting a relationship becoming serious, and so on.

In this way, the myth is both collecting and generating meaning. While some myths come and go, the prevailing ones are immortalised in culture; their component signs stripped of original meaning, their legitimacy unquestioned. Why, again, are roses romantic?

Putting the Sign in Character Design

Okay, so what are the signs and myths we find in games? There are plenty that predate games completely: big muscles mean strength, long legs mean speed, and so on. There are myths more firmly centered in games, however – take the triumvirate of DPS, Healer, and Tank.

Image 4: ‘Role Playing Game roles’

The DPS character – that is, damage-per-second – is aptly named; they are there to hit things hard, and are normally quite fragile. The Healers (easy guess) heal and protect their teammates, serving a support role and usually doing so from the safety of the back-line. Lastly the Tank, a wall of defences that welcomes and withstands the damage that would otherwise kill their comrades. 

The aesthetic trimmings will vary between games and genres, but the profiles are immediately recognizable: the DPS is tall, gaunt, dangerous, and sharp. The Healer is soft, bright, warm, delicate. The Tank is big, heavy, cumbersome and blunt.

The value of this is immediate and evident once experienced as a player – being able to distinguish the general function of a character in a crowd from their silhouette alone is what allows for the complexity and scale of a game like Overwatch – a dozen characters fighting all at once, but a seasoned player can keep track of the chaos thanks to this thoughtful design. However, as Barthes would be quick to point out, the “myth” is greedy, and oblivious to the damage it can cause…

The Tank Problem

Alright, pop quiz. Below are a few pairs of characters selected from a few massively popular video games. Which of the pair do you think is the most resilient to damage, the most “tanky”?

The answers are B, A, and A. Huh – that last one is strange, isn’t it? Where is the bulk, the hulk, the lumbering size? Let’s investigate further. These are all of the “tank” characters in Overwatch:

Of the three women present, one is a robot, one is a skinny woman in a robot, and the last is (refreshingly) a big woman. A look into the staggering 140+ characters in League of Legends will yield similar results; here are the tankiest men:

And the tankiest women:

It is here, at the intersection of semiotically-informed character design and market-research that the priorities of a game, or of its producers, are made clear. Men are allowed to be grotesque, deformed, rugged, messy and monstrous – but the women are on the box art, the women sell merchandise, and the women perform well in marketing.

Stuart Hall tells us that “meaning is produced by the practice, the ‘work’, of representation” (Hall, 1997, pg. 14) – that meaning is made, not inherent. When women consistently look like this, even at the functional detriment of the games they exist in, what meaning is being made? And what is being lost among the myth?


Barthes, R. (2014). 9 Myth Today. Ideology.

De Saussure, F. (2011). Course in general linguistics. Columbia University Press.

Hall, S. (1997). The work of representation. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices2, 13-74.

Deconstruct Your Cake and Eat It Too

Image 1: Ellie hiding under a car, The Last of Us 2

Games originally had no stories; they were toys, vehicles for play and levity. Things changed, as graphical fidelity rose and budgets rose with it, more ambitious (and often more ‘realistic’) stories began to emerge. In the space of 30 years we went from Mario the plumber to Michael the career criminal, a man who faked his death, who is estranged from his son, who is struggling through therapy, and so on.

This ambition didn’t stop at detail and spectacle, however. Games wanted to be about things – violence, depression, fear, guilt. If Contra was about shooting guns, Call of Duty wanted to be about what it means to shoot guns. So much so that between deaths the player is given a quote to ponder as the game reloads the level, featuring the words of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Gandhi and Robert E. Lee, to name but a few.

Eventually, that ambition reached a natural-and-inevitable question: what if games were about themselves? Not about the cost war, but the cost of virtual war. What if games questioned the player’s role in the story, their obedience or defiance, their expectations and their assumptions? What if games were postmodern?

But wait, aren’t all games postmodern?

Great question, thanks for asking. Postmodernism rejects the notion of a shared truth, of objectivity and absolutes; so it makes sense that games, with the chaos of the player, would be ripe for analysis under a critical lens. We can see from Ihab Hassan’s oppositional binaries – pairs of opposing attributes belonging to modernism and postmodernism respectively – there are some clear ‘postmodern’ traits that abound in games; purpose becomes play, design becomes chance, centering becomes dispersal (Hassan, 1993).

