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Table of Contents 2017 vol.2 no.2

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2

 

Table of Contents  2017 vol.2 no.2

Game Studies at the crossroads

edited by Jan Argasiński (Jagiellonian University)

 

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

Tomasz Z. Majkowski

The Language of Interaction 

Rafael Arrivabene

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

Bianca Batti

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

Garfield Benjamin

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

Justyna Janik

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

Katherine Mancey

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

Kristian Ahm

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

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

Ciara Smith

Political and Social Issues in French Digital Games, 1982–1993

Filip Jankowski

Varia

Different levels of game genre. A Review. 

Marcin Petrowicz

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

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

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.

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007).

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.

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

JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[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)

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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.

 

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

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

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Curtis, M. E., Bharucha, J. J. The Minor Third Communicated Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music, Emotion 10:3 (2010)

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

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).

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).

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.

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).

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

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.

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

Halfyard, J. K. “Cue the Big Theme? The Sound of the Superhero”, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, eds. Richardson, J., Gorbman, C., Vernallis, C. (2013).

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

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

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

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).

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

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

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).

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

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

Reay, P. Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

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

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

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

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.

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).

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

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

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

Wingstedt, J., Brändström, S., Berg, J. “Narrative Music, Visual and Meaning in Film”, Visual Communication. 9:2 (2010).

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

 

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

Download the Article

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”.

 

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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).

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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).

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[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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Bremner Charles, “Mitterrand Ordered Bombing of Rainbow Warrior, Spy Chief Says”, The Times (11 July 2005).

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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.

Table of Contents 2017 vol.2. no.1

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

 

Table of Contents  2017 vol.2. no.1

 

War&Technology

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare 

Bethany Crawford

The Concept of War without Casualties: The Influence of the American Taboo of Death on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

Kaja Łuczyńska

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction

 in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare 

Ivory Mills

Knowledge is for Cutting: Waging War on the Human Terrain

Sandra L. Trappen

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

 

Varia

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS – a conversation with Barbara Hammer

Andrzej Pitrus

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-4.

Joanna Walewska

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

 

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

 

Jacques Derrida (2008), when asked if the attacks of 9/11 would become one of the major events of the last century, answered that it is symptomatic that we refer to this event by means of its date: 11 September, 9/11. He concluded that it was a “thing” which probably has the status of an event for which we do not have yet a proper name. Referring to Derrida’s words, W.J.T. Mitchell wrote (2011) that every history in fact consists of two histories, one focused on what actually happened, the other on the ways of interpreting and describing the events. The first type of historical narrative is focused on facts and figures, while the other is focused on images and words that enable understanding of past events. Narratives about the past are no longer a domain reserved only for historians, because more frequently they are created in real time by official and independent media (e.g. the attacks on the WTC, when the emergency services learned about the plane that had crashed into the WTC towers from a television broadcast), millions of social media users around the world (Cottle 2006; Monahan 2010; Grusin 2010, Huff M. et al 2013), and the narration of movie directors and video game developers.

A number of social scientists, journalists, scholars, and philosophers have observed that the outcome of the attacks was a radical shift in political discourse and social practices—explained by the necessity of applying new security measures and justified by the “state of exception” (Agamben 2008; Sidel 2007; Sottiaux 2008; Neal 2010). As a result, the notions of terms such as terrorism, bioterrorism, torture, and enemy combatants were redefined in the context of 9/11 (Peters 2004; Meisels 2008; Nathanson 2010; Miller 2013; Stampnitzky 2013). This semantic operation and the introduction of the policy of fear allowed the authorities to make the “state of exception” a permanent state, which caused long-lasting effects and changed the social processes of interpretation of historical events—not only those directly related to the 9/11 attacks, but also those of earlier events from the history of the U.S. military.

These semantic operations were brilliantly identified and described by Peter Singer, who observed that many addresses delivered by George W. Bush during the “War on Terror” are based on the vision of clear binary scheme which allows a clear differentiation between Good and Evil. Singer noted that Bush’s Evil was almost a substantial entity which acts independently of human actions (Singer 2004). According to Bush, those who attacked the WTC were “enemies of freedom” or “enemies of democracy”, and the prerogative of their actions was “to plot Evil”.

Taking into consideration the long-lasting and significant effects of these cultural changes in the social perception of international military conflicts and the threat of domestic terrorism, it is no wonder that most of the authors who responded to our call for papers devoted to the relations between war and technology have dedicated their papers to topics related to the 9/11 attacks.

Most of these texts are devoted to critical analysis of how those post-9/11 phenomena have been reflected in the sphere of pop culture. Thus, in his text about American gaming industry, Filip Jankowski shows how the majority of the shooting games released between 2001and 2008 created a heroic depiction of American soldiers’ WWII effort by using national stereotypes, erasing civilians from the theatre of war, and reinforcing the U.S. government’s position as the primary guardian of global order in the face of the threat of international terrorism. It seems that a highly polarized depiction of military battles during WWII was the equivalent of President Bush’s “Axes of Evil” speech and, in retrospect, it can be seen as a propaganda tool aimed to strengthen public support for US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author also analyses the games that have emerged since 2008, when the gruesome acts of torture committed by American personnel in Abu Ghraib prison were revealed and Barack Obama was elected president. Since then, game producers have created a more realistic reflection of military conflicts, abandoning the binary description of ours as good and enemies as evil and presenting the player with moral dilemmas.

In the current issue of TransMissions, we also include a block of papers devoted to critical examination of the interrelations between the current military complex and the moving image industry. In her paper, based on the analysis of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Bethany Crowford shows how the film industry has reinforced neoliberal political agendas and military incentives by creating filmic endorsement glorifying the U.S. government’s military campaigns. In her paper, Kaja Łuczyńska presents military technologies as a precise and effective tool for managing conflicts. She shows that along with the post-2008 politics of of “no boots on the ground”, such an image of military technologies led to the erasing of the image of casual victims (on both sides of the conflict) in the social perception of contemporary conflicts.

Based on the considerations of philosophers and critics of post-9/11 politics such as Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard (among others), she shows the influence of the Western taboo of death on the perception of military interventions in the Middle East. The same line of inquiry is presented in the paper by Tatiana Prorokova, who, while analysing the moving image industry, shows how unconditional belief in the power of technology has changed American society and ensured its confidence in “superiority and dominance of its possessors”.

In the first months after the attacks, the fear of being considered an “enemy of freedom” stopped numerous U.S. intellectuals and scholars from asking questions about the actual causes of the events of 9/11. Also, the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush led to the international military campaign against Al-Qaeda and other militant organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (from 2004), as well as to the introduction of a number of legal measures such as the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which was based on the unclear and arbitrary category of “domestic terrorism”, which enabled the limitation of civic rights for the sake of security. The researchers point out that this Act resulted in noticeable loss of privacy as well as the reduction of transparency in public life. Both these phenomena are the subject of the papers by Marta Stańczyk, who analyses Hollywood productions concerning WikiLeaks and Hackers, and by Ivory Mills, who assesses the impact of technologies used to wage war in cyberspace. On the other hand, the paper by Sandra Trappen assesses the consequences of the engagement of anthropologists in the so-called Human Terrain System, a phenomenon which is referred to as “a cultural turn in military”. It seems that all three texts correspond to each other, because while the milieus of anthropologists and psychologists have rejected this type of cooperation as an unethical and undesirable breach of independence in the area of knowledge they are pursuing, it has become evident that the Human Terrain System is a key concept that applies not only to anti-insurgency military actions, but also to the frontiers of cyberwar. The concept appears one more time in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden 2013, concerning on-line actions developed by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence bureau, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) against supporters of WikiLeaks, The Pirate Bay portal, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous.

The last two texts in the current issue of TransMissions are devoted to more general topics concerning the image of war and technology in contemporary culture, but they can still be read in the same context as the other texts in this volume. In her paper about the return of the nuclear technology debate, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz analyses post-Fukushima movies (both fiction and documentary), accurately pointing to the fact that in some way the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 plays a similar role to 9/11 in that it invigorated historical debates on the country’s nuclear past. Meanwhile, the paper by Magdalena Podsiadło also addresses the problem of heroic narrative, albeit based on the image of rape in Polish contemporary cinema.

 

References

 

Agamben Giorgio, Stan wyjątkowy, (Warszawa: Korporacja Ha! Art) (2009).

Cottle Simon, Mediatized Conflicts. Issues in Cultural and Media Studies, (New York: Open University Press) (2006).

Derrida Jacques, Filozofia w czasach terroru. Rozmowy z Jürgenem Habermasem oraz Jacques’em Derridą (Warszawa: WAiP) (2008).

Grusin Richard, Premediation. Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2010).

Huff Mickey S., Rea Paul W., Deconstructing Deceit: 9/11, the Media, and Myth Information, http://www.projectcensored.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/DeconstructingDeceitOnlineEd.pdf (date accessed 10.11.2013)

Meisels Tamar, The Trouble with Terror. Liberty, Security, and the Rispons to Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press) (2008).

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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.

 

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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.

Ramsay Debra, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015).

Reed Kristan, “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.

Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-medal-of-honor/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

Rosenberg Adam, “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.

Safire William, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008).

Salvati Andrew J., Bullinger Jonathan M., “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.

Schiesel Seth, “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.

Schulzke Marcus, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8:2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

Silverstein Ken, “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.

Susca Margot A., “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16.

Terkel Studs, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

Voorhees Gerald, “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: Continnum) (2012), p. 89–111.

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.

 

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Bethany Crawford

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 21-36.

Bethany Crawford

Dutch Art Institute

 

 

Moving Image as Political Tool:

The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Abstract

This research critically examines the interrelation of neoliberalism, the moving image, and postmodern warfare with the intention of determining the impact of the neoliberal influence on the increasingly important role of the moving image in postmodern warfare. Through analysis of a selection of contemporary films, this research attempts to decipher how neoliberalism is pervading culture, both in the West and abroad, and why this is important in the context of postmodern war. As image and screen-based technologies are a dominant element in contemporary culture, it is vital to understand the extent of societal manipulation delivered via these platforms to perpetuate potentially harmful political economic agendas and military incentives.

Key words: neoliberalism, post-modern warfare, warfare, moving image, moving image technologies

 

 

Introduction

 

This paper intends to evaluate the ramifications of the Western political establishments’ conformation to the politically applied neoliberal ideology on the utility and increased dependence of moving image technology in the arena of postmodern warfare, as both a weapon and a societal tool. With a focus on the modern wars that have been the consequence of the neoliberal agenda, this paper will consider the function of the moving image within this political context, with particular emphasis on cultural control. This will allow for comments on the counteractive capacity of artists’ moving image and the necessity of activating an engaged spectatorship in the face of increasingly immersive technologies and manipulative images. The intricate interrelation of neoliberal ideology, war and the film industry is a complex subject of study, as each factor facilitates and necessitates the other. Each element is historically and developmentally interwoven, with political and economic issues being a direct effect and result of motivations in conflicts and industry, and contrariwise. Due to the impact of neoliberal ideology, it has further become increasingly difficult to distinguish between these aspects in order to study their relation, as the resulting oligarchical control has amalgamated government, war and film into one indistinguishable, powerful businesses.

American hegemonic domination of the international film industry and the country’s presiding role over modern global politics and warfare certify the importance of examining the role of Hollywood and mainstream American cinema when investigating the neoliberal impact on moving image within postmodern warfare. As the U.S. government launched the post-9/11 ‘Global War on Terror’ to initiate invasions and substantial military campaigns in various locations in the Middle East, filmic endorsement was necessary in order to mobilise public support and maintain the advantageous governmental position over a society seized by fear. Two examples of films conforming to the contemporary propagandised depictions of the recent American military endeavours in the Middle East are Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). American Sniper details the exploits of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during his four tours of Iraq, as he accumulates the 160 confirmed kills that earned him the honour of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. The CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty through the motivations of a young, female CIA operative, Maya. The delivery of these war films in the slick narrative characterised by mainstream and Hollywood cinema exemplifies the passive consumption and neutralisation of on-screen violence that is arguably promoting a dangerous complacency of conflict in contemporary society. The inactive spectatorship encouraged by such narratives allows for a governmentally valuable platform for simultaneously administering glorification of both neoliberal values and the military violence that comes with it. Critical evaluation of American Sniper will focus on the film’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as a form of mobilising and maintaining public support for military action in the Middle East through fear and misrepresentation. Examination of the characterisation of gender in American Sniper will allow study of the definition and promotion of the ‘neoliberal man’ in relation to a neoliberal state. This will lead into analysis of the function of the female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty and the production’s associations and appropriations of feminist rhetoric. Zero Dark Thirty will further provide the basis for a dissection of the film’s formal arrangements in regards to invalidation of the impact of on-screen violence, and the resulting consequences on its commentary of militarised torture.

The neoliberal ideological model supports a process of globalisation in order to internationalise economic structures and embrace a global free market. An idealised impact of international subscription to neoliberalism would ensure a globally competitive market, increased international productivity and consumerism, and minimisation of state controls on trade and economy. This economic and financial motivation is the foundational incentive of contemporary warfare in the neoliberal age. Other than allowing for the implementation of a plunderable economic structure, globalisation has proven a valuable vehicle for delivering a dominating cultural paradigm through the international export of American film, known as ‘soft power’.[1] The impact of the cultural imperialism of globalized American cinema, in tandem with the enforcement of political and economic neoliberal ideologies, is exemplified in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). Both films focus on the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian coup d’etat led by General Suharto in 1965–66, which directly resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The Act of Killing thematically centres on the influence of American cinema on a group of gangsters unrepentantly responsible for a multitude of the genocidal killings as they re-enact the massacres through various cinematic genre conventions. The Look of Silence acts as a contextualising counterpart that follows the family of one of the victims of the genocide as the younger brother utilises his role of optometrist to confront the perpetrators. Analysis of the content and formal arrangements of The Act of Killing, with notes on similar methods used in The Look of Silence, will allow for considerations on Oppenheimer’s self-reflexive deconstruction of the role of film as mode of delivery for ideological sentiments and cultural reinforcement of military and economic force, in a direct critique of the impact of globalised American cinema. Character analysis of key participants in The Act of Killing will allow the examination of the ramifications of neoliberalism on a societal level and question the rewarded personality traits under a neoliberal regime.

The increasing internationally globalised interrelation of Western political aggression with Hollywood and American mainstream cinema has necessitated calls for a counteractive utility of the moving image to provoke a politicised dissidence in spectators. As militarised screen-based technologies are rapidly evolving and leading to eventual implementation as culturally accessible technology, society is becoming progressively more dominated by screen culture and advancing immersive and interactive moving image technology which multiplies the effectiveness of passive consumption. Experiential participation in simulated and immersive visual technology allows a situation in which the penetrative ideological impact of images pervades the mind at a deeper cognitive level.[2] Through these technologies, such as video games and virtual reality, the brain is being trained to function in conjuncture with neoliberal anticipation. The pre-emptive nature of the neoliberal state, such as anticipatory military action exemplified in the invasion of Iraq, is beneficial for an Orwellian governmental control over citizens through the perpetual threat of war and constant fear.[3] These passively engaging modes of moving image utility open dialogue for an inverted employment and critique of these technologies which is represented in the provocative works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, with specific focus on Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) and Serious Games I–IV  (2009-10). Analysis of the formal arrangements of both Images of War and Serious Games will establish effective techniques of provoking spectator engagement with moving imaging works in direct remedial response to the encouraged passive consumption of contemporary image-based technologies. This will lead to investigation into methods of self-reflexive deconstruction of the moving image in the modern theatre of war in both Images of War and Serious Games I: Watson is Down.

 

American Sniper and Establishing the Enemy

 

Following the recent military endeavours in the Middle East, there has been an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment and Arab vilification within recent Hollywood war productions. The Arab world has assumed the role of the terrorist ‘Other’, a position formerly held by communists during the years of the Cold War. This cultural establishment of the Arab enemy beneficially maintains public support for the continuing military involvement in the Middle East. This trend is exemplified in American Sniper (2013) and will be illustrated through an analysis of the film’s use of sound and visual form.

The film sonically opens with the Islamic call to prayer eventually obscured by the mechanical sound of a military tank; this is confirmed visually as a tank appears rolling through a burned-out Middle Eastern town. The very outset of the film provides the initial connotations of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric, the call to prayer not just providing a locational signifier (as there are mosques all over the globe), but when coupled with militarised images establishes an emotive connection between Islam and war. This is thematically continued through the duration of the film with consistent visual references to the Iraqi fighters as Muslim and the American soldiers as Christian, establishing a wrongful context of a war of religion (e.g. the scene featuring a quick cut to a suicide bomber’s lifeless hand falling whilst clutching prayer beads). The call to prayer is again used as sonic accompaniment to a climactic moment of tension by which the audience is first introduced to the main antagonist, the Iraqi sniper ‘Mustafa’. This scene further commemorates Mustafa’s first on-screen killing of a U.S. soldier, continuing the demonising association of Islam through sonic suggestion. The character of Mustafa is a cartoonish depiction of a villainous Arab, complete with an ominous, deep and throbbing leitmotif that intensifies his caricaturised evil persona.

American Sniper is punctuated throughout with a series of point-of-view shots through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder, as he tracks potential enemies in the deadly crosshairs. These shots are effectively subjective, implicating the spectator in the position of Kyle, strengthening emotional identification with the protagonist whilst simultaneously alienating and vilifying the subjects in shot, nearly always Iraqis. In one instance, after the audience is introduced to Kyle in the beginning of the film, he lines up a nefariously behaving hijab-clad female with her young child. Tracked through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder the child runs forward carrying an RKG grenade, passed to him by his mother. Not only is this sequence subject to the criminalising effect of the viewfinder POV, but the shot then quickly cuts to a scene of Kyle as a young boy shooting his first deer. This rapid transition infers a moral relation between the shooting of a deer and that of an Arab, effectively animalising and dehumanising the ‘Other’.

 

American Sniper and the Neoliberal Man

 

Eastwood’s American Sniper successfully advocates contemporary neoliberal-influenced prescriptions of gender. The attributes of the idealised self-disciplined individualism of the neoliberal man easily fulfils the ‘Hollywood hero’ prototype that Kyle profitably conforms to—a design unchanged since the early days of Hollywood that reinforces the conservative notions of gender and masculinity. Corresponding to these traditionally masculine character criteria is valuable in maintaining multitudes of young men signing up for armed service with aspirations of achieving similar cinematically hyper-masculine heroics. Kyle’s character is fundamentally a microcosm of the model conservative, neoliberal American state. He emphasises the desirable qualities of a neoliberal subject—exhibiting resilience, a constant pre-emptive anticipation, and an individualised self-reliance—that are admirable character traits necessary to thrive under neoliberal implications.

The film is an unadulterated celebration of masculine violence and individual merit within its very premise—a production solely dedicated to heralding the heroic sacrifices of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. This congratulatory stance concerning ‘honourable’ violence is established early in the film through a sequence depicting an incident from Kyle’s youth. As a young Kyle and his family sit around the family table, his authoritative father delivers an analogical lesson on good and evil through the categorisation of an individual into a sheep, a wolf or a sheepdog. He refers to sheepdogs as “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and the overwhelming need to protect the flock” whilst condemning his young sons to turn out as anything other than a noble and protective sheepdog, and ultimately congratulating young Kyle on finishing a fight. This in essence is the summation of American Sniper’s attitude to violence, and eludes to the violence in Iraq as being a justifiable retaliation (a potentially dangerously misinforming connection of the invasion of Iraq to 9/11.)

Kyle embodies the impulsive and enterprising self-confidence rewarded under neoliberal individualism. On several occasions in the film, he instinctively recognises the correct course of action, even breaking rank in order to follow his intuition. The pinnacled climax, in which Kyle finally kills his nemesis Mustafa, is one such occasion. Kyle is repeatedly told to hold fire so as not to give away their position, under the commanding officer’s assurance that the distance between Kyle and Mustafa would render it an impossible shot. Kyle, however, is confident of his gifted marksmanship and takes the shot anyway, to great success. His character further displays the resilience desired in a prosperous neoliberal subject, an ability to speedily re-cooperate which negates any danger of dependence on anyone or establishment other than the self. This is illustrated in his ability to return immediately to the battlefield moments after his close friend ‘Biggles’ is shot, and his lackadaisical attitude to his girlfriend’s infidelity and their consequential breakup early in the film.

 

Neoliberal Women and Feminism in Zero Dark Thirty

 

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was widely commended for its depiction of a dynamic female CIA agent accountable for arguably one of the greatest U.S. military victories in post-9/11 conflict. Some have even hailed the production a ‘feminist epic’—a claim that typifies current assumptions of female representation being the centrally significant issue of the feminist struggle, over endeavours for redistribution of power.[4] Aspirations for female representation over redistribution are commonly understood as a prerogative of post-feminism, arguably defined as a neoliberalised feminism.[5] Zero Dark Thirty provides exemplification of the current trend of appropriating feminist rhetoric to provide credibility to the contemporary military agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty’s gender representations within its central character, Maya, largely comply with the postfeminist ideal. She epitomises individualism, manifesting as a deeply driven ‘lone wolf’ character that is utterly devoted to her career. She is single-mindedly motivated to ensure the death of Bin Laden, which becomes an individually driven pursuit as her superiors move on to more imminently demanding issues of national security. This crusade eventually comes to fruition with Maya reaping the rewards of her dedicated individual labour, through the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the navy SEALS under her direction. Early in the film, Maya is complimentarily referred to as a ‘killer’ in her field. As men primarily dominate this field of expertise, this statement resonates as an empowering accomplishment for her as a woman, but the violence of the term ‘killer’ provides potential insight to her success as a consequence of adopting traditionally masculine traits. Her aggressive ambition and quickly learned immunity to brutal violence align her with conventionally understood aspects of the ‘alpha male’. This encouraged female adaption to a more masculinised archetype in order to succeed in the workplace is a negation of foundational aspects of the feminist struggle and is characteristic of post-feminism. Maya’s character exhibits the self-surveillance and regimented self-discipline expected of an efficient post-feminist woman. Her slender and well-groomed appearance confirm that however engrossed she is in her vocation, she is still attentive to her physical presentation. Throughout the film she maintains an emotionally restrained persona, only exhibiting an aggressively emotive response when her superiors impose obstacles to the fervent pursuit of her goal. She appears to be constantly monitoring her own behaviour, contrastingly highlighted next to the relaxed and natural demeanour of her male co-agent. Maya’s unswayable individualism and inherently capitalist temperament is confirmed through the competitive acquaintance between her and her fellow female CIA agent, Jessica. Their initial meeting is an icy exchange, which later develops into a guarded friendship. This lack of establishing a sense of sisterhood or even a natural friendship is testament to the postfeminist severance of the necessity for a socialised unification of women that was prevalent in second wave feminism.

 

Neutralising Violence and the Brutality of Torture in Zero Dark Thirty

 

The narrative of Zero Dark Thirty presents a confirmation of the constructive outcome of employing enhanced interrogation techniques (“EITs”, commonly known as torture.) The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the writer, Mark Boal, worked closely with the CIA to ensure a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden, leading many critics to decry it as pro-torture propaganda. Not only does the film provide justification for the military use of torture through the storyline, it further nullifies the brutality of the violence depicted through specific methods of camera work and structural form that increase viewer identification with the perpetrators of the violence and dampen the impact of its cruelty.

The entire film is shot with a minimum of four cameras for each scene, allowing the final product to provide a fully immersive exposure of the viewer to the characters, narrative, and location. Each scene cuts relatively quickly amongst the differing angles of the various cameras, with one camera delivering an active, seemingly handheld perspective. This shot appears almost as POV and forms an informal viewpoint that provides a subjective platform for the viewer. The resulting mode of experiential presentation strengthens viewer empathy with characters and gives the viewer a sense of their own personal presence within the narrative. This method acts as an effective vehicle to fortify the validation of state-sanctioned violence that is established in the plot through the spectator’s enhanced feeling of camaraderie with the characters performing the violence.

The diluted effect of the violence depicted in the film’s early displays of torture can further be contributed to discerningly utilised camera work. The scenes mostly deliver abstracted images of the imposed brutality—an example of another advantageous employment of the active, handheld camera perspective. The constant transition between the camera angles also provides a manipulating distraction from events unfolding within the narrative and ensures they don’t always stay in shot. In the opening scene, in which the detainee is water-boarded, there are frequent cuts to the shot of Maya as the passive witness. These interruptions in the representation of the torture mitigate the director’s claim of a ‘realistic’ and ‘unbiased’ exploration of the use of EITs in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

 

The Globalised Impact of American Cinema

 

The Act of Killing provides testimony to the globalised influence of the passively consumed American cinema, detailed in the previous section, and the impact of cultural imperialism both through its filmic structure and its narrative political content. The premise of the film encompasses a selection of perpetrators to re-enact their involvement in the killings, through performative conformation to the American movie genres that they adulated. This construct establishes a surreal reflective critique as the killers talk about learned killing techniques from these American films that they then feedback into re-enacted imitations adhering to those specific genre conventions. The idolised violent heroics portrayed in the Hollywood films they admire act as reconfirmation of their own heroism. This can be exemplified in the previous study of American Sniper, Kyle being celebrated for his abundance of valiant assassinations as they were all justifiable kills due to the victims’ undeniable status of ‘bad guys’. The Indonesian perpetrators are similarly convinced of the undoubtedly villainous nature of the ‘communists’ they killed, thus they are heroes worthy of filmic commemoration also.

The Act of Killing utilises a self-reflective employment of screens throughout the production which act as a visual exposition of the critical historical and current involvement of film within the events depicted.[6] Throughout the production there are scenes of Anwar re-watching the re-enactments on a television set. This provides an opportunity for objective viewing of his actions, but yields little emotional response. The distancing and de-contextualising impact of screen-delivered images is highlighted in a scene that features the main character’s participation on a National television talk-show. The sequence cuts between formats, altering the perception of the viewer. Some frames are from the talk-show production itself, implicating the spectator in the position of a member of the Indonesian public watching the show on their televisions. Other shots return to the cinematic format of the film, which depicts the interview taking place and the studio cameras capturing the action. The most interesting frames refer to the previously mentioned method of featuring the images on a television screen within the frame.  One instance of this method that is particularly provocative features many different small screens depicting the image of Anwar as he talks on the show, as the footage is viewed by the programme operators. The shot zooms in a small screen showing a black and white image of Anwar as he speaks with the host, and a larger coloured screen with the same image. The visual impact of the dual television screens provides a comparable image of Anwar, perceivably far more sinister in the small black and white screen than on the larger, coloured screen. This comparative framing of the differently formatted images is resonant of the previously shown extracts of the anti-Communist government propaganda film that was essential viewing for all school-aged children and portrays the evil deeds of the communists in the same effectively vilifying black and white. The shot illustrates the power of framing in altering content and further alludes to the thematic considerations of time central to both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The viewer apprehends the same image of Anwar in the antiquated format of black and white and again in modernised full colour, thus referencing past and present and highlighting that although many decades have elapsed since the genocide, neither Anwar nor his rhetoric have altered.

