A professorial review of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One

April 7, 2018 (updated April 13, 2018)

This is the sixth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

(Spoilers)

 Why Ready Player One matters (though I wish it mattered more)

Along with Westworld and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One signals the coming of age—or maybe the coming into that weird period between gawky adolescence and the moment you discover your friends drew all over your face with a sharpie when you passed out—of what might be called “the videogame movie.”

I see this as a maturation of the market for these kinds of stories as well as what a “videogame movie” might do, whether it’s telling stories about the increasingly widespread presence of videogames in our lives or thinking about the unique storytelling capacities of the videogame as a medium.

In this review, I’m not going to say much about how “good” a movie RP1 is. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it, and will maybe see it again in 3D IMAX (I saw it in standard 2D) if I can convince the kids. It has rollicking energy for most of its 2-hour, 20-minute run and was funnier than I expected, but the characterization is paper-thin, the romance between Parzival and Art3mis even more feeble than in the Cline original, the plot full of holes, and one of the Asian characters somehow knows how to do karate stuff. I give it a generous B+.

What I’m reviewing here isn’t the quality of the movie, but what it does with videogames and videogame culture, including (1) flattening the sociohistorical dimensions of Cline’s novel, (2) its fumbling of politics, (3) the treatment of gender and female characters, and (4) its “message” about videogames and online community.

Even with a full-body VR suit and these stupid 3D glasses, it’s awfully flat

For worse and better, Cline’s novel is a Wikipedic repository of 1980s cultural trivia. Regardless of how one feels about that (and lots of people hate, hate, hate it), those references serve a purpose, two actually. They celebrate 1980s white, middle-class nerd/pop culture as an evergreen source of resistance to the alienating effects of globalist capitalism. And they immerse the reader in the pathologically obsessive-compulsive behavior of the gunter community. We may not like how Cline does what he does, but he does it for a reason.

Not from the 1980s

Though it has its fair share of 1980s references, Spielberg’s RP1 is no paean. Indeed, two of the more memorable images don’t come from the 80s: the Iron Giant that Aech builds in their garage comes from Brad Bird’s 1999 film, and the dance that Wade and Art3mis perform at the Distracted Globe is set to the disco beat of the Bee Gee’s 1977 mega-hit “Stayin’ Alive.” The majority of games referenced in the film are from games released after the 1980s; notably, Mortal Kombat (1992) and Doom (1993). There are no references to tabletop roleplaying games, interactive fiction, or old games played on old computers. As a consequence, the gaming culture that birthed the OASIS and that provided the young Halliday a sense of pride and security is erased.

But that shouldn’t surprise us. The movie begins with a Big Gulp-sized exposition dump courtesy of a voiceover by Wade (Tye Sheridan). And while Wade fills us in on all things OASIS—and we are dazzled by all the fun photorealistic CGI things one can do in it (including, yes, please, climbing Mount Everest with Batman)—he doesn’t mention the energy crisis, the collapse of the global economy, the nuclear annihilation of national capitals, the pandemics, refugees, or myriad other catastrophes against which Cline set the adventures of the High Five. Presumably for reasons of narrative economy, the first part of the novel—where the reader learns about Wade’s desperate personal situation and his bone-deep cynicism—is jettisoned. But those are the “philosophical” pages of Cline’s book. And it is in those pages that the reader has crammed down their throat learns all kinds of stuff about 1980s nerd and pop culture, a culture that is not just about videogames, but sitcoms, music, table-top roleplaying games, MTV, magazines, hacker culture, computers, interactive fiction, and movies. It is in those pages that we come to understand the abuse and precarity of Halliday’s childhood and the reasons for his narcissism.

Climbing Mount Everest with Batman is my coffee and donuts

The flattening of history is evident on an even deeper level. In a previous post, I defined the notion of “procedural adaptation,” which refers to the way a film or book or comic remediates the mechanics of videogames for purposes of storytelling, characterization, or thematic development. Westworld, for example, constructs its narrative around the mechanics of respawning. Spielberg’s RP1 shows little interest in the rich range of game mechanics explored in Cline’s novel. And it doesn’t spend a moment on the integration of videogames with social media, big data, community building, bullying, and the like. Ready Player One hangs a limited roster of game mechanics—with special emphasis on shooting—on the tried-and-trusty framework of the summer blockbuster. And it ignores forms of play that privilege mindfulness, quiet persistence, and collaborative problem solving. For Spielberg, videogames = action.

Which makes Ready Player One a popcorn-friendly action movie, but a dumb videogame movie.

Welcome to the rebellion! So, what are we rebelling against?

As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the several problems with Cline’s book is its politics—its libertarian leanings, for one thing, but especially its failure to understand that if the OASIS were truly a place where half the people alive in the world spent their days learning, working, socializing, and playing, it would be rife with political movements, messaging, and activism. That ideological and authorial failure extends to Cline’s characterization of Art3mis who, though she occasionally takes Wade to task for failing to recognize his social responsibilities, is not involved in any kind of political organizing and never mentions, say, endemic starvation in her blog.

Bae Guevara

Which is why I was so thrilled by the moment in the film when Wade is kidnapped, bundled to a seedy warehouse with a pillowcase over his head, and discovers, Art3mis, sitting on a camp chair, rubbing her hands together, auburn hair tossed over one eye. “Oh, here comes the politics,” I thought. And when Samantha Evelyn Cook hit her line with just a touch of vocal fry–“Welcome to the rebellion . . . Wade”—I thought, “Go! Go! Intersectionality!” But the promise of that moment is squandered. Though it appears Art3mis is part of some kind of, um, clandestine indoor-camping cadre, we never learn its purpose or principles, never see it accomplish anything.

Thanks for the invite, Art3mis, but what exactly are we rebelling against?

Perhaps it’s just too many advertisements. In one of the film’s best lines, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) brags to the IOI board that, if they can win control of the OASIS, they will fill 80% of a player’s view with pop-ups—just shy of the amount that would trigger seizures. (Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of the film’s visual design . . .) Sure, Sorrento’s a stereotypical villain, entirely willing to blow up a housing block, hire a trained assassin (Hannah John-Kamen) equipped with requisite bad-girl bangs, or chew the green-screen scenery. But he comes across more like a bad-ass apple than an expression of systemic greed.

Bangs are peaky blinders for girls

But what was I expecting? Cline’s politics are muddy; Spielberg’s corny.

The joke about the 300-pound dude named Chuck is still awful

Among the more infamous faults of Cline’s book is its treatment of gender. TBH, I find the argument that Cline’s novel is transphobic a bit hyperbolic. It ignores the way Cline frames the book as a story told by a young, cis, white male whose subjectivity has been deeply wounded and whose masculinity is entirely precarious. But for sure, the novel fails to delve into one of the most exciting things about virtual community: the ability to determine who we are and what we look like regardless of our appearance IRL. And one of the novel’s best characters—Aech—is revealed as transgender at the novel’s conclusion, rendering them an afterthought rather than an opportunity to cast some shade on Cline’s glittering straight-white-male nerdtopia.

So, there’s this “joke” in the book about attractive female avatars being the catfish disguises of a “300-pound dude named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement in suburban Detroit.” It’s a stupid line, transphobic and trafficking in one of the more fatigued stereotypes of videogame players.

And joy! It’s in the movie! But, curiously, the line isn’t Wade’s, but Aech’s, who uses it to tease their friend when they discover the latter’s crush on Art3mis. And, equally curious, the person who is most surprised by Aech’s IRL identity isn’t Wade, who seems to take it in stride, but Art3mis, who stares agape for a comic beat before pivoting to the sorry state of Aech’s van. There’s nothing especially cringeworthy here, though as Slate‘s Laura Hudson rightly notes, Art3mis plays the utterly conventional female role of providing an amoral male hero a reason to be committed to a cause, complementing the fridging of Wade’s Aunt Karen earlier in the film. And if it didn’t make me cringe, I did have a certifiable “Wai-wha?!” moment when Art3mis, having jumped and climbed her way across the swirling zombie void in The Shining sequence, didn’t take Karen Underwood in her arms and give her a big third-act-hetero-action-adventure-rescued-the-girl-so-role-the-credits kiss. I mean, it’s just a game, right?

Frankly, I’m not sure where to land on the question of gender. Should we be surprised that three old men (Spielberg, Cline, and script co-writer Zak Penn) have trouble imagining a world where the differences between avatars and IRL identity is taken for granted? Where people accept that our identities are fluid, situational, a matter of choice rather than law, a function of our own eyes rather than the beholder? Should we be surprised that they don’t understand that when a queer woman says something sexist or transphobic, it can still be sexist or transphobic?

And should we be surprised that there is something very wrong about the film’s treatment of female bodies? In Cline’s book, Art3mis and Aech are described as curvy, heavy women. Wade describes Art3mis as “short and Rubenesque. All curves” (35), and Aech describes herself as a “fat black chick” (319). In the movie, not only is Art3mis played by the winsome Cook, but her OASIS avatar is even skinnier, and her inhuman thinness is amplified by the way her avatar moves, her limbs extending, her costume flowing ahead and behind in contrast to Wade’s more grounded, weighty, action-hero movement. And Lena Waithe, who plays Aech, is hardly “fat.” To Cline’s credit, he affirms in his book a fat-positive sensibility and highlighted the deleterious health effects of playing videogames all day (Wade characterizes himself as overweight and out of shape). But the film has none of that. And that’s a sexist shame.

Rubenesque

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces [1630-35])

Not Rubenesque

Also not Rubenesque

That said, the film does make a few positive changes to the plot of the book that distribute the action-adventure agency to the High Five’s non-male members. Though Art3mis spends a few Princess-Peach minutes trapped in the IOI castle and must be rescued by the other High Fivers, she demonstrates grit, wit, and improvisatory skill after her escape. Likewise, Aech’s identity is revealed more quickly than in the book, enabling her to play a bigger role in the film’s final act, both in the OASIS and careening around the streets of Columbus.

And let it be said that for all that is wrong about Spielberg’s Ready Player One, there is one thing that is utterly and completely right: Lena Waithe.

