A Whole Bunch of Indie TTRPGs (updated 11/5/23)

October 24, 2023

This is the twentieth in a series of posts dedicated to works of playful literature and theater—not just games 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 games, game players, and game culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, though one that’s more focused on videogames rather than games more generally, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

I’ve recently purchased My Best Game, an itch.io bundle of 52 (!) indie tabletop roleplaying games with one feature in common: their designers considered it their best game. The games in the bundle vary widely in terms of narrative genre, game mechanics, and professional polish. But all of them are interesting, fun, and heartfelt! I suspect that the bundle provides a useful perspective on the current state of the indie TTRPG scene.

Perhaps foolishly, I’m committing myself to writing brief (well, brief-ish), descriptive reviews of each of the 52 games in the bundle. These reviews are based only on my reading of those rules, so don’t reflect any of the discoveries that come through play. Since the bundle is no longer available, I’ve provided links to each of the game’s itch.io pages.

Perhaps even more foolishly, I’m adding to this list the indie games I’m purchasing through other sources, whether itch.io, DriveThruRPG.com, and my favorite game store, Games Unlimited, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I’ll make sure to indicate purchase options for those, too.

Note: I’ve done my best to discover the preferred pronouns of the designers. When that proved impossible, I’ve defaulted to they and their.

Note: I’ve done my best to discover the preferred pronouns of the designers. When that proved impossible, I’ve defaulted to they and their.


a slice-of-life game of fallen angels and Belonging Outside Belonging

by Thursday Garreau

 Thursday Garreau describes Feathers as “a game of angels, fallen into our world, wandering in unfamiliar, fragile bodies, looking for a people, places, and selves they can find comfort in.” It’s a game best described as delicate, intimate, perhaps even cozy.

Though based in Avery Alder’s Belonging Outside of Belonging engine, it eschews a few elements of Alder’s system. Instead of the six Character Roles Alder recommends, Garreau goes with three: The Lover, The Dancer, The Dreamer. So, while this provides the minimal “triangulation” for “community drama” to thrive (as Alder puts it in her maker’s guide in Dream Askew/Dream Apart), it also constrains play to a small group and, thus, a more intimate kind of storytelling. Similarly, Garreau goes with four Setting Elements (called “Situations” here) instead of six, softening the strong relationship between setting and character that is one of the hallmarks of the BoB system. Finally, while they keep the BOB mechanic of Strong, Regular, and Weak Moves, Garreau has done away with Lures and the broader ludonarrative principle of “making trouble” for each other.

These choices speak to the way Garreau envisions Alder’s idea of “a marginalized group of people living together in a precarious community.” Alder’s Dream Askew (“Queer strife amid the collapse”) or Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Dream Apart (“Jewish fantasy of the shtetl”) are designed at least partly with those who do not identify as queer or Jewish in mind. A section on “Asking and Correcting” advises players to “ask questions” if they don’t get something and “gentle corrections” when someone gets something wrong either factually or tonally.

That’s not the case here. This is a game by a queer-identified designer for queer-identified players. It voices its design in the singular and collective first-person: “This story, just like ours, is ultimately an optimistic one,” “We’re not alone, for better or worse.” The precarity of this community is situated less in terms of the broader situation than in the bodies and voices of its player-characters, angels who dream of wholeness and community. This is a game whose empathy structures are oriented not towards outsiders (i.e., those who don’t identify as queer) but towards the three who gather to play. It’s not exclusionary, but it also doesn’t make any welcoming gestures towards the cis or straight. In that respect, Feathers is a game that affirms the significance and precarity of queer play and the need to empathize with each other. (10/2/23)

Where to buy

Candied Violets

The Sweet Treat RPG

By Monroe Soto

Candied Violets is a micro-RPG that packs a whole lot of flavor into its few pages—imagine The Great British Bake Off but adorable woodland creatures.

The ludonarrative is, as is usually the case with micro-RPGs, simple in terms of structure, mechanics, and drama. Similar to The Great British Bake Off, there are three challenges, each more challenging than the last, each assessed by a panel of judges. Dramatic friction is generated, first, by the contest structure: the players play the ambitious woodland pâtissiers, each with a favorite ingredient and special skill; the GM plays the judges who, in addition to being woodland fauna, have allergies and preferences that the contestants may or may not be aware of. The GM, in the guise of the judges, sets the overall theme for each of the three rounds, each round requiring a Sniffer, Tastebuds, and Timing check, with Forage and Cutes (when attempting to charm or win sympathy with those big Disneyfied eyes) sprinkled in to spice up the proceedings. Everything is determined by the role of two six-sided die, low roles resulting in a disadvantage, high roles the opposite.

The other source of dramatic fun is the openness of the ludonarrative, another one of the characteristics of the micro-RPG genre. Generality of description promotes creative improvisation in terms of both storytelling and interpretation of die roles. Add that to the dramatic tropes of the reality-television show and the reliance on ritualized judgment, one sees how Candied Violets promotes all kinds of friendly banter, both in-character and out. A reviewer on itch.io complimented the game for its “great balance between cute and chaos” and I think that captures it. (10/4/23)

Where to buy

Like Skyscrapers Blotting Out The Sun


*blotting out the sun

Speak the Sky

 The designer of this collaborative “2-player writing game of: excessive footnotes, killing the author, and woes in translation” claims* not to have read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire until after he had designed the first version of the game.† This strikes me as rather ludicrous, but, as the designer wisely notes, “This doesn’t matter much.”

