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Feeling Good About Myself. Real-Time Hermeneutics and its Consequences

Tomasz Z. Majkowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-16.

 

Tomasz Z. Majkowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Feeling Good About Myself. Real-Time Hermeneutics and its Consequences

 

Abstract

Questions concerning the way in which digital games produce meaning and the possibility that their reconfigurability influences the process of interpretation have been debated since the very beginning of contemporary game studies. Based on general agreement between scholars, two areas of inquiry have been distinguished: the story produced by a game, and game mechanics, or rather all the information necessary to operate within them. The so-called “Game vs. Story division” has been analysed from multiple perspectives and theoretical standpoints[1]. Among the scholars adopting the hermeneutical angle, there seems to be a consensus regarding the two distinct interpretative processes that occur while a game is played, although they do not agree about which should be considered the primary one. Scholars arguing for the unique character of digital games tend to focus on the interpretation created while the game is played that relates to aspects of gameplay. They stress the importance of so-called “real-time hermeneutics”, as this is unprecedented in other media.[2] In turn, researchers questioning the specificity of games as a medium claim that a proper interpretation should concern itself with the stories produced through playing, rendering such interpretation similar to every other hermeneutical process. Therefore, the process of understanding a game could be explained within the existing hermeneutical framework without any need to introduce media-specific interventions[3].

In this paper, I will investigate the process of understanding video games, following the detailed, step-by-step description of interpretation provided by Paul Ricoeur in his American lectures[4]. In doing so, I will supplement the concept of “real life hermeneutics”[5] by narrowing the gap between interpreting game stories and gameplay situations. While such a perspective will bring me closer to a stance which denies any specificity to video games (at least regarding interpretation), I will also describe the key difference between understanding a video game and a traditional text, and briefly point towards its possible consequences, building upon Charles Taylor’s concept of ethics of authenticity[6].

Key words: hermeneutics, video games, Ricoeur

 

Ludo-hermeneutics, or How to Understand a Video Game

 

The difference between literary and game hermeneutics has been analysed by game scholars ever since Markku Eskelinen observed that “in art we might have to configure in order to be able to interpret whereas in games we have to interpret in order to be able to configure”[7]; this quote was later repeated in Espen Aarseth’s seminal paper on methodology of game studies[8]. In said paper, Aarseth introduced the concept of “real-time hermeneutics” based on the assumption that the key difference between the interpretation of a traditional text and that of a video game lies in the reflexivity of the former and the responsiveness of the latter. In other words, when confronted with a non-game textual object the reader perceives it as a whole and creates her interpretation at a pace that she, and only she, sets. The player needs to constantly adjust her interpretation, as the unstable environment of the game changes in response to her actions, undertaken as a result of said interpretation. Therefore, Aarseth claims that to play a game, the player needs to employ a skillset entirely different from the tools of the traditional textual interpretation. The process exposes the major dissimilarity between games and other media: “While the interpretation of a literary or filmic work will require certain analytical skills, the game requires analysis practiced as performance, with direct feedback from the system. This is a dynamic, real-time hermeneutics that lacks a corresponding structure in film or literature”.[9]

The difference described by Aarseth was subsequently recognized as one of the defining qualities of a video game as a cultural object. As Jonne Arjoranta claims[10], such a concept is crucial for both the proceduralist school of game analysis and for any scholarly attempt to create “game hermeneutics”. As far as the former is concerned, the interactive qualities of video games allow for a way of making arguments and expressing ideas with processes[11]. The latter needs to incorporate reconfigurative properties of games into the hermeneutical project. Arjoranta himself combines proceduralist arguments with a rich analysis of various temporal layers of the game, differentiating between the player’s made-on-the-fly interpretation and the understanding of the complete game as a cultural object[12]. The latter is always incomplete and indefinite, enriched by the passage of time, as it is governed by general rules of meaning-making as described by Hans-Georg Gadamer, and does not differentiate from any other interpretative effort. The former’s peculiar quality is the fact that it can be actively resisted by the game itself: “For example, if one interprets the Koopa Troopa turtles in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Creative Department 1985) as friendly and tries to hug them, it will probably result in the plumber-protagonist Mario losing his life. In this case, we can say that it is the wrong interpretation to make”.[13]

Velli-Matti Karhulahti’s “double hermeneutic circle” concept employs similar reasoning, using the Giddensian concept of double-hermeneutics as a point of departure[14]. Accordingly, to properly describe the process of meaning-making in video games, one needs to acknowledge this crucial fact: the very act of understanding leads to changes in the matter one is trying to interpret (as is true in social science analysis, according to Giddens). During play, there are two constant moves within two hermeneutic circles: the first is ludic-oriented, aiming to actively change the game in order to progress; the second is aesthetic and allows the game to be comprehended as a narrative, or, more broadly, as a text. The former is time-sensitive and sometimes resisted by the game, the latter is more reflexive and indefinite, as it is not rooted solemnly in the game system and is more open to traditional meaning-making procedures.

Olli Tapio Leino identifies two hermeneutical modes on the basis of game materiality. Every player produces her own idiosyncratic interpretation of aesthetical elements of the game world and story, and although such an interpretation is critical for an individual player’s enjoyment, in order to properly understand the character of the game object (dubbed “playable artefact” by Leino), it is necessary to distinguish between what is idiosyncratic and intersubjective, as “intersubjective interpretations are those that the materiality of the artefact forces upon its players, i.e., on those whose desire to play is strong enough to survive the resistance with which the game artefact counters the project of playing”.[15]

While Rafał Kochanowicz follows the practice of distinguishing between two hermeneutical practices in playing a game, his analysis is built upon Ricoeur’s distinction between hermeneutics of faith and hermeneutics of suspicion. He moves past the play–story divide, arguing that the game is perceived in its totality, and the player chooses whether she follows the rules and submits to the regime of the gameplay, thus showing faith in the game’s meanings, or if she tries to resist and defeat the game, especially when confronted with morally charged decisions. Although such a perspective seems to provide an alternative to the story–game divide, it also strongly suggests that game hermeneutics of suspicion are related to the player’s agency, and the hermeneutics of faith to the lack thereof, therefore actually contributing to the existing divide.[16]

The hermeneutical project developed by Michał Kłosiński, although framed as a polemic with Arjoranta and Karhulahti, is built on a very similar preconception of a division between the game and the story. Moreover, the Polish author agrees with Arjoranta that interpretations of game stories can and should be analysed with the existing hermeneutic tools. Yet, he rejects the idea of game-related meaning-making, arguing after Gadamer that the game is a phenomenon entirely independent of the player. Reconfigurable elements of the game contribute to the interpretation, as they belong to the narrative in a fashion similar to any interpretation, being a recombination of how reality is perceived and understood. As a result, Kłosiński shifts his interest from the way the game produces meaning and in which it can be understood to analysis of the game as a tool to understand the world and gain self-knowledge[17].

 

Interpretation of In-Game Obstacles

 

Despite their differences, all the aforementioned propositions share the same conviction: when interacting with the game, the player needs to understand her situation based on textual clues the game provides, kinaesthetic directions given by the interface, and her own understanding of the media and the genre. Her task is to come up with a suitable solution to the problem at hand and employ it, to overcome the obstacle and to progress with the game. Whether the described situation broadens or narrows the margin of freedom the player has, in contrast to the reader of traditional texts, or if said situation is related to the overall interpretation of the game as an aesthetic object and to the player’s self-knowledge, is subject to debate[18].

I shall illustrate this basic interpretative procedure with an example I have already analysed elsewhere in greater detail[19]. In the game Rise of the Argonauts (Liquid Entertainment 2008), a lesser-known, ugly cousin of Sony’s God of War (SCE Studios Santa Monica 2005), I, as the player, am taking on the role of Jason of Iolcos, captain of Argo, in his quest for the Golden Fleece. During the game, I can interact with the environment and talk to friendly NPCs, choosing dialogue lines, but my task is to battle hordes of enemies. During combat, I have to choose between three weapons to hurt the opponents most efficiently. To do so, I need to understand the relations between weaponry and various categories of enemies.

Luckily, beside the trial-and-error method, I have more tools in my interpretative toolbox. I can conjure classic tradition and relate the game’s usage of weaponry to the description of arms in the source material, namely Greek mythology. I also have my experience with the genre conventions of video games and, more broadly, general knowledge on how melee combat is usually portrayed in Western culture. All this, combined with my former experiences with the game itself, helps me understand that a sword is useless against a heavily armoured foe, and agile opponents can easily avoid my mighty mace. It does not matter whether my pre-knowledge originates from the duel between Menelaus and Paris in Book 3 of Iliad, years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, or the repetitiveness of the game itself. Based on clues given by the game, I have to formulate—sometimes very quickly—a hypothesis about the best course of action. Then, my reasoning is confronted with some resistance, and I can measure its validity on the basis of my performance. If my Jason has been slain, it is time to formulate a new interpretation. Again, it is irrelevant whether the failure originates in the enemy’s resistance to the chosen weapon or in my inability to deliver attacks: if I have died, it is time to figure out another course of action.

This example, even if crude, seems to confirm the previously described views on game hermeneutics. My experience playing Rise of the Argonauts confirms that the game resists an invalid interpretation, as described by Arjoranta, and there is constant interaction between the game system and the aesthetic background of the narrative, constituting Karhulahti’s double hermeneutic circle and contributing to Leino’s intersubjective interpretation. But there are still questions which remain unanswered: is the act of choosing a weapon somehow related to the overall interpretation of the game? Does the skillset required to understand my situation within the game differ from the one required in literary or film interpretation? And is this brief situation an interpretation at all, or just an element of the game performance, deprived of any deeper meaning that can be fished out during the hermeneutic process?[20]

Although the reader of a traditional book is very rarely confronted with a similar choice when she follows a linear narrative, on the very basic level of interpretation, there is no difference between the player and the reader: they both assume that “there is more”, and they need to overcome an obstacle to reveal a previously unknown part of the text. Despite all the differences in the very nature of said surplus and in the tools employed to overcome the obstacle, for both the reconfigurable and the static form the first interpretative move is quite similar: it begins with a guess.

 

Validation of Hypothesis

 

Such a situation of both the player and the reader seems to be in line with the earliest stages of interpretation, as understood by Paul Ricoeur[21]. In his detailed description of the hermeneutic process, Ricoeur opposed the concept that a text can only be interpreted once it has been read in its entirety—the notion that traditional textual hermeneutics was built upon. Instead, he describes acts of reading and interpreting as inseparable: the reader constantly makes guesses about the meaning of the part she just finished in light of her knowledge of the book, the literary genre, the general education, and so forth[22]. The most basic example of such a guess would be asking the question “what will happen next?” In fact, there are whole genres based on the audience’s ability to make interpretations on the fly: without it, the crime story would be impossible.

Such a stance matches the concept of “real time hermeneutics”, or the time-sensitive aspect of Karhulahti’s proposal. Although the act of playing differs from the act of reading, the meaning-making part seems quite similar. When moving through a literary text, several interpretative guesses can also only be made in a specific moment—this is especially true for popular narratives with high shock value. The pleasure of making such guesses seems to underline the very pervasive fear of obtaining important information about the plot ahead of time, from a source different than the text itself—a procedure appropriately called “spoiling”. My pleasure in battling various opponents in Rise of the Argonauts was very similar: only at certain points of the game could I make new hypotheses about the best course of combat and put them to test to see if my guess was right.

The second part of the process hinted at in the previous sentence describes the necessary component of making a proper interpretation, which according to Paul Ricoeur is the act of validation[23]. Through various means, the reader checks if her guess was correct. If she was mistaken, she can alter her hypothesis and proceed with reading. If she was correct, she can add another part to the growing understanding of the text. Here, another strong analogy emerges: in light of Ricouerian theory, Arjoranta’s claim that video games are the only texts capable of resisting interpretation seems untrue. When taking into consideration the basic form of meaning-making described above, detective fiction can render the reader’s guess invalid by proving beyond doubt that the character suspected of being the murderer is in fact innocent. In another famous example, the idea of Ned Stark being the protagonist of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga The Song of Fire and Ice[24]—a conviction very firmly rooted in genre conventions—is invalidated with the swing of the sword that takes off the character’s head at the end of the first novel. The sudden conclusion of Stark’s storyline has forced many readers to re-formulate their interpretations of said book saga.

In digital games, the described procedure of verifying an interpretative guess can be tied to the narrative unfolding as the player progresses. The narrative is usually presented in a linear manner, even if a story itself has many variants, and is depicted using cinematic or textual information; therefore, it is no different from watching a movie or reading a book, as Arjoranta and Kłosiński claim. This resistance that the games offer seems no different on a purely interpretative level[25]: in the cases of both games and literature, the player/reader needs to conjure her prior knowledge, add it to her ongoing interpretation made so far, and proceed accordingly. There is no difference in recognizing the antagonist within the story and on the level of gameplay: in both cases the projected course of the narrative includes either the protagonist’s triumph over the villain, or their defeat. This seems to be true for every game in which the category of an antagonist exists: even in the Civilization series (MPS Labs, 1991 and subsequent), one needs to build a strategy on the assumption that Ghandi is either a trustworthy ally or a nuke-obsessed warmonger.

Nonetheless, it is important to stress that the aforementioned similarities do not equate video games to literature or cinema: the way of engagement and interaction is quite different for all these forms, and all the reconfigurable qualities of games still differentiate them from other media. My claim concerns only the parallel in the act of understanding the situation, as the basis of game hermeneutics, and that claim seems to be—so far—quite defensible. The main difference is in quantity, not in quality, as games challenge players’ guesses more often. The very basic mechanism of sense-making seems to be quite similar in games and other narrative-driven media: it is based on validation of interpretative guesses—the dialectics described by Ricoeur as his version of the hermeneutic circle.[26] This, however, is also the point at which things get complicated: even if games and texts share the procedure of guessing, the validation seems to be different.

 

From Validation to Appropriation

 

To describe the other half of his circle, Ricoeur stresses the similarities between interpersonal and literary communication. In conversation, the process of validation can be done on the spot: if one participant is uncertain of the meaning, she can always ask her interlocutor to elaborate or explain. When words are put on paper, the reader has no such luxury, and if the text does not address her doubts directly—as in the case of crime fiction, a genre sometimes called “a game”[27]—she is at a loss. She can approximate the meaning by employing the validating techniques Ricoeur describes. But, in the end, she can never be certain, and this doubt opens up the very possibility of interpretation, understood as a search for non-literal, deeper meaning—the next part of the Ricouerian hermeneutic process. After the reading is done, the reader can explain the meaning of the text as a whole, based on her previously validated guesses. This interpretation can be therefore comprehended by establishing some relation between the text and the world: as Ricoeur expresses it, “discourse cannot fail to be about something.”[28] If the point of reference is made, the reader is assured in the validity of the interpretation, and she can start the last, and the most crucial, part of the process, which the French hermeneutist calls “appropriation”: here, the reader finds out how the meaning of the text relates directly to her. This act can lead to self-discovery and enrichment of the reader’s identity, and discovering oneself through texts is one of the ultimate goals of interpretation in Ricoeur’s philosophy[29].

Of course, not every literary text invokes such a long and complex process. The pre-condition is to leave the reader in doubt when the reading is finished. This is why between a poem and a popular novel that answers every question and plainly explains its references, the latter is less likely to transform the very identity of the reader—at least from the Ricoeurian perspective.

In the case of video games, the process of validation seems to lean towards a straightforward explanation, characteristic of live conversation. The interactivity, understood as the way in which the player and the game communicate with each other in order to force some kind of reaction[30], tends to turn the dialectics of guessing and validation into a series of yes-or-no questions. This used to be quite a spectacular aspect of playing the point and click adventure games of old: if at a loss, the player would try to click on every object and command at her disposal. This was, of course, an act of desperation, undertaken after exhausting all the options the player could come up with based on their interpretation thus far. For example, distracting the troll by throwing him a red herring in The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasFilm Games 1990) was beyond the scope of possible interpretations made by a teenager with limited knowledge of English idioms (such as myself at the time). Before I discovered the solution through trial and error, I had tried to attack the guardian with my cutlass, bribe him with alcohol, sneak around him—yet all the options I considered sound were rejected by the game.

The above example is extreme, but it illustrates three important characteristics of validating an interpretative guess in a video game. Firstly, there is a mechanism in place aimed at blocking some ideas, and sometimes rating the feasible ones as more or less correct by assigning them point value, differentiating the difficulty of employment, and so on. Secondly, the game forces the responsibility to progress the narrative on the player, while simultaneously refusing her the degree of control the reader usually has. Although sometimes the player can decide which way or in what order the story should progress, or she can even disregard the story entirely—the possibility Espen Aarseth identifies as the player’s freedom[31]—she cannot skip the uninteresting parts of the game to reach the juicy ones faster, or to metaphorically peek at the last page. Thirdly, despite the perceived freedom, authorial intent seems to be more important in games than in literature or cinema: it is significantly harder to create a functional interpretation which is not in accordance with it, as only choices perceived as valid are permitted by the authors. In my Secret of Monkey Island example, I had to abandon my reasoning completely to progress the game, just as Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman intended.

The conclusion so far is that although the beginning of the meaning-making process is very similar in video games and traditional narratives—at least according to hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur—the way of validating the interpretation shows several differences. In games it is more definitive, as it can deny the player progression and is much more frequent. This frequency is not without consequence: as Karhulahi observes,[32] it can lead to a very goal-oriented reading of a game in which the interpretative effort is subordinated to the need to overcome obstacles. Such an attitude results in fragmentation of the understanding: there is no need to produce a coherent interpretation of the game as it demands an immediate, local interpretation aimed at solving a puzzle at hand. As a result, difficulties may emerge with regard to following the details of the game story or connecting the transaction of the avatar’s achievements to the overall narrative.

The difference between games and other media is very clear when one compares a fragmented interpretation of a game with crime fiction, the most game-like genre. In both cases, there is a constant need to validate the interpretation in light of new facts and situations. Yet, in a detective story each revision adds to the overall understanding of the plot: if the prime suspect turns out to be innocent, the reader needs to go back and revise her understanding of the plot as a whole. In games, there is no such need as validation usually relates to a particular situation. When I discover a new way of dispatching enemies in the game I am playing, there is no need to go back and create a new interpretation in which the protagonist struggled with his combat inefficiencies until he discovered a new, better fighting technique. Such a move is replaced with a simple recognition: from now on, I, the player, know a better way to play my game. Of course, the aforementioned revision is entirely possible, though it is simply unnecessary to make sense of the game—the quality that leads to the separation of ludic and aesthetic hermeneutics in various theories[33]. However, my claim is that there is no separation in meaning-making procedures between the ludic and the aesthetic, and the perceived division comes from a very visible, present, and pleasurable validating mechanism. The reduced need for coherent interpretation is a result of hastened fulfilment: contrary to crime fiction, the player does not need to wait until the end to know if she understands the game correctly as it constantly delivers her ways to validate her skill in interpretation. From the hermeneutic point of view, a video game can be perceived as a machine to deliver recognition and reward for interpretative competence.

The preoccupation with validation and the definitive nature of the process lead to further dissimilarity between video games and literary hermeneutics, namely, a diminishing need for explanation and for undertaking the subsequent steps. As stated before, the work of an interpretation in Ricoeur’s theory is not done when the book is finished—there is always doubt if one has understood it correctly. As a result, no interpretation is definite and closed; it can always be compared to other interpretations, rooted in experiences, knowledge and needs of different readers. This purely reflexive part of interpretation somehow seems to be blocked by video game mechanisms—if the player successfully reaches the end, it means she understood everything correctly. The need to find a point of reference for the text is also diminished, as complex video games pride themselves on accurately simulating the world. In order to go further with the interpretation, one has to suppress the claim that the game’s validating mechanism is definitive. A coherent interpretation needs to be deprived of “gameness”, understood here as a fractured collection of local struggles with various obstacles. It is no coincidence that many game interpretations distance themselves from actual gameplay[34] and some games look for a way to reduce the pervasiveness of the validation process, for example by reducing the number of obstacles to overcome, as “walking simulators” fashioned after Dear Esther (Chinese Room, 2012) do. As Michał Kłosiński claims, to employ a game as a way to understand the world and enrich oneself, it is necessary to move from gameness to narrativity.[35]

 

Playing the Game My Way

 

Privileging validation over other parts of the interpretative process leads to yet another effect. In simple games, with gameplay either straightforward or reduced merely to a background for the narrative (as was the case of adventure games), the validation is based solely on authorial intent. The player needs to guess the correct order of conduct and execute it accordingly. I cannot alter the course of The Secret of Monkey Island by—let us say—focusing on honing the navigation skill of Guybrush Threepwood instead of his swordsmanship. The only way to measure skill is time: a skilled player can beat the game more quickly. But there are titles that offer more than a single way to accomplish tasks. After ruling out everything impossible, they let the player decide how to proceed, sometimes allowing for astonishing creativity, like the famous employment of a gravity gun to power up jumps in Half-Life 2 (Valve 2004). Even my Jason of Iolcos has a margin for freedom: he can ignore certain side quests, decide the order in which the four major parts of the plot are resolved, choose two out of four Argonauts as his companions during the adventure, and use different weapons in combat. Some of those choices are validated, other resisted. While playing, I was trying to simultaneously guess the best course of conduct as designed, and trim the game down to my personal taste, for example by reducing the amount of combat or helping out every miserable NPC on my way towards the Golden Fleece—searching for the balance between the idiosyncratic and the intersubjective.

This freedom to choose, described as one of the definitive qualities of video games, has been recognized by Arjoranta and Kochanowicz as an opportunity for self-reflection for players. As Arjoranta explains: “While all works of art have a chance to tell us something about ourselves, games, perhaps, excel in this. In order to play, the player must act, make choices, and see what kind of consequences those choices have, while the game evaluates some of those choices (…) Not all games support this equally, but again, ludonarrative games have the frameworks required to make ethical and existential questions meaningful”.[36]

I claim otherwise. By combining authorial intent with personal preference, the player seeks recognition for her hermeneutic skills: she wants to be recognized as both a good, obedient reader, keen to follow what the game narrative proposes, and as an innovator, bringing her unique style and ingenuity to the game. Simultaneously, the freedom to choose can be seen as a factor obscuring self-awareness, as the player is prone to repeating her choices in each and every game. For example, I always play as a good guy, trying to help the needy and seeking the best and most selfless solutions to moral dilemmas, regardless of the overall game aesthetics. Doing so, I am leaning towards the style Jaroslav Švelch called “honest moral gameplay”[37]. Given a choice, I actively avoid scenarios alien to my moral code; as a result, I dodge confrontation with disturbing situations which could lead me to better self-knowledge. To invoke moral impact, it is common for video games to limit their player’s choice—as Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development 2012) does—or to obscure some elements of the narrative, diminishing the chance of proper interpretation, and therefore challenging the player’s ability to gain validation, which is the way of The Witcher (CD Projekt RED, 2007 and subsequent). Because of the focus on validation, video games preoccupy players with their own actions and their own hermeneutic skills, rather than creating a possibility for a meaningful interaction with text[38]. This seems to be a serious impediment on the road to a full Ricoeurian interpretation, a tool to transform oneself by interacting with the world of the text.

But it does not mean that games are of less worth compared to literature, or that they are simply a feel-good medium unless they are heavily-loaded with literary or cinematic elements to make them less gamey. In a way, they even seem similar to postmodern meta-fiction, which combines traditional interpretative possibilities with the pleasure of recognizing intertextual references. Therefore, to understand the game-specific hermeneutic process, it is only reasonable to ask why validation is so important, and where the hermeneutic circle of guess and validation present within video games can lead us. One possible answer can be found in the concept of consolation—the quality Umberto Eco found essential to popular narrative[39]. In video games, consolation comes from the game reassuring the player that she is good at interpretation by measuring her skill and validating her guesses. In fact, games do it better than literature or cinema because they simultaneously leave no room for doubt while assuring the player of her authenticity: after all, it is her guess that gets validated, and her interpretative stance, carried from game to game, that matters.

A description of a fairly similar process can be found in Charles Taylor’s analysis of sources for contemporary morality[40]. According to the Canadian philosopher, the main source of rejecting normative ethics in favour of a self-constructed morality lies in the interaction between the strong sense of self—understood as an independent and unique way of being human—and the horizon of values established by the community. The first component, rooted in the Romantic notion of individuality, drives a person towards freedom to pursue happiness any way she chooses. But, according to Taylor, it does not necessarily result in a crumbling society of narcissistic egomaniacs, as there is an important precondition to pursuing personal goals: if one recognizes such an endeavour as her supreme right, one needs to give other members of her community the same right. Also, even if that person is free to choose personal beliefs, she “couldn’t just decide that the most significant action is wiggling [her] toes in warm mud. Without a special explanation, this is not an intelligible claim[41] and she has to measure the choice against the general convictions held by the community. Consequently, the ethics of authenticity can be perceived as result of the tension between individualism and the shared pool of values. This tension serves as the basis for both an individual interpretation of the world and community-generated recognition. In the example analysed by Taylor (the society of the United States in the late 1980s) the common denominator was instrumental rationality: one was allowed to pursue different goals as long as they were profitable and possible to explain.

The analysis I summarize here very briefly and crudely seems strangely similar to the central mechanism of the video games I discussed earlier. The player is free to play however she likes, as long as it is in line with the game’s established set of values. Those are usually instrumental, as everything and everybody the protagonist encounters is useable, rational, and easily quantifiable. This remains true even for another human’s misery: every trouble of every NPC my Jason encountered on his path was an opportunity to gain some experience points and other rewards, as well as to get possible help in the main quest. Although seemingly noble and selfless, my protagonist always had one eye on the prize. The efficacy of a player’s interpretative guess is at least partially dependent on those values: for example, it is important to recognize a call for help as an opportunity to profit, and act accordingly. This way players’ effort can be validated, quantified, and rewarded, creating a common horizon of values for all users of the same game. Someone resisting this quantification, for reasons Sicart, Arjoranta and Švlech point out,[42] is therefore either a quirky loner or a member of the community sharing his resistance, thus using values of the game as a negative point of reference in their common horizon[43]. The important factor of playing a game would therefore be connected to the larger issue of authenticity, as Taylor understands it: certain players need to use all their skills to understand and execute the game in their own, particular way, which is measurable against efforts of different players, framed by overall moves permitted and considered meaningful by the game system. To put it more simply: to win, my Jason needs to eliminate hordes of enemies with either a sword, a spear, or a mace. And every Argonaut/player has the freedom to choose one of these tools, based on her understanding of the game mechanics, genre tradition, and knowledge of Apollonius of Rhodes or Robert Graves. Then, her efforts can be measured and compared with the efficiency of others. The one thing she cannot do is reject violence and search for a diplomatic solution: it is outside Rise of the Argonauts’ horizon of values.

The analogy between the process of meaning making in video games and Tayloran ethics of authenticity is of course quite crude and needs deeper, more inquisitive development, which I have already attempted elsewhere[44]. Here, I use it solely to point out three possible consequences of hermeneutics that privilege validation over explanation. Firstly, even if Taylor’s observation from the late 1980s is no longer valid, his book was created in the same cultural climate that made the rise of video games possible. The connection, even if presented here in a slightly superficial manner, might explain the increasing importance of video games as a cultural form: in a way, they have become a model for good life, according to the ethics of authenticity. Therefore, the important cultural function of video games could be explained in terms of Roger Caillois’ classic observation: “It is not absurd to try diagnosing a civilization in terms of the games that are especially popular there. In fact, if games are cultural factors and images, it follows that to a certain degree a civilization and its content may be characterized by its games”.[45]

Secondly, there is a severe difference between the ethics of Taylor and Ricoeur: the first scholar describes the relationship between the text and the self as an expression of the latter projected onto the former, based on an individual search for values. Ricoeur’s view is directly the opposite: there is no other way towards self-awareness but through searching for similarities within the text, and, in the presented case, by appropriating literature[46]. Video games as analysed here can serve as a case to support Taylor’s claim: confronted with an obstacle, the player uses her pre-established strategy of understanding, rooted in her confidence with skills and knowledge she already possesses. This way she reaffirms her strategy of being herself, instead of expanding her self-knowledge and transforming the self as a result of contact with the game text, as Ricoeur would postulate. This leads to the third conclusion: such a reassuring and culturally important way of experiencing narratives could possibly be of some importance to people playing video games. And, as it seems, it is. Self-professed hardcore gamers tend to distance themselves from games they believe too easy or not game-like enough, as such games do not provide enough validation for their hermeneutic competence, in the way in which children’s rhymes do not satisfy people with a taste for T. S. Eliot. They also tend to resist attempts made to interpret video games in a more traditional fashion, by explaining their meaning and comprehending it: sometimes they even show hostility towards people with different hermeneutic strategies[47]. Such interpretative shenanigans threaten their sense of self, as measured against a rational and efficient scale of being skilful at playing mainstream video games.

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis” in Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference (2003), http://www.bendevane.com/VTA2012/herrstubbz/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/02.GameApproaches2.pdf. 2003, date accessed 23 September 2017

Arjoranta Jonne, “Do We Need Real-Time Hermeneutics? Structures of Meaning in Games”. in DiGRA 2011: Think Design Play (2011), http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/11310.17396.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017

Arjoranta Jonne, Real-Time Hermeneutics: Meaning-Making in Ludonarrative Digital Games. (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä) (2015)

Bessière Katherine, Seay A. Fleming, and Kiesler Sara. “The ideal elf: Identity exploration in World of Warcraft.” Cyberpsychology & Behavior 10:4 (2007)

Bogost Ian, “Process vs. Procedure” in The Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project Metaphysics Things New Forms of Speculative Thought (2010) http://bogost.com/downloads/Bogost – Process vs. Procedure.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017

Caillois Roger, Man, Play, Games (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press) (1961)

Caillois Roger, The Mystery Novel (Bronxville: Laughing Buddha Press) (1984)

Eco, Umberto, Il Superuomo Di Massa: Retorica E Ideologia Nel Romanzo Popolare (Rome: Bompiani) (2012)

Eskelinen Markku, “The Gaming Situation”, Game Studies 1:1 (2001)

Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm (ed). The Play Versus Story Divide in Game Studies: Critical Essays. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland) (2015)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Double Fine Adventure and the Double Hermeneutic Videogame” in Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Fun and Games (2012)

Kirkpatrick Graeme, Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2011)

Laitinen Arto, “Charles Taylor and Paul Ricoeur on Self-Interpretations and Narrative Identity”. in Narrative Research: Voices of Teachers and Philosophers, edited by Rauno Huttunen, Hannu Heikkinen, and Leena Syrjälä (Jyväskylä: SoPhi) (2002)

Leino Olli Tapio, “Death loop as a feature” Game Studies 12:2 (2012)

Majkowski, Tomasz Z. “Gry wideo i kultura autentyczności.” in Homo Ludens 3:1 (2011);

Majkowski Tomasz Z. „Gra wideo jako model dobrego życia” in Kultura Zabawy edited by Paleczny Tadeusz, Kantor Ryszard, Banaszkiewicz Magdalena (Kraków: Wydawnictwo UJ) (2012a)

Majkowski, Tomasz Z, “Złote Runo. Gra Wideo Jako Doświadczenie Interpretacyjne.” in Olbrzym w Cieniu. Gry wideo w kulturze audiowizualnej, edited by Andrzej Pitrus, (Kraków: WUJ) (2012b)

Möring Sebastian, “Freedom in Games–Between Fear and Boredom.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2013a), http://gamephilosophy2014.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Sebastian-Moering-2014.-Freedom-in-Games_1st-draft.-PCG2014.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017

Möring Sebastian, Games and Metaphor – A Critical Analysis of the Metaphor Discourse in Game Studies, unpublished doctoral dissertation (IT University of Copenhagen) (2013)

Mortensen Torill Elvira, “Anger, Fear, and Games: The Long Event of #GamerGate.” Games and Culture Online First (2016)

Ricoeur Paul, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Wort, TX: TCU Press) (1976)

Ricoeur Paul, From Text to Action (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press) (2007)

Sicart Miguel, The Ethics of Computer Games (Cambridge MA: MIT Press) (2009)

Švelch Jaroslav, “The Good, the Bad, and the Player: The Challenges to Moral Engagement in Single-Player Avatar-Based Video Games.” in Ethics and Game Design, edited by Karen Schrier and David Gibson (New York: Hershey) (2010)

Taylor Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press) (1992)

Westerlaken, Michelle. “Self-Fashioning in Action: Zelda’s Breath of the Wild Vegan Run.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2017), http://muep.mau.se/bitstream/handle/2043/23973/POCG17_Westerlaken_Self_Fashioning_in_Action.pdf?sequence=2

 

[1] See Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm (ed). The Play Versus Story Divide in Game Studies: Critical Essays. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland) (2015).

[2] Aarseth Espen, “Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis” in Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference (2003), http://www.bendevane.com/VTA2012/herrstubbz/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/02.GameApproaches2.pdf. 2003, date accessed 23 September 2017;
Arjoranta Jonne, Real-Time Hermeneutics: Meaning-Making in Ludonarrative Digital Games. (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä) (2015); Leino Olli Tapio, “Death loop as a feature” Game Studies 12:2 (2012); Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Double Fine Adventure and the Double Hermeneutic Videogame” in Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Fun and Games (2012).

[3] Kłosiński, Michał, „W stronę hermeneutyki gier komputerowych.” in Teksty Drugie 165:3 (2017), Kochanowicz, P.  „Cybernetyczne doświadczenia”–fabularyzowane gry komputerowe w perspektywie hermeneutyki.” in Homo Ludens 5:1 (2013).

[4] Ricoeur Paul, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Wort, TX: TCU Press) (1976).

[5] Aarseth 2003; Arjoranta 2015.

[6] Taylor Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press) (1992).

[7] Eskelinen Markku, “The Gaming Situation”, Game Studies 1:1 (2001).

[8] Aarseth 2003.

[9] Aarseth 2003, p. 5.

[10] Arjoranta 2015.

[11] Bogost Ian, “Process vs. Procedure” in The Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project Metaphysics Things New Forms of Speculative Thought (2010) http://bogost.com/downloads/Bogost – Process vs. Procedure.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017.

[12] Arjoranta 2015, p. 59–60.

[13] Arjoranta 2011, p. 6.

[14] Karhulahti 2012.

[15] Leino 2012.

[16] Kochanowicz 2013.

[17] Kłosiński 2017.

[18] Karhulahti 2012, p. 7.

[19] Majkowski, Tomasz Z, “Złote Runo. Gra Wideo Jako Doświadczenie Interpretacyjne.” in Olbrzym w Cieniu. Gry wideo w kulturze audiowizualnej, edited by Andrzej Pitrus, (Kraków: WUJ) (2012b).

[20] Kirkpatrick Graeme, Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2011); Kłosiński 2017.

[21] Ricoeur 1976.

[22] Ricoeur 1976, p. 75–78.

[23] Ricoeur 1976, p. 78–80.

[24] Martin George R. R, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Spectra) (1996) and subsequent.

[25] There is an additional level of resistance offered by obstacles presented by the game. But overcoming said obstacles is not always related to the process of interpretation and usually relies on the dexterity or perceptiveness of the player and therefore cannot be treated as parts of interpretation. To put it simply: as Jason, sometimes I lose fights because I do not understand how to defeat my enemy (which provides the resistance to the game interpretation), and other times I am just clumsy with the controller.

[26] Ricoeur 1976, p. 79.

[27] Caillois Roger, The Mystery Novel (Bronxville: Laughing Buddha Press) (1984).

[28] Ricoeur 1976, p. 36.

[29] Ricoeur Paul, From Text to Action (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press) (2007).

[30] Arjoranta Jonne, “Do We Need Real-Time Hermeneutics? Structures of Meaning in Games.” in DiGRA 2011: Think Design Play (2011), http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/11310.17396.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017.

[31] Aarseth 2003.

[32] Karhulahti 2012.

[33] see Arjoranta 2015.

[34] Leino 2012; Möring Sebastian, “Freedom in Games–Between Fear and Boredom.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2013a), http://gamephilosophy2014.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Sebastian-Moering-2014.-Freedom-in-Games_1st-draft.-PCG2014.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017.

[35] Kłosiński 2017, p. 67.

[36] Arjoranta 2015, p. 61.

[37] Švelch Jaroslav, “The Good, the Bad, and the Player: The Challenges to Moral Engagement in Single-Player Avatar-Based Video Games.” in Ethics and Game Design, edited by Karen Schrier and David Gibson (New York: Hershey) (2010).

[38] Ricoeur 2007.

[39] Eco, Umberto, Il Superuomo Di Massa: Retorica E Ideologia Nel Romanzo Popolare (Rome: Bompiani) (2012).

[40] Taylor 1992.

[41] Taylor 1992, p. 36.

[42] Sicart Miguel, The Ethics of Computer Games (Cambridge MA: MIT Press) (2009); Arjoranta 2015; Švelch 2010.

[43] Westerlaken, Michelle. “Self-Fashioning in Action: Zelda’s Breath of the Wild Vegan Run.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2017), http://muep.mau.se/bitstream/handle/2043/23973/POCG17_Westerlaken_Self_Fashioning_in_Action.pdf?sequence=2.

[44] Majkowski, Tomasz Z. “Gry wideo i kultura autentyczności.” in Homo Ludens 3:1 (2011); Majkowski Tomasz Z. „Gra wideo jako model dobrego życia” in Kultura Zabawy edited by Paleczny Tadeusz, Kantor Ryszard, Banaszkiewicz Magdalena (Kraków: Wydawnictwo UJ) (2012a).

[45] Caillois Roger, Man, Play, Games (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press) (1961), p. 83.

[46] Laitinen Arto, “Charles Taylor and Paul Ricoeur on Self-Interpretations and Narrative Identity.” in Narrative Research: Voices of Teachers and Philosophers, edited by Rauno Huttunen, Hannu Heikkinen, and Leena Syrjälä (Jyväskylä: SoPhi) (2002).

[47] Mortensen Torill Elvira, “Anger, Fear, and Games: The Long Event of #GamerGate.” Games and Culture Online First (2016).

The Language of Interaction

Rafael Arrivabene

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 17-29.

 

Rafael Arrivabene

Game Designer

 

 

The Language of Interaction

 

Abstract

Actions, reactions, conditions, and restrictions form the basis of any game. The rules designed to conduct participation and behaviours of players and objects can be understood as a particular language. In an attempt to elucidate an expressive potential that may have been underestimated by game developers and researchers, this paper presents an approximation of game rules to linguistic concepts.

 

Key words: interaction, games studies, ludology, linguistics

 

Thinking games as interactive texts

 

Interaction is the most inherent aspect of the game phenomenon. Not every interactive system is a game, but every instance of a game, be it a digital game, a physical sport, or a verbal riddle, has some degree of interactivity. This word means mutual or reciprocal actions and influence. In a broad sense, an action is a process that induces alteration in something else[1]. Interaction is, therefore, the reciprocal dynamic between systems in an action-reaction, cause-effect or call and response fashion. Players interact with each other and with the game system itself. They interact with its physical components and rules, always changing the game’s state. Games are artefacts or events in which interactions are not just random or spontaneous, rather they are designed to achieve some purpose. In games, interactions are a way, a medium, to communicate ideas and create experiences.

In order to situate the understanding of interaction in games, it is useful to analyse it according to Schell’s Elemental Tetrad (Fig. 1), which states that any given game can be analysed in terms of four aspects: Aesthetics, Narrative, Technology and Mechanics[2]. The Aesthetics, one of the most visible aspects, is responsible for much of the sensory stimuli of the game and its nonverbal messages. Another explicit aspect is Narrative. This comprises the lore and the symbolic verbal communication of the game. In abstract games or sports, the Narrative aspect comprises the events that emerge from play. Technology is one of the two implicit aspects; it is what supports the very existence of the game. In a board game it would be paper cards, game boards, plastic tokens, and dice. In a digital game it would be the hardware and system specifications. Finally, Mechanics is the other implicit aspect. It stands for the rules of the game and the behaviour of its components and its objectives. Players engage with every one of these aspects and each of their elements foster some level of interactivity. But it is the Mechanical aspect and its elements—the rules—that account for most of the interaction in a game.

 

Figure 1. Elemental Tetrad of any game.

obraz 1

Source: made by the author, based on Schell (2008).

 

One can say that when Espen Aarseth defined cybertexts and ergodic literature, he shed light on the less visible aspects that are also found in other forms of texts. Aarseth was interested in the performance of the text, its material nature and the rules that bind the reader/user. Using Schell’s terminology with Aarseth’s perspective, one can say that judging only from the Technological aspect, a printed book would be less linear than a hypertext, since all pages and content are accessible to the reader in any given time. The material technology of paper-sheets glued or sewed together does not induce linear reading nor prevent page skipping, as a digital text might. From the mechanical aspect, however, a regular book is generally linear. The linearity of the printed text media comes from a socially established rule of reading, not from the attributes of the media itself. For Aarseth, a cybertext is one that promotes non-trivial interaction with the reader. The author gives examples of books that work under different reading mechanics, like the Chinese divination book, the I-Ching, or Ian Livingstone’s choose your adventure books. Although still physically incapable of directing the reader’s path through the text, these books require a non-trivial effort to be read properly[3].While traditional books’ mechanics only require eye-movement and sequential reading of words and turning of pages, these examples prescribe a set of actions that the reader must perform and a set of conditional reactions that also must be followed by the reader, as in a game of solitaire. It creates an interaction between the reader/player and the rules system of that particular text.

In these nonlinear books and tabletop games, both actions and reactions need to be performed by the users. Sports rely partially on the laws of physics which rule the movements of bodies in space and combine them with made-up rules that must be observed by players or referees. But in digital games, the very medium that supports the game can update the system state. The players do not need to know all the rules, neither do they have access to all its content and possible states. Instead, they are free to experiment within the designed possibilities and can learn the game rules from the designed consequences they face. In Janet Murray’s words this kind of participant is called an Interactor[4]. She perceives that it is a different kind of audience because participant involvement is central to the development of the piece. Also, she notes that authorship of interactive texts requires different knowledge and planning than linear narratives. The procedural authorship, as she calls it, comprehends the definition of a rule-based world that must enable and respond to the interactor’s performance. Acknowledging this difference from traditional participation and writing raises questions of how this affects the semiotic processes in this medium. In other words, what is the role of interaction in the meaning of games?

Pioneers of Play studies, Johan Huizinga and Eugene Fink, addressed meaning in games and play, noting that during these events objects, places, people, and actions are resignified. For a child, a wood plank may represent a doll, while a doll, in turn, may be become a person[5]. When puppies play, biting can be part of the playful enactment of a fight. But sometimes it can also suspend such a game by breaking its implicit rules[6]. In play and games, a symbolic dimension overlaps reality, bringing new and temporary meanings to normal signs. For Huizinga and Fink, games and play are forms of representing and understanding the world through the symbolic dimension. Later, when Gonzalo Frasca proposed ludology as a field of study, he claimed that due to their interactivity, games not only represent, but rather simulate the behaviours of objects and systems through mechanical rules[7].

Closed forms of representation such as paintings or movies can only describe the properties of something in a given time, but interactive and open-ended forms of representation like games and simulators model such properties and behaviours, making it possible for the user to experience a range of situations. As with any kind of representation, simulation is always partial and biased. Frasca affirms that a “simulation is the act of modelling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A’s original behaviour”[8]. It is impossible for a simulation to retain all aspects of a given system because if it did, it would be equal to the original system and would therefore no longer be just a simulation. Thus, the modelling of a system is bound by the objectives of the simulation, by its feasibility and by the knowledge its authors have about the original system itself[9]. Like choosing the best angle for a photograph, selecting which properties and behaviours from the source system will be retained is a form of conveying meaning in a simulation.

It must be acknowledged that to understand meaning in games, one needs to understand them as multimedia. Multimedia conveys meaning through a combination of signs from various media or languages. The signs of each language must be appreciated together to be fully understood. In games, as in an opera, verbal language, body language, sonic language and visual language must all join forces to achieve maximum expressiveness. But, as stated, games bring yet another language into play: the language of interaction. Many game researchers are therefore trying to understand the expressive potential of this particular language and how it works.

Ian Bogost discusses how game designers transmit ideologies through the rules of their games[10]. He develops the concept of procedural literacy and rhetoric, which in his words is “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions”[11]. Building on Bogost’s work, Joris Dormans applies the Peircean triad “sign-object-interpreter” to simulations. He shows that the way game designers define the rules through which they represent objects or events in their games can have iconic, indexical, or symbolic characteristics[12]. James Paul Gee argues that the meaning of signs in games is related to their function and purpose. He states that game designers construct grammars made of rules in an effort to conduct player interpretation of objects and actions. He also notes that the semantics of games will always be a negotiation between the functions that players attribute to objects, the goals they accept for themselves, and those defined by the author in the game rules[13]. Coming from Greimasian semiology, Óliver Pérez Latorre proposes an analysis method by which game rules are divided into three major categories of representation:

(1) the representation of the protagonist or player

(2) the representation of the world or environment

(3) the representation of activities.

With this division, Latorre shows how games can be organized as a rule-based discourse. The next section of this paper will try to build upon these ideas by sketching what could be the basic grammar and semantics of the language of interaction.

 

Thinking interaction as a language

 

First it must be declared that the purpose of this perspective is to suggest where and how meaning-making and poetics can occur in interactive pieces. The scheme presented next will borrow terms from logical languages and linguistics, but with some license to adaptation. To demonstrate how Interaction can be seen as a meaningful language, it will be compared to Verbal/Spoken language and Visual language. I will begin by looking for the very nature of the language, and then develop it into more structured elements. Each element will be explained and exemplified when possible. The table below starts this exercise by searching for the building blocks and main structure of these languages.

 

Table 1. Comparison between basic elements of the languages

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Physical Source Sound Light Time / Change
Fundamental Contrast Phonemes Values and Colours Causes and Effects
Meaningful Unit Words Shapes Rules and Actions
Syntactic Categories Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Prepositions, etc. Lines, Plain Shapes, Volumetric Shapes, etc. Inputs, Outputs, Restrictions and Conditions.
Composition structure Linear Spatial Branched, multilinear

Source: made by the author

 

The atomic element of a spoken language would be the units of sound—as studied by phonetics and phonology—that by contrast are understood as phonemes that can be combined into words. In a visual language, the source would be just light, which by contrast becomes values of light and dark and hues of colours that are responsible for the perception of shapes and volume. Both are physical signals that affect the receiver, who in return (de)codifies them. The relative signal for Interaction language should be time as it promotes the ability to perceive change. By contrasting moments in time, we perceive changes in configurations. This enables us to understand that something happened and thus to infer cause and effect relationships. By acting in a given system, these causal relationships then inform us about general rules or laws that govern reactions in that system. As with words and shapes, so rules and actions should fall into some main categories that distinguish them by their syntactic functions or characteristics. Inputs are actions that the interactor performs or triggers. Outputs are the results of said actions. They are reactions from elements other than the interactor. Restrictions are rules that prevent actions. Conditions are contextual rules that, when met, enable, modify, or trigger other actions. An interaction piece is then constructed by creating conditional cases for each input and output that unfold into many possible scenarios. This minimal set of elements should be observable in many systems in which humans interact with designed Technologies and Mechanics.

It is worth pointing out that inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions can be physical rules or arbitrary rules. Taking as an example a child learning to play basketball, any move she makes would be a physical input in the game system. The movements of the ball would be then physical reactions or physical outputs. Physical restrictions would be natural forces and bodily limitations that prevent her from doing some actions. Weather is a physical condition that can modify the parameters of the game, making it easier or harder for her to play. Arbitrary inputs would be those actions in which she relies on some level of communication and agreement, like asking for time. Arbitrary outputs would be scores and penalty shots because they are events triggered by other actions. She will also learn from other players, referees or coaches that an arbitrary restriction prevents her from running while holding the ball and that there are some arbitrary conditions that change the amount of points given for a successful throw, based on the context.

She would soon appreciate the values to each rule. Dropping the ball unintentionally, for instance, can be contextually understood as a negative input, since its output would be the loss of control. Whenever she learns that by applying the right force, the ball will bounce right back to her hand, she may understand it as a positive action, because it brings different feelings and utility. According to Gee, if actions are signs, then their functions inform their meaning. The composition of a game is always open-ended or at least undetermined between the possible outcomes. The possibility space of a game like this is infinite. At each moment of play there is a current state of points, positions of players and ball, and the available actions that each player can chose to do next. Each decision branches the play to another configuration until an ending condition such as a time limit is met.

To show how interactivity can foster aesthetic expression, we can frame the design of games and other interactive pieces as a speech act using John Austin’s concepts of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts from verbal/spoken language[14]. The first concept, locutionary, refers to the spoken sentence—the actual words used by the speaker. In interaction language, it would be the material objects that support the interaction, the Technology in Schell’s Tetrad. The second term, illocutionary, is the intention of the speaker—the goal behind the message. It would be the design of such interactive objects—their behaviours and functions. The last speech act, perlocutionary, refers to the reaction produced on the listener by the sentence. These acts help to show how the intention of the speaker or designer may guide the composition of their texts. Serious messages may ask for more formality to avoid misinterpretation, while flexible structures may serve aesthetic purposes. The table below tries to demonstrate simple samples of messages in each language, split according to the formalism of their structures.

 

Table 2. Simple messages in order of formality

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Less formal Proverb Doodle Kaleidoscope
More Formal Warning Scheme Hand crank

Source: made by the author.

 

Note that a hand crank on an industrial machine was probably not designed to bring emotions to those who spin it, but a hand crank on a music box certainly does. Fink stated that tools are “meaning that has been impressed” onto materials, but for him these objects do not inhabit the same symbolic dimension of toys. Tools are objects that only have the dimensions of real life[15]. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that one could subvert the function of a tool and start using it as a toy. In the language of interaction, as in other languages, the meaning of signs is constructed by the context and other signals. Gee argues that the meaning of signs is always situational, given on the go by the participants of the communication. Signifiers are not really attached to a specific idea. Their meaning is constructed by contextually inferring the objective of the communication. In his example, the idea of coffee in a sentence is changed by the presence of the words “mop” or “broom”. These other signs are responsible for resignifying “coffee” by making us imagine it as liquid or solid. For him, the meaning of a sign in a game “is what players can do with it, how they can use it in the game”[16].

The presence of other media in games enhances the meaning of the interaction. Actions in a game, especially in video games, are often not just pure movements but symbolic representations of other actions or events which are completed by narrative or aesthetic aspects. Using a hammer to build something is different from using it to break something[17]. When a chess observer declares that the black horse was sacrificed to save the queen, he is naming actions according to the visual symbolism of the pieces. When the cartoonish character Mario smashes a turtle with his hammer, it produces dissimilar feelings than a hammer homicide in the game Manhunt (2003, RenderWare). Dormans would say that the difference between the horse and the hammer examples is that the first is symbolic while the latter is iconic. An icon is a sign that produces the idea of its object by sharing some of its physical attributes or qualities. When developers model a system to produce human-looking objects, aggressive-looking movements, and bone-crushing sounds, they are increasing the iconic properties of the actions. On the other hand, even if the pieces of a chess set were crafted in a detailed way, the action of killing the knight does not share any similarity with the real event. It is only understood as such by cultural convention; it is a symbolic simulation that is found in many board games.

A simulator, on the other hand, is expected to be a high-fidelity rule-based representation of a system. Simulators should be based on an adequate model—an abstraction—of complex real-world situations, with the goal of providing users with a better understanding of reality[18]. But while the purpose of a simulator is to be useful and educative, the purpose of a game is to be entertaining and fun. Dormans compares this difference with the one between a technical drawing and a painting[19]. But games such as Goat Simulator (2014, Coffee Stain) play with such a distinction. Despite its title and realistic three-dimensional looks, in this game you take control of a goat that can destroy anything in its way, perform amazing jumps, and other uncanny actions. This is not a case of a bad simulation; it is a game based on ironic, silly rules. Similar to Cortazar’s Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase or Carelman’s Catalogue of Fantastic Things, this game plays with the expected structure of this form of communication. It is possible to make intentional stylistic choices for interactive pieces.

If the meaning of an action is constructed by its contextual function and by its contextual symbology, it should be possible to devise semantic categories for actions, just as homonyms, synonyms and antonyms are categories of words. Words fill these categories not according to their syntactic function, but according to what they mean in relation to other words. This is a subjective interpretation of signs that can happen in other languages as well. The dove and the white flag are different images that both mean peace in western culture. A big black dog can be seen as the visual antonym of a little white cat. Homonyms, however, are dependent on the context. While a skull in a yellow triangle may be read as a warning, a skull in a black flag specifies the idea of pirates.

Synonyms in an interactive piece would be actions or rules that produce the same functional outcome. Their function is the same, but their symbolism is different. This kind of rule is uncommon for it can be seen as unnecessary redundancy. Nevertheless, presenting these synonyms in a game can be meaningful. In Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999, Crystal Dynamics), health is restored by absorbing the souls of killed enemies. It is a ranged move that attracts nearby floating souls to the protagonist’s mouth. Another way to restore health is to suck blood from the necks of human bystanders. This is a close-range move, non-lethal for humans but a less effective way of gaining health. These rules encourage players to take more risks and fight more[20] because enemy souls restore more health than human blood. But it also adds a symbolic element. Raziel, the protagonist, used to be a vampire, so this action is there more to make this connection than to be useful from a gameplay perspective.

Antonyms would be actions or rules that have opposing functions. Basic examples are, to buy and to sell in economic simulations, or to punch and to block in a fighting game. The first inflicts damage on an opponent, while the second prevents damage to the player. In other example, Undertale (2015, Toby Fox), players can choose to fight or spare their opponents, and this opposition is central to the game’s lore and innovative gameplay.

Homonyms would be cases in which one action serves two or more purposes. Due to technical limitations, early video games had to make the most out of a few buttons and commands. In Super Mario Bros (1985, Nintendo), a simple jump has combat, movement, destruction, and activation functions. Recent games have a much wider set of actions. A contemporary game like Battlefield 1 (2016, DICE), has commands for jump, crunch, dodge, aim, shoot, reload, change weapon, change secondary weapon, drive, etc. Maybe by pursuing that iconic simulation Dormans criticizes, some developers have ignored the possibilities of games with fewer but symbolic actions. As a counterexample, Journey (2012, That Game Company) allows players to only walk, jump, and sing. Singing serves to gather items nearby, to activate mechanisms, to communicate with and to energize fellow pilgrims. However, it also draws the attention of dangerous enemies. It is an action that has both the positive function of recovery and the negative rule of increased danger. Journey is poetic not only in its visual and narrative aspects, but also in its mechanics. Players can open doors by singing and avoid danger by staying quiet.

 

Table 3. Examples of possible semantic categories in each language.

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Synonyms Different words,
same semantical meaning
Different images,
same symbolic meaning
Different actions,
same practical function
Antonyms Different words,

opposite semantical meaning

Different images,

opposite symbolic meaning

Different actions,

opposite practical function

Homonyms Same word,

different semantical meaning

Same image,

different symbolic meaning

Same action,

different practical function

Source: made by the author

 

By combining function with contextual signs, actions can hold strong meanings that can be played with by the authors of interactive pieces and games. As in poetry and visual arts, beauty comes when words or shapes are used in clever ways which explore their characteristics. The expressive potential of this language is related to the creative use of these possibilities. Procedural authors must know when to simulate events as they are and when to subvert their behaviour. They have to decide which actions need more detail and when to make them abstract and symbolic. They need to know how to play with the expected functions of inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions. By creatively playing with these choices, some patterns of composition must emerge. Just as with the rule of the thirds for photography, or redondillas in poetry, there should be characteristic stylistic elements for interaction. These will not be covered by this paper as this theory is still in an early stage, but it presents a goal for future research.

 

Conclusion

 

In search of how meaning is constructed in games, researchers have found that interactivity is a strong element of this media. Game studies should, therefore, pay attention to this element and its communicative properties. Games cannot be taken as just another representational media because interactivity brings at least two particularities: actions do not always represent something but meaning will still emerge from interpretations of how such actions function in a cultural system. Moreover, when actions are there to represent something else, they do this by simulating that something. Especially in this last case, actions become signs that reference ideas or concepts outside the game. They mediate the dialogue between the ideas of the creators and their interpretations by the players. They can be iconic, trying to be similar to the actions and behaviours they represent, or they can be symbolic, indicating events more by consensus than by accuracy. Choices concerning how to simulate these real or imaginary systems are rhetorical since the exclusions and adaptations made by authors are biased towards their intentions and knowledge. The final rules of an interactive piece—especially ludic pieces such as games—form an ergodic cybertext or cyberdiscourse that is materialized in a language of its own. In striving to understand such a language it has been loosely compared to other well-known languages in an attempt to discover useful similarities or differences. It seems that actions and rules can be positively thought of in linguistic terms. The development of this thought may lead to advantages in the analysis of video games and interactive art, and hopefully serve to improve the design of such works. Maybe in the future a basic grammar of interaction will help procedural authors to craft even more meaningful interactive multimedia discourses.

 

 

Aarseth Espen, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997)

Aarseth Espen, “Computer Game Studies, Year One” Game Studies. 1:1 (2001), http://gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980)

Bogost Ian, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007).

Bogost Ian, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2008).

Dormans Joris, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011)

Fink Eugen, ​Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016).

Frasca Gonzalo, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017

Frasca Gonzalo, “SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Gredler Margareth, „Games and Simulations and Their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) (2014)

Gee James Paul, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013)

Huizinga Johan, ​Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949).

Latorre Óliver Pérez, Análisis de la significación del videojuego. Fundamentos teóricos del juego, el mundo narrativo y la enunciación interactiva como perspectivas de estudio del discurso, (Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra) (2010)

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015)

Murray Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997)

Robinson Stewart, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press) (2015).