If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right

Kids, put down those controllers and march bravely into the great outdoors to, um, watch movies

So, no surprise, what the movie has to say about videogames is corny and underinformed. The production team would have greatly benefited from some expert advice—ideally from a feminist/queer expert—on online community and virtual reality. It would have benefited from the advice of videogame players who play games other than first-person shooters.

The moral of Spielberg’s Ready Player One is that we need to get out in the real world and connect with each other.

Or at least see movies where people get out in the real world and connect with each other.

But why should we? The movie doesn’t show us a thing about the negative effects of online life, and is thoroughly ignorant about the way online life empowers individuals and communities, the way online life enables individuals and communities to define their situations, practice problem-solving, enact alternative worlds. I mean, if the OASIS can be anything you want it to be, then one would expect there to be entire planets devoted to, say, queer futurity. And where, my dear OASIS search-engine-host, can I find Planet Themyscira?

The cornball ignorance of Ready Player One is captured in its final line. “We closed the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Wade tells us as he spoons into Art3mis. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love to cuddle with my partner in the slanting late afternoon sun as much as the next person, but I also love to march with her to protest moronic gun laws, to work with students to develop their creative writing and coding skills, and do my best to think about who I am and what I want to be as a person, a professional, and a member of my family and my community. And I love to play videogames with her. But were my business housed in the OASIS (see Chris Plante for a smart read on this), were my students located in cities and villages thousands of miles away, were the activists with whom I was collaborating scattered across time zones or in situations that required the anonymity of an online environment, I’d suit up an avatar army, charge whatever castle Wade was hanging in, and demand my rights to be online any damned time I want.

A gamey thought or three on Game Night

March 15, 2018

This is the fifth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

(Spoilers)

The Game meets This Is 40

Yesterday, I watched Game Night at a mall cineplex. I liked it. It’s bubbly fun, it stars the ever-reliable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, the perfect complement to popcorn and a cold IPA, a see-it-enjoy-it-forget-it experience. But being a curious scholar who fears no accusation of overthinking, I thought I’d put down a few words on the film and its approach to videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture.

     

If you don’t know the premise, think David Fincher’s The Game meets Judd Apatow’s This Is 40. A cute, highly competitive couple (McAdams as Annie, Bateman as Max) host a weekly game night with a small group of friends. They are surprised one night by the arrival of Max’s even more competitive, far more glamorous brother, Brooks. Long story short, Brooks arranges for the group to play an augmented reality game (imagine one of those murder mystery parties with real guns and fully committed actors) that comes with a very sweet prize: a 1976 Corvette Stingray. But things go sideways when real bad guys show up, Max and Annie and their friends don’t realize it, and action-adventure hilarity ensues. No irony there—Game Night easily surpasses Mark Kermode’s “6 Laughs Test.”

Wait, where are the videogames?

No video games

Videogames are not a major presence in Game Night. In fact, the movie pointedly ignores them in favor of non-digital games: bar trivia, charades, board games, Pictionary, Never Have I Ever, and so on. The opening credit sequence features a slow-motion rain of iconic game pieces (a noose from Clue, a house from Monopoly, a die, a Scrabble tile, etc.), but there’s nary a game controller in sight. And though we see Annie and Max dancing at their wedding on an arcade dance game à la Dance Dance Revolution (tbh, Michael Cera and Ellen Wong did it better in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), videogames are pretty much a non-presence in the movie—until the third act.

Incidentally, in addition to being avid game players, Annie, Max, and their friends are inveterate pop culture nerds, especially when it comes to movies, references to which abound (Lamorne Morris’s Denzel Washington impersonation is solid) and accumulate as the movie proceeds. Not incidentally, those references come even faster when the characters realize that they’re not actually playing a game and the movie shifts from slapstick domestic comedy to action-adventure comedy.

In the middle of this realization of the reality of their situation, in the middle of this transition from one genre to another, and, I note, in the midst of a transition from one form of play (board and social games) to another (sports like bare-knuckled boxing, football, car racing, and shooting), Annie and Max get into a Very Serious Conversation About Their Future. You see, they’ve been trying to get pregnant, but Max’s sperm aren’t up to the job. He’s stressed out and so are his little swimmers. And, it turns out, he maybe kind of sort of doesn’t want kids. He’s still holding on to the fantasy of being a hyper-wealthy jet-set winner like his brother.

So, of course, Annie and Max talk about Pac-Man.

Pac-Man fever

Annie reminds Max about the time they played the game obsessively, following their typical do-or-die-trying drive to be the best. Annie reminds Max that the strategy they followed was to only eat the dots, leaving the delicious, bouncing fruit alone and therefore avoiding unnecessary risks. (N.B. a perusal of online Pac-Man guides do not indicate this is in fact a winning strategy.) Though Max laughs at the obviousness of the metaphor, Annie isn’t deterred. They agreed, she reminds him, to keep their heads down and pursue a simpler life, a life like their parents, a life in a middle-class cul-de-sac, a life of small pleasures and good friends, a life of game nights. That’s what Pac-Man taught them.

As a videogame scholar, I find moments like these fascinating. No doubt, if you’re looking for grand statements about the medium, you’re going to want to dive into Westworld, Halt and Catch Fire, Reamde, Ready Player One, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and so on. But these kinds of minor or incidental references to videogames often tell us more about what videogames mean than texts that aim for the grand statement. And I think Game Night has something kind of interesting to tell us.

If you’ve read the last part of my post “What is videogame literature?”, you’ll recall that I identified seven ways that videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture can be represented in texts. In Game Night, we see the diegetic representation of videogame players (Annie describing the act of playing the game, the shot of Annie and Max playing the dance game). We see figurative representation (Annie uses Pac-Man as a metaphor for a life of striving and achieving). But we also see what I call procedural adaptation, but with a weird little spin.

I define procedural adaptation as “the duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc.” In Game Night, the mechanics of Pac-Man—repetitive movement through a maze, constant pursuit, sudden reversals of fortune, increasing difficulty—aren’t really adapted. Instead, the description of the videogame and their strategy for playing it crystallizes what has already been happening in the movie, transforming retrospectively the slapstick action and car chases we’ve been watching into a videogame. And it transforms the way Annie and Max play the game.

Another way to put this: The Pac-Man conversation shifts the movie’s meta.

Romancing the meta

A whole bunch of cheaters, but in a fun way: from left, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in “Game Night.” (Warner Bros.)

Game Night is a very “meta” movie, almost annoyingly so. This is a movie that is very aware that it is a movie. Moreover, it is aware that we’re aware that it is aware that it is a movie. So, not only do references to other movies abound in the dialogue, not only does the film borrow liberally from the meta-movie tradition—think David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, Mel Brooks—but it also plays with our expectations, especially as it moves to the conclusion. Wait? Is this still a game? Oh, okay, no. Oh, it is ! Wait, what?

Not coincidentally, Game Night is also about a very “meta” group of friends. They get great pleasure from commenting on themselves and their situation, expressing both genuine friendship for each other even as they comment on the nature of that genuine friendship and their expression of it. (Sharon Horgan as Sarah and Billy Magnussen as Ryan are especially good with this stuff). I’m reminded a bit of relationships I had with friends in college: a whole lot of sarcasm, a whole lot of love. Brooks’s arrival amps up the irony by throwing Max and Annie literally off their game and everyone else into a swamp of epistemological uncertainty.

Annie, Max, and their friends are “meta” in another way. They cheat. Not in a, you know, evil way. More of a trash-talking, bending-but-not-breaking-the-rules, just-between-friends kind of way. When we first meet Max, he’s buying a round of drinks for the teams playing bar trivia, but the shots for his team aren’t vodka, but water. When Brooks is kidnapped, Annie and Max don’t try to solve the riddle he leaves behind. Instead, they ransack his bedroom to find his iPad, then track his iPhone to a nearby bar. Meanwhile, Sarah and Ryan find the receipt and drive over to the headquarters of the game company. When they need to get access to police files, they all team up to lie to their neighbor, playing on his pathetic desire to join them in a game night, then lie again to gain access to his computer.

Ryan and Sarah, cheating

In other words, Annie, Max, and the gang are inveterate performers, continually judging each other’s performances as players and neighbors, continually deceiving each other to get a little advantage, to hide a bit of semi-legal relationship infidelity, to throw somebody off their rhythm, though never so much that it would cause anyone harm. Brooks’s arrival casts all of this carefully calibrated meta-play into disarray.

And this is where we reap the bouncy, bouncy fruit of the Pac-Man reference.

You see, you can’t cheat at videogames the way you can at, say, Hearts or Monopoly. Because videogames are software programs, they don’t allow players to, say, peak at the cards or slip a couple $500 bills under the board. When I play soccer, I can pull the shirt of an opponent and, if the referee doesn’t see it, it won’t get called. But when I play FIFA 18, if I foul an opponent, it always gets called, no arguments allowed. Likewise, when we play Pac-Man, we can’t cheat, but we can deploy a meta. As I explained in an earlier post, “A useful way to think about this broader range of activities is in terms of ‘metagaming.’ Conventionally, metagaming is defined as the analytic and strategic activities not designed into the game rules but that emerge when players develop a history with a game and the players who play it.” Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux expand this notion, arguing that metagaming is one of the fundamental “conditions of twenty-first century play,” an approach to play that isn’t just about rules and strategies, but about “[a]ttitude, affinity, experience, achievement, status, community, competition, strategy, spectatorship, statistics, history, economy, [and] politics.”

So, let’s be clear: we’re not diving into Hegel or Alain Badiou here. The lesson of Game Night is a simple one. By shifting the meta from board games and sports (all of which have an end condition–you either win or you lose) to Pac-Man (which goes on and on, its map repeating, for all intents and purposes, endlessly), Annie and Max no longer play as ironists, no longer treat relationships like game pieces, no longer judge everything by winning or losing. The life lesson of Game Night is unadulterated sentimental cornball: we should value each other not because we’re winners or losers, but because we have fun playing together and it’s always more of the same and that’s okay. As a result of the change in their meta, they not only learn the truth about Brooks, but come to appreciate their creepy neighbor who, we find out, has been playing with the characters all along, hiring the thugs who kidnap Brook.

At this point, the movie kind of breaks. Not that it’s not entertaining, but it becomes a fairly conventional, if still fun and funny, action-adventure comedy. Pac-Man isn’t mentioned again, and the group goes back to playing their weekly game night.