The game posits one player as a Writer, the other as a Translator, the former an exile writing their magnum opus in a foreign land, the latter supporting them “out of pity and admiration,” but also elbowing their way into the text by way of a series of footnotes that, while intended to clarify the Writer’s text, inevitably digress into the idiosyncratic, narcissistic, or neurotic. The two players are advised to sit at a table across from each other, each taking a turn to write. The Writer starts a page by writing a chapter title, then writing one to six lines of text. The Translator then chooses one to six lines in that text to footnote. Once a page is filled, the Translator sums up the rest of the imaginary chapter and play continues to the “Between pages” phase in which an event happens that affect the fictional pair in some fashion.

Like Pale Fire, what emerges is a hybrid text that tells one story on its surface, another between the lines, and yet another around those lines. It reminds me of Surrealist writing games like Echo Poems, Translation Poems, or Parallel Stories, games in which players transform each other’s words by seizing upon a fragment or a sudden association or inspiration that may have little relationship to the intention of the other player but can produce marvelous results by way of the variability of the non sequitur. Here, the productive disjuncture of text and paratext is fueled by a set of random prompts that are correlated with a standard 52-card deck: Seeds that designate subject matter for the Writer, Footnotes for the Translator, and Events or Figures for the Between pages phase.

The game’s penultimate phase directs the two players to assemble the pages into a manuscript into book form, meaning all the little paratextual bibs and bobs of the contemporary book: a brief biography of the writer, a blurb for the cover, a commentary for readers, a letter of proposal to an imagined publisher. The game ends on a perfectly awkward, narcissistic note as the players must “find someone and convince them to read the final story, if you can bear to do so,” including the designer himself, who graciously invites the players to contact him.

This is all perfectly delicious, as far as this fan of self-referential metafiction is concerned. (10/6/23)

* Though this claim is positioned near the end of the text, in an “Anti-bibliography,” a symptom, perhaps, of a certain mendaciousness on the designer’s part or, perhaps, of a willingness to string the reader along, to watch them nod furiously, perhaps even text their two elder children, “holy shit! I just found a ttrpg based on Pale Fire!”

†This being the second version of the game, at least, given the ambiguous “v2.2” beneath the subtitle. Which raises a question concerning the events that separated “v1” from its subsequent iterations.

A classic stratagem of the inheritor who, upon being reminded of the value of the inheritance, must admit to their dependence upon those who came before. Matter much to whom?

Where to buy

Weasel Overdrive

Richard Kelly

Kelly describes Weasel Overdrive as a “cyberpunk one-session or short campaign trpg about being strange people in an uncaring metropolis.” More specifically, it’s about weasels and the fixers-for-hire who love them. And I’ll be honest, when I first read this, I thought it was a joke.

Weasel Overdrive is an example of the kind of TTRPG that is 90% “I’ve got this weird idea” and 10% mechanics. Not a bad thing per se, but in this case, that weird idea is anchored in two extremely specific niche ideas: fixers with ghost weasels and cyberpunk. And the mechanics are fuzzy, maybe just not thought through. The designer, Richard Kelly, is clearly aware of this: “I believe in you,” he writes in the conclusion and, elsewhere, that this “is a game you want to get loose and improvise with.” In practice, this means that the game probably won’t be much fun for players who aren’t deeply familiar with the cyberpunk genre and its greasy streets, metacorporations, and grim-noir gig economies. Aside from some flavor text and vivid photos of urban settings with weasels photoshopped in, there’s not much here to help with worldbuilding.

So, how does it work? One player plays the “Weasel-user,” a “member of an ancient bloodline (or else people who have had their own problems solved by the members of that ancient bloodline) who are bonded to half-spirit, half-corporeal weasels.” The other, non-GM players are the “supporting cast.” These characters have various “Trade Skills” that can be bartered and leveraged by the Weasel-user. The GM guides the action forward by way of the Client. Storytelling is handled by everyone at the table

The action begins when the GM presents the Client, their request, and explains the obstacles standing in the way of fulfilling that request. The players all talk it through, the Supporting Cast members identifying when and how their Trade Skills might help with an obstacle, then rolling as many D6s as they have points in that Skill. The Weasel-user modifies those rolls using their Powers at the expense of Curses. After all obstacles are either successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with (and, frankly, I’m kind of baffled by the rules that govern this as they are definitely loose and improvsational), we enter the Unfolding the Consequences phase. In faith to the grittier, nihilistic end of the cyberpunk storytelling spectrum, this is mostly about bad things happening, those things mostly resulting in everyone in a far worse situation than when the story started, dead, or newly be-weaseled. At that point, the GM steps in to do a little conclusive storytelling and play concludes.