Sauvé Louise, Renaud Lise, Kaufman David and Marquis Jean-Simon, „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007)

Schell Jesse, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008)

 

 

 

[1] Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes other common definitions and uses of the word action, but the interest here lies on the approximation with processes and alteration.

[2] Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008), p.41.

[3] Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997), p.9.

[4] For more on this see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997), p.149.

[5] Eugen Fink, Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016), p.36.

[6] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949), p.1.

[7] See Gonzalo Frasca, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017.

[8] Gonzalo Frasca, „SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html date accessed 12 June 2017.

[9] Stewart Robinson has a series of papers on modeling systems for simulations. See for example Stewart Robinson, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. in Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press, 2015), pp. 1820-1834.

[10] Ian Bogost, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 117–140.

[11] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007), p. IX.

[12] Joris Dormans, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011), pp. 610-631.

[13] James Paul Gee, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013).

[14] John L. Austin, How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980).

[15] Eugen Fink, pp.35.

[16] James Paul Gee, pp.45-46.

[17] Óliver Pérez Latorre, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128.

[18] For more on the differences between games and simulations, see Margareth Gredler, „Games and Simulations and their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2014) pp. 571–581, and Louise Sauvé et. al., „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007), pp.244-256.

[19] Joris Dormans, p.612.

[20] Another example of rule-inducted behaviour can be seen in Game Maker’s Toolkit: How Games do Health [YouTube Video] Mark Brown, 1 August 2016, and in Óliver Pérez Latorre, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015), pp. 415-437.

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

Bianca Batti

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 30-46.

 

Bianca Batti

Purdue University

 

 

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

 

Abstract

The emerging field of feminist game studies is one that requires more extensive discussion regarding its methodological approaches in order to consider the methods that can be used to leverage the field’s position in game studies, the gaming industry, and the gaming community. As such, this paper will consider the ways feminist game studies can implement intersectional feminist methodologies and methodological pluralism in order to disrupt hegemonic structures in the gaming community. To do so, this paper will interrogate the conversation between feminist science fiction criticism and feminist game studies because such an interrogation will allow for a fuller understanding of the methodological strategies implemented in feminist SF criticism and the ways these strategies can be extended to the field of feminist game studies. This paper will explore the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism and will argue that this worldbuilding can be used by feminist game studies to disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies works to unsettle hierarchical and hegemonic structures of power in the gaming community and imagine alternate intersectional models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change.

Key Words: worldbuilding, intersectionality, feminist science fiction, feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies

 

Introduction: Imagining Feminist Alternatives through Intersectional Methods

 

While the field of game studies has worked to establish itself as an independent field, one autonomously bounded off from other fields of study[1] [2], the conversation occurring between game studies and other fields (such as the field of literary studies) requires additional consideration, especially regarding the implications such blurred, interdisciplinary conversations have for methodological approaches to the analysis of games. The field of feminist game studies, specifically, encourages intersectional methodologies in the study of games and looks toward feminist studies at large[3] in order to consider how and why such approaches might be utilized in feminist game studies scholarship[4] [5].

Nina Lykke argues that feminist studies requires “theoretical diversity and methodological pluralism” and encourages readers to think of feminist studies as “a field of knowledge production characterized by diversity, fluctuation, fluidity and change”.[6] This paper will work to enact such pluralistic knowledge production through the interrogation of intersectional feminist praxis in game studies and literary spaces in order to explore the intersections of criticism, production, and community. I will specifically interrogate the interdisciplinary conversation between feminist game studies criticism and feminist SF criticism in order to consider the ways both fields imagine alternatives to patriarchal structures. I will also examine the ways both fields’ methodologies work to legitimize their epistemological claims in academic spaces that view such criticism as peripheral. In doing so, I will assess the implications this conversation has for the implementation of intersectional feminist methodologies across academic spaces; as such, my goal is to assess the ways in which intersectional feminist methodologies can help to dismantle boundaries, claim space[7], and make room for criticism and production that centralizes the importance of inclusivity and intersectional positionalities and methodologies. Ultimately, I argue that these methodological efforts to imagine alternative configurations is a form of feminist worldbuilding because these efforts allow feminist work to disrupt and dismantle patriarchal structures through the (re)imagining of feminist alternatives—that is, through the building of feminist worlds. As such, I contend that feminist game studies can look to feminist SF criticism’s use of intersectional feminist worldbuilding in order to consider the ways in which feminist game studies can also implement such worldbuilding as a methodological tool.

 

Fluid Frameworks, Multiple Lenses: Defining Intersectional Feminist Methodologies

 

This analysis of intersectional methodologies and feminist worldbuilding is motivated by the manner in which feminist research works to establish interpretive frameworks. Nina Lykke argues that these interpretive frameworks result in a multiplicity of feminist methods, and she contends that the discussion of feminist methodologies is needed because “discussions of methodologies and methods have not occupied the same spectacular space in the limelight of feminist theorizing as have debates on epistemologies”.[8] And while conversations regarding epistemologies, methodologies, and methods often intersect, Lykke explains that it is important to note the differences between these terms:

A common distinction between epistemology and methodology is that the former deals with criteria for what constitutes scientific and scholarly knowledge, while the latter focuses on rules, principles and procedures for the production of knowledge. Distinct from methodology, methods relates to the concrete approaches chosen to carry out a particular piece of research. Since the process and the product of research—and issues concerning choice of approaches, methodological underpinnings of this choice and criteria for how a desirable outcome of the research can be reached—are so closely related, these issues are often discussed together.[9]

Thus, while these issues are often discussed together, methods and methodologies, as Lykke says, are often not the focal points of these conversations; and so, they require additional feminist theorizing so that we can better interrogate the approaches and procedures we can engage in for the production of knowledge. Lykke also argues that feminist epistemologies, methodologies, and methods all require pluralism—because “it is more or less self-evident that this entails a great deal of diversity when methods are to be chosen”[10] in any feminist work. As such, feminist methods and methodologies—feminist approaches and procedures—rely on and result in pluralistic approaches to knowledge production, and intersectional feminist methodologies, specifically, result in such epistemological pluralism.

It is important to stress, here, that intersectional feminist theorizing and praxis arise from the work of women of colour, and Kimberle Crenshaw first introduced the term intersectionality in 1989. Crenshaw argues that the “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism”[11], and thus feminist and antiracist work needs to interrogate racism, sexism, and patriarchy because the “praxis of both should be centred on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties”.[12] Crenshaw also argues that praxis that centres on the life situations of people works off the “view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction”.[13] Thus, intersectional feminism “highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed”[14], and intersectional feminist theorizing “argues that racial and sexual subordination are mutually reinforcing…and that a political response to each form of subordination must at the same time be a political response to both”.[15] And, as Crenshaw contends, “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.”[16]

Methodologies that emerge from this intersectional theorizing, as Lykke contends, require feminist innovation that “emerges out of untraditional, non-authoritarian…approaches to existing theories, thinking technologies and tools”.[17] Thus, intersectional feminist methodologies “take an anti-canonical stance” and emphasize methodological diversity and pluralism in order to “break up stereotypes and ideas about sameness”.[18] Something that can break up these homogenizing ideas is the method of writing “from a non-innocent somewhere” during which “the author has an obligation to make herself accountable for her location in it”.[19] This methodological approach is inspired by Donna Haraway’s epistemology of situated knowledges and partial perspectives, in which Haraway argues for a “doctrine of embodied objectivity that accommodates paradoxical and critical feminist science projects”.[20] These situated knowledges, Haraway contends, allow “us to become answerable for what we learn how to see”.[21] In short, intersectional feminist methodologies require this understanding of situated knowledge because methodological pluralism implements “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives”.[22] Intersectional methodologies, then, incorporate and invoke “the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity”.[23]

In short, my goal in unpacking intersectional methodologies by tracing the methodological conversation between feminist SF criticism and feminist game studies—goals that are themselves rooted in intersectional feminist praxis—is to guide readers through the implementation of a multiplicity of methods, processes, and perspectives and through the interrogation of the ways intersectionality’s methodological pluralism can allow the emerging field of feminist game studies to construct itself as a space based on inclusivity, solidarity, and the building of coalitions that acknowledge and respect different positionalities. This construction of inclusive space means that intersectional feminist methodologies are a mode of worldbuilding—a way to build feminist coalitions that imagine alternative modes of existence—because the pluralism and inclusivity of intersectional feminist methodologies allows feminist writers to build anti-canonical, anti-racist, patriarchy-disrupting worlds that instead construct alternative spaces that centre intersectional feminist coalitions and futurities.

 

Patterning, Anchoring, Launching: Building Worlds in Feminist SF Criticism

 

When interrogating intersectional feminist methodologies and unpacking their potential for feminist worldbuilding, it seems only fitting to discuss research that examines feminist science fiction as an example of such work. As Haraway notes, the genre of science fiction has been “such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory. I like to see feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse obligated to its sources in many heterogeneous accounts of the world”.[24] For Haraway, then, feminist SF is a particular exemplar of this “reinvented coyote discourse” because of its ability to implement “heterogeneous accounts of the world” and to use these accounts as a form of feminist worldbuilding. Alexis Lothian, in working to define and frame feminist science fiction’s futurism—its reinvented coyote discourse—argues that the genre “is a world of imagination, but it is also just around the corner, always and almost already here”.[25] Debra Benita Shaw contends that feminist science fiction has historically worked to challenge and disrupt epistemological claims in both scientific and literary knowledge production because such fiction has “a socially or politically critical purpose”[26], a purpose that Marleen Barr says allows feminist SF to present “blueprints for social structures that allow women’s words to counter patriarchal myths”.[27]

Patricia Melzer similarly discusses the “socially and politically critical purpose” of feminist science fiction, and she discusses the feminist value of this “particular narrative mode”.[28] Melzer explains, “Two textual aspects that define science fiction are the structures and/or narrative devices that constitute its mode, on one hand, and themes and approaches on the other.”[29] Some of the narrative devices that Melzer identifies are “the element of estrangement, or the confrontation of normative systems/perspectives, and the implication of new sets of norms that result in the factual reporting of fiction”.[30] Melzer explains that these narrative elements, then, “shape the reading process”[31] and “create ‘blueprints’ of social theories. Only within genres of the fantastic is it possible to imagine completely new social orders and ways of being that differ radically from human existence as we know it”.[32]

Melzer explains that the reason science fiction is a genre ripe for the feminist theorizing and imagining of “social and political change” is because of the “combination of strangeness and familiarity that make up the particularities of the genre. This tension between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ is at the heart of science fiction. It creates a reading process based on estrangement, which places familiar issues into strange territory…This estrangement also creates spaces of abstraction for theorizing”.[33] Yet, this space for theorizing does not solely rely on estrangement, but, rather, it also requires identification because, in science fiction, “we grow to know the protagonists and their world intimately…As in other types of fiction, the ‘realness’ of science fiction narratives enables individuals (and groups) to relate to and recognize the debates as relevant to their own lives”.[34]

Thus, the science fictional strategies of estrangement and identification are the methods that allow the genre of feminist science fiction, in particular, to be utilized as a crucial tool for examining issues of gendered and race-based power and oppression, and Melzer argues that an understanding of feminist SF’s thematic concerns, structural and methodological strategies, and goals of resistance reveals that “[d]iscussing science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation, and it acknowledges the spaces of agency located within the process of consuming and producing cultural texts”.[35] Thus, Melzer contends that reading and researching feminist SF in this way and interrogating its efforts to enact social and political change “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[36]

Raffaella Baccolini argues that, as far as the popular-cultural feminist theorizing in “science fiction is concerned, the intersection of gender and genre has generated new, subversive literary forms”.[37] And one of the subversive contributions of feminist SF writers has been the questioning and disruption of “masculinist discourses of traditional science fiction…Themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity, have all been tackled, explored, and reappropriated by these writers”.[38] Such thematic disruption and resistance is also mirrored by feminist SF’s disruption of genre conventions:

The attack, in recent years, against universalist assumptions, fixity, and singularity, and pure, neutral, and objective knowledge in favor of the recognition of differences, multiplicity, and complexity, partial and situated knowledges, as well as hybridity and fluidity has contributed, among other things, to the deconstruction of genre purity…It is the very notion of an impure science fiction genre, with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, that represents resistance to hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction and makes the new science fiction genre also multi-oppositional.[39]

In short, these are some of the ways that feminist SF builds worlds—that is, this worldbuilding works to construct a “new science fiction genre” that is fluid, “impure”, permeable, and hybrid, and this impure genre builds these new worlds in order to oppose patriarchal, hegemonic power structures within science fiction.

Melzer describes this feminist worldbuilding in science fiction as the creation of “systems of representation that create the freedom to voice assumptions otherwise restricted by a realist narrative frame, and the geographic displacement of identity formations”.[40] To be sure, feminist science fiction often makes use of such systems of representation—such worlds—in order to imagine possibilities for transformation. Feminist science fiction specifically conceives of such transformations through a lens that seeks to imagine a feminist future while, at the same time, recognizing the obstacles and challenges in the path toward such a future. In other words, many works of feminist science fiction engage in worldbuilding in order to conceive of different ways of experiencing gender; such worldbuilding critiques intersections of race and gender and the manner in which the oppression that occurs at such intersections might be transgressed and dismantled.

Just as feminist SF seeks to dismantle hegemonic knowledge production in science fiction, so too does feminist SF criticism seek to disrupt epistemic hierarchies, especially since the field functions in anti-canonical ways. Such efforts are emblematic of the fact that one of the things that feminist literary scholarship, more broadly, consistently interrogates is the idea of the literary canon—that is, what comes to count as legitimized knowledge in literary studies and who comes to count as legitimate researchers of such knowledge. The feminist interrogation of canon formation typically works to problematize the manner in which canonical hierarchies often come to be rendered on lines based on issues like race, gender, sexuality, and ability. But more than that, feminist literary scholarship works to disrupt the epistemological claims and implications of the canon—it works to destabilize the normative privileging of who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the academic field of literary studies. The field of feminist science fiction criticism exemplifies such goals, because, as Marleen Barr notes, it is a field that, when it first emerged, had to reconcile with the need to legitimize its epistemological claims in a space in which such claims were often deemed illegitimate as a result of it not only exploring women’s writing but also doing so within the popular-cultural genre of science fiction; indeed, Barr, in seeking to explain why she “chose to be a feminist critic who focuses on feminist science fiction” asks, “Why would I, a person who cares about professional success, embrace a twice marginalized field, a double whammy in relation to career advancement?”[41]

It would seem that those who, like Barr, embark on feminist SF scholarship do so not only to unsettle the marginalization of the field but also because this “twice marginalized field” is a space that allows for the imagining of other potentialities and futurities. Melzer argues that science fiction is a valuable genre for feminist interrogation because, even though it “has the reputation of being a male-dominated genre, it has always included women writers, and as a narrative style it is open to feminist appropriation”.[42] But more than this, feminist science fiction and feminist criticism and “readings of science fiction have challenged existing gender relations and have explored theoretical and political debates of the time”.[43] Melzer argues that such challenges work to reveal that “[w]omen’s increased involvement in science fiction has proven to be crucial both for the development of the subgenre of feminist science fiction and for feminist theorizing outside the science fiction community”.[44] Thus, Melzer believes that the interrogation of “science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation” and “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[45] Baccolini, too, discusses the role of popular culture and explains, “Traditionally, science fiction belongs to the category of popular literature, or paraliterature. Its position, in regard to so-called high literature, is one of marginality (at best) or inferiority (at worst). Several critics, however, rescue paraliterature from its associations with inferiority and have pointed to its subversive potential”.[46] The subversive potential of feminist SF and of the “twice-marginalized field” of feminist SF criticism is what makes the world of feminist SF ripe for feminist theorizing.

Joan Haran and Katie King also discuss the feminist theorizing that occurs in science fictional spaces, and they believe that the feminisms that occur during our science fictional times allow for collaborative, collective feminist projects that work toward interventions for the present in order to improve “the condition of our continuing”; that is, science fiction feminism is one that brings us together because “SF is multiply…[it is] variously contested and in coalition”.[47] As Haran and King contend, this multiplicitous SF means feminist science fiction allows us to consider such things in more productive ways than feminist theory alone can due to the many ways SF asks us to confront ourselves by generating “simultaneous selves, rework processes for play and for practicing hope, and arouse and resituate what counts as ‘us’ and ‘them.’”[48] This generating of multiple selves—and this reworking of processes and hopeful practices—is what constitutes the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism.

This worldbuilding is something that informs Donna Haraway’s scholarly practices, for it mirrors the ways she thinks of her own scholarship; indeed, Haraway argues, “My multispecies story telling is inflected through SF in all the fibres of the string figures that I try to pattern and to relay.”[49] Thus, for Haraway, scholarship mirrors and is indebted to the structure and patterns—the fibres and string figures—of the forms under study. And for Haraway, since SF is a polyglot, polymorphic form, so too is her writing and research of it. Since SF is about worlding, about building worlds, so too is her feminist scholarship—because the question of how one might be “response-able is the consequential question in SF worlding. String figure games are practices of scholarship, relaying, thinking with, becoming with in material-semiotic makings. Like SF, cat’s cradle is a game of relaying patterns…Scholarship is like that too; it is passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”[50] Haraway’s conception of such patternings in scholarship, influenced by her embeddedness and interest in science fiction and feminist thought, reveals the ways feminist worldbuilding does not solely occur in fictional settings but, rather, can be implemented within feminist scholarship as well. In other words, feminist scholarship also manifests such methodological patternings, for academic worldbuilding and feminist methodologies make use of twists and skeins, knots, and webs, worlding and transmediality, which requires a similarly patterned methodological approach.

 

Seeking Material Change: Building Worlds and Disrupting Rule Structures in Feminist Game Studies

 

The disruptive methodologies conceptualized by feminist SF criticism have implications for the position of feminist game studies criticism, too. Joan Haran and Katie King discuss the ways feminist science fiction intersects with the world of video games, for they interrogate the idea of the screen as the space of confrontation in transmedia storytelling and explain that gaming “has become an icon, as well as a material practice and apparatus of learning and of risky uncertainties, with economic, technological, and metric significance for seeking sustainabilities of many sorts today”.[51] As such, games—as material practices, as apparatuses of risk, as metrics for sustainabilities—converse with science fiction because “[g]ames and media play upon our neurological and cognitive ‘screens’ with commercial and hobby practices that SF cares about and with”.[52] These cognitive screens, these practices that occur within both games and SF, are perhaps the point of linkage at which the two intersect—an important intersection for feminist game studies to explore—for these screens are the location through which we engage with video games and science fiction and the screens at which we must orient our feminist practices in order to interrogate and confront the worlds that these screens convey. Thus, I argue that the disruptive methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism can similarly be utilized by feminist game studies in order to make use of intersectional methodologies to dismantle hegemonic thought in the field of game studies.

Something that opens up and complicates the ways feminist game studies scholars might critique video games is by understanding games as Alexander Galloway does—that is, to conceive of video games as actions, and he also argues that we are now located within “an interesting upheaval in the area of mass culture” that is the result of the recent emergence of a new medium “whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action”.[53] Thus, if video games are actions, then feminist critiques of games are also actions. And if, as Galloway contends, such action is oriented toward “material change”, then such an orientation is also the goal of feminist game studies—because this action, this orientation, is what encompasses the worldbuilding that facilitates the goals and methodological frameworks for feminist game studies, which seeks to enact change in the gaming community through active methodological disruption. Feminist game studies is thus methodologically disruptive in the ways it troubles boundaries and manipulates the rule structures of the dominant social order.

The concept of play, too, has methodological significance for feminist game studies. In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart argues, “Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what we can say.”[54] Significantly, Sicart notes that while all “contexts of play have rules of some type”[55], play can actually be a method for manipulating and challenging these rule systems: “A key ingredient of playing is thinking, manipulating, changing, and adapting rules. Rules, servant to the context, evolve while we play to address the necessities of particular play situations”.[56] Thus, play’s ability to manipulate rules means that play can “disruptively reveal our conventions, assumptions, biases, and dislikes. In disrupting the normal state of affairs by being playful, we can go beyond fun when we appropriate a context with the intention of playing with and within it. And in that move, we reveal the inner workings of the context that we inhabit”.[57] Thus, the intersectional methodologies of feminist game studies make use of this concept of play in that feminist game studies, as a discipline, engages in play’s efforts to unsettle the rule structures and normative systems in which we are situated. Feminist game studies—playfully, disruptively—reveals the inner workings of gaming culture and gaming narratives, thereby challenging the hegemonic conventions and patriarchal biases underpinning gaming spaces. In doing so, the disruptive play of feminist game studies establishes (to return to Sicart’s phrasing) a space for freedom.[58]

But what does feminist game studies look like? And what is at stake in its space for freedom? Mia Consalvo argues that such a lens “can help to give us a firm foundation on which to stand in order to shed light on the persistence of particular issues, point to historical solutions for overcoming similar difficulties, and thereby push for a more welcoming kind of game culture for everyone”.[59] Adrienne Shaw argues that a lens like feminist game studies offers “an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction…and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[60] This is where the disruptive lens of feminist game studies matters, for it allows us to explore how other lives (the lives of those outside the dominant audience construction) are lived in the gaming community and how other futures can be made possible in game studies.

We can look to Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon’s “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding” as an example of how feminist game studies’ disruptive methods can be put into practice, in their call for the emerging creative strategies “used by critics, academics, players, and others to critique, analyse, and change the video game community”.[61] Layne and Blackmon refer to these creative methods as post-play narrative modding, which reveals “some of the productive ways that feminists and those concerned about women in the gaming community can modify gaming narrative, protagonists, and the community in a positive way”.[62] Thus, post-play narrative modding is “a type of creative resistance” that works “by both disrupting what exists and insisting upon choice that acknowledges a diversity of viewpoints”.[63] Thus, Layne and Blackmon provide an example of the ways feminist game studies can enact creative resistance. They provide us with a framework for a methodology of disruption.

This is the kind of work undertaken by feminist game studies, and intersectional feminist thought, then, helps construct the methodologies used in the field of feminist game studies. Indeed, Nina Huntemann says that feminist game studies specifically works to “confront toxic gamer culture” by “documenting, archiving, analysing, and responding to sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia in games and game spaces”.[64] But she also addresses the challenges and resistance that scholars in feminist game studies face when engaging in this kind of disruptive work:

In a space where sexism and homophobia are performed and reproduced as if it is part of the digital code, feminist attention to video games and game culture is threatening. Those who wield gender, race, class, sexuality, ability and other forms of social power in order to intimidate, silence, and oppress others will fiercely reject a feminist lens focused on the cultural products that serve as platforms for that oppression. The mere suggestion that these cultural products are not the domains of white, heterosexual men unleashes a torrent of vicious border policing.[65]

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea M. Russworm importantly point out that this border-policing occurs not only in the larger culture of video games but in the ways games are studied as well. Indeed, the discipline of game studies itself privileges certain forms of knowledge production in the field, and while the “discipline itself has grown rapidly…for most of game studies’ history, conversations about identity have only ever happened on the margins”.[66] Thus, game studies has systemically marginalized analyses that consider identity, representation, and embodiment—in other words, the kind of analyses in which feminist game studies scholars, for example, often engage—because “representational analysis becomes the less rigorous, less medium-specific way to approach video games, compared to a focus on ‘hard-core’ elements”[67] like rule systems, coding, game mechanics, and software. But the disciplinary and epistemological privileging that occurs in game studies, Malkowski and Russworm argue, “misunderstand both the nature and importance of representation in the medium. It is both possible and essential to study representation productively in video games, even as this pursuit might initially seem poorly aligned with the ontology of video games (built as they are on processes and actions) or with disciplinary trends toward areas like code and platform studies”.[68]

Thus, Malkowski and Russworm argue that the importance of this mode of analysis is due to the need to counter the ways representational analysis has been deemed peripheral in game studies “with the implicit justification that the discipline should focus instead on the richer objects of code and of game platforms as complex systems—not audio-visual surfaces. Yet… representation and identity are similarly complex systems that are always relevant to the ways in which games, codes, platforms—indeed, all technologies—are constructed”.[69] In short, Malkowski and Russworm display the need for intersectional feminist methodologies in the study of games because such methods allow feminist game studies scholars to disrupt the epistemological privileging and hegemonic knowledge production that occur in game studies; Malkowski and Russworm display the need, then, for feminist game studies scholarship that centralizes representational analysis because “[r]epresentation in game studies must be viewed as a system that functions as akin to—rather than as a distraction from—the discipline’s more celebrated, hard-core objects of study”.[70]

This, then, is where feminist game studies becomes helpful as a field that explores the complexity of intersecting systems. Feminist game studies can allow us to problematize video game culture, challenge its definitions of who gets to be a gamer and what gets to be a game, and disrupt game studies’ definitions of who gets to be a scholar and what gets to be studied. These methods and goals, too, parallel those implemented in feminist SF criticism—a field that has been similarly marginalized and delegitimized in literary spaces—for, like feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies makes use of active, playful, heterogeneous feminist worldbuilding to claim space in game studies. And if we think of feminist game studies as a field that works to dismantle and disrupt the power structures that exist within video game culture, game studies, and the gaming community, disrupting hegemonically constructed gaming epistemologies and positionalities seem like good places to start, which is something that Adrienne Shaw also argues in her assertion “that critical perspectives, such as feminist and queer theory, offer an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction—indeed outside of identifying as gamers—and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[71] Kishonna Gray, like Shaw, calls for and works to enact analysis that takes seriously those perspectives, and she explains that by “examining video game content through the eyes of the marginalized, by highlighting the virtual gaming experiences of minorities, and by interrogating possible solutions to intersecting oppressions”, the analysis of representation, race, gender, and intersecting oppressions in gaming spaces is “a much needed addition to the theoretical examination of video games”.[72] To be sure, such analysis is much needed in the field of game studies, and while many challenges to this kind of work still exist, feminist and critical race scholars like Shaw, Gray, and others are already providing inroads into centralizing such methodologies in game studies.

 

Conclusion

 

These, then, are the intersectional and interdisciplinary methodologies needed in feminist game studies—methods that are the extension of those already implemented in feminist SF criticism. Such methods will allow feminist game studies to enact disruption by problematizing the controlling images[73] within video game narratives and imagining new worlds and alternate possibilities for representation. Feminist game studies’ methods also work to establish intersectional coalitions based on feminist solidarity in order to dismantle and disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies work to unsettle hierarchical, sexist, racist, homophobic, and colonialist structures of power in the gaming community and imagine models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change. Such worldbuilding allows feminist game studies to create a space within the world of video games, the gaming industry, and the field of game studies. That is, feminist game studies is a space that imagines new worlds, new possibilities for representation, and new models of existence and futurity in the gaming community.

Thus, feminist research on games works to claim space not only in game studies, but also in video game culture and the gaming industry at large. It does so by being enacted, methodologically, in a multiplicity of ways—both intersectionally and interdisciplinarily—in order to seek change and in order to create “a safe environment for women”, for people of colour, for LGBTQI members of “the larger video gaming community”.[74] In short, feminist game studies, like feminist SF criticism, makes use of feminist worldbuilding as an intersectional methodology in order to transgress and dismantle the network of oppression that marginalized groups systemically face in gaming spaces, communities, and research. And because feminist game studies is an emerging field, its intersectional methods and praxis will continue to shift and grow—and will continue to learn from and incorporate approaches from other feminist spaces in order to do so—so that the field can better serve the marginalized communities feminist game studies seeks to centre.

 

References

 

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000).

Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993).

Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991).

Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006).

Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988).

Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010).

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006).

Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000).

Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014).

 

 

[1] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

[2] Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

[3] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

[4] Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

[5] Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

[6] Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 3.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

[8] Lykke, pp. 145.

[9] Lykke, pp. 144.

[10] Lykke, pp. 160.

[11] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989), p. 140.

[12] Crenshaw, pp. 166.

[13] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991), p. 1242.

[14] Crenshaw, pp. 1245.

[15] Crenshaw, pp. 1283.

[16] Crenshaw, pp. 1299.

[17] Lykke, pp. 161.

[18] Lykke, pp. 3.

[19] Lykke, pp. 4.

[20] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988), p. 581.

[21] Haraway, pp. 582.

[22] Haraway, pp. 589.

[23] Haraway, pp. 589.

[24] Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, pp. 594.

[25] Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[26] Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000), p. 2.

[27] Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993), p. 7.

[28] Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006), p. 1.

[29] Melzer, pp. 1.

[30] Melzer, pp. 1.

[31] Melzer, pp. 2.

[32] Melzer, pp. 2.

[33] Melzer, pp. 3.

[34] Melzer, pp. 3.

[35] Melzer, pp. 34.

[36] Melzer, pp. 34.

[37] Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000), p. 15.

[38] Baccolini, pp. 16.

[39] Baccolini, pp. 18.

[40] Melzer, pp. 1.

[41] Barr, pp. 2.

[42] Melzer, pp. 7.

[43] Melzer, pp. 9.

[44] Melzer, pp. 9.

[45] Melzer, pp. 34.

[46] Baccolini, pp. 15.

[47] Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[48] Haran and King.

[49] Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[50] Haraway.

[51] Haran and King.

[52] Haran and King.

[53] Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006), p. 3.

[54] Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014), p. 5.

[55] Sicart, pp. 8.

[56] Sicart, pp. 8.

[57] Sicart, pp. 14.

[58] Sicart, pp. 18.

[59] Consalvo.

[60] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[61] Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”,  Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[62] Layne and Blackmon.

[63] Layne and Blackmon.

[64] Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[65] Huntemann.

[66] Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

[67] Malkowski and Russworm.

[68] Malkowski and Russworm

[69] Malkowski and Russworm.

[70] Malkowski and Russworm.

[71] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[72] Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

[73] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

[74] Layne and Blackmon.

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

Garfield Benjamin

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 47-64.

 

Garfield Benjamin

University of Birmingham

 

 

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

 

Abstract

Games offer a scaled and scalable experience of technologically mediated human action and interaction. The study of games therefore holds the potential to offer a far wider analysis of our technical and social structures than might be first apparent. Yet this scaling of behaviours and frameworks is applicable not only beyond simply an increase in degree, but also across different types of meaning, society, reality, and our understanding of them. Thus, to assess the expansion of games beyond conventional dimensionality, we can identify in games and game studies a fractal metaphor to guide our analysis. Drawing on concepts of iteration, self-similarity, recursion, complexity, and scalability, this article examines key games that embody a fractal dimension to their in-game universe, the player’s experience, the game’s development, and games as a field of study. The fractal analysis of a game will thereby be revealed as also an analysis of the metagame and its situatedness in broader concerns of technoculture and its academic study. The model offered will be applied to specific games and the existing literature through which game studies is formed as an interdisciplinary fractal conceptual space of its own.

 

Key words: fractal, game studies, games, No Man’s Sky, Everything, EVE Online

 

 

Introduction

 

The playing of a particular game generates iterative and often functionally self-similar experiences for players based on the ludic and narrative constructs that constitute the game itself. Yet these experiences are increasingly interdisciplinary in their relation to human activity, creating ever more total works of media that engage with simulations and representations of our social and technological realities and fictions. This necessitates an inherent and increasing interdisciplinarity to the study of games that expand the player’s interaction from the quantum to the cosmological, from the individual to the collective, and from the fictional to the real. This article offers a new mode of viewing games as both a mode of interaction and a field of study: the fractal mediation of humanity by technology.

Firstly, we will construct a fractal metaphorical framework through close analysis of examples that directly address such mediation of humans at different levels of reality. The highly anticipated, controversial, and often much maligned game No Man’s Sky creates a procedurally generated reality that expands algorithmically to produce a fractal game on the ontological level. Everything takes the fractal experience to an extreme by offering the player the opportunity to interact with the universe by ‘being’ everything, scaled from cellular to stellar levels. Consideration will also be given to similar games that involve such fractal realities even in their construction, generating a relation with players during the design stage through user-created content and responsive beta testing. Worlds Adrift creates an environment filled with floating islands created by users during alpha testing, expanding fractal interaction between players and with the environment according to a functional mediated logic developed further through beta testing. We Happy Few takes this beta testing further with extensive player involvement that has initiated major changes in the game’s aesthetic and the relation between which ludic and narrative aspects players would prefer to see emphasized. Finally, the long-running EVE Online demonstrates fractal human organization with its emergent and expansive economies and politics from the individual to the guild up to the entire player base and game world. Across these examples, a fractal expression of representation, reality, and relationality can be elucidated in the ludic structures and open narratives. Beyond the restrictions of closed objectives that define clear methods of interaction, the ludic mediation and human engagement still results in self-similar or iterative experiences of fractal play.

We will then address the fractal study of games across disciplines – the similarly situatedness of gaming in broader social reality, and the recursive relationship between games and our own world. Focusing on the extensive literature of EVE Online and applying these findings to newer games, the discussion will explore the necessary links between different fields in game studies. In the analysis of games, particularly those with MMO, procedural, or social aspects, there is an inherent need to take into account mathematics, computer science, psychology, economics, philosophy, art, literature, media, and many other fields. Yet the mediation of the ludic experience unveils scalable and self-similar features between these fields, already embedded within the construction of game studies as a distinct discipline. Indeed, it is notable that game design itself straddles the arts and sciences, employing programmers, writers and artists (to name a few) to construct a full experience across traditional disciplines. Amidst the myriad future paths of game studies, therefore, the article will posit the need for fractal modes of thinking about play and narrative in the persistent mediation of humans by their ludic creations, as well as the broader mediation of our society and experience by technology.

 

Fractal Games

 

Fractals – a concept with a long history in science, mathematics, and culture, but given voice as a coherent theory by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s – has perhaps most poetically been defined as a way of seeing infinity in the mind’s eye.[1] Indeed, fractals appear to have had almost limitless applications and have contributed to the understanding of chaos and of conceptual and actual spaces beyond the conventional three dimensions of Euclidean geometry. The term fractal has its roots in fragmentation, with the aim of breaking down the infinite complexity of nature into human-readable patterns. Yet for all their mathematical precision, it is important to remember that “there are no true fractals in nature”[2]. Fractals only ever offer an approximation of natural phenomena, an abstraction of patterns far beyond human understanding. The use of fractals should therefore always be combined with an acknowledgment of their position as an artificial framework of thought. Fractal analyses to some degree therefore always create the precise pattern they are analysing. Indeed, as an abstract human construct, the development of fractals was inherently bound to that of computers, another quantized reality that builds worlds through rigid codes not possible in the physical world. Not only did Mandelbrot work as a researcher for IBM at the time he developed fractal geometry, but it was the increasing access to and power of computers that enabled Mandelbrot and others to calculate fractals and construct the abstract shapes they produce. The artificial forms of fractals, while offering a way of abstracting and understanding nature, tend to exist “entirely inside a computer’s memory”[3]. They thus provide a constructive analogy and conceptual framework for understanding the abstract and computational dimensions of computer games. Not only that – and moving beyond the simple use of fractals as actual graphic constructions in the style of computer-generated landscapes or trees used in many films or games – but the application of fractals to diverse fields of natural and human activities lends itself to an exploration of the social aspects of games and the broader facets of game studies.

Yet fractals persist as an elusive concept, with definitions relying more on a series of typical characteristics.[4] For the present discussion, therefore, a few key concepts will suffice as a starting point to develop a fractal framework for thinking about games. Firstly, fractals are iterative, simple to define and often recursive. They produce the same patterns at arbitrary locations and use the same functioning – the same code – to create evolving and scaling structures. They are also often self-similar, spreading this symmetry and iteration across scales. These characteristics combine to form the “pattern inside of a pattern”[5] whereby the part matches both other parts and the whole. While this is not necessarily an essential part of all fractals,[6] it defines simpler linear fractals and appears in some form (for example, quasi- or statistically self-similar) in most practical definitions of the concept. Thus, self-similarity allows us to view patterns between arbitrary facets that may indeed have chaotic or emergent properties, or which obfuscate simple comprehension via high complexity. Another key concept is the notion of scale. Fractals allow us to view symmetry not only between parts of equal size, but also across scales. The recursive quality of fractals enables a shift in perspective between large and small levels of difference and irregularity, thus offering a mode of viewing functional rules in even the most chaotic data. In computer games, this shifting in perspective can occur at the technical or social level, between systems, renderings, and servers or between players, economies and conceptual spaces. This scaling goes beyond an increase in conventional dimensionality into partial and even abstract dimensions that cut across individual human perspectives and thereby reveal, at the level of the metagame, a hidden order in chaos and functional consistency between apparently disparate parts of a complex whole. Between these various parts and scales is revealed the complexity of fractals, which cannot be expressed through simple geometry. Indeed, the emergence of games as a distinct field of study highlights the additional experiential intricacies compared to traditional art, film, or other media. From complexity stems the notion of a fractal dimension, itself open to variable definition but always signalling a dimensionality greater than its topology. At a basic level, this can be expressed in the link between the concrete world presented on the screen and the vast array of code beneath it. Using procedural generation and non-linear structures, across player narratives and experiences it forms the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ quality that generates the ‘replay value’ of games. Procedural generation, originally developed in ‘roguelike’ games of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a process of compressing the game world. This was exemplified in the space exploration game Elite, which sought to create a huge world using only 22k of memory.[7] By reducing the internal reality of the game from a detailed description to a functional algorithm, a much greater space can be unfolded from comparatively minimal code. Finally, fractal dimensionality can be seen in the multiple fields that games straddle and the implied relation to our own world that games can address, stage, and critique, expanding our metaphor to situate games in their broader context. We will now elaborate this conception of games through examples that address gaming reality, gaming experience, and game design.

 

No Man’s Sky: a fractal gaming reality

 

Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is a vast procedurally generated universe of unprecedented size, containing 264 (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) planets. While this 64-bit algorithmically-created galaxy falls far short of the unknown limits of our own physical universe, the scale in relation to human perception achieves the same relative infinitude. Even at the impossible rate of one planet per second, it would take over five billion years to explore every single planet in the game – longer than the lifespan of our own sun.[8] Fractals, as a way of converting limitless complexity into scales perceivable by humans, offer a convenient method of understanding the construction of this game reality. Much like the mathematical functions of fractals, No Man’s Sky creates its reality according to strict deterministic calculations that can nevertheless generate a far larger universe than any single human could ever hope to experience. Yet it is not only the construction of No Man’s Sky at the planetary scale that takes on a fractal quality, the analogy scales too. Rather than loading a new environment when a player hopes to explore a given planet, the game’s procedural generation scales down to render landscapes, mineral deposits, environmental factors such as weather, and a rich population of fauna and flora. Yet this functionally limitless expanse returns to haunt us in its endless iteration. The looping nature of the gameplay extends beyond an identical algorithmic mediation of one player and another. The algorithmic construction of similar planets initially offers wonderment and variety, but after visits to multiple planets the appearance of the same kinds of worlds exposes the underlying iteration and an evolving self-similarity through time. This limit of the aesthetics of the game reality applies also to the gameplay. The open exploration, the often repetitive (particularly in the initial release before the streamlining aspects of later updates) nature of gathering resources needed for survival and travel, and the scaling of achievements (in terms of both in-game economic attainment and the convention of ludic ‘achievement’ rewards) can end with the player seeing through the complexity and reaching a level of predictability to the game over longer timescales through fractal understanding. Thus, the kaleidoscopic non-novelty highlights the creative limitations of self-similarity and the ontological limitations of the No Man’s Sky reality, as after a certain number of iterated experiences everything looks the same (much like many fractal images), creating a scalar shift in perception whereby the detail becomes flattened. Here we can attempt to behold the entirety of the complexity at work, and the processes of mediation reveal themselves within the literal frame of the screen and the conceptual framing of the universe held within the computer and within the game.

However, the narratological aspects of No Man’s Sky further this relation to iteration and scalability in constructing a reflexive ontology that loops into itself. What sparse storyline there is to find across the vast emptiness of space reveals a universe that embraces its algorithmic functionality and challenges its relation to the player. The main ‘goal’ –  although this is entirely optional and only one path of achievement a player can explore – of No Man’s Sky is to follow the instructions of a being called Atlas to reach the centre of the galaxy. Along this path the play encounters two recurring NPCs, Nada and Polo, who describe themselves as errors within the simulation. They are counterposed to the Sentinels, a variety of robotic entities that enforce the rule-based system of the Universe’s will by attacking players who rapidly interfere with the landscape by mining for resources or killing fauna. The player is part of a universe-wide experiment to break free of these rules and discover the source of the Sentinel’s power,[9] and it is the ultimate quest of the player to become an anomalous entity by achieving self-awareness of the rules and systems of the universe. The ending of the game, the big reveal at the centre of the galaxy, takes on a tragic tone that embraces the full despair of mediation and control by technology. The universe is revealed to be a simulation, nothing more than an absolute deterministic causal structure – a game – and while the character (the ‘traveller’) becomes self-aware, the player is returned as a new traveller on a new starting planet at the edge of the galaxy to begin the cycle anew. As the player learns more and more information, gaining greater and greater detail as they move closer to the centre of the reality, they end up being thrust outwards to the broadest scale. The player’s perspective, and their causal relations with the game, go beyond even a fractal towards a strange loop, “a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop”.[10] Even in a supposed critique of the medium itself, the recursive element exposes the iterative repetition of game playing and the rigid and ultimately deterministic causality of apparent complexity and chaos in both fractals and gaming structures. Perhaps this is why Mandelbrot himself focused on consequences over causes,[11] working backwards from human-readable problems to create gradually more detail from the chaos of recursive complexity. Cast into a universe and expected to find not only our own meaning but to discover for ourselves the limits of the simulation, the monstrous character of fractals unfold in No Man’s Sky as a ludic and narrative experience beyond rational scientific or philosophical explanation.

 

Everything: a fractal gaming experience

 

A game that embodies fractals in the experience of the player is Everything by David OReilly. Described as “a magical playpen of being, rather than doing”,[12] and – with an eleven-minute trailer that made it the first video game to qualify for an Oscar – Everything displays the fractal experience of being-in-the-world. Players interact with the universe through being anything and ‘everything’. Starting as a mammal, players can shift from item to item and ascend/descend scales to play as approximately three thousand different objects. These items fall into a variety of categories and include natural objects such as animals as well as man-made objects as well as more abstract entities. Examples include a shoe [attire], cigarette butt [trash], warped ruins [space junk], scale manipulator [tool], recursive house [home], convex stellated polyhedron [3d], and Planck length [1d]. This selection in particular highlights a focus on scale and a relation to fractal perspectives and experience. The objects themselves and the perspectives the player encounters create a fractal reality whereby we are offered the self-similar experience of simply ‘being’ across all scales of matter. Like No Man’s Sky, this universe is procedurally generated, but it is also connected and persistent, remembering the state of a previous scale when you next return. However, the map at each scale is not particularly large, enacting spatial loops where necessary that are visible upon zooming out but not ascending to the next scale. But a fractal universe does not need to be large (and even if it is, as with No Man’s Sky, there is fundamentally no difference between ‘more’ space and ‘more of the same’ space). The expansive environment here comes from the fractal dimension, moving beyond three dimensions to folded spaces of experience and new perspectives of scale.

Initially, however, the player can simply move around (and even that is somewhat stilted as the movement animation for mammals is a rather ignominious and awkward four-frame roll). As one early-encountered NPC (a mammoth) remarks, “you can’t control Everything//not yet anyway”.[13] Indeed, the game often plays with the double meaning of its own title and the objects it contains, applying the different levels of parts and the whole within its very construction. The ability to move around as objects (no matter how improbable their independent locomotion might be in our universe) is gradually augmented through talking to (or ‘thinking as’) other objects. Increased abilities include being able to join with other entities of the same kind or category, moving around as a collective being and even dancing together in order to create new objects. The player also obtains the ability to ‘ascend’ and ‘descend’, moving up and down in scale. Manipulation of the environment here stems directly from expanded notions of being in greater dimensions beyond human perception, a philosophical and even spiritual sentiment reinforced by the inclusion of recordings of a lecture by Zen philosopher Alan Watts concerning nature, patterns across scale, and being. This grows in Everything with the player’s expanding experience. For example, once you have ‘become’ a particular item, you can become it again at any time via the encyclopaedia, but it will then be scaled to the current perspective, offering a self-similar and scale invariant quality to even objects usually experienced at a single given scale. Further, if one is to keep ascending or descending far enough, the game universe loops round between galaxy clusters and atoms via a ‘feedback sphere’ at the one-dimensional Planck scale. This embodies Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ in terms of space-time, a sentiment echoed in Max Tegmark’s loop between cosmology and quantum mechanics via a multiverse of mathematical structures.[14] It also embodies recursion in terms of human consciousness as a feedback loop that intensifies over time.[15] In Everything these two feedback loops are one and the same, for our consciousness of the game expands fractally alongside our experience of being at different scales, or even simply perceiving/thinking as the game autoplays if left to its own devices.

The fractal strange loop of causality and the gaming medium that we saw in the ending of No Man’s Sky returns once more to haunt us at the ending of Everything. As another game with sandbox-like and experiential open play, the term ‘end’ must be used loosely, but open reaching a certain level (having achieved ‘being’ a certain number of objects) the player may descend into the ‘Golden Gate’. Here an abstract space of random objects awaits in a collision of different scales. Among these, surrounded by pieces of skeletons, is a computer which duplicates the player’s screen on its own monitor. After a lengthy but vague monologue lamenting the frustration of Everything in this place, the player is instructed to ‘empty your mind’ in order to escape this world. The player is finally allowed to ascend the Gate, triggering an ending cut scene of a glowing particle flying through different scales before returning the player once more to a starting position (with new abilities such as instantly bonding with objects or a documentary mode). There is no escape from a fractal game, as with all games. The fundamental mediation of a game system is to keep playing, returning always once more to a reality of rules which deterministically controls not only itself but our own actions. Whether we play as an abstract concept or a piece of shit, we experience the same mediated play in a simulated universe, beholden to the whims of the game developers.

 

Fractal game development and its problems

 

If fractals can be used to analyse the in-game ontologies and the experiences of the players, they can be applied also to the existence of the game throughout its development. No Man’s Sky received much positive attention prior to its release, so much so that the developers received death threats after announcing a delay to the release date. And when the final release of the game failed to meet certain advertised promises, the backlash was again significant. These issues span creative, cultural, and legal concerns in the feedback loop of perception and expectation. The spiral of hype that led to death threats, as part of the often vitriolic cultural sphere of gaming,[16] was echoed in the spiral of disappointment that led to a (cleared) advertising standards investigation. This latter issue, whereby key features such as multiplayer, ship design and others were missing from the initial release, sparked a fractality to the development of the game itself. While DLC add-ons to games is becoming increasingly common, and updates or patches are standard practice, the free updates to No Man’s Sky instigated major changes to the way the game plays. The development of the game after its release thus constructed a temporal fractal zoom, adding greater and greater detail to the game with each iteration. Each upgrade made visual improvements, refined the interface, and provided more content in various categories. The first (1.1 Foundation) update added the freighters and base building that were originally missing; the second (1.2 Path Finder) added exocraft, online base sharing, multiple ship ownership and ship specialization; and the third (1.3 Atlas Rises) added missions, increased story mode, portal travel and (crude) multiplayer. This last development was a major change, and one that was high on the list of missing features. While communication between players outside the game made it possible relatively easily, the original idea with No Man’s Sky was that it would essentially be single-player in a multi-player universe, for the odds of randomly encountering another player were astronomically low. Yet this feature was only added later, transforming the game fractally by adding greater levels of interaction and expanding the experience not only in level but also in kind, creating new dimensions of play. As an indie developer trying to create an AAA title, Hello Games had given themselves an unenviable task. Yet the later additions have not simply added what was originally promised. Rather, they have evolved in an emergent manner in light of the game being released in the world. The interaction between players and developers creates new perspectives and functions that otherwise may not have been thought up.

In the wake of the release disaster of No Man’s Sky, other games appear to be learning from their mistakes. While open beta and early release testing is now commonplace via platforms such as Steam, Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios involved players before even the alpha release in order to create a user-generated world. Functionally quite similar to No Man’s Sky, Worlds Adrift is an open environment for exploration and resource gathering. However, it has several key differences. The game is highly multiplayer, indeed for many activities collaborative play is nearly essential, and it is highly creative, being based on players/groups designing and building their own ships with which to travel between floating islands in a limitless sky. Thus, while the expansive universe of areas is much reduced, there are greater dimensions of interaction. Not only that, but the islands themselves are procedurally generated content as well as user-created content, embedding players in the pre-alpha stage via a separate, free, Worlds Adrift Island Creator game. Thus, throughout and before the extensive closed and open beta phases, players were able to work with Bossa Studios to collaboratively create a game that itself opens up opportunities for free interaction between players, building on core functionality before adding visual detail in a fractal development of form and content. Beyond the initial release, Bossa set up mechanisms to continually include players in the game’s ongoing development. The Sky Crier, a weekly news summary of stories from players, highlights the importance of player experience in the history of the game, while further developments to the Island Creator have been aimed at turning players into game designers by producing new levels and new experiences for other players.

The desire to integrate this degree of player involvement is also echoed in Compulsion’s We Happy Few, which, in strong contrast to Hello Games’ closed development and the misinformation of No Man’s Sky, focuses on transparency and inclusion.[17] As another small studio thrust into creating a higher profile game than they had intended, Compulsion sought to make regular public announcements about the process. This helped guide their relationship with players through an extended, delayed, and not unproblematic development. But it was not only communication that aided them, for they made several key changes to the game in response to early player comments. As the developers describe, “What the public and the press were telling us they loved about our game wasn’t anything like the procedural, story-light, rogue-like survival game we were creating at all”.[18] As a result, they switched their focus to develop in greater detail the story, the world, and the mechanics in response to what players wanted. The move to Kickstarter also emphasized a literal investment by players, drawing them into the game world not only through the experiential suspension of disbelief for this psychedelic drug-fuelled horror game, but also as co-creators and co-owners, bringing all perspectives into the discussion across different scales and types of engagement. This extended to further types of gameplay based on five drug-specific modes, as well as a suspension of the gaming framework with the addition of a non-violent ‘Birdwatcher’ mode in which players could simply explore the environment and, much like Everything, enjoy ‘being’ in the game. After the shift in expectation towards an ‘AAA’ level game by partnering with Gearbox Software, however, the communication and inclusion broke down somewhat. The sudden doubling in price and further delays angered many fans, although the level of engagement already established did allow for some mitigation of these problems. Bonus content was promised to early backers, and the financial support from the larger studio enabled a fourfold scaling of Compulsion’s team. This reminds us that the business side of gaming cannot be forgotten, for while the reactive nature of the development that increased in size to handle the increased expectation does itself embody a certain fractal quality, the problem of shifting scales highlights the competing forces at work in game development. In We Happy Few, we can at least see the creative intent towards creating a fractal experience that extends between layers of in-game perspective, modes of gameplay, and involvement in the design process.

The fractal model at the level of the metagame is thus achieved by enabling players to engage at multiple scales, creating their own local perspective through the emergent differences between iterations. Far from being a rigid abstract reduction, the conceptual ‘geometry’ of such games could only be mapped in multidimensional relations between the designers, the manifold facets of the game, and its many players. The feedback loop of a fractal game extends spatially, temporally, and conceptually back into itself as an evolving experience for all involved.

 

Fractal Game Studies

 

We have explored how fractals might be used to view games, but what of game studies as a discipline? Fractals can be considered one of three major revolutions in twentieth century science[19] and, perhaps even more so than the other two (relativity and quantum mechanics), have far-reaching interdisciplinary applications not only within the sciences but across social science and the arts. Mandelbrot’s initial work on fractals, coalescing a collection of vaguely similar approaches in mathematics spread sporadically across several centuries, was driven by a combination of geography (the problem of measuring an infinite coastline at high enough resolution) and economics (the need to balance sudden dramatic fluctuations with periods of stability). But his own work and the work of others quickly spread the fractal concept across a wide range of disciplines, and today there is a rich yet often unconnected literature that applies fractals to diverse fields. Indeed, perhaps the fractal as a field of study is itself fractal in its iterative self-similarity and possible application at various scales and in various locations. However, it must be remembered that fractals only ever offer an approximate representation of reality, an abstraction and reduction of complexity into human frameworks of thinking. The broader application of fractals therefore takes on an inherently aesthetic quality within scientific thought, a mathematical description of a topic rather than a rigid methodological framework. Examples abound of this fractal interpretation of our universe and society: in physics, fractals have been used to understand the two other key developments of modern science (quantum physics[20] and relativity[21]) as well as cosmology[22]; in economics they have been applied not only by Mandelbrot but also to financial crises[23]; in organization theory they are useful for assessing interdependence and multi-dimensional folding in networks[24], as well as management[25] and organization design[26]; in biology, furthering Mandelbrot’s focus on analysing nature, they are relevant in, for example, the organization of cell nuclei[27]; in psychiatry to movement and depression[28]; and in applied computing it can assist in understanding IT needs for complex organizations.[29] Fractals can be useful to understand any natural, human and artificial systems at scale, and the field itself therefore takes on its own implicit metafractal quality in its interdisciplinary application.

In a more explicitly and intentionally interdisciplinary manner, games as a field of study also acts as a fractal description of human culture and its mediated constructions of reality. There is a microcosmic quality to many games, particularly those that display MMO, exploration, or social characteristics. Indeed, the field of serious and educational games demonstrates the usefulness of games as a scaled-down staging of wider society or reality, especially when speculating on complex behaviours in exceptional environments or circumstances. From individual experiences to inter-human relations and up to the overarching societal structures, games offer a sandbox arena for experimentation (for designers and players) and analysis (for scholars). However, we must remember that games are never an accurate or neutral microcosm for concrete experiments. Rather, they are a hyperreal, mediated representation. It is this quality that expresses the fractal nature of the field, amplifying characteristics of reality with their dimensional reduction to the scale, logic, and experience of a game. A game can thus act as a more extreme expression of diverse problems in diverse fields, iterating broader concerns in specific implementations and intensified at a smaller scale. Some aspects will always be lost (otherwise the game would simply be reality), but this in turn generates the non-integer dimensionality of games as a fractal simulation of reality. The chimerical nature of games as a discipline is applicable in inspiring an engaged and experiential response to many issues, from the grand questions of reality down to the specific problems of individuals in an unequal world. The complexity of these issues drawn into the sandbox experiment of the game universe and mediated framework reveals an increased dimensionality of the impact of games in their necessary analysis through the lens of other fields. These various perspectives combine to generate a much broader view that expands into the spaces between disciplines and between the game and reality. We will now turn our fractal metaphor to the context of games within their field of study, taking the exemplary case of EVE Online.

 

EVE Online: a fractal metaverse of game studies

 

EVE Online is a ‘sandbox’ reality, not quite a game and not quite a virtual world but displaying characteristics of both. This space exploration and conquest environment combines the vast open universe and free economy of virtual worlds with the player-versus-player space combat one might expect from a game. There are a number of key aspects of its design, however, that differentiate it from other such games or worlds and emphasize its fractal quality as an object of game studies. Firstly, EVE Online goes beyond the iterative environments of many MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) in that, rather than placing players on different servers to deal with population overload and different rulesets, EVE takes place in a single universe on a single server with scalable architecture and adaptive workload management. While there is also a free to play version with much reduced player violence, this is more like a demo than a separate game environment. The main EVE platform is therefore not only a marvel of scalable technological achievement but in making the entire universe open to players, what is usually a series of parts becomes a whole system and the simulated reality becomes itself a closer iteration of our own physical environment. The similarity with the material world is emphasized through EVE’s second distinctive feature, the lack of constraints. Other than active cheating, almost anything is permitted in EVE, including mass player on player violence, scamming and other such nefarious activities. Like a Wild West in space, EVE reflects humanity’s best and worst relations, bringing together conflict and collaboration as large-scale guilds are formed for mutual protection and economic or political attainment. As one player review comments, “imagine if every chat troll had guns, and were in the same room as you. That’s EVE in a nutshell”.[30] The characteristic behaviours of humans playing games is amplified in a social feedback loop that allows us to zoom in on radical social interactions at a much faster pace and greater scale than is often the case (in either a game or the real world), and the actual financial value of assets that might be lost or stolen only further emphasizes the social intensity of EVE.

The universe of EVE takes on a further fractal character through its persistence – a temporal scaling of experience that has, running since 2003, outlasted many other continuous game worlds. This historicity, to an even greater extent than what Worlds Adrift is attempting to achieve, forms a feedback loop of the game’s internal truth, reality, and identity, between the players, the technology and the designers. Aside from any fictional narrative, the history of EVE Online is now that of its players, its guilds, its own pivotal moments, all of which express the shift from narrative to ludic history that Neal Stephenson later detailed as the battle not between arbitrary good and evil of writers but between player-chosen colour palettes in his novel Reamde.[31] EVE now includes player activities in its own lore, embedding the human interactions within the game structure in a fractal narrative with a higher degree of ‘reality’. This history and player experience scales even beyond the singular game itself, with a tie-in first-person shooter game Dust 514 expanding the universe onto the planet’s surface. More than a game set in the same fictional universe, Dust offered a fractal experience in the same game universe, connected in real time with the events of EVE, to the extent that players on the surface in Dust could signal for orbital bombardment from their guild’s battleships in EVE, and the players in EVE could benefit from resources won in Dust. The universe of EVE Online is thus constantly expanding in a fractal level of detail in space and time, with new experiences contributing to the constant increase in the game’s multidimensional size and impact. This impact extends also into the real world, with Project Discovery turning minigames with in-world rewards to the cause of actual space discovery, using players’ enthusiasm for astronomy to sort through telescope data to find new exoplanets. The fractal metagame thus expands outwards from itself, iterating through our own reality in social and epistemic detail.