So, what does Game Night have to say about videogames?

It’s not the fruit, but the Pac-Dots.

Game Night’s diegetic, figurative, and procedural representation of Pac-Man serves to affirm the simple pleasures of play, the value of honesty, and the purity of competition. By shifting from board games and sports to a game that cannot be affected by the emotions, relations, or objections of the player, the film shifts the focus from the game to those who play it. And that strikes me as just the right lesson to learn from a movie whose ambitions aren’t any greater than having a bit of fun.

Videogames and literature: An annotated syllabus (Part 1 of 2)

This is the fourth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

(Spoilers)

TEACHING AND LEARNING BETWEEN VIDEOGAMES AND LITERATURE

For the last several years, I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses that explore videogames as works of literature. In those courses, we explored all kinds of thing, including the often delicious tension between rules and fiction (thanks, Jesper Juul!); the ways videogame designers construct narratives, characters, and worlds; how videogame fictions change as they are told and retold in different media or by different players; how videogames represent race, gender, sexuality, and class; and so on.

In other words, when I’ve taught video games as literature, I’m applying to videogames the same kinds of critical tools that I would apply to novels, plays, poems, and movies.

No, I’m not imposing a literary model on videogames. (I saw a few of you starting to move towards the comments section . . .). Rather, I’m asking a question in full acknowledgment of the distinct nature of the videogame medium and the history of critics imposing a literary model on videogames:  How can the tools of literary criticism help us better understand videogames?

And I’m asking what I think is an even more interesting question in response: How can videogames help us better understand literature? And part of that understanding is recognizing the limits of literary criticism and the literary model.

But as rewarding as that approach was, I was having trouble not being distracted by all the fun, interesting, occasionally mind-blowing literary stuff about videogames I was finding in, of all places, literature: in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series and Hazel Newlevant’s buh-rilliant collection of short graphic fiction by women gamers, Chainmail Bikini; in Neil Stephenson’s Reamde, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and the stories collected by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams in Press Start to Play; in television series like Halt and Catch Fire and Westworld; in movies like WarGames and Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever the spork that movie’s called).

      

It wasn’t just novels and movies that got me thinking along these lines. I was working with students who were creating their own videogame literature: fan fiction that shipped Overwatch characters; intense conspiratorial conversations about obscure points of Dragon Age lore; livestream performances on Twitch; poems about Pokémon and the art-deco tragedies of Rapture; cosplay that brought 16-bit heroes and villains into the halls of our Humanities and Social Sciences building. Why wouldn’t I incorporate those kinds of texts into my thinking about videogames?

So, last spring, I decided to take a different angle, to think about videogames not only as literature, but in literature.

By looking at books, movies, fan fiction, television, plays, and other kinds of aesthetic texts in conversation with videogames that are “literary,” I thought I might generate some useful insights into what videogames are, how they affect our day-to-day lives, our relationships with each other, the ways we see and hear the world, the way we imagine time, space, love, learning, and so on.

The results were exciting. The graduate courses I taught in the Summer and Fall of 2017—and the students who took them with me—proved inspirational. They’re the reason I started this blog.

Many of you have asked me to share my syllabi, so I thought it would be a good idea to post this, a version of the course I taught in Fall 2017. I’ve cut the boring stuff—attendance policies, grade scales, semester assignments—and annotated it to clarify my purposes, reflect on the choices I made, and give at least a taste of what my students and I explored and discovered together.

In this post, I describe the big picture: the framework, objectives, texts, and rationales that drove my decisions. In the second half, I’ll delve into the week-to-week schedule.

COURSE OVERVIEW

The premise of the course is that videogames are an ascendant, if not hegemonic medium. They’re a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, a hobby, a part of our everyday lives (How many steps did I take today? How many likes did I get?), a tool for learning and teaching, a body of tropes and stereotypes (Looking at you, misogynist nacho-addicted guy in mom’s basement), a tool for the expression and negotiation of social and political power, and, last but not least, a medium that represents ideas and emotions, comments critically on who we are, and tells powerful, memorable stories. So, I think we need to pay smart attention to what videogames are and how they are shaping who we are. And that attention needs to be focused on the games themselves and the representation of games, players, and player culture in other kinds of texts.

I organized the course around two questions.

First, “How do videogames tell stories?” Narrative is a powerful cultural and ideological force, so understanding the particular ways that video games—in all their diversity—construct imaginative fictions is a vital and fun thing to do. Do all videogames tell stories? Of course not. But, apologies to Ian Bogost, when videogames tell stories, they do so in fascinating, beautiful, significant ways.

Second, “What are the stories we tell about video games?” Video games, gaming, and video game players are a common subject of novels, short stories, movies, fan fiction, comics, blogs, and television series. A critical examination of these can help us gain a better understanding of the significance of video games to our selves and our communities. And it can help us gain some intellectual and pedagogical traction on how video games are changing the way we tell stories, how we think about subjectivity, how we imagine time and space, and how we negotiate the media ecology of our moment.

Ultimately, I wanted to learn more about what video games mean to our culture right now, to get some kind of a grip on a medium and a culture that is changing as quickly as the technologies on which we play games and the people who make and play them.

COURSE GOALS

  1. To identify, explore, and critique the genres, procedures, and tropes used by video games to construct fictions—characters, worlds, narratives, themes, and so on. In particular, we will explore how video games construct character and shape the ways players identify with those characters, especially as that concerns race, class, gender, and sexuality.
  2. To identify, explore, and critique the representation of video games, gaming, and players in novels, short fiction, comics, movies, and television series. What kinds of stereotypes do we find in these texts? Where do we see representations of games and gaming being pressured or constrained by the storytelling conventions of older media?
  3. To identify and explore the ways that video games and literature are part of a shared media ecology. When we play video games, we don’t just play the game itself. We participate in a “convergence culture,” to recall Henry Jenkins’s term. “Playing a game” can also include visiting websites, dressing up as our favorite character, watching live streams, writing comments in response to blogs and videos, reading fan fiction.
  4. To develop expertise in and understanding of the discourse of video game criticism, particularly the kinds of criticism being promoted by “middle state” publications. One of the best things about contemporary video game culture is the opportunities available to anyone who has an opinion. That’s also one of the worst things about contemporary video game culture. Together, we’ll learn how to express our ideas thoughtfully and in conversation with others who do so, too.

WHAT DID WE PLAY?

Unlike previous courses I’ve taught on videogames, I didn’t include a single AAA title (though some might consider Portal AAA). When I play videogames wearing my velvet, tasseled English Professor hat, I’m attracted to games produced by individuals and small companies, games that are both fun to play and fun to think about. As a rule, I favor games that push me to think about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, that “queer” game play in some fashion or that include characters who challenge conventional understandings of race, gender, sexuality, and class. I tend to emphasize ethics in my courses, too, so the games I prefer as a literary scholar and critical theorist typically have an ethical dimension to them, either in terms of the decisions that have to be made in game or the issues they raise for those who play them.

But there are pragmatic reasons for my choices, too.

First, the games I choose are relatively short and require relatively little skill to play. Not all my students play videogames. So, in the same way that I need to consider the challenge (and time) it will take a novice to read a dense, difficult text by Jacques Lacan, Gertrude Stein, or Suzan-Lori Parks, I need to think about the challenge posed by a first-person shooter like Bioshock or the time it takes to get to the narrative good stuff in Skyrim.

Second, anyone teaching videogames needs to think a lot about access. Few students own game consoles. And while I can presume that students have personal computers and phones, I can’t presume they are all have the same kinds of computers and phones. So, as much as I love Dear Esther, I would have rather included What Remains of Edith Finch (Steam). Alas, the latter is not available for those who play their games on Macs. What it came down to was this: Every game had to be purchasable via Steam and had to be playable on both PC and Mac.

Third there is the question of cost. While there are educational benefits to exploring widely, the expense of such exploration can severely strain the checking accounts and financial aid of students. The students I teach, both graduate and undergraduate, aren’t rich.

So, in light of my educational objectives and the material constraints of my teaching situation, these are the games we played:

The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden, 2015)

A great example of what is sometimes called a “walking simulator,” meaning you don’t do much as a player besides guide the camera through various environments. In this case, a narrator gives you a kind of guided tour of a series of brief games created by a designer he deeply admires, even obsesses over. Complexities emerge. (Steam)

A Dark Room (Michael Townsend, Amir Rajan, 2013)

I first played this on my phone while traveling from Portland to Pittsburgh on a very crowded plane. That trip ended up passing quickly. A Dark Room is basically a no-frills resource-management game with a simple, text-based interface. Build a fire, collect some wood, trap some animals, build a building, attract workers, collect more wood, build another building, and so on. But what develops from this is something genuinely surprising, the kind of twist ending that doesn’t feel at all forced, even though it casts everything we’ve done to that point into an entirely different light. (App store)

Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012)

Another “walking simulator,” this one taking place on an isolated, windswept island somewhere in the Hebrides. As we explore the island’s nooks and crannies, a narrator reads letters to someone named Esther. What unfolds is a melancholy, strikingly beautiful tour of a landscape that is both in the world and of the mind. In tone and style, I’m reminded of Samuel Beckett’s lonely late plays: Eh, Joe and …but the clouds… (Steam)

Device 6  (Simon Flesser/Simogo, 2013)

A bit of deviously clever, highly polished puzzle-solving candy floss. This phone game nails the arch tone of classic paranoid 1960s movies and television like The Prisoner. I chose this game because I like the way it gets players to treat their phones like material objects (flipping them this way and that, swiping that way and this), its outstanding sound design, and the witty way it plays with text. One of my favorites is when we walk up a spiral staircase that is made out of the words we’re reading telling us we’re walking up a spiral staircase. (App store)

Dys4ia  (Anna Anthropy, 2012)

How could someone interested in videogames, gender, and sexuality not include this classic queer game by one of the most outspoken and insightful queer game designers out there? Based on the rapid-fire, off-kilter play style of Warioware, it presents a series of simple games that give just a little bit of insight into the day-to-day life of a transgender woman in the midst of her transition. Canonical. (itch.io)

Gone Home (Steve Gaynor, 2013)