Image 4: Hassan’s oppositional list of binary categories.

Barry Atkins coined the term “the Postmodern Temptation” with regards to these critical analyses of games – the terminology certainly suggests that viewing games in a postmodern lens would be natural fit; simulacrum, hyperreality, hypertextuality. Atkins warns that “such terminology does not always survive its transportation to the specifics of that experience.” (Atkins, 2003, pg. 15)

If postmodernism is “an incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984), what is the metanarrative of Pac-Man? Of Chess? Of Snakes and Ladders? Perhaps sometimes a game is just a game, a pipe just a pipe.

Image 5: The Treachery of Images (of sorts)

Ergodic Literature

So not all games are postmodern, but some surely are: The Beginner’s Guide is a game about game developers, where the player is directly addressed in narration. Super Hot VR ends with the player being asked to assassinate themselves. Metal Gear Solid 2 is famously absurd, confusing, and often intentionally frustrating – cited by some as the first true postmodern game (Walker, 2013).

What, then, makes a game postmodern? E.J. Aarseth provides some wisdom here, with the term “ergodic”, deriving from the Greek words for “work” and “path”.

“In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.”

(Aarseth, 1997, pg. 1)

So some games are ergodic, they ask more of the player than others. That of course begs the question…

What are they asking?

Image 6: Ellie holding a soldier at knifepoint, The Last of Us 2

The Last of Us 2 is a game about revenge, hate, cycles of violence, and consequences. The player takes the role of Ellie, a survivor in a post-apocalypse, and is tasked with murdering their way up the west coast of the USA in search of revenge.

It was the highly anticipated sequel to a game beloved by millions, but it had a rocky reception to say the least. There are many (many) complicating factors that led to the backlash it faced, much of which was in bad-faith, but the most prolific reaction to the game among fans and critics is that it was just “emotionally draining.” (Myers, 2020)

To proceed through the game, the player will be frequently asked to commit murder. Slicing throats, throwing jury-rigged grenades, shooting, slashing, stabbing. When an enemy is shot, they will scream out in pain and beg for mercy. If the player spares their lives, they will immediately draw their weapon and continue fighting. The player is given dozens of different strategic options in combat, but mercy is never one of them.

Could this be called ergodic, then? The player is made to watch violence, or to commit it, without any chance at intervention or redemption. While the game eventually resolves with an overall message of anti-violence, forgiveness, and community, there is no room for traversal of the text. The player is forced to kill people (and dogs) for 25 hours, watching the characters descend into misery and despair, and when the protagonist’s redemption does finally come, it arrives without the player’s consent or control. The result of this is not a critique, it is a lecture. A lesson given to a misbehaving child, who is made to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes under the watchful, disappointed eyes of their parents.

Now what?

Is that all there is, then? Is postmodernism so tied to cynicism that there is no room left for empathy? For an industry defined by its propensity for violence, by its desperate attempts to distance itself from its origins as toys for children, is it possible to critique games without also critiquing violence?

I think not, hope not. Nihilism, cynicism, pessimism – I hope these are not the sum of postmodern critical theory, but simply the first, curious steps. 

Kindness and joy are not abandoned alongside objective truth. It is possible for games to acknowledge the player without hating them, to give them room to ponder without trying to lecture them – to both respect the player’s intelligence, and their quality of character. When a player is allowed to be more than just an audience, a game will become more than just a toy.


Aarseth, E. J. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. JHU Press.

Atkins, B. (2003). More than a game: The computer game as fictional form. Manchester University Press.

Hassan, I. (1993). Toward a concept of postmodernism. Postmodernism: A reader, 152.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Vol. 10). U of Minnesota Press.

Myers, M. (2020). The Last of Us Part 2 review: We’re better than this. Polygon. 

Walker, P. (2013). Japanese Postmodernism and Fandom: The Rise of Raiden and What Kojima Really Meant. Gamasutra. 