Kelly admits that “a lot of this game isn’t contained in the book.” I think most players could use a little more—maybe a list of novels, movies, comics, and videogames? (10/7/23)

Where to buy

Vibe Check - Enter the Inversion

Vibe Check

Enter the Inversion

By Josh Hittie

I was thoroughly baffled by this one upon a first reading of its sixty-one vibrantly colored pages. In part, that’s a problem of layout. Vibe Check is a sight to behold thanks to layout artist Rae Nedjadi. The pages are a densely layered riot of color, fonts, artistic styles—layout as wildstyle. In this respect, Nedjadi accomplishes one of the key goals of the TTRPG layout designer—to provide players a vivid sense of a game’s, well, vibe. Vibe Check takes place in the “Inversion,” a surreal, neon-dystopian urban afterworld in which the player-character has seven days to battle the Pandemonium, “dangerous manifestations of the Inversion itself, run amok through the Inversion as tools of the Watchers,” those last being the supernatural cyberpunk gods that rule the game. Nedjadi captures that neon-surreality through a maximalist, at times dizzying design. But that layout falls short on a second, more important goal of the layout artist: legibility.

I beg you, Josh Hittie and Rae Nedjadi, a please provide a printer-friendly, more reader-accessible version that’s less than 132.5 MB!

But I was baffled in another, more enticing way. I couldn’t make sense of how Vibe Check worked. A small paragraph on the credits page indicated the Lumen system created by Spencer Campbell. So, I found and read Campbell’s System Reference Document (https://gilarpgs.itch.io/lumen) and Seamus Conneely’s review of it (https://cannibalhalflinggaming.com/2021/06/18/lumen-review-an-srd-for-the-quick-and-powerful/). As I discovered, the Lumen system is inspired by high-octane shooter-looters like Diablo and Destiny. The rules-light system focuses on super-powered, fast-moving, high-flavored combat. Frankly, I had never imagined that one could emulate in a TTRPG the pace and scale of those games—not just the combat but the drop-mechanics and flow. And then it clicked.

Vibe Check is Destiny meets The Hype.

As Hittie puts it, “What’s the point of fighting for your life if you don’t at least look good doing it?” The player-characters construct their Looks via seven Brands, among them Antiquity’s Glance (“Comfortable and casual without sacrificing style”) and Beautified Grotesque (Elaborate and gothic, finding beauty in the profane). Each Look provides distinct bonuses, with the seventh, Lunar Crash Threads, only available from special stores or dropped as special boss rewards. Fashion is fluid, so Brands ebb and flow according to the random rolls of Trends. Thus, a given session will have one Brand on top, the other on the bottom, bonuses and penalties accordingly. Looks come in five types: head, shirt, pants, shoes, and accessories. Brand loyalty pays off: outfit yourself three or more items of the same Brand and bonuses ensue. Apparel and accessories are dropped in combat—and, true to the looter-shooter vibe, drop early and often—but can also be purchased at Stores between missions. Like Destiny and Fortnite, a big part of Vibe Check’s fun is playing with your player-character’s paper doll, though the player gets a lot more control of the details. Complementing Looks are Tokens, “small physical objects that Players use to activate their powers. They are manifestations of the Player’s powerful souls,” though also opportunities to tap into their storytelling abilities. Tokens come in tiers and Hittie has created dozens of them. Again, this is a game as much about the looting as it is the shooting. And the Tokens provide the spectacle, ranging from atmospheric effects like Revenge of the Carboniferous (which creates a large oil slick) and Sunset (which bathes the battlefield in amber dusk, providing additional damage bonuses) to weapons like Pact Chain (Bind and control non-boss enemies) and Quantum Daggers (a set of neon throwing knives).

But it’s also about the shooting. Less numerous but no less imaginative are Vibe Check’s enemies, which come in three ranks: low-powered Minions like Asphalt Gremlins and Wheelie Mobs; Striker Enemies in the form of Neon Jellies or Traffic Light Cyclopses; and big bosses like Concrete Krakens and Skyline Dragons. True to the Lumen system, combat has been stripped of anything that might lead to “analysis paralysis” or the possibility of a power not working due to a low die roll. When a PC uses a power, it simply works, no die roll needed. As Campbell puts it in his SRD, “Powers are the opportunity to show off,” and it is the GM’s job to respond to the Players’ actions by describing “Big Changes” to the battlefield—alarms suddenly blaring, enemies changing their tactics in a surprising way, the environment shifting unexpectedly, or a new enemy type showing up. Vibe Check gives us combat as runway catwalk—the chic versus the cheugy. (10/24/23)

Where to buy

VOID 1680 AM

VOID 1680 AM

A Solo Playlist Building Game

By Ken Lowery

I bought this at Games Unlimited in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on a stop-off between Independent Brewery and the Manor Theatre. I was first drawn by the evocative cover by Jordan Witt and its subtitle, “A Solo Playlist Building Game.” But I was hooked when I saw its ludonarrative.