I taught this game the first time I taught a videogame course and I’ve taught it in every course since, including my sections of general education humanities literature. Another one of those “walking simulators,” we play as Katie Greenbriar, fresh back from a trip to Europe and presented with a simple question: Why aren’t our parents and sister home? As we explore the house, we gather clues, assemble the story, and experience one of the loveliest coming-of-age/coming-out-of-the-closet stories you could imagine. There’s a fairly massive body of criticism out there, too, so it’s a good game to teach if you want to introduce students to the field of games criticism. (Steam)

Horse Master: The Game of Horse Mastery (Tom McHenry, 2013)

I stumbled on this game as I was looking for a second interactive fiction game that would complement With Those We Love Alive. I think it’s brilliant. We play an ambitious horse master intent on creating a creature of magnificent, uncanny horror in order to launch ourselves into a life of unending fame and fortune. Imagine a pet simulator designed by William Burroughs. Pro tip: go with the Carolina Coffinbreath. (itch.io)

Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013)

Crack sauce for the English major videogamer, Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure set in a contemporary, though magical-realist landscape around Lexington, Kentucky. It is densely intertextual, referencing the plays of Beckett and Ibsen, the novels of Steinbeck and  Márquez, the photography of Russel Lee, the scenography of Beowulf Boritt, the installations of Nam June Paik, the fashion of Loretta Lynn (see above) . . . you get the idea (for a near-comprehensive list, see Magnus Hildebrandt’s meticulous three-part essay). But what really makes the game are the characters: an alcoholic trucker on his last delivery, a television-repair woman burdened with history, a brilliant architect forced to work as a thankless bureaucrat, a little boy and his giant-eagle brother. There is a moment in Act 3 that may be the single most beautiful thing I’ve experienced as a game player. Act 4 is a disappointment, so I don’t teach it. (Steam)

We explored three other digital fictions by the makers of Kentucky Route Zero, who have managed to put together a remarkable, consistently off-kilter transmedia fiction set in the magical millennial ruin of their fictional Kentucky. These include The Entertainment (2013), Limits and Demonstrations (2013), and Here and There Along the Echo (2014). The lattermost may be my favorite, in part due to the performances of Will Oldham and Poppy Garland. You can experience it simply by calling 270-301-5797. And Cardboard Computer keeps pumping out the good stuff. The fifth and final act of KR0 is forthcoming (I hope it’s better than Act 4, which I found laborious and overwritten), they’ve just put out a perfectly bizarre emulation of a 1980s all-access cable show, Un Pueblo de Nada (and rumor has it that the fifth act takes place in a haunted television station).

Portal   (Valve, 2007)

We awake to find ourselves in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, forced to solve a series of increasingly difficult and dangerous puzzles designed by a malicious artificial intelligence named GLaDOS. Armed with our handy “portal gun” and equipped with a pair of cybernet super-jump boots, we eventually discover the secret of this installation: The cake is a lie. All the elements converge: brilliant design by Kim Swift, crackling prose by Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, and an unforgettable performance by Ellen McLain as GLaDOS. But it also evinces some of the problems that face videogame storytellers. The articulation of game challenges and narration is pretty blocky (enter a room, listen to GLaDOS, solve the puzzle, listen to GLaDOS). (Steam)

With Those We Love Alive  (Porpentine, 2014)

Alice O’Connor’s review nails it: With Those We Love Alive is “a game about how we create ourselves in the space we’re allowed by society, and how we respond to its demands and the many forms of violence that surround us. It’s about the roles we have to play, and the choices other people make for us. It’s about complicity and complacency. It’s about abandoning hope and finding it. It’s about the routines and demands of bodies. It’s about being so, so tired.” We play a gender-fluid artisan sold by our parents into the service of a monstrous Empress, biding our time before we escape with a long-lost lover. The game’s designer, Porpentine does so many clever things within the limits of the Twine software, including incorporating the player’s body into the action: From time to time, we’re asked to draw sigils on our bodies to represent specific moments and memories. (Free to play)

The B list

There is only so much time in a semester. And even though I’m the teacher, I want to learn about new games, too. So, that means there are many great games that are fun, interesting, and align with the course objectives, but there wasn’t time or I want to take a break from them.

Inkle’s 80 Days has been a regular on my game courses from the beginning (and was included in the summer version of the course). It does what it does so well, both in terms of the world it builds (a progressively minded steampunk reversioning of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days) and the delicious prose of Meg Jayanth [LINK]. It’s got a great combination of play mechanics—part click-and-go interactive text, part resource management, part role-playing game, part emergent map construction—which make it a really useful text for the teacher who is looking for a “one stop pedagogical shop.” Just thinking about this game makes me want to play it again.

I want to play World of Warcraft with my students. So. Very. Badly. The particular way WoW connects (and fails to connect) story, character, and theme to gameplay, the rich storylines and mythos, the vibrant and problematic quality of player discourse, the opportunity for a group of students to develop their own lore—what’s not to love? Well, one thing: It takes time to experience Azeroth, to unpack its fictions, to learn the ins and outs of trade channel trash talk, to acquire the skills to delve into dungeons and raids. So, as much as I’d like to show off to students Daisypain, my oh-so-epic feral druid, she’ll have to wait a bit longer.

I also have a dream about a unit on Spec Ops: The Line, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Spec Ops is a shattering experience, and I’ve been trying for years to find a place for it on a syllabus. And to teach it as a text that signifies on and adapts Coppola’s movie, which signifies on and adapts Conrad’s book? Yes, please. But I worry that the punchline isn’t worth the joke, if you know what I mean.

WHAT DID WE READ AND WATCH?

This is the part of the course that I felt least confident about. Though I’ve been voraciously reading and watching every text I can get my hands on, I don’t yet have a good sense of the field as a whole. I struggled with my criteria. Should I teach only texts that are obviously and consistently about videogames? Should I include texts that make only passing reference but, if approached in the right way, might open up in interesting ways? For example, in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), one of the characters (Bill Paxton’s scene-stealing Hudson), in a moment of desperation, cries, “Game over, man! Game over!” This seemingly incidental reference to games got me thinking about Hudson as a stereotypical white male videogame player and Aliens as a movie that thoroughly wrecks the heroic kill-em-all model of a certain kind of videogame.

But efficiency is a rule here, too. I needed a diverse body of texts, so it made sense to include two anthologies. I needed the texts we read to evidence the seven tropes of videogame literature. I needed texts that articulated the core critical concepts of the course. One of those was remediation, so the two Scott Pilgrim texts made sense, especially since I was relying on Drew Morton’s smart reading of the Scott Pilgrim metatext.

Here’s the final list:

Jon Bois, 17776 (SB Nation)

I’m assuming you haven’t read Jon Bois’s 17776. So, why don’t you go ahead and read it, then come back when you’re done. Here’s the link. I’ll wait.

You see what I mean? With the sardonic humor of someone who has spent a lot of time sitting around table with other inebriated sports wonks deep-diving into stats and bags of MSG-laden crisps, but with truly sympathetic insight into our simple desire to hang out with each other and ignore the fathoming terrors of being, Bois explores the existential significance of games. In addition, he does something I find especially intriguing, in light of my interest in how literature adapts the procedures of videogames and the cultures of videogame players. Bois builds his speculative fiction on the principles of glitch play. By breaking a few simple rules about human existence, football becomes something very different.

Check out Bois’s other experiments in what we might call “glitch-spec fiction.” He takes two popular sports videogames, sets a few parameters to fail mode, then writes about them in the terms and tropes of conventional long-form sports journalism.

All Is Lost (which explores the slow death of professional basketball via NBAY 2K)

Breaking Madden (the title is self-explanatory)

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (Broadway Books, 2012)

As I’ve discussed elsewhere and elsewhere, I consider this is a deeply problematic text, which is one of the reasons I assign it. Plus, it’s a really fun book to read, it captures so much of the current zeitgeist around videogames, and Cline uses all seven videogame literature tropes.

Hazel Newlevant, ed, Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers   (Alternative Comics, 2016)

This has become a go-to text in my videogame courses. Newlevant assembled a kick-ass collection of short graphic stories that explore the gamut of female player experience and, just as important, the gamut of female player identities. The stories aren’t just about videogames—some of my favorites are about tabletop and live-action roleplaying games—but they’re always about the relationship between play and gender.

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together  (Oni Press, 2004) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010, Dir. Edgar Wright)

   

I like both of these texts. They’re fun. They’re a perfect example of convergence culture and remediation. But, to be honest, I don’t find either of them all that substantial as explorations of videogames, players, or game culture. In the future, I’ll probably go with something else. Maybe this is where I do the Spec Ops/Apocalypse Now unit! On the other hand, a unit that pairs Edge of Tomorrow and its source text, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill could be a winner, too. And I’m tempted to go with Cline’s Ready Player One and Spielberg’s film adaptation.

Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, ed. Press Start to Play (Vintage Books, 2015)

Another killer anthology, providing a lot of variety and a range of illustrations of those seven tropes of videogame literature. Though a few of the stories are a tad slight, most are wickedly wrought and emotionally compelling. A few (Jessica Barber’s “Coma Kings,” Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World,” T.C. Boyle’s “The Relive Box,” Cory Doctorow’s “Anda’s Game”) are rib stickers—they’ll stay with you

Westworld (HBO, 2016)

But of course. One of the smartest explorations of videogames, players, and player culture around. Problematic in all the right ways. That said, I came this close to subbing this one out for the second season of Halt and Catch Fire (that’s the one where Cameron and Donna run their own game company). And then there are the several episodes of Black Mirror that explore the dystopian side of videogames.

And, of course, lots of theory

I’m a theorist at heart and our undergraduate and graduate curricula emphasize theory and theorizing, so every course I teach includes a lot of texts that explore the formal, social, historical, political, and ideological dimensions of literature and culture. The basic framework of the course was provided by Jesper Juul’s brilliant Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, a book that is rarely out of arm’s reach.

For details on what we did with Juul’s book and the many other shorter critical texts that I included in the syllabus, see part two.