Video Games and the Culture of Commodification

Leisure and the Culture Industry

“The man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997, p. 3)

It was the belief of Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer that art produced under American capitalism, under the culture industry, rendered the audience as passive consumers. All nuance and critical thinking had been stripped away from man’s relationship with the art and products produced by his culture; that “the industry [robbed] the individual of his function.” (p. 3)

They believed that mass culture – art & products catered to and designed for the working-class with leisure time and expendable income – was formulaic and servile. The cultural products so created were doomed to be “cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable,” (pg. 3) to merely be  “sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.” (pg. 9)

Adorno and Horkheimer had little optimism for anything produced by the culture industry. They believed that audiences were robbed of the enlightenment one can find in art, that they were being pacified – catered for with a relentless absolution that resembled the tactics of propaganda.

One must wonder; how would they have felt about video games?

Games as Toys

“Are video games art?” The question has spawned news segments, essays, think-pieces, and countless arguments on forum threads. To truly answer the question, one must first present and defend a comprehensive definition of “art”, which is perhaps too broad a topic for this post. One may have more success asking the question “does anything inherently disqualify games from being considered art?”

One could point to their interactivity, the most obvious distinction between them and other mediums more traditionally accepted as the homes of art – visual art, cinema, literature, etc. Aaron Smuts (2005) argues that such a distinction would be irrelevant, as games have historically been social and communal in nature. He argues that “[t]here is no radical difference here between video games and dance contests or poetry slams.” (pg. 5)

Let’s Play Live 2017

John Storey (1997) wrote of the relationship between “high” and “popular” culture in his book What is Popular Culture? – how Wiliam Shakespear, jazz music, film noir and countless other cultural products eventually “crossed the border supposedly separating popular and high culture.” (pg. 6) Video games are already seen by many as an emergent medium for mature and insightful art, and their perception by the public at-large will continue to shift in the coming decades.

Interactivity, the End of the Passive Consumer

That being the case, there is no reason that interactivity should inherently preclude a work of art from being deemed as-such – in fact, there are many games that utilise this interactivity to tell stories in ways that other mediums never could. 

A villain in the retro-role-playing-game Undertale closes the game entirely after he wins a fight; forcing the player to re-launch the game. One puzzle in the mindful, contemplative The Witness asks the player to stay in one place for 59 minutes, watching a moon slowly move across a screen, while a voice-over monologue muses on the lengths people will go to in search of completion, catharsis.

One last example. In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the player controls two brothers at once – using the left “joystick” to control the eldest, and the right to control the youngest. The player accompanies the pair as they quest through a fantastical world, adventuring and braving challenges. The older brother must frequently help the youngest – he is short where his brother is tall, he is cowardly where his brother is brave, and he cannot swim for his fear of water.

At the end of act two (spoilers) the eldest brother is killed. The player is left to control the younger brother alone; the left hand idle while the right carries on. The effect of this cannot be overstated, the way this boy’s grief and solitude is made personal to the player – it tells its story in a way only games could, and it asks the player to be more than just a passive audience member.

All that said, there is in gaming culture a clear emphasis placed upon “informed consumerism”. Gamers conduct micro-reviews in comment sections and forums, scrutinising a game’s retail price compared to its average play-time. Heated arguments break out over perceived discrepancies between review scores, the mythical “10/10” often the cause of both celebration and furore. One commenter, in their user review of The Witness: “The game became monotonous and I kept on going because I thought I was going to discover a big secret and after all, I had spent $40. Can I get my money back?” (‘loeloe’, 2016)

“Can I get my money back?

At once, the modern gamer wants to both have their passion be legitimised in the world of “high art”, and also be told – on an objective scale of 1 to 10 – how “good” a newly-released game is. How good are the graphics? How good is the story?

Yes, games should be considered as art – also, while I have you, could you sign this petition to have Sony redo the story of The Last of Us 2?

Games can be more than just toys, more than just manipulative, intricately-pandering products of the ever-catering culture industry. Games can be art, obviously – but will gamers let them be?


Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (1997). Dialectic of enlightenment (Vol. 15). Verso.

Smuts, Aaron (2005) “Are Video Games Art?,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 3 , Article 6. Available at:

Storey, J. (1997). What is popular culture?. Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction.

‘loeloe’ (username). (2016) The Witness User Reviews. Metacritic. Accessed June 25, 2021.

