Critical analysis of interactive entertainment has heretofore been the bailiwick of an elite caste of self-appointed ministers of quality who use faux-numerical quantitative data and false professions of objectivity to conceal their cultural and financial allegiance to a system of capitalist exploitation that transforms the creativity of artists into tools for the production and marketing of propo-tainment designed to advance the reactionary, violent, sexualized culture of masculine power fantasy. Zero Punctuation subverts this dominant hierarchy of interactive entertainment critique by deploying the homicidal and homophobic vocabulary of the dominant culture, in combination with unexpected imagery and profoundly effective mass media techniques, to create an environment in which a genuine critique of interactive entertainment can be exposed, free of the false econometrics of mainstream analysis. In so doing, it establishes a new cross-media ludological hermeneutic that promises to transform future critical analysis at a mass level.
Here we explore the manifestation of the new hermeneutic in the context of Yahtzee Croshaw’s review of Dragon Age: Origins. In this review, Yahtzee employs three primary rhetorical tools to deliver profound critiques to the mass market.
The first rhetorical approach is to deliver a controversial critique in a covert or opaque manner, and then slowly unfurl the underlying semiotic with increasingly overt statements. For instance, Yahtzee begins his review of Dragon Age by asking us to “take a step back and examine the basic workings we have come to accept, like saying the word ‘Scunthorpe’ over and over again until it’s reduced to meaningless syllables.” A thought-stopping technique thus convinces the audience to begin to say “cunt” over and over, while agreeing that this is a “meaningless syllable” – suggesting that to fantasy gamers like Yahtzee and the audience, the female sexual organ is meaningless, i.e. de-sexualized. A few minutes later, Yahtzee explains that “every individual element” of the game “could make your girlfriend legitimately call you a sad bastard,” creating a sense of shame in the audience. Finally, to end the review, Yahtzee openly embraces the de-sexualization of fantasy gamers, saying “If you don’t like fantasy RPGs, then I guess you can just go off and have sex with people instead.” This rhetorical technique causes the audience to actually take pleasure in unpleasant truths that, had they been delivered straight up initially, would have been rejected out of hand.
The second rhetorical approach used in Zero Punctuation is the juxtaposition of imagery and audio to create a cognitive dissonance in the mind of the reader. The juxtaposition uses shock and confusion to distract the left cortex of the audience while leaving their right cortex vulnerable to the suggestions of ideas which heretofore would have been repulsive to them. For instance, he notes that “about 75 percent of your play time is spent making rather creepy loving eye contact with NPCs as they talk about the weather, the political situation,” but combines this disarming humor with an image of characters on screen adorned with Nazi swastikas.
He visually confronts the audience with the inherent fascism of high fantasy, in which race defines your moral quality, death for the state/temple/lord is virtuous, and capacity to successfully inflict violence determines self-worth.Of course, this lengthy visual metaphor of Nazism is only effective because the audience has already been forewarned of the underlying crypto-sociopathic value system of the high fantasy setting. For instance, Yahtzee has earlier noted that the point of the game is to “go to the dungeon and murder everyone you find,” but it is not until the Nazi symbology appears that the audience understands that this gameplay is actually suggestive of the World War II Holocaust, and that the character is actively committing genocide against a racial minority during play. Tellingly, this race is called darkspawn.
The third rhetorical approach that Yahtzee Croshaw powerfully applies is the use of sexual innuendo to provide a critique of the male power structure. By using aggressive sexual references from a demonstrated position of sexual powerlessness (as explained earlier), he reveals that all male sex is actually based on feelings of feebleness and self-hatred. This is apparent when he accuses respected fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien of pedophilia (“JRR is the grumpy dad watching from the park bench and trying not to get aroused”), explains the utility of genre convention in terms of the exposure of the male genitals (“better to just drop the trousers of pretension so everyone understands what you’ve got swinging around”), uses language common only to bestial menstruation fetishists to explain the game graphics (“your body is spotted with blood splatters like a menstruating leopard”), and compares the complexity of combat to the coursework of male prostitution (“like trying to read a manual on cock-sucking while your first customer is already speeding towards your gums.”)
Through these techniques, Zero Punctuation delivers a staggeringly powerful critique of the reactionary, violent, patriarchic sub-culture of gaming. As the series reaches a critical mass of millions of viewers every month, the long-term implications of this subversive feminist can be expected to introduce a climate change of attitude within the audience. The new gaming journalism, following Zero Punctuation’s heuristic, will even more broadly deploy the techniques of transitional critique, imagery juxtaposition, and innuendo in pursuit of a more diverse, culturally sensitive society of retarded cunts.
Max Steele is a ludologist and critical games studies theorist who serves as The Escapist‘s contributing editor for rhetorical deconstructionism. Prior to his work at The Escapist, he was editor-in-chief of Social Text, the academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, where he was noted for his close collaboration with Alan Sokal on the seminal article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermaneutics of Quantum Gravity.” He earned his PhD in critical studies at Miskatonic University.