A defense (sort of) of Ready Player One (Part 2 of 2)

 

This is the third in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

(Spoilers)

In my previous post, I reviewed some of Ready Player One’s (RP1) many flaws: its cringe-inducing treatment of race, gender, and sexuality; its incoherent vision of online community; its ahistorical and politically homogenized sound track; and the way it leans in to libertarian beliefs about the nanny state, meritocracy, and rugged individualism. But, most importantly, I underlined how important it is that we not confuse Ernest Cline, the book’s author, with Wade Watts, its narrator.

(Not Wade Watts)

(Not Ernest Cline)

In this post, I will argue that RP1, as flawed and inconsistent as it is, presents a more consciously critical view of video games, nerd culture, and virtual community than readers have generally acknowledged. The key to my reading is the concept of trauma.

Gamifying trauma

Riffing on the work of his philosophical hero Hegel, Karl Marx wrote that the events of history tend to appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Ernest Cline one-ups Marx: In Ready Player One, the events and personages of history repeat once more, as a video game.

Halliday’s Hunt–the Easter egg quest whose winner will inherit an unimaginable fortune–gamifies the 1980s. It transmogrifies the decade’s video and roleplaying games, music, television, and movies into a nerd-friendly high-stakes Arthurian quest. But the Hunt makes no mention of the “other 1980s,” the 1980s of AIDS, accelerating climate change, rising income inequality, the radical deregulation of global markets, the militarization of the police, the rise of transnational corporations, the intensification of the war on drugs, or mass incarceration.

In case you didn’t hear, the 80s sucked.

But this isn’t to say Halliday isn’t aware of all that. He writes about it constantly in his journal, known to gunters as Anorak’s Almanac. And this isn’t to say that the gunters aren’t aware of it, either. How could they not be? It’s all around them.

It’s the structure of that awareness that I find fascinating. In its labyrinthine, self-aggrandizing sadism, Halliday’s Hunt mirrors the anxious, passive-aggressive subjectivity of a hyper-intelligent, socially anxious, sexually insecure, libertarian-leaning, creative, precocious, ingenious white-male nerd who finally gets the chance to give it to the jocks. But it also mirrors the subjectivity of a helpless child suffering unending emotional abuse at the hands of his mother and father, a child with nowhere to run and nobody to help him, desperately seeking escape and affirmation in games and coding. Halliday’s Hunt mirrors the precarious subjectivity of a Midwestern boy with abusive parents and dwindling opportunities living in a town sliding into post-industrial ruin.

To play Halliday’s game, the gunter must play Halliday’s trauma.

What do I mean by “trauma”? Put simply, trauma is an event that is profoundly, inescapably painful, shocking, and distressing. It comes in many forms: a child abused by their caregiver, a community surviving a months-long military siege, a town flattened by a tornado, a worker harassed by a supervisor. But trauma isn’t defined by what it is so much as by what it does to its victims—and what its victims do. Indeed, two people might suffer the same experience, but only one of them be “traumatized” by it. The traumatized suffer not only from the event directly but also from the failure of the emotional, symbolic, physical, social, and cultural tools they have to make sense of their suffering, to cope with the pain, to find a path to healing. And that failure leads to a variety of post-traumatic symptoms. For the individual, this might include loss of trust in others, the inability to sleep, or compulsive-obsessive behavior. For communities, this might include endemic alcoholism, chronic depression, and poor physical health. (The literature on trauma is massive. For a literary-critical approach, see this. For a more accessible, healthcare-oriented perspective, see this.)

Do fanboys dream of electric sheep?

If anyone understands fear and desperation, it’s Wade Watts. When we meet him, he’s hiding, shivering and starving, behind a clothes dryer in the double-wide he shares with a dozen others, perched near the top of an Oklahoma City “stack,” a high-rise shanty town of trailer homes, RVs, and repurposed shipping containers. “I was the only child of two teenagers,” he tells us, “both refugees who met in the stacks where I’d grown up. I don’t remember my father. When I was just a few months old, he was shot dead while looting a grocery store during a power blackout” (15).

(From Ready Player One, Warner Bros. Pictures)

Wade was raised by his mother, an OASIS sex worker, who, despite her efforts to block out the noise, could not keep him from hearing her “talking dirty to tricks in other time zones” (15). A loving, dedicated caregiver, she was also an addict. When Wade was eleven, “she shot a bad batch of something into her arm and died on our ratty fold-out sofa bed while listening to music on an old mp3 player I’d repaired and given to her the previous Christmas” (19). He then moved in with an abusive aunt, who treats him less as a family member than a sure source of government aid. Poor and overweight, he is a target of bullies.

The pain of Wade’s personal trauma is exceeded only by the apocalyptic trauma all around him: “the ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars,” cities vaporized by nuclear explosions, “[p]lants and animals . . . dying off in record numbers” (1, 17). Like so many others, Wade has no hope, no ideals, no agency: “Maybe it isn’t a good idea to tell a newly arrived human being that he’s been born into a world of chaos, pain, and poverty just in time to watch everything to fall to pieces. I discovered all of that gradually over several years, and it still made me feel like jumping off a bridge” (18).

Like Halliday, Wade escapes his misery by playing games, watching television, listening to music, scribbling page after page in his journal. And like Halliday, his obsessions make him feel special, chosen, elite. And aside from the relatively well-adjusted and well-off Art3mis, the other “High 5” are in the same boat. Aech is homeless, kicked out by her homophobic mother, roaming the Fury Road highways of the post-apocalyptic U.S., unable to share her IRL identity with her best friend. Shoto and Daito are hikikomori, agoraphobes who do not leave their rooms, dependent on their families and friends to feed them, socially isolated.

In his 2011 review in USA Today, Don Oldenburg compared RP1 to “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” But in light of how damaged Wade is, in light of his cynicism, his loneliness, his addictions, his desperate efforts to connect with others, and his inability to understand why they reject him, he reminds me less of Charlie Bucket or Neo than the damaged child-men in Philip K. Dick’s novels: Jack Bohlen in Martian Time-Slip, Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

You can’t go home again and again and again and again and again . . .

In Anorak’s Invitation, Halliday tells the world, “I suppose you could say that [the egg is] locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the center of a maze located somewhere . . . up here” (5-6). That pretty much nails it. The Hunt is a kind of procedural manifestation of Halliday’s troubled subjectivity—his elaborately designed defenses against the pain of his childhood and the global disaster of 2044 provide the architecture of the Hunt.

The Hunt is composed of three challenges. The first to solve all three will be rewarded with Halliday’s Bezos-level fortune and control of the OASIS. Each challenge is a byzantine mash-up of video game and RPG arcana, 1980s pop culture trivia, and Halliday’s obsessions.

For example, the first challenge requires the gunter to locate a virtual recreation of the Dungeons & Dragons module Tomb of Horrors (1978), evade its traps and tricks, and enter the throne room at its center. There, they find a powerful wizard who challenges the gunter to a 2-out-of-3 game of Joust (1982), an arcade game in which the player controls a knight mounted on a flying bird. If they beat the Lich, the gunter is rewarded with a key and yet another riddle: “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath” (84). The dedicated gunter will quickly recognize this as a reference to an old computer model (the TRS-80 aka the “Trash 80”) and computer game (Dungeons of Daggorath [1982]). The truly dedicated gunter will recall that the TRS-80 was Halliday’s first computer, and Daggorath the game that inspired him to become a designer (85). Putting two and two together, they realize they must travel to the planet Middletown, where they will find a virtual recreation of Halliday’s childhood home, which they enter, walk to Halliday’s bedroom, boot up the Trash 80 therein, and successfully complete Daggorath. At that point, a transdimensional gate opens in the wall . . .

. . . through which they climb and discover the final challenge: A first-person video-game adaptation of the movie WarGames (1983), in which the gunter must precisely duplicate the dialogue, gestures, and movements of the film’s protagonist from first-person perspective.

Yes, Art3mis, “Halliday was one crazy, sadistic bastard” (308).

Do you see the potent contradiction here? The Hunt allows Halliday to share his fear, pain, and loneliness to anyone interested in inheriting a bajillion dollars. But that grandiose egotism (what is more egotistical than altering the world economy by forcing everyone to play your game?) is, at the same time, deeply hostile. Halliday hides his pain in a labyrinth festooned with brutal traps that can be survived only by those who suffer and obsess like he did.

Halliday will share his life with you, but only if you’re as good at games, music, and movies as he is. And if you take one wrong step, you’re dead.

(Who wouldn’t want to play Joust with this guy?  Image of the lich from the original Tomb of Horrors module, by the incomparable David A. Trampier)

That volatile concoction of self-aggrandizing egotism and sadistic self-disguise is exemplified by planet Middletown. Designed personally by Halliday, its surface is dotted by “256 identical copies” of his childhood town, “spread out evenly across the planet’s surface” (101). Each of the copies is an idealized representation of 1980s midwestern life, its residents friendly, its sky clear, time moving neither forward nor backward on an endless autumn day.

But in the midst of each of those 256 Middletowns is an empty house, Halliday’s childhood home. “For whatever reason,” Wade tells us, “Halliday had decided not to place NPC re-creations of himself or his deceased parents here” (103). Yes, there is a portrait on the wall of the Halliday family, a portrait that doesn’t “hint that the stoic man in the brown leisure suit was an abusive alcoholic, that the smiling woman in the floral pantsuit was bipolar, or that the young man in the faded Asteroids t-shirt would one day create an entirely new universe” (103). But of course, the portrait does hint at all that. Wade knows what Halliday endured. That silence, repeated 256 times, speaks volumes.

In its planetary scale and monomaniacal attention to detail, Planet Middletown crystallizes the loneliness, immobility, and passive-aggressive egotism that enabled James Halliday to turn misery into triumph. The nested, labyrinthine challenges map the contours of a desperate escape transfigured into an Arthurian quest. But it is an Arthurian quest set in a gothic mansion.

Planet Middletown is nostalgic, perfect, and, like a gothic mansion out of Jane Eyre or Northanger Abbey, riddled with secrets, concealed doors, hidden passages. Halliday’s Middletown is a planetary Potemkin village, a gamified memory that denies the shuttered storefronts, the impoverished single mothers, the addicts, and the endemic depression and violence of the American post-industrial terrain captured so memorably in Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir of life in Middletown.

Like the Des Moines, Iowa, of Philip Dick’s Ubik, the nostalgia curdles the moment one touches it.