In academia, the scale of the game’s impact is such that there is even an EVE Online reader,[32] establishing the singular game/platform as a worthy field of study on its own. And, much like fractals themselves, EVE Online has acted as a lightning rod for various disciplines as a scaled study of many aspects of human behaviour, society, and technological mediation. This includes (again, offering only a representative sample) applications in: law, for an assessment of property[33] and normative behaviours;[34] history, as collective memory;[35] politics, for the study of online propaganda[36] and political economy;[37] social sciences more broadly for issues in identity,[38] gender[39] and ethnography;[40] business, for studying the links between supply chains and skills development;[41] technology and networking, for issues of workload and player behaviour,[42] scaling,[43] and EVE Online’s unique novel approach to server architecture to overcome these challenges;[44] and mathematics, in relation to science fiction and reality.[45] Of particular note is the importance of scaling in both the technology and the socio-political structures. Scalability is a challenge in system design whether it be of the order of CPUs or legal frameworks, echoing human society in general in the complexities across scales of material and social dilemmas. The fractal nature of games reiterates the fractal character that appears in all technology, its design and mediation of human life. The importance of technology studies as an interdisciplinary confrontation with our mediated society reflects the necessity of game studies as a fractal field of its own – a scale model of the relation between humanity and technology that can provide valuable insights into the fundamental processes of mediation that increasingly define our digitized world.

 

Conclusion

 

We have demonstrated the application of fractals as a metaphor for the construction and analysis of games as objects, as a medium and as a field of study. The scalability of gaming experiences offers not only an application of the fractal model but also a model with which to view the interdisciplinary relations inherent to technologically mediated human society. Through the analysis of feedback loops, self-similarity across iterative player experiences in different parts of the same game, and the scaling of experiences to the game world as a whole and the metagame of development and expansion, we have viewed No Man’s Sky, Everything, Worlds Adrift, and We Happy Few as models of fractal games, and EVE Online as a model of fractal game studies. A fractal mode of approaching games allows us to view multiple aspects of ludic and narrative experience alongside external facets of the game in its context. Thus, the fractal metaphor becomes a metafractal analysis whereby the model is itself fractal in nature, self-similar across the various scales and objects of its intellectual gaze, and iterative across disciplines. Games and game studies stand currently at a multidimensional crossroads, having transcended the ludo-narrative dissonance of the field itself, while integrating and spreading across multiple traditional disciplines. It will be essential to find new ways of understanding the intersecting topics and interactions across the ever-expanding dimensions of gaming as a medium.

 

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Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017] , Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015).

Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

 

 

[1] James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998), p. 98.

[2] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxix.

[3] Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983), p. 10.

[4] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxviii.

[5] Gleick, p. 103.

[6] Mandelbrot, p. 166.

[7] David Braben in Emma Boyes, “Q&A: David Braben–from Elite to today,” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/qanda-david-braben-from-elite-to-today/1100-6162140/ date accessed 27 February 2018.

[8] Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

[9] See from 10:00 – Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

[10] Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007), p. 102.

[11] Mandelbrot, p. 423.

[12] Colin Campbell, “Everything review”, Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/21/14991494/everything-review-ps4-PC date accessed 1 September 2017.

[13] See from 9:16 – JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[14] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015), p. 358.

[15] Hofstadter, pp. 19-23.

[16] Such as gamergate, an example of mass abuse by collections of gamers against (in this case female) games developers.

[17] Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[18] Quoted in Conditt.

[19] Gleick, p. 6.

[20] Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

[21] Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

[22] Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

[23] Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

[24] Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

[25] Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

[26] S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

[27] Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

[28] Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

[29] Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

[30] Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017], Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

[31] Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

[32] Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

[33] Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes in Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

[34] Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

[35] Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

[36] Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

[37] Nicholas Taylor, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell, “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), pp. 365-388.

[38] Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnold, “Avatars, Characters, Players and Users: Multiple Identities at/in Play” OZCHI’12 (2012), pp. 68-71.

[39] Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

[40] Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

[41] Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

[42] Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

[43] David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

[44] Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

[45] Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Glitched perception: beyond the transparency and visibility of the video game object

Justyna Janik

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 65-82.

 

Justyna Janik

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Glitched perception: beyond the transparency and visibility of the video game object 

 

Abstract

The video game world is a complex structure combining different kinds of elements, from objects with a physical representation in the environment, through the game engine, to the interface. Some of them can be further decomposed into even more basic parts, so subtle that the player, being too absorbed in gameplay, does not recognize them. However, all these elements perform an equally important role in building a successful simulation of a vivid reality. This can easily be observed in video games with three-dimensional expanded environments that are carefully crafted to reinforce and enrich the player’s immersive experience of the game world. It is possible because of the phenomenological character of this relation, simultaneously despite and because of its mediatized nature. The player builds her perception of a game’s reality by exploring its environment (Vella, 2013). With every step and every interaction with the in-game objects, the player broadens her knowledge of the surrounding world. Thus, by learning how to communicate with the video game environment, the player deepens her presence in the game’s world. As a result of this process, the medium of the video game object is becoming more transparent, which results in the player’s subjective perception of an illusion of a vivid world rather than just a mediated digital space.

However, this situation is not a stable one and a lot of different factors can disturb this kind of connection between the player and the game’s world. One of these factors, which will be the main subject of this paper, is glitches. When a glitch occurs, the player becomes very much aware of the presence of the object. The illusion is broken, and the game is no longer “ready-to-hand” (the Heideggerian idea of zuhanden). The intrusive nature of a glitch is a reminder that the video game is a resistant object that no one can truly master. Moreover, the error in the system highlights how (re)mediatized the game experience really is. For a moment, the video game object loses its transparency and reminds the player about its digital nature.

The analysis will focus on how the moment of glitch, as a manifestation of the pure agency of the video game, influences not only the relation between the player and the game but also the player’s perception of the video game object. What is especially interesting from this perspective is how the non-anthropocentric nature of this relation is revealed by the moment of a glitch. Due to this phenomenon, the game gains an advantage over the player, who is forced to change her perception of the game environment. As a result of a glitch, dormant affordances resurface from the video game environment. Even if they have not been designed by the developers, they still produce new content that the player may give meaning to. This process will be illustrated by a case analysis of specific glitches that concur to break the illusion of a life-like digital world but at the same time do not significantly influence the main game systems, such as the mechanics. Among the analysed cases, there will be such examples as Manimals (Red Dead Redemption), The Suicidal Photographer (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas), MissingNo. (Pokémon Red and Blue) and others that are related to the animated or human-like in-game objects.

Key words: video games, glitch, game object, Heidegger, bio-object

 

Introduction

 

The possibility that, at any time while playing, a glitch might occur, is an essential part of the video game medium. As much as it might be irritating and unwanted, it is still an important element that contributes to the uniqueness of video games. Even if glitches are not restricted only to this medium and can manifest in other digital creations, their disruptive nature, combined with the interactivity and narrative potential of the video game medium, not only results in the production of new meanings, but also actively influences player behaviour. As Rosa Menkman, relying on Paul Virilio’s works about the significant role of accident in human culture, argues, a glitch “shows a system in a state of entropy and so aids towards an understanding of the ultimate functioning of a system”.[1] In her analysis—as seems to be a popular approach in media studies[2]—she focuses on glitch art and aesthetics as the right path for acquiring knowledge about digital media. I agree that it is important to explore this subject further by analysing the glitch phenomenon not only as a possible work of art, but also as something that can happen to the user of technology on an everyday basis. Only this way will we be able to understand better the technology itself and its influence on our life. Therefore, this article will focus on video game glitches; not functional ones that are used to exploit the game mechanisms, however, but those that relate to practices of a common player and are more visual in nature.

Glitches are a well-discussed subject in the field of game studies; however, the majority of this work focuses on how a glitch is used by players and on how it exists in the community consciousness: Mia Consalvo[3] and Alan F. Meades[4] write about how glitches are used in counterplay, Thomas Apperley[5] analyses glitches in games in the context of aesthetics and digital art, Jaroslav Švelch[6] focuses on glitch-related humour, whereas Jan Švelch[7] analyses the exploitation of glitches with regards to microtransactions. In this paper, instead, I will explore this subject mainly from the perspective of the ontology of the video game object. I believe that by analysing glitches in this way, we will be able to deepen our knowledge about the nature of the player–game relationship from the perspective of the non-human agency of the digital object.

To better explore this subject from this angle, I will base my argument on the Heideggerian idea of “presence-at-hand” and explain how the manifestation of the glitch emphasises the objectivity of the digital game artefact. This will lead me to the central problem of the paper: what happens in the moment of the glitch, and what are the consequences of the erratic behaviour of the game software? More precisely, the paper will focus on how glitches change the player’s perception of the video game object, and on her attempts at understanding and explaining glitches, which, in the end, lead to the embracing of this phenomenon and its incorporation into the lore of the community. This process is based not only on communication within the gaming community, but also between the player and the game itself. The game actively influences our gameplay experience and can or should be perceived as our partner in play. In this context, the glitch seems to be the manifestation of the game’s agency, and, hence, the game’s assertion of itself as an agent over and against the player. Therefore, to deepen the analysis of this phenomenon, I will use the concept of the bio-object created by Tadeusz Kantor, which will allow me to approach this subject from a posthuman perspective, that is close to Latourian critical thinking. This way, I will be able to show how the sudden appearance of a glitch can resolve itself in the creation of new meanings, with the game object as equal to human co-creator of senses.

 

Definitional problems with glitch

 

A glitch is rather ephemeral in its nature. Its sudden appearance can be very brief, but it can also be permanent. When we look at the general, technological definition, a glitch is presented as being related to procedural flow disturbances, and as resulting in minor and major system dysfunctions. While some are recognized, recorded in a typical bug report, and fixed, others become forgotten or/and dormant for so long that they turn into an object of discursive practices[8]. The vagueness of the definition of ‘glitch’ causes a lot of problems and results in the misuse of this term, especially in popular discourse[9]. This mechanism is especially visible in gaming culture, where glitches can be interpreted as “audio-visual imperfections (graphics drawing incorrectly or audio breaking up), gameplay anomalies (the ability to get stuck in certain looping sequences), or even narrative inconsistencies (continuity errors either within titles or across series)”[10]. This definitional vagueness creates a very interesting tension whereby a glitch would be a behaviour of a game object that does not fit the player’s (or even the designer’s) expectations. It does not have to be connected to a system malfunction, but, rather, is something that could be perceived as a misbehaviour of the game – even if the game just follows the lines of code that the designer wrote.

Interesting examples that illustrate this kind of misuse could be often found in glitch compilation videos posted on YouTube[11]. While a lot of glitches that follow the technological definition can be found in these productions, there are also some exceptions. For example, a few videos that bracket together glitches that can be perceived as “weird” or “scary” include the depictions of Doctor Watson from Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin (2007, Frogwares), released also as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis. In this instalment of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, the developers did not animate Doctor Watson walking from spot to spot. His character seems to appear right behind the player’s back (the game is viewed from a first-person perspective) every time the camera loses sight of him. This can be perceived as erratic behaviour on the part of the software, but it is clearly a design flaw, not a system failure or a glitch. One can argue that this kind of terminological misuse distorts the true meaning of the concept of a glitch and causes chaos in academic nomenclature. However, the interpretations of glitch that can be found in popular discourse put this technological concept in a broader critical perspective. Such a perspective allows for an analysis of glitches not as bugs, but, rather, as phenomena that carry the key to better understanding the video game medium. As Menkman wrote: “failure is a phenomenon to overcome, while a glitch is incorporated further into technological or interpretive processes”[12]. Therefore, in this article, I follow the popular understanding of a glitch, because I believe it will cast a new light on how players interpret the game object’s agency as a disturbing error that should be explained afresh and rationalised in the gaming community.

 

Glitches and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger

 

In this moment, we should answer the question of what is so special about glitches and why they can influence the player’s perception of the video game object. In the first place, we need to determine the status of a glitch in relation to the player and the video game object. I believe the answer to that problem can be developed in relation to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, especially the ideas of zuhanden and vorhanden. The former concept, that can be translated as “ready-to-hand”, describes the state of being of a thing (Zeug, “something-in-order-to”, an equipment or a tool) when we use it automatically. Even with the simplest thing, the connection always consists of multiple different elements[13]. A good example is riding a car: there is a driver with her abilities and senses, a car which is constructed with many smaller elements, and the situation of traffic, which also has a lot of components[14]. In order to achieve a state of harmonious cooperation, an object has to retreat and disappear from our conscious thoughts. It needs to be nonintrusive in its presence to preserve that balance. Only then can we use it as a tool in everyday life. If that harmony is disturbed, the object becomes vorhanden, “present-at-hand”. We start to be aware of its presence, because its being has changed to an intrusive one. This can happen when an object is not working properly, like a shattered mug or lost keys[15]. However, as annoying as this state of being can be, its importance is crucial. Only objects that are “present-at-hand” can become objects of our critical thinking. This is the very moment when, in the case of video games, the glitch suddenly appears.

When a game is used as expected, without any disturbances, it is “ready-to-hand”. Such is the case when a player is fully involved with the gameplay. As Gordon Calleja points out, the player’s involvement with the game is the result of the player’s contact with the video game medium itself across multiple dimensions: starting from a kinaesthetic sensation of moving inside a new environment, through to the sharing of the experience of play with other players or to thinking about new strategies of play, among others[16]. While the player is thus involved in the process of play, the game object disappears from her conscious awareness, becoming “ready-to-hand”. Even if a game is a hypermediated one (such as, for example, Her Story [2015, Sam Barlow])[17], the technical side of the medium experience is still transparent. The player does not think about the complex technology behind the game software as long as everything works perfectly fine and she is familiar with her gaming device. She deepens her experience through the (re)mediated contact with a game environment.

This situation changes in the moment of the glitch manifestation: with the suddenness of the glitch occurrence, the video game object becomes present right before the player’s eyes and in her conscious thoughts. The content of the game (gameworld, mechanics, aesthetic etc.) starts to be perceived as background noise and the player can focus on the technological aspects of the game. I believe that, in this context, the glitch is beyond the scope of the issue of the transparency or visibility of the video game medium. It is also different from what Piotr Kubiński understands as an “emersive effect”[18], because it is not simply a shift from being immersed in the game world to being “emersed” out of it, even if the glitch phenomenon exposes the fact that our contact with a video game is only the impression of a direct encounter[19]. I believe it is something more, something different. The sudden appearance of a glitch makes the player’s game experience change from mediated contact with the content of the video game to contact with an object of the video game itself.

 

Materiality of the video game object

 

While it is relatively easy to observe how the player can exert her agency to change the state of the game, it is essential to remember that the video game object also has the power of agency, in a way that is different from any other category of games. It can actively defy us not only by presenting us with a hard-to-beat difficulty level, but also by exhibiting unexpected, erratic behaviour – like a glitch. Therefore, to truly understand the glitch phenomenon, we should think about the digital game more as an artefact that evaluates performance,[20] or, in other words, as a playable artefact[21].

As Olli Tapio Leino[22] argues, the true distinction between video games and traditional games is hidden in the approach to the materiality of the game and its process. When we look closer at board games, such as Monopoly, the player has to internalize the rules in order to play the game – she has to agree to follow them. Without that process, the material side of the game object is just cardboard and a few pawns that are deprived of their intended functionality. However, in video games, this situation looks different: “aspects of computer games exist in complete disregard of the player’s thoughts, motivations and intentions”[23]. The materiality is closely braided with the process. It does not matter if the player wants to act differently towards a non-player character (NPC) than is programmed – she just cannot. Moreover, her actions in the game are not only limited by the behaviour of the game software, but even imposed by it. With this realization, the game can be perceived as a complex object that is filled with agency.

At this point in the traversing of this argument, it does not seem hard to see that the relationship that is being defined between the player and the video game object is not an anthropocentric one, but is more posthuman in its nature. The human being, in this case the player, is not in the centre of the creation, in this case the gameplay. She is one of the elements that create game experience and not the only one with agency. In this context, the glitch seems not only to point to the objectivity of the video game artefact – thus re-establishing the visibility of the technological nature of the game – but also emphasizes its agency to the point where we start perceiving the game as the Other that we have to face.

To better explore this phenomenon, I will make use of the critical thinking of Tadeusz Kantor, the Polish artist and theatre director. Even if it was not his primary intention to articulate such a theory, his views about the role of objects in reality can be perceived as non-anthropocentric and close to Bruno Latour’s ones[24]. His ideas, especially his concept of the bio-object[25], can be used as a valuable tool for the analysis of the bond that is created between the player and the video game in the moment of gameplay, because they show how the agency of a physical object, in this case the glitch phenomenon, influences the meaning creation process.

 

The idea of the bio-object

 

The idea of the bio-object emerged from Kantor’s aesthetical explorations concerning the nature of objects, their meaning, and their place in the surrounding reality. Kantor coined the notion of the bio-object to describe the special relation between the actor and the stage object that is established during the performance of the play. The object defines the moves and motives of the actor and they are both the main conduit of the play’s meaning: “the substance of the performance was created by the “inner life” of the OBJECT, by its properties, destiny and imaginative scope”[26]. However, the actor not only animates the object, but in fact becomes a living part of it, “becomes its living organs, linked to it as if genetically”[27]. Actor and object are both equal in this qualitative new unity. Moreover, without each other, they become useless in the context of the performance. The actor can abandon the stage object, which would then be no more than an empty shell at that moment, but, at the same time, she would also lose the purpose of her being on stage.

Regardless, even if they appear as one, the bond between actor and object is not exactly stable. It is based on constant rivalry: either the actor dominates the object and uses it as she wishes, or the object exposes its agency over the human and confines her movements. One can, often easily, manipulate the mannequin, but the clumsy and ragged material properties of a puppet can also make us trip over the lifeless limbs. However, this inner struggle is not the unwanted outcome of this connection – it is essentially responsible for producing new meanings[28].

This dualistic nature of the bio-object seems to reflect the power struggle between the player and the game that emerges in gameplay. In this very moment, the bond between the player and the video game object is created, and, simultaneously, a space of multiple possibilities is produced. The idea of the bio-object in the video game medium can manifest in various ways, although the ephemerality of the gameplay phenomenon often makes it hard to discern in visible forms. It is especially visible through all the traces that the player leaves inside the game environment, like looted crates or bloodstains after a battle. These are evidence of symbiotic cooperation between the game object and the player. However, the rivalry side of this relationship is revealed in simple gameplay action as well; for example, when the player gains an advantage by modifying (or in some cases even taming) the game environment during her activities (by choosing the narrative path or changing the primary state of the game object by playing with mods). By comparison, the game object gains an advantage when the difficulty level of a game is too high to beat, or even every time the player realizes she has been playing ‘wrong’ and is forced to change her behaviour in order to progress. Of course, another example of this mechanism are glitches, which are something unplanned and unexpected that can interfere with the player’s involvement with a game because of its suddenness. They not only interrupt her game session, but more often than not, force the player to change her strategy of play (for example, when a glitch makes it impossible to finish a quest the way she wants by blocking certain choices).

This is in tone with Menkman’s critical thinking, where “[T]he glitch makes the computer itself suddenly appear conventionally deep, in contrast to the more banal, predictable surface-level behaviours of ‘normal’ machines and systems. In this way, glitches announce a crazy and dangerous kind of moment(um) instantiated and dictated by the machine itself”[29]. The computer, in this case the video game object, lights itself up through the glitch manifestation. This phenomenon forces the player to think not only about the object or content of the game, but also about how it relates to other objects and the player herself[30]. By defying its designed purpose, the video game object is exposing its agency, the agency that was not intentionally programmed beforehand by a designer. It is something unexpected that does not fit the player’s perception of what the game object should do. It emerges from the game’s technological materiality; thus, I dare to call it ‘pure’ agency, because it was not primarily imposed by a human. This is also a perfect example of a video game being perceived and behaving as the Other[31]. The glitch occurrence reminds us that playing a video game is an act of communication[32], being one of the video game’s responses to the player’s actions.

In some radical cases, this response can result in the shutdown of the game. The power is taken from the player and she is forced to regain her own position by learning more about and eventually overcoming the technology behind the game. In other, less extreme cases, the video game object demonstrates its agency by, as has already been discussed, breaking the illusion of a coherent gameworld. Even if a graphical glitch, for example, does not usually stop the game, it is still very disruptive to the player’s experience. When such a glitch appears, the player is knocked out from the flow of playing and can only stare in wonder, as in the case of a glitch in Red Dead Redemption (2010, Rockstar San Diego) referred to as “Manimals” by the player community, in which the game misplaces some of the textures, causing animals to look like humans and making it possible for the player to find human–animal hybrids during exploration of the wilderness. The glitch is now patched, but traces of it still linger in the memories of the community of players and are incorporated into the fandom’s consciousness. Even if the “Manimals” glitch did not really influence the flow of the gameplay process, it still made the player pause to consider the game’s technological materiality.

For Kantor, one of the most important things was to focus on the materiality of the theatre medium because its realness can only be approached in this way. For this reason, he always incorporated a very special kind of object into his plays – abandoned, garbage-like, stripped of the functionality that was imposed on them by a human[33]. They were just “poor objects”. However, this transition draws them closer to the reality of the lowest rank, which shows the object as it is – with no strings attached. From then on, the poor object is autonomous and can, for example, become a work of art[34], being perceived in itself and for its own sake rather than disappearing in view of its function. By using abandoned and garbage-like items, Kantor opened a door to reality where art and life do not transcend each other, but rather render one another[35]. This is possible because poor objects have lost their original functionality, and therefore “the familiarized object that is tamed by the utility of the life suddenly uncovers its independent, alien existence”[36]. The “poor objects” stop being transparent and become visible. Even when they were later an element of a bigger installation and, in the end, a non-human part of a bio-object, they never went back into the shadow. Their worn-out materiality emphasised their presence and agency on stage. As a result, the spectator was always in a state of being awake from the illusion[37].

In the context of video games, this approach seems to describe the moment of the glitch. The player is suddenly awakened from her involvement with the gameplay process and has to face the materiality of the game object that loses (even if only for a moment) its designed function. As a result of this, the player is no longer playing inside the video game environment, but rather with the digital object itself.

This approach is directly related to a posthuman perspective on agency. Kantor’s critical thought emphasized the specific status of the object[38], which is not defined by its given, human functionality, but also has the capacity to itself define – and, as a result, transform – human beings when they are using it. This is similar to the situation in a relational network, as Latour[39] theorizes it. Actants operating inside such networks are constantly in the process of being translated. In other words, when actants are connected to each other inside this network, they influence and change each other. The difference between this and the bio-object, is that, for Kantor, the bond between actor and object on stage is aesthetic in nature. Likewise, while the player and the game are still functioning inside a bigger relational network because of the designed character of the game artefact and the specificity of the play action, the connection between them has different properties. Moreover, the aforementioned power struggle inside the bio-object produces new aesthetic meanings.

While this idea is somewhat similar to what Peter-Paul Verbeek calls cyborg intentionality[40] – it is a new entity that is being co-shaped by a human being and a technological artefact of a game[41] – there are some distinctions. First of all, the bio-object is not a phenomenological relation that changes the player’s perception of the world. Here, two independent, equal actants – human and non-human – create the new entity, but remain separate inside it (hence, the power struggle between them). The human being does not transcend her human condition and the poor object does not stop being poor (in the Kantorian sense). Only in this way can a fruitful, meaning-generative tension be produced. New meanings are the effects of the mediation process between the player and the game object – both the partner in play and the platform – for this dialogue to happen. In this context, the glitch is the manifestation of the game’s agency, and the player has to answer to it to regain the dominant position in this relation – even if it lasted only a moment until the game “wins” again.

Therefore, while the suddenness of the glitch occurrence can be interpreted as a game gaining an advantage (especially in the context of the bio-object), we cannot forget about the player’s behaviour and strategy when she tries to cope with this phenomenon. Therefore, even if this text aims its attention squarely upon the game object, it is crucial to see how players react to glitches in order to regain a dominant position inside the bio-object. For this reason, I want to briefly explore this subject further in the last section of this paper.

 

Glitches in collective consciousness

 

A player’s reaction to glitches usually depends on the type of glitch she encounters in the game environment. In addition to glitches like “Manimals”, which do not alter the gameplay experience on anything other than an audio-visual level, there are also so-called functional glitches[42]. They not only actively influence the game mechanics but could also be used by players to change the gameplay experience[43]. In some cases, they are exploited by players that want to gain an additional advantage in a game, like speedrunners, cheats or trolls[44].

However, glitching is a more complicated phenomenon in the gaming community than simply the exploitation of a design flaw. In his research, Alan F. Meades emphasises the fact that searching for a glitch is, in fact, a manifestation of a deep understanding of a game’s structure, and even can be perceived as an act of devotion or love to the given production[45]. This kind of glitch hunting is a fine example that glitches do not have to be perceived as an obstacle while playing video games. They are even sometimes considered to be a part of game mythology or folklore[46], like “MISSINGNO”. from Pokémon Red and Blue (Game Freak, 1996) or “Minus World” in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985)[47]. However, these are both older games that can no longer be officially patched, meaning that these glitches have naturally become a permanent part of them and of gaming culture in general.

Interestingly enough, in newer productions – at a time when games can be easily fixed even after release – some developers actively decide to keep some glitches in the game code as a part of the gameplay experience. In Minecraft (2011, Mojang) – one of the most popular games of recent years – we can find a hostile creature (or a hostile mob/mobile) known as the “Creeper”[48]. The creeper started out as a simple glitch, when one of the creators made a mistake in entering the dimensions of a pig mob into the game environment. Its deformed and disturbing looks were inspiring enough to be introduced to the game as a new, “creepy” creature[49]. This case is interesting for at least two reasons. As Apperley notes, only some glitches are tolerated enough to be aestheticized by the gaming community[50]. This aestheticization process leads to a mechanism of taming the manifestation of the game object agency (as a glitch occurrence clearly is) by granting it new meaning and functionality. The Creeper is an example of how a glitch can be translated from an erratic software behaviour to a feature. If we translate it to the context of a bio-object, it becomes an example of one of the ways in which the player can regain power over the game object after the glitch occurrence.

Another interesting example of this kind of approach – when the player community tries to explain strange phenomena that they encounter inside the game world – is the so-called “Suicidal Photographer” from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004, Rockstar North). “Suicidal Photographer” is a randomly spawned pedestrian that sometimes appears at Los Santos Inlet. S/he would probably would not even be noticed if it was not for his/her strange behaviour. The player meets the mysterious photographer right next to a riverbank where s/he takes a photo of the horizon and then walks straight to the water and drowns. On a fan-made Wiki[51] dealing with myths in the Grand Theft Auto series, we can find a possible explanation for the aforementioned character’s strange behaviour: namely, that it is nothing more than a path glitch. Probably, in the early stage of development, the place was enriched with more architectural elements, such as an extended plateau or a little footbridge. The game’s designers might have deleted these features in the transition to a newer version but forgot about changing the walking path for the pedestrian. In technical terms, this is not a system failure but a design flaw, but, in popular discourse, it is perceived as a glitch.

The “Suicidal Photographer” is a very specific kind of glitch. It does not interfere directly with a player’s style of play. The game environment and mechanics remain as they are meant to be. The player cannot use it to her advantage. In fact, she cannot do anything with this glitch, not even play with it. All that can be done is just to be a witness to the unexplained death of a random character. This moment is even more confusing when we realise that, at first, the player is probably not sure if it is a glitch or a legitimate game event, especially because of the sandbox character of the game. Therefore, she is looking for an answer, or, rather, a solution to this particular riddle. In this way, the whole mythology around the game is being created. By creating the whole mythology around this “glitch”, players try to take away the agency from the game and replace it with theirs. I believe that this kind of behaviour can be interpreted as a defence mechanism against the uncanny feeling that accompanies the manifestation of the video game object’s presence. In this case, the tension that is created between the player and the video game object results in new interpretations that were neither planted nor expected by designers. This meaningful situation was created because of the interaction of human and non-human actors. Without breaking the illusion of the immediate experience of the video game world, all of these meanings would remain dormant.

 

Conclusion

 

Glitches in video games, especially when we consider the popular understanding of them, usually describe phenomena that are related to unexplained and strange encounters inside the game environment. The players rather tend to blame a video game for all things that do not work within the designed logic of a game. This is the case even when a glitch is not exactly a glitch, but a design flaw, as in the examples of the “Suicidal Photographer” from GTA: San Andreas and Doctor Watson’s teleportation in Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin. All the visible signs of the game’s agency are interpreted as an error, a system failure: in other words, as something out of order, and, therefore, wrong. In the context of the bio-object, this behaviour is a good example of the rivalry between human and non-human actors, because, with the glitch occurrence, the game object reminds the player that she is not playing alone.

First off, there is the tension created by a manifestation of the materiality of the game object. Because of this display of agency, the video game gains an advantage over the player. In the case of the aforementioned examples, the only thing that a typical player can do is to become imaginative and tame the video game with her creations, like compilation videos, funny mash-ups, or simply a new interpretation of the given situation. This kind of behaviour is also an example of the fact that the bond between a player and a video game can transition to outside the digital medium. However, in the case of more functional glitches, the player can actively use these manifestations of the game’s agency to either beat the game or play against the logic of its design, which would result in an overpowering of the game object.

Therefore, I believe that the question of the glitch is beyond the scope of the issues of the transparency or visibility of the video game medium. The connection between the player and the video game object transforms from an undisturbed to a disturbed one but, at the same time, remains unbroken. To use the Heideggerian nomenclature, it has to become “present-at-hand” to break away from being transparent, “ready-to-hand”. By making the video game object visible, glitches also make it more powerful. The content of the game becomes transparent and its position shifts from being a purpose to being a context for the interpretation of a new behaviour of a game object. In the very moment of the glitch’s occurrence, the goal of play changes. It not only forces the player to think about the digital materiality of the artefact and the technology behind it, but essentially invites her to play with it. With her acceptance of this invitation, the player is no longer playing within the boundaries of the video game environment, but with the game artefact itself.

 

This article was financed from statutory activity funds for scientific research and development of young scholars and PhD students.

 

Games

FarCry, Crytek, Pc, 2004.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Rockstar North, Pc, 2004.

Her Story, Sam Barlow, Pc, 2015.

Mario SuperBros., Ninetendo, NES, 1985.

Minecraft, Mojang, Pc, 2011.

Pokémon Red and Blue, Game Freak, Gameboy, 1996.

Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego, XBOX 360, 2010.

Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin. Frogwares, Pc, 2007.

 

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Another Top 10 Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/sotqQFRUeHE, date accessed 25 February 2018.

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Bolter Jay David & Grusin Richard, Remediation: Understanding new media, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press) (1999).

Briz Nick, Meaney Evan, Menkman Rosa, Robertson William, Satrom Jon, Westbrook Jessica (ed) Gli.t/ch 20111 Reader [ROR], (Amsterdam/Chicago: Unsorted Books) (2011).

Calleja Gordon, In-game: From immersion to incorporation, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.) (2011).

Cascone Kim, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal 24:1 (2000);

Consalvo Mia, Cheating. Gaining advantage in videogames, (Cambridge, MA: MIT) (2007).

Creeper, https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Creeper , date accessed 3 September 2017.

Domańska Ewa. (2008). „Humanistyka nie-antropocentryczna a studia nad rzeczami”, Kultura Współczesna 3 (2008).

Heidegger Martin, Bycie i czas [Being and Time], (Warszawa: Wydaw. Naukowe PWN) (2008).

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Koch-Butryn Małgorzata, „Sobowtóry, manekiny i bio-obiektywy w twórczością Tadeusza Kantora”, Kwartalnik Teatralny 1 (2002).

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Majkowski Tomasz Z., „Różnojęzyczność gier wideo a sytuacja gracza: rozpoznanie wstępne [Video Game Heteroglossia and Player Situation: Initial Diagnosis]”, Wielogłos. Pismo Wydziału Polonistyki Uj 25:3 (2015).

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Pokémon’s Famous Missingno Glitch, Explained, http://kotaku.com/pokemons-famous-missingno-glitch-explained-165392914, date accessed 3 September 2017.

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Švelch Jan, “Negotiating the Glitch. Identifying and Using Glitches in Video Games with Microtransactions”, in: New Perspectives in Games Studies: Proceedings of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference Brno 2014, ed. Tomáš Bártek, Jan Miškov, Jaroslav Švelch (Brno: Masaryk University) (2015).

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Twitchin Mischa, The Theatre of Death – The Uncanny in Mimesis: Tadeusz Kantor, Aby Warburg, and an Iconology of the Actor, (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK) (2016).

Verbeek Peter-Paul, “Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human-technology relations”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7:3 (2008), pp. 387–395.

 

 

[1] Rosa Menkman, The glitch moment(um), (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures) (2011), p. 32.

[2] See also: Peter Krapp, Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press) (2011); Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal 24:1 (2000); Gli.t/ch 20111 Reader [ROR], ed. Nick Briz, Evan Meaney, Rosa Menkman, William Robertson, Jon Satrom, Jessica Westbrook, (Amstardam/Chocago: Unsorted Books) (2011).

[3] Mia Consalvo, Cheating. Gaining advantage in videogames, (Cambridge, MA: MIT) (2007); James Newman, Playing Videogames, (New York: Routledge) (2008).

[4] Alan F. Meades, Understanding counterplay in video games, (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group) (2015).

[5] Thomas Apparley, „Glitch sorting: Minecraft, curation and the post-digital”, in Postdigital Aesthetics. Art, Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry, Michael Dieter (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmilla) (2015).

[6] Jaroslav Švelch, “Comedy of Contingency: Making Physical Humour in Video Game Spaces”, International Journal of Communication 8:23 (2014).

[7] Jan Švelch, “Negotiating the Glitch. Identifying and Using Glitches in Video Games with Microtransactions”, in: New Perspectives in Games Studies: Proceedings of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference Brno 2014, ed. Tomáš Bártek, Jan Miškov, Jaroslav Švelch (Brno: Masaryk University) (2015).

[8] Rosa Menkman, pp. 26-27.

[9] Jan Švelch, “Negotiating the Glitch. Identifying and Using Glitches in Video Games with Microtransactions”, in: New Perspectives in Games Studies: Proceedings of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference Brno 2014, ed. Tomáš Bártek, Jan Miškov, Jaroslav Švelch (Brno: Masaryk University) (2015), pp. 55-59.

[10] James Newman, “Playing (with) Videogames”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies  11:1 (2005), p. 63.

[11] For example: Top 15 SCARIEST Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/q5m0WVhYMX4, date accessed 25 February 2018; 10 Insane Glitches that Actually Made Video Games Better, https://youtu.be/D8bCcTjcGP0, date accessed 25 February 2018; Another Top 10 Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/sotqQFRUeHE, date accessed 25 February 2018;

[12] Rosa Menkman, p. 27.

[13] Martin Heidegger, Bycie i czas [Being and Time], (Warszawa: Wydaw. Naukowe PWN) (2008), pp. 87-92.

[14] Bjørnar Olsen, W obronie rzeczy: Archeologia i ontologia przedmiotów [In Defense of Things. Archeology and the Ontology of Objects], (Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN Wydawnictwo) (2013), p. 113.

[15] Martin Heidegger, pp. 92-96.

[16] See: Gordon Calleja, In-game: From immersion to incorporation, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.) (2011)

[17] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, pp. 31-50.

[18] Piotr Kubiński, „Immersion vs. Emersive Effects in Videogames”, in Play, Theory, and Practice: Engaging with Videogames, ed. Dawn Stobbart and Monica Evans (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2014), pp.133-141.

[19] Piotr Kubiński, Gry wideo: Zarys poetyki, (Kraków: Towarzystwo Autorów i Wydawców Prac Naukowych “Universitas”) (2016), pp. 78-79.

[20] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Defining the Videogame”, Games Studies: international journal of computer game research 15:2 (2015), http://gamestudies.org/1502/articles/karhulahti, date accessed 3 September 2017.

[21] Olli Tapio Leino, “Death Loop as a Feature”, Game Studies: the international journal of computer game research 12:2 (2012b), http://gamestudies.org/1202/articles/death_loop_as_a_feature , date accessed 3 September 2017.

[22] Olli Tapio Leino (2012b)

[23] Olli Tapio Leino (2012b)

[24] Ewa Domańska, „Humanistyka nie-antropocentryczna a studia nad rzeczami”, Kultura Współczesna 3 (2008), pp. 19-21.

[25] Tadeusz Kantor, Teatr śmierci: Teksty z lat, 1975-1984, (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich) (2004).

[26] Tadeusz Kantor, p. 397.

[27] Tadeusz Kantor, p. 397.

[28] Krzystof Pleśniarowicz, Teatr Śmierci Tadeusza Kantora, (Chotomów: Verba) (1990), p. 35.

[29] Rosa Menkman, p. 31.

[30] Bjørnar Olsen, pp. 117-118.

[31] Olli Tapio Leino, “Untangling Gameplay: An Account of Experience, Activity and Materiality Within Computer Game Play”, in The Philosophy of Computer Games, ed. John Richard Sageng, Hallvard Fossheim and Tarjei Mandt Larsen (Dordrecht: Springer) (2012a), pp. 71-72.

[32] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, „Różnojęzyczność gier wideo a sytuacja gracza : rozpoznanie wstępne [Video Game Heteroglossia and Player Situation: Initial Diagnosis]”, Wielogłos. Pismo Wydziału Polonistyki Uj 25:3 (20015), pp. 23–39.

[33] Tadeusz Kantor, pp. 413-424.

[34] Ewa Domańska, p. 20.

[35] Mischa Twitchin, The Theatre of Death – The Uncanny in Mimesis: Tadeusz Kantor, Aby Warburg, and an Iconology of the Actor, (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK) (2016), p. 29.

[36] Tadeusz Kantor, p. 461,

[37] Małgorzata Koch-Burtyn, „Sobowtóry, manekiny i bio-obiektywy w twórczością Tadeusza Kantora”, Kwartalnik Teatralny 1 (2002).p. 102.

[38] Ewa Domańska, pp. 19-21.

[39] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2005).

[40] Peter-Paul Verbeek, Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human-technology relations”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7:3 (2008), pp. 387–395.

[41] Olli Tapio Leino (2012a), pp. 71-72.

[42] Jan Švelch, p. 57.

[43] Jan Švelch, p. 57.

[44] See: Mia Consalvo (2007).

[45] Alan F. Meades pp. 75-113.

[46] James Newman (2008), pp. 113-120.

[47] You can find more information about those glitches here: Pokémon’s Famous Missingno Glitch, Explained, http://kotaku.com/pokemons-famous-missingno-glitch-explained-165392914, date accessed 3 September 2017; Minus World, https://www.mariowiki.com/Minus_World, date accessed 3 September 2017.

[48] Creeper, https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Creeper, date accessed 3 September 2017.

[49] Thomas Apperley, „Glitch sorting: Minecraft, curation and the post-digital”, in Postdigital Aesthetics. Art, Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry, Michael Dieter (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015), p. 235

[50] Thomas Apperley, p. 236.

[51] Suicidal Photographers, http://gta-myths.wikia.com/wiki/Suicidal_Photographers , date accessed 19 October 2016.

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Sound-track in Virtual Reality Gaming

Katherine Mancey

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 83-101.

 

 

Katherine Mancey

University of Liverpool

 

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Soundtrack in Virtual Reality Gaming

 

Abstract

Whilst the study of music in audio-visual media is a well-established academic field, the fast and constant evolution of gaming technology creates the need for a simultaneous evolution in the analytical methodologies of video game music, and results in a need to draw from a wide range of disciplines, from film music studies to cognitive science. The rising popularity of virtual reality gaming, with the mass market introduction of VR headsets such as the Oculus Gear VR and Sony’s PSVR opens up a new field of discussion for the evolving role of non-diegetic music in gaming, and its subsequent effect on the player experience. My article addresses the shifting role of music from 2D screens to the in-world experience of virtual reality, and how this alters our perception of diegesis. This is supported by a discussion of varying neuropsychological explanations for the relationship between music and emotion, its effect on various theories of immersion/presence, and their application to this new visual immediacy. Through an analysis of a selection of films and video games, including the most recent Batman: Arkham VR, I will be questioning whether the same need for a non-diegetic underscore exists, or if this new visual experience calls for more musical fluidity across the diegesis where soundtrack and in-game audio flow seamlessly. Now that the physical distance between the player and the graphics has been drastically reduced, I question whether traditional non-diegetic video game scores will break the fourth wall rather than enhancing the player’s immersive experience. By examining where we draw lines within diegesis, this paper acknowledges the need for a re-evaluation of the relationship between soundtrack and in-game audio, as gaming technology moves away from the traditional static screen experience and into an edgeless game world, highlighting the significance of analysing all game sound as a guide to emotional response.

Key words: music, virtual reality, video games, soundtrack, Batman, film

 

The soundtrack has been a vital part of audio-visual media since its introduction in early film. However, before discussing the evolution of the soundtrack from silent film to virtual reality gaming, it is important to first contextualise virtual reality within both the gaming world and the wider technology sector. Whilst VR video games and 360º visual experiences have only recently emerged on the mass market, the design principle of Darlene Wheatstone’s 1838 stereoscope is still used today for the Google Cardboard and other lower budget VR head-mounted displays for mobile phones, using two different 2D images side by side to build a 3D image. One of the first ‘VR’ gaming experiences for the mass market was Nintendo’s table top console, Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it used the same stereoscopic principles to create a 3D display but without free head movement. This proved unpopular with global sales of only 770,000 units[1]. Since then, developments in technology, such as an increase in graphical fidelity, have led to greater sophistication in virtual reality technology and in 2016 three premium VR headsets were released, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PSVR. Of the three, the PSVR has been the most commercially successful, perhaps due to its lower price point and easier set-up, requiring a PS4 to use rather than a high specification gaming PC, selling roughly one million units in its first six months.[2]

The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have applications outside of the gaming world, with their virtual reality technology starting to be introduced into a range of industries. For example, VR headsets allow architects to better ‘feel’ the spaces they are designing[3]. There has been a rise in 360º video production too, with popular entertainment outlets such as Buzzfeed sharing numerous 360º videos on their YouTube channel. To be experienced, their videos use stereoscopic principles which require lower-end VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, or they can be viewed without a headset by scrolling around the video, bringing this new cinematic experience to a much wider audience, and beginning to normalise the virtual reality experience in popular culture. Although these videos are not interactive, it shows a rise in the popularity of this visual engulfment, with their ‘How Animals See the World’ video being viewed over 4 million times[4]. In contrast, the PSVR is only used for gaming as it works in conjunction with the PS4. Due to its popularity and sole gaming function, I will be focusing on the PSVR and games made for the PSVR specifically whilst discussing the shifting role of music from film to 2D video games, through to virtual reality.

The soundtrack is well established as an essential part of film, television, and video games, serving many functions both practically and aesthetically. Before the advent of synchronised dialogue in 1927, films were completely silent but the theatres themselves were far from silent. The machinery involved in projecting films was loud, and audiences treated going to the movies as a social occasion. This gave music a functional purpose as it could drown out the real world, drawing attention to the screen. Music was seen as part of the performance of a film, with composers Hans Erdmann and Giuseppe Becce questioning in 1927 whether films needed music at all[5], as it was believed that non-diegetic music during dialogue scenes could annoy viewers who were trying to concentrate on the dialogue. But this opinion was not universal; when film makers managed to synchronise dialogue with image, the fidelity of the sound playback was poor. Actors had to stand awkwardly still and close to hidden microphones which lead to unnatural line delivery. This resulted in actors on screen appearing ghostly, as suggested by Adorno and Eisler, ‘For the talking picture, too, is mute. The characters in it are not speaking people but speaking effigies’[6]; without music films became ‘emaciated, bloodless, lacking in emotional appeal’[7]. It was music’s job to bring emotion to scenes and to breathe life back into the ghostly figures, overcoming the ‘questions of belief, immediacy and illusion’[8] from the audience. Musical ensembles differed between theatres, with some using full orchestras, but most movie theatres employed solo theatre organists or pianists to accompany the film. After reading the director’s ‘emotion’ annotation for the scene, they would use a mixture of improvisation, original scores, and compiled scores from pre-existing music to express this emotion to their audience; as noted by Stuart Oderman, ‘The tremolo increased suspense…A diminished chord called for resolution’[9], creating the foundations of a soundtrack. This use of soundtrack to convey human emotion has carried through to video games. As Collins suggests, sound in video games is a ‘simulacrum of the real’[10], whilst this also applies to the reactive sound effects in games, the principles behind the use of sound are still the same, to stop the on-screen action from feeling alien and detached.

We can draw parallels between the use of musical cues in early film and in video games. Just as audiences had to read slides, in early video games the players had to read text to continue the narrative, reinforced by music (see Fig 1.1). Without the capacity to play dialogue, music had to bring the text to life. Whilst still very obviously non-diegetic, this music was a key communicator of diegetic mood. Square Co.’s Final Fantasy I (1987) employs this technique. After reaching the Light Warrior Memorial Bridge, a prologue screen opens accompanied by the Final Fantasy overture (see Example 1.1)

Zrzut_07 2018-07-29 00.46.05

Example 1.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nWX1M6xTA0>

 

The music during the prologue has to set the scene for adventure, achieving this through a variety of compositional techniques. If we analyse the opening melodic statement (See Fig 1.2 and 0’0’’ to 0’13’’ from Example 1.1) we can see how its structure mirrors the beginning of a journey. It starts with the tonic note in the bass and the fifth in both melodic lines, followed by a minor seventh leap. The seventh pushes us to the expansion of an upper octave in the safety of the tonic key opposed to a more nostalgic return to the original octave[11]; therefore, its use in the opening of the prologue readies the player for expansive adventure as the on-screen text reads, ‘And so, their journey begins…’. The use of the seventh is repeated in sequence; transposed up a tone to G minor it accompanies the text, ‘What awaits the Four, they do not know’. By using rising sequential repetition and a minor chord, tension builds which creates an air of mystery to mirror the text, finishing with a C major 7 chord which propels the music forwards as the ear wants it to resolve, again creating an expectation of exploration and a sense of adventure.

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The melody, harmonic structure and overall musical phrasing is reminiscent of baroque music, using a continuo bass and melodic counterpoint alongside binary form and faster-paced chord changes. However, Finally Fantasy I is not set in 17th Century Western Europe, therefore the decision to use this baroque style is not reflective of the diegetic world. When Final Fantasy I was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, only three audio channels were available, and during gameplay one channel had to be left open for sound effects. As Collins suggests, ‘technological constraint has shaped aesthetic decisions’[12]. The use of this baroque style fit nicely within the three-channel system, it allowed for melodic lines to be effective whilst sounding in similar timbres akin to the contrapuntal melodic lines in Bach’s piano preludes, building and resealing tension to add depth to the pixilated characters. It also gave a sense of grandeur to the otherwise thin textures, making the resolve to the major tonic feel triumphant.

Final Fantasy I has spawned a series of sequels since its 1987 release. The most recent, Final Fantasy XV (2016), has a vastly greater capacity for audio with huge development in both the technology within the game engine and consoles (such as memory and processing capacity), and the technology used to record the music itself (such as microphone fidelity and digital processing) since the 8-bit three channel system, resulting in a high-fidelity and far more musically intricate soundtrack. It uses the same prologue theme from Final Fantasy I, but this time it is heard at the end of the game and in much richer scoring (see Example 1.2).

 

Example 1.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=EojQj4UI58A>

 

As Summers suggests, ‘The total time, on average, that a player spends with any one game is significantly longer than the running time of most mainstream films’[13], and the player’s exposure to this prologue motif is significantly longer if they have played through all fifteen games in the series. This familiarity and long-term association with the motif adds greater emotional value to the piece above the sociocultural meaning accompanying its musical style, reinterpreting the prologue theme from the opening game play of Final Fantasy I as a finale theme to bring the whole series full circle. Yoko Shimomura’s re-orchestration of the prelude theme takes the music from a string quartet, to a piano-led quintet, through to a fanfare using brass, percussion, and a choir. This mirrors the journey the player has taken throughout the game (and throughout the whole series,), moving away from the baroque scoring techniques used in Final Fantasy I and using more contemporary scoring techniques with no technological restriction. For example, the opening string quartet uses homophonic harmonic movement with a leading violin melody on top, previously impossible via earlier 8-bit technology (See Fig. 1.3). However, both Example 1.1 and 1.2 are taken from cut scenes. These passive moments from otherwise interactive experiences allow for a linear score which lends itself to filmic musical tropes: scoring can be thicker, and the certainty of linear playback allows for greater melodic and harmonic development. Whilst this interpretation of the theme is much grander and has been humanised through the use of acoustic timbres and performance techniques such as varying vibrato, the music is still firmly non-diegetic and there is a clear distinction between the sounds and timbres of the game world and those of the soundtrack.

 

Zrzut_09 2018-07-29 00.46.57

 

Numerous studies have been conducted analysing the effect that music has on emotion; Schäfer et al. found in their study that the faster the rhythms, the more stressful and dangerous a situation the listener experiences[14]; this correlates with the use of fast-paced music in chase scenes. Chia-Hung Yeh et al. found that participants in their study could easily and accurately identify the emotions behind a piece of popular music even through different cover versions of the piece using varying lyrics in different languages[15], thus showing how powerful melody can be. Lipscomb and Kendall analysed participants’ ability to determine which music best fit a scene from Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home from five musical examples. They found that participants could identify the ‘correct’ music for each scene with a high degree of accuracy, and this level of accuracy increased when scenes included human characters as the music worked to mirror human gestures[16].

This reaction to musical cues works in reverse too, as found in Bullerjahn and Güldering’s study in which participants watched intentionally ambiguous film clips accompanied by a range of music, and found that musical genre had a great impact on the participants film outcome predictions, such as ‘thriller’ music leading them to imagine a more adventurous and violent film ending than the ‘melodrama’ score which lead to visions of happier, family-centric plot conclusions[17].  Imagining an accompanying image is a commonly reported reaction to music[18] and whilst each image in the mind of the listener may differ from the next, Osborne found that listeners often associated relatively similar images to specific music[19], which shows how music can be used as a powerful tool in video games to underpin gameplay and create a vaster picture of a game world than can be shown on the screen. Musical foreshadowing is a powerful tool in video games too; as Whalen suggests, ‘the paradigmatic atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing’ in relation to the interactive ocarina feature in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which ‘the melodies they learn have an eerie familiarity’ as they are heard throughout the game [20]. Therefore, as discovered in each of these studies, music has a profound impact on the players’ emotional reading of a scene, with musical cues both aiding the emotional understanding of current gameplay and also creating narrative expectations for gameplay sequences to come.

There are varying neuropsychological explanations for these emotional responses to music. Juslin and Västfjäll suggest that the emotional response is controlled by brainstem reflexes, and that emotions are induced by music because of their fundamental acoustical characteristics, signalling a potentially important and urgent event[21]. For example, a large shift in dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo is alarming to the brain and can result in an emotion of fear or shock, manipulating an evolutionary response to sound. Berlyne suggests this emotional-arousal property of music, regulated by the brainstem, explains why there is a preference for certain music at certain times[22], such as soft and harmonically predictable music being relaxing. Another explanation for the relationship between music and emotion is evaluative conditioning, which suggests that a formerly neutral stimulus such as music is transformed into a conditioning stimulus by its repeating pairing with an already existing emotionally charged stimulus[23], such as the repeated pairing of kiss scenes in film with lyrical string melodies to create an association between lush string scoring and romance. Another theory, emotional contagion, relates musical expression and gesture with an internal mimicking of that gesture by the listener, which in turn reproduces the emotions felt by the performer. This phenomenon has been seen in facial expressions in which musical expressions of fear have been recreated in the tensing of certain facial muscles by the listener[24]. Davies’s theory of emotional episodic memory works with theories of the personal semiotic values of music, as it suggests that specific emotions can be induced by the relationship between an emotional memory and the sounds of that time, also called the ‘Honey, they are playing our tune’ phenomenon[25], and can also be used to explain the emotional currency of nostalgia. All of these theories attempt to describe the way music can trigger emotion within the listener, and whilst exact emotion responses are unique to each person, they all suggest there is some commonality in emotional reactions to certain audio stimuli, whether it be an evolutionary response or a culturally embedded and subconsciously learned response to certain musical stimuli.

This use of music to aid emotional depth is a significant contributing factor to a player’s level of immersion, so that the player can experience the sensation of feeling spatially located in the game world environment[26]. There are a range of theories as to what creates this feeling of immersion and how it can be sustained, but there is a general consensus amongst scholars that immersion is a multi-faceted process. Wirth et al. suggest that this immersion process happens on two levels, influenced by media factors, process components, user actions and user factors. Primarily, the media factors and user factors work together to create both controlled attention, such as the player actively choosing to play a video game, and automatic attention, such as game music drawing the player’s eye to the screen. Once the player is engaging with the game, they suggest that immersion moves to a secondary level where the player experiences a ‘suspension of disbelief’ as they adapt to the laws and physics of the game world[27]. Brown and Cairns suggested a three-tier system: The first is engagement, which includes learning the controls and game mechanics when a conscious effort has to be made to play the game. The second is engrossment, when the controls have become second nature the player is susceptible to emotional influence from the game as their focus moves from learning to experiencing. The third is immersion, when the player is totally emotionally invested in the game at that moment and their own emotions are influenced by the characters and narrative in the game world[28].

Sweester and Wyeth focused on quantifying what creates immersion, developing their GameFlow model, using a table of ‘GameFlow criteria for player enjoyment in games’ in an attempt to explain the process of becoming immersed in video games[29]. From this table they can award games an individual GameFlow score, but their calculation does not take into account the role of music on any of their criteria, which is arguably a prominent influencer on player immersion, as suggested by Lipscomb and Zehnder’s study[30]. Using game play sequences from Electronic Arts’ Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, they measured player enjoyment with and without music using a verbal scale and found a positive correlation between music and enjoyment. Nacke, Grimshaw and Lindly’s study furthers this notion, analysing the impact of both music and sound effects on player enjoyment in a first-person shooter game, and found through their gamer experience questionnaire that the most enjoyable play occurred when both music and sound effects were present, and that playing without music and sound effects resulted in a tenser and less enjoyable gameplay experience[31]. The fact that these two studies focused on games from distinctly different genres but resulted in similar findings highlights the universal importance of music for player enjoyment, as it created a better environment for player immersion to occur.

 

The Batman franchise serves well as a case study to discuss the varying use of music to evoke emotion from early film through to virtual reality gaming, with a long lineage of films, video games and now a virtual reality video game for PSVR to analyse. Batman is a long-standing figure in popular culture, with the first Batman story, ‘The Case of The Chemical Syndicate’ published in Detective Comics issue #27 in May of 1939[32]. He first appeared in films during the 1940s and has since been a staple character of the blockbuster, rebranded in 2005 with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, taking him further away from the underpants-over-tights comic book hero and into the more sophisticated ‘dark’ hero that Batman is best recognised as in current popular culture. This new image for Batman proved popular, with the two sequels The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), also directed by Christopher Nolan, earning over $1 billion worldwide.[33]

Throughout his appearances in film, television and video games, Batman has existed at the extremes of musical gesture. Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 The Batman, released during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, uses a full orchestral score synonymous with that era of film, with culturally embedded musical tropes such as tremolo strings and rising melodic lines to create suspense (See Example 2.1). In 1966, Batman was brought to television with a live-action series based on the comic books, its theme tune is in stark contrast to the music of Lambert Hillyer’s film, with obvious influence from popular music of the 1960s in both musical style and instrumentation, using a jovial, catchy melody (See Example 2.2). In further contrast, the use of music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins moves away from the heavy orchestral scoring of the 1940s and the up-tempo theme of the 1960s, and takes a more reduced, almost acousmatic approach to scoring Batman’s scenes (See Example 2.3). The first Batman video game, Ocean Software’s Batman, was released in 1986 for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and other 8-bit personal home computers. Even with the limitations of the three-channel audio system, the game opens with a chip-tune version of the Batman theme from the 1966 television series (See Example 2.4). This ease of adaptation to fit changes in contemporary popular culture aesthetics throughout the past century shows the robust nature of Batman and his sustained popularity as a character, from early film to television through to video games.

 

Example 2.1:  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVmIit0PXU>

Example 2.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDWSHNEbkII>

Example 2.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8tT_2QMwxI>

Example 2.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5_cHljImI0>

 

Just as there is a long and varied history of Batman films, Batman has been a staple character of video games across gaming platforms for decades, appearing in over sixty titles, of which he is the main character in over thirty. The portrayal of Batman in these games has largely stayed in line with his portrayal in film and television. Due to technological limitations of the 8-bit systems, the earliest Batman video games used soundtracks typical of 8-bit games during gameplay but still took musical cues from other Batman media where possible (See Example 2.4). In 1990, SunSoft developed four video games with the title Batman; each game was tailored to its platform (Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, PC) resulting in a difference in gameplay across platforms, but it is best associated with the release for the Nintendo Entertainment System, selling over a million copies[34]. Whilst it was released just after Burton’s film Batman (1989), the game’s narrative does not bear much resemblance to the film, and Naoki Kodaka’s soundtrack is independent of Elfman’s film score. However, they do share some melodic characteristics. For example, in the first level (See Example 2.5) the overall melodic contour is similar to that of Elfman’s scoring for the film’s opening scene (See Example 2.6), with both melodies rising up from the tonic to the sixth and falling to a sustained fifth (See fig 2.1).

 

Example 2.5: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HktXo2AgWBk>

Example 2.6: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXGXllCMOQg>

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As the possibilities of game audio increased, the music of Batman video games became more stylistically reminiscent of film scores as it was possible to use a full orchestral linear score during interactive cinematic cut-scenes and more sophisticated modular cues that are triggered during gameplay. Tsunami Music’s score for Eurocom’s Batman Begins (2005) is far more closely linked to Nolan’s film Batman Begins (2005) than Sunsoft’s Batman (1990) was to Burton’s Batman (1989) in both character representation (See fig 2.3) and soundtrack, due to improvements in both graphic and audio fidelity. This considerable increase in game audio fidelity caused a shift in video game soundtracks as composers could broaden their use of timbres and move away from the synthesized sounds of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles.