Included Media

Let’s Play Live 2017 experience

Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons Coming To Nintendo Switch

The Simpsons and Commercial Resistance

On October 10th, 2010, the third episode of Season 22 of the Simpsons aired – MoneyBART. In it, Lisa becomes the coach of her older brother’s little-league baseball team; the ensuing hijinks are familiar and routine1. MoneyBART scored a 6.6 among users on IMDB; the average score for episodes released in the same year is 6.6622. By all accounts, the episode is nothing to write home about – save for, of course, one obvious exception.

The elephant in the room…

Setting the Scene

The Simpsons is the longest running primetime scripted series in history3. It is a household name, its characters immortalized on t-shirts, in games, on novelty cups and band-aids. One could argue about which of Storey’s six definitions of pop-culture it fits into, but you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that objected to the term being used4.

When one talks about pop culture, and cultural products, one inevitably must broach the subject of the “Culture Industry”. The term was first coined by two Marxist philosophers – Adorno & Horkheimer – in their seminal work “Dialectic of Enlightenment”6. It refers to the sum of all creative and cultural works produced under capitalism; a gargantuan machine that uses its hulking size to justify itself ad-nauseam. It is “a mechanism of psycho-social control.”7

Which makes America’s favourite nuclear family a cultural product of this culture industry. Storey believed that these cultural products both reflected and reinforced the economic, societal and industrial environments that they were created in; they “are deemed ideological to the extent that […] they implicitly or explicitly support the interests of dominant groups who, socially, politically, economically and culturally, benefit from this particular economic organization of society.”8

  1. “MoneyBART,” The Simpsons Wiki, Fandom, updated July 18, 2020, 
  2. “The Simpsons – Episodes, 2010,” IMDb, accessed June 24, 2020, 
  3. Nick Reilly, “‘The Simpsons’ has broken another huge TV record”, NME, April 30, 2018. 
  4. John Storey, Cultural studies and the study of popular culture (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 5-13.
  5. “List of The Simpsons guest stars,” Wikipedia, updated June 20, 2021, 
  6. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford University Press, 2020)
  7. “‘The Culture Industry – Adorno, Horkheimer, Neomarxism and Ideology’ by PlasticPills,” posted March 3, 2020, video, 2:31, 
  8. John Storey, Cultural studies and the study of popular culture (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 3.

Ideal and Ideology

So what is the ideology of The Simpsons? While the show portrays a comically-dysfunctional, reckless, fiscally-irresponsible family – and many of its jokes come at their expense – it ultimately supports and reinforces traditional American values: the nuclear family, the providing patriarch, the nurturing mother.9

The first full-length episode of the Simpsons was “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”; it showed the family running the gambit through various Christmas troubles – keeping the focus on financial anxiety and the stress that comes from parents trying to make their kids happy. In the end, Homer and Bart bet everything they have on a greyhound race – thirteen dollars that Homer earned working his second job as a Mall-Santa. 99-1 odds, “a miracle” as Bart calls it – but they lose everything.10

If the show were trying to subvert or question a traditional Christmas, this could be how the story ends. Can a family be happy without presents? Would Homer be welcomed home, having “failed” at performing his role in the family? But these questions are never asked, because despite the neck-wringing, the shouting, the “why-you-little”s, The Simpsons always holds the family unit as sacred. In a chance encounter, Homer and Bart take home the greyhound that they bet on; the rest of the Simpsons clan are delighted to meet their newest member. The episode ends with them all singing Christmas carols, and the status-quo is maintained. Speaking of…

MoneyBART – Season 22, Episode 3

The Couch Gag

The “couch gag” for “MoneyBART”, conceived and initially storyboarded by UK street artist “Banksy”, was the subject of much discussion when first aired – as was likely the intent. Banksy was allegedly inspired by the Simpsons prolific use of foreign-outsourced animation studio “Akom”11, located in Seoul, South Korea. While the imagery is clearly absurdist, there is a clear history of worker exploitation being rampant in OEM (outsourced-export-markets) like Akom; a 2005 report by China Daily suggests that South Korean animators were paid “about one-third what their US counterparts make.”12

So – Banksy has done it again. Another scathing critique of the powerful, a big middle-finger to Fox, calling attention to important issues, making a positive change in the world… right?

