Critical Distance is a project that has now run for well over a decade, collecting and contextualising writing on games from around the internet. We function as a community space, similar to a library or arts center—when you want to get a sense of the ideas that are developing and circulating in writing about games, or what has been written about a game that interests you, we help you get situated with our roundup posts, searchable history, experienced curators, and an active Discord server of like-minded people. We never set out to become a publisher of games writing ourselves—rather, we try to support a wide variety of writing projects and platforms by sharing links to other people's work.
We also host participatory events to prompt creative exploration in games criticism. (In spite of ourselves, these events sometimes turn us into a one-off, de facto publisher of games writing!) This book is an outcome of one of these community events: an essay jam held in early January 2021, inviting people to write 500 words about how the pandemic had transformed, reshaped, or inflected their experience with games, and with the relations and social worlds around them.
For one week, we held space on Discord for discussion about the writing process, and provided a context for guidance, feedback, and encouragement on people's ideas and early drafts. We hosted the jam on PubPub, a free, open-source platform for community publishing supported by MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group. And we partnered with the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University (which Joey, one of the editors, helped to found in 2012), which conducts research and hosts public programs on science fiction, futures thinking, and worldbuilding, to bring in a broader group of contributors and collaborators. The essay jam attracted people who have been in the Critical Distance community for years, as well as newcomers.
One of the powerful things about critical writing is how an object of critique can help make sense of something abstract and difficult to grasp. Humans tend to conceptualise diffuse and confusing processes as all belonging to, or all concentrated within, a single object: the obstruse process of global capitalism in an iPhone; cultural homogenization in the McDonalds arches or the Starbucks around the corner. Criticism, at its best, gives us some control and awareness of that habit. Most of the short essays in this book have two focus objects: the virus and a game. Thinking the amorphous, global, endlessly varied, and intolerably brutal pandemic through the external object of a game can help to draw the focus away from the virus as the main character in the stories we tell about this moment, and instead reveal that some processes and flows made acutely evident by the pandemic actually preexist, and inhere to the systems in which we live.
Pandemics are nothing new. Humans have coevolved with microscopic life for our entire existence, and microbes, from the bubonic plague to our humble gut flora, have been among the most significant historical actors in our changing societies. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the emotions and dynamics brought out by this disaster are already described in rich detail throughout media forms. Videogames have looked at the spread of sickness in part because they are systemic and in part because they are spatial. What better medium to use for expressing the sense that something is expanding out or encroaching in?
In this volume, August Smith explores poison effects in RPGs, observing that they reorient the concerns of the player around a "nebulous life-and-death scenario," putting a hiatus on the spontaneity and freedom of play. Austin Jones argues that the "Pandemic Bomb" combat skill in the Shin Megami Tensei series uses the dynamics of contagion to recontextualise the "sick" status effect so common to RPGs, turning it from a personal ailment into "a huge problem to more global concerns of labor. Even if [it] misses all but one of your active party members, it soon endangers the group as a whole". Editor Joey Eschrich's contribution looks at the racist undertones of kingdom-building sim Majesty’s depiction of social disease as a problem introduced by the antisocial figure of elves, recognising that "the plague is social and behavioral, not just biological and immunological."
It’s this social aspect of disease that makes it impossible to separate what should in theory be a temporary state of crisis from the preexisting and ongoing calamities brought about by neoliberalism and climate chaos, both altered irrevocably by the pandemic. Several contributors recognise a nonsensical aspect of any hope of going back to normal, when so many local small businesses have closed, when the creative sector has changed, when so many are ill and traumatized, when politics has become even darker and trust in others has evaporated. "Institutions failed us," writes Nate Kiernan, while Florence Walker calls attention to the systemic causes of the pandemic, "governments that failed to heed the warnings, the ways we've been taught to think about each other. The hole at the center of everything." Brendan Vance playfully suggests that the managers of cruel systems are themselves the victims of a kind of disease, having "differently shaped receptors in their heads, which permit practices like crunch to spread virally between them."
While much discourse about the pandemic imagines that this is a blip which will be followed by a return to normality, many of the critical writers in this volume are looking out at the systems in which we live through the prism of the pandemic and games, and seeing them as already fundamentally abnormal, out of whack. "We must question what it is we are after, and whether we view life from before the pandemic as unrealistically idealistic. I'm guilty of believing that all my problems, and many in society, will magically drift away," writes Andrew Goddard, while Matthew Taylor finds something resonant in the unremittingly grim action-roleplaying series Dark Souls having "no vision or memory of a time where the world fitted together and made some sense.” Sense-making itself is a social practice, warped by division and mistrust, as C. S. Klas points out: "there is no way to effectively discuss the rules of a match when both contenders are playing entirely different games!"
Amid this breakdown, it can be comforting to use games as a way to manage our sense of temporality. Michael Sullivan explores the sense of "direction and release" that games provide when they offer a "long horizon to look toward" and let you "feel the momentum in [your] hands." Conversely, Taylor Hidalgo writes about finding in games a "platonic quiet nook" that makes the atemporality of the pandemic more bearable by removing a task-oriented future horizon. Florence Smith Nicholls experiences playing the frenetic Greek-mythological roguelike Hades as "acquiring a void" that provides "the freedom of not being claustrophobic under the weight of my own thoughts." Describing a dissociation that comes with losing yourself in games, May Regan observes, "It’s all starting to run together, and makes it hard to tell what’s real and what’s just a memory."
Despite the strictly ordered and logical nature of games as systems, they often portray an absurdity that facilitates something liberatory. "I already live in a world playing at collapse," writes Andrew McCarrell on the disease-ridden survival game Pathologic, "I want to investigate and hurtle myself through an abstract world of the dead [...] I want to plant even a seed of a mad philosophy [...]" Musing on the existentialist RPG NieR:Automata, Thomas Kline writes, "in a scenario specifically designed to be absurd [...] a collective standing in solidarity enables victory," and Samuel DiBella finds in the collectivism and defamiliarisation of the absurdist internet baseball simulator Blaseball an alternative to either "complete immersion or alienation," a life "brightened by the regular presence of a stranger."
How to relate to strangers has perhaps been the lasting problem of the pandemic. We urgently need solidarity, but many are experiencing increased feelings of mistrust, as editor Zoyander Street writes in their contribution to this collection, a sentiment echoed in Emma Kostopoulos's piece on the horror game Silent Hill 4: "The inevitable photographs of the hundred-person maskless house parties began to drift to the surface of my social media, and I wondered where the innocent victims stopped and the indifferent monsters started. Was there even a difference?"
Contra this sense of hopeless detachment, many writers found in games an opportunity to connect with others during a time of isolation. Joshua Trevett revels in the "anonymous, long-distance intimacy" of the fighting game Tekken 7, while Pamela Winfrey misses the intimacy of playing card games in person with friends and loved ones, to "smell their angst or their joy." Nadine Kozak observes that 2020 saw a massive increase in sales of jigsaw puzzles, which Kristin Noone experienced as a way of fostering connection with friends and loved ones, even when unable to spend time together.
We are called upon to find ways of living well alongside one another in world systems that are tuned, in their current forms, to produce a series of crises. As objects of criticism, games can help us see more precisely the systems that connect us, and to negotiate a path through our hopes, fears, and anxieties. We hope this collection offers inspiration as you piece together your own ways of adapting in the face of ever-changing forms of abnormality.