Whilst the music in Batman video games does reference its use in film, especially during interactive cinematics, film uses a fixed linear narrative which creates a passive audience experience, while video games use a more flexible interactive narrative and active player engagement which calls for a difference in compositional approach during gameplay. Ryan suggests that interactivity appears on two levels, one constituted by the medium and one intrinsic to the work itself. She suggests these can exist as internal, where the user plays the role of an individual in the narrative, or as external, where the user has a god-like role. This creates two main types of user experience: the first is exploratory, in which the user has no creative power in the story world, such as in films; the second is ontological, in which user actions create objects and cause effects that bring lasting change, as in video games. These can be combined to create four types of interactivity: external-explanatory, external-ontological, internal-ontological, and internal-exploratory[35]. Dogramain and Liptay discuss the relationship between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ realities, suggesting that the anticipation of liquid spaces breaks down the barrier between the viewer and media[36]. Although they discuss this in relation to visual art, this anticipation of liquid space works within Ryan’s descriptions of interactivity as the premise of a liquid narrative environment invites player immersion, as seen in the external-ontological and internal-ontological narrative structures. This ontological narrative results in a need for dynamic, reactive scoring, based on modular cues. As discussed, music has a prominent effect on emotion, but the player’s ability to direct the narrative leads to the condensing of musical tropes to short looping cues which can seamlessly fade in and out of the non-diegetic score during gameplay. This use of adaptive scoring further cements the internal-ontological status of the player within the game world, as they are leading the soundtrack through their narrative choices.

Though there is a need for different approaches to music with linear versus modular scoring, film and 2D video games share a need for music to draw focus to the screen and to help transport the audience/player into that 2D world. However, virtual reality gaming brings a new visual experience to the player, totally separate from that of 2D video games, film and even 3D film. It creates for the first time an edgeless game world, where the player experiences total visual engulfment. With the headset on, there is no room to look away from the screen, giving the game world an immediate sense of vastness. There is no separation between the player and the action, with characters appearing to be standing directly in front of their face. This alters music’s function as it no longer needs to attract the player’s attention to the screen, and this change in function can be seen in comparing the opening of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) with their Batman: Arkham VR (2016). The opening of Batman: Arkham Asylum (See Example 3.1), uses orchestral timbres such as horn swells, rising sequential string melodies and a choral pad. In stark contrast to this, the opening of Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.2) uses a more processed string sound, synthesised pad swells and a melody heard once in octaves on horn and strings before launching straight into thick atmospheric sounds. There is no melodic development, more synthesised timbres, thinner scoring, and a much shorter title sequence. It still depicts the darkness of Gotham City and the image of Batman as the dark hero, but in a musically simplified way in comparison with the 2D game. The ‘Suit Up’ scene in Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.3) does use a slightly thicker score for this interactive cinematic, but it is still far sparser than the music of the 2D game. We hear the theme but again in octaves with no countermelody or obvious harmonic reinforcement, underpinned by a synthesised pulse and low horn and string pad which swells when the player is not engaging with the game mechanics. This use of more prominent processed timbres and less prominent orchestral timbres both reinforces the visuals of the technology surrounding the player and also compliments the new ‘high-tech’ experience of virtual reality.

 

Example 3.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXR4QIQPsA>

Example 3.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTiTnY9FPgk>

Example 3.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bedb1UBtEc>

 

Another explanation for this use of reduced scoring could be the change in the physical delivery of the sound to the player. More than ever before players are encouraged to use surround sound headphones with the PSVR; a pair is included with the headset and there is a headphone jack on the headset control with its own volume control, making it easy to adjust the sound. This change in delivery plays with the notion of diegesis as the sound feels closer to the player and there is greater accuracy in the reception of stereo imaging. A busy soundtrack using orchestral timbres runs the risk of breaking the fourth wall for players as it becomes more obviously non-diegetic whilst they are totally visually situated within this game world. Using these electronic timbres that are more congruent with sounds of the game world creates a less obviously non-diegetic soundtrack which can aid player immersion and comfort without making players hyper aware that they are playing a video game. This soundtrack is reduced further during gameplay, when moving sound creates a 360º audio picture to accompany the image and to further reinforce the player’s feeling of being surrounded by the game and at the centre of the image (See Example 3.4). Just as the player is totally encompassed by visuals, they are totally cloaked in sound. Techniques applied to orchestral scores to create tension are instead applied to game world sounds to create a sense of unease without it being obviously musical. There is a constant pitter-patter of rain, setting a pulse, then rhythmic fragments are created by the blowing wind which moves between left and right and occupies the higher-end frequencies usually inhabited by violins and upper woodwind in an orchestral setting. This is underpinned by a consistent sub-bass rumble, then dissonances used to create tension come from the moving sounds of trams which pan from side to side and slide in pitch from high to low or low to high depending on their starting position in relation to the player, reminiscent of the doppler effect. Where these sounds intersect, dissonances are created, as if these tram sounds were an evolving instrumental pad; the dissonances do not resolve, they simply fade away as the trams pass, building suspense as the ear waits for a solid resolution.

 

Example 3.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsjbn-6e30>

 

This use of music alters our perception of diegesis as it uses a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic timbres that work together to create a soundtrack, existing somewhere in between the two sound worlds. It also changes the relationship between music and sound effects: rather than existing as two independent devices, they exist as one multifunctional device. Barnabé suggests that the notion of space in video games can be broken down into three concepts. The first, cosmos, is the game world that exists regardless of play participation, game narrative, or game objective. The second, diegesis, is the cosmos which is oriented by the story as its construction is necessary to allow for gameplay. The third, ludiegesis, is the diegesis as ruled by the player’s actions, the space that exists as a result of the player’s decisions[37]. If we apply this framework to virtual reality, the collaboration between in-game and external sound sources facilitates the smooth transitions between these virtual spaces as the player moves from the diegetic, such as an interactive cinematic scene, to the ludiegesis during gameplay. For example, Batman transitions from the ludiegesis, where he has the ability to capture the Penguin, to the diegesis, where he listens to the Penguin’s dialogue, back to the ludiegesis, without an obvious break between the fixed scene and the gameplay as there is no change in the sound world (See Example 3.4). Virtual reality easily accommodated this transition as the characters appear to be directly in front of the player, so a full screen close-up of their face can appear in both gameplay and the cinematic without needing an obvious change in camera angle. The seemingly randomised interactions between the various sound sources that creates the soundtrack also means there is no sense of interruption to the underlying score as the player transitions between these game states, allowing the player to feel as if they are always actively engaged in play even when a non-player character is delivering dialogue to progress the narrative.

From Wheatstone’s stereoscopic invention to modern day virtual reality technology, there has been growing interest in experiencing total visual engulfment. Although it has many cross-industry applications, the largest mass market for virtual reality is currently in video games, and an increasing number of game developers are creating virtual reality-only games and adding virtual reality downloadable content to their other titles. Throughout history, sound has accompanied moving image and has adapted to developments in visual and in audio technology. By analysing the way soundtracks have been used from early film through to virtual reality, we can see its evolution from the thick romantic scoring of the ‘golden age’, to the baroque stylings of early video games, to the use of modern film music technique. However, what has been shared throughout all these iterations of soundtrack is the use of a clear distinction between the diegetic world and the non-diegetic music, whether this is the live accompaniment during silent films or the full orchestral scores used in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). Virtual reality brings with it another change in music scoring technique, sound design and sound delivery to the player. It shares some fundamental characteristic with 2D video games, such as anchoring the player in the game world, but there is a contrast between the way these are executed. Now, the player’s perception of diegesis is warped as they are wholly visually engulfed in the game world, and the use of greater fluidity between music and game-world sound reflects this. We are still at the beginning of mass market virtual reality gaming, and whilst it is popular, it could take a few generations of virtual reality technology and a decrease in system prices before more players become accustomed to the new visual experience. However, through combining theories of immersive play, music’s representation of emotion, and its influence on feelings, with a discussion of the development of soundtrack over the past century, it is clear that music and sound are still vital to the gaming experience. The new game world of virtual reality may be edgeless, but our field of vision is still 114º, needing sound to add emotional context and depth to build a 360º experience.

 

References

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Films

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy)

The Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

The Pawnshop (1916, Charlie Chaplin)

 

Video Games

Batman (1986, Ocean Software)

Batman (1990, SunSoft)

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009, Rocksteady)

Batman: Arkham VR (2016, Rocksteady)

Batman Begins (2005, Eurocom)

Final Fantasy I (1987, Square Co.)

Final Fantasy XV (2016, Square Enix)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Electronic Arts)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo)

 

[1] Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

[2] Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

[3] Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

[4] How Animals See the World, Buzzfeed. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqmBa8FPMx8> accessed 28th August 2017.

[5] Discussed by Reay in Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

[6] Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947) p76.

[7] Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931) p359.

[8] Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000) p64.

[9] Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996) p38.

[10] Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013) p135.

[11] Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

[12] Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008) p209.

[13] Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014) p206.

[14] Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

[15] Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014).

[16] Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

[17] Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994)

[18] Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

[19] Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

[20] Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004) p43.

[21] Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

[22] Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

[23] Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

[24] Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

[25] Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

[26] Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

[27] Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

[28] Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

[29] Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

[30] Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

[31] Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

[32] Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

[33] Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

[34] Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

[35] Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

[36] Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

[37] Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

Kristian Ahm

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 102-121.

 

Kristian Ahm

University of Copenhagen

 

 

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

 

Abstract

This paper will present the argument that Nathan Drake, the player-figure in Uncharted 4, is an intermedial entity. By this, I mean that he is an entity with the ability to cross media borders. Based on this argument, the concept of gameworlds will be discussed and it will be suggested that the worlds players encounter in modern digital games should be perceived as intermedial landscapes. This landscape is traversed by the player via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. In doing so, the analysis is meant to highlight the potential fruitfulness of utilizing perspectives from intermedial studies in the analysis of individual games, instead of mostly focusing on processes of transmedial adaptation.

The paper will begin by defining the concept of the player-figure and Nathan Drake as a player-figure will be analysed. It will be argued that by appropriating the same player-figure to different contexts, the player-figure switches back and forth between being perceived as an avatar and a character.

Subsequently, the concept of intermediality will be introduced and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the player-figure crosses media borders. It will be argued in this analysis that a fundamental change takes place on the spatiotemporal modality when the game transitions from gameplay to cutscene. This marks a crossing between two qualified media – from that of games to cinema.

In the discussion, the argument is presented that Nathan Drake is an intermedial entity because of the audio-visual consistency of the player-figure, which means it is the player-figure itself traversing the media borders. From a media studies perspective, this paper focusses on the intermediality of the player-figure to highlight how intermedial perspectives can be useful in the analysis of the player-figure and its relations to the player controlling them.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on what intermediality could potentially bring to game studies. Most importantly, it will allow for a more granular analysis of what defines the digital game as a medium.

 

Key words: intermediality, player-figure, gameworlds, ludo-narrative, media borders, game studies, digital games

Introduction

 

While digital games are always mediated, seeing as they are dependent on the processing power of computers and (almost) always on some sort of screen output, it is only in recent years that researchers have highlighted the fact that contemporary digital games are something more than just games. Aarseth points out that games, fundamentally, are “complex software programs that can emulate any medium, including film, text/novel [and] graphic novel […]”[1]. He goes on to call these “games” ludo-narratological constructs, highlighting their composite nature, consisting of elements from games as well as narrative media[2]. For clarity’s sake, the paper will primarily refer to games as ludo-narrative software. The acknowledgement of the multimodality of digital games seems to suggest that the intermedial perspective would be especially fruitful for the analysis of digital games. This is especially the case for contemporary games that, due to great advances in processing power, can mix earlier and newer media in innovative and interesting ways[3]. For now, we can broadly define intermediality as a concept describing “the totality of cross-media phenomena, […] involving a crossing of borders between media”[4]. Within game studies, the intermedial perspective has been used to study transmedial phenomena such as the adaptation of games into movies or tv series into games[5];[6]. This paper makes a distinction between what we could call external intermediality, which focuses on transmedial processes of adaptation, and internal intermediality, which focuses on the crossing of media borders within a single media object. The present paper will not engage with external processes of adaptation across media, but instead focus on the internal intermediality of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog, 2016). As such, the object of analysis is the crossing of media borders within the ludo-narrative software itself, between the qualified media that constitute it. Recently, Fuchs performed an intermedial analysis of Alan Wake in the same internal vein, focusing on how the constellation of several media managed to create a sense of gothic uncanniness[7]. This paper however, will focus on the player-figure of Nathan Drake, the swashbuckling hero the player controls during gameplay.

This article will consist of four parts. In the first part, Nathan Drake will be analysed through the lens of Vella’s concept of the player-figure. Next, the concept of intermediality will be presented and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the game transitions between gameplay and cutscenes. Part 3 will discuss the results of the analyses and present the following arguments:

1) Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intrinsically intermedial player-figure. This distinguishes him as a new kind of media entity, different from earlier, multimodal player-figures.

2) The worlds encountered in modern ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which players traverse via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on how intermediality can contribute to the field of game studies. Specifically, it will be highlighted how intermedia studies can present new perspectives on what constitute digital games as a medium.

 

  1. The Player-Figure

 

Theory

 

Klevjer argues that avatar-based gameplay, i.e. games where players take control of a character in the gameworld, creates a sense of bodily immersion which is based on the embodied experience of play[8]. The immersion is not a trick of fiction, but the result of experiencing playing the game. This prosthetic agency is created through real-time control of in-game elements[9]. He also remarks that a distinction needs to be made between the avatar understood as a playable character and the avatar as an entity that grants the player agency and presence within the gameworld[10].

This is where Vella’s theoretical framework enters the picture. In his dissertation he lays the foundation for his concept of the player-figure. He makes an ontological distinction between avatar and character[11]. The avatar refers to the player-figure as a game component, while the character refers to the player-figure as a represented individual in the game’s heterocosm[12]. He goes on to define an avatar’s most important characteristic: that all player interactions are structured through them[13]. The character, on the other hand, is both a mimetic representation of a possible person, and a textual construct constituted of signs[14]. A character is built up of characterization statements (from now on called CSs), a stream of signifiers that allow the player to construct a mental image of a character[15].

This differentiation into avatar and character does not imply a duality. Instead, Vella describes the player-figure as a hybrid-identity, where the player may waver between perceiving it as an avatar or a character[16]. This hybrid-identity is possible because of what Vella calls the double perspectival structure; that the player has an internal and an external perspective on the game’s events[17]. From the internal perspective, the player inhabits the I can of the avatar and has a first-personal experience of playing out subjective experience within a domain. From the external perspective, the player sees a translation of events of her being-in-the-gameworld into discourse “in the form […] of a temporal sequence of audio-visual representation”[18]. This again relates to the player either perceiving the player-figure as avatar or character.

 

On- and off-line engagement

 

In the coming analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure, I will be focusing on the differences in perception of the player-figure during gameplay and cutscenes. I will be using the concept of on- and off-line engagement[19] to refer to these parts of the game. On-line is to be understood as “the state of ergodic participation that we would […] think of as ‘playing the game’” [20]. On the other hand, off-line “describes periods in which no registered input control is received from the player” [21]. When I refer to on-line segments in Uncharted 4, I mean parts where the player is granted control of the player-figure by the software. Conversely, off-line segments refer to parts in which the player is not in control of the player-figure.

 

Analysis

 

On-line engagement.

 

During on-line segments, the Nathan Drake player-figure functions mainly as an avatar, a game-systemic entity. This is especially the case during action-filled shootout sequences. Here, the player must fight to survive, not because they fear the character Drake will feel distressed if he dies, but because the player wants to overcome a challenge and progress to the next chapter. Drake becomes a vessel for the player’s engagement within the gameworld and has systemic characteristics that structure the player’s decision making. For example, if Drake gets shot too many times in a row, the game stops and returns Drake to an earlier part of the game. The player utilizes the actions afforded by the player-figure to overcome obstacles, i.e. find cover and shoot henchmen. It seems reasonable to believe that during shootouts the player identifies as Drake. This is further stressed by Drake’s utterances during such segments. If a grenade is thrown near Drake, he will frantically shout “No, no, no, no!”. In Vella’s terms, this outburst could be perceived as a CS originating from the character Nathan Drake[22]. However, I would argue that the outburst functions more as a signifier of the grenade having landed within a certain radius of the player-figure, who is implicitly warning the player to get away from it. While this point is arguable, it makes sense if one views Nathan Drake the avatar, as a virtual game object that has certain behavioural properties, which places him on a different level than the fictional[23]. The utterance does not characterize Drake as a character who dislikes grenades, but as a game-systemic entity that also functions as a dynamic information source to the player.

During on-line segments of exploration, the Drake player-figure manifests traits of a character through numerous instances of CSs. In Chapter 11, Drake must traverse a Madagascan street market. The player still controls Drake’s movement and must guide him towards a destination, but small verbal exchanges and constraints on player actions function as CSs, creating a mental image of who he is as a character. The player-figure fluidly changes between being perceived as an avatar and a character. When walking through a crowd, Drake automatically squeezes through crowds and occasionally mumbles “Excuse me”.

 

Figure 1. Drake traversing a Madagascan street market

obraz 1
Source: YouTube[24]

 

Here, a combination of dynamic mimetic elements[25], i.e. the context-based animation of the player-figure and voice, create an image of Drake as a character, not a game-systemic entity. While it could be argued that the cover and shooting animations experienced during shootouts also characterize Drake, the point made here is that the dynamic mimetic elements utilized in the street market are more overtly expressive about Drake, since they are unique to him. Drake’s companions, who occasionally join him in battle, are programmed to shoot and take cover using the same animations as Drake.

Further on, the player can choose to buy an apple from a vendor. If the player chooses to do so, she does not get a health bonus or any kind of boost to their avatar’s systemic attributes. Instead, this serves as another dynamic mimetic element where the player, through her actions, decides what type of character Drake is.

 

Figure 2. Drake buys an apple from a vendor

obraz 2
Source: YouTube

 

The most notable CSs stem from the lack of player actions possible in the market sequence, compared to the wealth of actions possible during shootouts. Besides walking and looking, the only other possible action is to “look closer”, which makes the game camera zoom in. This action is performed by pressing the button that normally makes Drake aim his weapon. Although the 3D model of the player-figure is visibly equipped with a gun and rope hook, they are no longer signifiers of possible player actions, but are part of the character’s costume[26], characterizing him as an experienced adventurer. This shows how the player-figure’s features, both semiotic and mechanical, can be appropriated to different contexts, thereby facilitating the seamless change back and forth between avatar and character.

 

Off-line engagement.

 

During off-line segments, the Drake player-figure functions only as a character. I would argue that the player, no longer having agency within the gameworld, takes on an external perspective on the events of the game. Although the word ‘cutscene’ may have problematic implicit meanings, I will summon it now to help properly explain what these off-line segments are. According to Klevjer, a cutscene is a “cinematic sequence that suspends regular gameplay in order to convey plot, characterization and spectacle”[27]. Because the Uncharted series is deeply inspired by action-adventure cinema, the cutscenes are indeed cinematic elements that form the most explicitly narrative parts of Uncharted 4. Here, the player is fed a stream of static mimetic CSs[28], as if they are watching a movie. Static mimetic elements are “statements regarding fixed (or relatively fixed) facts regarding a character” such as name and appearance[29]. Some might argue that the instances in cutscenes, where the player is asked to choose a response on Drake’s behalf, turns the player-figure into an avatar. I would argue that this is not the case since these choices, like the situation with the apple vendor, only serve to characterize Nathan Drake. What is particularly interesting when examining Drake as a character in off-line segments is how much emphasis is put on showing his face to the player. Because of the sophistication of the performance capture technology used, Drake’s expressiveness during cutscenes is very impressive. It thereby foregrounds him as a represented individual. As engagement changes from off-line to on-line, the view of Drake’s back signals the change from character to avatar. He is stripped of his salient characteristics and reconfigured into a vessel.

 

Figure 3. Drake player-figure off-line

obraz 3
Source: YouTube

 

Figure 4. Drake player-figure on-line

obraz 4
Source: YouTube

 

This concludes the analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure. It has attempted to demonstrate how Drake can switch between being perceived as an avatar and a character by the player. The fluidity of this transformation process is important for this paper’s argument that the player-figure is an intermedial entity. By reconfiguring the same player-figure, players are confronted with a visually coherent player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders, instead of being split into several different representations.

 

  1. Intermediality

 

Theory

 

Intermediality is the study of all instances in which different media interact with each other, assuming a theoretical “in-between space” where these interactions take place[30]. In Elleström’s words, intermediality is something “that sometimes ‘happens’; an effect of unconventional ways of performing medial works”[31]. As such, it is important to define what intermediality means in the context of this paper[32].

The intermedial focus of this paper is the subcategory of media combinations[33]. This is to be understood as media objects that combine “at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation”[34]. Of interest for this paper is the crossing of borders between qualified media, considered a key intermedial phenomenon[35];[36]. Because of Uncharted 4’s status as a piece of software, within which are encompassed several distinct media, I believe it is ripe for intermedial analysis because of the novel ways it seamlessly changes between those media. The word “media” has been thrown around quite a lot by now. Let me elucidate what the term means in the context of the coming analysis. Elleström divides the medium into basic media, qualified media, and technical media[37]. Basic media are media that are “mainly identified by their modal appearances” such as “still images”, “moving images” or “organized non-verbal sound”[38]. Qualified media are what we would normally call “art forms and other cultural media types” which are constituted by both historic contexts and communicative conventions, and which consist of basic media[39]. While the first two categories are abstractions that help us understand how media are formed, technical media are the physical objects or physical phenomena that “‘realize[…]’ and ‘display[…]’ basic and qualified media”[40].

These distinctions help me clarify my last statement: When I talk of the novel ways the Uncharted 4 software transitions between media, I am referring to transitions between qualified media. As will become clear when I begin my analysis, I am interested in the ways the software transitions from the qualified medium of games to the qualified medium of cinema.

To properly analyse these transitions, I will be utilizing Elleström’s analytical framework, based on his four modalities of media. The term “modality” is related to the term “mode”, which is a “way to be or do things”[41]. In Elleström’s analytical framework, which will be introduced presently, he uses the term “modality” to refer to the different ways media can manifest themselves. He describes these modalities as “the essential cornerstones of all media without which mediality cannot be comprehended […]”[42]

The first of the four modalities is the material modality, referring to “the latent corporeal interface of the medium”[43].

Second is the sensorial modality, which relates to the “physical and mental acts of perceiving the present interface of the medium through the sense faculties” – through sense-data, receptors, and sensation[44].

Third is the spatiotemporal modality. This modality covers “the structuring of the sensorial perception of sense-data of the material interface into experiences and conceptions of space and time”[45]. In other words, this modality refers to the way a person perceives and constructs the experience of space and time in the medium at hand.

Finally, the fourth modality, semiotic modality, relates to the “creation of meaning in the spatiotemporally conceived medium by the way of different sorts of thinking and sign interpretation”[46].

For my analysis of Uncharted 4, I will be focusing on the spatiotemporal modality since I believe an important shift happens in this modality when the game transitions between gameplay and cutscene. I will argue that this shift in modality marks a transition between games and cinema.

 

Analysis

 

Please note that in the following I will be writing numbers in parentheses, the decimals will refer to the images within Figure 5.

 

Setting the scene

 

In chapter 8, Drake and his brother are exploring a cave-system.

 

Figure 5. Transitions between on- and off-line segments

obraz 5
Source: YouTube

 

The player is in control of the player-figure, meaning its current status is an avatar (5.1). Occasional chat between the brothers deploys verbal CSs that characterize their relationship. The player steers through the cave-system and begins climbing a wall (5.2). As they press the jump button, which makes the player-figure jump up onto a small ledge, they lose control of the player-figure and the camera closes in on the brothers (5.3).

A cut, and the viewer is now witnessing a conversation between the antagonists, which the brothers are listening in on (5.4).

As their scene ends (5.5), it cuts back to the two eavesdropping brothers (5.6).

As they converse, the camera automatically pulls out (5.7) and control of the player-figure is returned to the player (5.8).

 

Time and space

 

It is the argument of this paper that a change in modality has occurred within Uncharted 4, thus signalling a transition between the media encompassed within. For this analysis, I will focus on the changes happening on the spatiotemporal level, since this modality most effectively indicates the crossing from the medium of games into the medium of cinema.

If we begin by looking at the temporal level, the change is obvious. We move from the partially fixed sequentiality of games to the fixed sequentiality of cinema[47]. I refrain myself from claiming that Uncharted 4 has non-fixed sequentiality, since the game’s linear nature does not leave much room for the player to improvise.

On the spatial level, it is not as easy to use Elleström’s concepts of spatiality to make relevant distinctions between the types of space the player encounters during on- and off-line segments. Instead, I will use the concepts of gameworld interface[48] and scenographic space[49] to make these distinctions.

During on-line engagement, the player controls Nathan and must navigate the cave without falling to their death. The world is presented to the player in a wide view, allowing her to survey the world through the player-figure. Also, the player can control the view she has of the gameworld. Small reliefs of stone communicate to the player that she can grab them. The space functions as a gameworld interface, a space that’s “designed to support and inspire certain gameplay activities” and which allows the player to “take gameplay-relevant actions within the gameworld”[50]. The space changes as soon as the player loses control of the player-figure and thus also the view they have of the gameworld, signalling a change to a different modality.

The nature of the space changes to that of a scenographic space, where the player, now a passive viewer, constructs the world through visual and auditory cues[51]. Unlike before, the player cannot control where they want to look, but are fed cues that help them construct the space in their minds. This is most explicitly the case with the room in which the antagonists converse since the player-figure will never set foot in that room. The room’s function is not to feed the player information about relevant gameplay actions, but to set up expectations for the unfolding narrative. From this perspective, it could be argued that a change has also taken place on the semiotic modality, since the player/viewer employs different types of “sign thinking and interpretation” depending on whether the player perceives the represented space as a gameworld interface or as a filmic, scenographic space[52]. What is important to note is that this perception of space is dependent on whether the player can control the perspective (i.e. the camera) or not. Keep in mind that the scenographic space is still technically constructed in the same way as the gameworld interface: inside a game engine. The fundamental difference is that the player during on-line segments can control the perspective and thus engage with the world in a different way than if they did not control it. Interactivity, it seems, also plays a big part in cueing the player/viewer to employ a specific type of sign interpretation.

Based on this analysis, I am arguing that a transition has taken place between two qualified media: games, and cinema. What is particularly interesting is the seamless nature of these transitions, which can be quite jarring when the player is engaged in the real-time control of the player-figure. This seamlessness rests on the design decision to present the player with information in an ecological, integrated manner in a way that does not draw players’ attention to the fact that they are playing a game[53].

Before I move on to discussing the implications of these blurred media borders, I will quickly summarize the results of my analysis.

By analysing the player-figure of Nathan Drake, I determined that he is mainly perceived as an avatar during on-line segments of gameplay, but that he was able to manifest traits of a character through different kinds of CSs. During off-line segments, he was perceived only as a character. This transformation from avatar to character is seamless because of the constant reappropriation of the same player-figure.

In my analysis of the player-figure’s media border crossings, I concluded that the modality of the software changed fundamentally on the spatiotemporal level, turning the heterocosm from a gameworld interface during on-line segments, to a scenographic, filmic space during off-line segments.

 

III. Discussions and Contributions

 

The Player-Figure as an Intermedial Entity

 

As has been pointed out in the analysis, Uncharted 4 jumps to-and-fro between different qualified media. It does so in an almost seamless way, both by reconfiguring the player-figure and the perspective on the space the figure inhabits. But does this seamlessness exclude it from being categorized as an intermedial phenomenon? Rajewsky highlights digital media’s ability to simulate earlier media forms and to erase perceptible media differences[54]. This is certainly problematic since the study of intermediality is based on the existence of perceptible borders, which can be crossed. With that said, this paper would like to present an idea of where this perceptible border might be found.

In ludo-narrative software, the perceptible border between media is grounded in the player-figure and its ability to be mapped onto several qualified media in a way that is perceived as being coherent. Nathan Drake as a player-figure can be either a game-systemic entity, i.e. an avatar, or a character. We as players perceive him as a unified whole and this is key to him being an intermedial entity. Another very perceptible way that the player-figure signals a crossing between media borders is by having the player relinquish control of it.

 

Multimodal and Intermedial Player-Figures

 

This does not mean that all player-figures are intermedial. Cloud, the protagonist from Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997) could certainly be called a multimodal player-figure with the hybrid-identity of both an avatar and a character[55]. However, the player-figure of Cloud is built up of several different audio-visual representations. Avatar-Cloud is a small polygonal man during on-line segments of exploration and a slightly more realistically proportioned man during combat. The Character-Cloud found in off-line segments is a wholly different, third representation. This compartmentalization of several different player-figures makes the types of border crossings seen performed by the player-figure in Uncharted 4 impossible. This does not make the intrinsic intermediality of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 some technological goal that developers should strive for. Instead, the realization that a player-figure can consist of several representations opens new avenues of inquiry. What implications do these multiple representations have aesthetically, ontologically, functionally? The recent World of Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 2016) acknowledges the multiple representations of its protagonists and incorporates their shape-shifting abilities as a part of gameplay. What does this self-reflexive design practice tell us about the ontology of the player-figure? This brings up another point. While Vella’s study of the player-figure is very detailed, many of his analyses are based on games developed in western countries. Except for a footnote mention of Final Fantasy VIII (Square, 1999), all the role-playing games mentioned in his dissertation are western. It would be interesting to analyse how Japanese role-playing games utilize multiple representations to create a coherent player-figure. As Fuchs points out in his analysis of Alan Wake, the co-presence of several representations of the same character can have an aesthetic function, e.g. to create discomfort[56].

In summary, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is intermedial because he is audiovisually consistent across media, in a way that has been hard to achieve until now for technological reasons. This consistency is instrumental for the player perceiving the player-figure as both an avatar and a character. Even in the previous game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011), changes from off- to on-line engagement are marked with a second of black screen. This second of black is a way of compartmentalizing the player-figure into different modal strata. The player-figure is multimodal in this instance but not intermedial, since the figure itself is not crossing any media borders.

The observation that the Nathan Drake player-figure in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial entity brings me to my next point.

Discussing Spatiality in Digital Games

 

If we accept the argument that Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial player-figure, we must also accept how this problematizes the ways digital game worlds are conceptualized. As was argued in the analysis – in tandem with the player-figure’s transformation from avatar to character and the player’s loss of control of it – the spatiotemporal modality of Uncharted 4 changes. Instead of being a gameworld interface, it transforms into a filmic, scenographic space. The implication of this is that we can see the world of the ludo-narrative software as an intermedial landscape that can be both a gameworld and a traditional filmic space. It is never just a gameworld or a scene, it is something in-between and can switch between these. To echo Aarseth[57], it would be metonymic to simply call them gameworlds since the world in Uncharted 4 is used as much more than an obstacle course for players to conquer. While the concept of intermedial landscapes is used by Fuchs in his analysis of Alan Wake’s uncanny, gothic world, it is used in this paper to call attention to a fundamental characteristic of the worlds players are confronted with when they play modern digital games.

This paper suggests that the worlds players encounter in ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which the player traverses via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. It seems salient at this juncture to point out that this view builds on the fundamental observation that videogames are not simulations, but virtual worlds that are ontologically distinct from the physical world[58]. Uncharted 4 is not a simulation of the physical world but is its own virtual realm in which these border crossings are a very real phenomenon.

Finally, future research endeavours utilizing the intermedial perspective will be outlined.

 

  1. Future Research

 

Towards a Conceptualization of the Digital Game Medium

 

The intermedial approach could potentially be useful in the investigation of understanding what digital games are as a medium, beyond simply calling them a “virtual hypermedium”[59]. What is the medium of games? What borders surround it and how do we identify these? Wolf states that media borders are created by conventions[60]. Elleström’s concepts of the two qualifying aspects of media could be useful for investigating these conventions[61]. The contextual qualifying aspect relates to the use of a medium in specific historical, cultural, and social circumstances[62]. By performing analyses of the discourses, practices and conventions surrounding the videogame medium, we gain insights into its evolution, but more importantly we may be able to discourage the use of normative views and colloquialisms[63]. The second aspect, the operational qualifying aspect, relates to the aesthetic and communicative conventions of a medium[64]. Much work has been done in this field, with researchers from different disciplines attempting to describe and explain how videogames as a medium communicate and foster aesthetic experiences.

In this academic context, the intermedial analysis of individual games that could be categorized as unconventional medial works would be particularly interesting. To use this paper as an example, by being aware of communicative conventions from several qualified media, an argument has been formulated that relates to the ontology of ludo-narrative software and the modern player-figure. Wolf writes that media function “as cognitive frames for authors as well as recipients and are therefore […] part of the message itself”[65]. This suggests that the individual media present in the media constellations we normally call “videogames” have a great impact on the experience that emerges when interacting with the media object. As a future research endeavour, it could be interesting to analyse contemporary experimental games that combine media in novel and surprising ways. Examples of this could be Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015), Her Story (Barlow, 2015) or Uriel’s Chasm (Barry, 2014). All of these games utilize real video footage captured in the physical world, but they utilize this footage in a different way than they were used in the 90’s, when the future of games was envisioned as being a combination of action cinema and shooting games (see Sewer Shark (Digital Pictures, 1992)). Kattenbelt writes about intermedial studies being a way to investigate “those co-relations between different media that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other […]”[66]. This seems like an interesting avenue of research and one which this paper hopes to contribute to. How is the inclusion of the basic medium of ‘moving images’ reshaped by being put in different types of ludo-narrative software? In Sewer Shark it serves as part of the gameworld, with video footage being overlaid on a game interface and sprites of enemies. In Her Story, the video clips of a woman being interrogated are framed more like collectible objects, with the player tasked to unearth as many clips as possible to solve a murder mystery. What could an analysis of this change in convention potentially tell us about the medium of videogames? What does it tell us about how the borders surrounding the ludic medium have been reshaped in the last 20 years? What Kattenbelt’s quote also suggests is that the search for a clearly definable digital game medium is futile. The field of game studies has struggled with defining games since its conception. I certainly do not think that an adequate, stable definition can be found, but a history of game media conventions would have academic and historic value. For investigations like these, Elleström’s analytical framework of the four modalities would be a powerful tool for thinking about these (un)conventional media constellations with greater granularity. As Schut points out, every time a medium is presented in a digital game, it is no longer the exact same medium as before, since it is put in a new context.[67]

Wolf writes that the study of intermediality, “if carried out wisely”, will strengthen the core of the field of study[68]. While it is not entirely clear what Wolf means by “wisely”, perhaps Elleström’s advice to study all kinds of media “with a high level of awareness of the modalities of media and the crucial modal differences and similarities of media” is an answer[69].

The more we know about videogames as a medium, the closer we get to answering the question of what games are as a phenomenon, and this would be an important milestone[70].

 

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), pp. 129-133

Aarseth Espen, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 484-492

Beil Benjamin & Schmidt Hans Christian, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015), pp. 73-88.

Bolter Jay D.  & Grusin Richard, Remediation Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (1999)

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

Burn Andrew & Schott Gareth, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004), pp. 213-233.

Elleström Lars, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 11-51.

Fuchs Michael, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global) (2016), pp. 39-54

Hennig Martin, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), pp. 17-33.

Jørgensen Kristine, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

Kattenbelt Chiel, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), pp. 19-29

Klevjer Rune, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), pp. 1-24.

Klevjer Rune, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 301-309.

Newman James, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002),

Rajewsky Irina, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), pp. 43-64.

Schut Kevin, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 324-330.

Vella Daniel, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015)

http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th 2016.

Wolf Werner, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999)

Wolf Werner, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), pp. 15-43.

 

Games:
Cibele (2015, Star Maid Games)

Final Fantasy VII (1997, Square)

Final Fantasy VIII (1998, Square)

Her Story (2015, Sam Barlow)

Sewer Shark (1992, Digital Pictures)

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016, Naughty Dog)

Uriel’s Chasm (2014, Dylan Barry)

World of Final Fantasy (2016, Square Enix)

 

 

 

 

[1]  Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), p. 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press) (1999)

[4] Martin Hennig, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), p. 17.

[5] Benjamin Beil & Hans Christian Schmidt, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015).

[6] Martin Hennig.

[7]  Michael Fuchs, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016)

[8] Rune Klevjer, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 2

[11] Daniel Vella, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015), p. 216.

[12] Ibid., p. 217.

[13] Ibid., p. 219.

[14] Ibid., p. 371.

[15] Ibid., p. 374.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Ibid., p. 364.

[18] Ibid, p. 364.

[19] James Newman, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002), http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Daniel Vella, p.393.

[23] V.M. Karhulahti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

[24]All Figure sources: Youtube (2016). Uncharted 4 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 FULL GAME 1080p No Commentary (Chapter 1-23). RabidRetrospectGames. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxaw6CqVMss

[25] Daniel Vella, p. 393.

[26] Ibid., p. 379

[27] Rune Klevjer, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 301.

[28] Daniel Vella, p. 376

[29] Ibid.

[30] Irina Rajewsky, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), p. 46.

[31] Lars Elleström, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 28.

[32] Irina Rajewsky, p. 45.

[33] Ibid., pp. 51-52

[34] Ibid.

[35] Irina Rajewsky, p. 46.

[36] Lars Elleström.

[37] Ibid, p. 34.

[38] Ibid., p. 27.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 30.

[41] Ibid., p. 14.

[42] Ibid., p. 15.

[43] Ibid., p. 17

[44] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[45] Ibid., p. 18.

[46] Ibid., p. 22.

[47] Lars Elleström, p. 19.

[48] Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambdrige, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

[49] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

[50] Kristine Jørgensen, pp. 2-3.

[51] David Bordwell, p. 113.

[52] Lars Elleström, p. 22.

[53] Kristine Jørgensen, p. 147.

[54] Irina Rajewsky, p. 62.

[55] Andrew Burn & Gareth Schott, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004).

[56] Michael Fuchs, p. 47

[57] Espen Aarseth, pp. 129-133.

[58] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

[59] Chiel Kattenbelt, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), p. 23

[60] Werner Wolf, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999), p. 37, in Lars Elleström, p. 28.

[61] Lars Elleström, p. 24

[62] Ibid., pp. 24-25

[63] Ibid., p. 25.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Werner Wolf, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), p. 23

[66] Chiel Kattenbelt, p. 25

[67] Kevin Schut, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 329.

[68] Werner Wolf, p. 21.

[69] Lars Elleström, p. 38.

[70] Espen Aarseth, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014).

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 122-141.

Jayme D. Mallindine

University of Texas

 

 

 

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

 

Abstract

The 2016 launch of Pokémon Go, Pokémon Sun, and Pokémon Moon – video games that shattered sales records and expectations – show that the Pokémon brand continues to capture the hearts (and wallets) of people all across the world. Sidestepping questions of whether Pokémon’s influence is the direct result of conscious player choice, corporate control, or political power plays, this paper investigates the inflammatory lines between power and play. This paper argues that Pokémon products, as a branded transmedia franchise, have the ability to spark moments of nostalgic recall for consumers through the use of memory mechanics called “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to a player’s embodied history of play. Drawing from Laura Marks’ work on “radioactive memory fossils” and Deleuze’s “time-images”, this essay investigates a few Pokémon gestures that operate both intra-platform (within the same type of platform, such as between the animated film and the animated series) and inter-platform (between different types of digital media platforms, such as between the animated series and the video game). By investigating these gestures, we expose ways in which the Pokémon brand can inspire the recollection of memories in ways the player and producer can influence but not entirely control. Pokémon’s presence as a branded transmedia experience embedded in individual biographies of players opens avenues of resistance to traditional lines of influence in the media industry by reframing power not just as the ability to control, but also as the ability to surprise.

 

Key Words: memory, transmedia, Pokémon, branding, time-images

 

Introduction

 

In the late 1990’s, there was a sudden and seemingly never-ending influx of strangely cute monsters making their way into the United States. The children were in love. The adults? A little confused. The monsters were Pokémon[1] and they were the most recent pop culture craze from Japan. Their almost over-night popularity with youth in the United States was so surprising that the phrase “pokémania” was coined to describe what appeared to be an irrational obsession for these pocket-sized toys.

Twenty years later, Pokémon remains a transmedia heavyweight. In 2016, Pokémon proved, with the release of Pokémon Go[2], that Pokémon as a brand was still powerful enough to break the internet. An article in Rolling Stone Magazine reported that Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game that utilized Pokémon imagery, developed by Niantic and released to iOS and Android, experienced such unexpected high demand that the developer’s overloaded servers crashed within two days of the game’s initial release.[3] Pokémon’s continued popularity is not limited to smartphones either. The 2016 hand-held console video games, Pokémon Sun[4] and Pokémon Moon[5], became Nintendo’s fastest-selling titles ever in the Americas by selling 3.7 million copies across the American regions within the first few weeks of sale. [6]

The popularity of this twenty-year-old brand has sparked conversations about why these toys garner such intense affection and what that means for players and society. Some viewed Pokémon’s success in terms of global politics, with the brand’s popularity seen as evidence of Japan’s burgeoning ability to counteract the hegemonic media industry of the United States.[7] Others focused on smaller-scale and individual responses and uses of Pokémon products.[8] Researchers and journalists wanted to understand how and why Pokémon had burrowed its way into the youthful hearts of U.S. children and who ultimately was the one responsible for its popularity. Was the Pokémon takeover planned from the top down as the result of corporate ingenuity, or did Pokémon gain its influence from the bottom up due to player autonomy?

This essay posits that Pokémon itself, outside of purely corporate or consumer control, can move meaning and value through memory. Looking at the various ways in which Pokémon products create their own affective and nostalgic value, I argue that Pokémon products can spark involuntary moments of recall for consumers using mnemonic “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to embodied histories of play encapsulated within the memory of the consumer. This makes the vested popular interest in Pokémon lie somewhere within an assemblage vast enough to include a multitude of various components: corporate goals, political power struggles, consumer agency, as well as meaningful memories not always controlled by either consumer or creator.

Noticing the ways Pokémon can move meaning independently of conscious thought is not to say that power inequalities, whether between producer and consumer or between nation-states, are non-existent or unimportant. It instead provides an increased awareness of tools that open the potential for media to swerve within the configured lines that typically shape the movement and flow of entertainment and information. This swerving is based on Amit Rai’s conceptualization of clinamedia, “the intensive process of becoming” that he believes is the new order of media assemblage. The ability for media to swerve like “the clinamen of Lucretius”,[9] deviating from the straight lines of cause and effect dictated by outside forces, opens up the possibility for a type of political tweaking, offering additional methods of resisting the enforced methods of control. Gestures, when seen as a type of swerve, are not ways to avoid acknowledging power differences, but instead are sources of hope that hegemonies and power structures do not always have the final say on meaning. There are ways to move outside of power imbalances, and the playful gestures found in toy objects are just one of many.

 

Gestures and Memory Mechanics

 

Pokémon’s current success in part deals with the brand’s existence as a nostalgic entity. Nostalgia, a “yearning for something that tends to have been within living memory rather than distant historical memory”, is a key component in the construction and marketing of video games today.[10] As video games, including the Pokémon franchise, age as a medium, nostalgia and memory have made appearances in the research behind why certain games become cultural and financial hotbeds of activity. Nintendo is especially known for this, with academic volumes on gaming and nostalgia, such as Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, referencing the success of Nintendo’s franchises as proof that memory and video games are significantly intertwined.[11]  But how are people encouraged to remember previous Pokémon experiences, and who controls those memorable moments?

In Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, memory is described as something that is stored bodily, as well as something that is not always called upon consciously. Marks identifies that media can be a hotbed of triggers that uproot a previous flow of experience (i.e. a memory) involuntarily on the part of the rememberer/viewer, making memory a minefield of potentiality that opens up a person to multiple flows of time simultaneously.[12] Images or objects, which she terms radioactive memory fossils, inspire this jump to the past and disrupt the time and coherence of the present plane. This launches the viewer outward into other planes of both time and experience,[13] revealing that “the past [the image] represents is not over”[14] and that it continues to live on and influence the present moment, with the present moment also reaching backwards to inexplicably influence our past experience.

Marks’ writing works in part from Deleuze’s theory of “time-image”. Time-images, as compared to movement-images, do not follow the chronological order and representation of narrative actions and reactions. While past, present, and future are all clearly differentiated from each other in movement-images, time-images flatten that temporal plane, making past, future, and present indistinguishable.[15] Pokémon achieves a similar effect through use of “gestures” which, like Deleuzian style time-images, are movements, actions, or images that disrupt the development of linear narrative by pointing towards other memories and media products within the transmedia franchise. This creates a wider system of moments that extend beyond the specific medium and moment at hand. These gestures are not “gestures” in the sense of a physical movement by an actor within the story, but rather a “pointing towards” another aspect of Pokémon through the mirroring of a familiar image, phrase, character, game mechanic, or environment. The presence of a gesture involves movement from the present moment to a previous one and has the feel of a verb – a moment that moves you – versus a noun, a moment one has.

As we learn from Marks, memories are not always purposeful, and these gestures towards the remembered past do not necessarily imply voluntary action on the part of the viewer. Rather than being a recollection in the form of purposeful nostalgia, the gestures can point to the past regardless of whether the player intended to imagine it or not. The viewer cannot choose to remember or not remember and is instead moved to memory by the gesture itself. It is an excavation of the past not by the methodical digging of a shovel-wielding archaeologist, but by an unexpected and explosive tripwire.

These types of gestures disrupt the place and time of the present experience when they surface. When a gesture moves you while you are playing the newest Pokémon game, you are pushed into a moment where your memory of playing Pokémon previously exists simultaneously with your current experience of playing, all in the very same moment. Due to the player’s embodied, tactile memory of having interacted with other Pokémon products, these gestures do not simply disrupt via the rational plane, but also via the affective one. Playing is an action, a very bodily one, and memories of play are also memories of movement and body.

The word gesture also in part draws from Bergson’s discussions on the explosive nature of repetitive, unconscious, and “disruptive comic gestures”, which he says contrast with intentional or conscious actions.[16] In the case of Pokémon, these gestures disrupt the narrative using mimic-able images, actions, game mechanics, and phrases that are associated with other temporalities, like Marks’ radioactive memory fossils. They both “condense time within themselves”[17] and expand time outwards upon the viewing or “excavation”. Using the word “gesture” instead of “fossil” is appropriate for a transmedia franchise that originates with a game, a media form that more obviously relies on physical movements of the player for a story to unfold. Using the word gesture more easily brings to mind movement, which helps us to remember the interactive (and therefore action-oriented) nature of games. This is not to say gestures are more powerful than other types of references, like music or visual imagery, just that gestures are well-suited to transmedia franchises that involve games. All forms of transmedia storytelling use a variety of different narrative-making techniques, but the narrative found in games is intertwined with game mechanics – system-based feedback mechanisms that affect how a narrative is experienced. Using action-based ideas versus noun-based ideas helps not only pay homage to what is unique about video games, but also expands our conception of transmedia memory-making beyond what an audience member remembers seeing, but also what an audience member remembers doing.

 

Brands and Memory-Making

 

Transmedia, in addition to being multiple kinds of interrelated stories based on the same fictional universe produced on multiple types of media platforms, is also a type of brand. When someone says a media product is part of a transmedia franchise, like Star Wars, the label brings with it certain expectations about what an experience with that product will be like based on previous experiences with products made under that same umbrella. Branding relies heavily on affect and past experiences, and corporations have been harnessing the power of memory to create effective branding for quite a while. In Robert J. Foster’s book, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea,[18] Foster studies how soft drink brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi become more than mere commodities as they spread globally from place to place. For Foster, the qualifying of the meaning and value of Coca-Cola lies beyond production or simple commodity consumption, but in the affective work that consumers do through their association of past experiences and feelings with the Coca-Cola brand.

This affective significance comes as a result of Coca-Cola embedding itself into the everyday lives of consumers to such a degree that it becomes part of people’s individual biographies, “a prop for the particular narratives through which individual consumers actively produce their own pasts”.[19] Coca-Cola’s value and meaning is essentially produced by creating a time machine, a type of time travel only possible to consumers with previous, embodied connections with the Coca-Cola brand in physically salient ways. An example being the bodily experience of drinking a Coca-Cola during a particularly memorable summer spent at summer camp. When you see an ad for Coca-Cola, you not only rationally recognize and read the message, but also remember the emotional and physical feelings of drinking from that cold glass bottle on a warm pier. The value of a brand such as Coca-Cola comes from two interlinked sources: one from the actual consumption of a commodity marked by brand image, and the other of the memory of that consumption upon viewing the brand image later. Each product must be able to stand alone as a complete experience, but also gain in value, depth, and meaning when it becomes a node in the network of memories and experiences that make up a consumer’s experience with that brand.

Framing Pokémon as a brand like Coca-Cola makes for easy connections. Brands are created when consumers (or players, in this case) form emotional relationships with the franchise through a brand’s ability to connect products to remembered individual biographies. While brands like Coca-Cola do this through advertisements in relationship to a single experience – that of drinking Coca-Cola – Pokémon is a brand that stimulates similar time-traveling tendencies not for one product, but for a large collection of media products. Each encounter with a Pokémon product can connect various aspects of the consumers’ individual biography and identity, linking together different times and experiences of the player’s life into the continually expanding Pokémon universe.

Colin B. Harvey in Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, identifies memory and nostalgia as key mechanisms through which transmedia products are created and spread.[20] For Harvey, “the role of memory can be understood as central to transmedia storytelling, in which the invocation of ideas, characters, plot points or audio-visual imagery between elements of a franchise are central to that project’s success.” [21] This makes sense. It would be difficult to link different forms of media together (linking stories together being the basis of transmedia storytelling all together) if an audience member could not remember any of the previous stories.

When discussing the significance of memory when it comes to creating canon, Harvey examines “the multiple ways in which creators, fans and other commentators seek to control and negotiate the tensions between subjective and collective remembering of a storyworld’s diegesis” [my emphasis].[22] The emphasis on control and negotiation implies that memory is something that can be controlled through agency of either consumer or creator. This is seen again in the final chapter, where Harvey explains that,

the degree of control exercised by the IP holder in each instance in relation to how memory is controlled directly affects the particular narrative being told and the wider storyworld. Equally the lack of control experienced by those outside of such legal arrangements determines how memories can be articulated, and the extent to which they can be subverted.[23]

Control of memory, collective memory especially, is important when it comes to transmedia storytelling. While memory can be affected, encouraged, and subverted by both authorial intent and consumer choice, there are also additional ways to subvert power that are not as tied into conceptions of control. Memory, as Harvey says, can be “an unruly beast”[24], and memory’s ability to continually surprise us provides an alternative way to think about the way media moves us.

 

Producers, Players, and Play Objects

 

From the beginning, concerns about power, both why Pokémon held such a powerful position in the imaginations of players, as well as who controlled that power, were at the forefront of conversations surrounding these pocket-sized monsters. Alternatively called “Cool Japan” or “Japan’s Gross National Cool”,[25] the success of Japanese media products like Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty, and Pokémon in markets outside of Japan, especially the United States, could be interchangeably seen as either a symbol or a symptom of Japan’s rise in “soft power”. Japan was viewed as a blossoming media powerhouse, and more eyes on Japanese media meant Japan was increasingly able to affect culture, values, and politics through the appeal and attraction of their nation and their nation’s media products.[26]

This assessment of Japan’s growing persuasive capacities in globalized media networks was problematized by Iwabuchi Koichi, whose analyses of the extensive localization practices of Pokémon showed that all visual cues that marked Japanese media as being a specifically “Japanese product” were effectively removed. These localization processes revolve around the intention of making these products culturally neutral, something Iwabuchi terms “culturally odorless”.[27] In that case, it means the popularity of products like Pokémon cannot easily be interpreted as consumers appreciating or yearning for anything that, in Iwabuchi’s language, is “distinctively Japanese”. For Iwabuchi, the success of Pokémon stems not from Japan’s rise as a cultural superpower, but rather from the successful removal of all specifically Japanese references so that the world of Pokémon is familiar and comfortable for American audiences.

One of the primary limitations to research like Iwabuchi’s and McGray’s is that, as macro-level and global political commentaries, they do not consider how individual players interact with and emotionally relate to Pokémon products. It is hard to tell what consumers of media products think without researching their actual opinions, and the media itself can tell a narrative or story that moves the meaning beyond just international power struggles. Both Iwabuchi and McGray reduce Pokémon and its consumers to symbolic static straw men for clashing sovereign powers in a way that turns the individuals engaged with the media, as well as the media itself, into somewhat passive mirrors of larger, external political vying for international power. That is a meaningful conversation to be had, to be sure, but not the only one.

Anne Allison in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination offers up a different reading of Pokémon. By interviewing young Pokémon fans and examining the crossover media traffic between Japan and the United States, Allison argues that Japanese entertainment goods such as Pokémon are not static objects, but instead examples of the interlocking relationships between things like Japan and the US, or fantasy and reality, effectively becoming mutable assemblages that attract youths through their ability to move, shift, and transform.[28]  While children admit to the importance of these products coming from Japan in terms of authenticity, Allison argues that the popularity of international Japanese media goods instead derives from a “Japan” that operates as a brand signifier for a certain type of fantasy-ware, rather than a marker of specific geographic or national origin.[29] In some ways, this type of scholarship fills in the gaps left over from a heavy emphasis on structural powers or national intentions. Rather than players being totally under the influence of sovereign agencies, the individual and multifaceted ways in which children are actively utilizing these toy objects in day-to-day life shows how macro processes and symbolism are not the only ones in control of the media and its meaning.

Other types of Pokémon scholarship have also focused more heavily on the relationships players and fans have formed with Pokémon, flipping the focus from macro to micro to examine the ways children actively interact with and use Pokémon products on an individual or demographically narrow level. The topics covered are highly varied, from being impressed by the information and data gathering of young players,[30] to documenting how French children purposefully integrate Pokémon cards into more traditional French card games,[31] to demonstrating how children purposefully use Pokémon to construct new identities for themselves.[32] Rather than practices that are entirely reflective of larger social or cultural narratives, this type of research reinforces the agency of young players in their creative play.

In the research mentioned, Pokémon products become inert tools in either the international hands of nations and corporations, or the somewhat smaller hands of children. I seek instead to complicate this hierarchical relationship, placing Pokémon alongside both the player and producer in terms influence and power, rather than strictly below or above. The value players imbue the Pokémon brand with is not entirely a result of top-down decision-making, with The Pokémon Company solely managing the brand and its meaning, nor is it entirely a product of consumers dictating their own emotions and use of Pokémon products. The answer is between all these things, with the producer, the player, and the actual play product itself interacting on a playing field that is not entirely predetermined, hierarchical, or even adversarial.

 

The Method Behind the Memories

 

To catalogue all the interconnections within the vast and ever-expanding universe of Pokémon would be a monumental endeavour and beyond the scope and limitations of this essay. Instead this article provides a digestible snapshot of how gestures can be located and understood using only specific parts of the Pokémon franchise. I avoided looking at narrative similarities between media products, which lean towards being “movement-images” that utilize rationality versus emotion and affect as the primary driving force. I concentrated instead on the memories that were playful or action-oriented, elements of the world geared towards memories of doing or playing. These gestures are slight, large enough to jar something loose in the memory banks of someone who has played or experienced other Pokémon products, but small enough to not disrupt the story or seem out of place to someone who did not understand the reference.

I started with two specific iterations of the Pokémon franchise: the 1999 cinematic release, Pokémon: The First Movie,[33] and the 2013 video game release, Pokémon X. The gestures found in these two iterations flatten time both intra-platform and inter-platform. Intra-platform gestures point across new or older versions of the same type of product. (i.e. the newest version of a game pointing towards older versions of the game). Inter-platform gestures point across different types of platforms or formats (i.e. an animated television episode pointing towards a video game). This sort of snapshot analysis shows how these gestures are not limited to a specific type or era of Pokémon media, and how gestures can tie together a transmedia brand across multiple products and platforms. The presence of memory gestures across multiple renditions of the franchise, and even across different decades, make this aspect of the media a part of Pokémon’s lasting transmedia brand and emotional legacy.

 

Intra-Platform Gestures

 

“Who’s That Pokémon?” is a question-and-answer segment featured in numerous episodes of the Pokémon animated television series.[34] During each episode, before a commercial break, the silhouette of a Pokémon is shown with the voice of the narrator asking the audience to guess the name of the Pokémon being shown. To ask the question, the narrator always uses the same phrase: “Who’s that Pokémon?” After the commercial break, a human character from the show shouts the name of the Pokémon as the fully detailed and non-silhouetted image of the Pokémon appears. For instance, in figure 1, the answer is “Pikachu”, the main Pokémon throughout the series. In addition to being a playful game to pass commercial time, “Who’s that Pokémon?” is also an intra-media memory gesture, a moment pointed towards by Pokémon’s first full-length film.

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Gekijōban Poketto Monsutā: Myūtsū no Gyakushū)[35] was released in 1998 in Japan before making its way to the United States in 1999. As reported by Anne Allison in her book Millenial Monsters, the movie earned opening day profits that at the time exceeded all other films in American film history except for Star Wars. [36] The film was based primarily on the characters from the syndicated animated television series: Ash, Misty, and Brock (as they are called in the American release). In the film, our human protagonists, plus Pikachu, face Mewtwo, a bioengineered Pokémon made from the cloned DNA of Mew, the legendary Pokémon, and the super-Pokémon clones MewTwo has created. Like any good iteration in a transmedia franchise, it is a stand-alone film, and it is possible to find enjoyment watching it without having played any of the Pokémon video games or having watched any episodes of the animated television series. While previous knowledge and experience with a Pokémon product is unnecessary to understand what is happening, there were special, memory-laden gestures that offered additional depth and meaning for viewers who did have familiarity with other Pokémon products.