(Image by martinacecilia)

Ready Player One is the perfect video game novel of our moment—which is why it kind of sucks

Let me be perfectly honest: I feel deeply ambivalent about Ready Player One. On one hand, it crystallizes a history of video games, video game players, and video game culture that speaks not only to the privilege enjoyed by straight, white, institutionally secure men and the children who want to be like them. It speaks to the profound personal and social insecurity that haunts their every step.

On the other, it fails to consistently signal the connection between that insecurity and its treatment of gender and race and its naïve, ahistorical, apolitical vision of virtual reality and globalized game culture. And it is perfectly designed to tweak the fantasies of fanboys and Gen-Xers. I’ve read it before and I’ll read it again. I’ll see the movie several times. I’m a sucker for its charms.

So at whose feet do we lay this delightful monstrosity? Are we reading Wade’s traumatized subjectivity, his precarious masculinity, his whiteness? Or are we reading the ambitions, fantasies, and half-formed critical consciousness of Wade’s creator, Ernest Cline?

I don’t think that’s a question that can be conclusively answered. And that’s what makes Ready Player One an exemplary text of our current video game culture and our current sociocultural climate.

A defense (sort of) of Ready Player One (Part 1 of 2)

This is the second in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

(Spoilers)

What’s not to love? 

In case you missed it, Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s post-apocalyptic 1980s nerd-culture spank-bank novel, and you either really, really—I mean really—hate it or sort of, kind of love it, but maybe feel a bit yuck about the relationship.

If you haven’t heard about Cline’s novel, you probably also didn’t hear that it’s being made into a Steven Spielberg CGI-saturated blockbuster wannabe attempting the rare feat of putting millennials and Gen-Xers shoulder to shoulder in up-sold premium theater seats and social-media rages.

RP1 is a perfect example of what I call “videogame literature.” Cline deploys multiple tropes of videogame literature—the diegetic representation of games, players, and player culture; the figurative use of the same to represent abstract values and ideas; intertextual references to games (so many references to games, so fracking many, the horror . . .); the narrative adaptation of game procedures like leveling, respawning, and modding.

But the book also feels like it matters to our moment in some fashion. I’m not sure I’d call it a “zeitgeist novel.” It doesn’t feel like it has a whole lot to say about our moment, but along with Black Mirror, Westworld, and Jumanji, RP1 appears to signal the full emergence of video games and game players as subjects of serious consideration in popular entertainment.

So, full disclosure: I’m on the “kind of love, feel a bit yuck about it” team. I’ve read the book (signed by the author himself, appended with his usual “MTFBWYA!”) three, maybe four times, listened to it three more (Will Wheaton’s performance is quite good), including twice with my twin sons on the 10-hour trip between Pittsburgh and Leland, Michigan. I’ve taught the book a couple of times in graduate seminars. I get a bit laughy-cryey when Wade takes out the big bad guy during the big bad battle at the end.

Thanks, Ernest!

There’s a lot in it for someone like me to love. I just turned 50, so that lands my awkward adolescence smack in the 1980s. And though I played a lot of sports and earned Eagle Scout, I was mostly an indoor kid. I watched enough basic cable to worry my parents (I don’t think I did a minute of homework that wasn’t in front of the television), read a fair amount of speculative fiction, owned a shelf-full of Dungeons & Dragons manuals and modules, and spent hundreds of hours playing video games (Apple IIc, Intellivision, a score of handhelds, the semi-skeezy arcade a couple miles away from my house, the posher Aladdin’s Castle at the mall). Like Wade Watts, the narrator of Ready Player One, I was an awkward, white, straight, cis-male who had trouble talking to girls. And get this! I lived just a few miles south of Middletown, the home of one of the novel’s main characters, James Halliday, and the location of one of its more unsettling episodes. For someone with my background, Ready Player One (RP1) is the literary equivalent of a bespoke suit.

Actually, there’s a lot not to love . . .

Not that I want to wear it. There is a lot not to love in Cline’s concoction. Critics (for example and example) have focused especially on its fumbling of female and transgender characters. Word. The joke about OASIS women actually being an overweight, hirsute guy named Chuck is awkward the first time Cline tells it, stinking up the kitchen by the fourth.

The IRL meeting between Wade and Aech is especially embarrassing. Haven’t read it? Here’s how it goes: Due to plot twists, Wade and Aech have to log out of the OASIS and travel together in an actual vehicle to an actual airport. But when Wade climbs into the armored RV that Aech uses as a home, he’s shocked to discover that his best friend, who he thought was a white guy, is in fact a “heavyset African American girl . . . with short, kinky hair and chocolate-colored skin” (318). Wade is gobsmacked.

Aech, on the other hand, is anaphylactic. Wade tells us she “appeared to be shivering, even though it was nice and warm . . .” (318). Aech eventually turns and smiles, but Wade holds his silence. Aech “kept stealing glances at me; then her eyes would dart away nervously. She was still trembling” (318). The ice eventually breaks and smiles and hugs are exchanged, but to review: Aech is an independently wealthy, international arena sports star, solo traveler of the Road Warrior wastelands of the U.S., and big-boned black woman with a gift for trash talk. But one look from a skinny white guy and she goes all shivery?

*crossed fingers* Hope they forget to include the shivering

Please.

Then there’s the book’s manic intertextuality, which drives some readers into spasmodic fits of spit-flecked disgust. Alex Nichols, for one, rules the “reference-to-plot ratio” so out of bounds that “it often feels more like binge-reading 1980s-related Wikipedia articles than reading a novel.” But, honestly, that’s a matter of taste. It’s not like Cline’s the first one to go full-encyclopedia. In fact, he’s in pretty good company: Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Goethe, Melville, Joyce, and Pynchon all gave it a shot.[i] Wade’s no Ishmael, granted, but I kind of like his obsessive attention to detail.

But, again, I come here not to bury Ready Player One, but to praise it, sort of.

We need to talk about Wade

Ultimately, I want to make the case that Cline’s book is a lot smarter and more self-conscious than its critics have allowed. Indeed, many of its most nettlesome aspects (including its treatment of race, gender, and sexuality) look very different when we fault not the book’s author, but its narrator: Wade Watts.

Having read, taught, and thought about this book for a while, I’ve come to think of Wade less as a digital-born Luke Skywalker than a traumatized refugee from a Philip Dick novel: Ubik, maybe, or Martian Time-Slip. To be blunt about it, Wade isn’t all there, and I’m not at all surprised.

Which doesn’t mean I’m letting Cline or his narrator off the hook. So, while I intend to defend RP1, I’ll defer that task to Part 2. There are a few other problems I need to address before I move into the positives.

Is the tuner on your boombox broken?

RP1 was published before Gamergate, granted, but the book is almost willfully ignorant of the history and politics of gender and sexuality in online spaces.

In an incisive reading of the gender, racial, and sexual politics of the book, Suzanne Leibrick criticizes Cline for failing to represent the OASIS as either a Star Trek-style utopia for women, the queer, and people of color (and therefore an alert cautioning us about the failures of our present moment and their long-term impact) or a fully-fleshed dystopia whose historical and social causes can be identified by an attentive reader. But the OASIS is ultimately an ahistorical representation of global virtual reality. “I really wanted Ready Player One to be more aware of this history,” Leibrick writes, “by either showing us just how bad things could be for anyone that’s not white and male, or giving us hope that things won’t always be as bad as they are today. Instead what we get is a book that mentions gender a lot, but doesn’t really understand what it is saying about it.”

Yep.

The ahistorical, incoherent representation of virtual culture extends to the way the OASIS sounds. A quick scan of the songs referenced in RP1 will surprise anyone who has spent even an hour in traffic with a dead phone and an 80s nostalgia station on the radio.

Where is Michael Jackson? Madonna? George Michael? Whitney Houston?

Where are R.E.M., Midnight Star, Erik B and Rakim, the Ramones, Sonic Youth, Run-D.M.C., Gang Starr, the Clash, Public Enemy, The Pixies?

Where. In. The. Fuck. Is. Prince?

The absence of alternative, punk, R&B, and rap in Ready Player One is just . . . well, weird.

For one, it’s completely, willfully ahistorical. Remember, I was a teenager who lived just a few minutes’ car drive south of Middletown. So, I know what the place sounded like. James Halliday could have tuned that boombox on top of his dresser to 97X out of Oxford, one of the first alternative rock stations in the country. Planet X, the station’s weeknight show, played alternative music from around the world and across the “fuck classic rock” spectrum. That boombox was also in easy range of 103.7 out of Cincinnati, the go-to when you needed to add just the right R&B and rap tracks to your mixtape. And if Halliday spent so much time watching MTV, how did he manage to miss Yo! MTV Raps?

The issue here isn’t just historical accuracy. However, in the spirit of historical accuracy (and self-indulgent snark), let’s reimagine the scene where our heroic gunters solve the puzzle of the third and final gate. Here’s what Cline writes:

Art3mis’s eyes narrowed. “Faith, hope, charity,” she said. She repeated them a few times, recognition growing in her face. Then she sang: “Faith and hope and charity . . .”

Aech picked up the next line: “The heart and the brain and the body . . .”

“Give you three . . . as a magic number!” Shoto finished triumphantly.

Schoolhouse Rock!” they all shouted in unison.

“See?” I said. “I knew you guys would get it. You’re a smart bunch.”

“’Three Is a Magic Number,’ music and lyrics by Bob Dorough,” Art3mis recited, as if pulling the information from a mental encyclopedia. “Written in 1973.” (307-8)

Suggested edit:

Suddenly, an old white guy in a vintage 2016 Chelsea jersey appeared out of nowhere and smiled in a way that only know-it-alls who have their chance to show they know it all can smile. “But odd as it may be,” he rapped, as only old white guys can rap, “without my one and two where would there be, my three, Mas, Pos, and Me, and that’s the magic number.”

Aech and Shoto high-fived. “’The Magic Number!’”

Art3mis bounced her head to an imaginary beat, “De La Soul, 1989!”

“Word,” the old white know-it-all nodded sagely.

An awkward silence settled over the room.

Really awkward.

“Okay, I’m out, kids. Have fun storming the castle!.”