The player plays a DJ for an AM radio station, and the game represents a single show comprised of four blocks of three songs each, interspersed with talk. To make this happen, the player divides a standard card deck into suits and face cards. The suits represent the four song blocks, each of them with a different mood. They draw three cards from the first suit to guide the selection of the first three songs, each card keyed to an idea (i.e., “You’re ready to take a walk or go running.” or “A song that got you through a breakup, romantic or platonic.”) and a question (“What song sets the pace for you?” “How does it feel to hear it again?”). Once they’ve selected the songs for that block, they press record on whatever device is handy, introduce the first track in their chosen DJ style, then press play. As the three songs play, the player draws a Caller Card from the face-card deck and then correlate that with the suit of the current block. What emerges is a random mix of persona (“a young Caller on the cusp of adulthood,” “an elder, middle-aged or older,” etc.) and mood (mellow, passionate, melancholy, etc.), that mood further differentiated in terms of subject matter (i.e., romance, friendship, family, etc.). Once the third song of the block concludes, the player then backsells the previous two tracks and talks about the Caller to whatever extent they wish. Rinse and repeat until the fourth block is played and the evening’s show arrives at its conclusion.

Though grounded in the real world of AM radio, it strikes me that VOID 1680 AM is genre-agnostic. One might just as easily assemble one’s playlists and callers in a version close to our own world or in the speculative worlds of, say, Welcome to Night Vale, The Vast of Night, or the apocalyptic eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return.

I enjoy solo TTRPGs, but this is one of the few that make intrinsic sense as a solo TTRPG—a game in which the form of solo play supports and is supported by its narrative situation. As Lowery writes, AM radio is “lone voices in the darkness, saying what they cannot contain, seeking connection with like minds. Voices like yours . . . You will speak, but you will never know who hears you. You will bare your soul, but you will never know who—if anyone—is truly listening.” The intensely imaginative isolation of the TTRPG is a perfect ludonarrative analog of the “punk DJ, the outlaw country enthusiast, and the conspiracy theorist alike.” Further, it literalizes the idea of voice by asking the player to record their vocal performance and mix it in with the songs they curate—literalizes it further if they accept Lowery’s invitation to send him their recording so he can broadcast it through his actual AM transmitter in his garage and have it posted on his Void Affiliates YouTube channel.

A clever, thoughtful merging of genre, transmedial storytelling, and performance. (10/24/23)

Where to buy



Carnage. Automobile. Radical. Zeta

By Adira Slattery

One of the distinguishing features of the indie TTRPG scene is the emphasis placed on writing and layout. Both of these are vital to any rulebook—as with any genre of technical writing, the information in rulebooks must be communicated and organized effectively. Conventionally, clarity and utility are the priority—the rules and mechanics should be explained clearly; that explanation and its relationship to the storyworld should be organized to help players find what they need when they need it. But flavor also matters. Word choice, the arrangement of text and image, font selection, color, and other visual, rhetorical, and organizational elements communicate more than just how the game is played—they communicate the feel of play.

Flavor is especially important in the indie TTRPG scene. MÖRK BORG is exemplary, with its violent color contrasts and constantly shifting layout. No doubt, a more expressive approach is a smart strategy in a crowded marketplace where choices are organized in terms of thumbnails and blurbs or crowded store shelves. MÖRK BORG’s garish yellow cover and lurid illustrations catch the eye and imagination. But it also reflects a rejection of a game-design aesthetic that has long dominated the mainstream market—an aesthetic that privileges order and marginalizes the queer, the divergent, the weird, and the angry. But it’s rare to find a TTRPG rulebook that extends flavor into the writing that explains the rules—we might not find an actual rule in MÖRK BORG until we’re 18 pages in, but that rule and the others are explained in a fashion similar to any other rulebook: orderly, rational, rhetorically neutral.

That’s not the case here.

“This is a mother fucking game,” Adira Slattery tells us. Indeed. CARZ is a post-apocalyptic demolition-derby with narrative roots in movies like Death Race 2000 and the Mad Max series and familial resemblance to games like Chad Irby and Steve Jackson’s Car Wars (1980) and Colin Chapman’s Atomic Highway (2010). Like those, CARZ is about high-velocity, over the top, automotive rage-festing.

But where CARZ separates from these and most other TTRPGs is its cover-to-cover embrace of its mother-fucking premise. CARZ isn’t only set in the “hyperpop mutant garbage of this post-apocalypse cosmic dumpster that we call earth” but reads like a game you’d pull out of that dumpster. This is a rules-light, rough-edged, game heavy on attitude in terms of both the world it describes and its trashcore layout, courtesy of Maria Mison (an accomplished game designer in their own right https://mariabumby.itch.io/). But it also reads differently, which I’ll get to shortly.

The player-characters are Mutants from one of ten backgrounds ranging from Lunar to Sheltered to Wacky (“Maybe you’re a living skeleton . . . or a badger who can say swears”). The GM, here called the Garbage Player, handles the usual stuff: voicing NPCS, organizing scenes, and managing the ludonarrative system of Tags. Slattery writes, “Everything is made of tags. Characters have tags, vehicles have tags, places have tags, stuff has tags. Tags tags tags tags tags. Nouns, adjectives, whatever!” Tags are the “quintessence” of the things that are and happen in this world. These tags come in four categories when it comes to defining characters (Carnage, Automobile, Radical, and Zeta = CARZ!) and in several others when it comes to action elements such as vehicles, places, and detours.