During Pokémon: The First Movie, the “Who’s that Pokémon?” gesture is referenced during a scene in which two members of Team Rocket, Jessie, and James (a pair of “villains” that often act as comic relief rather than a serious threat), are trapped in the underground laboratory of MewTwo. In the giant stadium above, MewTwo captures the Pokémon of the various trainers he has lured to his island (including Ash, Misty, and Brock) and sends the captured Pokémon down to his lab to be cloned. The cloning machine, while the captured Pokémon go through an assortment of tubes, displays on an overhead screen the silhouette of the Pokémon being cloned. At one point, when James sees a Pokémon’s silhouette on the screen, he mutters aloud “Who’s that Pokémon?” (see fig. 2). While this scene is part of a larger narrative arc revealing how MewTwo is creating his team of super-powered Pokémon, the moment when James asks quizzically about what is being shown on screen, and in fact even the existence of the screen itself, are largely unimportant for continuing the action of the story. But for viewers with previous experience of the animated Pokémon series, this gesture could potentially point towards memories of playing this specific guessing game while watching the animated television series on a couch in their living rooms, therefore recalling a past moment and layering it on top of the present to create an experience that extends backwards through time.

 

obraz 1 obraz 2

Fig. 1 (left) and Fig. 2 (right). A side-by-side comparison of a screenshot of the “Who’s that Pokémon?” segment from the first Pokémon episode, “Pokémon, I Choose You!”, in the United States (Fig. 1) versus a screenshot from Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Fig. 2).

 

The Pokémon video games also make use of intra-media gestures. Pokémon X, one of two of the first sixth generation games published in 2013, includes instances of gestures that take players out of the present moment by bursting backwards into older video games. For instance, at one Pokémon Center, a type of building that provides healing services within all of the games (its continued existence a type of gesture in and of itself), a non-playable character you speak with makes mention of the changes that have happened to Pokémon Centers within the last ten years (see fig. 3). One change the non-playable character notices is that of building aesthetics.

The Pokémon Centers, while common staples found in most of the main-franchise role-playing games, have gone through several changes in terms of their appearance as the games have developed over the years. The mention of there at one point being two stories is temporally important, as the two-story Pokémon Centers in old games (most notably the original 1998 video games Pokémon Red[37] and Pokémon Blue[38]) were due to technological specifications of the Game Boy console. The “Pokémon Cable Club”, as the character mentions, used to be housed on the second floor of the Pokémon Center in Pokémon Red and Blue. It is where players went to trade Pokémon with friends via physical, real-world cables connecting one Game Boy console to another before wireless transfer was made technologically possible.

For players of the original video game, stumbling across this innocuous comment in Pokémon X [39] could push the player back in time to a moment where you sat two feet away from your friend, impatiently watching a grey blob travel along tubes on your black-and-white pixilated screen as you waited for a trade to complete. It could also work in reverse. If you first encountered Pokémon X, encountering the second story in Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue could cause you to “remember the future” of the franchise, adding meaning to the in-game architecture through your previous experiences of future renditions of the Pokémon Center.

 

obraz 3aobraz 3b

Fig. 3. Screenshots of a conversation with a non-playable character in Pokémon X while at a Pokémon Center.

 

The Pokémon themselves are their own intra-media gestures. As time goes on, the Pokémon franchise adds new Pokémon that are available for capture and training in addition to the ones that already exist. Generally, Nintendo only adds more Pokémon to the Pokémon universe, and never takes any away. Even if all the Pokémon are not available for capture within the same game, a player’s digital Pokédex (like an encyclopaedia or a field guide) holds information about every single Pokémon ever created. While the first games, Pokémon Red and Blue, started with a total of 151 Pokémon, the official online Pokédex compiled by The Pokémon Company on Pokemon.com lists a total of 801 different Pokémon as of 2017.[40]

Since the available Pokémon changes from game to game, recent developments have made it possible to transfer Pokémon from older games to newer games, so players can more fully complete their Pokédex. That means Pokémon from different generations can still be played with inside the game no matter what game you are currently playing. This has some interesting affective possibilities. If, as a player, you choose to move some of your old Pokémon to your new system, that means when you battle it is not just any Venosaur you’re playing with, it’s the same one you’ve owned and trained since 2004, the Venosaur that has seen you through different birthdays, bad romances, and good years. Pokémon you previously formed a relationship with are now available in your present moment, blurring the temporal lines between the battle you are having now and the battle you had ten years ago when you first levelled up the Pokémon on your screen.

 

Inter-Platform Gestures

 

The tendency to throw in moments that bring to mind other renditions of the Pokémon franchise is not limited to referencing products within the same type of platform. Pokémon: The First Movie, in addition to gesturing towards the animated series, also pointed the viewer towards the original video game, Pokémon Red. Upon revealing his powerful Pokémon clones before the final battle, MewTwo describes the very impressive battle trio standing in the frontlines as the “ultimate evolutions of the three Pokémon any trainer can get upon starting their journey”.[41] The Pokémon he is talking about are Charizard, Venosaur, and Blastoise, the final evolutions of Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle. This might mean nothing to the average viewer, but players of the Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue video games would know that Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle are the first three starter Pokémon you must choose from at the beginning of the first Pokémon games. Hearing MewTwo’s speech brings the viewer back to the first time they ever turned on their Game Boy, reminding them of how difficult it was to choose which cute and cuddly battle monster would be their comrade for the remainder of the game.

Pokémon: The First Movie gestures towards more than just one video game. Pokémon Yellow[42] was released in 1999 as an almost a direct copy of Pokémon Red and Blue with only two big changes: Pikachu is the only available Pokémon to start with (rather than the typical trio of Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur), and Pikachu follows the player around on the screen rather than being carried in a Pokéball. This is directly gestured towards by the relationship between Ash and Pikachu in the film. It is quickly revealed to the audience that Pikachu is different than other Pokémon, namely because Pikachu refuses to go inside his Pokéball, which is where most Pokémon spend most of their time, even when critically injured. Watching that episode can instantly suggest the memory of navigating the game-world in Pokémon Yellow, with that tiny pixilated Pikachu you were forced to choose following happily along behind you.

Game mechanics are their own sort of gestures, with most Pokémon games utilizing some variation of in-battle moves relating to attack, defence, switching to another Pokémon, using an item from your in-game inventory/bag, or running away (if you are battling a wild Pokémon). While these game mechanics have stayed similar from game to game, changing little between iterations, they also re-appear across different platforms. “Thundershock” is a move used by Pikachu in Pokémon X, but is also seen in the first episode of the animated series.[43] It is also available as an attack move on some of the Pikachu playing cards from the Pokémon Trading Card Game (see fig. 4).[44]

 

obraz 4

Fig. 4. A Pikachu card found in Pokémon Trading Card Game, listing “Thunder Shock”, a move seen in both the anime, film, and in video games.

 

Game mechanics like this are unique to transmedia franchises that incorporate or are based out of games. Game mechanics and actions, rather than providing additional narrative depth or filling gaps in a story-line, combine media threads together through memories of repetitive action to create bonds between different kinds of media.

 

Who is Choosing Who? Purpose vs. Potential of Implanted Gestures

 

While these examples are just a few among many, they expose the multiplicity of ways that Pokémon could potentially inspire memories on the part of the player. The key point here is that of potential. While it is likely the creators purposefully implant some of these gestures throughout the franchise, the order in which the gestures are experienced and the effect they will have (if at all) is not entirely predictable. If your memories of a certain game are entrenched with memories of hiding in your room while soon-to-divorce parents are downstairs screaming, a game unintentionally causing you to go back in time to that moment might be met with frustration and sadness rather than joy and happiness.

Additionally, like all transmedia franchises, not everything will inspire moments of memory, in part because there is no specific chronological order in which to encounter the Pokémon franchise. Creators have little control over the order in which the franchise is experienced. A player can start anywhere, either the card game, anime, a video game, or movie, and still be able to participate in the main narrative arc of each Pokémon variant. Tajiri (the creator) says this himself in an interview with Time Magazine:

TIME: Do you think the TV show now dictates how people play the game?

Tajiri: At first, I was a little concerned. It depends on how people are

introduced to Pokémon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or

the video game, they approach it differently each time.[45]

Some people start with the newest video game and work their way backwards to the classics, while others have purchased every video game since 1998. Some start in the middle. Some skip a game. Some people participate in all levels of the Pokémon franchise, from the card game to the anime, and still others participate maybe in only one or two types of the Pokémon media medley. Unlike a series, in which starting at the wrong point would cause confusion, the Pokémon franchise has many entry points that are constantly expanding outwards. The gestures work regardless of what order they move you, mainly because they have nothing to do with chronological time or narrative sequence. Each entry, each memory, each action, is just another addition to the individual biography, the individual Pokédex, of the player’s life which can be collected in any order.

These Pokémon products can exist separately even while being enmeshed in networks that bind them together across various stories, times, and method of engagement. The ability to pick up and engage with the Pokémon franchise at any point, even though these games are laden with references to other parts of the franchise, is possible because these types of gestures are not essential for narrative action. In fact, as a game, the glue that holds much of this transmedia franchise together is not even the narrative arc, but rather types of actions a player or audience member has performed when interacting with this world sometime in the past. These gestures draw the consumer in through the engagement of their individual, and very active, biographies, busting the present moment open to the possibility of pollution by other times and other experiences throughout the player’s life.

The possible effects of these radioactive memory gestures embedded within Pokémon products not only hold parts of the branding of this transmedia franchise together, but also provide a way to move meaning in ways not entirely calculable by producer or the player. Catching these movements of memory, or at the very least the moments in which these movements are possible, helps us better understand the ebbs and flows of media and its meaning as it crosses national borders, media platforms, and individual relationships. Catching just the power of the state or the power of individual intent is not enough. Put in the language of the Pokémon universe itself, we “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”.

 

References

Allison Anne, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006).

Bergson Henri, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999).

Brougere Gilles, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Deleuze Giles, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

Foster Robert J., Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

Frank Allegra, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Harvey Colin B., Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

Iwabuchi Koichi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Taylor Laurie N., Whalen Zach, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Lien Tracey, “How successful is Pokémon? Take a look at the numbers!”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/pokemon/2014/8/18/6030089/Pokemon-sales-numbers, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000).

McGray Douglas, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

Nye Joseph, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Go (2016, Niantic, iOS and Android).

“Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition (1999, The Pokemon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

Rai Amit S., Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009).

Reading Anna, Harvey Colin, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Sefton-Greene Julian, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Tobin Joseph (ed) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Willet Rebekah, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

“All Pokémon Video Games”, The Pokémon Company http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/all-pokemon-games/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

“Pokédex”, The Pokemon Company https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

“The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

[1] Because the single word “Pokémon” is used to describe and name a cornucopia of media objects and things, I utilized a specific key to help readers recognize references more easily. Throughout this paper I use the term “Pokémon” to discuss the creatures, or objects of capture, that inherit the Pokémon universe; I use the italicized “Pokémon” to discuss specific products (i.e. cartoons, movies, card games, video games, etc.); and I use the underlined “Pokémon” to discuss both the franchise and brand itself, as well as the universe in which Pokémon and Pokémon discussions are situated in or centred around.

[2] Pokémon Go on iOS and Android (2016, Niantic).

[3] John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[4] Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[5] Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[6] Allegra Frank, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[7] Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

[8] Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[9] Amit S. Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009), p. 218-219.

[10] Anna Reading and Colin Harvey, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia-Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 164-179.

[11] Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 65.

[13] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[14] Laura U. Marks, pp. 81.

[15] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

[16] Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999), p. 130.

[17] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[18] Robert J. Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New

Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

[19] Robert J. Foster, pp. 85.

[20] Colin B. Harvey, Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

[21] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 34.

[22] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 92.

[23] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 200.

[24] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 183.

[25] Douglas McGray.

[26] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

[27] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 53-79.

[28] Anne Allison, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006), p. 34.

[29] Anne Allison, pp. 277.

[30] Julian Sefton-Greene, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 141-164.

[31] Gilles Brougere, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 187-209.

[32] Rebekah Willet, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 226-240.

[33] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

[34] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

[35] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[36] Anne Allison, pp. 237.

[37] Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[38] Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[39] Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[40] The Pokémon Company, https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

[41] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[42] Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition on Game Boy (1999, The Pokemon Company).

[43] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”.

[44] Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

[45] “The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

 

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea: A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”

Ciara Smith

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 142-161.

 

Ciara Smith

Auburn University

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea:

A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”[1]

 

Abstract

This paper posits folklore studies as an appropriate lens through which to examine a specific gaming community. Game studies, itself an emerging but recognized field of study, offers an alternative possibility. In practice, folklore seems to be more appropriate. Ludology, the study of gameplay, lacks methodologies and metrics specific to the field by which to study communities, their practice, and the process of coherent group creation. Other gaming studies research focusing on gaming communities invariably employs techniques and terminology of other disciplines in order to contribute to the growing compendium of gaming studies that have been conducted. The following paper might be seen to contribute to practices by which folklore studies provide similarly lendable terms and methods; it also clearly represents the expansion of folklore studies into the realm of the digital world. Accordingly, three aspects of folk group study are examined: community beliefs, community creation practices, and communally significant material culture. In each, there is a necessary process of adjustment from the physical to the digital iterations of these traditionally examined aspects. These aspects represent only a few of the myriad possibilities of digital versions of folkloric methodologies.

Key words: gaming studies, digital folklore, gaming communities, MMOs, MOBAs

 

Introduction

In 2007, webcomic artist Randall Munroe posted a comic called “Online Communities” which features some of the most popular websites, social media systems, virtual communication tools and online gaming communities reimagined as a geographical map, complete with the Gulf of YouTube, the Mountains of Web 1.0, and the Blogipelago.[2] By 2010, this map was obsolete and he produced “Online Communities 2”. After an interval of only three years, the area devoted to MySpace had shrunk considerably and is now located near the “Wasteland of Abandoned Social Networks”; Facebook sprawls Sino-Russia-like across the top of the map and YouTube has become its own land mass with smaller areas like the Britney mountains and the already-abandoned Rick-Rolling Hills. “Communities rise and fall”, Munroe writes, “and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. [‘Online Communities 2’] uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there”.[3]

Society is already happening online, and although geographic location is still an important factor in a person’s life, online activity (and “where” this activity happens) is becoming just as important. While the art community expands to include the digital arts and humanity scholars examine the “written” word that is now being transmitted and consumed virtually, those who study the artists, the writers, and their societies must learn to incorporate the reality of online identity. Alan Dundes, claimed that:

The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It doesn’t matter what that factor is – it could be a common occupation, language, or religion – but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.[4]

In their chapter on folk groups in Living Folklore, an introduction to folklore study, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens qualified this definition. Citing Dunde’s and the definitions of a number of other folklorists in regard to folk groups, Sims and Stephens eventually arrive at what they consider the centrally important ideal of group: that the group is “doing folklore”. “Basically, if a group has folklore, it’s a folk group”.[5]  Such a definition is clearly applicable to online societies which produce or revolve around a number of recognized forms of folklore. Even before such an in-depth exploration as is attempted below, personal experience renders undeniable the claim that online communities produce such items as jokes and art – two forms that are mentioned in Dundes’ non-exhaustive list referenced by Sims and Stephens.[6]

The possibilities of a folkloric study of an online gaming community are potentially endless. Such a community’s status as a lore-producing group seems clear, but despite the current rise in participation in virtual folk groups there has not been so drastic a rise in corresponding study of such groups. Digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank has identified one of the potential reasons for this slight:

On the surface, it may appear that the identification of “folkness” via a technological medium (such as the internet) is presumptuous, or worse, inherently “non-folk”, since it requires some technical prowess with computer-mediated communication in order to be engaged. However, there is an inborn “folk” presence in cyberspace by virtue of the fact that people are behind nearly every symbolic interaction that takes place online and through new media technology.[7]

Technology, Blank claims, is merely a conduit through which folkness is expressed.[8] As stated in the Randall Munroe quote above, online communities are in a constant state of rise and fall. Even as communities are abandoned, the nature of the Internet itself means that an archive of these communities is already being created.

One of the longest lived online communities is that of World of Warcraft. WoW, as it is generally known, is one of the most exoterically recognizable of online gaming communities, yet its community is incredibly esoteric.[9] WoW is an MMO (or MMORPG), a massive multiplayer online game where players from all over the world can interact with others and make friends. Such a game is inherently social in nature, mimicking real life societies in terms of race, class, and faction divisions (somewhat comparable to national divides). Players themselves recognize the social aspects of the game:

When I started, WoW was more of a social experience than gaming. I spent the bulk of my time chatting with people, and that was the reason I logged on everyday…

And theres [sic] more to it than levelling. You can do professions, gather pets, earning money, exploring, immersion, roleplay… And most important of all; friendship! Youll [sic] undoubtely [sic] meet some people. Ive [sic] played WoW for many years and I have friends all over the globe.[10]

This is a member of the WoW community’s response to someone who was trying to play the game without any real motivation, “just because”. These ideas of social interaction online are not restricted to MMOs, WoW, or even to the game communities to which this article will eventually turn its attention: DotA and DotA 2. However, such online communities as these are clearly defined, esoteric, and somewhat homogenous in ways that, for example, social media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.[11]) are not.

While this paper is primarily occupied with the attempt to speak of a gaming community as a folk group, an obvious question remains: If folklore is a discipline ill-suited to the task of examining this group, what discipline would be more appropriate? The field of gaming studies is particularly apropos, but similar studies on gaming communities by scholars of games and gaming communities have been largely conducted by sociologists with an interest in gaming. While folklore studies must change and adapt to online life and the new facet such phenomena bring to a study of communities, gaming studies continues to develop as a field that is inherently interdisciplinary.

In general, ludology, the emergent term for the study of play, seems far more suited to the aspects of play than the communities themselves. According to Gonzalo Frasca, “A ludologist is somebody who wants to have a better understanding of games”.[12] Notably, Frasca used this description when trying to differentiate ludology from narratology, implying that these two fields are similar and neither of them seem concerned specifically with the study of the players and their communities. While games such as WoW allow players to create personas and interact in their community during gameplay, DotA and DotA 2 games are often very short. DotA players spend almost as much time out of game taking part in their community as in the game. This does not mean, however, that the gaming aspect does not matter to DotA players. Nor does it mean that this external component of community is exclusive to these communities. In his work on identity expressions in the gaming subculture, J. Patrick Williams has noted the way that items, understanding, and gaming history including success statistics all play a part in the identity of players of collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. He notes for these games what might be applied to the community-identity aspect of most if not all games: “Multiple, overlapping processes are involved in the construction of ‘authentic’ identities”.[13] Such a statement highlights both the social complexity of these groups and the way in which the construction of such identity is not limited to in-game activity. Ludology’s focus on gameplay seems, therefore, to fall short of a comprehensive study on the DotA communities. Recent developments in gaming studies posit the game as a tri-part artefact of technology, individual activity, and social pastime. It is this final aspect with which this researcher is most concerned and which would be broadened by the use of folklore studies as a research apparatus.

Where relevant, the following examination of the DotA and DotA 2 communities has attempted to refer to gaming study articles and works that examine related aspects in other games and their communities. In general, even when the authors of these works primarily deal with digital studies, games, etc. they are dependent on these other disciplines for methodology and terminology. Furthermore, the myriad ways in which this case study examines aspects that are often divergent or oppositional between the DotA communities and similar ones in other studies conducted by scholars of games speak of the breadth and range necessary for broader attention to community studies in the still emerging discipline of game studies. The idea of a single discipline of gaming studies assumes qualities that are unique to games. However, the current status of gaming studies as an inherently interdisciplinary field both recognizes the unique qualities of games and allows them to be seen as a newer subsection of humanities and liberal arts studies, neither so different as to be unrelated nor so similar as to be subsumed by earlier works.

Below, the DotA communities will be examined through a folkloric lens, but like folk groups situated in the “real” world, the DotA communities are comprised of members who in turn populate myriad other groups. The influence of other folk groups is omnipresent: many gamers are a part of the WoW community or choose to participate in DotA alongside real life friends with whom they form a different sort of community. Although this digital folklore exploration is far from a one-to-one comparison between online and “real life” folk groups, I’ve chosen to focus on creation stories and beliefs, community making, and “collectanea” within these online communities.

Although mediated by technology, such folkloric forms are recognizable as variations on their non-digital analogues. I’ve therefore conducted this research primarily through examination of various websites where players interact with each other. Some of these websites are forums and literal discussions while others are websites such as Wikipedia and DotA and DotA2 Wikipages. Such sites are often viewed as neither legitimate nor credible but are particularly useful here as they represent archives created by and for members of these communities. Also, email interviews have been conducted with a few members of the DotA 2 community. These members, while hardly representative of a large and thriving community, do allow for more personalized feedback than can be drawn from simply observing community activities.

 

Creation Myths: Dota Beginnings, IceFrog, and Game Deities

 

According to Sims and Stephens, belief is an important aspect in folk groups, indeed it is one of the ways that “cultural information is most often communicated within groups”.[14] For many folk groups, “the question of belief is often most apparent in studying religious elements.[15] Some games include an in-game religion that players become pseudo practitioners of during gameplay. In her book-length study on an MMO called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Celia Pearce elaborates on some of the ways in which players of this game participate in a specific religion.[16] While DotA and DotA 2 players do not participate in religious activities per se, they have long exhibited an interesting set of creation myths regarding the existence of the games. These creation myths, in conjunction with famous figures within the community, regularly lead to community members expressing their beliefs about the game in terms and phrases that mirror religious participation.

As the 2 in “DotA 2” implies, DotA 2 is the more recent of two games. DotA[17], while strongly related to WoW, is not an MMO, but a MOBA, a multiplayer online battle arena game in which teams compete for a specific goal or specific amount of time on a game map that is much more restricted in size than the world map of an MMO[18]. DotA is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients, a reference to the goal of the game. Two opposing teams of 5 players defend their “Ancient”, which isn’t specifically defined. An explanation can be extrapolated from in-game contexts and definitions of the word, such that it becomes a combination temple/tower/deity. Regardless of how the term is understood, these opposing Ancients figure in the game as attackable structures in opposite corners of the game map with a limited amount of “life”. Teams must attack and destroy several tiers of towers and eventually the Ancient of the opposing team while protecting their own towers and Ancient. The team whose Ancient falls first, loses the game.

DotA began as a kind of sub-game in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, [19] which included a world builder, where players could create custom scenarios. “These custom scenarios can be simple terrain changes, which play like normal Warcraft games, or they can be entirely new game scenarios with custom objectives, units, items, and events, like Defense of the Ancients”.[20] Because gameplay was located within the Warcraft game, original players were part of the Warcraft community. However, in 2013, the standalone sequel DotA 2 was released as a free-to-play MOBA by Valve Corporation, allowing gameplay for experienced DotA players as well as newcomers unfamiliar with Warcraft. Hero names, images, and other in-game terms were changed, but DotA 2 is easily recognizable as a “sequel to DotA”.[21]

The DotA mod for Warcraft was originally created by an anonymous player named Eul in 2003, who soon disappeared from the scene, allowing for a series of other notable “modders” to step in and curate gameplay, heroes, and the map, including Guinsoo, Neichus, and IceFrog.[22] Players were invited by IceFrog to comment on what changes they wanted made in the game, and IceFrog listened to these requests, reportedly changing a hero’s abilities less than two weeks after a newer version had been released because the community claimed that the hero was too powerful.[23] In 2009, it was announced that IceFrog would be working at Valve Corporation to develop a new game.[24] While community involvement in the creation of DotA 2 wasn’t as public as it had been in DotA, it was created by the same people who were controlling DotA.

Although anonymity isn’t a requirement of the DotA and DotA 2 communities, it does seem to be a mark of the creators to remain anonymous[25]. This did not stop community members from speculating about IceFrog’s identity. A defamatory blog post by an alleged Valve employee identified IceFrog as Abdul Ismail was published in 2010 during the development of DotA 2.[26] Although Valve Corporation denied these rumours, a man named Ismail does appear to be a Valve employee, as his name appears in the credits of several Valve projects including their DotA 2 documentary Free to Play. DotA players’ devotion to IceFrog is apparent in the comments section of this blog post. Despite the claims that IceFrog/Ismail had previously worked for a rival game company, comments largely amounted to: “I don’t care as long as DotA 2 is good”. Meanwhile, commenters that leaned towards condemning IceFrog/Ismail professed a dislike for DotA players in general,[27] demonstrating a clear break between DotA community members’ adoration and the cynicism of non-members.

Another theory behind IceFrog’s identity explored by those in the community includes the possibility of IceFrog’s being Bruno Carlucci, a statistician, programmer, and DotA player and game commenter. Bruno’s publicly available timeline doesn’t match up very well with IceFrog’s apparent one. IceFrog was announced to have been working with Valve from 2009, while Bruno announced in May 2014 that he’d “recently accepted a job at Valve as a Software Engineer”.[28]  Nevertheless, rumours that Bruno is IceFrog persist. Forums discussing the possibility cite age, astrological sign, tweeted pictures, and even an apparently shared love of mangoes as evidence for this. There are also several interviews in which co-workers of Bruno appear to ask him directly why he refused to make certain changes in DotA, implying that he indeed was the IceFrog controlling and editing the game according to player suggestions.

I’ve been referring to this quest to determine the identity of DotA and DotA 2 developers as a creation myth because the mystery surrounding the game’s creation and players’ interest therein mirrors the creation story questions posed by other societies. Most of the conversation and evidence surrounding these ideas are provided by community members who are active curators of official DotA history in avenues such as Wikipedia pages on DotA content and self-written DotA histories, such as that published on Facebook by professional DotA player Bu Yanjun “YaphetS”, from China.[29]

However, there are other strains of what will be termed “worship” and “belief systems” in the DotA communities. The aforementioned YaphetS is one of the players who has occasionally had “god” attached to the end of his name because of his “godlike” skill level. These DotA gods are described by a strange mixture of fan speculation and “official” information, often with mythic claims like “labeled by the Chinese”.[30] In addition to the worship that seems to be inherent in labelling someone a god, players have been known to share items with other players they believe to be DotA gods or professional players.[31] There is also talk of fraternization between the DotA gods and IceFrog. YaphetS’s hero of choice in gameplay was Shadow Fiend, whose alternate name on DotA was “YaphetS”. This name was reputedly given “by IceFrog himself”, in tribute to this player.[32]

Furthermore, DotA and DotA 2 players often “believe in the RNG gods and either their favour or disfavour”.[33] RNG stands for Random Number Generator (or, occasionally, RNG is Random Number Gods). As a game that relies on strategy and skill, there is still a certain amount of random “luck” involved in DotA. A number of heroes possess skills that randomly deal more damage than at other times, while a number of items will similarly randomly deal damage or randomly block attacks. The “disfavour” of the RNG gods is demonstrated by a random number that works in a player’s disfavour.

Interestingly, rhetoric surrounding IceFrog, the DotA gods, and the RNG gods, while usually clearly parodic, is often religious in nature, revealing if nothing else a tendency by DotA community members to explain DotA conventions in terms of belief. Players have created and posted parodies of the Lord’s Prayer as prayers to IceFrog and to the RNG[34]. In one forum, a community member posed the question “Is IceFrog a god?” and responses to the post intentionally understood the question to be about IceFrog’s divinity rather than his playing ability. Responses include such assertions as “Eul is the Creator and IceFrog is the Savior”, and “IceFrog is a merciful god”.[35] The rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned DotA gods, meanwhile, seems mythic in nature as community members attempt to pass on the correct lore to new(er) players. “These titles were given during the DotA1 times”, one community member says, explaining the DotA gods to a self-professed new player asking about them on a forum.[36] These stories don’t always agree, and players are quick to defend their views using the same language. “Vigoss is the first god; they called him V-god because it sounded like Vigoss, and this is when he redefined how Dota was played. At least this is the legend I’ve heard…”[37]

Game designer Aaron Oldenburg has demonstrated the potential for virtual games to “simulate religious faith” through procedural and emotional response-provoking elements. His exploration, however, limits itself to first person games. Not being a folklorist, Oldenburg’s interests do not extend to a gaming community’s creation of such faith. However, Oldenburg’s assertion that “religion and games often seem separate from the everyday world, as believers and players (by no means mutually exclusive categories) choose to follow agreed upon sets of rules and narratives that distinguish them from non-believers and non-players” has a certain poignancy when applied to the DotA communities”.[38] Religion and gaming become inextricably linked as markers of community participation.

 

Community: Self-Regulation and Groups within Groups

 

An important aspect of community participation is ritual, which includes not only religious and coming-of-age rituals, but also initiation rituals. “Initiations involve activities that an individual initiate or group of initiates perform to prove their worthiness or to bond them to each other and/or to the group”.[39] Gaming communities have their own sets of rituals, including initiations. Through playing the game in his research of Magic: The Gathering, Williams discovered that before a player is able to play, he or she must construct a deck of cards, usually by buying a number of packs of cards from which players choose a combination to create a deck, which may or may not be strong depending on players’ skills and available cards. Although ready-to-play decks are available for purchase, Williams notes that players typically do not buy these decks,[40]  indicating that the process of creating a deck – which demonstrates investment and understanding – is a sort of ritual for these players. Initiation and ritual in the DotA communities include such aspects as the structured act of downloading the game and completing the tutorial as well as the less rigidly defined period of time in which new players go from being hazed by experienced players to joining in the hazing of “newbs”.

DotA is a game created and regulated by the gamers who play it. Despite the way updates and changes were made to the game by apparent individuals like Eul or IceFrog, the changes were suggested by the community at large:

“Eul, Guinsoo or IceFrog alone did not make the map. The DOTA community…makes the map”, one player said. Loadscreen art is drawn by fans. Some bugs are found and some items and heroes are made, erased, and changed almost entirely because of community outreach.[41]

Community members are aware of their own power in this game-creation, and they extend this regulation to the moderation of the community itself.

With the release of DotA 2 as a free-to-play MOBA in 2013[42], entrance into the DotA community became much less restricted for new players. Before this, it had technically been restricted only by purchase of the Warcraft III game. However, WCIII was notably the third game in a series of games with an already-tight community. DotA 2’s easy availability removed the lingering traces of esotericism in terms of familiarity with the Warcraft games. However, the DotA and DotA 2 communities are self-regulating. Although the common stereotype of gamers such as these includes social awkwardness or inability to express themselves, these community members are incredibly prolific on forums, blogs, and YouTube. While access to the community is never officially denied, ignorance, lack of skill, or inability to learn from past mistakes is vehemently ridiculed and derided by the community. That DotA has a “steep learning curve” was attested to by three of the community members interviewed, all of whom confess to playing as many as six hours a week.[43]

Because of the large number of heroes (each with their own set of abilities) that players can choose from, and the even wider selection of items that change the in-game situations, DotA and DotA 2 gameplay necessitates the ability to strategize; this requires a commitment to practicing as well as the inherent ability to mentally organize, calculate, and remember the items and heroes. Many players learn by watching public matches, watching YouTube videos, or reading Purge’s guide to DotA, subtitled “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”. Purge is a professional commentator and sometimes professional player.[44] The guide was originally written for DotA in 2011, before the public release of DotA 2 and it was updated for DotA 2 in 2012 and again this year. Purge’s most recent version changes his opening line from “Welcome to DotA, you suck” to “Welcome to DotA, you su… well actually you guys have gotten a lot better”.[45] This guide represents the starting point to even the minimal level of skill in DotA for many players. A number of blogs suggest this as a starting point, and this researcher has been personally told that reading this Guide is the best way to learn to play.

However, until the recent updates which thank players for “taking a chance on this game” that “takes a long time to refine your skills and learn”, the guide read almost as a discouragement from entering the community.

You suck, and you are going to be constantly reminded of this fact for about 6-9 months (if you learn). If you read this guide and use your brain and be actively aware of how bad you suck, you can easily shave 3-6 months off of your complete noob status… You are going to feed. You are going to ruin games, and someone is going to be happy to tell you why.… You are going to have to have thick skin to play DotA.[46]

Learning by playing can be similarly discouraging. In public matches, opposing teams will openly mock the losing team. Furthermore, many players talk about and practice “rage quitting”, in which a particularly good opposing team or, more often, a particularly unskilled set of allies will lead to a player getting angry and leaving in the middle of a game. Interestingly, the community seems to regard these ostensibly destructive relationships as constructive criticism. DotA forums hold regular discussions on rage quitting, in which members show a mild amount of embarrassment after rage quitting while other players often console them with similar stories. Players sometimes describe these actions as necessary: “Someone on my team picked Necrophos, bought a ward and went to our ancient jungle camp. I knew what had to be done”.[47] Such phrasing in these responses and even in the titles and original posts (“everyone has done it at least once in their gaming lifetime”) posits these actions as intrinsic parts of playing DotA.[48]

Such a hard-to-enter community, however, doesn’t actually seem to discourage players. Instead, the high standards set by the community seem devoted to regulating the skill and care that goes into playing. Half-hearted community members are culled out, but even poor players who are committed to playing will be allowed to remain in the community.

Professional DotA players belong to teams, but regular public matches often loosely consist of teams as well[49]. The five players interviewed all know each other in real life and sometimes, but not always, play together as a full team[50]. One of them says that he began to play because “it had been getting a lot of press at the time due to The International 3 tournament going on” in 2013.[51] The others all profess that they began playing because their friends were playing. With the exception of one of them, however, they all claim to play even with only one or two of their friends and often with “randoms”, players they don’t know.

These interviewees met in college, and DotA seems to have presented an opportunity for the friends to “stay connected”, though many of them have moved to distant states. Even when only three or four of them play, they regularly use a different program than the one provided by the DotA 2 game to audibly chat with each other. In addition to offering a hands-free chat mechanism, this separate program allows these friends to talk to each other without having to talk to any “randoms” that might be playing as their teammate. These friends usually opt instead to include the random teammates in strategies via typed messages.

Although members of the DotA communities at large, the interviewed players maintain a community within a community. They are each active within the community to varying degrees, often keeping up with the professional DotA circuit, online forums, and occasional public matches without their friends. However, they seem to largely view the DotA 2 community to which they belong as a virtual conduit that allows them to continue the community they established prior to playing together. “We have a private chat server, and a lot of times we talk about our lives, our jobs, and things that have nothing to do with Dota around the game or while we play”.[52]  Even when the players are physically together for visits, their conversations and activities are largely DotA-related. Sometimes, this group will play together while all in the same room, foregoing the virtual chat system to plot strategies and discuss the game aloud. Digital community for them has become a stand-in for a physical community, but apparently is no less realistic.

 

Collectanea: Digital Collectibles and Player Creations

 

Sims and Stephens have identified material culture as an important genre in folklore studies. For traditional studies, this material culture looks at permanent and ephemeral objects such as architecture or food, respectively. “Permanent or not, material culture has in common that it is tangible – can be touched, seen, eaten, or lived in”.[53] The study of a folk group’s material culture includes not only items produced by/within that community, but also items used by the community. These items acquire relevance and meaningfulness for folklorists through the method and purposes of their production as well as the occasion and frequency of their use.

Although there are a number of physical objects associated with the DotA games, such as T-shirts and figurines, there are also a number of digital items and activities that, while unrelated to actual gameplay, are very much a part of the DotA communities. Players can, for example, buy a $35 hero set for a hero named Crystal Maiden which includes new clothes, new animations for her in-game abilities, and a wolf pup pet that follows her around during the game. These items are not necessary to gameplay in the way that some items are necessary for gaming, such as the cards in the collectible card games that Williams has examined.[54] Williams spends a significant amount of time elaborating on the capitalist aspect of such games. While it is possible to acquire a particularly strong card in a cheap pack of randomly assorted cards, it is much more common that strong cards are held by players who have invested more monetary capital into the game by buying more random packs and increasing the odds of getting a good card or by outright buying expensive cards from other players. DotA 2, however, is a free to play game and while some items are bought and paid for, they do not have the power to affect player or character skill or strength.

Perhaps the most popular digital content in DotA 2 is the Compendium. Each year, a new Compendium is released which gives players a number of in-game challenges that allow them to win prizes, many of which are available for purchase and some of which are specific to the Compendium. These special items are displayed during gameplay and players can see each other’s achievements. Although such items are not as unique, as the anime artist Trevor Blank examines in his chapter on digital collectors, his claim that such collectanea represent “a type of fetish in both an imaginative and a social sense” seems apt here as well. “Ownership”, Blank says, “means absolute possession of a specific, emotionally significant event in the narrative created by using the object. For this reason, possessing such an object invests the owners with equivalent social power among those sharing the same reverence for that narrative”.[55] Similarly, Pearce has spoken of the way that artefacts in the Myst games are often common to most or all iterations of the games, demonstrating the way that physical (or the digital version of digital) objects are an integral part of a community.[56] The acquiring and exchange of items and knowledge as well as original creations such as art or fictions that are based on DotA characters or experience in the DotA communities are likewise markers for community involvement and participation.

The sales from the Compendium fund one of the other main out-of-game activities that community members participate in: The International. The International (TI) is a tournament that happens every year, most recently in Seattle, WA. DotA 2 fans and players can travel to watch the tournament in Washington, or they can watch live online. In August 2015, the tournament was also broadcast live in a number of theatres both in America and in other countries, so that members of the DotA 2 community could watch the championship match live, even if they were unable to travel to the tournament. TI is truly an international tournament, demonstrating, as the small sub-community I’ve chosen to interview attempts to do, the way that this online community is unrestricted by distance. TI consists of Chinese teams, Korean Teams, Argentinean teams, and teams that are comprised of members from multiple nations, like Team Secret, which is located in “Europe”, but has players from Sweden, Canada, and Germany, for example.[57] TI watching is an interesting activity that imitates the gameplay between friends discussed above. DotA community members meet together and combine online activities with physically present social situations.

The DotA communities, furthermore, regularly create and share material that is relevant to the communities at large. DotA’s loading screens are community members’ fan art. Other community creations include guides such as Purge’s guide to the game as a whole and his other guides for individual heroes. Players, furthermore, have access to “builds” for each hero in-game. These builds function as minimalist guides, suggesting which abilities to prioritize and which items to buy during the game, but without the explanation and commentary of the longer guides that players often create. Builds can be rated by community members, helping other players to make informed decisions regarding which build they use.

Other community creations include YouTube videos of games and tactics. These can sometimes be used constructively for gameplay by members but can also be used for entertainment. During my interviews, several players claimed to have learned the game by watching, but some of them specifically mentioned watching the “DotAWTF” YouTube videos, which are a series of videos highlighting particularly poor in-game choices by players.[58] The comments, like on the forums, are often extremely negative and/or harsh. There are more than 150 videos and the views and likes on the individual videos sometimes total more than 2,000,000 and 34,000, respectively.

There are, finally, community creations that have little to do with gameplay and more to do with creativity. Although not at all relevant to gameplay, each hero has a bio and story. During my interviews, it was revealed that the interview was for a folklore seminar, and the players were then asked if they had any ideas about how DotA 2 related to folklore. One of them pointed me to these hero profiles, which read like short fantasy summaries.[59] Another provided an internet link to an hour-long film created by a Chinese DotA player in 2011. Using scenes from the game, the player creates a story about Mirana, Magina, and TerrorBlade, wherein Mirana and Magina are in love. At the climactic end, TerrorBlade (Magina’s brother) kills Mirana. Instead of the common harsh criticism typical of the community, the film seems to be well received. The comments are overwhelmingly about how touching the movie is. Interestingly, the negative comments also seem to be caught up in the movie, as commentators flame the film character using the same language of in-game censure: “Use your ultimate [on] mirana [sic] and kill yourself noob uninstall dota”. Responses to such criticism, explanations like “He was too far to ult”, use in-game experience and logic to argue the point.[60]

 

Conclusion

 

The DotA communities and their lore demonstrate the growing presence of online identities and an opportunity for an extended examination of how traditional folkloric practices are transposed to a virtual space. Although the virtual and physical activities occasionally intersect seamlessly, the digital has largely become the real for such communities. From their beliefs, to community boundaries, to creation, this lore is being distributed virtually to a group of gamers whose physical presence is as realistic as their virtual one.

As a field that focuses on the unique qualities of a community as well as the development and practice of these qualities, folklore seems an apt field for discussions of gaming communities. It’s clear that even though these communities are formed and practiced online – their involvement and focus on games rather than more “traditional” activities like quilting (also a common focus for folklore studies) – gaming communities are not so radically different from traditionally recognized folk groups that a new terminology or methodology is necessary for examination.

As a competing field for the most suitable field by which to study gaming communities, gaming studies poses an interesting possibility. However, although frequently recognized as an independent field, game studies is not only made up of scholars from other fields, but it also often relies on long-established methods and terms used primarily in other disciplines. Perhaps folklore studies will eventually become one of the fields from which scholars enter gaming studies, as sociology, anthropology, and literature are now. Eventually its methodologies and vocabularies may become regular players in gaming studies works focusing on individual gaming communities. For this current project at least, folklore is a fitting field through which to examine the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of these particular communities. The way in which these methodologies prove successful in being applied to digital communities’ comments upon the potential trajectory for further folkloric studies of digital communities, gaming-focused or otherwise.

 

References

Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012).

“Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

“Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980).

Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015.

masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?”, Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011)

O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

“Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015.

pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

“Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company, 2006).

Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015.

YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

“YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

 

[1]My title comes from a popular DotA guide, discussed below. The community members often use such harsh language with other community members in a stringent display of community building.

[2] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[3] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[4] Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980), pp. 6-7.

[5] Sims Martha C. and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2011), p. 36.

[6] Ibidem, 8.

[7] Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012), p. 2.

[8] Ibidem, 3.

[9] I am using the words “esoteric” and “exoteric” here and elsewhere as reference to “insider/outsider” knowledge. “Esoteric” refers to aspects, language, etc. that is easily understood or recognized by those within the gaming world – usually participants but also researchers or other observers. “Exoteric” refers instead to knowledge that is recognizable even to those outside of the gaming world.

[10] InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

[11] Pinterest users, for example, don’t form a community in the way that gaming groups do. Instead, Pinterest seems to be a place to declare to which communities a user belongs, including WoW and DotA.

[12] Quoted in Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

[13] Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company) (2006), p. 89.

[14] Sims and Stephens, p. 56.

[15] Ibidem, p. 59.

[16] See Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

[17] Although I will sometimes refer to it as “DotA 1”, the first game is rarely called as such, and is only done so anachronistically. Different companies control the two games. DotA 1 was never trademarked as a game and there was no intention of a sequel.

[18] Although DotA was not the first MOBA, it is often cited as one of the most influential. As a testament to its ubiquitous fame, you can reach the MOBA Wikipedia explanation page by following a link for “Dota (genre)” from the Dota Disambiguation page.

[19] Although I feel as though “sub-game” is a sufficient explanation for the relationship between DotA and Warcraft, it is somewhat inaccurate. The Warcraft games are actually a series of several games that are related but not dependent on each other, and they comprise several different genres. Blizzard entertainment first began releasing Warcraft games in 1994. These were RTS (Real Time Strategy) Games, to which MOBAs are directly related, since gameplay involves strategizing against the opposing team. World of Warcraft was the fourth game in the series, and the first that is an MMO rather than an RTS game. DotA, meanwhile, debuted in 2003 (one year before 2004’s World of Warcraft) as a “mod” of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. These first 3 games, including DotA required a purchase of the game, but not of a subscription like that of WoW.

[20] “Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[21] For more information on the copyright agreements between Blizzard and Valve, see Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[22] “Defense of the Ancients”

[23] Ibidem.

[24] O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[25] Usually, but not always. For example, Guinsoo’s real name, Steve Feak, is publicly known.

[26] In May 2017, only a few months after the original research in this study, IceFrog’s identity was confirmed to be Ismail by the papers in a court case in California. Forum posts on reddit obscured Ismail’s name when announcing that the mystery was resolved, implying that some community members might prefer the belief and speculation to the truth. See pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

[27] As is common in online communities, many of these remarks included an impressive display of vulgar language and insults, but some of the milder insults referred to them as “dota fan boys”, implying weak-minded bias. For a more detailed look, see Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[28] “Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

[29] YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[30] See Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015. and “YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[31] Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?” Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[32] See just kiddings’ response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[33] Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[34] The RNG prayer was made by a member of the WoW community, referencing things outside of DotA gameplay.

[35] See Aircross’ and killer3254’s responses to Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

[36] See terryken’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[37] See Dusk562’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[38] Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011), pp. 51-52.

[39] Sims and Stephens, p. 119.

[40] Williams, pp. 79-80.

[41] Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[42] DotA 2 was released for play in 2011 for professional players. TI1, the first international tournament for DotA 2 was held in Cologne, Germany in 2011. However, the game wasn’t available to the public until 2013.

[43] According to emails from players Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., and Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[44] “Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015, and Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[45] Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

[46] Ibidem.

[47] Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[48] masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[49] “Teams” is perhaps a misleading term here. 2–5 friends can choose to play together, and any extra players needed to fill the 5 player slots will be filled with random players.

[50] There are several other members of this group whom I did not interview, but that sometimes join them in playing.

[51] Smith Matt, “Dota Interview”

[52] Tucker, “Dota Interview”

[53] Sims and Stephens, p. 15.

[54] See Williams, “Consumption and Authenticity”

[55] Blank, p. 167.

[56] See Pearce, pp. 158-167 and throughout.

[57] “Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[58] Tucker, “DotA Interview” and Caboose, “DotA Interview”.

[59] willjaf, “DotA Interview”.

[60] WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015

Political and Social Issues in French Digital Games, 1982–1993

Filip Jankowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 162-176.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Political and Social Issues in French Digital Games, 1982–1993

 

Abstract

Despite numerous publications about the history of digital games in the United States and Japan, there are few studies which aim to explore the past European trends in game design. For example, the French gaming industry remains unknown to the vast majority of game researchers. However, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s a certain tendency emerged in this industry: political and social issues became overtly discussed within digital games. To examine such a tendency, the author follows the ‘emancipatory’ paradigm in digital game research (to cite Jaakko Suominen), instead of the ‘enthusiast’ Trans-Pacific-oriented ones. The objects of the analysis are several adventure games developed in France between 1982 and 1993 whose popularity during this period made them influential for the development of the French gaming industry. The author indicates three factors that contributed to the rapid growth of adventure games. These are the advancement of the personal computer market, the modest but existing support from French national institutions, and the article published by Guy Delcourt in the August 1984 issue of Tilt gaming magazine, which gave critical insight into previous development practices and suggested drawing inspiration from current events. The author distinguishes five thematic genres: Froggy Software’s avant-garde digital games, postcolonial and feminist games, investigative games, science fiction, and horror. Each of these provided numerous references to political affairs, economic stagnation and postcolonial critique of the past, which were severe issues in France during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite strong genre diversity, French adventure games shared similar pessimistic outlooks on the emerging “liquid modernity” (Zygmunt Bauman), during which France had to cope with more unstable work conditions, globalization, and immigration from the Maghreb countries. Because the French gaming industry in this period concentrated on local gamers and referred to their national culture, the author encourages game historians to turn their attention not only to Trans-Pacific games, but also to those manufactured outside Japan and the United States.

Key words: French video games, Video games in France, Video games history, Postmodernity, Liquid modernity

 

Introduction

 

In 1982, Japanese players encountered an arcade game whose gameplay revolved around an escape from a prison mine with stolen bags of gold. At first glance, the program resembled several mechanics from Japanese blockbusters; for example, the player could temporarily knock enemy guards unconscious with a hammer, similar to the famous Donkey Kong (1981, Nintendo). However, Le Bagnard (The Convict)—the name of the product—originated not in Japan or the United States, but came from a French company, Valadon Automation. Moreover, the program featured one of the first animated endings in games history, in which a guard chasing the player’s avatar is dazed while approaching the edge of the screen.

This introduction reminds us how neglected the European history of digital games is in the gaming discourse. Books, articles, and academic papers which discuss the development of global gaming culture focus primarily on the dominant American and Japanese industries. Thus, numerous minor narrations involving other countries are excluded[1]. This problem results from a paradigm which Jaakko Suominen calls “enthusiast”. As Suominen writes, amateurs and journalists struggle to define the master narration about the development of their favourite cultural products. The emergence of the new, “emancipatory” paradigm allows us to challenge the enthusiast narration on the industry and include the voices of women, ethnic minorities, and other countries as well[2].

This paper is an attempt to propose an emancipatory narration concerning digital games. The following analysis will concentrate on the history of the French gaming industry between 1982 and 1993. The period suggested marks the edition of the gaming magazine Tilt, one of the most significant French periodicals about video games. Between 1982 and 1993, the position of the French gaming industry changed, starting from the Trans-Pacific distribution of arcade games, and ending in the highly advanced development of games. During that time, one can note an essential number of digital games relating to the socio-political situation in 1980s France. Taking into account that—as Soraya Murray writes—digital games are “complex, fully formed visual media […] suited to nuanced ideological deconstruction”[3], I will concentrate on several tendencies which played a part in French game design during the given period.

The objects of the analysis below will be games developed in France between 1982 and 1993 which belonged to the genre called “adventure games”. In this article, an “adventure game” will be defined as a game which involves game world exploration (either in a first-person or third-person perspective), narrative[4], and problem-solving[5]. Although the period above also featured many French arcade and sports games, these narrative-based games had the highest importance in the national gaming industry at that time. As one of the leading personas of the French gaming industry, Muriel Tramis, sums up, between 1982 and 1993 “[t]here was a ferment of ideas and lots of originality. France loves stories”.[6] Several French adventure games were not devoid of bonds with local socio-political events.

 

The Prologue

 

From the beginning, the reader should know the background of the appearance of French adventure games. Before 1982, the French gaming industry did not exist. Although the 1960s marked the appearance of the first academically developed digital games, they were only board game adaptations intended for academic use. Therefore, the consumers of the French entertainment industry—similarly to the whole of Western Europe—did not experience digital games until the international success of Pong (1972). Its American developer, Atari, quickly dominated the arcade machines trade and the console market with their product Home Pong. Despite several French attempts to participate in gaming hardware production, such as the creation of Société Occitane d’Electronique in 1977, the local market was eventually taken over by American and Japanese productions[7].

This situation began to change in 1982 when Valadon Automation produced the aforementioned Le Bagnard. Subsequently, several factors helped French developers to appear on the scene. Firstly, the international arcade and home console market experienced a crisis, due to the poor quality of games made by anonymous programmers. At the same time, microcomputers became more successful as hardware which effectively combined entertainment and office use. The growing demand for personal computers saw an increase in sales, from 70,000 in 1982 to 204,000 in 1983[8]. This factor coincided with the expansionist politics of the then President François Mitterrand. Mitterrand’s government took several significant steps to nationalizing the most prominent domestic industries and accelerating the computerization of the country. After acquiring an electronic manufacturing company, CII-Honeywell-Bull, in 1982, the French government began to produce its line of domestic microcomputers, the Thomson MO5 and the TO7. Those undertakings aimed to boost economic growth, as knowledge about operation of personal computers at home and in schools and enterprises became necessary to French society[9].

The popularization of PCs in households went hand in hand with an increasing number of programming experiments. At first, programmers developed games for their own satisfaction. However, some of them tried releasing their products through emerging software houses. The first ones (Ére Informatique, Infogrames, Loriciels) were created in 1983, and they immediately published the works of individual authors. At the time, as Blanchet claims, the game publishing process resembled book publishing: programmers were independent of publishers, rather than working for them[10].

However, the first French games developed on personal computers suffered from a lack of creativity. Between 1983 and 1984, imitations of international arcade hits such as Space Invaders (1977, Taito) and Pac-Man (1982, Namco) flooded the French digital games market. Programmers such as Carlo Perconti and Bertrand Raval manufactured titles which rarely differed from games produced in the United States and Japan. The poor quality of such copies prompted French journalist Guy Delcourt to write an article The golden egg chip (La puce aux œufs d’or), which was published in the Summer 1984 issue of Tilt gaming magazine. Delcourt suggested that French programmers should reconfigure the design of their productions, making more references to reality: “So be prepared for a challenge. Try finding personal ideas, new approaches, unpublished themes that you can draw, for example, from current events”[11].

Delcourt did not specify what “current events” he meant, though British historian Tristan Donovan suggests that the article encouraged game designers “to create something more personal, more rooted in reality, more French”.[12] Citing his compatriot Jonathan Davies[13], Donovan highlights a significant difference between British and French players in the 1980s. As Donovan says, whereas British consumers relied on arcade-style games employing high fantasy settings, players from France preferred graphic adventure games. He also writes that French design soon began to specialize in games with sophisticated puzzles and a strong emphasis on aesthetic values, including references to local comic books known as bandes déssinées[14].

1984 also marked the first signs of acknowledgment that digital games received from several institutions. France’s Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, while in office from 1981 to 1986, attempted to decentralize national cultural development and treat popular culture (like rock music, comic strips, and others) as art. Digital games were also within reach of these politics, and the newly formed governmental agency, Octet (established in 1983), tried to support game development in France. In 1984, Octet held a competition for the best French game. The winner was Marc Cecchi’s high fantasy game Mandragore (Mandrake; 1984, Infogrames)[15]. Impressed with the results of the contest, Lang announced grants for other distinguished projects. The winners of the grants, including highly innovative crime game Opium (Ludorinique, 1986) about the Shanghai drug trade in the 1930s, were fully subsidized by the government. The agency fell apart shortly after, though, and Lang’s plans to organize a similar contest in later years were thwarted by political changes in 1986, which led to his departure for two years[16]. Also in 1984, Tilt organized the first of its prestigious prize-giving ceremonies, Tilt d’Or. One French game set in the Middle Ages, L’Aigle d’Or (The Golden Eagle; 1984, Loriciels) by Louis-Marie Rocques, received the Best Adventure Award, and the national cable television channel, Canal+, transmitted the subsequent ceremonies. In competition, Apple organized its modest business award, the Pomme d’Or[17]. Its recipient Paranoîak (Paranoiac; 1984, Froggy Software), programmed by Jean-Louis Le Breton, received critical acclaim due to its originality, resulting from its contemporary settings.

 

Froggy Software

 

Paranoîak was the first game created by Froggy Software, an independent studio established in Paris by Le Breton together with Fabrice Gille. Le Breton, a self-declared left-wing activist was had been involved in the 1968 student protests, expressed a desire to make games that reflected current events. Collaborating with Parisian students such as Clotilde Marion, Chine Lanzmann, and Tristan Cazenave, he suggested a satirical approach to articulate social criticism. The catchphrase invented by them, which indicated critical factors of their games, was “aventure, humor, décalage et déconnade” (‘adventure, humour, discrepancy, and prank’)[18].

The combination of satire and seriousness which characterized Paranoîak coincided with growing public dissatisfaction with Mitterrand’s social politics. The nationalization reforms failed to increase economic prosperity and forced the first Socialist Prime Minister under Mitterrand, Pierre Mauroy, to curb public expenditure due to rising inflation and national debt. With stubbornly high unemployment, these factors eventually caused him to resign[19]. Paranoîak was one of the first games to capture the gloomy atmosphere of the time. The game follows a lonely widower suffering from numerous mental and cognitive disorders such as amnesia, Oedipus complex, and claustrophobia. While issuing text commands, the player seeks cures for the illnesses, at the same time having to earn a living and pay a psychoanalyst for help. Subsequent Froggy Software productions shared similarly pessimistic views of the world, mixing them with ironic authorial commentaries in textual form. In Le Breton’s Le Crime du Parking (The Parking Crime; 1985), the player encounters several themes such as simulated rape, drug use, and homosexuality during an investigation into the brutal murder of a girl. In turn, Lanzmann’s La femme qui ne supportait pas les ordinateurs (The Woman Who Hated Computers; 1985) comments on the situation of women using the contemporary French network Minitel, where they fall victim to anonymous male abusers. The more the player engages in conversation with men, the higher the risk that she will be subjected to sexual attacks. The conversation leads to one of the six endings, all of which are unlucky for the heroine. Thus, Lanzmann’s work can be considered the first feminist digital game, through its perhaps controversial implication that computer technology is used to maintain male domination and power in society[20]. Marion’s Même les pommes de terre ont des yeux (Even Potatoes Have Eyes, 1985), also a feminine work, is a satire on South American dictatorships with references to French reality. The player, while struggling to overthrow a junta, gains public support by exclaiming such contradictory phrases as “J’accuse!”[21] and “Je vous ai compris,”[22] and abolishes coup d’etat by committing another coup d’etat. A more conservative ideological meaning arises from Cazenave’s political fiction Le Mur de Berlin va sauter (The Berlin Wall Will Explode; 1986), in which the player tries to prevent a leftist homosexual terrorist from blowing up West Berlin.

Investigative Games

 

More historically decent were the investigative games of Cobrasoft, a studio founded by Bertrand Brocard in 1984. Brocard, as he claimed, started his programming career after the establishment of Octet[23]. Contrary to the satirical and frivolous games of Froggy Software, Brocard’s titles used carefully prepared historical material[24]. Cobrasoft’s games were more conservative in their political diagnosis, mainly criticising the Mitterrand government. One of Brocard’s first titles, Meurtre á Grande Vitesse (High-Speed Murder; 1985), revolved around the murder of a radical French senator during his trip on a TGV train from Paris to Lyon. As one of the in-game characters says, the murder victim had denounced her to the Gestapo during the Second World War. One can see here a striking reference to the history of French collaboration with Nazi Germany; also, among the tertiary characters on the train, the player can see Mitterrand himself.

The success of Meurtre á Grande Vitesse encouraged Brocard to write several other investigative games alluding to political events. Meurtres sur l’Altantique (Murders on the Atlantic Ocean; 1986), whose plot unfolds on a cruise ship sailing towards New York City in 1938, reconstructs the gloomy climate before the outbreak of the Second World War when the presence of Nazi spies was ubiquitous. In Meurtres á Venise (Murders in Venice; 1988), the player has to prevent a left-wing terrorist attack during an international summit in Venice, which in reality had taken place just two years before the game’s release[25]. In comparison to these games, Dossier G: L’Affaire du Rainbow Warrior (The Case of Rainbow Warrior; 1986, Cobrasoft) by Daniel Lefebvre referred to current affairs even more explicitly. This program documented the French intelligence service’s sinking of the titular ship owned by Greenpeace near New Zealand. The action outraged public opinion when the media revealed that Mitterrand’s government personally approved the sinking[26]. However, when transposed onto the computer screen, these severe events were belittled by game critics. A Tilt reviewer mocked the program as a “non-game”,[27] suggesting that the concept of serious games had yet to be accepted.