But the issue here isn’t about history (or self-indulgent snark). The issue is politics. The music Halliday listened to, the music Wade and his fellow gunters listen to, is noteworthy for its utter lack of concern for any real-world issues. My fan fic version of Art3mis is a connoisseur of Riot Grrls and Gangsta Rap.

But there is one major exception to that rule about politics and music: Rush’s album 2112 features prominently in the final stage of Halliday’s quest. “Prominently” is an understatement. Cline cannibalizes the album’s long track “Discovery” as the narrative framework for the final chapter of the book’s second part, the moment Wade takes his last virtual actions in the OASIS before physically infiltrating IOI corporate headquarters in the guise of an indentured laborer. It’s the moment he transforms from a literal guitar hero into a corporate drone.

If you’re not familiar with 2112 or “Discovery,” it is based on the book Anthem, by libertarian hero Ayn Rand. No, Geddy Lee, Neil Pert, and Alex Lifeson were not Rand-heads or evangelical Objectivists. But Rand’s writings were meaningful to the band. Lifeson explains: “What appealed to us was what she wrote about the individual and the freedom to work the way you want to work, not the cold, libertarian perspective. For us, it was striving to be a stronger individual more than anything, and that’s how the story came together.”[ii]

Ayn Rand: Guitar hero, video game edge lord

James Halliday would second that emotion. Like Rand, he has no patience with sentiment, no interest in the civil state or the safety net, no desire to define himself as part of a community. Though he helped create a virtual reality platform in which the majority of the world’s population participates, and though the final puzzle requires a team to solve, his favorite game genres are either single player or fall into the “chosen one” paradigm. It is no coincidence that, at the moment when Wade is most immersed in the world of 2112—literally immersed in it, as Halliday actually designed a planet around it—he must long-term log out of the OASIS and become a wage-slave to one of the world’s biggest and evilest corporations.

Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is James Halliday?

The OASIS isn’t called the OASIS for nothing. It is balm and opiate. The world of Ready Player One has suffered a comprehensive energy, environmental, economic, and civil collapse. World capitals have been vaporized by nuclear weapons. Millions of refugees desperately seeking security. Unemployment and hunger are endemic. But none of that has found its way into the OASIS.

Apparently, the OASIS holds elections, implying there is some kind of OASIS government. We learn that speculative fiction writer Cory Doctorow is President, actor/nerd-hero Will Wheaton is Vice President, and Wade tells us they’ve been “doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade” (201). But that’s about the extent of it. So, not only are two old white guys in charge of a virtual world in which “most of humanity” participates every day, but the issues that matter don’t extend beyond “user rights.”

There seems to be a tacit agreement that no one participating in the hunt for Halliday’s egg is allowed to talk politics. Maybe that was in the small print of “Anorak’s Invitation”? Even Art3mis, the one character who expresses vague concern for social justice, hasn’t figured out how to leverage her worldwide social-media fame into any kind of virtual political activism. (This is not the case with the film. If the trailers are any indication, Art3mis is leading a revolutionary underground.)

If the OASIS is “an escape hatch into a better reality” (18), that reality is better because it’s a reality without politics.

Or is it? On closer inspection, the OASIS isn’t an apolitical space at all, but a libertarian wet dream. Decades of nanny-state coddling and federal-corporate handholding have turned the United States into Fury Road with food stamps. The cities swarm with the unemployed, grown fat on a “bankrupt diet of government-subsidized sugar-and-starch-laden food” (30) and bilking the government out of the money it provides poor families to raise their children. Interstate busses have to be armored, armed guards riding rooftop. Wade has to constantly guard himself against muggers and predatory pedophiles.

And let’s not even start with the schools: “The real public school system, the one run by the government, had been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades,” Wade tells us (31). In contrast, the OASIS public school system, funded entirely by Halliday’s company, Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), is a charter-school utopia, something out of Betsy DeVos’s dream journal: “every school . . . a grand palace of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums, and virtual libraries containing every (school-board approved) book ever written.”

At the start of RP1, the OASIS is a free-market utopia, a place where “city-sized shopping malls” can be “erected in the blink of an eye, and storefronts spread across planets like time-lapse footage of mold devouring an orange. Urban development had never been so easy” (59). But the best part is, as Daito tells Shoto, “There are no laws in the OASIS, little brother” (153). And if a user doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of traveling to Planet Mall, they can simply steal what they want. IP piracy is rampant in the OASIS and openly celebrated by Wade. He doesn’t blink twice before informing us that his laptop’s “hard drive was filled with old books, movies, TV show episodes, song files, and nearly every videogame made in the twentieth century,” none of which he has paid a penny for (14).

And that’s what makes the bad guys—Innovative Online Industries (IOI)—so very, very bad. They want to monetize the OASIS, transform “the open-source virtual utopia” into a “corporate-run dystopia” (33). They intend to charge a monthly fee and “plaster advertisements on every visible surface” (33). They intend to end “user anonymity” and “free speech” (33). Halliday’s egg is just a MacGuffin. The real prize of the hunt is control of the market—better said, not controlling the market.

And what makes the good guys so very, very good is their adherence to the principles of rugged individualism. Though Art3mis expresses sympathy for the destitute and hungry, she, Wade, Aech, Shoto, and Daito are cynical, ambitious, and fiercely independent. In contrast to IOI’s “Oologists” and the members of the various gunter “clans,” the High Five abide strictly by principles of hard work and bootstrapping. They neither take nor give help to other gunters, or each other—even when teamwork would help them defeat IOI. Indeed, the moments of friction between the characters are the result of giving or receiving help from each other. And when they do finally team up to defeat the final boss, Cline interrupts their celebration by literally dropping a bomb on the party, with Wade the sole survivor.

But, of course, the OASIS and the hunt were not built by the High Five. That honor goes to James Halliday, a digital-age John Galt. Like Ayn Rand’s legendary hero, Halliday is a philosopher, an inventor, and a shaper of worlds. He is a fierce defender of individual rights, a ruthless critic of groupthink, an industrialist with no sympathy for social niceties or the needs of his underlings, a multi-billionaire with no interest in social safety nets or global political alliances. And the puzzle he creates for the beleaguered millions who seek consolation, entertainment, and profit from the OASIS isn’t really about money, but about James Halliday himself.

If the mystery of Atlas Shrugged is, “Who is John Galt?” in Ready Player One it is, “Who is James Halliday?”

So, about that defense?

I haven’t forgotten that I promised to defend Ready Player One, but I wanted to make sure we had fully accounted for what I was defending it against. I still maintain that what Cline wrought is much more self-aware than his critics give him credit. And if you’re not convinced that’s true, I hope you’ll at least stick with me that Cline’s vision of a video game future is as coherent as it is problematic.

The glue that holds it all together is trauma. Wade Watts and James Halliday are profoundly traumatized, both as individuals, and as straight white men.

And that is what I will discuss in Part 2.

 

Notes

[i] Megan Amber Condis alerted me to Ready Player One’s encyclopedic ambitions in her very smart essay, “Playing the Game of Literature: Ready Player One, the Ludic Novel, and the Geeky ‘Canon’ of White Masculinity.” It appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature 39.2 (Winter 2016): 1-19.

[ii] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/rushs-alex-lifeson-on-40-years-of-2112-it-was-our-protest-album-20160329

What is “videogame literature”?

For those who study and teach literature—whether prose fiction, poetry, and drama, or newer literatures like film, television, and comics—videogames are a diverse and rewarding pursuit. Readers of Orwell and Atwood will savor BioShock’s (2007) dystopian spin on Ayn Rand’s libertarian philosophy. Fans of Faulkner and Márquez will appreciate the shifting narrative focalization and dense intertextuality of Kentucky Route Zero (2013).

      

GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence that taunts us through the tricks and traps of Portal (2007), is cousin to the malevolent narrators of Poe, Jackson, and Ellis. The sensuous violence of With Those We Love Alive (2014) compares with Cronenberg and Le Guin. The whispers that accompany us as we journey across the Hebridean landscape of Dear Esther(2012) spur memories of the echoing chambers of the late Beckett. And though they require a bit of recalibration to do the job, the tools of literary analysis prove quite useful for consideration of the narratives, dialogue, characters, settings, themes, and imagery of videogames. This is one reason why games are finding their way onto the syllabi and curricula of literature departments.

      

But the argument for treating videogames as literature shouldn’t depend solely on the question of whether or how well games compare with recognizably “literary” things like novels, plays, poems, and movies. And how we understand “videogame literacy” shouldn’t be constrained by thinking of videogames only in terms of keyboards, consoles, controllers, and monitors.

Videogame literacy isn’t just about videogames, but about literature

In “Manifesto for a Ludic Century,” Eric Zimmerman argues that the “increasingly systemic, modular, customizable, and participatory” nature of technoculture intertwines us in deep, complex, intimate, often unrecognizable ways with economic and governmental power. The mercurial and self-obfuscating nature of that intertwining poses real challenges to our individual and collective capacity to identify those systems, to map them and our relationship to them, and to generate critical perspective and empowering practice.

One way to do this, Zimmerman argues, is to play videogames. “It is not enough to merely be a systems-literate person; to understand systems in an analytic sense,” he writes. “We must also learn to be playful in them.”[i] Videogames are, at heart, interactive systems that govern and evaluate performance.

Anna Anthropy would agree: “A painting conveys what it’s like to experience the subject as an image; a game conveys what it’s like to experience the subject as a system of rules.”[ii] The player of games doesn’t just play within the system of rules, Anthropy explains, she plays with the rules. As she plays, she continually assesses the state of the system, looks for opportunities to take advantage, identifies and implements the best strategy, modifies or glitch the rules to improve the experience.[iii]

In other words, videogame literacy is achieved not only through direct interaction with the game itself. Yes, to play a game, one must engage with it as a player and experience its challenges first-hand. However, to frame videogame literacy only in terms of the specific interaction between player and game is to woefully misunderstand exactly what videogames are and the range of activities videogame players engage in when they play.

A useful way to think about this broader range of activities is in terms of “metagaming.” Conventionally, metagaming is defined as the analytic and strategic activities not designed into the game rules but that emerge when players develop a history with a game and the players who play it. For example, in soccer, the rules do not stipulate what direction I may dribble the ball when challenged by an opponent. However, my opponent may realize that, when challenged, I always go to my left. So, when they challenge me the next time, they anticipate that movement. And I might anticipate their anticipation, choosing to move to my right the next time they challenge, having lured them into a trap. That’s metagaming.