The action is governed by a simple dice-rolling mechanic. All actions get at least three six-sided dice, more for each Tag that applies favorably, fewer when they suggest a disadvantage, but never fewer than three. Matches define the degree of success—more matches, more better.  But the governing principle is improvisatory, over-the-top, chaos. “When in doubt, blow something up.”

This is all great, flavorful fun, but what sets CARZ apart from most TTRPGs, even the most indie of the indies, is its rejection of the neutral-toned, rationalistic, rules-are-distinct-from-story approach to games writing. In the section, “Reading this mess,” we’re told, “First off, we’re gunna be in this colloquial style the whole time.” That style extends to a note on gender and disability that is more than just a nod to an ethos of accessibility: “I am a transgender disabled queer fuckhead. You don’t gotta be one to play, but you’re in our world buddy.”

Cr*pple Punk as game-design aesthetic? In! (11/5/23)

Where to buy

The Best Movies about Videogames

December 15, 2022

This is the nineteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of playful literature and theater—not just games 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 games, game players, and game culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, though one that’s more focused on videogames rather than games more generally, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

One list deserves another

The Guardian‘s Keith Stuart and Kez MacDonald recently posted a list of their favorite videogame movies—movies that aren’t adaptations of videogame IPs but are, in some fashion or another, about videogames and the people who play and make them. Like Stuart and MacDonald, I’m fascinated by the stories we tell with, about, and around videogames (in fact, I’m co-editing a collection of essays on the topic). And like anyone reading someone else’s top list, I’ve created one of my own.

My differences with Stuart and MacDonald are less about the quality of their choices (except Free Guy [2021], which is objectively a work of tendentious trash), then about what counts as a “videogame movie.” First, there’s the question of how “videogame-y” a film needs to be to count. As I’ve argued in detail elsewhere, even a seemingly incidental appearance of a videogame can highlight a theme or leverage insight into what videogames mean to the filmmakers. For example, when Frank plays video chess with the AI Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), it cues the viewer into the nature of the intelligence that is running the mission and foreshadows the fatal endgame between Hal and Dave.

Two of the movies I’ve included here are of this sort. One is the Netflix series Russian Doll, where explicit references to videogames are few, but their influence pervasive.  Another is Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which doesn’t include a single reference to videogames, but tells a story of a lesser-known ludonarrative tradition. More on these below.

A second objection is that, with the exception of the interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), Stuart and MacDonald limit their choices to films of conventional format and cinematic release–a limited understanding of “movie.” That means no place for most episodes of the Netflix science-fiction series Black Mirror, which tend to run about an hour in length. Also absented are multi-season series like Russian Doll, Halt and Catch Fire, and The Guild. However, these are among the most thoughtful cinematic speculations on a medium that is both increasingly pervasive and powerful. One of those series is not included on this list, though perhaps it should be. Mystic Quest tells the story of a fictional videogame studio. For no particularly good reason, I haven’t gotten round to watching it. If/when I revise this, I’m likely to include it. And I’m back and forth on the penultimate episode of Mr. Robot, in which Angela is kidnapped and forced to play a surreal text-based adventure game. There’s a good argument LINK to be made that the entire second season can be understood in terms of the logic of old-school adventure games.

If you’re interested in learning more about videogame movies and the different ways we might think about them (including movies that remediate the storytelling strategies of videogames like Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), take a look at this.

So, in no special order, my list of the best “movies” about videogames:

Before you start, SPOILER ALERT!!! Lots of details in the discussion below, including some big plot reveals, so maybe check out the titles, then watch those you haven’t seen before reading on.

GTFO (2015)

The absence from The Guardian‘s list of Shannon Sun-Higginson’s documentary about women’s experience as videogame players, designers, journalists, and critics was what initially inspired me to create this list. GTFO (acronym for “Get the fuck out”) is a regular presence on my videogames course syllabi and my advisee’s reading lists. It is comprehensive, high-impact, and inspirational.

The film opens with a notorious clip showing Esports team captain Aris Bakhtanians relentlessly sexualizing Miranda Pakozdi while the rest of the team basically does nothing. But as common as this and other forms of harassment are, the film doesn’t only focus on overt kinds of mistreatment. It also describes the systemic pressures that silence women or chase them away from videogames, as well as the work of feminist and queer activists working to change that system, including organizations like Code Liberation Foundation. A lot of important people pop in: Leigh Alexander, Robin Hunicke, Brenda Romera, Jennifer Hepler, Jessica Hammer, Anita Sarkeesian, among others.

Finally, I appreciate the fact that it relegates Gamergate to a postscript. In that postscript Maddy Myers, now Deputy Editor for Games at Polygon, nails it: “Singling out Gamergate is . . . a mistake, because it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the problem exists on a much larger scale.”