As of this report from 2015, Akom was still a massive part of the show’s production – 120 full-time animators and technicians spending a total of three months taking an episode from initial layout to a full-colour final draft, which is promptly sent back to the US13. The episode featuring the inciting intro is entirely mundane in every other regard; there was no spike in ratings14, there was no shift in the tone or production of the show.

In fact, it seems as if some critics weren’t even sure what to make of the grim sequence. Tanner Stransky of Entertainment Weekly wrote: “How did the show get away with airing this? It puts both Fox and The Simpsons in a bad light, whether or not the reports about South Korea are true. Is this simply the rebuttal? Is this supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to laugh at this? Should The Simpsons be co-opting criticism of their show and making light of it?”15

9. Paul A. Cantor, “The Simpsons: Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family.” Political Theory 27, no. 6 (December 1999): 734–49.

10. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” The Simpsons Wiki, Fandom, updated June 14, 2021, 

11. Josh Halliday, “Banksy takes Simpsons into sweatshop,” The Guardian, October 11, 2010, 

12. “’The Simpsons’ Made in S. Korea,” China Daily, May 3, 2005, 

13. Chris Plante, “How an episode of The Simpsons is made,” The Verge, October 25, 2015, 

14. Todd W. Schnieder, “The Simpsons by the Data,” (blog), September 26, 2016, 

15. Tanner Stransky, “’The Simpsons’ airs controversial opening sequence by Banksy,” Entertainment Weekly, updated October 11, 2010, 

“Is this supposed to be funny?”

Imagine instead: the camera pulls back from the family on the couch, and we see a South-Korean woman drawing over lineart. She works in a cubicle, not a dungeon: she is overseen by deadlines, not men in sharp uniforms. She works until late, boards a full train, and arrives home exhausted. She dips her hands into a container of ice-water, puts bracers on her wrists before she goes to bed. When she arrives at work the next day, she sits back down to a new frame – and the camera pulls back to show the other hundred-or-so people working on the same sequence as her.

Instead, we get this.

In his use of absurdist imagery, in his cartoonish displays of violence and despair, the sequence entirely avoids the true discomfort of its subject matter. How must it feel to storyboard a sequence where rows of identical South Korean artists draw cartoon cells in a dungeon, and then send that very same storyboard to Korea? How must it feel to receive that storyboard?

In the end, nothing changes. Once we pan back from the dystopian Fox logo, the Simpsons fanfare blares loud as it always has; a few minutes in, we’re joking about gluten-free coffee and how unpopular Hall Monitors are16. Reports of horrific overtime, terminated contracts and manipulative workplaces continue to arise from the animation industry, but Detective Pikachu still grossed over 400 million internationally17.

And, as an aside, the animation studio that worked on Pikachu, 2019’s the Lion King & 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog closed down in late 2019, leaving untold numbers of employees jobless right before Christmas18. Maybe they should head to the greyhound club too.

Walter Benjamin believed that mass culture, though typically a degradation, offered “the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction” – that it could be a force of “emancipation”, a tool used by the people for the people’s liberation19. While this is a decidedly more optimistic outlook than that of Adorno & Horkheimer, and a much more palatable one – Benjamin likely wouldn’t look to The Simpsons for his revolution.

16. “MoneyBART,” The Simpsons Wiki, Fandom, updated July 18, 2020,

17. “Pokemon Detective Pikachu,” Box Office Mojo, accessed June 24, 2020, 

18. Kara Dennison, “MPC, Studio Who Worked on Sonic and Detective Pikachu, Closes Its Doors,” Crunchyroll, December 14, 2019, 

19. Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, (Penguin UK, 2008), 6-7.

(Full bibliography on second page)

#FlashFicFeb 9th – “Food”

Okay, what was next? A cup of coconut milk, sugar, and… fish sauce? Fish sauce?!

He turned around in the kitchen, the bench cluttered with the debris of a recipe’s first attempt. Cutting boards, knives, bowls, spices. He moved towards the pantry before realising he needed to wash his hands (again). He spun around, nearly knocking over a bottle of cooking oil.