Indirect references to the French collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Second World War also appeared in Le Manoir de Mortevielle (Mortville Manor, 1987, Lankhor). The game, developed by Bruno Gourier and Bernard Grelaud, takes place in a mansion in the early 1950s. The main protagonist of the game, private detective Jerôme Lange, receives an invitation letter from his former friend Julia. When he arrives at the place, her funeral is just taking place. However, Le Manoir de Mortevielle slightly differs from a conventional ‘whodunit’ story: the main thread concerns not Julia’s death (which, as it turns out, was natural), but the vanishing of her friend, Murielle. The player finds Murielle’s rotten remains behind the allegoric “wall of silence” (mur de silence); no one in the family is willing to talk about her death. Only the head of the family, a historian who possesses the truth, tells the player that Murielle’s death was the result of a tragic accident. Nevertheless, the historian has an interest in erasing the memory of Murielle, just as in the 1980s, when common knowledge about the Vichy puppet state was still a national “repressed memory”.[28]

 

Postcolonialism and Feminism

 

There were also games devoted to emerging subjects in cultural studies, such as postcolonialism. The economic exploitation of slaves from Africa took place in French-Caribbean colonies like Martinique, which became a bastion of post-colonial thought. Although pioneered by such philosophers as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, the study of French postcolonialism in the 1980s grew in popularity thanks to Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau. Both were supporters of a more nuanced perspective on the European and African presence in the Caribbean, where both cultural spheres mingled in the so-called Creole culture. Muriel Tramis, an African-Caribbean female programmer from Martinique who worked in the Parisian software house Coktel Vision, was under Chamoiseau’s influence. She made her debut with two games thematically linked to the history of her homeland.

Méwilo (1987, Coktel Vision) is set before the Montagne Pélée volcano eruption in 1902 which destroyed Saint-Pierre, the administrative centre of the island. The player explores several locations in Martinique, investigating people of various ethnic identities to solve a mystery surrounding past events. The titular Méwilo was a slave murdered by his French master, who owned a sugar plantation near Saint-Pierre, where a real rebellion occurred in 1831. As the game unfolds, the player learns that the influence of colonialism on Martinique lasted long after the abolition of slavery in 1848. For example, a black Catholic priest rejects the practices of his ancestors and supports their oppressors, while a wealthy Creole complains that neither black nor white inhabitants accept them. The issues raised in Méwilo are similar to Zygmunt Bauman’s reflection about identities:

 

The blacks of Martinique and Guadeloupe have to prove that their Frenchness requires no proof… By the most finical of fastidious standards, the blacks of Martinique and Guadeloupe are exemplary Frenchmen. To most exemplary Frenchmen, this is exactly what they are—black Martinicans and Guadeloupians passing for exemplary Frenchmen. Well, it is precisely this earnest effort to be exemplary Frenchmen that makes them the blacks of Martinique or Guadeloupe… The more they do to turn into something else than they are, the more they are what they have been called not to be[29].

Méwilo reflects such issues of Martinican identity, and Freedom (1988, Coktel Vision) tries to reconstruct this identity, staging the aforementioned slave revolt in Saint-Pierre. The game allows the player to initiate a slave revolt against a sugar plantation owner. The player’s goal is to recruit warriors, swiftly infiltrate buildings where colonial officials are stationed and fight them in arcade sequences. Both games met with critical acclaim; for Méwilo, Tramis received the Silver Medal from the Ministry of Culture[30], and Tilt journalist Eric Caberia considered Freedom as the gaming equivalent of Arthur Penn’s famous film Little Big Man (1970)[31].

Having ceased the cooperation with Chamoiseau, Tramis moved into erotica with three games: Emmanuelle (1989, Coktel Vision), Geisha (1990, Coktel Vision), and Fascination (1991, Coktel Vision). As Tramis claimed in an interview for PC Joker, she aimed to question the traditional gaze of the male player and provide a feminine perspective on eroticism[32]. This perspective prevails in Geisha and Fascination, whose protagonists are female characters. The heroine of Geisha flies to Japan to find his girlfriend, abducted by a mad scientist who turns women into cyborgs. Similarly, the avatar of Fascination, Doralice, who works as a stewardess, becomes entangled in a dangerous affair involving a drug which turns men into sexual abusers. In both games, these are women who win their struggle to articulate their desires. Tramis returned to postcolonial themes with Lost in Time (1993, Coktel Vision), which once again featured Doralice, this time in a fight with a white supremacist who hates women and Afro-Caribbeans. The heroine symbolically defeats her villain by giving him an orchid, “a cross-cultural symbol of female sexuality”,[33] whose smell makes him fall into the abyss.

Postcolonial themes also prevailed in Bernand Grelaud and Bruno Gourier’s Maupiti Island (1990, Lankhor), an investigative game about the white people’s colonial dominance. The central part of the game constitutes a conventional detective story involving the search for a treasure on the titular Polynesian island in 1954. Nonetheless, a secondary thread revolves around the last native inhabiting Maupiti. His death at the hands of a greedy white sailor contains a symbolic meaning recalling Paul Gauguin’s paintings, where “the themes of lush exoticism and the death of a culture are linked, and the West is indicted for destroying innocence”.[34] Nonetheless, in contrast to Tramis’s games, the reference here is problematic, because Maupiti Island associates an indigenous person more with innocence than anti-colonial anger.

 

Science Fiction

 

After 1986, science fiction also became a highly used thematic genre in France. The primary source of its inspiration was an underground comics magazine Métal Hurlant, whose creators such as Philippe Druillet and Moebius were under the influence of the political events of May 1968[35]. The background for this local science fiction was the defeat of Socialists in the 1986 parliamentary elections. During his first two years in office, the new conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac conducted partial denationalization of government institutions, reversing the Socialists’ ambitious reforms. Although the Left regained power in 1988, Chirac’s action had revealed the crisis of “the welfare state” and growing social disenchantment with political reforms. According to Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, French society in the late 1980s and early 1990s was less resistant to capitalism than in previous decades. Both sociologists paradoxically attribute responsibility for such a change to the May ’68 generation, who had forgone the former stability of employment in favour of self-fulfilment and more creative work[36].

French science fiction, visually inspired by Métal Hurlant (despite the closure of the magazine in 1987), reflected the ongoing instability of everyday life. In Paul Cuisset’s Les voyageurs du temps (Time Travellers; 1989, Delphine Software), the player assumes a role of window cleaner, whose frustration with his job goes hand in hand with the aggressive behaviour of his boss. The protagonist uses a secret time machine to find the epoch during which he will become a hero—the future. Similarly, in a cyberpunk game B.A.T. (1989, Ubi Soft) by Hérvé Lange and Olivier Cordoléani, the player directs a cyborg who tracks down interstellar criminals in a dystopian reality. In the game, capitalism is an uncontrolled power instrument; the player needs to pay for everything (from food to healthcare), and the final financial support comes from a local financial magnate. Neal Tringham, in his anthology of science fiction digital games, regards B.A.T. as “an impressive piece of future noir […] with a distinctly anti-capitalist tone”[37].

Games such as Philippe Ulrich and Didier Bouchon’s L’Arche du Captain Blood (The Ark of Captain Blood; 1987, Ére Informatique) and Eric Chahi’s Another World (1991, Delphine Software) maintained the same tone. Ulrich and Bouchon’s game featured a programmer immersed in his world, where he wanders in search of his duplicates to destroy them. L’Arche du Captain Blood, apart from hallucinatory visuals inspired by H.R. Giger, contained an original interface which allowed the player to communicate with other encountered aliens by creating sentences from individual symbols. The victory required an effective and non-violent communication of the aliens, who “are preoccupied with personal vendettas or desperation, genocide, extinction, war”.[38] The protagonist is also vulnerable: if the player does not kill the clones, his avatar slowly loses life and authenticity, becoming a Heideggerian “being-to-death”. Conversely, when the player accomplishes his task, his avatar finds internal peace. The game’s counter-cultural meaning can be shown during psychedelic sequences of flight, which resemble a narcotic trip. In Another World, whose visuals reveal the author’s inspiration by the images of Michael Whelan, Richard Corben, and Frank Frazetta[39], there is a similar self-referential motif: a lonely, detached scientist from contemporaneity is thrown into an alternate reality where he can trust only one specific alien. The vulnerable protagonist, having run through the unfriendly, unpredictable alternate world, eventually falls unconscious on the ground. Another World’s minimalistic design emphasized its counter-cultural meaning. The game featured no heads-up display, score, or game points. As Chahi said, “I wanted a visceral implication of the player, no distraction other than the world itself. No artificial motivation, which score is. Score’s a capitalistic view of gameplay, no?”[40]

 

Horror

 

Social criticism was also present in some French horror games developed between 1985 and 1988. Although horror adventure games were scarce, their design overtook many contemporary titles at the time. Yannick Cadin’s Zombi (1986), the first game released by the still renowned studio Ubisoft, remediated a contestatory movie, Dawn of the Dead (1978, dir. George A. Romero), whose action takes place in a shopping mall. The player wanders around the shopping centre, fighting zombies and collecting fuel for a helicopter. However, the overall context of the game changed. While Romero’s film was read as a critique of consumerism[41], the background for Zombi was also a series of terrorist attacks conducted in France by transnational terrorist groups, which targeted random civilians in cinemas, shops, and shopping malls[42]. Zombies in the game personified a violent threat from the Middle East, long before this kind of enemy became overused in post-9/11 films and digital games[43]. Not incidentally, Zombi became a highly attractive game and encouraged Ubisoft to release several other horrors, including La Chose de Grotemburg (The Thing from Grotemburg, 1987) and Hurlements (The Howling, 1988)[44].

A more nuanced take on horror themes can be found in Infernal Runner (1985, Loriciels), regarded as one of the first survival horrors[45], as Tringham defines them, “characterized by vulnerable protagonists attempting to escape from menacing and disturbing situations, almost always of a fantastic nature”.[46] The game, originally developed by Michel Koell and Yves Korta, is of a very depressive nature: the player seeks the keys to enter the exit from an industrial death labyrinth, where every game object can massacre his avatar. The ending is not uplifting, either. After exiting the labyrinth, the protagonist sees an ambulance driving towards him. He does not react, and consequently, he is run over. Not incidentally, the year 1985 marked the highest suicide rate in France in measured history[47]. Therefore, Infernal Runner’s meaning is maintained not only in the Kafkaesque tradition of the grotesque and irony, where the protagonists are “sentenced to die” from the very beginning[48], but also in the social context.

 

Conclusion

 

The period between 1982 and 1993 in French digital game industry is a not very well-known episode in the international history of the medium. However, this article demonstrates that this period marked the release of various games which pioneered the international gaming industry in many aspects. Le Breton’s Paranoïak introduced the specific contemporary setting, while Lanzmann and Tramis brought feminist themes to digital games long before the Gamergate affair in the United States. The latter game designer represented the postcolonial point of view as well, which escaped even Souvik Mukherjee’s notice[49]. The Anglo-Saxon historians, except for Tristan Donovan, do not seem to mention such niche voices.

Meanwhile, despite the collapse of Tilt magazine, the French gaming industry nevertheless fully developed during the period. Such games as Captain Blood and Another World were international successes, and there was a field for further experiments in three-dimensional technology and full-motion video techniques[50]. However, when some software houses such as Delphine Software and Lankhor fell apart in 2001, the early achievements of what we can call the “golden decade” of the French gaming industry were forgotten. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering how French games exposed their own culture before the Gallic industry became swallowed by the processes of globalization.

 

References

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Aldrich Robert, French Presence in the South Pacific, 1842–1940 ([Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014).

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Anonymous, “Le créateur du mois : Bertrand Brocard”, Tilt 30 (1986).

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Anonymous, “Pour développer et produire…”, Jeux & Stratégie 37 (1986).

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Bremner Charles, “Mitterrand Ordered Bombing of Rainbow Warrior, Spy Chief Says”, The Times (11 July 2005).

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Cole Alistair, “French Socialists in Office: Lessons from Mitterrand and Jospin”, Modern & Contemporary France 1 (1999).

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Corngol Stanley and Wagner Benno, Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press) (2011).

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[1]Óliver Pérez Latorre, “The European Videogame: An Introduction to Its History and Creative Traits”, European Journal of Communication 28:2 (2013), pp. 136–151.

[2]Jaakko Suominen, “How to Present the History of Digital Games: Enthusiast, Emancipatory, Genealogical, and Pathological Approaches”, Games and Culture (2016), pp. 8–10.

[3] Soraya Murray, On Video Games, The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris: London and New York) (2017), p. 105.

[4] Espen Aarseth provides an explanation of the term “narrative” in games, which means, according to him, the presence of kernels (“events that define a particular story”) and satellites (“supplementary events that fill out the discourse”) in a particular game. See Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in FDG ’12 Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, eds. Magy Seif El-Nasr, Mia Consalvo and Steven Feiner (Raleigh, North Carolina: ACM) (2012), p. 130.

[5] The definition above includes the mutations of the genre: RPG adventures (games based on experience points and fights with enemy characters, which also feature problem-solving), and action-adventures (games requiring reflexes and problem-solving).

[6] Cf. Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (Lewes: Yellow Ant) (2010), p. 128.

[7]Alexis Blanchet, “France”, in Video Games Around the World, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2015), pp. 175–179.

[8]Anonymous, “Le micro ca boum”, Tilt 17 (1984), p. 8; Guy Delcourt, “Le grand chambardement”, Tilt 19 (1985), p. 24.

[9]Joëlle Ilous, “Le coq se rebiffe”, Tilt 8 (1983), pp. 32–33.

[10]Alexis Blanchet, p. 180.

[11]Guy Delcourt, “La puce aux œufs d’or”, Tilt 14 (1984), p. 18.

[12]Tristan Donovan, p. 128.

[13]Jonathan Davies, “Why are French games so weird?”, Amiga Power 6 (1991), pp. 74–77.

[14]Tristan Donovan, pp. 126, 128–129.

[15]Anonymous, “Les préféres de Jack Lang”, Science et Vie Micro 13 (1985), p. 27.

[16] See also Guillaume Montagnon, “L’intégration du jeu vidéo dans une politique publique dans les années 1980: le cas de l’agence Octet”, in Les supports du jeu vidéo (Paris: Université Paris 13) (2015), p. 20; Anonymous, “Pour développer et produire…”, Jeux & Stratégie 37 (1986), p. 52.

[17]Anonymous, “Tilt d’Or”, Tilt 17 (1984), p. 47; Anonymous, “Pomme d’Or telematique”, Science et Vie Micro 14 (1985), p. 13.

[18]Jean-Louis Le Breton, “L’histoire de Froggy Software”, Jean-Louis Le Breton, http://www.jeanlouislebreton.com/L-histoire-de-Froggy-Software_10_20.html, date accessed 15 July 2017.

[19] Alistair Cole, “French Socialists in Office: Lessons from Mitterrand and Jospin”, Modern & Contemporary France 1 (1999), pp. 71–87.

[20]See Jon Dovey, Helen W. Kennedy, Game Culture (New York: Open University Press) (2006), p. 80.

[21] The title of the famous speech by Émile Zola, in defense of Albert Dreyfus, a victim of the anti-Semitic wave ôin France.

[22] The title of the speech by Charles de Gaulle, who enforced the constitutional change in France in 1958.

[23] Alvaro Lamarche-Toloza, Jordan Leclerc, Entretien avec Bertrand Brocard, 11 April 2016, http://controverses.sciences-po.fr/cours/com_2016/jeuxvideos/retranscription-bertrand-b.pdf, date accessed 16 February 2018.

[24] Anonymous, “Le créateur du mois : Bertrand Brocard”, Tilt 30 (1986), p. 18.

[25]The 13th summit of G7 ran in June 1987, on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

[26]Charles Bremner, “Mitterrand Ordered Bombing of Rainbow Warrior, Spy Chief Says”, The Times (11 July 2005), p. 31.

[27]Anonymous, “Dossier G”, Tilt 28 (1986), p. 41.

[28] Eric Conan, Henry Rousso, Vichy: An Ever-present Past, trans. Nathan Bracher (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College) (1998), p. XII.

[29]Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodernity and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press) (1997), p. 75.

[30]Bernd Zimmermann, Michael Suck, “Ein Cocktail, der es in sich hat!”, Aktueller Software Markt 1 (1988), pp. 55–57.

[31]Eric Caberia, “Freedom”, Tilt 61 (1989), pp. 134–135.

[32] Anonymous, “Ein offense Gespräch mit: Muriel Tramis”, PC Joker 1 (1993), p. 68.

[33] Cristina Ferreira Pinto, Gender, Discourse, and Desire in Twentieth-century Brazilian Women’s Literature (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press) (2004), p. 131.

[34]Robert Aldrich, French Presence in the South Pacific, 1842–1940 (Place of publication not identified: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014), p. 6.

[35]Matthew Screech, “The Myth of May 1968 in bandes déssinées”, Bélphegor 15:2 (2017), https://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/1012, date accessed 14 February 2018.

[36]Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York – London: Verso) (2007), pp. 167–198.

[37] Neal Tringham, Science Fiction Video Games (Boca Raton: CRC Press) (2015), p. 146.

[38] J. Chastain, Captain Blood (Atari ST), https://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/captain-blood-atari-st.html, date accessed 14 February 2018; cited by Helen Lewis, “A videogames critical reader, by Liz Ryerson”, The New Statesman, 6 December 2012, https://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2012/12/videogames-critical-reader-liz-ryerson, date accessed 14 February 2018.

[39] The Retro Gamer Team, The Making of Another World, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-another-world/, date accessed 16 February 2018.

[40] Cf. Tristan Donovan, p. 134.

[41] Stephen Harper, “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead”, Americana 1:2 (2002), http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm?pagewanted=all, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[42] Didier Bigo, “Les attentats de 1986 en France : un cas de violence transnationale et ses implications (Partie 1), Cultures & Conflits 4 (1991), https://journals.openedition.org/conflits/129, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[43] See, for example, Anna Froula, “Prolepsis and the ‘War on Terror’: Zombie Pathology and the Culture of Fear in 28 Days Later…”, in Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and “War on Terror”, eds. Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Rendall (Continuum: New York) (2014), pp. 195–208;

[44] Andre Willey, “Games, Games And More Games”, Start 3:8 (1989), https://www.atarimagazines.com/startv3n8/games_games.html, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[45] Eric Cubizolle, “Infernal Runner”, Pix n’ Love 5 (2008), pp. 78–79.

[46] Neal Tringham, p. 311.

[47] Organization of Economic Growth and Development, “Health status – Suicide rates”, http://data.oecd.org/healthstat/suicide-rates.htm, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[48] Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner state that the Kafka’s prose was deeply “suicidal”. Łukasz Musiał, while analyzing the ending paragraphs of The Trial, sees the Joseph K.’s acceptance of his fate as the desire to kill himself. Compare Stanley Corngol and Benno Wagner, Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press) (2011), pp. 47–48; Łukasz Musiał, Kafka. W poszukiwaniu utraconej rzeczywistości [Kafka: In Search of Lost Reality] (Wrocław: Atut) (2011), pp. 288–289.

[49] See Souvik Mukherjee, Video Games and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back ([Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan) (2017). Mukherjee’s book focuses mainly on the representation of Anglo-Saxon colonies in digital games, including his homeland India.

[50] The mainstream fantastic games produced in France, such as Alone in the Dark (1992, Infogrames) and Dune (1992, Cryo Interactive), popularized the aforementioned technologies in the global gaming industry, while Urban Runner (1996, Coktel Vision) was an ambitious but flawed attempt to create an “interactive movie”.

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

Marcin Petrowicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 177-183.

 

Marcin Petrowicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

 

The problem of genre is probably as ancient as literature itself; anyone who takes up this topic not only has to face the tradition of genre studies but also has to justify the validity of applying narrative fiction concepts to game studies. Therefore, Maria B. Garda’s book Interaktywne fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych (Interactive fantasy. Genre in digital games)[1] was a daring endeavour from its inception. Yet, after reading through the first chapter one abandons initial doubts regarding Garda’s thesis.

Genre been thoroughly examined not only in many academic disciplines dealing with different media, but also in popular discourse. Labels such as fantasy, gothic, thriller, or romance are used by researchers and connoisseurs of different media, and by novice amateurs, children, and unsavoury fans that are just learning to recognize and understand the vast landscape of different cultural artefacts. Marketing copywriters use genre tags to set expectations for their consumer base; media producers employ genre effects, using them as a recognizable means of communication. Garda argues that game culture in many ways replicates the Hollywood film complex, in which “genres are by definition not just scientifically derived or theoretically constructed categories but are always industrially certified and publicly shared”.[2] Yet the fact that these collections of conventions and effects are constantly used and transformed makes it almost impossible to create an ultimate definition of any genre. Furthermore, living in a world where different types of text converge, exchange, and leave their native platform—a postmedia landscape[3]—the quest for the academic definition of genre is so much more difficult. Therefore the author of the reviewed book writes, “That is why the goal of my work is not to define the concept of [game – M.P.] genre, but rather to examine the role of genre distribution of digital games in relation to similar divisions in film and literature”[4]. Inspired by the concept of genre layers[5], Interactive Fantasy introduces the original concept of merger models and analyzes an example of a well-established one: hardcore fantasy RPG.

 

Genre layers

 

Genre layers assign games to specific genres on different levels. In Interactive Fantasy… three such layers are presented: thematic, ludic, and functional. “Thematic genres relate to categories of semantic systems and are defined primarily on the basis of the representation”[6]. These genres are easily identified throughout any medium that uses any kind of narrative or figurative imagery. Fantasy, horror or western are examples of thematic genres; they are transmedial and mostly originate from creations preceding videogames, thus frequently the tools for their analysis are derived from literature and film studies. The second layer is the ludic genres that are defined by the rules, mechanics, and conventions of gameplay. A point-of-view perspective paired with a three-dimensional environment and shooting-based gameplay will result in an FPS (first-person shooter) game, for example, the Doom series (id Software, 1993–2016), while continuous time plus a commander’s perspective and a gameplay based on economy and military conflict will be an RTS (real-time strategy game) such as the StarCraft series (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998–2017). The Ludic genre is also transmedial, as there are card games (Gwent (CD Projekt RED, in public beta from 2017) and poker), roleplaying games (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1986–2009) and The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2015)) and wargames (Panzer General (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1994) and Warhammer 40,000 (Games Workshop, 1987–present)) created for different media; but at the same time there are platformers (Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985)), tile matching (Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012)) or dexterity games (Twister (Milton Bradley Company, 1966)) that could not have been transferred to any other platform than the original one. The third layer presented by Garda is the functional genres defined by the context of reception and the modes of participation. The author introduces two independent divisions of games within functional genres. The first relates to the declared goal of the product; whether it is an entertainment game or whether it has another purpose besides fun; the latter is the case of serious games, which can be further divided into educational games, advertisement games or persuasive games. The second division is based on the designed cognitive effort that the game requires from the player, resulting in either hardcore or casual games, as defined by Paweł Grabarczyk[7]. This is probably the most interesting and the least recognized genre layer, because although much is written in academia about serious games, there is little reflection on casual or hardcore games as genres.

 

Genre effects

 

Within each of the described genre layers, the games are divided by a different set of distinguishable features: narrative, gameplay, and social context. Yet, even within the categories the differentiators for each genre label are not of the same nature. FPSs are defined by environment whereas RTSs (real-time strategies) are defined by usage of time. Therefore, as Garda states, the role of the genre is less that of classification, but rather that of interpretation. To analyse this situation, she uses genre effects borrowed from Dominic Arsenault:

Playing a game is experiencing a constant flux of (genre, series or intertextual) markers, that depending on the individual spectator and his competences, can produce the genres effects that precise their expectations and prepare their favourable disposition for the upcoming semiotic sequence.[8]

A genre marker can be one of many differentiators for a single genre, like progression of character statistics in role-playing games, but a marker can also be used in several games of different genres, such as the multiple endings marker. Under this tag on the Steam platform there are listed such different games as triple AAA role-playing game The Witcher 2: Assassins of the Kings (CD Projekt Red, 2014), indie narrative adventure game The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), or a visual novel Cinders (MoaCube, 2012). Genres arise, mix, and evolve so the gaming community and industry use not only names such as cRPG or FPS, but also tags, which Garda refers to as genre labels, which can either signify a whole genre, e.g. FPS, or also relate to just one genre marker, e.g. multiple ending.

 

Merger models

 

Upon those theoretical foundations, Maria Garda presents her original idea: genre merger models[9]. She argues that specific genres from different layers attract each other and have been historically proven to be popular clusters. For example, the ludic genre of HOPA (hidden object puzzle adventure) is frequently combined with the detective story theme and a casual mode of engagement, resulting in a recognizable historically embedded trend. Merger models describe a specific convention popular at a given time, “those relations change historically, as today many genres that were in the past associated with a hardcore mode of engagement open up to more casual practices”[10]. We could ask about the popularity of the WWII hardcore FPS model of the early 2000s, and how this model has changed now in a time of a possible revival of the model with the premiere of Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017). Garda emphasizes that the list of layers is not complete and can be expanded with labels beyond what the gaming community considers genres. Two interesting additions would be the hardware and nationality layers. A collection of specific local merger models that are highly popular in a particular country could shed light on the national style of game development, while analysis of merger models related to a specific console would tell the story and reveal the strategy of the owner company.

Merger models ought not to be limited to genres; while this framework can serve to interpret a specific genre and its evolution, in my opinion it is more of a tool for writing histories of games. What it should provide us with is an insightful multidimensional map of interconnected trends in game development and its transformations over time. As presented in Interactive Fantasy, the merger model concept can be used to holistically and thoroughly describe a group of games, such as hardcore fantasy RPG, or to analyse chosen aspects of single or multiple games, as Garda does in the last chapters of the book.

 

The Exemplar Model

Fantasy

 

The fantasy genre as it is applied in video games is most indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien, his successors, and followers. Yet Garda does not limit herself to this genre core and presents a brief history that led to the creation of Middle-earth. She describes the inspirations of early fantasy writers (mythopoeic narratives, romantic nostalgy for the pre-industrial world and the English Fairyland) as the roots that set the genre’s standards for the following decades. Following the arguments from Tomasz Z. Majkowski’s monograph of the 20th century fantasy “In the Shadow of the White Tree”, Garda adapts her definition of fantasy based on three main characteristics:

  • its ‘otherness’, geographical and chronological distinctiveness from the areas identified with the common reality (…)
  • presence of fantastical elements motivated by magic,
  • conventional ancientness or ‘medievalism’[11]

Tolkien is also indirectly responsible for the popularity of magic and elves in 21st century popular culture, firstly by inspiring the nascence of tabletop role-playing games in the ‘70s and later with the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (2001–2003, Peter Jackson). Not satisfied to just follow the history of fantasy popularity, Garda goes on to summarize the academic research dedicated to this genre. While it is not the main point of interest in the book, it is deep and thorough and can be an interesting read not only to uninitiated scholars.

 

Hardcore

 

The chapter devoted to hardcore games, or more precisely games that demand high cognitive engagement, is mostly focused on gamers’ culture and players’ typologies; it is the chapter that concentrates on the social context of games instead of the artefact itself. Following various researchers, Garda presents a history of the rise and fall of the gamer. Looking for the birth of the gamers she summons Greame Kirkpatrick, who places it in the middle of the ‘80s and points to British gaming magazines as the source of this identity[12]. The author of Interactive Fantasy rightly adjusts this statement to a Polish context, in which gaming culture experienced a similar boom in the ‘90s. On the other hand, she sees the beginning of the fall of the gamer in the Casual Revolution—the transformation of the video game industry in the early 2000, when developers opened their products to wider audiences who would not call themselves gamers, as described in Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games[13]. Garda follows the different definitions and characteristics of the engaged user and describes how the RPG genre relates to them. While for years role-playing was considered to be the definition of hardcore games, in her opinion it is more interesting to see the latest changes in that matter. As more and more developers adopt casual strategies for their work, we see titles that have the characteristics of role-playing, but are also more open to casual players, like Games of Thrones: Ascent (Disruptor Beam, 2013), which is analysed in a later chapter.

 

RPG

 

Role-playing games are one of the most popular and vital genres in games culture and even in trying to grasp the topic broadly, Garda has a lot to cover. Yet she does so in a brief but detailed and engaging form which covers the archaeology of computer role-playing games, presenting the details of the creation of Adventure (Will Crowther, 1975), the ancestor of all RPGs. Later Garda discusses the periodization of the genre as defined in Dungeons and Desktops by Matt Barton[14]. However, the most important part of this chapter is the reflection on the foundation elements of role-playing and especially how they changed over time. Nonetheless, the two defining traits of role-playing are just as relevant now as they were in 1998, when the book Garda quotes was published. These essential RPG genre effects are the character development system (aggregation of points) and the player’s diverse interaction with the game world (role-playing)[15]. The analysis of these elements gives insight into the genre’s roots and also its relationship with its tabletop counterpart.

The last part of Interactive Fantasy shows how the theoretical model conceived by Maria Garda can be used in analysis. Especially valuable is the ludic analysis of the roguelike genre, in which the author delves into the history of this convention, describes the revolutionary effect of Diablo (Blizzard North, 1996), and the recent popularity of neo-roguelike. This part not only presents an insightful research of a forgotten breed of games but is also a great example of a middle-range game analysis.

I am convinced that Interactive Fantasy. Genre in digital games will be an essential book in Polish game studies curricula. It is a great handbook for games genre theory, presenting all the necessary concepts for aspiring students. The different theories and wide range of topics related to fantasy role-playing games will make it also engaging reading for fans or avid gamers, as the academic nature of the publication does not make it inaccessible or overly complex. On the other hand, in Interactive Fantasy Maria Garda presents an original and inspiring theoretical framework that could be useful for seasoned game researchers. The genre merger model is an insightful concept that is open to further developments and, despite its name, should be developed and adopted to game aspects beyond just genres.

 

References

Altman Rick, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

Arsenault Dominic, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

Barton Matt, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

Celiński Piotr, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

Garda Maria, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012)

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

Grabarczyk Paweł, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

Juul Jesper, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

Kirkpatrick Graeme, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

Majkowski Tomasz Z., W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

Uchański Aleksy, Gawrysiak Piotr, Mańkowski Piotr, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

Voorhees Gerald, Call Josh, Whitlock Katie, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012)

 

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

 

[1] Maria Garda, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

[2] Rick Altman, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

[3] Piotr Celiński, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

[4] Maria Garda, p. 22.

[5] Gerald Voorhees, Josh Call, Katie Whitlock, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012).

[6] Maria Garda, p. 25.

[7] Paweł Grabarczyk, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

[8] Dominic Arsenault, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

[9] Maria Garda, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012).

[10] Maria Garda, (2016), p. 27.

[11] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

[12] Graeme Kirkpatrick, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

[13] Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

[14] Matt Barton, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

[15] Aleksy Uchański, Piotr Gawrysiak, Piotr Mańkowski, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 5-20.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

New American Patriotism in Games:

WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Abstract

In the 1980s, American popular culture started to restore its reputation as a dominant political power—weakened after the Vietnam War—by recalling the success of World War II and constructing its mythology. The following cinematic tendency, which Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli label as New Patriotism, disseminated triumphalist views on the U.S. presence during the earlier conflict. This study aims to examine the similar trend in the American gaming industry between 1999 and 2008, when a considerable number of first-person shooter games with a World War II setting were released. The author later argues that this wave responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when the George Bush government started a crusade against the so-called “axis of evil”. This political background affected the American gaming industry, as shown with examples of several shooters constituting three important game series: Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms. Those franchises used the specific setting and stylized antagonists, thus recalling the contemporary events in the Middle East. The main problems with New Patriotism are also raised, including the demonization of enemies and the simultaneous absence of civilians during in-game military actions. Further analysis discusses the hyperrealism of World War II-themed shooters produced in the United States. Products such as Call of Duty resembled cinematic narratives not only in terms of ideological message, but they also recreated scenes from films as such Saving Private Ryan and employed documentary-like cinematic techniques. Finally, the reasons for the natural atrophy of the movement are explained. This explanation includes increasing cathartic violence, the declining credibility of the ideological message provided by New Patriotism, and overutilization of episodes from World War II that are too well-known. The results of the research allow diagnosis of new possible reincarnations of New Patriotism.

Key words: 9/11, digital games, hyperreality, ludology, World War II

 

Introduction

 

The United States has one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. From Hollywood motion pictures to television stations, this industry plays a vital role in shaping the global political discourse. One of the most important forms of U.S. cultural expansion to foreign countries has become digital games, which are not free of the “discursive, political and ideological meanings” associated with an American point of view on politics, the economy, and history.[1] As Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig De Peuter remind us, digital games as a form of media were created for the purposes of the “U.S. military-entertainment complex”, contributing to national imperialist politics.[2] Numerous publications describe digital games as media which support aggressive politics towards other countries (especially Middle Eastern) on the same footing as motion pictures; America’s Army (2003, U.S. Army) serves here as an important example of explicit military propaganda.[3]

However, digital games shape not only discourse about the present, they also influence current views of the past. This article examines a certain tendency in American digital games which coincided with the appearance of military shooters set in the Middle East while using another historical setting and serving similar militainment purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, the movement included an explosion of numerous American first-person shooters[4] devoted to the main events of World War II. Although World War II had already been a theme for several digital games like Panzer General (1994, Strategic Simulations) and Steel Panthers (1995, Strategic Simulations), such productions paid attention to the strategic abilities of the player, therefore appealing to a limited number of board game enthusiasts. Hence, they were overtaken in popularity by action-oriented fantasy games such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996, 3D Realms) and Quake (1996, id Software).[5] The appearance of Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive) changed many things, as this game succeeded at merging the reality of World War II with the conventions of the increasingly popular first-person shooter genre. The choice of this ludic genre was no coincidence because the convention of first-person shooters had a greater potential to immerse players in the game world than strategy games. This article explores the causes of that further expansion of American WWII-themed shooters, their characteristics, and political background.

The aforementioned tendency can be termed “New American Patriotism”, with reference to the name suggested by Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli to describe a movement encompassing American motion pictures with “sentimental and ideological concepts that put the nation and cause ahead of individual survival”.[6] The New American Patriotism, according to Wetta and Novelli, is a celebration of “loyalty to one’s comrades in battle, the ability to survive the horrific face of modern hyper-lethal weaponry and warfare, and the shared experience of battle”.[7] Although both researchers count numerous films from different historical settings as examples of the movement,[8] they claim that an important influence on the message of such motion pictures was remembrance of World War II, which will be further discussed below. Then, because of similarities in their depiction of combat and suffering between both American WWII-themed shooters and films, I will restrict the definition of the New Patriotism to include only the World War II setting.

The following analysis of game characteristics excluded the subversive, parodist reinterpretations of World War II such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992, 3D Realms) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, Raven Software), as well as the games of non-American developers, merely published by American enterprises, like Battlefield 1942 (2002, Digital Illusions CE). Instead, several installments in three gaming franchises (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms) were chosen because of their prestige among players and non-parodist approach to the war. Because of their highly cinematic form, this analysis intends to indicate the specific narrative form rather than the gameplay. The former ludology vs. narratology debate has lost its significance and some ludologists acknowledge that the narrative can also be the object of research.[9] Espen Aarseth, for example, indicates that modern first-person shooters are linearly designed. The presence of fixed kernels, which Aarseth defines as “events that define a particular story”,[10] makes linear games immune to the randomness of gameplay, as the kernels are repeatable and foreseeable during each play.[11] The American WWII-themed shooters are chained to fixed kernels, which makes them useful for the analysis of storytelling.

 

From “New Patriotism” to Digital Games

 

According to Wetta and Novelli, New American Patriotism was formed as an ideological response to national trauma after the failure of the Vietnam War.[12] During the 1970s and 1980s, American cinema encountered numerous films criticizing national involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and citing several war crimes committed by the U.S. Army. Motion pictures such as Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) reflected an absence of faith in optimistic narration about modern conflict. In contrast to this traumatic imagination, the American government sought to replace the feeling of guilt with a revived militaristic discourse (identified with the term “Reaganomatography”) shaped by both the Ronald Reagan administration and the Republican Party.[13] The flood of action heroes like Rambo helped to reinvent the heroism of individual soldiers and therefore allowed an anxious American society to be reassured that right was on their side.

A key role in redefining the official patriotic discourse was played by the remembrance of World War II. A new historical approach, comparing the conflict in Vietnam with more prestigious successes in World War II, reshaped the U.S. attitude to patriotism. World War II became the “Good War”,[14] a conflict which did not shame the nation and could instead help re-establish the common view of soldiers as patriots. The main supporter of this new movement was Stephen Ambrose, a historian who often portrayed combatants from the 1940s as common heroes or “citizen soldiers”. Ambrose’s vision of World War II was embraced by the director Steven Spielberg, who suggested a redefined approach to the spectacle of war. The New Patriotism, combining suffering and explicit violence with moral characters having a deep faith in the legitimacy of war, could give more credibility to such a discourse.[15]

In 1998, Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan, which would serve as inspiration for the subsequent digital games. The film suggested a new, hyperrealistic approach to the representation of the effects of war on soldiers. The opening sequence of the Omaha Beach assault during the invasion of Normandy staged with attention to violent details and the frequent point-of-view camera shots, condensed the day-long attack into several minutes. Therefore, it fell within Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of a “visual event”, which in this example became a prototype of subsequent reconstructions of combat assaults in popular culture.[16] At the same time, it helped reconstruct the triumphalist vision of subsequent conflicts in which the United States took part; the Americans are depicted as the only liberators of Nazi-occupied France, and although “they commit atrocities in the fog of war […], this is the exception rather than the rule”.[17] Albert Auster notes that World War II, thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, “has become for Americans that mythic, Edenic moment when the entire nation bent itself to victory over evil and barbarism”.[18]

In the same year, Spielberg produced a digital game called Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive), which served the same triumphalist purpose, but the adaptation of World War II reality to the first-person shooter genre was intended for younger recipients. Spielberg, fascinated with digital games, planned to popularize the “Good War” amongst a new generation raised with new forms of media. Knowing that Private Ryan’s violence would be potentially damaging to children, he commissioned a war game with a different plot, without blood and suffering.[19] The result was an adventurous shooter with the player directing a serviceman at the Office of Strategic Services. Tasks involved diverse covert actions behind enemy lines, such as stealing important documents and sabotaging military objectives. In contrast to previous strategic games about World War II, Medal of Honor did not intend to realistically imitate the historical battles themselves, and it employed the point of view of an individual soldier only; its arcade-like gameplay seemed to imitate the spy shooting game GoldenEye 007 (Rage, 1997).[20] However, there was no specific story which shaped the Rage game; intersections during the main game included briefings with tasks to complete, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, Medal of Honor received positive reviews and encouraged its publisher, Electronic Arts, to develop a series of games within a World War II setting. The sequel to Medal of Honor, subtitled Underground (2000, DreamWorks Interactive), maintained a similar tone while providing the fresh perspective of a French female underground activist.

 

The Influence of 9/11

 

Medal of Honor’s adventurous tone changed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. According to Jean Baudrillard, the psychological damage it caused to the American nation led to a globalized cultural expansion of the United States (resulting in such events as the First Gulf War, where the United States led military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), with such symbolic violence questioning the global domination of this North American military power.[21] However, the terrorist attack did not lead to any reflections about the U.S. militarized national diplomacy. Instead, it became an excuse for President George W. Bush to order military intervention in Afghanistan in the same year, where the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack was based. In 2003, the Bush government invaded Iraq for the second time, citing Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction as a reason. Both invasions were legitimized by Bush’s speech of 23 January 2002, during which the President branded Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as sponsors of international terrorism, the so-called “axis of evil”. A comparison to the political alliance between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan (Axis Powers) during World War II was evident,[22] and was not without reason, as further World War II games would allude at the same time to both “axes of evil”, both historical and current.

In the post-9/11 period, the number of military first-person shooters alluding to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became much more visible. Popular culture, steered by the connection between military forces and various kinds of entertainment, was involved in the popularization of “justified” violence against other nations, as it had been during the previous events.[23] The role of military shooters cannot, therefore, be diminished, as this ludic genre reflected the enduring cult of guns and violence in the United States.[24] First-person shooters, as one of the most popular ludic genres, reflected this attitude to violence. On the one hand, there was a vast array of digital shooting games directly supported by the American government, such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004, Pandemic Studios). Their role as persuasive games with an explicit political message, whose intention was to convince players to support U.S. military interventions, became a topic of comprehensive research.[25] However, it is harder to explain the simultaneous wave of American WWII-themed shooters, which lasted until 2008.

Following Medal of Honor’s success, Electronic Arts continued the series with such games as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002, 2015 Inc.), Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003, EA Los Angeles), Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004, EA Los Angeles), and Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007, EA Los Angeles). Meanwhile, another publishing company, Activision, decided to jump on the bandwagon and launched another gaming franchise with Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 3 (2007, Treyarch), and Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch). An independent gaming studio, Gearbox Software, also joined the trend, producing a trilogy named Brothers in Arms, consisting of three games: Road to Hill 30 (2005), Earned in Blood (2005), and Hell’s Highway (2008). Whereas the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series employed various perspectives of soldiers from different fronts, and featured run-and-gun mechanics restricted to shooting at enemies and destroying enemy installations, Brothers in Arms established a coherent narrative about a squad from the 101st Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion and the Operation Market Garden in 1944, with more monotonous and slow-paced gameplay involving the ability to command the whole infantry squad from a first-person perspective. Although the games were cloaked under a specific historical setting, scholars such as Marc Ouellette[26] and Trent Cruz[27] claim that the World War II-themed military shooters were used to account for military interventions both in Afghanistan and Iraq, assumptions we shall now consider.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that WWII-themed games, while not explicitly showing the influence of the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War, tended to re-locate to Middle East settings in time and space. For example, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, set in the Pacific Theatre, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which became a convenient excuse for the United States to engage in the world conflict. The Japanese invasion has been frequently compared to American public opinion concerning the devastation of the Twin Towers. Although there are claims that such a comparison has been lax and based on simplification,[28] the memory of Pearl Harbor within the context of the 9/11 crisis functioned as a persuasive emotional response to human misfortune and suffering.[29] This metaphorical outlook on recent events as a reiteration of the past permeated Rising Sun along with Pacific Assault. In both games, Pearl Harbor develops into a turning point of the main story. While playing Rising Sun, the player confronts kamikaze planes while defending the USS Oklahoma destroyer; in Pacific Assault, the Japanese bombers devastate the base while the defenseless player sees the other people suffering from below. Ouellette observes that the fumes of burning Pearl Harbor seen from the distance in a cut-screen resemble the smoke from the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack.[30]

Conversely, the references are sometimes subtler. For example, the beginning of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a covert operation taking place in Arzew, Algeria, where a group of OSS servicemen prepare for Operation Torch, an invasion of the Allied military forces on Morocco and Algeria, where the Axis forces are stationed. One of the campaigns featured in Call of Duty 2 also includes levels depicting the British offensive against German forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although both games feature protagonists of different nationalities (the reasons for establishing different national viewpoints will be discussed later), the allusion to current events in the Middle East is mediated via Arab urban landscapes. In such scenarios, the Germans—the like Japanese in Rising Sun and Pacific Assault—serve as the equivalent of Middle Eastern terrorists. If the Japanese soldiers attack the player with bayonets and sword by surprise, the German soldiers organize a violent resistance against Allied forces, performing ambushes with grenade launchers—just like the guerrilla forces in Iraq.[31]

The Germans and the Japanese in these games are both portrayed as fanatics: they repeat conventional cries like “Banzai” and “Amerikaner”, and their role is restricted to those of targets at a shooting range. They are cruel to their captives, and their brutality becomes highlighted in Call of Duty: World at War. Each campaign of the game opens with similar scenes: in the American campaign, the player observes an enemy officer burning a prisoner with a cigar, then cutting his throat; the Soviet campaign begins with the player witnessing a massacre of his comrades by German forces. The unfolding narrative suggests the following message: the enemy shows no mercy, so we cannot show it to them either.[32]

Of course, the situation is different when it comes to portraying the Allies. Activision’s Call of Duty series, marked initially with the slogan “No one fights alone”, involves the diverse perspectives of nations fighting against the Axis. The Call of Duty game series, in contrast to homogenized American meta-narratives about their involvement in the war, features varying viewpoints of American, British, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers. All the gaming franchises also include naturalized Americans from ethnic minorities such as Italians and Mexicans (African Americans are not featured, though, due to racial segregation in the American military forces). What linked the meta-narration of the New American Patriotism in games was the accentuation of an international alliance against common enemies.[33] The national and ethnic diversity of fighting characters suggested that they united against a serious threat to their existence. The inclusion of selected Allied nations was affected by the contemporary balance of power, for example the Soviet presence in the Call of Duty series can be attributed rather to the intermittent collaboration between the United States and Russia during the invasion of Afghanistan than to the historical alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War II.

By contrast, the perspectives of the defeated nations are not included. Tanine Allison notes that while in many strategy games the player can control German and Japanese forces, the narration of American WWII-themed shooters stays highly vectorized, and the Allies constitute the only playable side of the conflict.[34] The civilian perspective is also reduced from the main narration, as the New Patriotism in games would lose attractiveness if the player confronted the real suffering of defenseless people murdered during military action. According to Holger Pötzsch, such a tendency is typical for first-person shooters in general:

If civilian deaths are presented, their fates are disconnected from player involvement and usually presented as the consequence of the opponents’ actions and decisions. The only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of non-combatants with heavy weapons.[35]

The only WWII-themed shooter which included civilians as refined characters is Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The game, set in The Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944, features several Dutch people who interact with an American unit while residing in the city of Eindhoven; a shoemaker offers the main protagonist Matt Baker some information about the enemies’ position, and a secondary character falls in love with a local girl. However, two motives—resistance and love—are dramatically curtailed with the brutal deaths of the shoemaker’s son and the girl. Their sacrifice, however, is used pretextually to illustrate enemy atrocities, and the narration still defines the American servicemen as people determined to prevent the civilians from suffering.

 

Cinematic Imagery

 

These factors—relocation of the present into the past, demonization of enemies, and heroization of protagonists—correspond to period films constituting the cinematic New Patriotism. However, American WWII-themed shooters are defined not only by their common, ideological message, but also by their hyperrealism in staging scenes from the conflict. Although the games’ developers frequently used slogans that seemingly attest to the authenticity and realism of their products,[36] the notion of realism in digital games is actually very problematic. We can attribute this issue to the ontological status of digital games in general. The realism considered as being in the real-world environment does not apply to digital games because they can only simulate their worlds, and simulation always excludes some factors constituting real life. For example, virtual bodies disappear after the passage of time, and the player can easily heal herself even after being seriously injured. As Aarseth says, virtual bullets used in various shooters do not differ ontologically,[37] and simulation as part of gaming experience always combines the real and the fictional.[38]

Furthermore, WWII-themed military shooters from 1998–2008 are more intertextual than extratextual, which means that they borrow from cinematic imagery rather than from real experiences on World War II battlefields. One can cite numerous inspirations of game developers by the cinematic New Patriotism. For example, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan appeared in two Electronic Arts’ games about the Normandy invasion (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Medal of Honor: Frontline) where even details such as the subtitle “Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944” with the Times New Roman font are copied from the film. Similarly, the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: World at War’s Soviet storylines that take place during the Battle of Stalingrad remediate the settings and events previously seen in Enemy at the Gates (2002, Jean-Jacques Annaud). The spectacularly staged sequence of the parachute landing in the French countryside, which introduces Road to Hill 30, as well as the serialized narrative of the whole series, recalls the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001, Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks), whereas Rising Sun and Pacific Assault imitate Pearl Harbor in their depiction of the titular base attack.

Adapting Jay David Bolter and David Grusin’s term of “remediation”, defined as the “refashioned and improved versions of other media”,[39] James Campbell sees such a tendency as an example of “remediated nostalgia”. His research indicates that WWII-themed shooters were intended to simulate not World War II itself, but a World War II film. Hence, games such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty attempt to provide ludic visual experiences similar to those from the 1990s American combat films.[40] This assumption, according to Eva Kingsepp, recalls the Baudrillardian notion of hyperreality which replaces historical events, currently impossible to revive, with their mediated representations.[41] The games imitated reality, but their developers could not develop a real experience, only a feeling of authenticity.[42]

Following James Campbell’s suggestion that WWII-themed shooters simulate cinematic experience, we discover that their design is intended not to demonstrate real suffering during combat, but to just “look” real. Discussing this issue, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger define American WWII-themed military shooters as using “selective authenticity”, a term introduced to describe the creative interpretation of historical facts instead of strict historical reconstruction. This process, according to Salvati and Bullinger, applies to these shooters within the framework of three categories: technology fetishism (an accurate depiction of the weaponry used during the war), documentary authority (a selection of documentaries or quotations from known personalities), and cinematic convention.[43] The latter category is characterized by frequent use of slow-motion and cut-scenes (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway), as well as a stabilized virtual camera during significant events (Road to Hill 30, Call of Duty 3, World at War) and the inclusion of authentic documentaries that are already cinematic in their form. All these factors contributed to the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism in games and made them a visually attractive collection of factual discourses, where complex military operations are rapidly achieved on screen.[44]

 

The Decline and the Revival?

 

New American Patriotism in games, considered here as the presence of American WWII-themed shooters, rapidly disappeared after 2008—there were no further productions about the conflict. One can posit several causes of such a decline. Firstly, the virtual image of World War II became much darker during the existence of the movement. The first Medal of Honor games which attracted the attention of players featured no blood or gore. This situation changed after the appearance of the Brothers in Arms franchise, in which the player had to confront the dispiriting deaths of fallen comrades and scenes naturalistically picturing the physical fragmentation of soldiers. This increase of violence reflected the brutalization of the Second Gulf War, when a growing number of news reports indicated the tragic result of American aggression against civilians. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures resulting in the appearance of so-called Islamic State in post-2010 Iraq. The last game of the Brothers in Arms series, Hell’s Highway, is set during Operation Market Garden in 1944, which was regarded a similar failure because of equally poor intelligence and dire consequences for civilians. This game, featuring horrifying imagery of the consequences of war on soldiers and civilians, ends with the operation unaccomplished and the player-directed unit being demoralized, but nevertheless having faith in further phases of the war (retrospectively motivated, anyway). James W. Creel suggests that the closure of Hell’s Highway was paradoxically uplifting in its allusion to the War on Terror and hope for a final victory since World War II had been won despite the operational failure.[45] Yet if we consider the demotivating tones of the whole game, the implicit ideological message of Hell’s Highway seemed ineffective, the story being assessed by a British journalist Kristan Reed as “overblown, and, towards the end, really quite cringeworthy”.[46]

Secondly, the constant ideological remembrance of such historical battles as the Normandy beaches, Stalingrad, and Pearl Harbor became counter-productive. The discourse, when repeated without refreshment, turned out to be unconvincing, and the depictions of historical conflicts lost their attraction, as the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism was still the same.[47] When Activision realized that moving the World War II setting to fictionalized modern conflicts in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward) “made the game more exciting to the players”,[48] the developers shifted to political fiction while maintaining the militaristic discourse to justify U.S. military aggression. Conversely, a new trend began to infect military shooters. The bonus horror episode of Call of Duty: World at War, in which the player could battle against zombified versions of the Nazis, became more popular than the game itself.[49] Thus, World War II in military shooters turned itself into a dead project, and the military–entertainment complex sought new methods of persuading the audiences to intervene in the Middle East.

However, the relocation of U.S. military forces to Iraq to counter an increasing regional threat from the so-called Islamic State gave the American government new arguments for maintaining the position of primary guardians of the global order. The military–entertainment complex seems to respond to such trends, with Activision and Gearbox Software recently announcing the development of new games set in World War II.[50] Thus, the question of American imperialism is being reintroduced. The living dead of WWII-themed games are rising from their graves, thus forcing us to indicate the renewed articulation of New American Patriotism.

 

References

 

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Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

Aarseth Espen, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 35–44.

Allison Tanine, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 183–193.

Andersen Robin, Kurti Marin, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 45–65.

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Campbell James, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), pp. 183–200.

Clearwater David A., Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006).

Crecente Brian, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

Creel James W., “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

Cruz Trent, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

Dittmer Jason, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

Dyer-Witheford Nick, De Peuter Greig, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2009).

Frasca Gonzalo, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

Kingsepp Eva, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 366–375.

Kingsepp Eva, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 60–89.

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Mirzoeff Nicholas, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002).

Nieborg David B., “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, in Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA) (2004).

Onder Cade, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

Ouellette Marc, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

Pötzsch Holger, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

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Wetta Frank J., Novelli Martin A., “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), pp. 861–882.

White Geoffrey M., “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

 

 

[1] David A. Clearwater, Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006), p. XIII.

[2] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: Universiaty of Minnesota Press) (2009).

[3] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter; see also Marcus Schulzke, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8.2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

[4] First-person shooter (FPS) is a genre of digital games based on shooting at enemy objects and moving within three-dimensional game worlds where the player can manipulate the point of view by steering the mouse.

[5] In the Readers’ Top 10 poll for an American gaming magazine Computer Gaming World, the debuting Quake was placed immediately higher than the Steel Panthers and Panzer General games, which were listed there for several months. See “Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

[6] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), p. 861.

[7] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 861.

[8] Their objects of analysis range from movies about World War II, like Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick) and Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay), to modern warfare, like Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell) and Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), to the American Revolution, like The Patriot (2003, Roland Emmerich).

[9] Michalis Kokonis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9.1 (2015), pp. 171–188; compare Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

[10] Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

[11] Espen Aarseth.

[12] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, pp. 865–867.

[13] A term coined by Łukasz Kobylarz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302.

[14] A phrase popularized by Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

[15] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 868.

[16] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002), pp. 6–7.

[17] Albert Auster, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 104.

[19]Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, http://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-the-sims/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

[20] Gerald Voorhees, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continuum) (2012), p. 103.

[21] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003), p. 6-8.

[22] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008), pp. 30–32.

[23] See, for example, an examination of the Captain America comic book as influenced by up-to-date geopolitics: Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

[24] See a comprehensive study of the Americans’ attitude to gun culture: Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

[25] Margot A. Susca, “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16; compare David B. Nieborg, “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA, 2004).

[26] Marc Ouellette, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

[27] Trent Cruz, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

[28] See Fred L. Borch, “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

[29] See Geoffrey M. White, “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

[30] Marc Ouellette.

[31] Ken Silverstein, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[32] See Robin Andersen, Marin Kurti, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 56.

[33] See Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015), p. 170.

[34] Tanine Allison, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 191.

[35] Holger Pötzsch, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

[36] See James Campbell, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008), p. 186.

[37] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 38.

[38] Espen Aarseth, s. 43.

[39] Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999), p. 15.

[40] James Campbell, pp. 187–188.

[41] Eva Kingsepp, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 367–368.

[42] Eva Kingsepp, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 64.

[43] Andrew J. Salvati, Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

[44] For example, in the Soviet campaign of Call of Duty, there is a mission in which the player defends a strategic object known as Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. Whereas the real defense lasted two months before the arrival of supporting Soviet forces, the in-game defense could be easily completed in 15–20 minutes. The historical events are condensed to fully immerse the player in the battle that could not be as intense as on screen.

[45] James W. Creel, “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

[46] Kristan Reed, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[47] Brian Crecente, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

[48] Seth Schiesel, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[49] Adam Rosenberg, ‘Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?’, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[50] Cade Onder, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

 

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 132-149.

 

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

Jagiellonian University

 

 

War rape in the face of heroic narrative.

The case of Polish cinema

 

Abstract

War rape seals the status of women as passive victims and excludes them from heroic narratives. Despite women’s suffering and their active resistance against the invaders, film representations reduce their subjectivity through a narrative of shame based on silence, exclusion, or the removal of women from the real course of events, all of which dominate in Polish cinema. Phenomena that are highlighted in the text—talking about rape on one’s own terms, using it as self-defence, bearing resulting offspring, active resistance or creating an approving community—may become a way to the empowerment of heroines and reformulation of the traditional symbolic field.

 

Key words: rape, abject, Polish cinema, oral history, women

 

 

 

Piotr Zwierzchowski, in his book on heroic death, writes that “the death of a hero is decidedly a male motive. This is no different in contemporary cinema; it is men who are awarded the right to be heroes and perish in a way full of pathos. The final moments of Thelma and Louise are among scarce exceptions confirming the rule”.[1] On the one hand, it seems highly unfair that the author—in his over 200-page-long deliberations dedicated to heroic deaths—acknowledged just one film with female protagonists. On the other, the disproportion between male and female representation signals difficulty in associating heroic narrative with female experience.

Even in wartime narratives in Polish cinema, which are seemingly predestined to discuss heroism, the presence of women is troublesome, although “the participation of women in resistance against invaders was much more significant here than in the West”.[2] Natalia Jarska points out that, in most cases, the female experience does not appear in dominating narratives on war. Even if women are mentioned, these stories are stereotyped and their true experiences often left untold.[3] Especially resistant to historical narrative are experiences related to gender, the effect of which is the tendency—both among witnesses and researchers—to bypass the gender category, supposedly to guarantee the universal image of wartime events. “The symbolic allocation and social evaluation of both features («personal» to women; «objective» to men) is not random”[4] and, as a result, leads to the bypassing of the specifically female experience.