 World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973)

Welt am Draht, Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3, was one of the first to explore the now-common trope of characters finding themselves trapped inside a game; in this case a simulation. Fassbinder resists the urge to look either hyper-futuristic or hyperrealistic. His gameworld is all leather and chrome, mirrors and glass, smoke and feathered hair, dark-daubed eyes, and wall-to-wall shag carpet—sensuous maximalism. But it’s all . . . off, perfectly so. The performances are inspired. Klaus Löwitsch is twitchy, headstrong Dr. Fred Stiller, the new technical director of a supercomputer social simulation whose “identity units” are unaware they’re not human but are starting to suspect something’s off. Karl-Heinz Vosgerau channels the spirit of super-chilled vodka as CEO of the project. Tertiary characters are all weirdly static, aloof, disconnected. They’re set decoration, providing detail and drama for Stiller’s struggle. They look, from the perspective of a twenty-first-century videogame player, like NPCs in a photorealistic sandbox game. Which is essentially what they are.

Fassbinder drops the clichéd epistemological baggage of simulations (i.e., how do we know we’re not living in one?) into the paranoid action of political thrillers like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). It’s a sharp look at the role of simulation in authoritarian societies, a theme as old as Plato and still going on right now.

(FWIW, the 1999 English-language remake, The Thirteen Floor, isn’t bad, but lacks the shiny funkiness of the original, going instead for the drab palette typical of 90s sci-fi movies.)

 The Guild (2007-13)

The Office for videogame players! Felicia Day’s long-running series about a group of videogame players is never not spot-on authentic to the experience of playing a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game as a member of a guild. As someone who was dedicating a lot of time to World of Warcraft and not one but two guilds, I fully sympathize with Cyd and her struggles, whether they be managing the personalities of those she plays with or pursuing romance IRL. The jokes aren’t always great, but they always land—as do the plotlines addressing online harassment, toxic masculinity, and the messy bleed between in-game and IRL. Season 5 is my favorite. Codex, Zaboo, Vork, Bladezz, Clara, and Tinkerballa travel to MegaGame-O-RamaCon where, among other awkward obligations, they’re forced to play together in a single cramped hotel room. Cringe-y but always warm-hearted.

 Her (2013)

Spike Jonze’s pastel sci-fi love story about a nebbish guy and an AI is one of the more thoughtful and thorough stories you’ll find about videogames and their role in our lives. Videogames appear throughout in obvious and less obvious ways. The obvious are the games Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) plays and Theo’s best friend Amy, who designed one of the games Theo plays. Among the less obvious ways concern how Theodore and Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen) learn to love and express their love for each other.

One of my favorite scenes is when Samantha guides Theo through a busy public space, his eyes closed, grinning ear to ear, his phone held straight ahead as she gives him directions his ear. They fall in love at this moment, the moment when Theo trusts Samantha enough to be her avatar. Her is ultimately about our need to embody our desires, a need that can lead to both life-changing emotional discovery, but also to callous self-absorption. In contrast to the trust he showed earlier, Theo rejects the performer Samantha has hired to mediate a moment of sensuous togetherness. It’s hard to watch—everyone comes out wounded. “Just play with me, Samantha pleads!” To be an avatar for another person requires trust and Theo fails to protect it and Samantha begins her exit.

I’ve written about Her at greater length in my essay, “What Is a Videogame Movie?”

 Tron (1982)

Be still, my Gen-X heart! This is a sentimental favorite, for sure. Watching Steven Lisberger’s movie rhymes with my experience watching other antique fantasy and science-fiction films with similarly ambitious special effects and heavy childhood memories: The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, Things to Come, Jason and the Argonauts, Metropolis, Star Wars.

To use an overused term, Tron is a vibe. There’s a coherence of story, performance, cinematic design, music, and special effects that simply works, and works not in spite of, but because of everything that feels a little old, odd, or ad hoc. It is in many ways one of the most successful remediations of videogames, managing not only to capture the look and feel of the videogames of the time, but also the culture around it. It’s almost site-specific, not just a movie but the videogame in the Aladdin’s Castle arcade just a few hundreds yards down the mall from the theatre where I saw it three times.

Part of that culture was an expression of growing understanding and affection for the videogame as a medium. Tron‘s about the romance of gaming. It’s about the way we allow ourselves to be absorbed into games and their romantic little systems, including places like malls. It’s a corny, swoony affair. The 2010 sequel’s fun, too, especially the Daft Punk soundtrack. Tron‘s vibe is au courant in design circles, as evidenced in lo-fi videogames like 2064: Read Only Memories (2015) and Hyper Light Drifter (2016) and Coffee Talk (2020).

 Russian Doll, Season One (2019)

Time-loop movies have been around since before videogames became a popular entertainment. Wikipedia lists 1964’s The Time Travelers as the first. But they’ve grown in popularity since videogames became a popular entertainment, with 57 films released since 1990. I’m kind of tired of it, but its continuing popularity reflects the pervasiveness of die-and-repeat storytelling has become—the result of the basic performance dynamic of the videogame and our collective videogame literacy.