How does a fish even make sauce!?

Things were going well.

A recipe book lay face up, a bookmark resting in the center, block capitals spelling out ingredients and instructions across yellowed pages. This was the fourth kitchen it had been used in, and likely the least organized one. The book was patient, however; content to sit idle, waiting for the young man to remember the stove amidst his panic.

As if on cue, he turned to the pot resting on the glass stovetop. Eyes shooting wide open, he rushed to take it off the heat, opening the partially-ajar lid to a burst of dark smoke and the overwhelming aroma of curry paste burning within. He had a poor sense of smell, difficulty multitasking, and a frequent tendency to lose track of time. Cooking was an ordeal.

Alright… soy sauce is probably fine, right? It’s… sauce? We’re doing it.

Some moments later, the kitchen had entered a blissful state of calm. The decisions were made, and the ingredients had finally made their way into the pot (in the correct order and amounts, for the most part). It still looked as though a bomb had gone off, and in his attempts to “clean as you go”, the sink had become just as cluttered. Now all that was left was to stir, and wait.

It’s funny, the rituals we create for ourselves. He never used to like cooking; it was messy and tricky and quite often disappointing. And, years later, it was still all of these things – but it was something new now; it was cathartic.

The book’s author, the one that slowly made corrections or suggestions to their own recipes over the years, wasn’t around anymore. He couldn’t ask for clarification, for replacements. He was vegetarian now, so he found himself swapping and changing ingredients as he went. Often with dubious results, but slowly making progress. With each cook, he was getting a little closer to how he remembered it tasting.

As he turned off the heat, began filling plastic containers with a week’s worth of food, he looked over his shoulder at the book. He was nearing the end, now.

He was reading a book the other day (fiction, this time), and found a bookmark near the end. He had stared at it for what felt like an hour, breathless. Another kind of ritual.

He filled a bowl with rice and curry, leaving the mess for later. He took a bite.


He picked up a pen, paused for a moment, and made a note in the margins.

#FlashFicFeb 8th – “Weapon”

The wind howled, and a coyote joined it. Linus lay still, flat against the dirt. Though the sun had set hours before, the ground was still warm – even the stone was stubborn, out here. Proud.

He looked to his left, to a man that had once held him at gunpoint. To his right, a young woman bearing the curse of the moon and wolf – a woman he’d once tried to hang. They nodded at him, with the kind of confidence that he’d spent years imitating. He saw in their eyes it was genuine, that they knew what they were doing.

He only wished he could say the same.

He had been stationed here a few years ago, a quiet mining town at the far borders of the Kingdom. There was a sheriff, but when they’d met, Linus had thought him a man with too kind a heart; unable to enforce the law with the firm hand it asked for. He’d brought with him a second – members of His Majesty’s Inquisition always travel in pairs. Edith.

A lot had happened in the years since. They weren’t welcomed out here; a pair of “city folk”, come to ensure the steady flow of silver and gold – one from the mines, the other from their pockets. They should be grateful, he had thought; their tax money would be sent to the capital, where it could be distributed by those with a greater understanding of where it was needed. Drought relief, the construction of new roads, supporting the Royal Army. The same army that marched towards them now.

His sword lay in his hands before him, a leather wrap preventing the moon and stars from betraying their positions. He had always kept it in perfect condition; training every day, remembering stances and tactics and oaths. He wondered if the soldiers on the road were as diligent. 

They could hear the footsteps, the laboured breathing of horses, joining the sounds of the wind and cicadas. He had spent his whole life believing that people were made to be ruled, that it fell to the privileged few to choose for the guileless many. Now, though, he had seen what that could do. The lives that can be trampled over, swept away and left behind by those with a “greater understanding”. Edith had held on to her principles until the end, but… he hadn’t.

And now he was flat against the earth, ten feet from the marching boots and banners he’d once been a part of. He’d known what their formation would be, how the horses would scatter at the sound of gunfire, how the green soldiers would behave in their first true battle. He knew the sheriff to his left and the rebel to his right would fight to defend their homes. His training told him how this fight would happen.

He saw glints of swords, guns drawn. Figures slowly standing, silent. He held his sword tight in his hands. He didn’t know what he would do.