 

Neoliberal associations with Psychopathy

 

The central characters in The Act of Killing illustrate not only the neoliberal ideological impact on personality development, but also, critically, the personality traits rewarded under such conditions. The gangsters and paramilitary personnel that perpetrated the genocidal killings in the mid-60s are shown to have risen to positions of political and economic power due to their active role in the massacres. As this was a western-backed coup d’etat with neo-imperial motivations, those who helped facilitate the overthrow were rewarded capital power in the newly established highly corporate and international-business-friendly state. The characters in the film exhibit the psychopathic features that excel under neoliberal regimes—traits that are comparable to the desirable modern attributes of successful corporations and businesses.[7] The cut-throat emphasised individualism that propels a successful neoliberal subject has habitual connotations to psychopathic behaviours that are exhibited strongly in nearly all the characters featured in The Act of Killing, although analysis will be streamlined to focus on the characters of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Anwar Congo provides the foundational character in the film and is responsible for directing the narrative production that re-enacts the differing methods of killing under various Hollywood genre conventions. The arc of the film follows his journey of altering moral awareness, from the unrepentant pride of his direct role in the killings to his seemingly empathetic epiphany. This is highlighted in a scene near the beginning of the film in which he dances the cha-cha on the rooftop where he used to kill ‘communists’—a post re-enactment of his murderous actions. This location is then revisited at the very end of the film, where this time Anwar violently retches as he describes again his killing of ‘humans’. It can be argued that Anwar Congo is representative of learned psychopathic behaviour, perpetrating violence and brutality that was continuously rewarded with the implementation of the new regime and therefore never explicitly considering the implications of his actions. Throughout the film it is evident that Anwar is lacking in any form of self-awareness; his inability to grasp the situation is frustratingly highlighted formally, with punctuations in the film of Oppenheimer playing back the footage of the re-enactments for him. The viewer is able to watch Anwar’s reaction to the footage—often frowningly studious—which alludes to a potential moment of realisation, only for it to conclude with a voiced disapproval of his clothing or inauthentic acting. In the film, he confesses to being plagued by nightmares, even dedicating a scene in the re-enacted production to his night terrors, but he doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth to fully understand the cause. Anwar’s unadulterated conviction in his behaviour during the genocide is arguably the result of his ability to deflect responsibility by imitating some of his favourite on-screen gangsters and military heroes, illustrated in his learning of some basic empathy through the same filmic language.[8] In this line of reasoning it is feasible that Anwar learned these desensitised, psychopathic traits as a survival tool which he has continued to manifest through its beneficial recompense in the proceeding administration.

Adi Zulkadry appears a third of the way through the film and features in the narrative re-enactments of the killings. A character analysis of Adi beneficially provides comparative understanding of Anwar’s potentially ‘learned’ psychopathy through establishing Adi’s inherent and firm character correspondence to traits understood to be undeniably psychopathic. Adi exhibits a clear understanding of the immorality of the ‘65–‘66 genocide. At one point during a re-enactment he attempts to coach his fellow perpetrators: “Listen, if we succeed in making this film it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were the cruel ones…it’s not about fear, it’s about image. The whole society will say…they lied about the communists being cruel.” His intellectual capacity seems to be greater than that of Anwar in his ability to perceive the moral injustice of his actions and understanding of how this film will be perceived. This awareness fortifies the fact that he possesses the psychopathic ability to feel no remorse or empathy; this is further highlighted in a scene in which Adi and Oppenheimer are talking in a car. Oppenhiemer clarifies that under the Geneva Convention the Indonesian genocide is definitively classified as war crimes. Adi defensively replies that the definitions of right and wrong in war are susceptible to change, further arguing that war and mass killing is just part of the organic behaviour of people and always has been. This talent for intellectually manipulating concepts of justice to comply with his own individual agenda is a further example of psychopathic behaviour.

 

Active Spectator Participation in Artist Moving Image

 

Passive consumption of the moving image and the inactive spectator participation encouraged by mainstream cinema maintains film as the definition of a capitalist ‘product’. The emancipation of both film and the viewer from the capitalised process of production and mass consumption is arguably exemplified in artist moving-image works that endeavour to actively engage viewers, thus ensuring the film is realised through the mutual labour of both filmmaker and spectator-turned-producer.[9] This collaborative intellectual provocation of active spectatorship counteracts the neoliberal influence within mainstream and Hollywood cinema, detailed previously. Instigating active engagement with moving-image works can be achieved through formal considerations in both the moving-image work and the environment in which a viewer is exposed to the work. These constructive modes of deliverance are demonstrated in the works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, illustrated through formal analysis of Serious Games I–IV and Images of the World and the Inscription of War.

Serious Games comprises four moving-image installations, each detailing varying facets of the interrelationship between video game technology and the military. The installation is intended to be spatially experienced, allowing an immersive and participatory active engagement with the work and space, in direct contention with the virtual and video game technology depicted in its content. This environmental encouragement of movement ensures the spectator maintains a level of corporeal awareness whilst engaging with the moving-image works, which arguably functions as a form of Brechtian distanciation.[10] The spectators’ autonomous engagement with both the form and content of the installation provides a platform for an individuated apprehension of the work. This self-determining perception of the work further develops the installation to be experientially comparable to an expanded model of ‘montage’ and undoubtedly exceeds the limitations of a singular work in ensuring the participatory role of the viewer. The coupling of images in this manner is a technique Farocki described as ‘soft montage’; it allows the spectator to develop and question ongoing associations, informing “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.”[11] The impact of the ‘soft montage’ requires the spectator to assimilate the images and engage in a process of spatial editing, implicating the viewer as collaborative producer.

The activating method of montage is evident in the majority of Farocki’s work, including his seminal film essay Images of the World and the Inscription of War. This single screen work utilises a more conventional linear mode of montage, reminiscent of early montage methods employed by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, using cut up and re-appropriated archival images delivered through a thematic and rhythmically repetitive image track. This technique provokes the viewer to infer significance from between the images and successfully nullifies the potential didacticism associated with political film or the documentary genre. The laboured viewing required of the spectator in Images of the World encourages a broader contextual consideration of the images.[12] Another process utilised to certify spectator engagement with Images of the World is in the soundtrack, featuring a neutral female voice over. The objectivity of the narration negates the possibility of emotive manipulation of the viewer when apprehending the images, instead behaving symbiotically with the images to inspire a greater degree of autonomously produced questioning in the viewer.

 

Using the Form of the Moving Image to Deconstruct the Relationship of War and Images

 

In ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Getino and Solanas call for revolutionary filmmaking to harness the communicative power of the moving image in order to counteract the “culturally penetrative” neo-colonial and consumerist films generated by the ‘System’.[13] This form of filmmaking would mobilise the spectators into being the reactionary, active citizens necessary to implement radical changes and a self-determining culture of the people, in contrast to the oppressive, neo-imperial culture of capitalism that caters solely to the ruling classes. This mode of revolutionary filmmaking is embodied in the works of Farocki. His moving image critiques on the increasingly dominating role of technology in contemporary society—importantly in the modern theatre of war—provide a vital self-reflexive filmic discourse. Through transitions in the formal deliverance and content of his work, Farocki’s development as a filmmaker and artist have reflected and symbiotically evolved with the technologies he scrutinised. His introspective and deconstructive examinations of image-making technology in contemporary warfare are centrally thematic to Images of the World and Serious Games I: Watson is Down. Analysis of these works will provide insights to the advancements of these technologies within the timeframe of each work and the effectiveness of artist moving image in intellectually disseminating the medium’s role in modern warfare.

Images of War utilises found photographs and documentary footage articulated into a film essay that references issues of aesthetics, visuality, and deception in the context of postmodern warfare. Farocki focuses on contemporary warfare’s fundamental endeavour to omnipotently see all, whilst simultaneously remaining hidden. It questions the problematic role of images in the theatre of war—centrally photography—and the implications of the techno-surrogate perception of the lens in terms of framing, perception, and context. Farocki utilises reoccurring motifs and sequences in the form of montage, frequently revisiting images and contextually rearranging them, thus highlighting the ease of altering the content of an image through reframing. A sequence that features repetitively in the film depicts photographs of Berber woman from Algeria, unveiled in order to photographically document their full appearance for the purpose of identity cards. When introduced to the full frame images of the women, the viewers are informed that only at home and with close family would they normally be without their veil. This implies the questionable veracity of an image portraying an already reframed facial identity of the photographed subject. As this sequence is revisited later in the film, the viewer is exposed to the same images of the women, albeit from the pages of a photography book as it’s flipped through by an on-screen reader. This alteration of context converts the content of the images, reframed once more from an operational image purposed for surveillance to a commodified image of pleasure. When the photographs reappear later in the film they are reconstructed once again, this time reframed by the hands of the on-screen reader, who alternates between covering the eyes and the mouths. As he covers the mouths of the women, only their eyes are visible, therefore revealing a more accurate portrayal of the real-life appearance of the woman through replicating what would be visible when veiled. This layered study of image de-contextualisation and restructuring highlights the deceptive nature of photography and imaging technologies.

As the military interrelation with image-based technologies has intensified and rapidly advanced, the functional capacity of these technologies has broadened. The participatory virtual worlds now utilised by the military for both training and rehabilitation purposes are the subject of Farocki’s multi-screen video installation Serious Games I–IV. In these works, Farocki explores how these immersive techniques potentially blur the spectator–participants’ distinction between fiction and reality and further the relationship of their physical body with the computer-generated images. The participant is neurologically receptive to video game imagery in a far more penetrable manner than of images perceived in films and photographs.[14] This ability to control the conscious level of comprehension of a soldier is beneficial in ensuring a highly effective desensitisation, dehumanisation of the enemy, and subconscious response in the field. This is highlighted in the first work of the series, Serious Games I: Watson is Down, a split screen installation showing an army unit involved with a video game purposed for training. Although the split screen images alternate and cut between images in conformation of the ‘soft montage’ method, they predominately subscribe to a format of one channel presenting the video game as it is played, while the other is fixed on the soldiers as they are playing. This assimilation of images—correlated with the language used by the soldiers—underscores the video game’s deconstruction of bodily and conscious separation from the on-screen virtual world. The soldiers converse with one another and refer to their avatar characters on-screen as ‘you’ and ‘I’. This hyper-subjective connection with the game is provocatively contrasted with the encouraged objective viewing of the spectator through Farocki’s activating use of both soft and spatial montage. As a soldier states “Watson just got killed”, we simultaneously see the computer-generated Watson fall from the tank and be left behind as the tank drives away and the real-life Watson lean back in his seat with a defeated sigh.

 

Conclusion

 

The research in this dissertation concludes that the most potent impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare is the augmentation of its societally manipulative function. Through promotive representation of ideals that perpetuate the neoliberal agenda, such as attaching false morality to military campaigns or valorising particular character traits and gender subscriptions, the moving image is a vital tool in maintaining a weak, fragmented and conformable society. This is reinforced with the encouraged consumerism of the neoliberal era, which manifests in an abundance of personal screen-based possessions that maximise exposure and alter engagement with the moving image. Oversaturation of information and images of war and violence ultimately normalise the suffering of others through establishing a desensitised society.[15]  Persistent exposure to these images preserves the perception of constant, unstoppable war, which leads to a dangerous apathy. The influence of the internet and the democratisation of image-making technology has led to a multitude of platforms to access informative content and beneficially communicative moving image, but this inundation of information exacerbates distractibility and obscures qualifiable veracity. The distancing effect of perceiving images of war and violence on screens has enhanced alienation and decreased empathy with the civilians on the receiving end of the military aggressions of the Western powers. The separating effect of the screen, combined with the effective ‘Otherising’ in largely circulated productions such as American Sniper, sustains indifference to the suffering of those fictionally perceived as enemies. This perpetuates the neo-imperial north–south divide that is maintained by the cyclical relation of neoliberal globalisation and the hugely funded technologically advanced weaponry of the wealthy Western nations.

As distinction between government, business, and industry has dissipated into a multi-corporate, neoliberal miasma, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the invested motivations of moving images in any given context. Artist moving image is not immune to prejudiced funding through gallery ownerships and private cultural funding bodies that boast corporate and political affiliations. With neoliberal privatisation, more and more aspects of society are becoming corporately sponsored, from the images and information consumed daily to educational establishments and hospitals. This fully penetrative impact of neoliberalism has arguably lead to a self-fulfilling, cyclical momentum of the applied ideology facilitated by the power of the image, comparable to the notions in Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’: “for what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, the formations agenda…the spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire globe, basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory.”[16]

 

References

 

Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005).

Boddy, Clive et al, ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books) (1994).

Elsaesser, Thomas, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2004).

Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press)(2015).

Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998).

Fraser, Nancy , Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013).

Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71).

Gill, Rosalind, ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007).

Halle, Randall, ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001).

Kapur, Jyotsna & Wagner, Keith B. Ed, Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critique, (New York: London: Routledge) (2011).

Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007).

Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

Oppenheimer, Joshua & Ten Brink, Joram ed., Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2012).

Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009).

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003).

Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014).

 

Filmography

 

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014).

Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (Harun Farocki, 1989).

Serious Games I-IV (Harun Farocki, 2010).

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2012).

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2014).

Zero Dark Thirty, (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).

 

 

[1] Kapur & Wagner, p.23.

[2]  Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014) p.82.

[3] Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005) pp.101-102.

[4] Fraser, Nancy, Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013) Part II, 6.

[5] Gill, Rosalind. ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007) pp.147 – 166.

[6] Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007) p.46.

[7] Boddy, Clive et al. ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

[8] Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

[9] Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009) p.66.

[10] Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2015) p.146.

[11] Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998) p.142.

[12] Halle, Randall. ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001) p.55.

[13] Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando. ‘ Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71) p.1.

[14]  Väliaho, p.41.

[15] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003) p.84.

[16] Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books) (1994) p.6.

 

 

The Concept of War without Casualties: The Influence of the American Taboo of Death on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

Kaja Łuczyńska

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 37-49.

 

Kaja Łuczyńska

Jagiellonian University

 

The Concept of War without Casualties:

The Influence of the American Taboo of Death

on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

 

 

Abstract

The article focuses on the paradoxical phenomenon of modern war and attempts to bring together the two absolutely opposite approaches of trying to be successful and victorious whilst also being completely non-lethal. As the author emphasizes, this problem is very much related to the general modern attitude towards death, which has been almost eradicated from everyday life. It has become shameful, forbidden, private and seemingly non-existent. Therefore, modern war could not gain public support if it did not try to adapt to this general tendency. The article presents ways that are used nowadays to obtain public endorsement for military conflicts and examines phenomena such as casualty aversion, body-bag syndrome, and non-lethal weapons. It also relates all these elements to the wide-spread problem of terrorism, which completely contradicts the modern urge to eradicate death from everyday life.

Key words: death, war, casualty aversion, terrorism, 9/11

 

Introduction

 

War means violence and death. But does it really? In the film Eye in the Sky (2015), directed by Gavin Hood, Helen Mirren plays the role of a UK military intelligence officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, who is hunting down a group of terrorists who are currently hiding in Kenya. Using drones and high-tech military equipment, her team manages to locate the criminals and can, at any moment, assassinate them using precise bombing. However, there is an obstacle—a young girl appears near the target area and would likely be killed in an attack. The team has to go through the entire chain of command and make sure that they are still authorized to conduct the strike, which is getting more and more essential as the terrorists are preparing for a suicide attack in a village nearby. Things get more and more complicated. One of the British officials sums it up accurately: “Frankly, politically I’d rather point to Al-Shabaab[1] as murderers of 80 people shopping than have to defend a drone attack by our forces that kills an innocent child”.

The situation described above has also another less direct meaning. The urge to eradicate mortality from the public sphere is the widespread desire of many modern communities and it also entails areas traditionally associated with violence and death. As will be shown in this paper, this paradoxical desire is doomed to fail, partially because of the violent phenomenon of suicide terrorism that will be described later, based on the unprecedented events of 11 September 2001.

 

The Eradication of Death

 

It would be safe to say that death is no longer a part of contemporary life. Such exclusion is a part of a bigger phenomenon that is wide-spread in modern countries and might derive from profound changes which have been gradually occurring since the second half of 20th century. Medical development and living standards have minimized people’s direct contact with death and altered it in many ways. According to Gary Laderman, the author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America”, these changes, called the “mortality revolution”, started in the USA in the early twentieth century:

Life expectancy, infant mortality, cause of death – these and other variables in morality tables all point to the same conclusion: the presence of death in the early decades of the twentieth century looked quite different than any other period of American history. There are a variety of explanations for these dramatic changes in demographic patterns, with most focusing on breakthroughs in medical sciences and technologies, improvements in sanitation and personal hygiene, effective public health reforms, and healthier eating habits. While the repercussions of these social transformations have been analyzed from a number of perspectives, one of the most common observations is that a completely new kind of relationship with the dead emerged in the early decades of the century. [2]

This new place of death in our daily lives has become one of the main topics of death studies, also known as thanatology. Many researchers from that area are interested not in the death rituals of indigenous people that have preoccupied anthropologists for many years, but the reactions to death displayed by members of modern, often secularized societies. Apparently, modern communities also strive to deal with this imminent element of everybody’s life and even medical development and higher life expectancy does not solve this issue entirely. There is a general tendency to try to get rid of death and move it away from the public eye. This evolution of our attitude toward death has been very well described by Philippe Ariès in his work “Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present”. According to this French historian, although our “attitude toward death may appear almost static over very long periods of time (…); changes occur, usually slow and unnoticed changes, but sometimes, as today, more rapid and perceptible ones”.[3] A lot has definitely changed since the time when death was a public ceremony, “a ritual organized by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol”.[4] Nowadays, “death, so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden”.[5] Although efforts to get rid of death from public discourse may seem ineffectual, modern societies such as the USA still try to eradicate it from every aspect of everyday life.

 

A Convincing War

 

It is safe to say that military conflicts are a standard element of human activities through the ages. The famous Prussian general and military theorist Claus von Clausewitz believed that war was an “eternal human social phenomenon”[6]. In his book, he also added that:

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.[7]

Surely Clausewitz would be surprised by the contemporary image of modern war. When describing it, it is important to emphasize that when talking about war every word counts and even the term “war” is no longer acceptable—at least in the classic sense, because there have been quite a lot of unconventional wars, especially aimed at narcotics (“War on Drugs”). In the case of military conflicts, the term has been substituted by more subtle equivalents, such as “humanitarian intervention” or “stabilization mission” (both anchored in UN laws[8]). The same method is used in the case of torture, which that is absolutely unacceptable unless named differently. Michael L. Gross, the author of “Moral Dilemmas of Modern War”, gives following examples of such practices:

Thus, torture morphs into “moderate physical pressure,” assassination becomes “targeted killing” and civilian bombing is defensible when directed against “associated” civilian targets, that is, civilians who take some part in the fighting and who bear a measure of responsibility for armed conflict.[9]

However, ideals and sublime phrases are not always enough. Society is also very sensitive when it comes to casualties and the public opinion’s role is crucial in the case of wars conducted by the USA:

public opinion became a key factor in all three wars [Korea, Vietnam, Iraq], and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes[10].

What then can be done to gain people’s support? There are two basic approaches: creation of an alluring and exhilarating rhetoric around the conflict or accommodation of the image of the modern war to people’s expectations. As shall be shown below, both strategies are being used nowadays.

 

Undoubtedly, people are torn because of their attempts to reconcile the need to conduct military conflicts in certain cases and their aversion toward casualties and death in general.[11] War is a tremendous challenge to their morality and sense of justice. Fortunately, politicians and military commanders are striving to disburden them from those efforts. Every war needs a persuasive narration built around it which is strong enough to persuade people that the risk is worth taking. In 1955, Edward M. Collins wrote that:

Democratic nations can enter wars only when public opinion favors this course, since democracies are by definition and in fact responsive to public opinion coherently expressed. (…) This appears also to be the case with the British population, although it is perhaps less true of the British than of the United States. Both these populations, however, are influenced by a number of idealistic, abstract ideas regarding good and evil, fair and foul, and the virtues of their form of government in contrast to that of other countries. It is usually on the basis of these stereotyped concepts, rather than on the actual concrete issues involved, that they can be most effectively motivated toward war, and it is most often to these images rather than to reason and judgment that the press and other media and political leaders appeal in seeking to lead public opinion toward war.[12]

These “idealistic, abstract ideas” which convince people to accept a certain military conflict might not be commonly acknowledged as “propaganda”, but they work in a similar way. In “Propaganda and Persuasion”, Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell define propaganda as: “(…) the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”.[13] All these features can be found in the rhetoric built around recent military conflicts, such as The Iraq War (2003–2011). George W. Bush Jr. and his administration have put great effort into persuading Americans that the Iraq invasion was not motivated by an urge to gain control over important oil deposits, but rather by a general sense of justice and a desire to help an oppressed nation.

According to Murray Edelman, a political scientist and the author of “Politics as Symbolic Action”, public opinion needs guidance—someone who would explain the complex reality, especially during challenging times.[14] After 11th September 2001, national confusion in the USA increased to a hitherto unknown level. This confusion was very rapidly transformed into a need to act, to take revenge for the horrifying destruction. This transformation was accomplished by the well-aimed rhetoric of politicians, especially George W. Bush Jr. In one of his most famous speeches (the State of the Union address delivered in 2002), Bush asserted:

Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.  The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.  This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens—leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.  By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.  They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.  They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.[15]

The brilliant expression “the axis of evil” reminded people of Ronald Reagan’s term “the evil empire”[16] and thus became one of the most symbolic terms of Bush’s War on Terror. As New York Times journalist Elisabeth Bumiller wrote:

Nobody ever remembers much from State of the Union speeches, but one thing they do remember is the “axis of evil” formulation that President Bush brandished in last year’s address to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Like Ronald Reagan’s description of the former Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, the axis of evil is a leitmotif that will follow Mr. Bush beyond his presidency.[17]

 

A War without Casualties

 

They are many ways in which the USA tries to accommodate the image of the modern war to people’s expectations. One way is taking into consideration the phenomenon of “casualty aversion”—public unwillingness to accept casualties in military conflicts. This controversial idea is described by many as a pure myth. This is an opinion shared for example by Lieutenant Colonel Richard A. Lacquement, Jr., who states in the first words of his paper:

There is no intrinsic, uncritical casualty aversion among the American public that limits the use of U.S. armed forces. There is a wide range of policy objectives on behalf of which the public is prepared to accept American casualties as a cost of success. Squeamishness about even a few casualties for all but the most important national causes is a myth. Nonetheless, it is a myth that persists as widely accepted conventional wisdom.[18]

Myth or not, the idea of “casualty aversion” definitely shapes the way modern wars are depicted. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, The American Army used the body count as its dominant indicator of strategic assessment. It has since become the index of progress and the measure of success in anomalous wars “without front lines and territorial objective”.[19] Wars nowadays are very different. They should have a specific goal, be limited and preferably be a kind of a “military intervention”: short, successful, and using precise high-tech technology. A role-model for this kind of military conflict is the First Gulf War that took place between 1990 and 1991 and began with the attack and occupation of Kuwait by The Iraqi Army. The media coverage of the war depicted it as technically advanced and precise. It was broadcast as a kind of pure fiction—a TV miniseries about war that looked almost like a perfectly prepared product, ready to be sold to public opinion.[20] In his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”, French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard even asked if that war really happened at all and determined it as a kind of a “simulacra”[21] and “madness”.

The idea of a clean war, like that of a clean bomb or an intelligent missile, this whole war conceived as a technological extrapolation of the brain is a sure sign of madness. It is like those characters in Hieronymus Bosch with a glass bell or a soap bubble around their head as a sign of their mental debility. A war enclosed in a glass coffin, like Snow White, purged of any carnal contamination or warrior’s passion. A clean war which ends up in an oil slick.[22]

The idea of “casualty aversion” has also shaped popular culture and has become an inspiration for many films. A popular slogan: “Leave no man behind” influenced the plots of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos), Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito), Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore), Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl), Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore), and Lone Survivor (2013, Peter Berg). What is more, the searches for soldiers lost in action, such as Pvt. Jessica Lynch[23], were media events watched by millions that had enormous potential to build morale. The aversion toward casualties in the US Army and the unimaginable power of the images of dead American soldiers was especially visible in case of the story told by Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down. The film was based on the events of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992–93), which was terminated after the broadcasting of certain disturbing images:

Retrospectively, the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia has been widely understood to have been caused by the public response and subsequent pressure to withdraw following the publication of negative representations of the conflict by the media. This public pressure is claimed to have influenced members of Congress who subsequently forced an early withdrawal. The event which culminated in congressional pressure to cease operations in Somalia was the publication of images which depicted dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.[24]

The tragic events in Somalia affected US foreign policy for many years and were one of the reasons America has become very reluctant to risk casualties and reduced its involvement in many future conflicts. The so-called “body-bag syndrome” (or “body-bag effect”) that “describes a situation where the public is confronted with images of their dead soldiers and consequently asks the government to withdraw its forces from abroad”[25] has become an important factor in the decision-making process.