For me, the first season of Russian Doll sits with Groundhog Day (1993), Looper (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Tenet (2020) as top-tier die-and-repeat narrative. It’s also a good example of a videogame movie that isn’t centered on videogames, but positions them in a way that, once you’re attuned, enriches the narrative. In the first episode, we learn that Lyonne’s character is a designer for Rock and Roll Games and someone with a reputation for impossibly difficult game challenges and little patience for those who don’t have the stamina to work them out.

Later in the season, we learn that Nadia’s mother was mentally ill, seriously so. For the attentive viewer, it’s not hard to see Nadia’s ironic fatalism and tendency to treat those around her like problems to be solved as survival techniques she developed as a child. Like Scott in Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) and Theo in Her (2013), Nadia’s mind is honed to play. Though it’s never shown—an odd oversight, maybe just a plot hole—Nadia would have learned to play on consoles and personal computers of the 1980s and 90s. For more on the series and the presence of videogames, see this excellent article by Alex Barasch.

 eXistenZ (1999)

There’s nothing subtle about David Cronenberg’s nested-reality thriller in the vein of Inception (2010). Jennifer Jason Leigh plays top videogame designer Allegra Geller. She is the target of an assassin’s bullet, said assassin being an agent of a “radical realist” organization that finds Geller’s latest creation—a full-body virtual reality game—a threat to, well, reality. The winsome Jude Law steps in as security guard/publicist/lover Ted Pikul.

As Fassbinder does in Welt am Draht, Cronenberg drops the skeptical epistemology of simulation theory into the narrative framework of the thriller. Also like Fassbinder, Cronenberg mines the erotic gravity of simulation, though here the vibe is less chrome and leather, more action-adventure, temporary trysts, and cybernetic gooiness. Geller and Pikul find themselves in intensely sensuous situations, sometimes erotic, sometimes something else. There is a scene at a Chinese restaurant located near a bioengineering factory that comes close to the awkward ickiness of the family dinner scene in Eraserhead (1977 LINK). Also also like Welt am Draht, women are the problem of this nested reality, an inception motive posing potentially fatal epistemological and existential hazards to the protagonist—Geller is a cybernetic version of the classic femme fatale. 

Indie Game: The Movie (2012)

Like its applications to other media—indie film, indie music—”indie” can mean two things. First and most importantly, it means economic and creative independence from big game companies and traditional distribution channels. But it also means independence from mainstream aesthetics—an attitude and vibe.

James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot profile four indie designers: Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow (Braid). They capture the independent design scene at the moment of its emergence as a third way between the mainstream and the hobby community. This was when it became possible to maintain a degree of aesthetic independence while making some serious cash—the moment when media companies like Sony and Valve were doing with videogames what Miramax was doing with movies like Pulp Fiction and Def Jam with rap.

The conflict between commerce and attitude is captured when Refenes freaks out because Super Meat Boy isn’t visible on Xbox Live, then later refuses to celebrate when the problem is fixed and the game sells big. He can’t trust the machinery that’s generating the profit.

Shame there weren’t any women designers that Swirsky and Pajot could have profiled lol.

 WarGames (1983)

John Badham directs Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, and Ally Sheedy in one of the first techno-thrillers to center its narrative on videogames. Also, a solid 1980s action thriller with a healthy dash of teen romance. Its message is cemented about ten minutes in, when we transition from a military nuclear-launch bunker somewhere in the high plains to a suburban pizza shop/arcade that is inexplicably open at 7 in the morning. Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ script communicates with that transition the idea that videogames are part of a much larger system of government, surveillance, and war.

Unlike The Last Starfighter (1984) and Ender’s Game (2013), which are also movies where the protagonists’ gameplaying ability leads them into high-stakes thrills, David is also an adept hacker. This isn’t just a movie about playing games, but about the systems in which games are played and the ways systems can be put into play (for example, when David offers to alter Jennifer’s grades in the school’s database). With the right combination of charisma, chutzpah, tech skills, and whiteness, you too can stop global nuclear anninilation!

Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)

More meticulous critics than I have analyzed the diverse and pervasive presence of videogames in this coming-of-age story about a hipster schlub who is weirdly attractive to manic pixie dream girls. It’s Edgar Wright at his best:  kinetic editorial style, fascination with loveable slackers, great playlist.

Like Russian Doll and Her, the topic is less videogames than the protagonist’s game-addled mindset. Michael Cera is perfect as Scott, combining ironic detachment, under-the-breath astonishment, and the late-adolescent physicality needed to excel at videogames and the bass guitar. (Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel is also great, especially its wistful late chapters.)

There’s historical value to the film, too. Scott’s a social type that emerged alongside the trolls of Gamergate, a gamer guy with at least a modicum of feminist consciousness and some degree of respect for the intelligence and skills of the women around him, but coasts on his wit, privilege, and do-just-enough-to-get-by ethos. I’m not sure what to call them, though I’ve explored the idea of “patriarchal light” to characterize putatively progressive male-centered videogames like Braid.

Killer cast, too! 