Metagames can reflect local play cultures, too; for example, the various “house rules” of Monopoly or the refusal of NBA players to take free throws “granny style,” despite the fact that it is a far more reliable method than the conventional overhead style.

However, this definition of metagaming is historically and theoretically limited. Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux argue for a broader conception of metagaming that (1) fully comprehends the “conditions of twenty-first century play,” and (2) accounts for a broader range of activities and contexts, including “[a]ttitude, affinity, experience, achievement, status, community, competition, strategy, spectatorship, statistics, history, economy, [and] politics.”[iv] In their book Metagaming, they advocate a conception of metagaming as a “critical practice in which playing, making, and thinking about videogames occur within the same act.” Within this broader framework of play, they explain, “[t]he metagame emerges as the material trace of the discontinuity between the phenomenal experience of play and the mechanics of digital games. From the position in front of the television, posture on the couch, and proprioception of the controller to the most elaborate player-created constraints, fan practices, and party games, metagames are the games created with videogames. . . . Metagames reveal the alternate histories of play that always exist outside the dates, dollars, and demographic data that so often define videogames in industry magazines and encyclopedia entries.”

To quote game designer Richard Garfield, “[T]here is . . . no game without a metagame.”[v]

So, where does literature fit into the metagame? How can literature be considered a form of metagaming?

We need to expand our definition of “playing a videogame”

Boluk and LeMieux rightly expand the concept of videogame play to encompass everything “in, on, around, above, between, beside, below, or through” games. However, despite this expansive definition of play, they demonstrate a curious hesitation to consider—or perhaps a failure to recognize—forms of metagaming that involve a different set of attitudes, desires, practices, and technologies.

  

(Image #2:Alena Alambeigi/Mashable)

For example, when I sit down, boot up my PS4, and press start on the multi-player first-person shooter Overwatch, my goal is to play the game Overwatch. But I don’t just play Overwatch with a controller in my hands. I can play the game with my PS4 turned off, too. I play the game when I visit the official website to check out videos and comics about the game’s diverse and utterly fetching roster of characters. I play it when I participate in Twitch.tv session. I play it when I browse social-media sites that showcase fan-created art and fiction. I play it when I comment on articles that discuss the game’s approach to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity—and when I distribute those articles on my social media feeds and in my classrooms. I play it in online forums that describe elaborate theories about the next character the developer will unveil. I play it when I explore Overwatch cosplay sites and marvel at the technical, gestural, and performative genius of cosplayers and those who photograph them. This is a form of play—a form of cross-media, cross-genre metagaming—that has yet to be recognized by videogame theorists and historians. And it is a vital source of ludic literacy.

Videogames are one part of a larger textual ecology, what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture,” a conjuncture of social, economic, and technical forces “where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”[vi] In convergence culture, content flows “across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders” reflecting the innovative and intensifying corporate production and marketing strategies of global, networked capitalism as well as the active, conscious, interventionist, and creative activities of consumers.[vii] Indeed, in some contexts (I think here of the third wave of “otaku” described by Hiroki Azuma[viii]), the line between producer and consumer is difficult to detect and of little analytic utility. Overwatch is an excellent, but not at all unusual example of a game that is designed to promote cross-platform exploration and creation. But even when a game isn’t designed to exploit a particular convergence network, most videogame players participate in some form of convergence-oriented play.

Should we unconditionally celebrate convergence culture and the new modes of consumer agency, metagaming, and multi-modal literacy it enables? Oh, yeezus, no. Convergence culture is a system of power and control, and whatever agency we ascribe to it is necessarily a contingent and negotiated agency. Which is precisely why I argue here for an expansive understanding of video game play and, concomitantly, an expansive understanding of this body of texts I call “video game literature.”

A capacious conception

As I define it, videogame literature includes videogames, but also novels, short stories, and graphic fiction that portray Pokémon captured, opponents struck down with mystic fireballs, or the fraught decision to choose “male” or “female” when designing a player character. It includes cinematic adaptations of videogames and television series with “gamers” as characters; the instruction manuals and “feelies” of 1980s console games and computer-based interactive fiction; and raps that drop sly references to games and game tropes. Videogame literature includes fan-made machinima that adapts the characters, situations, and software engines of games to explore relationships, conflicts, and themes left fallow by the games themselves; fan-fiction that queers heteronormative narratives and characters; and the cosplay of players of color embodying white superheroes.

Videogame literacy isn’t just about learning how to play games consciously and critically. By examining texts like these, we gain insight into the fantasies, ideologies, and anxieties that surround videogames.

Here’s a good example. In a smart critique of Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel Ready Player One, Megan Amber Condis argues that Cline’s representation of videogames, gamers, game play, and gamer culture rewards forms of literacy that echo the exclusionary racial and gender politics of videogame and nerd culture. Building on theories of canon formation and postmodern fabulation, Condis demonstrates that the dense, often arcane intertextuality of Ready Player One functions as a kind of literary game that affirms a particular kind of reader identity. She writes, “The density and subtlety of the references sprinkled throughout the novel demands attentive, careful reading. Allusions must be sought out and ‘solved’ (their referents discovered) if readers are to understand the speech . . .” of the novel’s narrator and his community.[ix] Thus, the “performative codes” that govern Cline’s characters and the world in which they live reproduce “the performative codes that define categories of gender and race” in videogame culture more generally.[x]

Condis’s essay shows that a thorough analysis of a novel that represents videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture can provide insight into the ideologies and institutions that surround and govern videogames, the dynamics of videogame play, and the social, economic, and technical forces of the “ludic century.” Sadly, her essay is one of only a very few that address the literary side of videogames, and it is telling that the work on ludic literature upon which she builds her critique were published more than three decades ago.

Nevertheless, work like Condis’s (and others who I’ll discuss in my posts) affirms a capacious conception of videogame literature and highlights its special position in the dynamic, evolving relationship of “media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence,” to recall Jenkins again.[xi] Similarly, it honors the expansive concept of play described by Boluk and LeMieux, assuring that we do not lose site of the historical and culturally specific nature of videogame play. But most importantly, it draws attention to a burgeoning body of literature that has received far too little attention despite the fact that it is both a fascinating body in and of itself and one that attracts great numbers of readers, shaping the metagame of the ludic century.

Seven ways to identify “videogame literature”

As a first step towards a survey and evaluation of that diverse textual body, what I do here is less compile a bibliography than describe the tools with which we can identify the genre and critique its artifacts. To that end, I define here a set of genres and tropes that encompass the field of videogame literature (excluding, of course, videogames themselves). These include:

  • Supplementary fiction: Videogame manuals; developer-produced websites, videos, and digital comics; and fan-generated forums, videos, software mods, and other texts intended to complete a game’s fiction—its storyworld—in “canonical” fashion.
  • Fictive adaptation: Movies, television and web series, machinima, novels, comics, fan fiction, cosplay, and so on whose fictions are envisioned within the diegetic parameters of a specific video game but are not considered canonical (though they may be considered part of a particular fandom’s canon, a.k.a. “fanon”).
  • Diegetic representation: Videogames, players, game play, and game culture that appear in a text.
  • Figurative representation: Videogames, players, game play, and game culture that serve as symbol, metaphor, metonym, analogy, allegory, etc.
  • Intertextual reference: Videogame phrases, sounds, shapes, images, movement patterns, environmental design, and so on referenced in a text.
  • Intermedial representation: Videogames, videogame play, and gaming culture remediated or transmediated across texts or as part of a multimedia text.
  • Procedural adaptation: The duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc. Procedural adaptation can be identified in texts that do not otherwise represent videogames, game players, or game culture.

A videogame, game player, or element of videogame culture might serve multiple purposes in a single text. The fifth episode of the first season of the AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire (2014) represents the game Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) diegetically: we see characters playing and hear them talking about it. The game helps establish and build character: Yo-Yo is shown to be a deeply knowledgeable player, recognizing when Cameron is playing by the sound of her keystrokes, and we are surprised to discover that the curmudgeonly Bos is also trying his hand at it. The game moves the plot forward: the coders who complete the game—by wit or by cheating—are identified by Cameron as creative problem-solvers and she recruits them for a special project that will become the focus of the series’ second season. Adventure functions metonymically, too. Along with costumes, props, and set, it helps establish the early-1980s setting of the episode. Finally, it functions as a metaphor for the characters’ desire for a life that is bigger, riskier, and more rewarding. Indeed, the title of the episode is “Adventure.”

      

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

Ultimately, I hope that recognition of these genres and tropes can support the larger project of (1) improving our understanding of the multi-modal nature of videogame play; (2) defining the field of “videogame literature” in generic terms; (3) comprehending the diverse ways that videogames, videogame players, game play, and the culture of videogaming are represented in literature; and (4) refining our understanding of the historical, cultural, and ideological significance of videogames and, more broadly, the ludic dimensions of technoculture. Though our thumbs and eyes may be doing very different things when we interact with a videogame or read a book, they are both forms of play.

 

 

[1] Big thanks to the students in my Fall 2017 English 765/865: Videogames and Literature course: Anne Betz, Brandi Billotte, Cody Dunmire, Jordan Gorsuch, Sean Helman, Bradley Markle, Asma Alameroo, Alexander Hagood, John Mabold, Olivia Maderer, Shane Sedlemyer, Barbara Shultz, and Zeeshan Siddique.

 

Notes

[i] Eric Zimmerman, “Manifesto for a Ludic Century,” Kotaku.com 13 Sept. 2013. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.

[ii] Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012) 3.

[iii] Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, 49.

[iv] Boluk and Lemieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

[v] Richard Garfield, qtd. in Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, Introduction.

[vi] Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2008): 2.

[vii] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 3.

[viii] Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2009).

[ix] Megan Amber Condis, “Playing the Game of Literature: Ready Player One, the Ludic Novel, and the Geeky ‘Canon’ of White Masculinity.” Journal of Modern Literature 39.2 (Winter 2016): 5.

[x]  Condis, “Playing the Game of Literature,” 3.

[xi] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 2.