(…) any pressure to intervene with troops was always held in check by the fear of taking casualties, the so-called ‘body-bag effect’. To put this bluntly, policy makers, as much as they might feel compelled to respond to media pressure to ‘do something’ about a humanitarian crisis, were also aware that risking the lives of troops could ultimately backfire and generate negative media and public reaction when casualties were taken.[26]

The body-bag effect was noticed not only by media and the government, but also by the military itself, which gradually tried to adapt itself to the expectations of public opinion. This is precisely why they emphasize the use of non-lethal weapons (NLWs) in military conflicts—they help to keep the casualties on both sides to a minimum. These weapons use “optical and acoustic means, energy wave devices, and chemical agents to cause disorientation, discomfort, severe nausea, or temporary unconsciousness to incapacitate opposing forces and minimize collateral harm to non-combatants”[27]. NLWs either:

(…) repulse an enemy and thereby avoid direct encounters, others temporarily incapacitate an enemy so that the enemy can be overwhelmed and disarmed. In both cases, NLWs provide a force continuum, allowing a wide range of options between using high explosives and doing nothing. Properly deployed, nonlethal weaponry offers advanced military organizations the possibility of temporarily incapacitating enemy forces, controlling crowds, or conducting rescue missions without the need to endanger large numbers of noncombatants.[28]

Besides, all weapons nowadays emphasize the aspect of safety. In their thorough analysis of armament advertisements (“The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”), Niklas Schörnig and Alexander C. Lembcke point out that “weapon designers (…) have done an incredibly good job in protecting those who use these weapons in war and have reinforced this impression by actively promoting it via advertisement and lobbying.”[29] It is very clear that the aspect most commonly emphasized in those commercials is the safety of soldiers. For example, one of the ads quoted in the article (for the new Boeing X-45A) states “aircrews will no longer have to be put at risk to complete the most dangerous of missions” and promises “a more secure future for our country and the brave men and women who serve”[30]

 

The Opposite Usage: The Case of the 9/11 Attacks

 

Unfortunately, all the aforementioned means cannot eradicate tragedies which result in deaths of both civilians and officials. Sometimes the real fight moves from the battlefield to civilian areas and becomes a very asymmetric conflict. This is definitely the case of the current fight against terrorism that perpetually affects cities all around the world. “The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan are among the best-known recent examples of asymmetric warfare: conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies”, summarizes the RAND think tank on its official website.[31] But the 9/11 events were much more than just an example of asymmetric warfare: they were an unprecedented act that caused trauma for the whole nation. 9/11 was also an illustration of the change that occurred in terrorism itself:

9/11 brought about a fundamental change in the nature of terrorism (…), especially because these attacks seem too inherently entwined with 21st century technologies and media to compare easily to other instances of large-scale terror.[32]

It was a new face of terrorism that was not reluctant to use modern technologies and combine them with the biggest symbolic weapon of great power: suicidal death and disdain for life which is so different from the usual American avoidance of death—a contrast that definitely empowered the 9/11 attackers and enhanced their actions. As Jean Baudrillard stated in his famous essay “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

(…) the terrorists have ceased to commit suicide for no return; they are now bringing their own deaths to bear in an effective, offensive manner, in the service of an intuitive strategic insight which is quite simply a sense of the immense fragility of the opponent—a sense that a system which has arrived at its quasi-perfection can, by that very token, be ignited by the slightest spark. They have succeeded in turning their own deaths into an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death, a system whose ideal is an ideal of zero deaths. Every zero-death system is a zero-sum-game system. And all the means of deterrence and destruction can do nothing against an enemy who has already turned his death into a counterstrike weapon. ‘What does the American bombing matter? Our men are as eager to die as the Americans are to live!’ Hence the non-equivalence of the four thousand deaths inflicted at a stroke on a zero-death system. [33]

This kind of clash of value systems had already been seen before World War II, when another group powered by radical ideology sacrificed their lives in order to severely harm the enemy. The suicide attacks of Japanese Kamikaze pilots had a profound impact on the Allied soldiers[34], who could not understand these attackers’ behaviour, which was motivated by extreme dedication to the cause and the samurai bushido code that places honour before anything else. Suicide terrorism is “the most aggressive form of terrorism”[35] and does not expect the attacker to survive. As can be seen in the case of the events of 9/11 and more recent attacks, “suicide terrorists often seek simply to kill the largest number of people”[36] and at the same time create an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and constant danger. What is especially striking is the logic hidden behind these seemingly irrational attacks. “Even if many suicide attackers are irrational or fanatical, the leadership groups that recruit and direct them are not”[37] writes Robert A. Pape in his profound analysis “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”.

 

Conclusion

 

Cold calculation is probably the most shocking element of suicide terrorism. Both its originators and perpetrators are often aware of the symbolic power of their gestures, which stand in complete contrast to the American or even “western” mentality. Our constant attempts to eradicate death from the public sphere and everyday life peter away when faced with public acts of ideologically motivated suicide. When thinking about the influence of the 9/11 attacks and the trauma it caused for American society, it important to remember that the strength of the attacks was definitely stronger because of the explicit contrast between the two attitudes towards death described in this paper. The American people gathered around TV screens had to face imminent symbols of death and destruction and observe people trapped in the Twin Towers that chose to jump rather than die in the flames or collapse. Even though the media censored the traumatic images and did not show the bodies of the casualties, the American viewers were very drastically reminded of their mortality. Death, formerly excluded from everyday life, came back and called for attention.

The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and all the recent examples of suicide terrorism were aware that because human victims are seen as unacceptable in modern wars and death is a taboo topic in the every-day life of many countries, their acts would gain additional power and meaning. In a way, an attack on the whole new “western” way of life would come about. Obviously saying that a change of our attitude toward the phenomenon of death would scare off the terrorists and discourage them from conducting more violent acts is an inappropriate oversimplification. However, a more moderate approach toward death might be a positive influence on our everyday lives. Traumas and dramas might be smaller or even non-existent if we could find the right way to talk about the one and only imminent element of our lives: death.

 

References:

 

Ariès Philippe, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (1975).

Baudrillard Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (1994).

Baudrillard Jean, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1995).

Baudrillard Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, (London: Verso) (2002).

Bellamy Christopher, “War without Casualties”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/war-without-casualties-1323022.html, date accessed: 6 April 2017.

Bumiller Elisabeth, “White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase”, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/us/white-house-letter-axis-of-evil-first-birthday-for-a-famous-phrase.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

Chomsky Noam, 9-11, (New York: Seven Stories Press) (2001).

Clausewitz Carl von, On War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2007).

Collins Edward M., „Clausewitz and Democracy’s Modern Wars”, Military Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (1955).

Daileda Colin, „The Military History of ‘Leave No Man Behind’”, Mashable, http://mashable.com/2014/06/14/bowe-bergdahl-are-american-military-soldiers-ever-left-behind/#ehQa.pP_bGql, date accessed: 7 June 2017.

Danto Arthur C., „On Moral Codes and Modern War”, Social Research, vol. 45, no. 1 (1978).

Donn Katharina, A Poetics of Trauma After 9/11. Representing the Trauma in a Digitalized Present, (Oxon: Ruthledge) (2017).

Fershtman Chaim, Gneezy Uri, Hoffman Moshe, „Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable”, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, vol. 3, no. 2 (2011).

Foley Robert T., Griffin Stuart, McCarthey Helen, „Transformation in Contact: Learning the Lessons of Modern War”, International Affairs, vol. 87, no.2 (2011).

Galdorisi George, „Why We Leave No Man Behind”, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/opinion/galdorisi-leave-no-man-behind/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Gartner Scott Sigmund, Edson Myers Marissa, „Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3 (1995).

Gross Michael L., „Medicalized WEAPONS & Modern WAR”, The Hastings Center Report, vol. 40, no. 1 (2010).

Gross Michael L., Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2010).

Jowett Garth S., O’Donnell Victoria, Propaganda and Persuasion (London: SAGE) (2012).

Lacquement Richard A. Jr,  „The Casualty-Aversion Myth”, Naval War College Review, vol. LVII, no.1 (2004).

Laderman Gary, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2003).

Mack Andrew, „Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: the Politics of Asymmetric Conflict”, World Politics, vol. 27, no. 2 (1975).

McSweeney Daniel, „The CNN Effect and Somalia”, E-International Relations Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/08/11/the-cnn-effect-and-somalia/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Mral Brigitte, „The Rhetorical State of Alert before the Iraq War 2003”, Nordicom Review, no. 27 (2006).

Mueller John, „The Iraq Syndrome”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6 (2005).

Nlabu Sascha, „Body Bags without Effects”, The Heptagon Post, http://heptagonpost.com/Nlablu/Body_Bags_without_Effects, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Overton Iain, Dodd Henry, „A Short History of Suicide Bombing”, Action on Armed Violence, https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Palgi Phyllis, Abramovitch Henry, „Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 13 (1984).

Pape Robert A., „The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, vol. 97. no. 3 (2003).

Robinson Piers, „Media as a Driving Force in International Politics: The CNN Effect and Related Debates”, Global Policy, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/08/10/2013/media-driving-force-international-politics-cnn-effect-and-related-debates, date accessed:8 June 2017.

Schörnig Niklas, Lembcke Alexander C., „The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 50, no. 2 (2006).

Strachan Hew, „Essay and Reflection: On Total War and Modern War”, The International History Review, vol. 22, no. 2 (2000).

The White House, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

Voices Of Democracy, http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

 

Filmography:

 

Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore)

Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott)

Eye in the Sky (2015, Gavin Hood)

Lone Survivor (2013, Peter Berg)

Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)

The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl)

 

 

[1]  Jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa linked with Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

[2] Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2003), p. 2.

[3] Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (1975), p.1.

[4] Philippe Ariès, p. 11.

[5] Philippe Ariès, p. 85.

[6] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2007), p. ix.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz.

[8] Michael L. Gross, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2010), p. 11.

[9] Michael L. Gross, p. 4.

[10] John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6 (2005), p. 44.

[11] Michael L. Gross, p. 21.

[12] Edward M. Collins, „Clausewitz and Democracy’s Modern Wars”, Military Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (1955), p. 17.

[13] Garth S. Jowett, Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, (London: SAGE) (2012), p. 7.

[14] Brigitte Mral, “The Rhetorical State of Alert before the Iraq War 2003”, Nordicom Review, no. 27 (2006), p. 47.

[15] The White House, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[16] Voices Of Democracy, http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[17] Elisabeth Bumiller, “White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase”, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/us/white-house-letter-axis-of-evil-first-birthday-for-a-famous-phrase.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[18] Richard A. Lacquement Jr, „The Casualty-Aversion Myth”, Naval War College Review, vol. LVII, no.1 (2004).  p. 39.

[19] Scott Sigmund Gartner, Marissa Edson Myers, “Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3 (1995), p. 377.

[20] Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/O-W/Television-The-persian-gulf-war.html#b%23ixzz1uKXkqB1I, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[21] See: Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (1994).

[22] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1995), p. 43.

[23] Jessica Lynch was serving as a unit supply specialist was ambushed in Iraq on 23 March 2003 and seriously injured. She has become the first successful rescue of an American prisoner of war since War in Vietnam and the first ever of a woman.

[24] Daniel McSweeney, „The CNN Effect and Somalia”, E-International Relations Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/08/11/the-cnn-effect-and-somalia/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[25] Sascha Nlabu, „Body Bags without Effects”, The Heptagon Post, http://heptagonpost.com/Nlablu/Body_Bags_without_Effects, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[26] Piers Robinson, „Media as a Driving Force in International Politics: The CNN Effect and Related Debates”, Global Policy, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/08/10/2013/media-driving-force-international-politics-cnn-effect-and-related-debates, date accessed: 8 June 2017.

[27] Michael L. Gross, p.7.

[28] Michael L. Gross.

[29] Niklas Schörnig, Alexander C. Lembcke, „The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 50, no. 2 (2006), p. 206.

[30] Niklas Schörnig, Alexander C. Lembcke, p. 205.

[31] https://www.rand.org/topics/asymmetric-warfare.html, date accessed:8 June 2017.

[32] Katharina Donn, A Poetics of Trauma After 9/11. Representing the Trauma in a Digitalized Present, (Oxon: Ruthledge) (2017), p. 3.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, (London: Verso) (2002), p. 16.

[34] Iain Overton, Henry Dodd, „A Short History of Suicide Bombing”, Action on Armed Violence, https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[35] Robert A., Pape, „The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, vol. 97. no. 3 (2003). p. 345.

[36] Robert A., Pape.

[37] Robert A., Pape.

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 50-61.

 

Tatiana Prorokova

Philipps University of Marburg

 

Technology and the War on Terror:

Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

 

 

Abstract:

 

The War on Terror declared by the U.S. government after 9/11 resulted in the two most technologically equipped invasions the country has ever launched: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. American soldiers were provided with newly designed uniforms and weapons, with the best defensive armour and night-vision equipment, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and tanks. These enabled them to dominate the enemy technologically and guaranteed success in combat, minimizing the risk of injury and death among Americans. Film responded to these changes, playing with the issue of technology in war. In analysing Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker, which focuses on U.S. military actions in Iraq, and Favreau’s sci-fi Iron Man, which raises the problem of Afghan terrorists and thus implicitly deals with the Afghanistan War, this article looks over the role of technology in war and investigates the blurred boundaries between humanity and machinery in the era of technology. Additionally, the article examines Bay’s Transformers and its sequels to see whether war machines possess humanity.

 

Key words: The War on Terror, technology, machine, transhumanism

 

 

Introduction: Film and the War on Terror

 

The terrifying terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the consequences they entailed have made the opening of the twenty-first century frightening and disquieting for the whole world—specifically for the United States. The U.S. government’s War on Terror has resulted in multiple military operations, the longest of which are the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two wars in the Middle East can be considered a continuation of the long military history of the United States but, undoubtedly, they are especially noteworthy due to the novel techniques used in the conduct of warfare. The Afghanistan War and the Second Gulf War turned into the two most technologically advanced wars the United States has ever launched. Indeed, the variety and abundance of newly-designed uniforms, arms, equipment, gadgets, and vehicles strikes one’s imagination. The U.S. demonstrated its indisputable readiness to fight the enemy, thus avenging the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 9/11 and protecting the country’s foundational values of freedom and democracy. Whether these interventions were successful or worth it are complex questions, but one can say without demur that the United States counted on their soldiers’ obvious technological superiority over the enemy for the success of these military intrusions. As James S. Corum aptly puts it, “At the centre of modern U.S. military culture lies a belief in technological determinism: that technology is a central factor in warfare and that the country with the best technology is bound to win”; in terms of military planning, such an attitude is perhaps, as the scholar himself puts it, ‘wrong’.[1] Nevertheless, this idea vividly illustrates the so-called American cultural belief in the unconditional power of technology to guarantee unreserved superiority and dominance to its possessor.

American cinema is teeming with examples of this faith in technology—in its unlimited power and ability to defeat the enemy—no matter how strong, ruthless, and insidious that enemy may be. Whether one distinguishes between films about wars that actually took place and science-fiction films that depict endless fights between humanity and aliens, robots and monsters, or whether one considers the two genres together, taking war films in general as one broad media category, one can find multiple cinematic examples that appeared long before the War on Terror that deal with the issue of technology in war. There is obviously a long chain of sci-fi films: from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Additionally, Hollywood dwelled on the importance of technology in films about real wars, which became especially prominent from the era of the Vietnam War onward, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999).

Technology has become an integral part of war: the battlefield is no longer considered the territory of humans as machines have started to play a significant role there, too. The two recent interventions in the Middle East, however, have clearly foregrounded the leading role of technology that, in turn, explains the impulse of the cinema of the War on Terror which unites films about the two wars with the sci-fi films that were released in the era of the War on Terror and to various degrees either explicitly or implicitly reflects it, showing the grotesque capabilities of technology in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012), and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) constitute a cluster of films that celebrate the new warfare and the era of new military technology.

The reason for this overt interest in technology and its role in war that action films and war dramas demonstrate is stipulated by the transformed nature of war. The ‘new’ war of the twenty-first century is peculiar due to the existence of the so-called faceless enemy which has been an impossible target for the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. It is thus unsurprising that when dealing with the problem of the global war, cinema vehemently attempts to present possible solutions for winning the war and eradicating terrorism. What 9/11 films have explicitly demonstrated is that the enemy is so elusive and strong that to win the war U.S. soldiers have to be technologically transformed. In other words, humans can never win the war on their own—in the twenty-first century we particularly strongly need advanced technology. Advancing this idea, action, sci-fi, and war films challenge the concept of the human body, suggesting that the ‘normal’ body is no longer needed, for it is not capable of successfully performing a military task. While terrorists are portrayed, in some way, as ‘freaks’, which ‘assures spectators that terrorism can be overcome’,[2] positive characters frequently, literally or metaphorically appear as superheroes who have to ‘com[e] to terms with their abilities, powers and bodies.’[3] Andrew Schopp makes an interesting observation, claiming that 9/11 induced the belief that “risk must always be managed, even if at some level we know that such management is impossible”.[4] One, therefore, might argue that the new, technologically advanced soldier skilfully turns the ‘impossible’ mission into a real one and, what is even more important, an accomplishable task.

The cinema of the War on Terror thus proposes an intriguing shift that war demands: the transformation of human participants into machines. Being overtly transhuman in their nature, these films not only approve of ‘cyborgization’, i.e. the ‘process of changing a human into a cyborg’,[5] but they see it as the only option that is available for the military today. The demand for a so-called transhuman, i.e. ‘a being which due to technological augmentations boosts its body and mind abilities far beyond the standards’,[6] foregrounds the power of technology and sees it as the only means to win the War on Terror. Some more explicitly than others, the cinematic examples that this article analyses demonstrate a crucial shift in the image of a soldier/fighter, thus overtly commenting on the problem of humanity and machinery that exists in times of war. But most importantly, they question the ability of humans to defeat the enemy, celebrating the power of machines.

 

The Rise of Technology

 

When one talks about the predominance of technological progress in the twenty-first century, one should of course realize that technology appeared much earlier than in the time of the War on Terror. Significantly, starting from primitive technologies from the far past and finishing with the high technologies of today, technology has always given privileges to its owner, facilitating social, political, economic, and educational development. Thomas J. Misa draws attention to ‘the several technologically marked historical epochs, such as the Bronze Age . . . [and] the Iron Age’.[7] Indeed, technology emerged when the first metal tools were created and widely applied. With the lapse of time, technology was improved and refined to such an extent that it now defines the status of its possessor and dictates the order in the world both in terms of military and economic domination. Richard Li-Hua claims:

 

Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. Technology is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and in the creation of wealth and prosperity in developing countries, while technology is taken as an important vehicle to get large profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries, and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.[8]

 

Technology is therefore equated with power, and vice versa. Analysing Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Mark Lacy underscores a crucial observation made by the scholar:

 

Society is transformed by technologies that allow military leaders, police and policymakers to see the enemy before they arrive at the castle walls, before enemy ships arrive on the beaches, before the bombers arrive over our cities, before the terrorist arrives at the airport terminal.[9]

 

Daniel Sarewitz pinpoints the characteristic of technology as a manipulator and argues that “Power is the projection of human intent over other people, animals or things. Technology magnifies intent and makes it more reliable”.[10]

Yet, when considering the role of technology in war and its influence on modern warfare, it becomes clear that technology has stimulated progress on the battlefield, which allows one to define the war of the twenty-first century as a new, technologically advanced war that is more difficult to predict and at the same time easier yet harder to fight. Still, Sarewitz accentuates the ambivalence of the use of technology in war and the ultimate guarantee of superiority, accepting the idea of the ‘absolute supremacy in military technology’ of the U.S. as demonstrated in the Iraq War, but foregrounding the ambiguity of ‘the technology-power nexus’ and claiming that ‘the proximal objectives enabled by a technology—killing a soldier or destroying a building, for example—say little if anything about the power of that technology to facilitate broader outcomes, for example the compliance of one society to the will of another.’[11] Indeed, noticeable technological superiority on the battlefield may not and does not guarantee the same status in the political arena, yet it arguably plays in favour of the better-equipped side.

How does technology modernize war? Using the example of visual technology, Jose N. Vasquez contends that it ‘chang[es] the experience of war in dramatic ways’.[12] With the help of technology, soldiers are able to control the territory of the enemy and are more capable of protecting their own; they are able to fight at any time of the day and night, and they can reach the enemy from nearly every position—a feat which was hardly imaginable decades earlier. Vasquez speculates that “Conceptualized as ‘cyber warriors’, ‘cyborgs’, and ‘digital soldiers’, the futuristic war fighters once thought of as purely science fiction are gradually becoming reality”.[13] This fascinating observation prompts me to address the issues of humanity and machinery as well as their relations in the modern times of technology and war. Is the widespread dependence on technology in the army a sign of technological self-enslavement, and can this tendency be characterized by the assumption of Antoine Bousquet that the development and improvement of technology is “nothing less than an attempt to insulate the system from uncertainty by creating a perfectly controlled and perfectly stable . . . artificial world”?[14] Do soldiers turn into machines, thus becoming science-fiction superheroes in the real world? Can we speak about a phenomenon such as ‘human machines’ or does humanity remain important even in perhaps the most unattainable, unimaginable, equivocal, and savage state—in war?

 

Humans or Machines? The Hurt Locker and Iron Man

 

Who are the soldiers of the twenty-first century, humans or machines? And whose victory is ultimately expected? Film provides a detailed and fascinating overview of the issue. I would like to focus on Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, which deals with the actual war in Iraq and Favreau’s action film Iron Man, which touches upon the issue of the war in Afghanistan.

The opening scene of The Hurt Locker, which immerses the audience into the world of a technologically advanced war, is the most memorable. Spectators are forced to see the action through the eyes of a robot driving through a street in Baghdad. As the picture is distorted, we realize that it is not a soldier but a robot that provides the overview of the locality. The camera moves and reveals a unit of soldiers arriving and taking their positions and then returns to the robot, thus making it evident that the mechanical character is as important to the operation as the human soldiers. The picture is distorted several times more before the director reveals that the robot is operated by a soldier. With the help of the robot, the soldiers find out what kind of bomb is planted nearby, and therefore are able to plan their further actions. They fasten a small cart to the robot and send it back to the bomb but, dramatically, the cart breaks on its way, demonstrating the imperfection of technology, and a sapper has to continue carrying out the operation. The audience observes Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) being dressed in a special suit designed to protect him from the blast wave. The camera lingers for an instant and, as soon as the helmet is on and carefully fixed, the soldier is ready to perform the mission. The scene is fascinating as it arguably raises the issue of the human and robotic characteristics of the modern soldier. The suit makes him look rather unnatural, as if he himself is another technological innovation of the U.S. army. As he raises his head to see a helicopter, the audience is forced to see through his eyes and although the picture is not as heavily distorted as it was in the scene filmed through the robot’s camera, there is still something that disturbs our vision, i.e. the helmet’s transparent plastic visor; although the visor allows us to see everything, it makes the picture blurry enough to realize that we are looking though a barrier and there is a black frame around our field of vision. The soldier, therefore, represents a human being locked inside a technological product; he becomes part of that technology—a robot that breathes. What makes the ‘robot’ ultimately a human is his dramatized death as the bomb is activated by one of the locals. Trying to escape the fatal ending, the soldier runs as fast as the suit allows him, but he is finally caught by the blast wave. As he falls down in slow motion, spectators notice the transparent part of the helmet covered with blood from the inside.

The soldier is substituted by a new sapper, which is a rather regular case in the army as newcomers take the places of those who die. However, such a ‘conveyer belt’ system allows for another interpretation, namely that just as a robot, machine, or gadget can break down and then be substituted, so can a human being, with the crucial difference that unlike a technological product, a human-being cannot be repaired. There are multiple scenes in the film where a new sapper deactivates a bomb, but I would like to underscore their importance to our understanding of the issue of humanity and machinery. The changing scenes—from the normal human interaction to the transformation of a soldier into a sapper who visually resembles a robot—are disturbing. Additionally, they reveal the ambiguity of the main character’s (Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner) nature. His fearlessness and calmness that often resemble indifference elevate him beyond an average human-being, thus hinting at his supernatural or hi-tech abilities that will allow him to stay alive, no matter what happens. At the same time, his care for a local boy as well as the presence of his wife and baby at the end of the film show James as a rather conventional human who has feelings. The film’s ending, however, contradicts this characterization as we observe smiling James in a sapper’s suit walking towards his next mission in Iraq, which he has volunteered for. He therefore gives up his ‘human’ life, choosing one enabled by technology. Thus, Bigelow’s words that The Hurt Locker reveals “dehumanising and humanising aspects of war” can, indeed, be interpreted in terms of the war and its constituent parts’ (one of which is undoubtedly technology) ability to not only control but also suppress the human side, turning soldiers into machines, both psychologically and physically.[15]

The story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the main character of Iron Man, is somewhat reminiscent of the story of the sappers from The Hurt Locker. Considering the issue of the Afghanistan War and American participation in it, Iron Man is an apt example of an action film that explicitly deals with the duality of a war participant. Tony Stark, a wealthy businessman, creates an iron suit that he puts on every time the world is in danger. At the beginning, the film makes the story as plain as possible: there is a human-being inside of a highly technological, practically indestructible iron suit that accurately resembles the shape of a human body. Every time Tony communicates with somebody, he uncovers his face so that the audience is always aware that it is a human that interacts, takes decisions, argues, smiles, in short, performs all the actions that are typical of people. However, there is a nuance that is not to be neglected, namely that the suit is bonded to Tony (or is Tony bonded to the suit?) with the help of an electromagnet that was installed in Tony’s body when he was captured in Afghanistan, and later improved into a powerful reactor by Tony himself. What at first looks like Tony’s hobby later turns into an addiction that connects him and the suit so tightly that both the audience and Tony himself have difficulty distinguishing when Tony is a human and when he is a powerful superhero. Tony, whose high-tech weapons have guaranteed power and dominance to their possessors and fear to the ones at which they are targeted, now himself turns into such a high-tech weapon. Indeed, in the course of all the three parts of the film, Tony fights terrorists, criminals, and other bad guys, posing danger to them only when he is reincarnated as Iron Man.

In Iron Man 2, Tony goes as far as declaring: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one”.[16] Tony’s general condition, however, worsens as the suit negatively influences his health and it becomes clear that if Tony does not stop being Iron Man, he will simply die. The generator that is mounted right in his chest and that figuratively stands for the heart of Iron Man, is slowly killing Tony and, thus, Tony’s powerful second self. Therefore, the question of whether to remain as Iron Man or to return to ordinary life should be rather easy to settle in such a situation; Tony, however, tries to figure out a way to continue being a superhero. Although Tony’s human qualities (such as devotion, his desire to protect his dearest ones, his ability to love, his patriotism, and his decision not to speculate and purely gain profit from his arms business, but to care for the well-being others) construct Tony as a human superhero; his robotic side also gets a lot of attention. We often find him in his laboratory where he creates all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets and robots. The laboratory is literally the place where Tony feels at home, surrounded by all the iron constructions and creatures that communicate with him. Tony, therefore, is presented as someone who gets more and more involved in the world of technology, inevitably alienating himself from the world of humans.