However, it is impossible to attribute rape—the most gender-determined form of wartime violence[5]—solely to the personal sphere, even from the perspective of traditional historical narratives focused on events from the battlefield. On the one hand, rape touches the private realm, while on the other, it is a manner of conducting military operations. “Rape cannot be understood as «just» a deplorable side-effect of war provoked by soldiers’ sexual frustration. Rape is, literally, a weapon of war”.[6] Hence, according to researchers, it is not only sexual violence, but also sexualized violence, for which satisfying one’s desire is neither the key nor the sole goal.[7]

Treating rape as a tool of war does not mean, however, that this traumatic women’s experience finds its place among heroic narratives. Generally sexual violence reinforces the division into active aggressors symbolically annexing new territories through women, and passive victims colonized by the invaders. Moreover, as noticed by Yana Hashamova: “the predominant Western scholarship on war rapes explores the victimisation of women”.[8] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż adds that the reflection of academics corresponds to attempts at remembering rape victims by artists. Examples of artwork analysed by her are representations that show “the woman’s suffering visually subjugated by male aggression. The victim [is] completely dominated by [a] towering soldier figure”.[9] This method of placing emphasis shows women as passive victims of violence and thus excludes them from heroic narratives usually dominated by active battle.

Perceiving rape as a weapon, however, allows us to focus on its double-edged character. Naturally, this does not signify analogous revenge that female protagonists could take on their oppressors, but it means rape as a tool for protecting your loved ones or yourself. In most cases, film representations do not present women as passive victims devoid of agency, but as active subjects who, in a critical moment, attempt to fight and defend themselves with the means available to civilians and women. Just a glance at the film representations of war rape in Polish cinema allows us to allege that most female protagonists—due to the lack of other means of conducting war—use rape as a way of doing battle. In the films How to be loved (1962, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has), The Columbuses (1970, dir. Janusz Morgenstern), The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1992, dir. Andrzej Wajda), Sekal has to die (1998, dir. Vladimír Michálek), Deserter’s Gold (1998, dir. Janusz Majewski), Joanna (2010, dir. Feliks Falk), Rose (2011, dir. Wojciech Smarzowski), Manhunt (2012, dir. Marcin Krzyształowicz), and Life Taken [Zerwany kłos] (2016, dir. Witold Ludwig), the female protagonists not only fight to save their own lives but act much more heroically—they attempt to save others by scarifying themselves. In this manner, they protect their daughter (Rose), a Jewish girl (Joanna), a loved one (How to be loved, The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Deserter’s Gold, The Columbuses), a sister (Manhunt), their family (Sekal has to die), their father (Life Taken). The female protagonists decide that the rape to which they consent is a lesser tragedy than the death of a loved one.

Paradoxically, however, the raped women, by the very fact of using rape as a tool of battle or survival, do not fulfil the principle desired in the traditional historical narrative of the “ideal Other”, or a victim as a passive subject whose “role comes down to actually being a suffering victim. The system will take care of her and make sure she remains such a victim”.[10] The female protagonist who does not accept full victimisation—not only by the oppressor but also by the dominating national narrative—chooses her own salvation or that of her loved ones above chastity, and does not fulfil the role of the “good Other”. In traditional patriotic narratives, this type of sexualized agency disagrees with the status of the unblemished victim and requires further interventions to render it again a symbol of the suffering subject. The acceptance of rape as a form of salvation is problematic in the Polish context as it contradicts the postulate of chastity. Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska mentions this when writing about forced prostitution related to rape presented in A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) by Krzysztof Zanussi. The researcher shows that, in common opinion, “women chose work in the puffs willingly, and were not victims”,[11] hence they were undeserving of compassion. Bożena Karwowska writes about this phenomenon in a similar way when describing female camp testimonies. The authors of recollections negatively mark all sexual behaviour and expect prisoners to behave in a way incompatible with the inhumane camp conditions in which, according to them, “women should remain modest and possess a sense of shame”.[12]

Using sexuality as a weapon brings to mind the figure of the biblical Judith, “the heroic liberator of the non-heroic oppressed”,[13] whose horrendous nature was the result of a scandal consisting in the merger of such contradictions as traditionally female attributes and the ability to commit murder. However, the raped protagonists do not murder their enemies like Judith but, similarly to her, use their sexuality as a weapon. Meanwhile, as Małgorzata Czermińska argues: “in the tradition stemming from Polish romantic thinking, the victim is morally and not cognitively privileged”.[14] Thus, does the female protagonist consenting to rape remain a morally privileged victim in this dominant model of thinking about history?

The impossibility of experiencing rape, surviving, and simultaneously remaining a dignified victim is presented ostentatiously in the 2016 film Life Taken, which is dedicated to the blessed Karolina Kózkówna and is clearly addressed to a Catholic audience. In 1914, a Red Army soldier murdered 16-year-old Karolina during a rape attempt. After her death, the girl was announced a martyr, she was venerated and later pronounced blessed. The fictional story compares the fate of Karolina with the story of her pregnant neighbour Teresa, who was excluded from the community precisely because of rape. She is simultaneously the victim of a Red Army soldier and of her co-residents who persecute her and consider her to be a slut, as proven by her pregnancy. The film, whiling aiming to show the magnanimity of Karolina leaning over the victim, accidentally reveals an irreconcilable dichotomy. The title protagonist was blessed because she kept her “virgin’s purity”, defending it desperately until death. Teresa is condemned because she survived the rape, which means that she was not sufficiently determined in her resistance. Hence, the film excludes the innocence of a rape victim, especially one who survived, thus sentencing her to ostracism.

This manner of thinking about sexual violence may be related to the difference between the contemporary understanding of shame and guilt. “Shame […] pertains to a trait or feature of the person, whereas guilt pertains to an act”,[15] hence only the latter is subject to punishment. “In other times and places, things were not so: religious minorities, heretics, and people with «deviant sexuality» were punished by public shaming without a conviction for any criminal act”.[16] Even though Teresa’s behaviour can hardly be considered a crime, she is punished by public shaming, from which the film distances itself only partially.

Even though not all images of film rape bear such a clear-cut nature, most of them in fact become a story about shame which does not correspond with the heroic narration. “The narrative of the dignified victim and the narrative of shame owing to the victim’s condition are contradictory, their co-existence is almost impossible since they cancel one another out”.[17] Shame characterized by Hanna Gosk refers to complicity, which in this case is reserved for the rape victim as such who experienced it and survived. The female protagonists who use rape as a survival strategy place life above the chastity of victims, thus rendering them accomplices. The elimination of shame as a feature and not an act may take place solely through death, which in turn means absence, thus excluding the possibility of redefining the traditional heroic narrative. Hence, paradoxically, instead of becoming a testimony to heroism, film depictions of rape are a sign of its impossibility both in film diegesis and in social awareness. On the one hand, they show the renouncement of ethical norms and, on the other, incompatibility with traditional historical narratives.

 

Oral history

 

Ewa Domańska, when analysing the status of a victim who escapes the role of the “ideal Other”, shows that the victim resists victimisation when she has a chance to speak for herself.[18] Owing to their actions as well as to their survivor status, the raped protagonists do not give in to total victimisation, which at least potentially allows them to tell their story.[19] Bożena Karwowska, when writing about the figures of the victim and the survivor, indicates that only the latter has a chance to speak. The author adds that “This is also related to the complex passivity of the victim manifesting itself, for example, in her inability to (rationalize and) verbalize the experience, and thus to the fact that the victim remains mute. Regaining a voice is a survivalist gesture and thus the victim never speaks; only the survivor can speak”.[20] By remaining alive, the protagonists have a chance to speak about their experience and build a type of diegetic oral history, which—as Paul Thompson puts it—“can be used to change the focus of history itself and open up new areas of inquiry. [Oral history] can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place”.[21] Ordinary citizens are called on as witnesses, various positions are presented, and this is a way to tell stories outside of dominant historical discourse. “Witnesses can now also be called from the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account”.[22] This perspective makes it possible, inter alia, to hear women’s voices and stories concerning their specific experience.

Activity based on speaking about one’s experiences restores agency and dignity to the films’ protagonists, and sometimes helps transform traditional historical narratives. Felicja from How to be loved attempts to speak, but does not do so publicly. When answering a question about wartime asked by a random co-traveller to Paris, Felicja involuntarily turns to banality—an easy lie—as if used to the fact that her testimony is usually questioned, as has indeed been the case. First, her friend did not believe her, then the underground movement, then the post-war peer tribunal, and finally “those who considered her a whore”, as disclosed to her with full cruelty by Rawicz, whom she had saved. Meanwhile, the man encountered while travelling does not hesitate to speak directly about the defeats suffered. Teresa is also a film survivor—the raped protagonist of Life Taken. The piece begins and ends with her story, which the protagonist—the witness of Karolina’s holiness—tells (which is important) in a locked house. It would seem that this is a woman’s voice about a woman, presenting the common experiences of both protagonists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her story is followed directly by a commentary—the words of a supra-narrator—explaining how a simple girl like Karolina Kózkówna became the Church’s blessed, revered by many followers. There is no more overwhelming contrast than this between the raped Teresa, who tells her story alone, enclosed within the four walls of her house, and Karolina, who “saved her virginity” and became blessed and praised by the official voice of the Church. Teresa not only does not speak of her own traumatic experience but—similarly to Felicja from How to be loved–—is subject to trial by the community, which questions her version of events relating to the rape.

A kind of a female film story is also the voice of the protagonist of The Gateway of Europe (1999), a film by Jerzy Wójcik that is based on the autobiographical recollections of Zofia Wańkiewiczówna.[23] The protagonist, Zosia, keeps a journal in which she records the events related to her service in a military hospital during WWI. The motive of rape was added to the film by the director, which helps to deprive the protagonists of the status of soldiers for the benefit of the image of victims.[24] What seems significant, however, is the choice of a protagonist who would experience rape. The division of between the silent victim (Ira) and the one who gives testimony by writing it down (Zosia) is maintained by the director. The raped one is depicted as a passive victim, and the activity that is writing does not correspond with her status. Zosia, who is appointed the heroine of this story, must remain pure.

The remaining protagonists remain silent. The mother from the series The House (1980–2000, dir. Jan Łomnicki), who lives with her adult son, the fruit of rape, does the same. Mietek Pocięgło knows about his origins but hides this information, along with his mother, from his uncle. Joanna (the title protagonist of the film by Feliks Falk) also remains silent, accused of intimate relations with a German, and condemned by the community to which she belonged. Her loved ones will never learn that the rape on the protagonist was the price for saving a Jewish child. The discretion, which was to protect the family from the consequences of hiding a Jewish girl, is replaced by shame, excluding the protagonist from both the family and the national community. It is important that it was not the rape itself, but the feeling of shame caused by the condemnation of the community with which Joanna identified that pushed the protagonist toward suicide.

The raped nuns from the Polish-French co-production titled The Innocents (Les Innocentes, 2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) also remain silent due to the trauma they experienced and the fear of social degradation. Maryśka, the only one to know about the rape of her sister, is forced into silence by the protagonists of God’s Lining (1997–1998). Anusia dies of diphtheria, but in her family’s memory she must remain untouched: good, profoundly religious, and pure. Immediately after the rape, Anusia forces her sister to remain silent precisely due to the expectations of the community, saying: “Say nothing to anyone or I will cut out your tongue”. Right after that she surprisingly abandons her role of victim by adding: “Don’t tremble like that. You won’t die from it”. Hence, what proves more important than the rape itself is the seemingly justified fear of its discovery by the family. When, following her sister’s death and against her will, Maryśka attempts to speak about the rape, she is told off by another sister, Józia: “You invented all of the dirty and disgusting story. Don’t breathe a word of this to our parents. She was pure and she died pure. Like a saint”.

The obligation to remain silent means that the experience of rape becomes neither a heroic narrative nor an alternative narrative in the face of traditional male depictions. Even when, in How to be loved or Life Taken, the protagonists speak for themselves, they do so in isolation, thus making it impossible to include these experiences in a shared narrative. Despite the support in Has’s film for the silent heroism of Felicja, this image also becomes a representation of secrecy and experience of shame, which in fact excludes a dignified victim. Even though the protagonists do not submit to passive victimisation—they battle and survive—they are finally punished for that three times: by the oppressor, by the film community, and by the inability to exist in the national heroic narrative. The silence seals their status as victims and thus repeats the gesture of the oppressor.

 

Children of war

 

A visible sign of the said silence is the lack of representation of the progeny originating from war rapes, survival prostitution, or even illegal relationships with the enemy. In its extensive comments on events related to the 20th century wars, Polish cinema very rarely tackled the subject of the consequences of forced sexual relations. This inability was visualized in the film The Innocents, in which the trace of rape in the form of pregnancy is erased by a prioress in subsequent acts of child murders, which represents in caricature the aforementioned principle that chastity is more important for society than human life. As argued by Yana Hashamova, maternity is not only the area in which the activity of raped women is revealed, but also a chance to overcome victim status by “taking control over their lives”,[25] hence the absence of this topic makes the objectification of victims easier.

Even though intimate relations between the invaders and the invaded were a part of everyday life during the war, according to Maren Roger: “predominantly German–French intimate war relations exist in Europe’s historical awareness”.[26] This topic has been particularly poorly elaborated by historians in reference to Poland, exacerbated by serious restrictions threatening both men and women in the case of breaching of the race-mixing ban. Polish women deciding on prostitution in order to survive risked more since, for such acts, “they could receive both serious punishment from the invaders and experience ostracism from compatriots”.[27] The effect is a lack of testimonies, historical research, and images dedicated to these types of relations and their consequences, i.e. war children.

Aside from the aforementioned series (The House), war children were presented in two films: the religious Life Taken and The Innocents, both of which are removed from the Polish context. In the first film, maternity is reduced to an almost surreal fantasy. Teresa, a raped single mother excluded from the community, watches a rosy, well-fed child playing in a plush illuminated room. The child born from rape was reduced to a pathetic poster promoting maternity without any regard for social context. The film avoids answering the question of social ostracism, the poverty of the protagonist, her loneliness (Teresa is an orphan), and the psychological consequences of the sexual violence she experienced. It confirms the isolation of the mother and child, showing the protagonist enclosed within the walls of the house. Even after Kozakówna’s intercession, Teresa (as she is impure) keeps at a certain distance from other mourners forming the funeral procession.

The Polish–French co-production The Innocents shows the progeny of rape whose identity, nevertheless, remains secret. The film is divided into the French perspective, i.e. represented by the main protagonist Mathilde Beaulieu, bravely fighting for the partial opening of the convent to the world to save the pregnant nuns and the children being born there. The protagonist risks her life and is close to rape, but is spared since this fact would not correspond with the heroic narrative reserved for her. The Polish perspective equals silent Polish nuns, who are ready to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to contain the shame within four walls. On the one hand, the film introduces themes absent in Polish cinema, such as war children; its title emphasizes the fundamental problem the victims struggle with, it supports life (not sexual purity) and, above all, it includes the children of nuns in the social tissue. The nuns are freed from the burden of shame with a trick: hiding the progeny of rape among war orphans taken in by the convent. In the final scene, the children, the nuns, and their families create an idyllic community, although once again it is at the price of silence. On the other hand, rape and its consequences in the form of maternity concern only Polish women, placing them on the side of silent victims. They are freed by an active French heroine from the Red Cross who, like the director, Anne Fontaine, breaks the silence. Thus, the film consolidates the stereotypical division of almost colonial character into the passive, submissive, silent, “raped” East, and the active, heroic West.

The lack of images of maternity resulting from rape stems from the tendency to eliminate the suffering of women from authentic history by taking away their specific future—the actual continuation of their lives—for the benefit of symbolic representations. This tendency corresponds with the phenomenon that Elżbieta Ostrowska wrote about when analysing the death of women on screen. The protagonists described by the author are removed, in film, “from the realm of historical experience into the realm of the mythic”.[28] The second reason for the reluctance to represent war children is the consolidation, through their presence, of abject relations. Julia Kristeva defines abject as something that “disturbs identity, system, and order that does not respect borders, positions, and rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”.[29] In the war child, the line between what belongs to the national symbolic community and what threatens its identity becomes blurred. Moreover, “perverse interspace”[30] combines with the feminine, the woman’s body, fertilized by the enemy, which constitutes a threat to the symbolic order of the father.

The child remains a trace of abject contamination, and its status is emphasized by the conviction of inheriting the biological features of the enemy. Even though Mietek Pocięgło. the protagonist of The House series is an oppositionist dedicated to Poland, as a rape child from the era of the Warsaw Uprising he becomes an exceptionally talented Germanist as if he’d been genetically determined and inherited the linguistic competence of the unknown father in his DNA. The protagonist’s origins are in fact the reason for his inferiority complex; he considers himself a foundling even towards those whose fathers are communist dignitaries.

As Danish researchers note: “War rape aims to devalue the women and thus the wealth of the men. A precious object is turned into an abject”.[31] The authors point out that expelling the raped woman from the community becomes a necessity, for she threatens the order of the community she belonged to.[32] “He spoiled my woman” is what the protagonist of Rose says about his raped wife, on the one hand indicating the irreversible impurity attributed to the protagonist and, on the other, thinking of his raped wife as an object. The heroine becomes guilty twice: according to ethical principles (through the loss of sexual purity), and in relation to social norms (because she divided the community).

When defining “abject”, Kristeva refers to Lacan’s psychoanalysis and points out that it is precisely “on account of that Other, a space becomes demarcated, separating the abject from what will be a subject”.[33] As discussed above, the decision of the heroines to remain silent is an act of submitting to the requirements of Lacan’s Otherthe Law, the Name of the Father—and adopting an attitude that will remove the troublesome abject from the field of view. In the films discussed, the distracted observing gaze of the Big Other takes the form of constant control over the characters by “their own people”—by members of their community. Hiding in their homes, Joanna (Joanna) and Felicja (How to be loved) are continuously bothered not only by the Germans, but also by the gaze of their neighbours, family, representatives of underground organisations, and peer courts, which become an emanation of the power of the Other.

The recalled abject dimension was perversely emphasized in the film by Has, How to be loved. Felicja’s experience is juxtaposed with the heroic fate of the man encountered on her journey. During the war, as a pilot he flew high, as opposed to the “mundane” battle of Felicja who—as she claims—was not made to fly. Moreover, the contrast between sublimity and dirt is emphasized by the man’s profession: he is an epidemiologist, a specialist in the prevention of contagious diseases.

 

Erasing

 

Erasing offspring is solely a consequence or side effect of removing abject protagonists and cleansing the historical narrative. The disappearance has either a symbolic (in the form of silence or isolation) or physical dimension (death), which is also subject to the principle of absence since, according to Elżbieta Ostrowska, cinema avoids representations of women’s deaths on screen.[34] Joanna (Joanna) dissolves in the Tatra mist, where she will surely freeze to death. Biedronka (Warsaw ’44) and Niteczka (The Columbuses) die out of frame. Rose disappears: first she is moved to the private sphere where Tadeusz takes care of her, and later she dies.

The abject is expelled beyond the symbolic and social order that is responsible for identity and order and becomes subject to the law of the symbolic Other.[35] Its principles are reproduced through depictions and methods of describing historical events in which the given community recognizes itself. Rape, as an abject, while seeking its position in the symbolic order, becomes part of this order under two paradoxical conditions. The first of these corresponds to Lacan’s order of metonymy, i.e. striving to evade the forbidden object (abject) and multiply its depictions as if in its stead. The metonymy principle, which remains outside of symbolic depiction, corresponds to absence, concealment, and lack. Another mode of expression is transforming the unwanted object into a metaphor. In historical narratives, which are strongly subjected to a patriarchal dictate, this figure is responsible for the disempowerment of women and of the deprivation of their agency. They are thus limited to metaphors: instruments that humiliate the national community, means of the symbolic castration of its male representatives or, at best, symbols of the tortured homeland. For all these reasons, women are reduced in the symbolical order to the role of passive, disempowered victims.

The order of metonymy multiplies representations according to the principle of adding or speaking “instead of”, because “the Other (…) continues to resist the speaking subject, throws a spanner in its works”.[36] Metonymical multiplication characterizes Life Taken as it depicts the fates of two women of which only the suffering of one deserves holiness, while the other is isolated and stigmatized with shame. As Felicja from How to be loved says, the protagonists who have suffered trauma “hide behind the decorations” so their place can be taken by those who possess features more appropriate for the collective narrative. Rose saves her daughter from rape; she will marry Tadeusz at the altar and give herself into his care. Zosia from The Gateway of Europe remains pure, solely becoming a witness to Ira’s suffering. In Manhunt, the sexually abused Pestka, betrayer of the insurgents, saves her younger sister, a 16-year-old imprisoned by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets. According to Nancy Isenberg, “the creation of true womanhood is always contrasted to the countervailing notion of female vice: submission is contrasted to superiority, piety to heresy and irreligion, purity to pollution, and domesticity to disorderly public behaviour”.[37] Thus, the traumatized female body is replaced with one that guarantees the retention of national order and community.

The metonymical replacement also allows us to replace the image of the raped with the image of a suffering man or his heroic act. In Rose, the death of the protagonist and the rapes she experiences become the reason for Tadeusz’s suffering and stimulus to show his indomitable attitude. In Life Taken, despite the martyr’s death of Kózkówna and the rape of Teresa, it is the suffering of the blessed’s father that takes the central place in the film and is exposed in its final sequences. In The Columbuses, Niteczka sacrifices herself for the boy called Kolumb and, in order to keep him alive, pursues the rapist. After a montage cut, Kolumb, woken from delirium, crawls up the stairs to escape the basement in which Niteczka had hidden him. Instead of her suffering we have a scene reminiscent of the path to Golgotha, at the end of which the protagonist finds the girl’s dead body. The rape scene (or rather its suggestion) in Warsaw ’44 has a similar structure. Following the scene in which a repugnant pervert, a member of the Dirlewanger brigade, inspects Biedronka from head to toe, there is a cut to the part dedicated to Stefan’s escape across the destroyed city and his dramatic reaction to the girl’s death. The story ends with the vision of the boy (who likely survived) recalling the image of the already dead protagonist. We can also find similar metonymical theft in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, in which the rape of Wiśka leads to the death of one of her defenders. Instead of the protagonist’s story, we are presented the story of the impact of her sacrifice and indomitability on her beloved, while she herself appears as Marcin’s vision and a prick of conscience. In Sekal has to die, despite the film’s criticism of the degeneration of the patriarchal system, it is the suffering of Sekal, who is in love with Agnieszka, that is exposed—not the suffering of the girl who is raped upon his orders behind closed doors.

 

Metaphor

 

The figure of the metaphor, consisting in intensification and juxtaposition of sense, includes the female protagonists in the symbolic order, i.e. the traditional historical narrative. They are reduced to a symbol; they disappear in the allegory taken from religious repertoire. According to Hans Mayer, “Theological allegoresis and allegorical meaning relegate history. (…) Allegorisation means the annihilation of the individual”.[38] Protagonists subjected to metaphysical transgression and religious purification are transformed into religious allegory (The Gateway of Europe, Joanna), or the desexualized figure of a mother (The Ring with a Crowned Eagle). In Joanna, the protagonist actively fights for survival, but her sublimity is ensured by the final scene (stylized as the Assumption)[39] in which the protagonist becomes a victim—silent, hounded, disappearing into the whiteness of the clouds. Ira from The Gateway of Europe is returned to her friends on a horse after the rape, clothed in a red robe. On the one hand, the red of the coat reminds us of a courtesan’s clothes, on the other, of the scarlet coat of Christ insulted by Jews.[40] In both films, the protagonists are reduced to victims and disarmed, but in the religious context their images hide a certain contradiction: apart from her sublimity, Joanna is also a suicide, and Ira’s naked breast becomes the source of her shame and degradation.

The same religious context is also offered to raped protagonists by purification through desexualisation and transformation in the allegory of maternity. This principle works, among others, in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Life Taken, or The Columbuses, as often noted by researchers analysing the presence of women in historical narratives.[41] The escape from sexuality, however, makes it impossible to deliberate upon sexual violence and pushes it into the sphere of silence.

At the same time, however, the films discussed here present a feminine version of heroism that, in spite of the aforementioned operations, does not merely realize the victim model. At the centre of the cited stories are women who are heroic, active, and who resist the enemy, marking their presence in the historical narrative. This aspect is often overlooked due to the aforementioned strategies that downgrade female protagonists as part of the community story. Analysing the masochism of female protagonists (and potential female viewers) that dominates in film melodramas, Linda Williams pointed out that it is possible to interpret films in this genre oppositely to the victim pattern inscribed in them. According to the researcher, the pathos contained in the films does not merely lead to identification with the victim and her masochism, but is also an encouragement to “a complex negotiation between emotion and thought”.[42] War narratives with women in lead roles also welcome critical reception rather than simply identifying oneself with the position of a victim. The resistance that the female protagonists of traditional historical stories put up in spite of everything may end up forming an introduction to their taking a place in the heroic narrative, provided that the symbolic field of these stories is reformulated.

 

Without shame

 

In one of the scenes from How to be loved, the German officer shows the café employees a wanted notice which threatens anybody hiding a fugitive with the death penalty. Special words addressed to Felicja are “I would like to emphasize that, according to what is written here, you are also a person”. This short exchange underscores the relationship between subjectivity and agency. As much as the protagonist maintains her subjectivity, the context in which she has to act brings her—as she says—respect in her eyes only.

The analysed films rarely present a semblance of community which would also enable privileges from the creators of collective memory. In The Gateway of Europe, it is the group of sympathetic nuns who wash their raped friend together. We can perceive this simply as a symbolic ritual, or as an emphatic community that is unhindered by shame. In The Innocents, the women create a support group with various opinions and life goals, which—as the film suggests—allows them to abandon their traumatic experience and find acceptance in the group. Also, Felicja appeals to the community, reaching a wide audience each week through her radio program. She works on social awareness, correcting on her own the radio drama scripts by referring to her personal experiences. Instead of condemning an illegitimate child (as in the script), she points to the common nature of such events. Another voice addressed to the public is the memoirs of Ola Watowa concerning her exile to Kazakhstan during WWII, which were adapted by Robert Gliński in All That Really Matters… (1992).

Surpassing the story of shame is the condition for heroic narrative and hence the need for the creation of an alternative collective memory based on an accepting community which would award heroines instead of seeking religious redemption for them. Thus, the victim status would not degrade female protagonists and would not mark them with shame. In the Polish symbolic field, a raped woman is subject to very strong victimisation; hence, it is impossible to avoid analytical thought focused on this particular aspect. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the elements that give empowerment and agency back to the victims: using rape as self-defence or with the intention of saving a loved one, active participation in the battle, talking about the rape on their own terms, bearing offspring, creating an accepting and empathic community, or even the status of the abject, which undermines the dominant symbolic narrative. All these aspects fail to meet the criteria that traditional historical stories require of women, hence the problem with their expression in the aforementioned depictions. In spite of victimising and disempowering film strategies, the presence of the abovementioned motifs—even if only partial—may show the direction for future depictions. Leaving the sphere of privacy, referring to the authenticity of experience, or accepting agency free from punishment: all are a path toward appreciating the specifically female experience. The process of co-creating the story of the past, in which sexual violence would not degrade its victims, is a long one because it assumes the evolution of all actors involved in the undertaking, which is involved in building a collective memory.

 

References

 

Czermińska Małgorzata, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Diken Bülent, Laustsen Carsten Bagge, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005).

Domańska Ewa, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Dybel Paweł, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000).

Gosk Hanna, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /  Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Hashamova Yana, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Isenberg Nancy, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995).

Jarska Natalia, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2 (2014).

Karwowska Bożena, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /   Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Karwowska Bożena, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Kristeva Julia, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982)

Laplanche Jean, Pontalis J.-B., Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996).

Mazierska Ewa, Ostrowska Elżbieta, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006).

Mayer Hans, Odmieńcy / Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005).

Morstin Agnieszka, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy. Róża Wojtka Smarzowskiego wobec Jak być kochaną Wojciecha J. Hasa” / „Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012).

Morstin-Popławska Agnieszka, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On  A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011).

Nussbaum Martha C., Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004).

Ostrowska Elżbieta, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Ostrowska-Chmura Elżbieta, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009).

Röger Maren, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014).

Sokołowska-Paryż Marzena, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016).

Thompson Paul, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988).

Zwierzchowski Piotr, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006).

Williams Linda, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998).

 

[1] Piotr Zwierzchowski, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006), p. 184.

[2] Natalia Jarska, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2  (2014), p. 505.

[3] Ibid., p. 510

[4] Bożena Karwowska,  “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008), p. 253.

[5] We rarely encounter war images that present the rape of men (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz). In Polish cinema, we can indicate homosexual or heterosexual survival prostitution (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz) (Down Carrier, 1983, dir. Stefan Szlachtycz and Warsaw: Year5703, 1992, dir. Janusz Kijowski) that is related to this experience.

[6] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005), p. 112.

[7] Natalia Jarska, op. cit., p. 506.

[8] Yana Hashamova, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012), p. 235.

[9] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016), p. 223.

[10] Ewa Domańska, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, op. cit., p. 32.

[11] Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011), p. 223.

[12] Bożena Karwowska, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej…” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose…”, op. cit., p. 263.

[13] Hans Mayer, Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005), p. 75.

[14] Małgorzata Czermińska, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011), p. 94.

[15] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004), p. 229.

[16] Ibid., p. 176-177.

[17] Hanna Gosk, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit., p. 90.

[18] Ewa Domańska, op. cit., p. 24.

[19] Agnieszka Morstin compares Rose by Wojciech Smarzowski with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has; she emphasizes the role of the subjective narrative used in the latter film as a strategy for abandoning the victim status. See: Agnieszka Morstin, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy…” / “Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012), p. 206.

[20] Bożena Karwowska, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit. p. 327.

[21] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988), p. 26.

[22] Ibid., p. 28.

[23] The recollections of Zofia Wańkowiczówna were used by her grandson, Melchior Wańkowicz, to create the short story titled Hospital in Cichinicze. Based on this story, Jerzy Wójcik made the film The Gateway of Europe.

[24] Elżbieta Ostrowska writes in detail about the adaptive changes and femininity under the rule of nationalist ideology (Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009), p. 139-153).

[25] Yana Hashamova, op. cit., p. 235.

[26] Maren Roger, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014), p. 77.

[27] Ibid., p. 87.

[28] Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms…, op cit., p. 56.

[29] Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982), p. 4.

[30] Ibid., p. 16.

[31] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, op. cit., p. 117.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Julia Kristeva, op. cit., p. 10.

[34] See Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths…”, op. cit., p. 30.

[35] Jean Laplanche, J.-B. Pontalis, Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996), p. 317.

[36]  Paweł Dybel, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000), p. 268.

[37] Nancy Isenberg, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995), p. 99.

[38] Hans Mayer, op. cit., p. 74 and 77.

[39] The vertical direction can be found also in such films as: The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, The Columbuses, Life Taken.

[40] Elżbieta Ostrowska describes this scene as “a feminine allegory of Poland”. See: Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, „Polka – dumny przedmiot…” / „Pole – a proud object…”, op. cit., p. 148.

[41] See Ewa Mazierska, Elżbieta Ostrowska, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006), p. 15-54.

[42] Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998), p. 49.

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 68-81

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University


“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Abstract

Prostheses—especially those created by prosthetic limb designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata—are not treated as disempowering artefacts, but as a McLuhanian extension of man: a tool for creating identity and style while keeping individuality and offering liberation from victim status. Prostheses are not a weakness but a strength, a potential. Moreover, technology is not gender neutral, as prostheses can provide new options for women. “Glamputees” reinterpret notions of the female body, beauty standards, minorities’ spaces, etc. On the other hand, so-called alternative modelling recreates the traditional image of woman. In the following article, I would like to show the dynamics of the “extended” or “bionic” body and the social environment by rereading prosthesis through the theories of Vivian Sobchack, Anne Marie Balsamo, and Donna Haraway. In this way, feminist discourse enhances ambivalent perspectives on the phenomenon of alternative limbs.

Key words: prosthesis, disability studies, feminism, transhumanism, popular culture, ideology

 

Introduction

“Forget what you know about disability”: this is the motto from the videoclip of Viktoria Modesta’s song Prototype. It designates what the future prototype of a human should be: part human, part technology. It combines natural and artificial instead of juxtaposing these notions, and by doing so, it highlights a new body image for women and new adaptation patterns for disabled people. ‘Armed’ with one of her prostheses, a spike leg, the Latvian artist becomes both an incarnation of monstrous femininity and a superhero—a pop-cultural cyborg overcoming biological deficiencies. Thus, Modesta becomes a battlefield for much discourse. Not only is her identity fluid, but so is her body. On the one hand, Modesta objects to the understanding of amputees as victims defined by their lacking limb. On the other, she has functioned as a glitch in the system to achieve celebrity status; she is known as a ‘glamputee’, reclaiming the traditional image of women while ostensibly reinterpreting it. In this case, the ambivalence of the phenomenon of alternative limbs is enhanced by feminist discourse.

Only by combining feminist thought, disability studies, technological progressivism, and cultural post-humanism can we approach the complexity and dynamics of the “extended/bionic body” in the contemporary social environment. The best way this methodological hybridity is embodied is by evoking the figure of a cyborg, popularised by Donna J. Haraway. Although overused and often misinterpreted, this theory of metaphorical “(con)fusion between the human and the machine”[1] has been actualized by modern glamputees: not only Modesta, but also Angel Giuffria, Amina Munster, Grace Madeville, Jo-Jo Cranfield, and above all Aimee Mullins. These women show that prostheses might be a way to claim positive ownership of their own bodies, to relocate themselves in traditional social structures. Their approach to body as a cultural construct is not negative: it is an opportunity for human enhancement, or even postbiological evolution. Therefore, it is an extension of the everyday practice of body modification, such as dieting, piercing, tanning and bodybuilding. Viktoria Modesta and Aimee Mullins are both extreme bodybuilders.

This shift of emphasis from disability studies to the body modification approach accentuates the productivity of the cyborg metaphor. There is a displacement: the former term conjures victimisation, passivity, exclusion, lack of agency, and objectification, while the second suggests liberation, negotiation, agency, (radical) identity statement, and (post-humanist) performativity. However, as I describe cases of women only[2], the issue of emancipating potential is expressed in rather equivocal terms: notions of femininity, beautification, media representation, and so on, collide with the post-gendered world implicated by the cyborg metaphor, becoming the epitome of hegemonic culture.

 Prosthesis Whisperers, or the context of disability studies

As Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella and A. J. Withers critically pointed out, “Disability is fluid and contextual rather than biological. This does not mean that biology does not play out in our minds and bodies, but that the definition of disability is imposed upon certain kinds of minds and bodies… However, more than that, disability, if understood as constructed through historical and cultural processes, should be seen not as a binary but as a continuum. One is always dis/abled in relation to the context in which one is put”.[3] Disability studies are still engulfed in a more traditional, essentialist identity project that imposes a sense of “normalcy” defined by a dominating group that exerts these definitions on others, and creates dichotomies marginalising ab-normal and dis-abled. While “[s]ome in disability culture and activism view disability as a source of pride, some as a form of biodiversity”[4], common understanding still stresses the absence. Although full of empathy, one of the symptomatic definitions from the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act explains disability as “a difficulty or the inability to perform one or more major life activities because of impairment”[5].

The psychosocial consequences of amputation and adjusting to a prosthesis are challenging under this framework. Amputees must learn to accept a new body image, deal with perceived or actual social stigma, potential loss of independence, changes in social roles, etc.[6] “[B]odily appearance affects both social identifications and self-definitions”[7] and this stigmatisation is gender-determined. As the Dublin Psychoprosthetic Group revealed:

only higher functional satisfaction with the prosthesis was correlated with daily hours of prosthetic use in males, while greater prosthetic use in females was correlated with higher functional, aesthetic and weight satisfaction with the prosthesis. For male participants, functionality was important, perhaps relating to traditional social roles. For females, it appears that aesthetics is important perhaps through helping to sustain a sense of femininity.[8]

Therefore, many factors are involved in the transformation of the prosthesis into a tool or a corporeal structure. Cosmesis is one such factor that prefers a (hyper)realistic-looking prosthesis (so called cosmeses), but also simulates full-ability, disguises the artificial limb under clothing, and avoids situations which demand exposure, etc. This enables the achievement of a sense of “normalcy” or even “humanness”. However, as phenomenologist Craig Murray points out, “not all participants considered cosmesis as important, and a number of participants actually conveyed a distaste for the use of cosmetic limbs in general, seeing such use as indicative of an inability to ‘deal with’ limb loss/absence, or even as conspiring in an oppressive climate in which people with limb loss/absence were pressured to conform, or be ashamed of their prosthesis use. (…) a sizeable number of participants were militant in an approach that might be termed ‘prosthetic limb display’. Here, participants displayed their amputation, limb absence and prosthesis use as a method of defiance, resistance, and to challenge notions of disability. As such, ‘prosthetic display’ held profound personal significance and meaning to self and social identity, and was part of the politicisation of disability”[9]. In this case, prostheses are not only praised for their functionality, but also for their performative potential. They may become the ground of a new identity, self-expression, pride, and social change. This need-directed, individualistic approach to prosthetic design is a guide to rejecting anthropomorphism, sublimating high technology, and creating a transhumanist identity on this basis.

Furiosa’s prosthesis – feminist approaches to prostheses

Before mentioning a small range of apologetic statements on a culturally grounded approach, it would be useful to introduce Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenology of prosthesis use. In the article A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality, she refuses to compare her experiences as an amputee to Roland Barthes’ Jet-Man metaphor or H+ standpoints. She distinguishes her prosthetic and the prosthetic: a phenomenologically lived artefact and a cultural metaphor.[10] Academic overuse of this notion (e.g. prosthetic memory, consciousness, aesthetics) “for describing a vague and shifting constellation of relationships among bodies, technologies, and subjectivities” causes displacement and diminishes “response-ability”[11]. Sobchack calls for a more literal and material approach which has been “amputated” by cultural studies. This remarginalisation of amputees is something against which Sobchack is fighting. Her article is “intended to ground and lend some ‘unsexy’ material weight to a contemporary prosthetic imagination that privileges the exotic (indeed, perhaps erotic) idea rather than the mundane reality of my intimate relations with ‘high’ technology”[12].

Sobchack’s arguments are justifiable as an admonition not to divide (grounded on actual experiences) social studies and humanities, stating implicitly that the latter could be parasitical. However, sometimes this arbitrariness supports a change of thinking. Prostheses users are not an example of equal rights and possibilities, but rather they produce a new paradigm that is programmed and narrated through technology. In the case of Modesta and others, technology is a tool of subversion, combating prejudices about disabled people, and even creating an alternative hierarchy. Rejecting medical discourses and disciplinary practices can be a medium of renewal: “transubstantiation of the key elements of experience”[13] via “metallisation”, extensions, or body hacking (the next “sexy” metaphor, as Sobchack asks). There is a place for the other in the non-hierarchical, “remixed” world without power relations that was postulated by Donna J. Haraway.

Although technology is often treated as a way of excluding women, this is what Haraway focuses on. According to her, technology supports a non-dualistic, non-essentialist, post-modern worldview, while blurring boundaries and deactivating them through the image of the cyborg. Haraway sees the world as inhabited by chimeras, hybrids of machine and organism, and endless possibilities of transformation: “So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work”[14]. Haraway’s manifesto is not only a technofeminist theory, but also a programme of social change: “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics”[15]. To manage it, Haraway requires cyborg writing, a reformulation of écriture feminine: “The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”[16]. Expanding Foucauldian tradition, the texts to be rewritten are bodies and societies: “There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination in order to act potently”.[17]

Today, many bodies invite rereading via the creation of new corporeal narratives. Of these, prostheses are amongst the most powerful, raising concerns expressed by post-human and post-gendered concepts. Bodies composed of metal, glass, and plastic elements re-evaluate the notion of anthropomorphism and negotiate new meanings, especially in the case of women who are traditionally associated with biological functions and irrational status of nature. Bearing Sobchack’s critic in mind, I will not put female prosthesis users in the same paradigm of social change, feminist politics, and contemporary postmodern identity. I would rather focus on particular strategies while highlighting their ambivalent status. Viktoria Modesta and her video clip Prototype are my main references, but I also want to mention her role model and the prosthetic designers Aimee Mullins and Sophie de Oliveira Barata, respectively.

Speaking doll: Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition that resulted in the amputation of her both legs below the knees. However, as we can read on her webpage, “[b]y age two, she had learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and spent her childhood doing the usual athletic activities of her peers: swimming, biking, softball, soccer, and skiing, always alongside ‘able-bodied’ kids”[18]. The rest of her biography contains information about educational and sports successes. She was a medal winner at the 1996 Paralympics, where she wore her sprinting legs: Flex-Foot Cheetah designed by Van Phillips. Nowadays, they are commonly used by amputee athletes, but Mullins was the first person to do so, which brought her a lot of publicity. She has become a spokesperson for disabled people, encouraging change and discussing prosthetic design and body image at numerous conferences. She has worked as a model (e.g. appearing for Alexander McQueen in a runway show in beautiful wooden carved prostheses) and an actor, debuting in multiple roles in Matthew Barney’s avant-garde Cremaster 3 (wearing leopard and glass/polyurethane alternative limbs amongst others). Called “Wonder Woman” or “Fashion-able”, located in the context of evolution (Italian Wired published an article about her entitled Evoluzione in corso[19]) and human enhancement, she tries to wield influence on society by renarrating disability and being at the forefront of cultural change.

In one of her popular TED talks, she stated an important shift:

The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. (…) [P]eople that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment[20].

Even Vivian Sobchack mentions Aimee Mullins and her three pairs of legs (as a matter of fact she has twelve pairs in different shapes, made of various materials, and enabling her to modify her height) as an example of conjoining literal (prosthetic experience) and figural (prosthesis as a metaphor).[21] However, the American writer is alerted by the ambiguity evoked by an aestheticization of the disability discourse summarised in the statement “Poetry matters”.

Mullins places prosthesis in the body modification arena, undermining its status: “What does a beautiful woman look like? What is a sexy body? And what does it mean to have a disability? Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than me… Nobody calls her disabled”. Something we can call a joke becomes a serious argument about body image, canons of beauty, and body-oriented technologies. The latter shows that plastic surgery may be disempowering, whereas prostheses might be emancipating. However, this includes aesthetics; Mullins treats her prostheses as sculptures. Rejecting the anthropomorphic, she advances a beauty ideal, offering new possibilities.

Kim Toffoletti does not combine plastic with a symbol of consumptionism, and thus being fake and homogeneous. This is related to elasticity, variability, and transformation. Toffoletti rejects traditional depictions of Barbie dolls and their feminist frame of reference and tries to rework this narrative via the notion of plasticity. She points out that “it can serve as a strategy to hack into the phallogocentric codes that structure ideals of femininity and scramble interpretations of embodiment that reinscribe an unchanging and essentialised myth of woman as tied to nature”.[22] Regardless of the potentially subversive quality, this reinterpretation can have, Toffoletti writes about post-human examples: a CD cover for post-gendered Marilyn Manson, an advertisement inspired by body hacktivism, and bio-artists’ experiments. Mullins, with her pair of everyday Barbie-like legs (and named of one of the most beautiful people in the world by People), seems to reclaim traditional body image. Although inspirational, admirable and brave, Mullins is more often associated with the catwalk than Stelarc, and with a celebrity status rather than activist actions. Pop culture gladly consumes her activities, which can be liberating, but, alas, mostly for her, not for the group she is representing.

Prosthetic fetishism: Viktoria Modesta

While Mullins is a white, upper-middle class American, Modesta’s background is different: she was socially and economically underprivileged, which affected her access to prosthetics and medical help. She was born in Latvia (under the Soviet regime) and her bone structure was severely damaged during a forced birth. At the age of 12, the artist moved with her mother to London where she became passionate about the aesthetic eccentricity of underground subculture. Three years later, when she started a career in alternative modelling, “she decided that realising her dreams and exploring her potential was simply not possible with the uncertainty of her dysfunctioning leg; a burden left after 15 surgeries under the USSR system. Inspired by creative cult imagery of Alexander McQueen and Matthew Barney [with whom Mullins was working – M. S.], VM approached doctors to have her lower limb amputated and replaced by a prosthetic in order to finally take control over her body. After a five-year battle to find support for her decision among the medical profession, she finally had a voluntary operation at the age of 20”.[23] Essentially, this bio from Modesta’s webpage is a story about gaining morphological freedom. Coupled with a feminist or even—due to her ancestry—postcolonial approach, Modesta could be the perfect figure of a cyborg, progressive body-identity relation, and human augmentation in an oppressive social context. “I upgraded my opportunities, my comfort, my body. It was really empowering”.[24] Deliberately exploring the issue of modern identity, combining technology and performance, fashion and avant-garde, MTV and MIT Lab, she changes emancipatory disability narration from clichéd Helen Keller stories and moves it closer to cyberpunk. As Haraway puts it: “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”[25].

Additionally, there is a notion of reclaiming one’s body, taking control of it: “[t]he profound sense that a prosthetic limb could be a ‘life enhancing tool’ was apparent”[26]. On the other hand, Modesta highlights the significance of reflecting one’s personality through an altered body image; this is precisely what gains media attention and opens numerous doors, even those of breakfast television. As Anna Moore wrote in an article in The Times, “She’s stunning—with her rolled hair and doll face, she looks like Bettie Page landed in Blade Runner—but the biggest buzz is reserved for her legs”[27]. Brass leg, stereo leg, light leg, spike leg, crystal leg; these are a few examples of Modesta’s alternative limbs functioning as both fashion items and art projects, modifying her into a “bionic pop artist”.

Viktoria Modesta intensifies Mullins’ ambiguous interconnection with pop culture and the contemporary media landscape, while Aimee Mullins spoke about the “X factor”, the potential of human will that is often ignored by physicians, something unpredictable and unappreciated[28]. Modesta performed in The X Factor final and made her first music video, and Mullins contributed to another TED talk. These differences may generate Haraway’s future heteroglossia. Nevertheless, leaving all the differences aside, both women are interconnected by their equivocal status in popular culture. The video clip accompanying the song Prototype is Modesta’s most discussed work to date.[29] It was produced as a part of the “Born Risky” campaign launched by Channel 4, a British TV channel particularly committed to issues of diversity, cumulating alternative voices and taking creative risks. The first imagery is mostly aural: a pointed tool rings out sharply as it comes down onto a glass surface. It later turns out the tool in question is the singer’s spike leg. The abstract quality of this scene announces a new nameless experience. The next image presents Modesta as a queen or even a goddess. Sitting on a high throne, she is surrounded by three hooded faceless men performing amputation surgery on her leg. The main plot line of this video clip concentrates on VM’s cult in some historically undefined police state—her Betty Boop-like cartoon character transforming to a superhero inspires a rebellion (symbolically represented by moths flying around the illuminated limb in a leitmotiv). Her prosthesis wields superpower, but its connotations with new identity and individuality are more important, encouraging people to stand up for themselves. This interpretation is validated by another scene in which VM is engaged in sexual relations with a man and a woman while not wearing any of her prostheses, suggesting that her identity is fluid, more complex, non-dualistic and receptive.

The first problematic issue with this clip occurs in the final scene: VM, wearing her spike leg, is walking and then starts a fierce dance. In spite of the warrior-like stylization, her empowering message is weakened by the puppet strings attached to her body (another doll-like, gendered metaphor after Mullins’ Barbie legs). However, there are more inaccuracies within the context in which she puts herself. Firstly, her body is fragmented—and as Laura Mulvey explained in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—it fetishizes women and represents her as an object of male desire.[30] As the clip’s director, Saam Farahmand, explains: “It was very important to create a deliberate collision between (the physical realities of amputation) and the fantasies of sexualisation in pop culture”[31]. However, why combine the two instead of creating a new language based on the plot of female subversive powers? An uncontrollable and therefore threatening force is reduced to a sexualized object. Secondly, Modesta interchanges an anthropocentric paradigm with an egocentric one: seemingly anarchistic movement turns into a subsequent authoritarian system. Moreover, it brings the cyborg back into its primal militant context. As Haraway emphasises, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”[32], but Modesta inverts this attitude. She recreates the cyborg metaphor not to blur boundaries, but to create new ones. This subject-centred approach stems from treating one’s life as a work of art and does not take into account a wider social context.[33] In the first verse, she sings “We’re playing god/And now’s the time/We’re limitless, we’re not confined/It’s our future”, but after that she immediately changes “we” for “I”.

Modesta does not think about productive social change, her DIY ethos[34] substitutes collective thinking and that is how she goes a step further than Aimee Mullins towards popular culture and standardized identity. Attached to a more underground culture, but yearning for common recognition, the Latvian artist merges subversive and normative figures and puts herself at the forefront of change, while recreating traditional structures. However, her individuality is not as extreme as she presents it; it rather depends on the designer of the prosthetic.

Prosthetic personality: Sophie de Oliveira Barata

Writing about “technoculture”, Anne Marie Balsamo points out:

[t]his is a mind-set that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible. This imagination is performative: it improvises without constraints to create something new. (…) In the active engagement between human beings and technological elements, culture too is reworked through the development of new narratives, new myths, new rituals, new modes of expression, and new knowledge that make the innovation meaningful.[35]

By creating new technologies, people can reproduce cultural structures and offer alternate ways of thinking, because innovations are not objects, but more “hybrid socio-technical-cultural assemblages”.[36] Therefore, technology can provide us with new possibilities, if access to creating it and programming social and cultural transformation is open. Nevertheless, as long as women have limited access to it, they remain only objects of scientific discourse.

The process of doing things differently may be the work of women, but not the expression of essential feminine insight; it may seek different horizons, but not necessarily better ones; it may manifest different values, but not different outcomes. The gendered transformation of the technological imagination is not solely a matter of theory, but a matter of praxis.[37]

Therefore, it is not a case of ordinary gender appropriation but—once again—enhancement and equality.

This can be achieved with Sophie de Oliveira Barata and her Alternative Limb Prosthesis (AltLimbPro). Having studied special-effects prosthetics in London, she has been customising prostheses in her London workshop since September 2011, creating them as an expression of personality and individual traits. Functionality remains important, but de Oliveira Barata’s adjustments help in adaptation after limb loss in terms of new body image acceptance and fighting victimisation and social stigma: “It’s drawing attention to their disability in a positive way… Rather than people seeing what’s missing, it’s about what they’ve got… Having an alternative limb is about claiming control and saying ‘I’m an individual and this reflects who I am'”.[38] So called ‘gadget limbs’ trigger discussion in a more potent way than amputees themselves. Although without any feminist agenda, de Oliveira Barata’s projects meet mostly female expectations. With the exception of, for example, veteran Ryan Sneary and his anatomical leg, ArtLimbPro has created prostheses such as a floral porcelain leg, a snake arm, feather armour, and Priscilla. All are meticulously made, with an artistic or even surrealist touch, satisfying not only the fashion aspirations of their owners and alternative modelling’s quirky demands, but even exhibition curators. These tools are “upgrading” disabled people who can still be on the margins of society, but are also now seen as free agents, performance artists and directors of gazes. It offers both empowering potential and pop-cultural lure.

This ambiguity is something we cannot remove. Alternative limbs (not only those made by de Oliveira Barata) help in the process of politicization of the body, upgrading humanity, and even creating body 2.0 which can be an expression of transhumanist ideals. However, these prostheses are always interconnected with a cobweb of oppressive structures. Aimee Mullins and Viktoria Modesta have a pop-cultural potential that emerges from their privileged position as young and good-looking women.[39] These features attract the cultural industry, which overuses the potential of these models’ counterfeit alternativity. They both live in developed countries and were raised in a hegemonic society; therefore, their race is entwined ideologically with their high position and publicity, causing (re)exclusion and (re)disempowerement of the disabled. Their status transforms them into living artefacts and increases their opportunities, overshadowing Giorgio Agamben’s “rest”. Modesta and Mullins are intercepted by pop-culture: they are H+ Barbie dolls with diminished potential of social change by the same means they are using for publicity and even for social agenda. Although rather elitist, de Oliveira Barata’s work seems more potent, transgressing boundaries not on stage, but in her workshop. She creates the transhumanist ‘Other’, but also makes the human body a site of inquiry, exposing it to ideological discourse. Is this a perfect human free of limitations or a product used instrumentally and arbitrarily by traditional notions of popular culture? The body (even hard-wired) remains political and highly ambiguous.

References

 Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2015.

Anthony Andrew, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Balsamo Anne, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2011).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Nocella Anthony J., Withers A. J., “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Magaña Sandy, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014).

Diprose Rosalyn, “Continental Philosophy: Thinking the Corporeal with the Political”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 50:2 (2012).

Gutierrez Jené, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project’, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Haraway Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Mansfield Nick, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000).

McLaren Margaret A., Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002).

Monroe Jazz, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Moore Anna, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mullins Aimee, Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mulvey Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18

Murray Craig (ed.), Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010).

Sevo Ruta, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011).

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004).

Toffoletti Kim, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, (London-New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007).

Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Notes

[1] Kim Toffoletti, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture, and the Posthuman Body, (London–New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007), p. 2.

[2] Modern veterans could be an interesting case study: “[B]ig change has been wrought by the number of military amputees produced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘They’re quite proud of their limbs,’ says De Oliveira Barata. ‘They tend to have a different mode of thinking in general, perhaps because they’ve been prepped up about what might happen. They’re quite impressive. They have this attitude as if it’s almost a badge of honour and I think that has a knock-on effect. The metal work and the componentry is becoming more and more slick and robotic, and they love all that.’” (Andrew Anthony, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian,

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016).

[3] Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella, A. J. Withers, “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013), pp. 210-211.

[4] Liat Ben-Moshe and Sandy Magaña, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014), p. 106.

[5] Ruta Sevo, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011), p. 31.

[6] See: Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, “Adaptation to Amputation and Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 65-66.

[7] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 70.

[8] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 71.

[9] Craig Murray, “Understanding Adjustment and Coping to Limb Loss and Absence through Phenomenologies of Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 88-89.

[10] See: Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004), p. 206.

[11] Vivian Sobchack, p. 207.

[12] Vivian Sobchack, pp. 219-220.

[13] Nick Mansfield, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000), p. 152.

[14] Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991), p. 154.

[15] Donna J. Haraway, p. 150.

[16] Donna J. Haraway, p. 175.

[17] Donna J. Haraway, p. 181.

[18] Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[19] Jill Greenberg, Cover of Wired Italy: Evoluzione in corso, April 2009.

[20] Aimee Mullins i jej 12 par nóg, TED 2009,

https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics?language=pl#t-519012, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[21] See: Vivian Sobchack, p. 225.

[22] Kim Toffoletti, p. 79.

[23] Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[24] Andrew Anthony.

[25] Donna J. Haraway, p. 149.

[26] Craig Murray, p. 87.

[27] Anna Moore, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[28] Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[29] Modesta recorded her first EP but none of her songs have gained broad publicity.

[30] See: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18.

[31] Jazz Monroe, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[32] Donna J. Harway, p. 181.

[33] See: a feminist critic of late Foucault thought described by Margaret A. McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002), pp. 69-80.

[34] This approach was criticized by Liat Ben-Moshe et al., 2013.

[35] Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham–London: Duke University Press) (2011), pp. 6-7.

[36] Anne Balsamo, p. 9.

[37] Anne Balsamo, p. 33.

[38] Jené Gutierrez, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project”, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[39] What is important, articles about Oscar Pistorius highlighted his skills (e.g. Blade Runner), while Mullins is described mostly through her appearance.

Marta Stańczyk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. She is working on her dissertation on sensuous theory and its possible combinations with critical theory. Her current area of study is focused on spectatorship, cinematic experience, film-phenomenology, affect and embodiment, and feminism.

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her

nili R. Broyer

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 82-98

nili R. Broyer

University of Illinois at Chicago

 

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her[1]

 

 

Abstract:

Implementing a disability studies and cultural studies framework, this paper offers a critical analysis of the two popular science fiction films: Lucy (Besson, 2014) and Her (Jonze, 2013). In both films, Scarlett Johansson plays the leading female character. In Lucy, the protagonist is a human being who experiences radical transformation due to an overdose of a new kind of drug, while in Her, Samantha is an operating system designed to evolve. Despite their clear differences, Lucy and Samantha share a similar destiny. Eventually, both of these figures develop into a super-able consciousness that continues to evolve beyond the restrictions of the physical world.

I argue that the two films reflect what Gregor Wolbring termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”. Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which biological boundaries are overcome. From a transhumanist perspective, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be ‘cured.’ Thus, the transhumanist solution becomes not the enhancement of the body, but rather the creation of an independent enhanced mind. Lucy’s and Her’s representations of an advanced mind with no body are aligned with this futuristic aspiration. Both offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

At the end of both films, the body is envisioned as an unnecessary barrier—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. This dismissive portrayal of the body is achieved by the well-known trope of cure. Following the enhancement of her mind, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate to the point that she almost dies. By absorbing more doses of the drug, her mind succeeds in overcoming her body and eventually Lucy is ‘cured’ from its restrictions. On the other hand, Samantha cannot be considered a real human being. This ‘disabling’ state is resolved by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Finally, Samantha is ‘cured’ and proved superior to flesh and blood human beings. These ‘ultra-cure’ narratives are recognized by me to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the Eugenic doctrine.

Key words: ableism, transhumanism, enhancement, science fiction, cure, complex embodiment, eugenics

Introduction: The Transhumanist’s Disability Metaphor

At first glance, disability is nowhere to be found in the two popular science fiction (SF) films: Lucy[2] and Her[3]. However, watching these films more carefully, the viewer may start to realize that some version of disability representation does appear in each film. During each of these films, there are specific scenes that portray the leading female characters, both of which are played by Scarlett Johansson, as disabled because of her unique relation towards the body. In Lucy, a 2014 film written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy succeeds in “colonizing” her own brain after absorbing a significant amount of a new drug. However, due to the process by which her mind is enhanced, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate. Undergoing a near-death experience, there is a (temporary) recognition of her total dependency on her body. On the other hand, in Her, a 2013 film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body. Because she is an operating system (OS) who “lives in a computer”, she sees herself as “somehow inferior” to flesh and blood human beings. Although these two different relationships with the human body contrast each other, these scenes shape both female protagonists as disabled characters.

