The Roundup: Critical Origins, Fortnite’s Appropriation, And Your Brain On Esports

By Matt Gerardi

Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s weekly look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. This week, our writers are looking inward, whether at the unseen effects of intense gaming on the brain or at the unremembered moments that made them the critics they are. And of course, they’re writing about the brutal wave of layoffs that tore through Activision Blizzard, costing close to 800 workers their jobs. Our hearts go out to those affected.

There’s plenty of research into the health benefits of playing videogames, but writing for Men’s Health this week, Imad Khan shed light on a burgeoning sub-field within those studies: the intense brain workouts provided specifically by esports. For his story, Imad interviewed some of the scientists who are trying to figure out how and why games do what they do to our brains, including slowing the erosion of memory and reaction time. He also spent time with iconic Super Smash Bros. Melee player Joseph “Mango” Marquez, who’s spent nearly a decade atop an especially grueling game and has seen his results start to fall in recent years. (But don’t bother trying to convince him that’s because of his age.)

Sheik

Sheik, a formative character for Circle critic Sara Clemens, as she appears in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. (Screenshot: Nintendo.)

In a deeply personal essay for Unwinnable (first published in the magazine’s January issue but recently shared on its website), Sara Clemens reflected one of the formative moments that led her to becoming a critic. While reading Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, which featured criticism occasionally fueled by the author’s unhealthy gaming and drug habits, Sara was brought back to her childhood and the escape that games like Zelda: Ocarina Of Time allowed from a harsh environment. “Maybe if Tom Bissell could write about how he did too much cocaine while playing Grand Theft Auto,” Sara says, “I could write about how I wasn’t good at getting help like Sheik was.”

The biggest videogame story of the week was undoubtedly the announcement that Activison Blizzard would be laying off more than 700 employees—news that came alongside an earnings call boasting of the mega-publisher’s excellent performance in 2018. For a purely numbers-driven look at what went down, and some speculation on why, you can turn to Yahoo Finance’s Daniel Howley, who spoke about the moment in both video and text form. Meanwhile at Geek.com, Jordan Minor looked at the cloud creeping over storied studio Blizzard and cautioned that maybe, if at all possible, Blizzard needs to pull a Bungie and get out of there before things get even worse.

From Beyond The Circle

Usually it’s the Game Center that gets all the gaming glory at NYU, but this week saw students in the department of Media, Culture, And Communication at NYU Steinhardt sharing the results of their unique Game Industry Encyclopedia project. As assistant professor of media industries Laine Nooney explains, this is a collaborative digital encyclopedia that students build from semester to semester with the hopes of “producing (over years and years) a rich set of information caught in amber at a specific time.” Should it keep going, it could be both a fascinating portrait of the industry’s evolution and an effective time capsule. To give you an idea of how quickly things change, the Twitch entry lists Fortnite as the service’s most popular game, which is already an outdated metric. It was written in Fall 2018.

Yussef Cole, winner of the Critics Circle’s game journalism award in 2018, published a tremendous feature on Waypoint analyzing Fortnite’s appropriation of black artists’ dances and how it fits into a broader history of deleterious cultural theft. Cole traces a path from Fortnite and the Milly Rock back to the Lindy Hop and Cakewalk, moves created by uncelebrated black dancers that were stripped of context and meaning as white Americans embraced them. As such, Cole argues, those dismissing the claims of artists whose dances Fortnite swiped as having no legal merit are overlooking Epic’s bigger ethical breach, one that extends decades of theft and erasure. “After all,” he writes, “the direction that this creativity travels is from those with less, those who spark viral brilliance from nothing, to those with so much more, absorbing whatever they can, erasing the past in the process.”

Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee took a detour from his typical subjects to ponder the evolution of children’s games (of the video and non-video variety) and their representation in visual art. Smee was inspired by the opening of a new museum exhibition at the Yale Center For British Art called Instruction And Delight: Children’s Games From The Ellen And Arthur Liman Collection. The display showcases vibrant eighteenth-century board games and books that married play and education, a timeless, invaluable combination we’re still working to spread. And while Smee unsurprisingly comes down hard on videogames—characterizing them as awful cells that hook a child’s brains and cage their imaginations—he might be relieved to see the freeform play and creative joy something like Nintendo’s Labo brings to kids around the world, including in classrooms.

That’s the end of this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading, and see you next time!


Matt Gerardi is a writer from New York, the former games editor at The A.V. Club, and a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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