Tony’s addiction to the iron suit strengthens in Iron Man 3, where virtually at the beginning of the film he feels a physical and emotional bond to it, suffering from ‘anxiety attacks’[17] any time he does not wear it and feeling comfortable and protected each time he is inside it. One can speculate that the reason for his fear of vulnerability is virtually a consequence of the events of The Avengers (2012), in which he was very nearly killed. Tony becomes even more involved in the world of machines that are, indeed, living creatures for him. Thus, we observe him placing the uncharged suit on the sofa in a way that he thinks the iron suit would find comfortable; showing compassion in the scene where a boy breaks off the suit’s finger, assuming that the suit can actually feel the pain. Tony stops sleeping, which represents his inconceivable physical endurance; he acknowledges that his suits are ‘part of’[18] him and, indeed, this is how he is finally perceived by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, although struggling to accept the technological self of her boyfriend, upon finding the helmet, holds it close to herself thinking of Tony, as she assumes this is the only bit of him left after the brutal fight.

The Iron Man trilogy, therefore, is an important work that raises the questions of machinery and humanity in war. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, it provides a radically different answer to the question: who wins? Tony Stark’s humanity apparently wins over the technological, mechanical self of Iron Man as, at the end of the third part, we observe Tony throwing his generator into the ocean, thus demonstrating his acceptance of humanity and rejection of the robotic side for good. The same happens to the U.S. army (that with Tony’s help became largely equipped with iron suits, turning into the most frightening army on the planet) when Tony takes the decision to liquidate all the robots that he created. Iron Man, therefore, makes a clear appeal to the audience: it is easy to fight against the enemy with the help of technology; however, it can also become our enemy as it deprives us of our humanity, turning us into machines that are not able to enjoy the privileges of human life.

 

Transformers: Humanity in Machines

 

Investigating the transformation of humans into machines, I inevitably address the opposite issue, namely whether machines in war can possess humanity. To examine the problem, I have chosen to analyse a recent series of films that are primarily concerned with machines, demonstrating the flourishing of the technological era and, as a result, of technological progress; the film series in question is Michael Bay’s Transformers and its sequels.

The four films released so far can and should be treated as one story of relations between robots and human-beings. The film’s most apparent message is that technology today is much cleverer, less biased, and somewhat more humane than humans themselves. The Autobots are arguably represented as the only truly good characters in the film (perhaps with the exception of a small group of people that includes Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his friends). Their reason for being on Earth is to protect the human race from the evil Decepticons. They exist as a small group of robots that resembles a family in which everyone is ready to help, protect, and care for each other. More than that, their desire to save people (who in the course of the film do not seem to be very thankful for this, preferring to exploit the robots rather than treat them as equals or accept their technological superiority) stands for the robots’ ability to feel love, devotion, responsibility, and compassion. There are a number of scenes in the film when, by means of contrasting a robot and a human, the director shows a tremendous difference between the two, accentuating humanity in robots and a certain inhumanity in a humans. For example, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we witness an Autobot pining because his friend Sam has to leave him to go to college, whereas later in the scene, Sam fails to say, ‘I love you’[19] to his girlfriend, which provokes a tense dialogue between the two. Thus, it is easier for a robot to express emotions rather than for a human.

All the robots in Transformers and its sequels represent a specific race—a race of ‘intelligent mechanical beings’[20], as they call themselves. Indeed, their intellect and thinking abilities are striking, but what is more fascinating is their uncanny resemblance to the human race. First, the robots look very similar to humans: they have a body, limbs, a head, and a face. The robots are not clumsy despite their huge size; when they fight, they can literally feel pain; when they get a punch in the face, they spit out liquid that looks very much like a mixture of blood and spit; as mentioned earlier, they can cry; they also can propagate, as we witness in a scene in which multiple cocoons are revealed; finally, robots grow old and suffer from typically human health problems. Their inner qualities are peculiar too: the robots are humanly superior, as unlike people they all possess moral qualities and very often are shown judging humans, making them behave and act better. “It’s inhumane is what it is!”[21] complains a robot that Sam locked outside in the rain. Indeed, according to Transformers, these are machines that possess humanity, whereas human beings do not.

This interpretation, however, may change dramatically if we consider Terence McSweeney’s suggestion that Transformers is a vivid projection of 9/11 in which the Decepticons stand for real terrorists.[22] In this case, the Autobots represent humans who fight against terrorists. But then it remains unclear who the real people in Transformers are. Therefore, I propose examining the film not as a pure metaphor of the world after 9/11, but in terms of its treatment of technological progress. In this case, the film sends a clear message that machines could develop into such highly intelligent creatures that they will become more perfect than humans in all aspects.

 

Conclusion: Humans. Or Machines?

 

In a time of high-tech wars, the question whether humanity and machinery have become equal or whether one prevails over the other remains a complex issue. Despina Kakoudaki interprets “the tendency to imagine the artificial body as a mechanical, rather than organic, entity” in terms of neutralization of ‘human vulnerability’.[23] Arguably, this is a pivotal aspect to consider when dealing with the issues of humanity and machinery. Vulnerability, or perhaps also victimization, therefore, are not to be treated as purely physical aspects (although they are, indeed, here); as The Hurt Locker, the Iron Man trilogy and the Transformers series illustrate, emotions are one of the most crucial characteristics that define humanity. Thus, those who can feel are considered humane whether or not they are humans or machines. Technological progress, indeed, changes humans. While technology develops into more and better products, humans transform as well. The complexity of the issue will hardly ever allow anybody to provide a single answer to the problem of humanity and machinery. The analysed cinematic examples, however, do not give up on the human race, but underline the difficulty of remaining true humans in the era of technology.

 

References

 

Bousquet Antoine, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009).

Corum James S., Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007).

Holden Lisa, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2016).

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2008).

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2010).

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) (2013).

Kakoudaki Despina, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014).

Lacy Mark, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Li-Hua Richard, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

McSweeney Terence, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014).

Michalczak Rafał, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012).

Misa Thomas J., “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Purse Lisa, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011).

Sarewitz Daniel, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Schopp Andrew, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing) (2009).

Tasker Ivonne, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015).

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, Summit Entertainment) (2008).

Transformers (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2007).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2009).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2011).

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay,Paramount Pictures) (2014).

Vasquez Jose N., “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books) (2009).

 

 

[1] James S. Corum, Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007). p. 117.

[2]Lisa Holden, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), p. 200.

[3] Ivonne Tasker, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015). p. 180. My italics.

[4] Andrew Schopp, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing, 2009), p. 261.

 

[5] Rafał Michalczak, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012), p. 2.

[6] Rafał Michalczak., p. 4.

[7] Thomas J. Misa, “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 9.

[8] Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

[9] Mark Lacy, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014), p. 79.

[10] Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 308.

[11] Daniel Sarewitz, pp. 309-310.

[12] Jose N. Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 87.

[13] Jose N. Vasquez, pp. 88-89.

[14] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009), p. 11.

[15] Quoted in Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011), p. 162.

[16] Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau).

[17] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[18] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[19] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay).

[20] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[21] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[22] Terence McSweeney, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014), p. 139.

[23] Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014), p. 69.

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 62-77.

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

 

 

The geeks have emerged in politics.
(Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society)

The feelings of vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and embarrassment that feed the hysterical reaction to hackers also lead to the fetishizing of hackers in popular culture.
(Tor Ekeland, Hacker Madness)

Abstract

 

Emerging controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph and the ongoing persona-non-grata status of Edward Snowden highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers used to be dualistically stereotyped on one hand as black hats, criminals and cyberpunk/cypherpunk hidden figures, and on the other as whistle-blowers, open access activists and hacktivists whose actions are potentially subversive. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics shows a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with grey eminence often depicted either as a threat, or as survivors. Hence, from WarGames (1983, John Bedham), TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) and Hackers (1995, Iain Softley) to The Fifth Estate (2013, Bill Condon), Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman) to Jason Bourne (2016, Paul Greengrass), hacking seems to have emerged as the avant-garde of militarized social space—as its main weapon and fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its receivers: a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates. Distrust in technology and underground experts is simultaneous with redemption narratives about disclosing corporate/state/elite conspiracies and is heavily influenced by current non-cinematic events. This paper is an examination of hackers’ cultural impact and their connection with tactical media through subversive actions. It becomes essential to decode their manipulated or simplified public image, especially with ongoing progressive politicization of hacking and its significance.

 

Key words: electronic civil disobedience, hack, hacker, hacktivism, tactical media

 

 

Introduction

 

Surfacing controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, or the ongoing Edward Snowden’s persona-non-grata status highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers were stereotyped as black hats, criminals, and cyberpunk hidden figures for a long time, until the media and popular culture emphasized the potential subversiveness in their actions as whistle-blowers and free software and open source (FOSS) activists. Nowadays, on the one hand, they more often tend to be depicted as the last men standing; maybe antisocial, but driven by the virtuous ideological motives of a desire for justice, patriotism, anti-globalist protests, a sense of freedom, etc. On the other hand, with their excellent coding abilities, they are a part of information warfare (IW), threatening the inner harmony of social life and protecting citizens’ privacy. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics redistributes a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with hidden figures often depicted either as a potential threat, or as survivors; either as a weapon in the fight against plutocracy, or as a technocratic nightmare.

“Hackers induce hysteria. They are the unknown, the terrifying, the enigma. The enigma that can breach and leak the deepest secrets (…). You feel vulnerable and it feels as though what happened is black magic”[1]; this quotation shows that the elaborate nature of hacking practice can cause its pathologization and even demonization. Rejecting such a perspective, this paper tries to locate hackers in a more neutral, objective discourse and to decode the biased opinions which fuel cinematic depictions of programmers pushing back the frontiers of technology. My case studies of movies together with real events and their media coverage are influenced especially by Tim Jordan’s research on hacker culture, community, ethics, and political agenda. He describes hacking as the act of computer intrusion, but he simultaneously accentuates that this intrusion does not have criminal motivations—its core is a tech-savviness. A good hack is original and autonomous; an activity is more important than the results, it extends the regular computer usage and is made in a joyful atmosphere, but “[h]acking has become associated in the mass media with illicit computer intrusion rather than with innovative uses of technology. This has led to the definition of cracking, a term many hackers use to refer to unwanted entry into computer systems by explorers or criminals”.[2] This differentiation has led Jordan to distinguish three fundamental notions about hacking: “there is the hacker who breaks into computer systems; the hackers who write software; and hacking as the essence of twenty-first century creativity”.[3]

Today hacking is often more of a cultural than a technological asset; it “is the way of understanding what is possible, sensible, and ethical in the twenty-first century”[4], therefore it becomes essential to decode its manipulated or simplified public image, especially with the ongoing progressive politicization of hackers and their significance. First of all, they are treated as a threat to social and private security due to the state engagement of hackers in cyberwar, IW and the sabotaging of other countries. Secondly, their actions are legally prohibited. Thirdly, hacking is by nature political due to its subversive use of media and reversing of power relations. And finally, hackers increasingly frequent collaboration with social activism has initiated hacktivism; hacking “turns into a form of ‘warfare’ (…) hackers engage in to advance their political agendas”.[5] Jordan describes hacktivists as “political activists, most often associated with the alter-globalisation movement, who utilize hacking techniques to create grassroots activist political campaigns. Hacktivists produce both ephemeral electronic civil disobedience actions (…) and try to create infrastructures of secure anonymous communication often to support human rights workers”.[6] So, hackers can be both agents of difference and change, and criminally-inclined “black hats” or crackers. Moreover, Hollywood cinema accentuates the tension between cyberterrorism and hacktivism; narratives fluctuate from these taking advantage of the militarization of cyberspace and paranoiac spirits (especially since 9/11) to redemptive ones that disclose corporate/state/elite conspiracies. Hence (cinematic) hacking seems to emerge as the avant-garde of militarized social space, its main weapon, and a fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its audience—a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates.[7]

 

They’re stealing the Internet![8]

 

Hacking culture emerged in the 60s within American universities, but only two decades later did cinema find a formula for depicting computer geeks. In the 80s—with its hi-tech excitement, youth culture, and popularity of the IBM PC and other technological gadgets (e.g. the fetishized Power Glove[9])—the faith in information technology’s limitless potential and the sense of overriding fun were all-pervading. Although in Superman 3 (1983, Richard Lester), a hacker constructed a supercomputer in order to defeat the protagonist, coding had previously been used primarily as a tool of entertainment for movie characters (Revenge of the Nerds [1984, Jeff Kanew]; Weird Science [1985, John Hughes]). In TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) Master Control’s predatory needs were justified by the real-life villain’s greed and in Electric Dreams (1984, Steve Barron) the PC and the protagonist were rivals over a woman. Even in WarGames (1983, John Badham) a military central computer appeared to be not maleficent but wrongly programmed. However, these optimistic narratives simplified hacking itself, presenting it as a movie gimmick rather than a process requiring professional skills. Depictions of hacking in 80s Hollywood cinema were often misunderstood and misleading. Repeating a random command such as “Access database” seemed to be sufficient for breaking into any system, thus making coding skills redundant.[10]

In the 90s modern angst emerged. There were still some gimmick hacks (as in Jurassic Park [1993, Steven Spielberg] or Universal Soldier: The Return [1999, Mic Rodgers][11]), sci-hack flicks (the absurd The Lawnmower Man [1992, Brett Leonard]) and genre recreation of hacking motives (for example, the corporate thriller The Net [1995, Irwin Winkler], comedy Office Space [1999, Mike Judge], and heist movie Sneakers [1992, Phil Alden Robinson]), but some Baudrillardist movies were indicative of the sense of paranoia: Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo), The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak) and especially The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003 and 2003, The Wachowskis). Hackers began to be perceived as a threat for common citizens whose lives were affected by information technology to the point where it became an immanent element of their day-to-day reality. The Ashley Madison data breach,[12] the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack,[13] Silk Road’s embezzlement,[14] or Celebgate[15] all are scandals which undermined cybersecurity and net neutrality.

Hackers—although they should be called crackers for their criminal inclinations— occurred as hidden figures thinking only about their profits and capitalizing on their digital supremacy by preying on the malfunctions of omnipresent technology. Moreover, cybercrime gangs and state-backed hackers[16] joined the information warfare (which is defined as a “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment”[17]). In the case of cyberwarfare particularly, computers and networks are main targets and are struck by cyberattacks, espionage (depicted and revealed in Snowden [2016, Oliver Stone] or Jason Bourne [2016, Paul Greengrass]), sabotage (the disruption of equipment which is shown in Live Free or Die Hard [2007, Len Wiseman] among others), or DDoS attacks (the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks that finds their most iconic representation in Hackers [1995, Iain Softley]). In 2009, President Barack Obama declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset”.[18] On the one hand, cyberwar is often safer and reduces losses in people and infrastructure, as was the case of the American attacks on Iraqi communications networks in the Gulf War. On the other hand, it encourages illegal actions. During the aforementioned war, Dutch hackers stole information about U.S. troop movements from U.S. Defense Department computers and tried to sell it to the Iraqis, who thought it was a hoax and turned it down. Nowadays such an offer would be taken more seriously. Other threats are for example viruses and worms such as the infamous Stuxnet, “the world’s first digital weapon”,[19] which installed a rootkit on Windows OS. This was later believed to be an effect of American-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[20] As Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab, said, “[t]he term ‘cyber-war’ is used by many to describe the situation, but that term—which implies that there are two equal, known enemies duking it out—is outmoded. With today’s attacks, you are clueless about who did it or when they will strike again. It’s not cyber-war, but cyberterrorism”.[21]

The threat seems ominous; therefore, in this situation hackers have commonly been criminalized, especially after the September 11 attacks, when the sense of paranoia became predominant. “Since 9/11, however, many liberal democratic states around the world have adopted legislation that ‘…paves the way for a far more permissive environment for electronic surveillance…’, and the online surveillance of activist communities as a way of policing social movements and stifling political protest is a growing concern for activists under traditionally repressive regimes and in Western democracies alike.”[22] The persecution of hackers, for example Fidel Salinas[23] and Jeremy Hammond[24], or Barack Obama’s attitude towards Edward Snowden show a state-based hysteria about any hack regardless of its motivations.[25] But whistle-blowers and hacktivists undermine the social trust in law and order, exposing state and media misuses: infiltration, invigilation, gatekeeping and hacking itself.[26] Moreover, as is written on the “Exposing the Invisible” webpage, “[p]eople are newly empowered to uncover hidden information, expose corruption and bring the truth to light”,[27] taking advantage of their anonymity and subverting power relations.

 

Hack the planet!

 

Hackers are often more socially accepted, as represented by the popularization of hacking conferences (H.O.P.E., DefCon), makerspaces, Hackathons and the Internet Protection Movement. There are even training courses for hackers that end with the certificate of Ethical Hackers.[28] FOSS’ flagship products—Firefox and GNU/Linux—“have both significant symbolic effects (in providing the ability of FOSS methods to create complex, stable programs) and market effects (providing significant alternatives of quality and freedom to commercial dominance)”.[29] Hackers engage themselves in fighting for social change not only through free software and open source principles The threat posed on the digital freedom was an inspiration for acts of electronic civil disobedience (ECD).[30] More and more social activists appropriate the tactical media manifesto written by Geert Lovink: “Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source [of] their power, (‘anger is an energy’: John Lydon), and their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, nomadic media warriors, the prankster, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze; they are the happy negatives, always in search of an enemy. (…) [C]onsumers use the texts and artefacts that surround us (…) ‘tactically’. That is, in far more creative and rebellious ways than had previously been imagined.”[31]

Hacktivism can be understood as “activism! running free in the electronic veins that enliven our 21st-century, global socio-economies”.[32] Digitally-founded social actions are “a qualified form of humanism”[33] and they aim to create the space for “netizens”,[34] nevertheless hacking is conducted mainly by people with excellent coding skills who try to inspire social change by translating political thought into code. The most notorious groups in the United States are Anonymous and LulzSec. Julian Assange has been posting classified documents on WikiLeaks to call for “privacy of the weak, transparency for the powerful”.[35] In 1996, the Critical Art Ensemble recognized the politicization of cybersphere. In 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre shared FloodNet, which was a tool enabling acts of (electronic) civil disobedience. And in 1999, the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc) launched the Hacktivismo group, whose main goal was fighting for access to information as an expression of human rights. The group explained their mission in “The Hacktivismo Declaration” and “The Hacktivismo FAQ”. A few paragraphs from the latter should be evoked here as a representative of hactivists’ goals and hacker culture:

Q: What do you mean by the word “hacktivism”, then?

A: The provenance of hacktivism winds back to Omega – a longstanding member of the cDc – who started using it as a joke to describe on-line protest actions. Oxblood appropriated the word and began using it with a straight face; then many journalists, fading stars of the Left, and eventually script kiddies picked up on it, all claiming to know what hacktivism meant. It has been a noun in search of a verb for some time now. Oxblood once defined hacktivism as “an open-source implosion”, and now he’s added “disruptive compliance” to its range of description.

Q: What the hell are you talking about? I’m just looking for a simple answer here.

A: Hold your kimono, cupcake. O.K., hacktivism is the use of technology to advance human rights through electronic media.[36]

This short excerpt from cDc’s FAQ emphasizes not only the mission and motivations of Hacktivismo and similar groups, but also their slightly anarchistic, ironic style, anonymity linked with peer recognition and alternate, partly hidden communicating platforms such as IRC. It is the “performance of technology”[37] that interested the movie industry. Hacking has an allure which spread not only among whitehats involved in cybersecurity or computer geeks, but also film producers. However, hackers are still stereotyped and treated as public enemies because of their abilities, common illicitness and anonymity symbolized by Guy Fawkes’ mask.

 

Hollywood OS: bio-digital jazz[38]

 

“Most hackers do it for the challenge, thrill, and social fun. (…) [I]t [hacker culture] reconfigures technology and social relations by subverting the rules, laws, and social norms regarding the use of technology. It works in opposition to monopolistic, capitalist, statist regulation and perception of the new technologies.”[39] Hacker culture, while maybe not as cyberpunk or cypherpunk as in Hackers, has risen from a vivacious cleverness and striving for intellectual challenges amongst students, especially from MIT. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) is a contemporary movie that redistributes that sense of adventurous experiments with emerging technology. Hackers have their ethics inspired by the notions of information sharing, freedom of inquiry, unlimited availability of (digital) tools and democratic ideals, in sheer opposition to cybercrimes, cracking, and all black hat activities.[40] Simultaneously, media depictions of hacking are frequently unjust, although not always deliberately.

As Cory Doctorow from MIT Media Lab points out: “[t]he persistence until now [until the premiere of Mr. Robot, 2015–, series – M.S.] of what the geeks call ‘Hollywood OS,’ in which computers do impossible things just to drive the plot, hasn’t just resulted in bad movies. It’s confused people about what computers can and can’t do. (…) The worst thing about WarGames [in which a teenager broke into NORAD’s mainframe, nearly causing a nuclear escalation – M.S.] – and its most profound legacy – was the reaction of panicked lawmakers. (…) The CFAA took an exceptionally broad view of what constitutes criminal ‘hacking,’ making a potential felon out of anyone who acquires unauthorized access to a computer system”.[41] Stephanie Schulte says that “the release of the film ‘WarGames’ helped merge Cold War anxieties with those involving teenage rebellion”.[42] Relatively soon after its premiere, public opinion, IT specialists and lawyers were surprised by the so-called Morris worm (1988), but this was cinema itself that strengthened law related to cybercrimes, causing penalisation (and even criminalisation) of young programmers—as was evident during the Obama administration—and had its peak in Aaron Swartz’s suicide after he was charged with thirteen felonies, the result of using his own script to download files from the JSTOR repository.[43]

Swartz’s story was depicted emphatically in The Internet’s Own Boy (2014, Brian Knappenberger). Modern documentaries are actually very committed to legitimatising hackers’ actions, but mainstream Hollywood cinema is still abundant in iniquitous representations. Hack flicks distort the image of hackers, their personality and hacking itself, which is reduced to fast typing and simply playing a game (Hackers, TRON, or Masterminds [1997, Roger Christian]). Hackers use multiple windows whose abundance is representative of the hacker’s skills; they talk with personified viruses,[44] they give nonsense explanations in which they merge random parts of IT vernacular[45] when locked in their mother’s basement with a myriad of screens, wires and bobbleheads (provoking wisecrack comments from the old guard, like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard). The sole process of hacking is compressed and reduced to erratic typing from which multidimensional visual data or Nmap graphics emerge in order to cover the boring truth about the nature of coding. Hollywood representations eliminate not only the wearisome writing of lines of illegible code, but also software and hardware parameters or social engineering that are necessary to gain access to most accounts. Hackers are not modern sorcerers, although their depictions show the contrary. One of the most frequent and absurd sentences in hack flicks is “Hack the mainframe!”[46], hackers have supernatural computer intuition (as Stanley in Swordfish [2001, Dominic Sena]) and they are often vindictive masterminds (which is the case of Skyfall [2012, Sam Mendes], Untraceable [2008, Gregory Hoblit], GoldenEye [1995, Martin Campbell], Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird] and so on). And even if they are shown in a more psychologically-motivated way, filmmakers annihilate realism with a high level of aestheticization. For example, in Takedown (2000, Joe Chappelle) the process of hacking is shown through multiple exposures in which the protagonist is merely engulfed by code. Similar poetics are used in Hackers, in which film characters’ faces are changed into screens with mathematical equations on them. The film adds to that the transformation of New York into optical fibres and an embodied virus that is a half-naked man with long hair. And while Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann) tries to show code’s architecture through a simple figuration of links, wires, optical fibres and electrical impulses, TRON and TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinsky) create autonomous worlds on the grid where duels, races and power games take place. No wonder Mr. Robot, with its social engineering, legitimate use of IT tools and jargon (ShellShock bug, onion routing, tor networking, rootkit, etc.), or accurate representations of hacker culture (more realistic and down-to-earth than the cyberpunk universe developed in Hackers) has gained words of approval not merely from critics, but also from programmers, cybersecurity professionals, and even Anonymous.[47]

The image of computers as black boxes or magical crates is dangerous [48] and leaves viewers awed when confronted with someone who recognizes deep technological structures, especially in the age of total digitalization and web 2.0. Hackers could be depicted in an even more “analogue” way—as they are in heist movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job [2003, F. Gary Gray], Swordfish, or Coin Heist [2017, Emily Hagins]), where they are often only a small part of crooks’ operations—but the black hat image remains. Hackers as antisocial, alienated, predominantly male[49] hidden figures seem to threaten society with their menacing invisibility and immanence (related to technological immanence itself). People’s privacy is identified as being most vulnerable to cyber activity; hence the popularity of ghost hacking’s motive has risen, resulting in such movies as Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii, and 2017, Rupert Sanders), Inception (2011, Christopher Nolan), Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones) or even The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic. The whistle-blowers’ activities which exposed many state or corporate abuses of privacy were a turning point in the social image of hackers, or rather hacktivists. Their pursuit of their own vision of justice, patriotism (as shown by Oliver Stone in Snowden) and freedom has gained them support as watchmen and as the last men standing.

Hackers with their subversive potential have become pop cultural icons, as is apparent in their biopics and cameos. Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley’s moguls are not the only epitome of information technology because filmmakers depict net activists juxtaposing the open source movement[50] with the corporate establishment. Takedown tells the story of Kevin Mitnick. Although based on a book by Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick’s main antagonist in real life, the hacker is shown ambiguously. This more understanding perspective was inspired by another book, The Fugitive Game by Jonathan Littman. Shimomura and Mitnick are shown as equal in skills and means, but with different goals. The first works for big corporations as a cybersecurity specialist, while the latter, although intrusive and invasive to the privacy of others, fights for freedom of information. The real Mitnick refused to acknowledge his crime as cracking and rather think of it as the effect of social engineering. He is now a white hat, a security consultant and pop cultural icon (appearing in Emmanuel Goldstein’s documentary Freedom Downtime (2004) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) or as the inspiration for the main protagonist of the comic book Wizzywig). Edward Snowden (Snowden, Citizenfour [2014, Laura Poitras]) or Julian Assange (Australian Underground: The Julian Assange Story [2012, Robert Connolly], The Fifth Estate [2013, Bill Condon]) are other heroes of public interest who are followed by (for the time being, only in documentaries) stories about such hacktivists as Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and so on. Even without any real characters, movies recreate Zeitgeist, conspiracy theories, the sense of living in a tech-illusion, or just a deep contempt for the unseen mechanisms elaborated by corporations or states. It remains valid regardless of narrative structure. Popular types of characters include programmers and hackers working in big, exploiatative companies (e.g. Antitrust [2001, Peter Howitt]),[51] disadvantaged rebels using computer skills as their only weapon against elites (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011, David Fincher]), people treated as a tool in cybermanipulations and living in dystopias blurring the line between reality and VR (e.g. The Matrix trilogy but also the less obvious One Point O [2004, Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson] and the already mentioned TV series Mr. Robot[52]).