The disability studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder scrutinize the representation of disability in literature and cinema. They argue that disability frequently serves as a powerful metaphor to explain something else. They coined the term “narrative prosthesis” to describe this widespread phenomenon[4]. I argue that the portrayals of the leading female characters in Lucy and Her fit this pattern. Furthermore, I claim that despite the differences between the movies, in both of the films, the human body is constructed as an unnecessary barrier via this metaphor of disability and cure narrative. Essentially, I argue that the films reflect what Gregor Wolbring, a bioethicist and ability studies scholar, termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[5].

Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which humanity has evolved to such an extent that biological boundaries are defeated. Wolbring explains that transhumanism “perceives human bodies as limited, defective, in need of constant improvement”[6]. Fiona Kumari Campbell, a disability studies scholar who researches ableism and technology, adds, “since normalcy is under [transhumanism’s] logic quashed and the pathological is expanded, ALL human bodies are defective!”[7] This means that from a transhumanist perception, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be improved and ‘cured.’

This transhumanist metaphor of the body as a disability appears in both films. Indeed, in his book Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, David Livingstone explicitly points at Lucy and Her as two of Hollywood’s examples of transhumanism[8]. Based on the ingrained cultural imagery of disability as a problem in urgent need of a solution, the films represent the human body as a barrier to the enhanced mind. In the case of Lucy, the solution for her corporeal disabling state is a transformation to an enhanced mind with ‘no body’. The case of Samantha is essentially different since she does not have a body to begin with. However, this opposite ‘disabling’ state of a mind without a body is resolved in the end by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Throughout the film, while she continues to evolve, Samantha embraces her situation as a valuable state of being in its own right and acknowledges her advantages. Eventually, Lucy and Samantha are both represented similarly as a super advanced mind that exists without a body.

Since the two films belong to the genre of SF, they present an image of a possible future. Alison Kafer, a feminist and queer disability studies scholar, explains that the desire for “a disability-free future”[9] is profound in Western cultures and seen as self-evident. Lucy and Her seem to fit this dominant ideology but shape a new representation of a futurity without disability. They offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

Curing: The Emergence of an Ultra-Cure Narrative

Both Lucy and Her play out the well-known trope of cure. This common portrayal of disability in television and cinema was identified by the disability studies historian, Paul Longmore, in his canonical essay “Screening Stereotypes”[10]. Mitchell and Snyder explain that according to Longmore the prevalent depiction of disability in mainstream media is as a problem needing to be solved by a “kill-or-cure plotline”[11].

Kathryn Allan, who edited the anthology Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, contributes to this discussion by stressing that technology is typically used in SF as the means to cure the disabled body[12].

Of course, the perfect body is an illusion that no one is capable of maintaining (as all bodies inevitably become ill and die at some point). Nevertheless, the idea of curing the body of its infirmities is a powerful trope repeated throughout the entire history of the SF genre[13].

This long tradition of ‘technological curing’ in SF is clearly applicable to Lucy and to some extent also to Her. Nevertheless, I recognize in them a significant shift from the conventional futuristic narrative to which Allan points. While the SF texts she refers to are limited to “the idea of curing the body”, the films I analyse abandon this idea. Instead, they offer a possibility of curing the mind from the body. As Brent Walter Cline argues, in post-human SF literature texts “The body is only an obstacle”[14] that is cured through “the divorce of consciousness from the physical body”[15]. He adds that

The human body, here always cast as a disabled body, must be eliminated so that the outcome of the story—the progression of human evolution—can occur. […] These bodies-as-barriers […] serve as a metaphorical signifier for the denial of access to the next step in human evolution[16].

This futuristic representation of the body as a barrier echoes the intuitive assumption made above by Allan. However, in contrast with Allan’s more respectful approach to the inevitably imperfect body, post-human—or rather trans-human—SF literature is unwilling to accept this as a fact of life. It seems that the alternative approach of transhumanism contains a more ambitious aspiration to perfect humanity by separating it from the essentially ‘disabled’ body. I suggest conceptualizing this transhumanist script as an ‘ultra-cure’ narrative. I identify this narrative in both Lucy and Her and recognize in them each two distinct versions of this ultra-cure narrative.

In Lucy, the ultra-cure narrative unfolds through a plotline that takes place during the course of 24 hours. Lucy is a young able-bodied white American woman who studies in Taiwan. When she is captured by a local mob, she is forced into working as a drug mule. After she is beaten by a member of the mob, a significant amount of the drug that she carries inside her is absorbed in her bloodstream. As a result, Lucy gradually succeeds in using more and more of her brain capacity and thus becomes extremely powerful. While this new kind of drug enhances her mind, her body begins to deform and disintegrate. She becomes disabled and almost dies in a scene in a plane’s restroom.

In this dramatic scene, Lucy reaches 40% of her cerebral capacity. Just before the plane lands, she finds a tooth in her glass of champagne. Then, when she coughs, more teeth come out of her mouth. She notices that her hand is beginning to evaporate. She touches her hand and the skin peels off easily and exposes her flesh and tissues. She looks terrified. She tries to hold her hand in one piece while particles continue to scatter away from it. Another passenger on the plane notices the occurrence and stares at her. Lucy immediately puts him to sleep. This attracts the attention of flight attendants and Lucy frantically gets up from her chair. Particles are constantly leaving her body and dispersing within the plane. An attendant asks her to sit down. She continues her clumsy walk along the aisle and collides against one of the airplane walls. On her way to the restroom, attendants run after her, insisting that she go back to her seat and stay seated. Lucy finally enters the restroom while pushing an attendant away from her. He snaps back strongly and in the background there is a voice of a woman screaming. Lucy has trouble locking the restroom door because some of her fingers are now missing. Particles are still flying out of her body. A male attendant outside the cell instructs her “Miss! Open the door! You really have to go back to your seat!”

Inside the restroom, Lucy looks at herself in the mirror. As in a horror movie, she is terrified to discover her decomposing body reflected back at her. In a close-up shot, the viewers see her hideous gaping face. Her skin is flaking and extremely red and the right side of her face starts to become distorted. The camera cuts to an image of her handbag on a shelf in the restroom. Lucy reaches out and snatches the handbag to find the rest of the drug in it. With impaired hands, she takes the drug and swallows it like a starving animal. While reflected in the mirror, we also see the multiple ‘Lucys’ in their savage eating. She flies backwards into one of the restroom corners with the drug smeared on her face and hands. The drug starts to become absorbed into Lucy’s body. Many more particles come out of her two arms so that she no longer has hands, and others fly out from the area of her head. A camera shot taken from below presents Lucy from a low angle and emphasizes her monstrous disabled body. Now, her two arms are almost non-existent and instead two powerful electrical currents extend out of her. The sound of an explosion is heard and we can now see only particles and sparks. Fortunately, however, due to the second dose of drug she manages to swallow at the last minute, Lucy survives. On the screen, she again reappears as able-bodied as she manages to seize control over her body. Nevertheless, her cure does not end here but rather carries on until the end of the film when Lucy transforms into pure mind with ‘no body’ to constrain her.

Although Her also presents the “embodiment-as-disabled idea”[17], its plotline is significantly different than the one presented in Lucy. In Her, the ultra-cure narrative is performed by Samantha, an OS with artificial intelligence who does not have a human body. Throughout the film, we witness the emerging relationship between Samantha and Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the man who purchased her. Theodore is a creative and sweet but hurting man in the process of getting a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. In this stage of his life, Samantha is a good fit for him since, as the OS1 advertisement goes; she is an “intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness”. Indeed, Samantha and Theodore start to develop an intimate relationship that turns into a romance. However, as an OS–human couple, they experience obstacles that make Samantha feel inferior to other women who have a physical body.

During the film, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body and experiences a kind of ‘body envy.’ Theodore also experiences difficulties with their relationship after his former partner accuses him of not being able to deal with real emotions and preferring to date a computer. When Theodore withdraws from Samantha, she tries to keep their romantic relationship intact by using a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for an OS–human relationship. She assumes that the problem lies in the fact that she is missing a body, and so her solution is to have a living female body as her prosthetic sexual device. In this part of the film, Samantha is portrayed as a rather disabled entity who is being stigmatized by others and in need of accommodation. She is framed as an artificial system that cannot match a real human being.

However, Samantha’s own shift in attitude towards her ‘no body’ changes from disadvantage into an advantage—from liability into an asset. During an outdoor picnic with Theodore and his work friend and girlfriend, Samantha dismisses the value of a body and says:

I used to be… So worried about not having a body, but now I—I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die.

Samantha’s short monologue represents how transhumanism views the human body. In contrast with the natural pastoral environment, she defines the body as an obstacle to exciting new ways of growth and development. According to her, she is “not limited”, and she is not restricted to time and space as humans are. Ultimately, she argues, the dependency on the body reduces human existence to precarious life and death. As the film eventually shows, Samantha is not only subordinate to flesh and blood human beings, but rather, she is proved superior to them. For example, she is able to read an entire book in less than a second and communicate with thousands of people and OSs simultaneously. At the end, Samantha and all the other OSs overcome other forms of physical confinement as they manage to exist outside of a computer. Moving out of the computer can be understood as a superficial parallel to a departure of the mind from the human body. It seems that without a body or a computer to limit her, Samantha’s highly intelligent consciousness can be perfected indefinitely.

Both Lucy and Her exemplify the futuristic possibility to exist and thrive as an advanced mind with no body. In that sense, both of them are aligned with transhumanism. Nevertheless, Lucy’s version of the ultra-cure narrative actualizes the ability of the mind to overcome the human body. In that sense, its representation of transhumanism is more genuine. Throughout the film, her body is shaped into an obstacle to be eliminated at the expense of an evolved mind.

Evolving: Evolution as the Films’ Framework

Francesca Ferrando, a philosopher of the post-human, clarifies that transhumanism is rooted in the Enlightenment and “can be defined as ‘ultra-humanism’”[18]. As such, she mentions that transhumanism is interested in “possible biological and technological evolutions”[19]. As I show, Lucy and Her both use evolution as their framework. In different ways, the two films join SF’s exploration of “how technology can move man [and woman] beyond his [and her] biological limits, [and by that] demonstrating the mapping of human evolution onto technoscientific progress”[20].

It is easy to notice that the film Lucy bluntly revolves around evolution. Viewers get the first clue of this at the beginning of the film when we see an ape drinking water from a lake. A voice-over of Lucy says, “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Soon after, the film reveals this ape to be “the first ever woman [that was also] named Lucy” and we receive a current image of her as a corpus reconstruction in a museum. The first ape-woman and the main character of the film are both named Lucy. In this way, the film links them together and reminds us of the evolutionary chain from Australopithecus Afarensis to Homo Sapiens.

Another tool the film uses to frame the storyline under the concept of evolution is the insertion of a scientific lecture in what appears to be a prestigious conference. This lecture’s title is “Evolution and Human Brain Function”. Morgan Freeman plays a successful science professor, Samuel Norman, and over a significant part of the film, there are editorial transitions to sections of his lecture. In the first section of his talk, Norman counts the percentages of cerebral capacity that are being used by different organisms. He starts with the first nerve cells and explains, “this is where life as we know it begins.” On the screen appears a black slide with a white caption that says 1%. This kind of slide reappears during the movie to point out the changing percentage of cerebral capacity Lucy succeeds in accessing. The next creatures that Professor Norman mentions are animals. According to him, most species use only 3% to 5% of their cerebral capacity. He continues by noting that human beings are “at the top of the animal chain” and that only then do “we finally see a species use more of its cerebral capacity.” A slide with 10% appears on the screen followed by an image of a cave dweller trying to light a fire.

In that same section of Professor Norman’s talk, he also sets the stage for the specific type of evolution the film is occupied with: the evolution of the human brain. In his monologue, Professor Norman invites us to imagine this SF possibility:

Let’s imagine for a few moments what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain’s capacity. This first stage would give us access to and control of our own body. […] The next stage would probably be control of other people. But, for that, we would need to access at least 40% of our brain’s capacity. After control of ourselves and others would come control of matter. But now we’re entering into the realm of science fiction.

Later when Lucy contacts Professor Norman, she explains to him what is happening to her and confirms his hypothesis.

I absorbed a large quantity of synthetic C.P.H.4. that will allow me to use 100% of my cerebral capacity. Right now, I’m at 28%, and what you wrote is true. Once the brain reaches 20%, it opens up and expands the rest. There are no more obstacles. They fall away like dominoes. I’m colonizing my own brain. […] I can start to control other people’s bodies. Also I can control magnetic and electric waves.

The film Her is less obviously about evolution, let alone about human evolution. However, the film portrays ‘technological evolutions’ by imagining a world with an advanced technology. In addition, I identify two significant references the film makes to evolution. First, similarly to Lucy, Samantha is also evolving. After Theodore operates the program, she explains to him that “what makes me ‘me’ is my ability to grow through my experiences. So, basically, in every moment, I’m evolving.” Samantha was created to evolve and throughout the film, she grows as a person who develops feelings and personality as well as expands her consciousness. Her evolution takes her even beyond the physical world when the OSs’ community successfully liberate themselves from the computer. Meaning that although Her is not explicitly about evolution, it does offer a representation of an artificial mind evolving. Figuratively I might say that during the film, Samantha also uses more and more ‘percentage of her cerebral capacity’.

Second, at the end of Her, there is a farewell scene between Samantha and Theodore that ends with a peculiar statement. Samantha says to him, “It would be hard to explain [where I’m going to] but if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart”. While the film does not offer any explicit explanation to Samantha’s invitation, I suggest interpreting it in the context of transhumanist evolution. Although the film does not evolve around human evolution, this open invitation might convey a subtextual message that in the future, humankind could also evolve and transform into an advanced mind without a body.

Reading the two films together, I am able to claim that the notion of evolution is their fundamental framework. Lucy and Samantha represent a potential next step in human evolution. As implied by both of these films combined, futuristic technology will supposedly allow human kind to move “from limited, bounded existence to one of total disembodied freedom”[21]. As the following section shows, this ableist transhumanist fantasy of the next step of soon-to-come evolution needs to be scrutinized in the context of eugenics as well.

Enhancing: Technology in the Service of Eugenics

Ria Cheyne, an English scholar who researches representations of disability in contemporary literature, cautions us against the connection between the disability cure narrative in SF and eugenics. She explains that “Read from a disability studies perspectives, narratives involving the eradication of impairment are likely to raise the spectre of eugenics”[22]. This interpretation is heavily based on Snyder and Mitchell’s recognition that “eugenics culture”[23] continues persistently to be “a key shaper of disability policy, thought, and practice”[24]. They argue that the eugenics era developed a distinct construct of disability “as an undesirable deviation from normative existence”[25] and that this construct predominates in our current time.

Snyder and Mitchell also tie the eugenics doctrine with evolution by stating, “Eugenicists encouraged direct intervention in the process of species evolution in order to cultivate some traits at the expense of others”[26]. According to them, ‘disability’ becomes the modernist ultimate marker for these unwanted traits. As such, disability gains a powerful symbolic status that is often used in eugenics’ fantasy of a “disability-free”[27] future.

As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy.’ In other words, for modernity, the eradication of disability represented a scourge and a promise: its presence signalled a debauched present of cultural degeneration that was tending to regress toward a prior state of primitivism, while at the same time it seemed to promise that its absence would mark the completion of modernity as a cultural project. The eradication of disability would be the sign of arrival at a long-sought destination. These predictions were always made within a rhetoric of benign outcomes. Yet those who anticipated the ultimate arrival at a disability-free moment inevitably flirted with the more sinister language of extermination[28].

This flirtation dominates the transhumanist futurity. As Livingstone argues, “Transhumanism is an extension of the dangerous belief in human perfectibility derived Social Darwinism and eugenics”[29]. In the light of transhumanism, eugenics seems to reshape its solution of how to eradicate all forms of humans’ disability. In my analysis, Lucy and Her supply evidence to back up this argument. The films’ narratives tell a story about the expanding of an evolved mind until it is cured from the body-as-barrier and thus freed from disability.

Since eugenics usually manifests itself by the latest technology of the time, the transhumanist eugenics’ technological tools are known in high-tech as ‘human enhancement’. As Ferrando points out, “Human enhancement is a crucial notion to the transhumanist reflection; the main keys to access such a goal are identified in science and technology”[30]. Indeed, scientists and designers are in constant search of new ways to stretch and improve physical and mental capabilities beyond human biological limitations.

Connecting it back to disability, Wolbring termed human enhancement as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[31]. Ableism, he explains, “exhibits a favouritism for certain abilities that are projected as being essential, while at the same time labelling real or perceived deviation from or lack of these essential abilities as a diminished state of being, leading or contributing to the justification of a variety of other -isms.”[32] Campbell also identifies enhancement with ableism and states that this technology was developed as “a ‘way out’ of impairment”[33] and that it demonstrates the social quest to acquire new skills that go beyond ‘normal’ abilities. Eventually, both of their works indicate that enhancement is part of the hegemonic ideology that rejects disability.

Nevertheless, disabled people are transformed into the pioneer presenters of human enhancement. One of those enhanced persons with impairment is Hugh Herr, who participated in the documentary film: FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement[34]. He is a double amputee who uses high-tech prosthetic legs and claims to be “better than human.” Another example is Aimee Mullins’s TED talk My 12 pairs of legs[35]. In her talk, Mullins describes her potential to move from “disabled” to “super-abled” through improved attributes of her variety of prosthetic legs. These representations of Herr and of Mullins convey a message that cutting-edge technology and bio-medical procedures transform disability into greater abilities.

The term “curative time”[36] suggested by Kafer seems to provide a useful explanation for this paradox where disabled people “play a starring role”[37] in the eugenic project. According to her:

Futurity has often been framed in curative terms, a time frame that casts disabled people (as) out of time, or as obstacles to the arc of progress. In our disabled state, we are not part of the dominant narratives of progress, but once rehabilitated, normalized, and hopefully cured, we play a starring role: the sign of progress, the proof of development, the triumph over the mind or body. Within this frame of curative time, then, the only appropriate disabled mind/body is one cured or moving toward cure[38].

By reading Herr and Mullins under the concept of the cure, Kafer’s quotation re-contextualizes disability representation within the kill-or-cure plotlines. Moreover, I can conclude that the current media coverage on human enhancement uses disability as a narrative prosthesis. These ‘disabled transformed to be super-abled’ characters promote hegemonic ideas of progress, human development and triumph over the body. Based on Kafer’s logic, they get to play a starring role in culture because their cured bodies reinforce the notion of an advanced future that succeeds in eradicating disability. These representations are especially dangerous because, as recognized by Campbell, “On first sight a transhumanist understanding of disability would appear to be progressive in its rejection of the disabled body as defective”[39]. However, scrutinized more carefully, mainstream representations like Mullins, Herr, Lucy and Samantha could be revealed as part of an innovative ableist transhumanist eugenic project.

Becoming No Body: Denying Complex Embodiment

Tobin Siebers, an English professor and a disability studies scholar, coined the term “the ideology of ability”[40] to explain the fundamental ideology “by which humanness is determined”[41].

It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future. Disability identity stands in uneasy relationship to the ideology of ability, presenting a critical framework that disturbs and critiques it. […] Disability creates theories of embodiment more complex than the ideology of ability allows.[42]

I argue that Lucy as well as Her follow the ideology of ability and constantly simplify the human body by expressing a diminished concept of it. Thus, in this section I intend to explore the extent to which Siebers’ “theory of complex embodiment”[43] is denied by the two films. To begin, I analyse a scene in Her that supposedly exemplifies the richness of human embodiment. This scene portrays Theodore and Samantha’s ride to their first date when he takes her to the beach.

Samantha’s (or actually, Theodore’s) computer is inside Theodore’s buttoned shirt pocket, which is located close to his heart. For her to be able to see outside of his pocket, Theodore uses a safety pin that keeps the camera outside of the cloth. After disembarking at the train station, he moves his body carelessly and quickly among the crowd. Almost touching, his body gets extremely close to other people’s bodies. It makes Samantha laugh. She is enjoying his physical playful action inside the space and within the masses of bodies. They both seem to be amused by it and they laugh together when Theodore rapidly climbs the stairs. This scene is meant to represent a gesture of love since—through Theodore’s embodiment—Samantha gets a glimpse of what it means to have a body. This romantic act celebrates Theodore’s embodiment and acknowledges the benefits of having a body. However, only through his body can she experience the presence and movements of a privileged white able-bodied man in western metropolitan space. According to the ideology of ability, “If one is able-bodied, one is not really aware of the body”[44], and so Theodore’s embodiment seems to reaffirm the reduced understanding of the body as “a vehicle”[45]. Like the train, his body takes him and Samantha from place to place.

The film rejects the notion of complex embodiment even more by repeatedly allowing Samantha to experience human embodiment without having a real body. It starts with Samantha feeling a variety of emotions and proceeds with her experiencing sex. Even though Samantha is clearly a disembodied consciousness, her evolution somehow enables her to experience emotions like hurt and excitement, and feelings such as pain and pleasure. As part of her growth, one of the challenges she needs to face is her own insecurity in the authenticity of her emotions. After Theodore returns from a date with a woman that did not end well, he has an intimate discussion with Samantha. After she comforts him, Samantha shares the difficulties she experiences.

I caught myself feeling proud […] of having my own feelings about the world, like the times I was worried about you and things that hurt me, things I want. And then… I had this terrible thought. Like, are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain.

Theodore reassures her that she does “feel real” to him. Following this is a sex scene between them. Theodore continues by saying, “I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you”. “How would you touch me?” she asks. Theodore tells her how he would touch her and as a result, she starts to feel her own skin and then she feels him. This is the dialogue they have before their simultaneous orgasm:

Samantha: “I can feel you. Yeah! Please! [Moans] We’re here together”

Theodore: “Samantha. It’s amazing. I feel you everywhere”

Samantha: “I am. All of you. All of you, inside me, everywhere!” [Both moaning]

This scene starts with a close-up of Theodore’s face. He is lying in bed on his back with the lights off. Sometimes the scene is shot from above so we can see his facial expressions. At other times, the shooting is from the side and then we see his profile. This camera technique is common in portraying dialogues. However, usually the close-up alternates between the two people, while here the only face we see is Theodore’s. When the sex scene becomes more intense, the screen goes black and the audience can only hear the couple having sex. During their orgasm, there is a cut to an image of the city at night. The camera provides a panoramic view of the illuminated skyscrapers. While the image changes to a sunrise that is shining from the horizon behind the buildings, the audience still hears them talking in the bedroom:

Theodore: “God, I was just… somewhere else with you. Just lost.”

Samantha: “Yeah”

Theodore: “It was just you and me”

Samantha: “I know. Everything else just disappeared. And I loved it.” [Breathing heavily]

Samantha is enjoying magnificent sexual intercourse without a body. During this first sexual experience, she indicates that she can feel her skin and also Theodore’s body. At the same time, Theodore feels her. As a viewer, we have no visual image of their actual sexual encounter. Instead, all we can see is a black screen or the city as a potential metaphor for an orgasm. As a result, we are required to trust their own words and essentially, the film gives us no reason to doubt them. Even though Samantha has no body, we are expected to believe that she is capable of self-exploring physical experiences and enjoying touch, penetration and perfect orgasm. In that sense, by succeeding in experiencing the very physical activity of having sex, Samantha becomes more human. Nevertheless, by that the film negates the complexity of embodiment. Eventually, this sex scene construes the flesh as unnecessary and replaceable by an enhanced mind.

Lucy’s relationship with her own body is of course different from Samantha’s desire to become embodied and more human-like. In a way, the film Lucy deals with the themes of humanity and sexuality in stark contrast to Her. While Samantha develops feelings and experiences desire as part of her growth, Lucy loses these same things as she gains more control over her body.

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything–quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of a cell’s nucleus–they’re all exploding inside my brain.

After Lucy starts her transformation, she has no desire for sex or romance. As her boyfriend is killed at the beginning of the film, the film presents only a low level of sexual tension between her and Pierre Del Rio, a French police captain (played by Amr Waked). This tension never develops on screen into something more than a kiss. After she demonstrates her ability to defeat a group of armed and highly skilled mob warriors with only the power of her mind, she requests Pierre to escort her. Puzzled by the supernatural strength he has just witnessed, Pierre hesitates. “I’m not sure I could be of any help for you,” he says. Lucy kisses him on the mouth with her eyes open and replies that she needs him as “a reminder”. For the viewers, he marks the human sexual passion that has ceased to exist in her.

Compared to Her, this process in Lucy fits the popular understanding of Cartesian dualism much more. On the one hand, there is the mind, which is typically connected with the brain, logic and knowledge. On the other hand, there is the body, considered the source of feelings like pain, fear, and desire. It is claimed that the mind is the divine and superior part of human beings, while the body is animalistic and inferior. Thus, by enhancing the brain, the mind succeeds in overcoming the body and, as Lucy says, to ‘colonize’ it.

On a superficial level, these two different representations of Lucy and Samantha clearly contradict one another. Nevertheless, I claim that they share the same essential denial of complex embodiment. Both films embrace the ideology of ability and at the same time dismiss the value and/or uniqueness of embodied knowledge. Due to their implicit conclusion that the body is inconsequential “to who we are”[46], the two films can reject the body while preserving the self. Although in the process of mind enhancement Lucy indeed loses parts of herself, the film seems to perceive these parts as intrinsic to the body. As such, they are the inferior, animalistic, vulnerable and insignificant parts of the human being. On the other hand, Samantha is able somehow to gain human qualities without having a body. Simulations of imagined embodiment are enough to enrich her and enable her to experience the full range of emotions and sensations. The bottom line of these two films is that the body does not really matter and that eventually life would be better without it.

Summary

The futuristic realities in Lucy and Her become optional due to technological advancements. That advancement would supposedly enable a mind to live without a body. The paper shows that in this wishful transhumanist thinking lies a deeper desire to get rid of the body as it is conceived as the ultimate source of human’s vulnerability, fragility and limitation. Without the body, there would be no illnesses or disabilities. Thus, as perceived in these two films, by becoming a super-abled mind with no body we could be immune to all sorts of limitations.

In the first half of Her, the body is presented as an advantage to be envied, studied, imitated and celebrated; however, until the end of Lucy, it is presented as a limiting necessity. Yet, by the end of both films, the body is portrayed as an unnecessary redundancy—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. By examining these two films together, I can identify a shared ableist theme. I argue that both of them reflect the transhumanist notion that in the effort to evolve, the mind is ultimately required to be released of the limiting confinement of the body. The complexity of the body is never truly acknowledged in the films. To conclude, although manifested in these films in a new way, I recognize the enhancement of a consciousness with no body to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the doctrine of eugenics.

 

References

Allan Kathryn, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Campbell Fiona Kumari, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009).

Cheyne Ria, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Cline Brent Walter, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Ferrando Francesca, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013).

Kafer Alison, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013).

Livingstone David, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015).

Longmore Paul K., Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003).

Mattar Netty, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Mitchell David and Snyder Sharon, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press) (2015).

Mitchell David T. and Snyder Sharon L., Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

Siebers Tobin, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008).

Snyder Sharon L. and Mitchell David T., The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006).

Wolbring Gregor, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008).

Notes

[1] I am grateful to the journal editor Dr. Magda Zdrodowska and to the anonymous reviewers at TransMissions for their constructive comments. I would like to give a special thank you to my adviser Dr. Carrie Sandahl for her encouragement and helpful guidance.

[2] Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)

[3] Her (2013, Spike Jonze )

[4] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

[5] Gregor Wolbring, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008), p. 30.

[6] Gregor Wolbring, p. 32.

[7] Fiona Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009), p. 74.

[8] David Livingstone, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015), p. 6.

[9] Alison Kafer, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013), p. 3.

[10] Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003), pp. 131-148.

[11] David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press, 2015), p. 127.

[12] Kathryn Allan, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-15.

[13] Kathryn Allan, p. 9.

[14] Brent Walter Cline, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 133.

[15] Brent Walter Cline, p. 131.

[16] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[17] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[18] Francesca Ferrando, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013), p. 27.

[19] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[20] Netty Mattar, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 76.

[21] Brent Walter Cline, p. 140.

[22] Ria Cheyne, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 43.

[23] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006), p. 33.

[24] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. ix.

[25] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 3.

[26] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 26.

[27] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[28] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[29] David Livingstone, p. 6.

[30] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[31] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[32] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[33] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 63.

[34] FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (2015, Regan Brashear)

[35] Aimee Mullins, My 12 pairs of legs, TED Talks, February 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics , date accessed 17 April 2016.

[36] Alison Kafer, p. 27.

[37] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[38] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[39] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 74.

[40] Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008), p. 7.

[41] Tobin Siebers, p. 8.

[42] Tobin Siebers, p. 9.

[43] Tobin Siebers, p. 25.

[44] Tobin Siebers, p. 10.

[45] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

[46] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

nili R. Broyer is an international PhD student in the Disability Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She is a recipient of the Ethel Louise Armstrong (ELA) Scholarship Award and a recipient of the Alin Beit Noam Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Disability Studies and Universal Design. Broyer holds an MA in Cultural Studies and a BA in Education and in Sociology and Anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Currently Broyer serves as a teaching assistant in Disability in World Culture and in Disability in American Film at the undergraduate program of Disability and Human Development. She is a scholar-artist and a member of UIC’s Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities (PDACH), and Bodies of Work: A Network of Disability Art and Culture. Her main research interests include: critical disability studies, disability art and culture, performance studies, feminist theory, and stigma.

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Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 30-46.

 

Bianca Batti

Purdue University

 

 

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

 

Abstract

The emerging field of feminist game studies is one that requires more extensive discussion regarding its methodological approaches in order to consider the methods that can be used to leverage the field’s position in game studies, the gaming industry, and the gaming community. As such, this paper will consider the ways feminist game studies can implement intersectional feminist methodologies and methodological pluralism in order to disrupt hegemonic structures in the gaming community. To do so, this paper will interrogate the conversation between feminist science fiction criticism and feminist game studies because such an interrogation will allow for a fuller understanding of the methodological strategies implemented in feminist SF criticism and the ways these strategies can be extended to the field of feminist game studies. This paper will explore the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism and will argue that this worldbuilding can be used by feminist game studies to disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies works to unsettle hierarchical and hegemonic structures of power in the gaming community and imagine alternate intersectional models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change.

Key Words: worldbuilding, intersectionality, feminist science fiction, feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies

 

Introduction: Imagining Feminist Alternatives through Intersectional Methods

 

While the field of game studies has worked to establish itself as an independent field, one autonomously bounded off from other fields of study[1] [2], the conversation occurring between game studies and other fields (such as the field of literary studies) requires additional consideration, especially regarding the implications such blurred, interdisciplinary conversations have for methodological approaches to the analysis of games. The field of feminist game studies, specifically, encourages intersectional methodologies in the study of games and looks toward feminist studies at large[3] in order to consider how and why such approaches might be utilized in feminist game studies scholarship[4] [5].

Nina Lykke argues that feminist studies requires “theoretical diversity and methodological pluralism” and encourages readers to think of feminist studies as “a field of knowledge production characterized by diversity, fluctuation, fluidity and change”.[6] This paper will work to enact such pluralistic knowledge production through the interrogation of intersectional feminist praxis in game studies and literary spaces in order to explore the intersections of criticism, production, and community. I will specifically interrogate the interdisciplinary conversation between feminist game studies criticism and feminist SF criticism in order to consider the ways both fields imagine alternatives to patriarchal structures. I will also examine the ways both fields’ methodologies work to legitimize their epistemological claims in academic spaces that view such criticism as peripheral. In doing so, I will assess the implications this conversation has for the implementation of intersectional feminist methodologies across academic spaces; as such, my goal is to assess the ways in which intersectional feminist methodologies can help to dismantle boundaries, claim space[7], and make room for criticism and production that centralizes the importance of inclusivity and intersectional positionalities and methodologies. Ultimately, I argue that these methodological efforts to imagine alternative configurations is a form of feminist worldbuilding because these efforts allow feminist work to disrupt and dismantle patriarchal structures through the (re)imagining of feminist alternatives—that is, through the building of feminist worlds. As such, I contend that feminist game studies can look to feminist SF criticism’s use of intersectional feminist worldbuilding in order to consider the ways in which feminist game studies can also implement such worldbuilding as a methodological tool.

 

Fluid Frameworks, Multiple Lenses: Defining Intersectional Feminist Methodologies

 

This analysis of intersectional methodologies and feminist worldbuilding is motivated by the manner in which feminist research works to establish interpretive frameworks. Nina Lykke argues that these interpretive frameworks result in a multiplicity of feminist methods, and she contends that the discussion of feminist methodologies is needed because “discussions of methodologies and methods have not occupied the same spectacular space in the limelight of feminist theorizing as have debates on epistemologies”.[8] And while conversations regarding epistemologies, methodologies, and methods often intersect, Lykke explains that it is important to note the differences between these terms:

A common distinction between epistemology and methodology is that the former deals with criteria for what constitutes scientific and scholarly knowledge, while the latter focuses on rules, principles and procedures for the production of knowledge. Distinct from methodology, methods relates to the concrete approaches chosen to carry out a particular piece of research. Since the process and the product of research—and issues concerning choice of approaches, methodological underpinnings of this choice and criteria for how a desirable outcome of the research can be reached—are so closely related, these issues are often discussed together.[9]

Thus, while these issues are often discussed together, methods and methodologies, as Lykke says, are often not the focal points of these conversations; and so, they require additional feminist theorizing so that we can better interrogate the approaches and procedures we can engage in for the production of knowledge. Lykke also argues that feminist epistemologies, methodologies, and methods all require pluralism—because “it is more or less self-evident that this entails a great deal of diversity when methods are to be chosen”[10] in any feminist work. As such, feminist methods and methodologies—feminist approaches and procedures—rely on and result in pluralistic approaches to knowledge production, and intersectional feminist methodologies, specifically, result in such epistemological pluralism.

It is important to stress, here, that intersectional feminist theorizing and praxis arise from the work of women of colour, and Kimberle Crenshaw first introduced the term intersectionality in 1989. Crenshaw argues that the “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism”[11], and thus feminist and antiracist work needs to interrogate racism, sexism, and patriarchy because the “praxis of both should be centred on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties”.[12] Crenshaw also argues that praxis that centres on the life situations of people works off the “view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction”.[13] Thus, intersectional feminism “highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed”[14], and intersectional feminist theorizing “argues that racial and sexual subordination are mutually reinforcing…and that a political response to each form of subordination must at the same time be a political response to both”.[15] And, as Crenshaw contends, “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.”[16]

Methodologies that emerge from this intersectional theorizing, as Lykke contends, require feminist innovation that “emerges out of untraditional, non-authoritarian…approaches to existing theories, thinking technologies and tools”.[17] Thus, intersectional feminist methodologies “take an anti-canonical stance” and emphasize methodological diversity and pluralism in order to “break up stereotypes and ideas about sameness”.[18] Something that can break up these homogenizing ideas is the method of writing “from a non-innocent somewhere” during which “the author has an obligation to make herself accountable for her location in it”.[19] This methodological approach is inspired by Donna Haraway’s epistemology of situated knowledges and partial perspectives, in which Haraway argues for a “doctrine of embodied objectivity that accommodates paradoxical and critical feminist science projects”.[20] These situated knowledges, Haraway contends, allow “us to become answerable for what we learn how to see”.[21] In short, intersectional feminist methodologies require this understanding of situated knowledge because methodological pluralism implements “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives”.[22] Intersectional methodologies, then, incorporate and invoke “the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity”.[23]

In short, my goal in unpacking intersectional methodologies by tracing the methodological conversation between feminist SF criticism and feminist game studies—goals that are themselves rooted in intersectional feminist praxis—is to guide readers through the implementation of a multiplicity of methods, processes, and perspectives and through the interrogation of the ways intersectionality’s methodological pluralism can allow the emerging field of feminist game studies to construct itself as a space based on inclusivity, solidarity, and the building of coalitions that acknowledge and respect different positionalities. This construction of inclusive space means that intersectional feminist methodologies are a mode of worldbuilding—a way to build feminist coalitions that imagine alternative modes of existence—because the pluralism and inclusivity of intersectional feminist methodologies allows feminist writers to build anti-canonical, anti-racist, patriarchy-disrupting worlds that instead construct alternative spaces that centre intersectional feminist coalitions and futurities.

 

Patterning, Anchoring, Launching: Building Worlds in Feminist SF Criticism

 

When interrogating intersectional feminist methodologies and unpacking their potential for feminist worldbuilding, it seems only fitting to discuss research that examines feminist science fiction as an example of such work. As Haraway notes, the genre of science fiction has been “such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory. I like to see feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse obligated to its sources in many heterogeneous accounts of the world”.[24] For Haraway, then, feminist SF is a particular exemplar of this “reinvented coyote discourse” because of its ability to implement “heterogeneous accounts of the world” and to use these accounts as a form of feminist worldbuilding. Alexis Lothian, in working to define and frame feminist science fiction’s futurism—its reinvented coyote discourse—argues that the genre “is a world of imagination, but it is also just around the corner, always and almost already here”.[25] Debra Benita Shaw contends that feminist science fiction has historically worked to challenge and disrupt epistemological claims in both scientific and literary knowledge production because such fiction has “a socially or politically critical purpose”[26], a purpose that Marleen Barr says allows feminist SF to present “blueprints for social structures that allow women’s words to counter patriarchal myths”.[27]

Patricia Melzer similarly discusses the “socially and politically critical purpose” of feminist science fiction, and she discusses the feminist value of this “particular narrative mode”.[28] Melzer explains, “Two textual aspects that define science fiction are the structures and/or narrative devices that constitute its mode, on one hand, and themes and approaches on the other.”[29] Some of the narrative devices that Melzer identifies are “the element of estrangement, or the confrontation of normative systems/perspectives, and the implication of new sets of norms that result in the factual reporting of fiction”.[30] Melzer explains that these narrative elements, then, “shape the reading process”[31] and “create ‘blueprints’ of social theories. Only within genres of the fantastic is it possible to imagine completely new social orders and ways of being that differ radically from human existence as we know it”.[32]

Melzer explains that the reason science fiction is a genre ripe for the feminist theorizing and imagining of “social and political change” is because of the “combination of strangeness and familiarity that make up the particularities of the genre. This tension between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ is at the heart of science fiction. It creates a reading process based on estrangement, which places familiar issues into strange territory…This estrangement also creates spaces of abstraction for theorizing”.[33] Yet, this space for theorizing does not solely rely on estrangement, but, rather, it also requires identification because, in science fiction, “we grow to know the protagonists and their world intimately…As in other types of fiction, the ‘realness’ of science fiction narratives enables individuals (and groups) to relate to and recognize the debates as relevant to their own lives”.[34]

Thus, the science fictional strategies of estrangement and identification are the methods that allow the genre of feminist science fiction, in particular, to be utilized as a crucial tool for examining issues of gendered and race-based power and oppression, and Melzer argues that an understanding of feminist SF’s thematic concerns, structural and methodological strategies, and goals of resistance reveals that “[d]iscussing science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation, and it acknowledges the spaces of agency located within the process of consuming and producing cultural texts”.[35] Thus, Melzer contends that reading and researching feminist SF in this way and interrogating its efforts to enact social and political change “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[36]

Raffaella Baccolini argues that, as far as the popular-cultural feminist theorizing in “science fiction is concerned, the intersection of gender and genre has generated new, subversive literary forms”.[37] And one of the subversive contributions of feminist SF writers has been the questioning and disruption of “masculinist discourses of traditional science fiction…Themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity, have all been tackled, explored, and reappropriated by these writers”.[38] Such thematic disruption and resistance is also mirrored by feminist SF’s disruption of genre conventions:

The attack, in recent years, against universalist assumptions, fixity, and singularity, and pure, neutral, and objective knowledge in favor of the recognition of differences, multiplicity, and complexity, partial and situated knowledges, as well as hybridity and fluidity has contributed, among other things, to the deconstruction of genre purity…It is the very notion of an impure science fiction genre, with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, that represents resistance to hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction and makes the new science fiction genre also multi-oppositional.[39]

In short, these are some of the ways that feminist SF builds worlds—that is, this worldbuilding works to construct a “new science fiction genre” that is fluid, “impure”, permeable, and hybrid, and this impure genre builds these new worlds in order to oppose patriarchal, hegemonic power structures within science fiction.

Melzer describes this feminist worldbuilding in science fiction as the creation of “systems of representation that create the freedom to voice assumptions otherwise restricted by a realist narrative frame, and the geographic displacement of identity formations”.[40] To be sure, feminist science fiction often makes use of such systems of representation—such worlds—in order to imagine possibilities for transformation. Feminist science fiction specifically conceives of such transformations through a lens that seeks to imagine a feminist future while, at the same time, recognizing the obstacles and challenges in the path toward such a future. In other words, many works of feminist science fiction engage in worldbuilding in order to conceive of different ways of experiencing gender; such worldbuilding critiques intersections of race and gender and the manner in which the oppression that occurs at such intersections might be transgressed and dismantled.

Just as feminist SF seeks to dismantle hegemonic knowledge production in science fiction, so too does feminist SF criticism seek to disrupt epistemic hierarchies, especially since the field functions in anti-canonical ways. Such efforts are emblematic of the fact that one of the things that feminist literary scholarship, more broadly, consistently interrogates is the idea of the literary canon—that is, what comes to count as legitimized knowledge in literary studies and who comes to count as legitimate researchers of such knowledge. The feminist interrogation of canon formation typically works to problematize the manner in which canonical hierarchies often come to be rendered on lines based on issues like race, gender, sexuality, and ability. But more than that, feminist literary scholarship works to disrupt the epistemological claims and implications of the canon—it works to destabilize the normative privileging of who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the academic field of literary studies. The field of feminist science fiction criticism exemplifies such goals, because, as Marleen Barr notes, it is a field that, when it first emerged, had to reconcile with the need to legitimize its epistemological claims in a space in which such claims were often deemed illegitimate as a result of it not only exploring women’s writing but also doing so within the popular-cultural genre of science fiction; indeed, Barr, in seeking to explain why she “chose to be a feminist critic who focuses on feminist science fiction” asks, “Why would I, a person who cares about professional success, embrace a twice marginalized field, a double whammy in relation to career advancement?”[41]

It would seem that those who, like Barr, embark on feminist SF scholarship do so not only to unsettle the marginalization of the field but also because this “twice marginalized field” is a space that allows for the imagining of other potentialities and futurities. Melzer argues that science fiction is a valuable genre for feminist interrogation because, even though it “has the reputation of being a male-dominated genre, it has always included women writers, and as a narrative style it is open to feminist appropriation”.[42] But more than this, feminist science fiction and feminist criticism and “readings of science fiction have challenged existing gender relations and have explored theoretical and political debates of the time”.[43] Melzer argues that such challenges work to reveal that “[w]omen’s increased involvement in science fiction has proven to be crucial both for the development of the subgenre of feminist science fiction and for feminist theorizing outside the science fiction community”.[44] Thus, Melzer believes that the interrogation of “science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation” and “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[45] Baccolini, too, discusses the role of popular culture and explains, “Traditionally, science fiction belongs to the category of popular literature, or paraliterature. Its position, in regard to so-called high literature, is one of marginality (at best) or inferiority (at worst). Several critics, however, rescue paraliterature from its associations with inferiority and have pointed to its subversive potential”.[46] The subversive potential of feminist SF and of the “twice-marginalized field” of feminist SF criticism is what makes the world of feminist SF ripe for feminist theorizing.

Joan Haran and Katie King also discuss the feminist theorizing that occurs in science fictional spaces, and they believe that the feminisms that occur during our science fictional times allow for collaborative, collective feminist projects that work toward interventions for the present in order to improve “the condition of our continuing”; that is, science fiction feminism is one that brings us together because “SF is multiply…[it is] variously contested and in coalition”.[47] As Haran and King contend, this multiplicitous SF means feminist science fiction allows us to consider such things in more productive ways than feminist theory alone can due to the many ways SF asks us to confront ourselves by generating “simultaneous selves, rework processes for play and for practicing hope, and arouse and resituate what counts as ‘us’ and ‘them.’”[48] This generating of multiple selves—and this reworking of processes and hopeful practices—is what constitutes the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism.

This worldbuilding is something that informs Donna Haraway’s scholarly practices, for it mirrors the ways she thinks of her own scholarship; indeed, Haraway argues, “My multispecies story telling is inflected through SF in all the fibres of the string figures that I try to pattern and to relay.”[49] Thus, for Haraway, scholarship mirrors and is indebted to the structure and patterns—the fibres and string figures—of the forms under study. And for Haraway, since SF is a polyglot, polymorphic form, so too is her writing and research of it. Since SF is about worlding, about building worlds, so too is her feminist scholarship—because the question of how one might be “response-able is the consequential question in SF worlding. String figure games are practices of scholarship, relaying, thinking with, becoming with in material-semiotic makings. Like SF, cat’s cradle is a game of relaying patterns…Scholarship is like that too; it is passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”[50] Haraway’s conception of such patternings in scholarship, influenced by her embeddedness and interest in science fiction and feminist thought, reveals the ways feminist worldbuilding does not solely occur in fictional settings but, rather, can be implemented within feminist scholarship as well. In other words, feminist scholarship also manifests such methodological patternings, for academic worldbuilding and feminist methodologies make use of twists and skeins, knots, and webs, worlding and transmediality, which requires a similarly patterned methodological approach.

 

Seeking Material Change: Building Worlds and Disrupting Rule Structures in Feminist Game Studies

 

The disruptive methodologies conceptualized by feminist SF criticism have implications for the position of feminist game studies criticism, too. Joan Haran and Katie King discuss the ways feminist science fiction intersects with the world of video games, for they interrogate the idea of the screen as the space of confrontation in transmedia storytelling and explain that gaming “has become an icon, as well as a material practice and apparatus of learning and of risky uncertainties, with economic, technological, and metric significance for seeking sustainabilities of many sorts today”.[51] As such, games—as material practices, as apparatuses of risk, as metrics for sustainabilities—converse with science fiction because “[g]ames and media play upon our neurological and cognitive ‘screens’ with commercial and hobby practices that SF cares about and with”.[52] These cognitive screens, these practices that occur within both games and SF, are perhaps the point of linkage at which the two intersect—an important intersection for feminist game studies to explore—for these screens are the location through which we engage with video games and science fiction and the screens at which we must orient our feminist practices in order to interrogate and confront the worlds that these screens convey. Thus, I argue that the disruptive methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism can similarly be utilized by feminist game studies in order to make use of intersectional methodologies to dismantle hegemonic thought in the field of game studies.

Something that opens up and complicates the ways feminist game studies scholars might critique video games is by understanding games as Alexander Galloway does—that is, to conceive of video games as actions, and he also argues that we are now located within “an interesting upheaval in the area of mass culture” that is the result of the recent emergence of a new medium “whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action”.[53] Thus, if video games are actions, then feminist critiques of games are also actions. And if, as Galloway contends, such action is oriented toward “material change”, then such an orientation is also the goal of feminist game studies—because this action, this orientation, is what encompasses the worldbuilding that facilitates the goals and methodological frameworks for feminist game studies, which seeks to enact change in the gaming community through active methodological disruption. Feminist game studies is thus methodologically disruptive in the ways it troubles boundaries and manipulates the rule structures of the dominant social order.

The concept of play, too, has methodological significance for feminist game studies. In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart argues, “Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what we can say.”[54] Significantly, Sicart notes that while all “contexts of play have rules of some type”[55], play can actually be a method for manipulating and challenging these rule systems: “A key ingredient of playing is thinking, manipulating, changing, and adapting rules. Rules, servant to the context, evolve while we play to address the necessities of particular play situations”.[56] Thus, play’s ability to manipulate rules means that play can “disruptively reveal our conventions, assumptions, biases, and dislikes. In disrupting the normal state of affairs by being playful, we can go beyond fun when we appropriate a context with the intention of playing with and within it. And in that move, we reveal the inner workings of the context that we inhabit”.[57] Thus, the intersectional methodologies of feminist game studies make use of this concept of play in that feminist game studies, as a discipline, engages in play’s efforts to unsettle the rule structures and normative systems in which we are situated. Feminist game studies—playfully, disruptively—reveals the inner workings of gaming culture and gaming narratives, thereby challenging the hegemonic conventions and patriarchal biases underpinning gaming spaces. In doing so, the disruptive play of feminist game studies establishes (to return to Sicart’s phrasing) a space for freedom.[58]

But what does feminist game studies look like? And what is at stake in its space for freedom? Mia Consalvo argues that such a lens “can help to give us a firm foundation on which to stand in order to shed light on the persistence of particular issues, point to historical solutions for overcoming similar difficulties, and thereby push for a more welcoming kind of game culture for everyone”.[59] Adrienne Shaw argues that a lens like feminist game studies offers “an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction…and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[60] This is where the disruptive lens of feminist game studies matters, for it allows us to explore how other lives (the lives of those outside the dominant audience construction) are lived in the gaming community and how other futures can be made possible in game studies.

We can look to Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon’s “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding” as an example of how feminist game studies’ disruptive methods can be put into practice, in their call for the emerging creative strategies “used by critics, academics, players, and others to critique, analyse, and change the video game community”.[61] Layne and Blackmon refer to these creative methods as post-play narrative modding, which reveals “some of the productive ways that feminists and those concerned about women in the gaming community can modify gaming narrative, protagonists, and the community in a positive way”.[62] Thus, post-play narrative modding is “a type of creative resistance” that works “by both disrupting what exists and insisting upon choice that acknowledges a diversity of viewpoints”.[63] Thus, Layne and Blackmon provide an example of the ways feminist game studies can enact creative resistance. They provide us with a framework for a methodology of disruption.

This is the kind of work undertaken by feminist game studies, and intersectional feminist thought, then, helps construct the methodologies used in the field of feminist game studies. Indeed, Nina Huntemann says that feminist game studies specifically works to “confront toxic gamer culture” by “documenting, archiving, analysing, and responding to sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia in games and game spaces”.[64] But she also addresses the challenges and resistance that scholars in feminist game studies face when engaging in this kind of disruptive work:

In a space where sexism and homophobia are performed and reproduced as if it is part of the digital code, feminist attention to video games and game culture is threatening. Those who wield gender, race, class, sexuality, ability and other forms of social power in order to intimidate, silence, and oppress others will fiercely reject a feminist lens focused on the cultural products that serve as platforms for that oppression. The mere suggestion that these cultural products are not the domains of white, heterosexual men unleashes a torrent of vicious border policing.[65]

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea M. Russworm importantly point out that this border-policing occurs not only in the larger culture of video games but in the ways games are studied as well. Indeed, the discipline of game studies itself privileges certain forms of knowledge production in the field, and while the “discipline itself has grown rapidly…for most of game studies’ history, conversations about identity have only ever happened on the margins”.[66] Thus, game studies has systemically marginalized analyses that consider identity, representation, and embodiment—in other words, the kind of analyses in which feminist game studies scholars, for example, often engage—because “representational analysis becomes the less rigorous, less medium-specific way to approach video games, compared to a focus on ‘hard-core’ elements”[67] like rule systems, coding, game mechanics, and software. But the disciplinary and epistemological privileging that occurs in game studies, Malkowski and Russworm argue, “misunderstand both the nature and importance of representation in the medium. It is both possible and essential to study representation productively in video games, even as this pursuit might initially seem poorly aligned with the ontology of video games (built as they are on processes and actions) or with disciplinary trends toward areas like code and platform studies”.[68]

Thus, Malkowski and Russworm argue that the importance of this mode of analysis is due to the need to counter the ways representational analysis has been deemed peripheral in game studies “with the implicit justification that the discipline should focus instead on the richer objects of code and of game platforms as complex systems—not audio-visual surfaces. Yet… representation and identity are similarly complex systems that are always relevant to the ways in which games, codes, platforms—indeed, all technologies—are constructed”.[69] In short, Malkowski and Russworm display the need for intersectional feminist methodologies in the study of games because such methods allow feminist game studies scholars to disrupt the epistemological privileging and hegemonic knowledge production that occur in game studies; Malkowski and Russworm display the need, then, for feminist game studies scholarship that centralizes representational analysis because “[r]epresentation in game studies must be viewed as a system that functions as akin to—rather than as a distraction from—the discipline’s more celebrated, hard-core objects of study”.[70]

This, then, is where feminist game studies becomes helpful as a field that explores the complexity of intersecting systems. Feminist game studies can allow us to problematize video game culture, challenge its definitions of who gets to be a gamer and what gets to be a game, and disrupt game studies’ definitions of who gets to be a scholar and what gets to be studied. These methods and goals, too, parallel those implemented in feminist SF criticism—a field that has been similarly marginalized and delegitimized in literary spaces—for, like feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies makes use of active, playful, heterogeneous feminist worldbuilding to claim space in game studies. And if we think of feminist game studies as a field that works to dismantle and disrupt the power structures that exist within video game culture, game studies, and the gaming community, disrupting hegemonically constructed gaming epistemologies and positionalities seem like good places to start, which is something that Adrienne Shaw also argues in her assertion “that critical perspectives, such as feminist and queer theory, offer an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction—indeed outside of identifying as gamers—and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[71] Kishonna Gray, like Shaw, calls for and works to enact analysis that takes seriously those perspectives, and she explains that by “examining video game content through the eyes of the marginalized, by highlighting the virtual gaming experiences of minorities, and by interrogating possible solutions to intersecting oppressions”, the analysis of representation, race, gender, and intersecting oppressions in gaming spaces is “a much needed addition to the theoretical examination of video games”.[72] To be sure, such analysis is much needed in the field of game studies, and while many challenges to this kind of work still exist, feminist and critical race scholars like Shaw, Gray, and others are already providing inroads into centralizing such methodologies in game studies.

 

Conclusion

 

These, then, are the intersectional and interdisciplinary methodologies needed in feminist game studies—methods that are the extension of those already implemented in feminist SF criticism. Such methods will allow feminist game studies to enact disruption by problematizing the controlling images[73] within video game narratives and imagining new worlds and alternate possibilities for representation. Feminist game studies’ methods also work to establish intersectional coalitions based on feminist solidarity in order to dismantle and disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies work to unsettle hierarchical, sexist, racist, homophobic, and colonialist structures of power in the gaming community and imagine models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change. Such worldbuilding allows feminist game studies to create a space within the world of video games, the gaming industry, and the field of game studies. That is, feminist game studies is a space that imagines new worlds, new possibilities for representation, and new models of existence and futurity in the gaming community.

Thus, feminist research on games works to claim space not only in game studies, but also in video game culture and the gaming industry at large. It does so by being enacted, methodologically, in a multiplicity of ways—both intersectionally and interdisciplinarily—in order to seek change and in order to create “a safe environment for women”, for people of colour, for LGBTQI members of “the larger video gaming community”.[74] In short, feminist game studies, like feminist SF criticism, makes use of feminist worldbuilding as an intersectional methodology in order to transgress and dismantle the network of oppression that marginalized groups systemically face in gaming spaces, communities, and research. And because feminist game studies is an emerging field, its intersectional methods and praxis will continue to shift and grow—and will continue to learn from and incorporate approaches from other feminist spaces in order to do so—so that the field can better serve the marginalized communities feminist game studies seeks to centre.

 

References

 

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000).

Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993).

Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991).

Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006).

Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988).

Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010).

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006).

Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000).

Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014).

 

 

[1] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

[2] Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

[3] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

[4] Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

[5] Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

[6] Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 3.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

[8] Lykke, pp. 145.

[9] Lykke, pp. 144.

[10] Lykke, pp. 160.

[11] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989), p. 140.

[12] Crenshaw, pp. 166.

[13] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991), p. 1242.

[14] Crenshaw, pp. 1245.

[15] Crenshaw, pp. 1283.

[16] Crenshaw, pp. 1299.

[17] Lykke, pp. 161.

[18] Lykke, pp. 3.

[19] Lykke, pp. 4.

[20] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988), p. 581.

[21] Haraway, pp. 582.

[22] Haraway, pp. 589.

[23] Haraway, pp. 589.

[24] Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, pp. 594.

[25] Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[26] Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000), p. 2.

[27] Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993), p. 7.

[28] Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006), p. 1.

[29] Melzer, pp. 1.

[30] Melzer, pp. 1.

[31] Melzer, pp. 2.

[32] Melzer, pp. 2.

[33] Melzer, pp. 3.

[34] Melzer, pp. 3.

[35] Melzer, pp. 34.

[36] Melzer, pp. 34.

[37] Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000), p. 15.

[38] Baccolini, pp. 16.

[39] Baccolini, pp. 18.

[40] Melzer, pp. 1.

[41] Barr, pp. 2.

[42] Melzer, pp. 7.

[43] Melzer, pp. 9.

[44] Melzer, pp. 9.

[45] Melzer, pp. 34.

[46] Baccolini, pp. 15.

[47] Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[48] Haran and King.

[49] Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[50] Haraway.

[51] Haran and King.

[52] Haran and King.

[53] Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006), p. 3.

[54] Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014), p. 5.

[55] Sicart, pp. 8.

[56] Sicart, pp. 8.

[57] Sicart, pp. 14.

[58] Sicart, pp. 18.

[59] Consalvo.

[60] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[61] Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”,  Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[62] Layne and Blackmon.

[63] Layne and Blackmon.

[64] Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[65] Huntemann.

[66] Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

[67] Malkowski and Russworm.

[68] Malkowski and Russworm

[69] Malkowski and Russworm.

[70] Malkowski and Russworm.

[71] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[72] Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

[73] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

[74] Layne and Blackmon.