Another popular narrative arc is old versus new, in which the old guard that can be called ‘a Timex watch in a digital age’, is confronted with digital era challenges. But this conflict is artificial and maybe even vaguely compensating. Popular culture has begun to acknowledge the omnipresence of hacking and put it in the context of warfare. Unseen war is not only the set of tactics related to IW: nowadays hackers are a synecdoche of socio-political conflicts and predominant power dynamics.

 

References

 

Agard Chancellor, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is the Most Realistic Depiction of Hacking On Television”, International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017.

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Cannata-Bowman Nick, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Hammond Jeremy, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015.

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Hong Nicole, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Kumar S., “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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McCullagh Declan, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

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Peterson Andrea, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Porche Isaac R., III, Paul Christopher, York Michael, Serena Chad C., Sollinger Jerry M., Axelband Elliot, Min Endy Y., Held Bruce J., Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013).

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[1] Tor Ekeland, “Hacker Madness”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/hacker-madness/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[2] Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, (London: Reaktion Books) (2002), p. 120.

[3] Tim Jordan, “Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age”, First Monday, 14:7 (2009), http://firstmonday.org/article/viewArticle/2417/2240, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[4] Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, (Cambridge–Malden: Polity Press) (2008), p. 1.

[5] Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

[6] Tim Jordan (2009).

[7] This article describes Hollywood cinema and American cases of hacking due to the range of the phenomenon, but other countries with notorious hackers recreate their stories in pop culture, e.g. 23 (1998, Hans-Christian Schmid) and Who Am I. No System Is Safe (2014, Baran bo Odar) succeeded in German box office and Deutschland 83 (2015–) is a national TV hit due to the fame of Chaos Computer Club and Klaus Koch.

[8] Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[9] Kung Fury (2015, David Sandberg), an homage to the 80s poetics, had a wide web advertising, for example video Kung Fury: Hackerman – How to Hack Time in which we can find grid, computer disk (“First off you need a lot of ram… at least 256 kb” which is commented: “But remember – with great processing power came great responsibility”) and even the Power Glove, a pre-haptic accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEkrWRHCDQU, date accessed: 1 April 2017).

[10] One of the YouTube users commented accurately the compilation of the 80s hack flicks: “The fast track method to become an 80’s computer hacker. You’ll need… 1) – A can of Pepsi 2) – A poster of Michelle Pfeiffer on the wall 3) – A pair of Walkman headphones around your neck 4) – A nervous friend looking over your right shoulder 5) – A desk lamp …Now type the words ‘Access database’. Wait for the response ‘Access denied’, and simply reply with ‘Override’. Congratulations, the world is now your oyster.” 97channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUGQHdYUIEo, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[11] In Universal Soldier: The Return alleged supercomputer creating its army has a rather primitive way of communicate his rebellious nature: “Hello Dr. Cortner. I’m ready when you are. But, on the other hand… fuck you!”

[12] S. Kumar, “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The case was mentioned in Mr. Robot by Michael whose wife asked for divorce after his romances had been disclosed.

[13] Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[14] Nicole Hong, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The scandal and other abuses connected with Dark Web were depicted in documentary Deep Web (2015, Alex Winter).

[15] Jason Meisner, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[16] Danny Palmer, “What’s the difference between state-backed hackers and cybercrime gangs? Nothing at all”, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/whats-the-difference-between-state-backed-hackers-and-cybercrime-gangs-nothing-at-all/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[17] Isaac R. Porche III, Christopher Paul, Michael York, Chad C. Serena, Jerry M. Sollinger, Elliot Axelband, Endy Y. Min, Bruce J. Held, Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013), p. XV.

[18] The White House, Office of the State Secretary, Executive Order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/executive-order-improving-critical-infrastructure-cybersecurity-0, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[19] Kim Zetter, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/, date accessed: 8 April 2017. The cyberattack was depicted in documentary Zero Days (2016, Alex Gibney).

[20] Ellen Nakashima, Joby Warrick, “Stuxnet was work of U.S. and Israeli experts, officials say”, The Washington Post,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html?utm_term=.920c5dae260b, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[21] David Shamah, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it,’ says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[22] Sonja Hohenbild, Shahriar Khonsari, Heather McMullen, and Kalea Turner-Beckman, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[23] Andy Greenberg, “Hacker claims feds hit him with 44 felonies when he refused to be an FBI spy”, Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/2015/02/hacker-claims-feds-hit-44-felonies-refused-fbi-spy/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[24] Jeremy Hammond, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015. His case and political agenda were shown in The Hacker Wars (2014, Vivien Lesnik Weisman).

[25] Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets To Get A 29-year Old Hacker”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017. China, not especially legitimate for respecting human rights itself, called hypocritical – Joe Mullin, “Obama says he can’t pardon Snowden”, ArsTechnica, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/11/obama-says-he-cant-pardon-snowden/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[26] One of the latest leaks applied to revealing CIA hacking tools: “VAULT 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[27] Exposing the Invisible, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[28] Rebecca Slayton, “The Paradoxical Authority of the Certified Ethical Hacker”, Limn 8 (2017), http://limn.it/preface-hacks-leaks-and-breaches/, date accessed 22 July 2017. Slayton writes that CEH “sought to appropriate the technical savvy associated with hackers and the U.S. military and intelligence agencies while distancing itself from the untrustworthy and morally suspect image of hacking” but she also quotes Swartz’s statement about CEH “alumns”: “Some ‘IT pros’ may find a few techniques to secure against well-known attacks, but the underground is always 10 steps ahead.”

[29] Tim Jordan (2009).

[30] Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, www.critical-art.net/books/ecd, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[31] Geert Lovink, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime (1997), http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[32] Tim Jordan (2002), p. 119.

[33] Geert Lovink (1997).

[34] The paradigm of DIY is substituted with DIWO – Do It with Others – which emphasizes common goals and inclusive operations.

[35] Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, (New York–London: OR Books) (2012), p. 7.

[36] CULT OF THE DEAD COW, The Hacktivismo FAQ, http://www.cultdeadcow.com/cDc_files/HacktivismoFAQ.html, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[37] Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. xx.

[38] “It’s a bio-digital jazz, man” is a quote from TRON: Legacy.

[39] Pramod K. Nayar, An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, (Malden–Oxford Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell) (2010), p. 100.

[40] At least in their literal, official meaning because hacktivists describe legal system as biased, corrupted, and serving elites.

[41] Cory Doctorow, “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker”, Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603045/mr-robot-killed-the-hollywood-hacker/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[42] Stephanie Ricker Schulte, Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, (New York–London: New York University Press) (2013), p. 28.

[43] Declan McCullagh, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[44] In the 4th episode of Mr. Robot’s season 1, few members of society watch Hackers which is criticised by Romero: “Hollywood hacker bullshit. I’ve been in this game 27 years. Not once have I come across an animated singing virus.”

[45] For example, in CSI: Cyber (2015-2016) there is a very absurd dialogue: “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic. See if I can track an IP address.” “I’ll distract her. You ping her IP.” See also: Nick Cannata-Bowman, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[46] “You won’t find the nuclear launch codes hidden in anything attached to Defense.gov” (Robert Evans, Caleb Eldon Brinkman, “5 Hacking Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)”, Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1262-5-hacking-myths-you-probably-believe-thanks-to-movies.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[47] Chancellor Agard, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is The Most Realistic Depiction Of Hacking On Television,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017. Sam Esmail hired many consultants (for example Michael Bazzell and Kor Adana) to help screenwriters with technological details. It can be seen in television that showrunners give much more attention to programming “anthropology.” There are still TV series as CSI: Cyber or Scorpion (2014–), but next to them we can observe shows that depict computer environment with reverence – Halt and Catch Fire (2014–), Sense8 (2015-2018), Person of Interest (2011-2016), and so on.

[48] The sense of insecurity is fuelled by narratives about the machines’ rebellion – as in The Matrix Trilogy, TRON and TRON: Legacy, WarGames: The Dead Code (2008, Stuart Gillard) or Storm Watch (2002, Terry Cunningham) – and almost omnipotent antagonists who use advanced technological devices in simplified way – for example in Live Free or Die Hard the villain left all country in despair with two clicks, in Eagle Eye (2008, D.J. Caruso) the offender used an everyday technology to trace and monitor her victims, and even in Sneakers characters had an ultimate weapon for hackers – a universal key which can break into all software.

[49] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on first part of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, can initiate a new trend.

[51] Geert Lovink called them “the Army of Software” and appealed to them for rejecting Finazism (see: Franco Berardi, Geert Lovink, “A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software”, Net Critique, http://networkcultures.org/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software/, date accessed: 8 April 2017).

[52] Elliot’s mental illness emphasises the schizoid character of modernity which is best depicted in the last episode of the first season – Elliott is standing in front of neon American flag in Times Square full of society supporters after talking with projections of his mind.

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare

Ivory Mills

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 78-99.

 

Ivory Mills

Northwestern University

 

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare

 

Abstract

Over the last decade, actors throughout the international community have begun to engage in information operations (IO)—the use of information technology such as computer network attacks to influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or defend information systems and the infrastructure they support. Current international humanitarian law fails to address the challenges that arise from technological advancements, often lacking consideration of the many non-state actors actively involved Additionally, and arguably most importantly, it is unclear whether cyber-attacks constitute the use of force put forth in the UN Charter. Examining recent changes in technology, the increased presence of non-state actors, a decade’s worth of cyber-attacks, and recent developments in domestic and international law, it becomes clear that the existing legal framework is inadequate and necessitates further consensus building and negotiation across the international community.

Key words: cyber war, international humanitarian law, information operations, information technology, cyber attacks

 

 

Introduction

 

As the development and pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICTs) continues to increase, individuals, organizations, and nations continually find new, unanticipated, and often unlawful ways to use them. Over the last decade actors throughout the international community have begun to engage in information operations (IO) or cyber-attacks. “Information operations are the integrated employment of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supported and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting [y]our own”.[i] Computers control most infrastructure, including telecommunication networks, water supplies, electrical grids, oil storage and transport networks, banking and financial systems, and emergency services.[ii] Given their widespread capabilities and scope, such computers and technological networks are ideal for use as weapons and targets of information operations.       

Because the technology is mostly inexpensive, widely available, and deployable from virtually anywhere, cyber-attacks are highly attractive to state and non-state actors. Moreover, their threats and consequences are disconcerting, as they have the potential to disable a country’s infrastructure, destroy financial systems and data, and disrupt national communications systems, amongst other things. But the technologies and their uses have dramatically outpaced the laws and policies that govern them in international conflict. As such, national and international governing bodies have struggled to adapt and integrate existing laws and practices to this novel phenomenon. There is continued disagreement about if and how international humanitarian law governing the use of force, jus ad bellum, applies to information operations. This paper explores emergent international humanitarian law (IHL) of information operations, highlighting how new technologies, recent events, and multiple stakeholders have complicated the understanding and application of IHL in this context. It discusses the opportunities and threats that have emerged and details the considerations that must be made to establish adequate and effective law to regulate cyber war in the modern, globalized, multistakeholder regulatory environment. Finally, utilizing a constructivist approach to IHL, it posits that its existing laws are inadequate for the current international system and puts forth an interdisciplinary approach necessary to address the complex challenge of developing a rule of law to govern cyber war in the international community that binds the relevant actors with mechanisms that the vested stakeholders will abide by and buy into.

What’s new?

Technology

 

The threat of cyber war is the result of the growth and development of the information society. Perhaps, the most significant aspect of the information society is the rapid and expansive development of information and communication technologies (ICTs). These technological advancements provide continuous access to information and data and unprecedented interconnection across all aspects of society. Given the history of the internet (initially developed for and by the U.S. military), it is no surprise that military organizations continue to take advantage and often lead the charge in developing and advancing ICTs, and utilizing these technologies in their strategic and tactical exploits to further national security. Additionally, cyberspace has become a critical battleground due to the economic and geopolitical implications of increased access and connectivity, and the pervasiveness and vulnerability of the technologies.

In 1969, the US military developed ARPANET, a program to facilitate communication between the Department of Defense, its contractors, and universities. As ARPANET evolved into the internet, it quickly spread to industry and the consumer public, utilizing increasingly available telecommunication mediums, such as telephone lines, microwave relays, and satellite uplinks. And as fibre optic cables, transistors, and microchips were developed, the internet and ICTs rapidly diffused throughout the world. Consequently, multiple actors (individuals, states, corporations, non-state actors) gained access to create and deploy programs, code, or mechanisms that influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or defend information systems and infrastructure. Recognizing the threats resulting from these technologies, states began developing offensive and defensive cyber war technologies.

In this new battlefield, cyber weapons are classified into three categories: syntactic attacks, semantic attacks, and mixed attacks.[iii] Syntactic attacks acts modify the logic of computer operating systems to introduce delays and or make the system act in unpredictable ways.[iv] Examples of syntactic attacks include malicious code, denial of service, and hacking. Malicious code is a programmatic language designed to damage or infiltrate computer files and programs. Sometimes it replicates system files and has the potential to cause huge economic damage by crashing the entire host system. Viruses are files that enter a computer system and, once opened, they corruptand destroys computers, sometimes to the point of making the entire computer inoperable.[v] Lastly, hacking is breaking into a computer and altering its operating system by bypassing the security functions.

In contrast, semantic attacks target the accuracy of information the user has access to, which appears to the owner/operator to work be working normally.[vi] Semantic attacks can utilize the infiltrated systems to control the information contained on government and military sites, and cause serious problems on connected systems. They have been used to feed false data to industries and infrastructural operations, causing a shutdown of electrical power, air traffic controls, and emergency response systems. Such disruptions on a wide scale basis could cause panic and unrest.

The isolated and combined use of syntactic and semantic attacks, which disable critical operational systems and feed disinformation, could result in numerous destructive social, political, and economic scenarios, including but not limited to critical public and private critical national infrastructures.[vii] The use of new technologies in this emergent battlefield not only has significant economic and political consequences, but also the potential to cause widespread physical destruction and social unrest.

Events

 

In addition to, or in light of, the development of these new technologies, actors throughout the international community have found novel and often unanticipated ways to utilize the technologies in social and political realms. Consequently, as history has demonstrated, law has emerged because of a series of unfortunate events. In this case, governments, individuals, organizations, and other non-state actors have employed ICT technologies in information operations. And while there have not been any insurmountable or global cyber-attacks to date, there have been some which—for the victim states—were significant.

Israel-Hezbollah “July War” of 2006

 

In February 2005, Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated, resulting in mass protests.[viii] Based on speculation that the new government would demilitarize Hezbollah and rumours that Israel would strike Lebanon, Hezbollah took pre-emptive action, killing three and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and launching several short-range rocket attacks against Israel. Israel responded with a massive attack, damaging a significant amount of Lebanese infrastructure and killing over 1,000 civilians, but failing to demilitarize Hezbollah. Throughout the course of these ground and air attacks, both sides used cyber war tactics to support their kinetic efforts.

The Israelis conducted denial of service attacks on Hezbollah’s television station, while Hezbollah hackers allegedly gained access to the networks of Israeli Defense Force units at the Lebanese border.[ix] Additionally, Hezbollah integrated a “cyber psychological operation” (CYOP) into their military strategy. CYOP is the use of cyber operations to directly attack and influence the attitudes and behaviours of soldiers and the general population.[x] With this strategy, the attackers used credible political and military power to get attention and project information power, thus shaping the information environment of the conflict.

In response to Hezbollah’s CYOP, many of Israel’s Western allies banned Hezbollah’s websites. Unable to utilize their legitimate site, Hezbollah hijacked IP addresses of corporations around the world to ensure that their messages were successfully transmitted to the intended recipients—the general public, the Israeli public, and anti-Hezbollah individuals, organizations, or states.[xi] IP hijacking transmits information from one location to another through a series of routers. This strategic manoeuvre of utilizing non-combatant IP addresses allowed Hezbollah to maintain the communication of their strategic message.

This instance creates unique and timely challenges for understanding the role of international humanitarian law in cyberwar. These attacks by Hezbollah raise the question of whether or not nonstate actors could commit acts of war?

Estonia 2007

 

On April 27, 2007, the Estonian government completed long-held plans to relocate a national monument. Initially installed by the USSR in 1944 to honour Soviet soldiers who died during WWII. Significantly opposed by the Russian population of Estonia, the relocation sparked a series of protests in Tallinn. Thus in 2007, Estonia became the first state victim of an overt and coordinated assault on its telecommunications networks.[xii] At the beginning of the protests, there was an internet post in a public forum, giving instructions for participating in a distributed denial of service attacks against Estonian government systems.[xiii] While the riots and protests in the streets of Tallinn had subsided, on the internet there was an ongoing, multifaceted campaign of denial and disruption.

For three weeks, Estonian websites were flooded with data requests from thousands of computers in increasingly larger waves. The requests first knocked out government websites, including, but not limited to those of the Prime Minister and the President, the Justice Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry.[xiv] Eventually, the attacks spread to daily newspapers, broadcast television, internet service providers, hospitals, banks, universities, and public service providers, disabling emergency phones for fire and paramedic services for an hour.[xv] Over a million computers were infected with botnet viruses.[xvi] Eventually, Estonian officials produced evidence suggesting that the Russian government was involved in these attacks. But there was little recourse for Estonia in the international community via diplomatic or legal avenues.

Iran (Stuxnet) 2010

 

In 2010, a 500-kilobyte computer worm was discovered as it invaded computers around the world. The virus was especially sophisticated, including a specific attack vector limited to certain computers.[xvii] Now commonly known as Stuxnet, the virus was used to infect at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, allowing its creators to spy on the systems and causing the machines on site to tear themselves apart, despite the efforts of their human operators.[xviii] Stuxnet was very precise, inflicting little to no damage on any person, place, or system other than the target, a rarity in the context of war. Like other modern ICTs, the perpetrator’s identity remains anonymous (despite continued speculation and suggestion that the United States was responsible). These distinctions are especially important when trying to understand the role of IHL in regulating cyber-attacks. Like new war technologies of the past, cyberwar technologies challenge the common notions and understandings of battle: if the perpetrator remains anonymous, who is the attack attributed to? If the attack travels around the world before reaching its target, who has jurisdiction? Because these attacks can be more precise than other weapons, do the responses have to be as exact to meet the necessity and proportionality requirements of IHL?

These attacks represent a few particularly significant instances of information operations, but are not, by any means, representative of the scope, scale, or number of attacks that have occurred.

New Stakeholders: Non-state Actors

 

Because of the nature of information operations, non-state actors are now empowered to exploit and undermine IHL because they make it impossible to compartmentalize the battlefield and single out with sufficient clarity who the military targets are. The law of war and the use of force have traditionally governed conflict between nation states. With the insertion of hacktivists, terrorists, and other non-traditional actors in war, it is unclear how victim states respond, who is responsible, what the consequences can and will be. There are some arenas in international law that recognize the importance of non-state actors; however, in the perpetually unresolved regulation of information operations, no such policy statements have been made by international bodies. Instead, non-state actors responsible for cyber-attacks are often considered cyber criminals, in violation of domestic cybercrimes, or even less justiciable, as nuisances.

For example, Anonymous is a collective, politically motivated hacking group with a core of highly skilled IT personnel that has demonstrated its willingness to conduct operations against government and military-affiliated Web sites.[xix] The collective is featured in the media nearly every week for claiming to be or being found responsible for cyber-attacks against governments and corporations.[xx] Anonymous has led efforts to publish sensitive national security information contained by government and government-contracted private actors.[xxi] For example, the term “anti-security” refers to a movement to counter government efforts to increase cyber-security. Such information operations by individuals, hacking groups, and terrorist organizations have proven especially difficult for victim nations and corporations, since international humanitarian law applies to states and the perpetrated attacks often occur in multiple jurisdictions, by multiple people, and may not cause as much damage as the international community would deem necessary to constitute a use of force.

Resultant Debates & Issues

 

These technologies, events, and new actors involved in information operations have dramatically altered the regulatory landscape. They have resulted in a variety of opportunities and threats, as well as debates about utilizing, altering, or developing international humanitarian law in the context of cyber war.

Attribution

 

The technologies and non-state actors in the context of information operations gives rise to a long-held debate about attribution. Attribution in IHL is “the means by which responsibility for illegal acts or omissions are attached to the state”.[xxii] There are concepts of both direct and indirect responsibility when determining attribution. Under direct responsibility, states are liable if their direct acts or omissions led to harm, if the actor acted on behalf of the state or state agent, or if the state has control over non-state actors.[xxiii] Indirect responsibility, on the other hand, finds states liable when there is no underlying link between the actor and the state, and is often applied in the context of terrorism.[xxiv]

International humanitarian law governs state action, and state responsibility depends on attribution. But cyber-attacks challenge the notion of attribution because the wrongful act appears to be ascribed to a computer by location; and if not the computer, then by the non-state actors, who are beyond the legal scope and definition of a state. According to the Tallinn manual, the fact that a cyber operation has its source in governmental infrastructure is not sufficient to attribute these acts to that State, but instead it constitutes an indication that a State is associated with the cyber operations.[xxv] In contrast, international law scholars Shackelford and Andres argue for a more flexible standard of responsibility for cyber-attacks because it is so difficult to prove the identify of attackers. These ongoing debates and the changes that shaped them lead to more questions and conversations that must be addressed legally and practically.

In determining to whom attribute a cyber-attack, security analysts look at from where (from what IP address) the software/attack came; how, when, and by whom the software was constructed; and what the software was designed to do. But answering these questions is much more challenging than it may seem, not only because the internet is so expansive, but also because cyber attackers work diligently to hide information about the origins of an attack. Even if an analyst could reverse engineer the software, the IP address could be faked or could have been rerouted through many different physical locations. Moreover, the source IP may contain malicious software that could prevent tracing or that could infect an analyst’s computer, completely disrupting the investigative process.[xxvi] Thus, victim states, corporations, and individuals can rarely, if ever, be sure that they’ve correctly determined the source of an information attack. Thus, unless the attacker claims responsibility, it is nearly impossible to determine with 100% certainty who is responsible for a cyber-attack.

In the Estonia case discussed above, attribution was a critical challenge to IHL and a very early demonstration of its limitations as currently conceived. The Estonian government claimed that they were victims of a cyber-attack—a novel and unregulated type of warfare by Russia; however, the international community responded with little urgency. Despite the U.S.’s position that cyber warfare is a top priority and ‘fair game’ in international politics, its officials wrote of the events in Estonia as a “cyber riot”. Similarly, NATO’s response to Estonia’s calls for assistance from the international community was limited and did not provide any recourse. Besides the claims from Estonia, no state actor vocally placed blame on Russia, be it for evidentiary or geopolitical reasons. Eventually, NATO assembled a group of legal scholars and lawyers to create the Tallinn Manual to interpret how existing legal principles applied to cyber war. Nevertheless, it remained unclear to the Estonian government and the international community whether the cyber-attacks endured were regarded as an act of war that warranted a proportional response (kinetic or otherwise).

Authority

 

Another critical challenge in the context of modern information operations is that of authority. Essentially, the question that emerges is whether international humanitarian law has legitimate governing purview to make and impose laws in cyberspace. By definition, authority is the sense in which a person who has power can get others to act in particular ways. Practically speaking, a state is considered to have authority if it maintains public order and makes laws that are generally obeyed by its citizens.[xxvii] While it has been widely accepted that international humanitarian law governs, is less clear how legitimate and effective its authority is on states. This becomes even less clear when looking at the undeterred and even emboldened nature of non-state actors involved in conducting cyber-attacks, as well as in the failure of the international community to come to a consensus on its modus operandi regarding information operations conducted by states against other states.

In the Israel-Hezbollah case discussed earlier, Hezbollah’s hacking of the Israeli Defense Force units and their use of CYOP to shape the information environment by utilizing non-combatant IP addresses to gain credible political and military power highlights the challenges of understanding authority in this context. While Hezbollah is not a legitimate state, it has historically exercised widespread and significant military, economic, and political authority. Furthermore, it repeatedly engages in kinetic warfare. Nevertheless, as it adapts to the emerging landscape that includes cyber weapons, it still is unclear whether its (or any other terrorist organization) actions are governed by IHL. Some might argue that they have the authority to be considered a state, but many others would staunchly disagree. These debates and their continued negotiations are represented in the existing international and domestic laws detailed in the following section.

Existing law

 

The dynamic nature of this issue has a variety of implications and draws influence from both national and international laws and practices that lead to the development of legal norms, which—at best–continue to be ineffective and incoherent.

International law

 

The biggest conflict in the debate of IO regulation is whether a cyber-attack constitutes an armed use of force. This question shapes the emergence of international law and practice because it determines if the conduct of an information operations rises to the thresholds described in the UN Charter, which in turn determines how states can act and react.

Use of force derives its meaning from the UN Charter. Article 2(4) states, “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or [armed] use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.[xxviii] Subsequently, Article 51 articulates that “[n]othing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.[xxix] It is generally agreed that Article 51 carves out an exception to Article 2(4)’s prohibition of force. With respect to IO, these provisions raise several questions. First, are there certain cyber-attacks that constitute a use of force as articulated by the Charter? If so, what is the distinction? Second, could a cyber-attack provide the victim state the right to use kinetic force in response, and still meet the necessity and proportionality requirements of IHL?

The Charter Articles acknowledge that national sovereignty underscores international humanitarian law.[xxx] When a State’s conduct rises to the threshold, the law of armed conflict applies. As such, an unlawful armed use of force justifies countermeasures. But even before technology existed to facilitate information operations, not all aggressive acts would amount to an unlawful use of armed force. It is also widely acknowledged that Article 51’s “armed attack” is a narrower category of actions than “use of force” and typically requires some sort of physical damage to persons or property.[xxxi]

Customary law, guided by the Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice, suggests that Article 2(4) applies to “any use of force, regardless of the weapons employed.[xxxii] Additionally, Article 36 of Additional Protocol I articulates that states that develop new weapons or methods of warfare have an affirmative duty to determine if its use would be prohibited.[xxxiii] Thus, it is argued that IO can be governed by analogy to existing international law of war. Despite all this, it remains unclear if, when, and how these concepts apply to information operations for a variety of reasons, including attribution, imminence, and geography.

As mentioned above, in response to the ongoing confusion, NATO formed an International Group of Experts, which set out 95 non-binding black letter rules in the Tallinn Manual on International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare.[xxxiv] The manual examines how extant legal norms apply to this new form of warfare, detailing the ways international customs, as understood by these scholars, apply to cyberwar.[xxxv]

While the manual is not a binding legal authority, its comprehensive nature does provide an authority which demonstrates how customary law could apply and provides the framework for a legitimate binding agreement. Whether it becomes enacted as law or not, it is undisputed that the jus ad bellum principle could apply to information operations. However, when and how it applies gives rise to another historical divide over the UN Charter’s interpretation and demonstrates the challenges to building international consensus.

In addition to trying to understand the applicability of jus ad bellum to cyber war, it is important to understand how and when it applies. The dominant view among scholars is that if the effects or consequences of state-sponsored cyber intrusions are sufficiently damaging, international humanitarian law should govern and recourse to armed force may be justified against states responsible.

Professor M.N. Schmitt argues, “as the nature of a hostile act becomes less determinative of its consequences, current notions of “lawful” coercive behaviour by states, and the appropriate responses thereto, are likely to evolve accordingly”.[xxxvi] He highlights the areas of uncertainty and disagreement in the legal analysis, but asserts that “attack” is a term of prescriptive shorthand meant to address the consequences.[xxxvii] The provisions of the UN Charter seek to shield protected individuals from injury or death and to protect objects from damage or destruction, so the consequences are sufficient if they cause significant human suffering, not merely diminished quality of life. U.S. policy advisor, Howard Koh, takes a similar stance, asserting that international law principles apply to cyber war and, under some circumstances, can constitute a use of force within the meaning of Article 2(4).[xxxviii]

National Laws

 

While international law continues to be a contentious topic and its application to cyber war is unresolved, the division over the Charter’s interpretation becomes increasingly clear in the development of national policies and practices. Many states have developed policies for information operations that in one way or another determine when another government’s cyber operations constitute an armed use of force and legally justify a response. In 2012, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research found that 114 of 193 states have developed national cyber-security programs.[xxxix] Of these programs, 47 include a role for the armed forces, with 12 of the 15 largest spenders having or developing cyber warfare units and 10 developing offensive cyber warfare capabilities.[xl]

These policies and practices serve as important sources of law for the individual states, but also help shape the emerging international response since repeated practices over time can form customary international law.[xli] Thus, the strategies these state actors employ in their development and implementation drives the development of law. “Strategy generates reappraisal and revision of law, while law itself shapes strategy”.[xlii]

Unites States

 

Historically, the US and its allies have understood Article 2(4)’s prohibition of force and Article 51’s right to self-defence to apply to military or armed violence.[xliii] However, the emergent US views lie in the middle of the traditional debate, as they try to account for the destructive potential of cyber operations without dramatically expanding the Charter’s scope.[xliv] There are obviously a variety of interests competing for prevalence in the US approach: military capabilities, civilian infrastructure, the private sector, intelligence collection, and international cooperation.

In efforts to balance these interests, the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) Law of War Manual XVI details its national approach and understanding of existing international principles. This document asserts, “as a doctrinal matter, DoD has recognized cyberspace as an operational domain in which the armed forces must be able to defend and operate, just like the land, sea, air, and space domains”.[xlv] Further, it articulates the following policies, which seemingly interpret and integrate customary international law into domestic law:

“When no more specific law of war rule or other applicable rule applies, law of war principles provide a general guide for conduct during cyber operations in armed conflict.”[xlvi] The DoD claims that the law of war anticipates technological innovation, including cyber operations so cyber operations may in certain situations constitute a use of force within the meaning of Article 2(4). It defends this position by analogizing the effects resulting from information operations to those of kinetic operations. Essentially, if the effects of cyber operations are regarded as a use of force if resulting from kinetic warfare, it can be regarded as a use of force.[xlvii] Additionally, a state’s right to self-defence, recognized in Article 51, may be triggered by cyber operations that amount to armed attack or imminent threat thereof.

Furthermore, the U.S. is considering a cyber-security strategy that may include anticipatory cyber-strikes, designed under certain circumstances to knock out adversaries’ computer systems and networks perceived as hostile. This strategy suggests that in addition to the more traditional military defence and deterrence strategies just described, the U.S. government may also be considering legal interpretations flexible enough to permit its own offensive cyber-operations below a certain threshold or against inchoate hostile cyber-activities.

In addition to these policies, the U.S. has demonstrated its interest and priorities in practice by militarizing its response to cyber-attacks through Cyber Command, bringing together the cyber components of the Navy, Marine Corp, Army and Air Force into a unified command structure.[xlviii] These policies and practices highlight the national interests—interests that will undeniably shape emergent international law since the US is working internationally to clarify how these principles apply to information operations. As described by Robert Keohane and other liberal institutionalists, this is an example of powerful states creating laws that suit their interests and attempting to set an international agenda that aligns with said interests. However, because there is no single hegemonic nation in the world (despite the pervasive military capabilities of the US), to date there has not been sufficient buy-in to make this effective and legitimate law or practice.

European Union

 

Almost all European Union member states have adopted a national cyber security strategy or mention it as an aspect of their national security strategy, putting structures in place to deal with cyber threats.[xlix] Fifteen member states include a military perspective of cyber defence, but only a few admit to investing in cyber war technologies. In 2011, cyber defence was included among the policy priorities of the European Defence Agency and, in 2012, member states agreed to using the military to lead cyber defence efforts.

In Denmark’s Defence Agreement for 2013–2017, it establishes a Centre for Cyber Security and strengthens its cyber warfare capabilities to be able to execute both offensive and defensive military operations in cyberspace.[l] In 2013, Finland announced that it would develop cyber-defence weapons, create comprehensive cyber defence capability, and establish a cyber defence unit.[li] France’s 2011 strategy contains strategies to become a global power in cyber defence, safeguard its ability to make decisions through the protection of sovereignty information, strengthen the security of its critical infrastructure, and ensure security in cyberspace.[lii] Furthermore, France has developed offensive and defensive capabilities and has units within its armed forces focused on both cyber war and defence.[liii]

Russia

 

Strategically, Russia has asserted its interest in cyber warfare, stating that “by using information warfare methods to attack an adversary’s centres of gravity and critical vulnerabilities it is possible to win against an opponent, military as well as politically, at a low cost without necessarily occupying the territory of the enemy”.[liv] Its Military Doctrine of 2010 notes the importance of information warfare during the initial phase of a conflict to weaken the command and control ability of the opponent and in the form of an information campaign during the actual battle to create a positive view within the international community.

China

 

According to Chinese scholar, Li Zhang, the Chinese stance is that the current UN Charter and other existing laws of armed conflict apply in cyberspace.[lv] But how to apply jus ad bellum may require the creation of new rules or the revision and clarification of existing international rules so that they can apply in cyberspace. China highlights the novelty of the technology and the trends of the international community in its considerations.[lvi] Furthermore, China has invested in personnel and information infrastructure for cyber warfare. Moreover, in addition to People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) operators, PLA’s Unit 61398, there is a large network of volunteer Militia Information Technology Battalions, or ‘net militia units’, recruited from civilian talent pools.[lvii]

This discussion highlights the varied perspectives and approaches nations are taking to deal with this new issue. Some of which are limited to national law, while others reference, translate, or disavow IHL. These policies and practices demonstrate the interests and actions of individual nations, but also shape international humanitarian law through diplomacy and international relations. Still, there is no rule of IHL or consensus across nations that provides recourse and enforcement for acts of cyber war that have, and will continue to occur.

Towards a Legitimate IHL

 

Both scholarly debates and responses to recent events suggest existing international humanitarian law does not adequately regulate information operations: they do not fit the phenomenon, their translations create uncertainty, and they lack enforcement mechanisms. Most notably, however, the existing laws are inadequate because they don’t definitively identify a rigidly defined problem based on consensus building and negotiation across the international system. These failures make it impossible to determine what the law is, when actions can constitute a use of force, and what the legal response is.

The Role of Law

 

Developing effective and legitimate IHL to govern cyber warfare seems nearly impossible when considering the history of international law, the complexities that have arisen in the current system, and the characteristics of the internet. Despite this however, there is a necessary void that IHL must consider and fill, based on the role of law as a social construction that is larger than existing liberal institutions, and that must adapt and evolve as necessary.

Law is manmade. It is a social construction that serves the needs and desires of those who make it.[lviii] It is a mechanism of control and a tool of social organization, allowing the community to which it belongs to express what is just and right and to punish and/or criminalize what is wrong, unwanted, or unacceptable.[lix] It determines the way its constituents behave and details the minimum standards of behaviour of an individual in his/her interactions with others in the community.[lx] It works to support human and societal desires for certainty, security, predictability, and stability by providing rigid and defined standards[lxi]; however, it is also malleable, able to be adjusted as morals, values, needs, and times change within the realm that it serves.

International law consists of the rule of conduct for states in their relations with other states. Most notably, in distinction from national laws, it is only binding if nations accept it because the notion of sovereignty implies freedom from control and irresponsibility for action. In international law, there is no centralized authority or control over the entire community, so “in too many cases, both international law and international legal procedures are either ignored by states or are distorted by the parties to further their own interest”.[lxii]

In the context of cyber war, the role of law seems to get lost in conversations about all that is new and changing. First, in this context, which has always lacked stability and clarity, the law can serve to establish standards. Throughout history, law has served as a guide for minimally acceptable behaviour. While the various stakeholders involved in cyber war prevention and enforcement all work toward the same goal, because there is no widely accepted or binding agreement of what constitutes cyber-attacks, they are all working from different starting points and with different understandings. By establishing a standard, law can harmonize the terminology used across the international community, as well as the efforts and foci of enforcement. To date, several nations have worked to set an agenda for regulating cyber war and information operation for the international community, as liberal institutionalists would argue must occur. None have succeeded. Until there is consensus between these disjointed national approaches that thoroughly identifies and legitimizes the problem, the novelties of the technologies and the actors will continue to limit the efficacy of IHL.

In addition to establishing standards for behaviour and harmonizing terminology across the international community, the next most crucial component of an effective IHL response to information operations is compliant state action. As demonstrated in the discussion of national laws in part III, states have already begun to put forth their understanding of how IHL applies in the context of cyber war; as states continue to make policy statements and respond to threats and challenges, the scope and scale of IHL will become clear.

Compliance with the Law

 

In addition to states putting forth their customary practices and policy statements, one more concern within this discussion is whether states will comply with this emergent international humanitarian law. According to Louis Henkin’s How Nation’s Behave, “almost all nations observe all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time”.[lxiii] In addition, scholars of international law and relations have substantiated this claim using empirical studies, which tend to confirm “not only that nations obey international law most of the time, but also that, to a surprising extent, even the noncomplying gradually come back into compliance over time with previously violated international legal norms”.[lxiv] Even as the international community has dramatically transformed, international customs are still largely obeyed.[lxv]

Scholarship suggests that despite the changes, developing technologies, and broadened scope of stakeholders, compliance is still likely because it results almost entirely from the functional benefits it provides; most agree that a functioning and peaceful international society is much more beneficial than a belligerent one. Harold Koh’s exploration of why nations comply with international law includes discussion of changing landscapes, actors, and technologies.[lxvi] He suggests that in transnational legal processes, public and private actors interact to make, interpret, internalize, and enforce rules of transnational law, concluding that compliance with international law is more than likely to occur, even as everything around it seems to change. Thus, once consensus building occurs and the national and international communities agree, IHL will be more legitimate, more efficacious, and the community will be more likely to comply.

Conclusion

 

New technologies, recent events, and non-state participation have increasingly complicated the understanding and application of IHL in the context of cyber war. It is these new developments—coupled with international and national policies—that work collectively to negotiate emergent IHL and to determine whether, to what extent, and in what instances information operations constitute a use of armed force and how IHL applies. While this emergent law will come into being in contentious fashion (as consensus building often does), it will be binding and legitimate, encouraging most, if not all, to eventually comply.

 

References:

 

Brenner, Susan W., and Marc D. Goodman. “In defense of cyberterrorism: An argument for anticipating cyber-attacks.” U. Ill. JL Tech. & Pol’y (2002): 1.

Center, Joint Warfighting. Joint Task Force commander’s handbook for peace operations. Books Llc, 2012.

Charter, U. N. “Charter of the United Nations.” June 26 (1945): 59.

Cirlig, Carmen-Cristina. Cyber Defence in the EU: Preparing for Cyber Warfare?. European Parliamentary Research Service, 2014.

Dunlap Jr, Charles J. “Perspectives for cyber strategists on law for cyberwar.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 5 (2011): 81.

Eichensehr, Kristen. “Cyberwar & International Law Step Zero.” (2015).

Emerging Cyber Threats and Russian Views on Information Warfare and Information Operations (2010).

Finland National Cyber Security Strategy (2013).

Foltz, Andrew C. Stuxnet, Schmitt Analysis, and the Cyber Use of Force Debate. Air War College Maxwell Air Force Base United States, 2012.

Grosswald, Levi. “Cyberattack Attribution Matters Under Article 51 of the UN Charter.” Brook. J. Int’l L. 36 (2010): 1151.

Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, 1 Bevans 631.

Hathaway, Oona A., et al. “The Law of Cyber-Attack’(2012).” California Law Review 100: 817.

Henkin, Louis. How Nations Behave. 2d ed. (Columbia University Press) (1979).

Henkin, Louis. “International human rights as rights.” Cardozo L. Rev. 1 (1979): 425.

Hoffmann, Stanley. “International systems and international law.” World Politics 14.1 (1961): 205-237.

Hollis, David, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008).

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations (2012).

Jonasi, Lucky. “A critical analysis of the applicability of international humanitarian law in the context of cyber warfare.” (2014).

Kaiser, Robert. “The birth of cyberwar.” Political Geography 46 (2015): 11-20.

Kelsey, Jeffrey TG. “Hacking into international humanitarian law: The principles of distinction and neutrality in the age of cyber warfare.” Michigan Law Review (2008): 1427-1451.

Keohane, Robert O. “International institutions and state power.” Essays in International Relations Theory, Boulder, Colo (1989).

Keohane, Robert O., and Lisa L. Martin. “The promise of institutionalist theory.” International security 20.1 (1995): 39-51.

Kerschischnig, Georg. Cyberthreats and International Law. Eleven International Publishing, (2012).

Kirchner, Stefan. “Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks Under Public International Law: State Responsibility in Cyberwar.” IUP Journal of Cyber Law 8 (2009).

Knake, Robert K. Internet Governance in an Age of Cyber Insecurity. No. 56. Council on Foreign Relations, (2010).

Koh, Harold Hongju, International Law in Cyberspace (2012), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5858&context=fss_papers, date accessed 28.09.2017.

Koh, Harold Hongju. “Why do nations obey international law?.” (1997): 2599-2659.

Lacewing, Michael. Authority and Legitimacy. (Routledge) (2013); http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/AS/WhyShouldIBeGoverned/Authorityandlegitimacy.pdf. date accessed 28.09.2017.

Priyanka R. Dev, “Use of Force” and “Armed Conflict” Thresholds in Cyber Conflict: The Looming Definitional Gaps and the Growing Need for Formal U.N. Response, 50 Texas Int’l L. J. 2, (2015).

Quigley, Kevin, Calvin Burns, and Kristen Stallard. “‘Cyber Gurus’: a rhetorical analysis of the language of cybersecurity specialists and the implications for security policy and critical infrastructure protection.” Government Information Quarterly 32.2 (2015).

Reich, Pauline C., et al. “Cyber warfare: a review of theories, law, policies, actual incidents–and the dilemma of anonymity.” European Journal of Law and Technology 1.2 (2010).

Rho, Jennifer J. “Blackbeards of the twenty-first century: Holding cybercriminals liable under the alien tort statute.” Chi. J. Int’l L. 7 (2006): 695.

Richardson, John. “Stuxnet as cyberwarfare: applying the law of war to the virtual battlefield.” J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 29 (2011): 1.

Schmitt, Michael N., ed. Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Shakarian, Paulo, Jana Shakarian, and Andrew Ruef. Introduction to cyber-warfare: A multidisciplinary approach. Newnes, 2013.

Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare 2013. (2013).

Tsagourias, Nicholas. “Cyber attacks, self-defence and the problem of attribution.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 17.2 (2012): 229-244.

UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

US Department of Defense law of war manual: an update. (2015).

Waxman, Matthew C. “Cyber-attacks and the use of force: Back to the future of article 2 (4).” (2011).

Zhang, Li. A Chinese Perspective on Cyber War, International Review of the Red Cross (2012).

 

 

[i] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations (2012).

[ii] Jennifer J. Rho, Blackbeards of the Twenty-First Century: Holding Cybercriminals Liable under the Alien Tort Statute, 7 CHI. J. INT’L L. 695 (2007).

[iii]Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[iv] Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[v] Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[vi] Jennifer J. Rho, p.140.

[vii] Susan W. Brenner & Marc D. Goodman, In Defense of Cyberterrorism: An Argument for Anticipating Cyberattacks, 2002 U. ILL. J. L. Tech. & Pol’y 1, (2002), pp. 40-41.

[viii] Paulo Shakarian, Jana Shakarian, Andrew Ruel, Introduction to Cyber-Warfare: A Multidisciplinary Approach (2013).

[ix] Paulo Shakarian…, p.78.

[x] Paulo Shakarian…, p.79.

[xi] Paulo Shakarian…, p.81.

[xii] David Hollis, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008).

[xiii] Paulo Shakarian…, p.50.

[xiv] David Hollis, p.1025.

[xv] David Hollis, p.1025.

[xvi] Bots and Botnets – A Growing Threat, http://us.norton.com/botnet/ , (2016). A “bot” is a type of malware that allows an attacker to take control of an affected computer. Also known as “web robots,” bots are usually part of a network of infected machines, known as a “botnet”, which is typically made up of victim machines that stretch across the globe. Since the bot infected computer does the bidding of its master, many people refer to these victim machines as “zombies.” The cyber criminals that control these bots are called botherders or botmasters. Some botnets might have a few hundred or a couple thousand computers, but others have tens and even hundreds of thousands of zombies at their disposal. Many of these computers are infected without their owners’ knowledge.”

[xvii] John Richardson, Stuxnet as Cyberwarfare: Applying the Law of War to the Virtual Battlefield. J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 1 (2011-2012), p.29.

[xviii] John Richardson, p.3.

[xix] Paulo Shakarian…, p.135.

[xx] Paulo Shakarian…, p.160.

[xxi] Paulo Shakarian…, p.167.

[xxii] Levi Grosswald, Cyberattack Attribution Matters Under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, 36 Brook. J. Int’l L. (2011), p. 1154.

[xxiii] Levi Grosswald, p. 1154.

[xxiv] Levi Grosswald, p. 1154.

[xxv] Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare 2013. (2013).

[xxvi] Paulo Shakarian…, p. 32.

[xxvii] Lacewing, Michael. Authority and Legitimacy. (Routledge) (2013); http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/AS/WhyShouldIBeGoverned/Authorityandlegitimacy.pdf. date accessed 28.09.2017.

[xxviii] U.N. Charter art. 2, para. 4.

[xxix] U.N. Charter art.51.

[xxx] Priyanka R. Dev, “Use of Force” and “Armed Conflict” Thresholds in Cyber Conflict: The Looming Definitional Gaps and the Growing Need for Formal U.N. Response, 50 Texas Int’l L. J. 2, (2015).

[xxxi] Priyanka R. Dev, p.385.

[xxxii] I.C.J. Reports 1996, p. 226.

[xxxiii] Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, 1 Bevans 631.

[xxxiv] Michael N. Schmitt, Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[xxxv] Michael N. Schmitt.

[xxxvi] Pauline C. Reich, Stuart Weinstein, Charles Wild & Allan S. Cabanlong, Cyber Warfare: A Review of Theories, Law, Policies, Actual Incidents – and the Dilemma of Anonymity, 1 European Journal of Law and Technology 2, (2010), p. 23.

[xxxvii] Pauline C. Reich…, p. 23.

[xxxviii] Harold Hongju Koh, International Law in Cyberspace (2012), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5858&context=fss_papers, date accessed 28.09.2017.

[xxxix] UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

[xl] UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

[xli] Priyanka R  Dev, p. 381.

[xlii] Matthew C. Waxman, Cyber-Attacks and the Use of Force: Back to the Future of Article 2(4), 36 YALE J. INT’L L. 421, 426–37 (2011).

[xliii] Matthew C. Waxman, p.427.

[xliv] Matthew C. Waxman, p.427.

[xlv] The US Department of Defense law of war manual: an update. (2015).

[xlvi] The US Department…, p.996.

[xlvii] The US Department…, p.998.

[xlviii] [xlviii] Carmen-Cristina Cirlig, European Parliamentary Research Service, Cyber defence in the EU Preparing for cyber warfare? PE 542.143 (2014).

[xlix] Carmen-Cristina Cirlig, p.6.

[l] Defence Agreement for 2013-2017.

[li] Defence Agreement for 2013-2017.

[lii] France’s Information Systems Defence and Security (2011).

[liii] Supra note 54, p.7.

[liv] Emerging Cyber Threats and Russian Views on Information Warfare and Information Operations (2010).

[lv] Li Zhang, A Chinese Perspective on Cyber War, International Review of the Red Cross (2012).

[lvi] Li Zhang, p.804.

[lvii] Supra note 54, p.5.

[lviii] Supra note 54, p.117.

[lix] Supra note 54, p.117.

[lx] Supra note 54, p.118.

[lxi] Supra note 54, p.118.

[lxii] Supra note 54, p.127.

[lxiii] Louis Henkin, How Nations Behave. 2d ed. (Columbia University Press) (1979), p. 47.

[lxiv] Harold Koh, Why Do Nations Obey International Law? Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2101, http://digitalcommmons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/2101,  (1997).

[lxv] Harold Koh, p. 2601.

[lxvi] Harold Koh.

Knowledge is for Cutting: Waging War on the Human Terrain

Sandra L. Trappen

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 100-116.

 

Sandra L. Trappen

City University of New York

 

 

Knowledge is for Cutting:

Waging War on the Human Terrain

 

Abstract:

The notion of war as a social problem is derived from a troubled legacy in the social sciences. Whereas the discipline of anthropology has a multifaceted and comprehensive record of engagement with war studies, sociology’s efforts have been less robust and critical. Previous work in anthropology looks at the history of military anthropology studies and area studies within counterinsurgency operations. This article builds on that critical work as it presents observations and findings from research conducted while the author worked with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS). The research was conducted using traditional participant-observation methods to document how HTS conducted research operations. Findings and analysis draw from the critical tradition to consider what HTS research practice might tell us about what Bruno Latour referred to as “science in the making” and to shed light on a contemporary social phenomenon—the problem of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fake science”.

 

Key Words: Human Terrain System, military anthropology, covert ethnography, war science

 

 

Introduction

 

The notion of war as a social problem derives from what might be termed a troubled legacy in the social sciences. Whereas the discipline of anthropology has a multi-faceted and comprehensive record of engagement with war studies, sociology’s efforts have been less robust and critical. War studies in sociology in the present day continue to comprise a small sub-discipline within the social sciences, as they continue to privilege applied approaches to problem solving. Such studies tend to be restricted to a small group of well-funded specialists, many of whom work with think-tanks that continue the focus on public policy and the problems of the military as an institution.[1] Previous work in anthropology that looks at the history of military anthropology studies and area studies within counterinsurgency operations has been more critical..[2] This article builds on that critical work as I present observations and findings from research conducted while working with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS).

 

Critical Theories of War and Science

 

Critical approaches owe a debt to C. Wright Mills, the only major sociologist to ever seriously consider the problem of war in society. Often at odds with peers like Merton, Mills focused on institutions, whose interpenetrating influence he wrote about prolifically in works like The Power Elite. [3] The languishing of Critical Theory in our contemporary period poses a contrast with the robust, albeit negative, critique that typified the mid-century period. I locate my work and situate observations of HTS within these frameworks, where I draw from the critical tradition to consider the more specific problem of HTS research practice; this problem shares resonance with contemporary social phenomena that are garnering attention of late—the problems of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fake science”. I address these issues in addition to other debates through discussion and analysis of findings obtained from my covert ethnographic study. Data are drawn from my time spent working for HTS.

Grounded in the tradition of the sociological imagination that situates everyday life in the complex structures of history and social power, my work helps extend debates in the social sciences about war beyond a mere focus on institutions and policy. This focus on HTS research practice is undertaken to understand how military ideas influence knowledge-making practices. In taking this approach, I make a case for the reinvigorated application of critical theory to study the problem of war in contemporary times. Consequently, instead of asking questions like “Is it ethical for social scientists to conduct this type of research?”, I ask, “What are HTS researchers doing as a matter of practice?”  Rather than the question “How does HTS support or fail to fulfil the aims of the COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine” I ask “What kinds of knowledge might be produced by these encounters?”

 

Methods and Data

 

This research was conducted using traditional participant-observation methods. Fieldwork focused on one organization, HTS, where I document how they conducted research operations. I entered my field site in Leavenworth, Kansas after being hired by BAE Systems, which during this time held the U.S. government contract to provide HTS with social science research personnel. While employed there, I obtained a secret-level security clearance which enabled me to examine different forms of textual document records (classified and unclassified). As many of the research reports were classified, I do not reproduce report excerpts here. Other documents that I reviewed included job descriptions for social scientists, research protocols, survey instruments, descriptions of data collection methods, and military manuals that contained protocols for report writing. At no time were human subjects (employees of HTS) studied.

Although I did not conduct field research operations with HTS in Afghanistan as I originally intended, I participated in three months of extensive pre-deployment social science research operations. Field experience consisted of working 12+ hours a day, during which I assumed the role of a social scientist on one of the operating teams. The HTS team members with whom I was associated were distributed across two different class cohorts comprised of approximately 70 individuals. Our days were spent learning how to implement HTS practice guidelines within the context of conducting field research operations. We prepared reports, designed survey instruments, conducted rehearsals, participated in language training, and provided daily briefings to HTS staff members. My role as a social science researcher likewise provided access to team members who were previously deployed with field research teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For purposes of full-disclosure, I think it is important to note how this research is a product of my own reflexivity. It is informed by more than 15 years of professional and academic work experience as a U.S. Army Captain working as a Signals Intelligence and field service officer and as a social scientist; I hold three advanced degrees from accredited academic research institutions, including a Ph.D. in sociology. I currently hold a full-time lectureship with a U.S. public research university, where I teach Field Research Methods and Critical War Studies. This combined experience informs my approach to problem solving and ability to interpret study data. In taking this qualitative approach, I am of course aware of the standard criticism levelled at ethnographic social science research. Qualitative research (ethnography in particular) has historically been subject to critique for reasons that it is not generalizable, falsifiable, or that it lacks validity and other quality control measures.[4] However, the strength of this approach in the current context cannot be overstated—there was no other way to access this information. Discovering, as I did, that HTS was a military intelligence operation—not a social science research operation—is a finding that could not have been obtained using statistical methods of inquiry. This finding forms the basis of an important conceptual shift that I distinguish in my critique and analysis, which looks at the pattern of institutional deception to ask not only questions about “how” but also “why?”

All research observations were made on site at HTS’s field operations office; however, where they lie within the spectrum of covert to overt observation, I cannot exactly say. My identity as a researcher and institutional affiliation were fully disclosed, though I did not disclose the intent to write about my experiences. The combination of intelligence and academic research credentials positioned me to gain entry to an organization that was known to be suspicious of traditionally trained academic applicants. Thus, while I fit the description of a traditional academic, my previous military intelligence background most likely had a favourable impact on my hire. Lastly, I should note that my observations are particular to the time and place they were made. In September 2014, shortly after my tenure with the organization ended, HTS was disbanded.

 

The Human Terrain System

 

For those not be familiar with the original controversy surrounding HTS, I offer this short overview. HTS was social science research support program that was set up in 2006 under the United States Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Founded by Colonel Steve Fondacaro and Montgomery McFate, the program was managed jointly by the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps and in partnership with its original contractor, BAE Systems.[5] HTS employed researchers that represented the full range of social science disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, area/regional studies, and linguistics. The stated mission of HTS was to provide military commanders with socio-culturally informed research. The operations’ areas of focus were primarily Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussions were underway during my tenure about plans to broaden the scope of operations, including places such as Africa, Syria, and Mexico. Although officially disbanded in September 2014, it remains a matter of speculation as to how/if their operations might be replicated and incorporated into different organizational elements within the U.S. Defense Department. [6]

Previous estimates of the efficacy of HTS research operations are mixed. While constituents internal to the U.S. Army have spoken highly of the program, going so far as to state that the Human Terrain Teams helped to keep soldiers alive by mitigating tribal rivalries and correspondingly reducing violence.[7] Others, like David Price and Hugh Gusterson, are more critical.[8] Significant efforts were undertaken at academic professional conferences, where debate focused on HTS and the issue of whether or not professionally affiliated social scientists should be engaged in military research operations. While the American Anthropology Association (AAA) did not rule out the engagement of its anthropologists with the military, they ultimately issued prohibition guidelines that stated work with HTS was not compatible with ethical anthropology practice.[9]  Unfortunately, while the AAA’s prohibition was admirable and perhaps necessary on ethical grounds, I want to point out that it produced the unfortunate effect of discouraging or precluding professionally trained social scientists from undertaking first-hand observations of HTS. The prohibition precluded informed critique because it forbade “ground truth” observations.

 

Discussion

 

Although it has been a few years since controversy regarding HTS peaked, the findings here share a dynamic relation to current events, in which there is a privileging of “alternative facts” that approximates “fake science”. This section highlights select findings and suggests that HTS research practice, as a form of what Latour called science in the making, represents a systematic effort to, more or less, “fake it and make it”.

In offering here what is mostly a negative review, I want to state my personal biases. Prior to entering the field, I was aware that the institutional environment for women at HTS was reported as being especially problematic. I did in fact experience and observe problematic encounters between men and women in the program. My bias, however, does not undermine the textual evidence upon which this report is based. Moreover, I want to emphasize that this research does not make claims of “representativeness”. The fact that I did not find evidence of institutional competency during my tenure with HTS took me by surprise. I entered the field open to the idea of potential benefit being served by having trained anthropologists assist decision-making in military operations and that this might, as HTS claimed, offer some level of protection to civilians from violence.[10] Unfortunately, in addition to the much-cited ethical problems, there were structural barriers that precluded success. Credentialed experts (specifically, those with extensive training at research universities) were viewed as suspect by HTS. The institutional social context of HTS was not, given the events I witnessed and experienced, tolerant of criticism. Voiced criticism guaranteed quick dismissal from the program. I opted to withhold personal criticism because I wanted to remain with HTS as long as possible in order to make observations; however, over the long-haul this proved unsustainable.

 

Observations and Findings

 

This section reviews select observations from my field work. Admittedly, balancing my role as both an HTS team member and researcher was difficult and required careful management of social interactions. All my work with HTS was conducted within the confines of a communications-secure facility. This imposed operating restrictions, which meant no photography, no zip drives, and no removing of reports from the premises of the facility. To overcome this, I kept detailed notes in a daily journal. While there is no consensus for evaluating qualitative research, professional practice guidelines emphasize research methods and reflexive interpretation.[11]

HTS group research operations were set up in such a way as to maintain geographic proximity to the Fort Leavenworth Kansas military base, although our work site remained strategically separated from the base operation: we were located in an unmarked facility under a Mexican restaurant within the town of Leavenworth. It is interesting to note that at one point during my security screening process, active duty Army personnel candidly admitted to me that HTS was denied permission to operate on the military base due to the poor reputation of the organization and its personnel.

One of the general takeaways of my observations was that the research competency of HTS was not only lacking—it appeared to be fully absent. This assessment, of course, is based on my own observations and findings, which are consistent with others who have written about the poor quality of the research.[12] Not only was HTS producing research of dubious value, they were using science as a shield to produce military intelligence reports, which they in turn marketed to constituent users as social science research. My own training, certification, and work experience handling intelligence reports informs this finding that HTS research and data collection methods were indistinguishable from methods common within military intelligence organizations. Put differently, HTS was not producing research in a manner consistent with the protocols that distinguish professional academic research. Rather, what they did instead was produce a form of “fake science” that was passed off as research. They were, in other words, performing science.

These performative aspects of conducting social science research were on full display during my work with HTS: I found that what HTS called “research” was not guided by empirical ethically informed research methodology. By this I mean there was limited or no use of hypothesis generation, systematic sampling, and triangulation; there were no defined audit procedures, nor were there tests for validity. Comparison studies were similarly not in evidence. Operating in place of the standard research methods that form the basis of rational inquiry and the ethic to do no harm was a discernible military logic that was informed by an ethic of violence: the aim of study was to produce sufficient knowledge of people and populations to bring them under military control. As such, violence served as both method and epistemology. The resulting fake/pseudo-science was not produced as a result of hapless failure; it was an outcome that indicated intentional practice and strategy.

My evaluations of report-based evidence, which I document in personal journals, revealed that the formatting and content of research reports as well as in the data collection protocols gave the indication that they were not, nor were they ever intended to be, research products; they were always military intelligence products that were produced and marketed to the constituents of HTS (units within and outside the U.S. military). When I evaluated their research reports (N = 60), I found the methods, practices, and protocols did not reflect even the slightest modicum of adherence to professional research standards and practices. A clearly written protocol is typically the first indicator of a professionally conceived research plan. Likewise, professional reports will often contain clearly defined concepts and definitions. Literature reviews, including the incorporation of relevant studies into research, were not typically addressed by field research teams, but were instead handled by a remote research team, located in Kansas. This team with whom I worked was further destabilized by logistical and staffing turnover problems, which were evident during my tenure; this fact precluded their efficacy and inhibited the performance of work of teams in the field. Briefly put, the basic recognizable quality indicators of research products were missing in every case that I evaluated.

One of the key goals of qualitative research is rich/thick description in addition to interpretation and explanation of social practices. To be fair, this was sometimes accomplished in reports that I reviewed; however, the research was almost never guided by explanatory hypotheses. As for quantitative research, HTS admitted it was not well-equipped to conduct quantitative research; they struggled in their efforts to produce multivariate research. A common failure in surveys that I reviewed was that they failed to clearly articulate research questions and tie them to instrument questions. Analysis was similarly bereft of substance and reflected common inference errors (i.e. ecological fallacies, overgeneralization, faulty reasoning). Noteworthy was a general tendency for research protocols to evidence confirmation bias; in many cases, question wording demonstrated the cultural biases of the researchers that wrote them. Research questions were sometimes proposed in such a manner that they would inevitably produce data that would confirm pre-existing bias. Study findings, not surprisingly, did not evidence causal connections among social phenomena and were more often predicted by study designs. Data collection efforts thus tended to produce the information researchers sought to “empirically” acquire.

Specific research methods employed by HTS researchers comprised standard interviews, surveys, and participant-observation methods; this included the infamous and deservedly ridiculed “windshield ethnography” that was performed as a standard battlefield research practice. For those uninitiated and not familiar with this critique of HTS, the term refers to the practice of driving through research operations field sites, at which point team members conducted remote visual surveys, looking through the windshields of moving vehicles. Though the practice was widely criticized, I found it to be somewhat emblematic of the failures of the HTS organization as a whole.

Team members were given daily tasks to complete what were called “Baseline Assessments”. This framework constituted the basis for the research plan. The acronyms (ASCOPE and PMESII), which are commonly used by military field personnel to analyse operations environments, guided report preparation.[13] These operations assessments, of course, bore no resemblance to social science research protocols. The differences between the two products—an intelligence product vs. a research product—were measurably different.

Research practice failures were not only limited to the research products that were produced. The research credentials of HTS researchers, I noted, were markedly different from researchers practicing in the disciplines. This occurred in spite of HTS’s extensive (and expensive) outreach efforts to recruit credentialed researchers. Researchers possessed the requisite degrees and credentials (M.A., Ph.D.); they were not specialists. Many that I came to know did not have active research agendas, nor were they affiliated with professional research organizations. Professionalization was further suspect, as evidenced by normative failures to publish and attend professional meetings. These findings, in my estimate, outweigh previous findings of deficit with regard to language skills, which I can confirm were, likewise, weak if not entirely absent. As both Gusterson and Connable have noted, the Human Terrain Teams have been challenged in their efforts to employ trained anthropologists.

Previous scholarship and professional meetings documented at length the problem of ethical conflicts with HTS. Equally problematic, however, are my observations that confirmed evidence of an overlooked dimension of the problem: researchers exhibited a profound lack of critical reflexive awareness in their approach to research. By this, I mean that I noted a wide-spread lack of awareness of how their embeddedness as social actors not only compromised their role as researchers, but also the integrity of research outcomes. This failure to acknowledge their situated role and what in ethnographic research is widely known as the Hawthorne Effect (by which a researcher’s presence can distort findings) was, in my estimate, a significant failure.[14] A similar failure occurred to the extent that researchers failed to acknowledge role conflict, particularly as this pertained to working alongside armed soldiers. The researchers’ failures to address such conflict and potential bias in their reports did not, in my estimate, occur due to wilful indifference; rather, it reflected what is perhaps best described as simple ignorance. To illustrate the point, one social scientist told me, beaming with pride no less, about a field research method he improvised in Afghanistan: he zip-tied the hands of interviewees when he conducted surveys in order to give onlookers the impression that they were not cooperating with the Americans. This was, he explained, his way of helping to ensure the safety of human subjects.

Finally, I should add here, weak attempts were made to organize field-appropriate ethical research protocols (i.e. external review). Debate on the problem of vulnerable subjects was documented in the AAA meetings as well as the in published literature that has been critical of HTS.[15] Despite the near constant refrain of protest from HTS, who argued they were working toward establishing a field IRB, HTS continued as late as 2012 to operate without oversight from an external IRB authority.

 

Analysis: Why Did They Do It?

 

Previous critics attributed HTS failure to a variety reasons, including poor management, fraud, misbehaviour, and contractor failure.[16] All of these problems were demonstrated in the time I spent working with the organization. Turmoil among the staff and research teams was, moreover, found to be normative and not exceptional. Researchers confided to me that conflict and poor working conditions typified their experience of working for HTS on deployment. HTS staff members openly voiced frustration that they were having difficulty finding follow-up assignments with the government as their contracts all approached termination. Consequently, while my observations support these criticisms, such an assessment stops short and belies more comprehensive explanations revealed to me during my tenure with HTS, as I noted there was a discernible institutional failing by design—a failing that implicated both the institutional culture and leadership of HTS. But instead of focusing on individual-level failure, I looked to the organization itself as I questioned why, for example, such a well-funded organization would tolerate such a low level of institutional competency?

The reasons for this, I will argue now, were purposive and functional. Despite HTS declarations that they aimed to produce social science research, their actions betrayed an organization that never aspired to accomplish this on a practice level. This explains why there was such a high tolerance for researchers with a deficit of skills and credentials. Rather than attribute research shortcomings to a combination of the above-cited failures and benign ignorance, I observed that some of these things appeared to be meticulously cultivated. To this end, critical voices in my research cohort, a number of whom possessed professional-level research credentials, were all terminated within weeks of their arrival for training at the Kansas facility. In my own case, I managed to remain with the group for three months, a reprieve that was temporary and purchased with silence. Once I determined there was no “science” in the HTS approach to social science, it was the act of asserting a critical voice that secured my exit from the program.

One functional advantage secured by employing credentialed (but not necessarily practiced/trained) researchers was that it furnished the Army and the U.S. government with an imprimatur of sorts—one that could be used to advance “truth” claims to support operational needs that were already determined. Worthy of note was that there was an outsized representation of credentialed economists represented in my research cohort, many of whom had been employed by the failed coalition provisional authority in Iraq; no one in this group demonstrated more than a passing familiarity with social science field research methods (though all appeared to be accomplished, even skilled, government institutional actors).

Hiring poorly trained researchers conveyed another distinct advantage: such individuals were less likely to register ethical complaints when conducting field research. This had the added benefit of minimizing role conflict and concern for human subjects because these particular individuals lacked professional/ethical social identities. In other words, they would not conventionally self-identify as researchers. Such individuals could be trusted to operate outside the boundaries of professional research practice guidelines, especially when working with vulnerable populations.

For the record, HTS researchers did not indicate to me that they were acting unethically in a wilful sense; many were simply ignorant of what constituted ethical research practice. Nevertheless, despite these professional lapses and failures, HTS researchers operated as effective accomplices to the extent that they worked to produce the “fake science” that was ultimately sold as research. In this case, I find social science research methods and discourses were used by the Army and HTS to “de-operationalize” what was always a military intelligence mission. The language of science here worked as an effective cloaking device insofar as it helped to conceal the organization’s real intelligence gathering mission. But here again one must ask, Why?

One need only reflect back to examine the U.S. Executive level strategy that was implemented in the days pre-dating the launching of the Iraq War. During that time, research and intelligence data were produced by the Office of Special Plans as part of an effort to justify an interventionist foreign policy—war to put it bluntly—that might be sold to the American people. HTS fit this model, even as it played a small but important role. Operating under the pretence of methodological positivism in conducting research operations, HTS researchers satisfied the “appearance” of possessing expertise, despite not producing research of substance. This in turn helped impart a veneer of respectability to HTS, whose data constituted the substance of reports provided to U.S. military clients and other constituents distributed across the government and beyond—to all stakeholders who stood to benefit from data that supported the political agenda to perpetuate ongoing war.

In light of this, I argue that what occurred with HTS is not isolated to the organization itself; as my observations demonstrate, the social dynamics that came to define HTS were operating across public as well as private institutional boundaries: government, military, and private/commercial. In other words, the problems associated with HTS are indicative of multi-level institutional phenomena; they potentially demonstrate a potential shift in broad-scale knowledge-power dynamics across different institutional sites, many of which are operate under the aegis of providing “good governance”.

To this end, the HTS case illustrates how war is bound up in efforts to shape ongoing understanding of concepts of knowledge, objectivity, evidence, and truth. No longer simply attuned to the control of land and resources, war shapes the scientific knowledge-making process as evidenced in how it performs research practice. In what is shaping up to be a “post-policy” and “post-truth era” of politics, groups like HTS are merely functioning nodes in a chain of organizations engaged in similar work to produce battlefield intelligence for the U.S. government and its military. As it turns out now, the trend of hybrid public/private entities, including corporations like the one that hired me (BAE Systems), operate as part an assemblage of intelligence providers, including others more recently like WikiLeaks and Cambridge Data Analytics, all of whom are vying for leverage in efforts to gather human intelligence data to engage in politics, policy, and war by other means.[17]  Like HTS, these organizations operate on the periphery, virtually, and otherwise, in social spaces dispersed far beyond the limits of ethical scrutiny. They remain invisible to the public eye as they set about the process of making “truth” and what is essentially secret fake science.

To summarize, the findings from my field work support a claim that the research products produced by HTS were never intended to conform to the guidelines of ethical empirical research in the traditional sense; their fundamental approach to research revealed they were always producing a military intelligence product. And so it follows, the credentialed degree holders hired by HTS were never expected to conduct research operations; they were hired to be role-players who were tasked to perform science in the making. These findings further demonstrate how individual and institutional actors, working cooperatively, if not always in a coordinated fashion, with counterparts in the U.S. Army, government, and private corporate sectors, operated to benefit their mutual interests, as these were articulated within a classified, closed, self-referential, information loop. Taken together, my findings suggest that HTS failures constituted a success at a military intelligence strategy level.

 

Conclusion

 

In a speech to Rutgers University in 2016, the former U.S. President Barak Obama said, “The rejection of facts; the rejection of reason and science—that is the path to decline”.[18] This political backdrop offers a basis for reflection, as it provides context for problems unfolding in the contemporary period. Evidence-based fact and truth are increasingly being rendered unstable by efforts to substitute “alternative facts” and “fake news”. I argued that HTS was producing “fake science” to the extent that what they claimed they were doing and what they were actually doing were not the same. The purpose of the organization was not, as HTS stated, to produce “socio-culturally informed research” for military commanders and staff; rather, the aim was to collect military intelligence data to support an interventionist foreign policy strategy. Put another way, HTS is what happens when rationally performative social science is given access to weapons and a budget. Through the act of subverting research methods, they upended conventional research practice to produce social facts that fit a pre-determined war strategy. As such, they rendered questionable the knowledge produced by their efforts. The impact HTS had on academic debates should not, furthermore, be underestimated. To be sure, there may be long-lasting implications for how the academic disciplines themselves might be shaped by wartime knowledge-making practices. When we consider that military and defence funding, unlike traditional academic funding, is potentially more resilient (if not entirely impervious) to the market influences and political whims that have come to typify the neoliberal takeover of universities, it is not inconceivable that the insurgent “expert” of the future might not be an expert at all.

The HTS research program, it was noted, ended its operations. The findings presented here remain relevant, nonetheless, as they offer a window into understanding ongoing developments in regard to knowledge-making practices; they call attention to how HTS, even if it is judged to be a “failed” research organization, managed to succeed in ways that may be relevant to understanding the current political moment. The HTS research model, for all of its flaws, is symptomatic of larger social, political, and economic problems. As a model, I have argued that it presented us with a disruptive counterinsurgency model for doing research. Boundaries were blurred and things were not as they seemed. Far from demonstrating that unethical “bad” science was produced, I argued that HTS was performing research, which is a qualitatively important distinction. As such, the HTS example illustrates how war and militarism work together to reconfigure knowledge-making practices. The result was “fake science” produced not as matter of ineptitude, but through purposive design. In this respect, the HTS descent into pseudo-science lies within a continuum of developments in which the contrived performance of empirical research becomes normative in efforts to “make” and “un-make” the factual registers of military research operations.

To summarize briefly, ethical empirical research methods were not incorporated in HTS’s approach to conducting research. They did not, based on my observations, possess the technical knowledge or ability to incorporate competent ethical research methodology into their field research practice. My situated observations of the culture of the organization—that is, the social context within which research was produced and where I worked and produced reports—do not support findings that there were intentions to produce this type of research. To be clear, this is not to say that the organization was not capable of producing a descriptive field report that contained value. I am simply stating that I did not observe evidence of this. Furthermore, using untrained field researchers who possessed neither the technical research acumen nor, for that matter, the appropriate reflexive, tactical, or situational awareness to assure their own safety and the safety of their subjects was a despicable practice. The researchers themselves, although many seemed not to know it, were in my estimate expendable assets. Deception and to some extent “self-deception” appeared to be hard-wired into the group’s organizational culture, which operated as a small unit functional elaboration of the larger deception upon which the entire political project of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East continue to be based. One area in which HTS did excel was in efforts to maintain the appearance of doing research. This was, in my view, accomplished to the detriment of conducting effective, substantive, ethical research operations.

As for the issue of whether or not social scientists should embed themselves with armies conducting military operations, I think the ethical question is settled. The original AAA mandate—that professionally identified social scientists should not affiliate with these operations—was in my estimate both appropriate and necessary. The problem is that HTS research operations were never intended to function as stated; they were always a military intelligence operation. And so on that basis, I concur with findings that suggest military Civil Affairs units and Psychological Operations units operating within the Army’s Special Operations Command are organizationally better equipped to conduct intelligence research operations to meet the needs of the military.[19] Notwithstanding, I think there is a legitimate liminal zone that can be carved out where academic researchers working from critical paradigms might conduct ethnographic research within organizations like HTS, recognizing there are access issues and other limitations (security clearance and document classification restrictions), all of which impact publishing. To this end, it is the duty of scholarship to engage with these organizations, if only to bear witness, so they might render visible social phenomena that governments, armies, and corporations would prefer to remain occluded from observation. Forsaking these realms of inquiry—leaving them to be solely occupied by military researchers—guarantees that military methodologies driven by epistemologies based on ethics of violence will prevail, for they alone will regulate access and determine what counts as knowledge on the battlefield.

HTS reminds us that where there is a public display of performing research, power too is on display. The group’s research activities constituted an expression of political power, in which the power to produce “research” functioned to confirm the status of researchers as the “real” knowledge experts. With that, the real power of HTS research lies in how it effectively undermined the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable empirical research practice. In doing so, it operated outside the techno-mechanical process of collecting data; they challenged the boundary of what academics like to think of as the institutional “inside” that defines research practice. Power and research methods worked together in this manner through the modulation of affect to create a research spectacle—a veritable theatre of war, or what Clough (2012) refers to as “a becoming obscene of the social”, where there is a “technicalization or socionormalization of violence that resets the limits of obscenity in a redesign of the scene of the social that is resonant with ongoing war”.[20] Not empirical certainty, but ambiguity, indeterminacy, and the modulation of affect are the predictable outcomes of research based on a counterinsurgency model. Such a model is arguably incompatible with the pursuit of knowledge to advance human understanding.

 

References

 

CEAUSSIC (2009) Final Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. 14 October, http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/CEAUSSIC-Releases-Final-Report-on-Army-HTS-Program.cfm   date accessed 4 April 2017.

Clough P.T., “War By Other Means: What Difference Do(es) the Graphic(s) Make?” In: Karatzogianni, Athina and Adi Kuntsman (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion (London: Palgrave) (2012).

Connable Ben, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence,” Military Review, (March-April 2009): p. 58.

Gentile Gian, Think Again: Counterinsurgency, ForeignPolicy.com, (January 13, 2009), https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/01/13/think-again-counterinsurgency/ Date accessed 19 June, 2017.

Gentile Gian, Michael Linick, and Michael Shurkin, The Evolution of U.S. Military Policy from the Constitution to the Present, (Rand Corporation) (2017).

Glenn David, “Program to Embed Anthropologists with Military Lacks Ethical Standards.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 December, 2009, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Program-to-Embed/49344/ Date accessed 3 April 2017.

Gonzalez Roberto, Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power, (University of Texas Press) (2004).

González RJ, Gusterson H and Price D, Introduction: War, culture, and counterinsurgency. In: Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press) (2009).

Griffin M., An anthropologist among the soldiers: Notes from the field. In: Kelly JD, Jauregui B, Mitchell ST and Walton J (Eds.) Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) (2010).

Gusterson Hugh, “The U.S. Military‘s Quest to Weaponize Culture.” The Bulletin Online, June 20 (2008), http://thebulletin.org/us-militarys-quest-weaponize-culture Date accessed 3 July 2017.

Gusterson Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher 86:4-16 (2009).

Gusterson Hugh, “Do Professional Ethics Matter in War?”, The Bulletin Online, March 4, 2010, http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/hugh-gusterson/do-professional-ethics-matter-war

Gusterson Hugh, “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror.” In: John Kelly; et al. Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency (University of Chicago Press) (2010) pp. 279–298.

Gusterson Hugh, Is Resistance Futile?, Paper presented at workshop on Capturing Security Expertise, Copenhagen, June 16-17, 2011.

Kassel Whitney, “The Army Needs Anthropologists,” Foreign Policy (2015) https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/28/the-army-needs-anthropologists-iraq-afghanistan-human-terrain/  Date accessed 18 June, 2017.

Kelly John, Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (University of Chicago Press) (2010).

Latour Bruno, How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Boston: Harvard University Press) (1988).

Lee R.M, Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research (Buckingham: Open University Press) (2000).

Lucas GR Jr, Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology, (Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press) (2009).

McFate Montgomery, “Cultural Knowledge and Common Sense,” Anthropology Today 24(1):27 (2008).

Mills C. W. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Price David, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State.  (Counterpunch: AK Press) (2011).

Price David, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, (Duke University Press) (2008).

Quarantelli Enrico, “Nature and Conditions of Panic”, American Journal of Sociology, (1954) Vol. 60:267-75.

Salzman P.C. , “On Reflexivity,” American Anthropologist, 104(3), pp. 805-813 (2002).

Segal David and James Burke, Military Sociology, (Sage Publications, Volumes 1-4) (2012).

Schrag, ZM, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2010).

 

 

[1] Segal, David and James Burke, Military Sociology, (Sage Publications, Volumes 1-4) (2012); Gentile, Gian, Michael Linick, and Michael Shurkin, The Evolution of U.S. Military Policy from the Constitution to the Present, (Rand Corporation) (2017).

[2] Price, David, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, (Duke University Press) (2008); Gonzalez Roberto, Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power, (University of Texas Press) (2004); Lucas GR Jr, Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology, (Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press) (2009); Kelly John, Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency. (University of Chicago Press) (2010); González RJ, Gusterson H and Price D, Introduction: War, culture, and counterinsurgency. In: Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press) (2009); Griffin, M., An anthropologist among the soldiers: Notes from the field. In: Kelly JD, Jauregui B, Mitchell ST and Walton J (Eds.) Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) (2010).

[3] Mills, C. W. The Power Elite. (Oxford University Press) (1956).

[4] There is a tradition in the social sciences dating back to the time of social psychologist George Herbert Mead that more recently includes others like Michael Burawoy, Norman Denzin, and Mitchell Duneier, who advocate for the importance of journal writing, self-conscious reflection, and interpretation when making observations. Situated ethnography as such has found increasing support in the literature, in which researchers are encouraged to incorporate active measures; they essentially operationalize reflexivity by systematically documenting how their personal experiences influence the research process. Thus, while quantitative methods value prediction, the replication of research methods, and the social distancing of researchers from subjects, qualitative work promotes the closeness of researchers to subjects, where inter-subjectivity and epistemological reflexivity are understood to be assets and not liabilities. See Burawoy, Michael. “The Extended Case Method”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1, Mar. (1998), pp. 4-33; Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd edition) (2005); Duneier, Mitchell, Sidewalk (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (2001).

[5] Gusterson, Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher, 86:4-16 (2009); “The U.S. Military‘s Quest to Weaponize Culture”. The Bulletin Online, June 20 (2008); and Is Resistance Futile?, Paper presented at workshop on Capturing Security Expertise‘ Copenhagen, June 16-17, 2011; Montgomery McFate, “Cultural Knowledge and Common Sense”, Anthropology Today 24(1):27 (2008).

[6] Kassel, Whitney, “The Army Needs Anthropologists,” Foreign Policy (2015).

[7] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[8] Price, David, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. (Counterpunch: AK Press) (2011); Gusterson Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher 86:4-16 (2009).

[9] Glenn, David, “Program to Embed Anthropologists with Military Lacks Ethical Standards”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 December, 2009.

[10] This logic constituted the basis for how the program was originally sold to the U.S. government/military by the group’s founders, Colonel Steve Fondacaro and Montgomery McFate.

[11] Salzman, P.C., “On Reflexivity”, American Anthropologist, 104(3), pp. 805-813; see also Hsuing Ping-Chun, “Teaching Reflexivity in Qualitative Interviewing”, Teaching Sociology,(2008): 36(3), pp. 211-226.

[12] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[13] ASCOPE:  Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, and People, Events; PEMESI: Political, Economic, Military, Social, Infrastructure, and Information. See military field manuals FM 6-0, “Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces.” and FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency.”

[14] Lee R.M, Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research (Buckingham: Open University Press) (2000).

[15] Schrag, ZM, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2010).

[16] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[17] Von Clausewitz, Karl, On War, trans. Col. J.J. Graham. New and Revised edition with Introduction and Notes by Col. F.N. Maude, in Three Volumes (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & C., 1918) (Vol. 1. Chapter 1: What is War?).

[18] Keynote address given at Rutgers University’s commencement, May 15, 2016.

[19] Connable, Ben, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence”, Military Review, (March-April 2009): p. 58.

[20] P.T. Clough, “War By Other Means: What Difference Do(es) the Graphic(s) Make?” In: Karatzogianni, Athina and Adi Kuntsman (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion (London: Palgrave, 2012),    p. 28.

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 117-131.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

The nuclear technology debate returns.

Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

 

 

Abstract

The presented article revolves around the widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe in Japanese cinematography and the artists’ responses to the incident. They give the viewers clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe. The author analyses the chosen post-Fukushima films, points out the recurring depictions, and deliberates on the ways of presenting nuclear power. The analysis starts with a brief comparison of post-Hiroshima and post-Fukushima cinematography. The author then focuses on activists’ art in the form of anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai) and pictures that can be classified as shōshimin-eiga: Kebo no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) and Leji (Homeland, 2014). The third part of the article puts emphasis on the description of the catastrophe as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016). The last part of the paper presents the Western point of view and covers analysis of films such as Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015).

Key words: Fukushima, nuclear power, post-Fukushima film, Japanese cinema, catastrophe

 

Introduction

 

The widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe, the future of the Japanese reactors, and the suffering, fears, and social problems the nation has to face have also influenced Japanese cinema. The artists’ responses to the incident and the aftermath that is still felt have resulted in a cinematic wake that happened surprisingly quickly after the catastrophe. The narrations about nuclear power, even though considered as a taboo that should not be violated while the memories of the tragedy are still alive, are constructed so as to face social fears; they give the viewers (also around the world) clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe.

The recurring pictures that can be found in most of the post-Fukushima films are depictions of the off-limits exclusion zone, guarded by the government because of high-level radiation. The artists also underline the contrast between the silence in the zone and the hustle and bustle of the temporary houses and schools occupied by the victims. Nuclear power itself is presented in two ways: neutrally, for example in Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota or Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono, or in the form of activist art and anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai). It is almost impossible to find positive commentaries about nuclear power in post-Fukushima films; however, the catastrophe can be described as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016).

The primary purpose of this paper is to analyse the narrations about nuclear power in Fukushima-related Japanese films in the context of the directors’ personal points of view on the issue and the impact of their works on Japanese society. As can be perceived, observing the catastrophe through subjective lenses is almost unavoidable as the authors of the aforementioned films are not only distant observers. They combine personal experiences with the national trauma they are part of. Due to this fact, the presented article aims to deliberate on the problem of how Japanese filmmakers have presented nuclear technology since 2011, while linking their works to the films that emerged after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Another point of focus presented in this paper is how the audience understands the aforementioned films about the tragedy and why they are gaining popularity in Japanese society. Moreover, it is also worth focusing on the impact the pictures may have on collective memory, as will be discussed later. The examples of the films presented in this article were chosen because of their popularity and significance for the development of the nuclear technology debate.

 

From Hiroshima to Fukushima

 

The massive and immediate destruction caused by nuclear energy and the fact that the source of this annihilation is human-made traumatizes the collective memory beyond any measurable limits. What is significant in the case of nuclear disasters is the fact that its results function in two visual orders. On the one hand, pictures of untouched landscapes juxtaposed with sudden, total destruction bring to mind apocalyptic visions of the End of Times which are known from Western depictions. On the other hand, the invisible radiation and lack of immediate results (or, in other words, “immediate victims”) have no simple visual representations; this traumatizes the imagination the most[1]. The visible effects of the destroyed surroundings of these catastrophes are extended in time by the menace of nuclear contamination that will also affect society in the future[2]. The impact of the nuclear catastrophe on the Japanese nation, happening twice in a relatively short period, put the filmmakers in a situation in which they try to present on the screen a tragedy that is impossible to understand. David Deamer observes that “Each atom bomb film overcomes the spectre of impossibility in its way; each in its own way creates a singular encounter with the nuclear attacks […]”.[3]

Visions of the apocalypse derived from Western culture influenced the rise of the post-Hiroshima subgenre of Japanese cinema: hibakusha. Narratives which can be classified under this term introduced the topic of the atom bombs and explored the meaning of “Hiroshima” for the post-war generations[4]. The critical potential that characterized the hibakusha films, the emphasis on the sociological context of the catastrophe, and the variety of other genres combined with the determinants of the subgenre allows it to be connected to the post-Fukushima cinematic wake. It should be pointed out that the earliest on-screen depictions of the destruction caused by nuclear power were dominated by the three genres which also appear most often in the case of the March 11 incident: contemporary drama, monster movies, and documentary[5]. For example, analogies can be found between Ito Sueo’s Hiroshima Nagasaki ni okeru genshi bakudan no eikyō (The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,1946) and Hiroyuki Kawai’s Nuclear Japan (2014) documentary films, both of which are described in the next part of this article. Both films use original footage and capture with scientific precision the tragedy of the Japanese nation. However, when Kawai restrains himself from providing a plethora of drastic pictures of mutilated bodies, Sueos’s footage shows the drama without euphemisms. The second part of the very first post-bombing documentary[6] devoted to Nagasaki presents narrations about the tragedy of particular people which can also be found in the film from 2014. The post-Hiroshima style of producing dramas, like Shindo Kaneto’s melodrama Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, 1952) or Shohei Imamura’s Kuroi ame (Black Rain, 1989), both of which emphasize sentimentalism and focus on the emotions of particular people, can be found in Kibô no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono. It should be underlined that the differences found in the films mentioned above are intangibly connected to the nature of the two catastrophes: genocide in the case of the World War II events and a tragedy initiated by an unfortunate series of natural factors.

In terms of the impression on American society, March 11, 2011 is also compared to the events of 9.11[7]. It was Takashi Mikuriya who first suggested that the sengyo (the long post-war period in Japan) ended with the Fukushima disaster. Furthermore, Mikuriya proposed another term, saigo (literally: next, after), to describe the time “after the catastrophe”.[8] The new era, in the opinion of the Japanese researcher, has the potential to become more democratic, thus a period full of hope and peace[9]. Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, deliberating on the artistic pursuits related to the nuclear disaster of March 11, point out in their publication that “Fukushima forced artists across the genres to reconsider the relationship between art, representation, and live experience”.[10] The experience of the disaster and the analysis of the emotions accompanying the traumatic events appeared not only in film but also in literature and performing arts. Here, it is worth mentioning the artistic pursuits on the grounds of Japanese theatre and the plays of Oriza Hirata and Toshiki Okada: the former, in his play entitled Sayonara (Good bye, 2011), uses a female android as a metaphor for the failure of the human-technological understanding which resulted in the Fukushima disaster[11]. On the other hand, Okada’s theatre, defined as “musical theatre with ghostly apparitions”[12], aims to criticize Japanese cultural norms, society, and politics. His Jimen to yuka (Ground and Floor, 2013) performance “depicts a group of people experiencing an intense post-Fukushima malady”,[13] which metaphorically comments on the failure of the Japanese political system[14].

 

Activist art or searching for the ultimate solution

 

The controversy arising around the catastrophe that appeared due to the social accusations of the negligence of the government resulted in the emerging activist movement. While searching for the ultimate solution to the problem, both in the West and in Japan, the filmmakers strive to answer whether it is necessary to rely on nuclear energy in future technological development. It should also be underlined that the activists define nuclear power as unequivocally wrong and postulate that its use should cease.

One of the most publicly visible activists who uses film as a medium to communicate his postulates is Hiroyuki Kawai[15]. This professional lawyer who decided to become a documentary filmmaker was born in Manchuria, China, but he mentally tied himself to Japan after he graduated from the University of Tokyo in the 1970s. His interest in lawsuits against nuclear power plants reached its peak after Fukushima, but even before the tragic events of March 2011, he was deeply involved in the fight to eradicate nuclear power from Japan[16]. Kawai admits that his main purpose is to protect the environment, especially from the tragic nuclear disasters that have long-term effects on natural habitats. Analysing how to reach a wide audience and not satisfied with the number of people attending his lectures, the activist realized that explaining his objectives with a movie would be the best way to popularize his ideas.

Nuclear Japan, released in 2014, was to answer the question that had been asked by the director many times: Has nuclear power brought happiness to the Japanese nation? The documentary goes back to the seven hours before the catastrophe and the camera’s eye accompanies a group of firefighters. They accomplish different tasks, from looking for missing people after the tsunami, to the disposal of radioactive materials. However, their efforts are only presented to underline the message conveyed by the author. At every step, he stresses that if it had not been for the nuclear disaster, many more lives could have been saved[17] and, consequently, he accuses the Japanese government for its faulty decisions. In his work Kawai combines footage illustrating the efforts of the public services and the pain of civilians with interviews with experts (e.g. Tetsunari Iida, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies) and, as he refers to on his website, “facts and evidence”.[18] Moreover, the documentary offers a wealth of technical information on how the reactors function, nuclear policy in Japan, and safety regulations[19]. However, even though the author tries to present his findings in the most objective way possible, he cannot help avoiding subjectivization of the matter.

Kawai presents only a one-sided point of view, demonizing nuclear power and providing the ultimate solution to the problem: “to halt nuclear power plants all over Japan[20]”. The director perceives his movie as a tool that helps to convey his ideas and bring them to a wider audience, not only to those in academia. It should also be underlined that thanks to the complexity of the presented issues and the unique footage of the testimonies provided by the victims, the film was considered as evidence during the trials related to the catastrophe[21]. Even though the event has an obvious tragic meaning, the message Kawai tries to convey can be read as a positive look at the future of the nation. He observes that “the Fukushima disaster has increasingly forced the courts and the judges to expose the lies of the government and the nuclear industry, as well as take responsibility for the huge damage caused[22]”. Kawai creates an analogy to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, comparing the government reactions, commentaries, and actions taken. It is visible that the director has a feeling that the catastrophe, paradoxically, helped to raise the tabooed issue of the post-nuclear trauma. Consequently, Kawai perceives himself as a representative of a new movement that will shed some light on the safety of nuclear energy in Japan.

 

Screening the zone, preserving the memories

 

The catastrophe and form of post-Fukushima societal order in Japan are also vividly presented in dramas. In this category, under the label of the shōshimin-eiga[23] genre, there is a plethora of poetic pictures that aim to not only show the destruction, despair, and lack of hope, but also the preservation of collective memories, as well as on the discourse on the future of the nation. The lightly fictionalized narrations, depicting the tragedy of particular families, are designed to challenge viewers’ emotions and, in the case of foreign audiences, make them familiar with the problems of Japanese society. It can be observed that the message proposed by the authors of the post-Fukushima dramas conveys more neutral meaning than in the case of Kawai’s documentary. Under the genre of drama, it is the story of the suffering and pain that matters the most, not the strict anti- or pro- nuclear point of view of the author.

One of the first post-Fukushima drama films, and, at the same time, one of the most appreciated by foreign critiques[24], is Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) directed by Sion Sono. The picture received the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival. The author focuses on presenting the histories on two families uprooted from their home cities, who strive to fight back for their lost safety by adjusting themselves to the new reality. Sono pays great attention to showing what has happened to the mental condition of the protagonists since the traumatic experiences and the extent to which it is possible to overcome the trauma. The feeling of the constant danger of radioactivity causes the families to develop neuroses, compulsive behaviours, and anxieties. For example, Izumi Ono (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of Yoichi Ono (Jun Murakami), is obsessed with protecting her body from contact with radioactive objects or places. When she realizes that she is pregnant, Izumi not only covers her whole house with aluminium foil, but also compulsively checks the radiation level on a Geiger counter—everything to protect her unborn child. By showing three generations of protagonists fighting for survival, the director undertakes a discourse about the future of the country[25]. Even though it is a farmer Yasuhiko Ono (Iaso Natsuyagi) and his wife Chieko Ono (Naoko Otani) whose fight is depicted in the most dramatic way, it is the child yet to be born that will bear all the consequences of the situation. The actions taken by Izumi to protect her child, depicted in an almost humorous way, show the desperate attempts the Japanese people undertook to preserve their health. In this case, Sono demonstrates that it is impossible to escape the fate and every desperate attempt seems to be grotesque in the face of the inevitable consequences of the radiation.

Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota is another film about the results of the Fukushima catastrophe that was mostly appreciated abroad. Even though the director has more documentary pictures than fictionalized dramas on his account, he made a feature film to discuss the post-catastrophe issues. However, the critics observed that Kubota’s film differs from the aforementioned Kibō no kuni in terms of the presentation of emotions. The critics accused the director of creating a narrative which “perversely refuses to engage on a dramatic or emotional level, or to look its unavoidable political context in the eye”.[26] The picture, screened in 2014 at the Berlin Film Festival, mostly explores the toxic relations between the characters, thus resembling Shohei Imamura’s narrations about the dark blood ties that led to the tragedy in the rural, apparently idyllic setting[27]. Kubota focuses on the topic that returns in almost every post-Fukushima drama: the ancestors’ attachment to the land. Here, the Japanese concept of furusato, a mythologized picture of a traditional birthplace situated in the beauty of nature, appears as a lost part of Japanese culture. The characters are trapped in the world between—it is impossible to return to the cradle because the furusato is lost and, at the same time, they cannot start new lives. Their longing for the lost safety leads them to transgressive behaviour, as in the case of Soichi (Seiyo Uchino), who spends his days loitering around the entertainment district, unable to find a new job[28].

Manifesting a literal-minded approach to constructing a plot that resembles documentary films, the director especially focuses on the daily routines of the people influenced by the catastrophe[29]. Paradoxically, the most striking scenes in the film are not those presenting the dynamic actions of the characters, but the ones depicting rural labour or food preparation. There, Kubota emphasizes the attempts of the protagonists to maintain social order, even though, together with the houses, the bonds of the family have been destroyed.

 

Monsters reactivated

 

Cultural anxiety about radiation and the fear of nuclear fallout appeared on Japanese screens right after World War II. Among the science fiction films featuring a variety of monsters, mysterious creatures, and physically changed people, the greatest popularity was won by Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla series. Except for its similarity to Ryūjin—the deity of the sea that appears in the scriptures of the ingenious Japanese religion, Shinto—the dragon-like creature that emerged from the ocean symbolized the fears of the sudden development of deadly technology and the results of its use in warfare[30]. The appearance of the monster emerging from the water was described in the first film of the series, Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), as the result of the H-bomb experiments[31]. What is more, Honda’s films, especially the first one, bring together unnamed fears of a mystery that comes from ‘the outside’. As Toni A. Perrine observes in her publication concerning the cultural anxieties of the nuclear age, both the appearance of nuclear energy and the cinematic Gojira can be perceived as acts of “transformation of matter into an unimaginable destructive force”.[32]

It is not surprising that the rubber monster came back to screens again after the Fukushima catastrophe and its symbolic connections to the destructive power of nuclear energy were reactivated. Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, at the same time breaks with both the familiar schemes from the previous productions and the references to the canonic appearance of the monster. However, what is most significant in terms of researching the ways in which the Fukushima disaster is depicted in Japanese film is that Gojira is no longer a result of nuclear experiments. It comes with a tsunami wave, earthquakes and radiation, but the origins of the creature remain unknown. Furthermore, the role of the Americans in the narrative has changed: in the newest production, they are the most important allies in the deadly fight[33]. It is also worth mentioning the focus on the reactions of the catastrophe victims presented in Anno and Higuchi’s film. As happened on the streets of Japanese cities, in Shin Gojira the people measure the radiation and share information on social media websites. Also, the bitter portrait of the government and the news resembles real life: the officials, under the burden of bureaucracy, are unable to cooperate and the transmitted meetings are filled with clichés and jargon[34]. The nuclear debate in the newest Gojira film is concluded with optimism: even though severe damage was done to the metropolis and uncountable deaths resulted from the officials’ reluctance, the monster is finally defeated. It turns into a concrete monument, remaining in the heart of the city as a testament to the victims of the tragedy.

It is also interesting yet surprising that the appearance of a monster in post-Fukushima narration can be found in Takashi Murakami’s film Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The director’s debut, although kept in the light comedy tone, raises a question that was overlooked in other productions: how can children’s trauma after the catastrophe be minimized? Even though the tragedy that hit Japanese society is not explicitly named, the viewer realizes that the young Masashi Kusakabe’s (Takuto Sueoka) father died because of a catastrophe somehow related to nuclear power. Together with his mother, the youngster moves to a rural area—escaping both the damaged environment and the painful memories. However, soon it turns out that the children in the village are obsessed with a smartphone app that allows them to control fantastic (animated) pet monsters and organize ‘dog fights’ between the creatures. Here, the director uses comedy to tell a story about mysterious scientists who study how to control catastrophic forces by manipulating students’ emotions[35]. The pets, called F.R.I.E.N.D.S., are vessels that transmit the feelings of their little masters to the control centre. The fact that the children put a lot of energy into the game leads to the birth of a huge monster that tries to destroy the area.

The film was negatively reviewed and the ending was considered naive; it was also dismissed for its camera work and ragged special effects[36]. It was also observed that the coming-of-age story mixed with philosophical themes of fighting with trauma, evil, and self-limitations was incomprehensible for younger viewers and too infantile for adults[37]. However, Murakami’s film resembles his artistic pursuits: as a contemporary painter and sculptor, he is recognized for combining high art with pop-cultural aesthetics[38], which is also visible in the visual style and plot of his debut. The author tried to introduce a fresh style of talking about the Fukushima catastrophe—a remedy for the children’s trauma hidden under a layer of family cinema. Even though it was too soon to combine the painful memories with cute animated characters, Murakami’s film remains a unique and thus creative and brave way of presenting the catastrophe in Japanese cinema.

 

From the Western point of view

 

Fukushima-related narrations and the nuclear technology debate since 2011 have appeared not only in Japanese cinema. A critical comment on the catastrophe also comes from Western directors, among who should be mentioned Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015). Through their works, these filmmakers from abroad share their compassion and feelings of being greatly moved by the tragic events. It is worth mentioning here that Doris Dörrie, the author of Kirschblüten – Hanami (Cherry Blossoms, 2008), was motivated by the fact that she felt a strong connection with the Japanese nation. She visited Fukushima right after the tragic events and almost anthropologically gathered the testimonies of the victims, which she later used in constructing the plot of her film. Dörrie’s Fukushima revolves around the problem of mutual understanding between Western and Japanese culture, which was also a central subject in Kirschblüten…. In the post-Fukushima narrative, the relation that emerges between a young German woman, Maria (Rosalie Thomass), and the elderly geisha, Satomi (Kaori Momoi), casts new light on the collective experience of an entire generation of Japanese people who suffered the catastrophe and the fear of radiation[39]. When the women protagonists by chance move in together to the Satomi’s partly destroyed house in the closed Zone, a subtle bond develops between them. Depicting Maria’s struggle to understand a different culture while trying to be helpful in rebuilding the retired geisha’s life, the director aimed to emphasize how difficult it is for foreigners to cope with unfamiliar traditions. In one of the interviews, Dörrie admits that her main purpose was to answer the question: Can the Westerner, who does not understand Eastern mentality and culture, in any way help Japanese people?[40] Even though the narrative revolves around the post-catastrophe trauma, the central part of the film is the relations, based on the author’s autobiographical references, between women symbolizing disparate cultural backgrounds.

Documentary insights can also be found in the films presenting the catastrophe from the Western point of view. Here it is worth mentioning the pictures by Alain de Halleux and Matteo Gagliardi, who combine their original footage with scientific explanations of the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and personal commentaries. The first author visits the city of Minamisōma, situated 25 kilometres from the reactor, in order to present the everyday struggle of the population of that area. Many of the inhabitants want to be evacuated, while others wish to stay in their homeland and rebuild the city; this results in increasing conflict within the community. Moreover, the Tepco company, which is financially responsible for compensation, refuses to pay their fines; this forces the victims to search for funds globally[41]. The author uses the contrasting Eastern characters of a Zen master and a samurai as a metaphor of the two attitudes towards the rebuilding of a new social order after the tragedy. From this perspective, the victim can choose the course of action in Halleux’s film: he can either accept his fate and stay in his furusato, or fight for a better future for the next generations. The purpose of Halleux’s film was to present the problem to international viewers to encourage financial support from the worldwide community.

However, while the Belgian director restrains himself to the presentation of interviews with victims that were mostly recorded two years after the incident, it is Gagliardi who demonstrates a greater diversity of cinematic techniques. In his film, this Italian filmmaker combines footage recorded when the events started with animated sequences, fragments of TV programs, and experts’ commentaries. Gagliardi balances the need to remain objective against the personal emotions and assessment of the journalist Pio d’Emilia, who experienced the fear of being in Japan during the catastrophe. The Italian Sky TV reporter decided to leave Tokyo the day the earthquake struck and move to the areas affected by the tsunami with the intention of being the first foreign observer to document the tragedy[42]. Except for an unreleased interview with the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, which casts new light on the government’s actions[43], Gagliardi’s film also offers a unique approach to the understanding of the viewer’s perception. The animated manga-style sequences are used to make the material more comprehensible and visually attractive.

Taking into consideration the examples presented above, it can be observed that a post-Fukushima current also appeared in the West and these foreign filmmakers have added new insights into the discourse about nuclear power. The narrations provided by Western filmmakers could also be starting points for further academic research, such as comparisons of films by authors from distinct cultural backgrounds, analysis of the approach to nuclear energy, as well as the techniques and genres chosen to cover the issue.

 

Conclusion

 

The nuclear power debate that returned after the Fukushima catastrophe has not faded in film-making. Even though the Japanese films concerning the issue seem to be more appreciated abroad, filmmakers such as Takashi Murakami and Hiroyuki Kawai consider deliberating on the problem to be part of their artistic missions. Possible answers to the questions of whether the Japanese nation should rely on nuclear energy in the future are presented by the directors in documentary or family cinema form, thus aiming to give the viewer a way to understand the complex causes, results, and political issues related to the tragedy. Others, such as Sion Sono and Nao Kubota, try to show the problems of particular members of the traumatized society to a wider audience and, as Doris Dörrie has done in the West, focus on the emotions accompanying the loss of the homeland. What is more, monster films such as the aforementioned Shin Gojira, also play a key role in presenting the problem on the screen, albeit in symbolic form. Therefore, no matter the motivation of the individual artists, it should be emphasised that there are many voices and sides in the discussion about nuclear energy. In this case, films help to express the points of view of the directors and communicate their findings to a wider audience.

As Małgorzata Sadowska observes, Fukushima deprived the Japanese people of the illusion they could use to think about atomic energy. Since 2011, it has no longer been possible to recognize atomic energy as simply bad (the bomb) or good (the power plant), as it was the latter that brought about annihilation[44]. For the people who survived the catastrophe, as well as those who observed it on TV screens abroad, cinema can become not only a source of information (in the case of the documentary productions), but also a medium that helps in understanding the influence of the catastrophe on the inhabitants of Japan.

 

References

 

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Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts] (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

Miyamoto Yuki, “Gendered Bodies in Tokusatsu: Monsters and Aliens as the Atomic Bomb Victims,” The Journal of Popular Culture 49:5 (2016), pp. 1086 – 1106.

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Filmography

Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015, Matteo Gagliardi)

Gojira [Godzilla] (1954, Ishiro Honda)

Grüße aus Fukushima [Fukushima, My Love] (2016, Doris Dörrie)

Kibō no kuni [The Land of Hope] (2012, Sion Sono)

Leji [Homeland] (2014, Nao Kubota)

Mememe no kurage [Jellyfish Eye] (2013, Takashi Murakami)

Nuclear Japan (2014, Hiroyuki Kawai)

Shin Gojira [New Godzilla] (2016, Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1946, Ito Sueo)

Welcome to Fukushima (2013, Alain de Halleux)

[1] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017), p. 2 – 3.

[2] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[3] Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 31.

[4] See: Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[5] Deamer David, p. 31.

[6] Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), p. 352 – 353.

[7] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[8] Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts], (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

[9] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[10] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 10.

[11] Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015), p. 4.

[12] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[13] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[14] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[15] Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[16] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[17] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[18] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[19] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

[20] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[21] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[22] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[23] Shōshimin-eiga is a Japanese film and TV genre which aims at depicting of the everyday existence of the working class people.

[24] See: The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017. As it can be observed, Sono’s film was mostly appreciated by the foreign critiques, because the Japanese ones stated that it was too soon to for a fictional treatment of the national tragedy.

[25] The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

[26] Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[27] Variety.

[28] Variety.

[29] Variety.

[30] Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), p. 77.

[31] Perrine Toni A, p. 77.

[32] Perrine Toni A., p. 84.

[33] The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[34] The Columbus Dispatch.

[35] The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[36] See: The review written by Roberta Smith, a co-chief and critic of the NY Times. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

[37] The New York Times.

[38] Takashi Murakami’s profile on Artnet: Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

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