Black Mirror

An anthology series that explores the shaded dimensions of screen technologies would be grossly negligent if it didn’t dig into videogames. And to Charlie Brooker and his team’s credit, they do so often and well. There are episodes that center on videogames (Playtest, USS Callister, Bandersnatch), but also gamified social systems (Fifteen Million Merits, Nosedive, Hated in the Nation), simulations (San Junipero, Hang the DJ), and augmented reality systems (Men Against Fire). Here are the ones I’d call “videogame movies,” all of which are worth watching:

  • Nosedive (2016 Series 3, Episode 1): This is a regular presence on my playful literature course syllabi. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, desperate to achieve higher status in a society governed by a ubiquitous five-star rating system. Like many Black Mirror episodes, the big idea here is the objectification of feelings and people. Unlike the downbeat tone that prevails in the series, this one is bright and bubbly, especially when Lacie hits the bottom. Production designers Joel Collins and James Foster trade the science-fiction grey-and-green scale for-egg blue, pale pink, and peppermint, with Howard’s peaches-and-cream complexion, pale blue eyes, and red hair fitting in almost perfectly.
  • Playtest (2016 Series 3, Episode 2): More sizzle than substance, this story of an aimless, emotionally traumatized young man who volunteers to playtest a new augmented-reality horror game is high-quality sizzle. Wyatt Russell stars, with emotionally intense direction by Dan Trachtenberg of 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Prey (2022). One thing the episode does especially well is focus on the way time works in games (also a theme of Hang the DJ). As both performative structures and intense experience, videogames are potent shapers of time. Poor Cooper discovers this too late.
  • San Junipero (2016 Series 3, Episode 4): Aw, Yorkie and Kelly . . . A fan favorite and deservedly so—and one of the few episodes with an uncomplicatedly happy ending (well, unless one really starts thinking about it). In the most abstract terms, the episode explores playful experience, virtual embodiment, and the trepidation that accompanies the idea of committing fully to the rules of a game. But it’s also just good romantic storytelling, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis (apparently queen of videogame cinema?) bringing the thrills. I very much appreciate the absence of the paranoid puritanism of other simulation-set films like World on a Wire and eXistenZ. Is this perhaps because it’s centered on women’s experience?
  • Men Against Fire (2016 Series 3, Episode 5): We follow Malachi Kirby’s Stripe, a soldier hunting humanoid mutants that he and the other soldiers call “roaches.” Unfortunately, there are technical problems with the neural implant in his head—the one that provides him real-time, head-up-display info and, when he fights well, intensely erotic dreams. The malfunction reveals that the roaches are humans, their identity altered by the implant. Stripe is helping carry out genocide. The ending is gut-wrenching, a long shot of Stripe walking into the literal home of his dreams.
  • Hated in the Nation (2016 Series 3, Episode 6): Videogame here means large-scale play mediated by computers. Simple premise done well. Robot bees are hijacked and kill the person with the most #DeathTo mentioned on social media. Robot bees!
  • USS Callister (2017 Series 4, Episode 1): Jesse Plemons is Captain Robert Daly of the starship USS Callister but also the resentful incel CTO of Callister Inc., the producer of a simulated-reality, Star-Trek style MMORPG. Daly works out his frustrations in a personal copy of the game reskinned to resemble Star Fleet, basically the original Star Trek His crew and enemies are genetic duplicates of his co-workers, their DNA stolen from coffee cups and lollipops Yes, this is another trapped in a videogame movie and also another videogame as metaphor for the mind of a gamer movie. However, director Toby Haynes handles the proceedings with a light touch and a cast with perfect pitch and great chemistry. The revenge-porn plotline is a misstep in an otherwise thorough takedown of toxic masculinity, the conclusion capped by a voiceover cameo by Aaron Paul as “Gamer691” that keeps the episode from hitting too triumphant a final note.
  • Hang the DJ (2017 Series 4, Episode 4): “Everything happens for a reason.” I love the romantic episodes of Black Mirror almost as much as Charlie Brooker loves the homunculus fallacy. What is the homunculus fallacy, you ask? It’s a logical fallacy, typically applied when debating theories of mind, the idea being that there’s some thinking agent in our head doing something different than what we ourselves are doing. For example, there’s a little guy in our head properly sorting the shades of that dress, but their good work is being interfered with by the other guy, meaning us, who insist it’s gold and white, not black and blue. Simulation narratives often play with the homunculus fallacy—think the simulations within simulations within simulations of World on a Wire or The Matrix or Black Mirror episodes like “White Christmas,” “USS Callister,” “Black Museum,” and, for the suspicious, “San Junipero.” Here, the fallacy is the engine for the second most romantic episode of the series (behind, yes, “San Junipero”). The story is set at a walled commune whose inhabitants, not unlike those in The Lobster (2015), seek a perfectly compatible life-partner. Here, choices are determined by an AI that selects both the partners and sets the length of the partnership, which might be only a few hours. A potentially overburdened concept is buoyed by a sprightly sense of humor, perfect chemistry between Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole, and Alex Somers’ dewy score, punctuated with tracks by Sigur Rós and (spoiler alert) The Smiths.
  • Bandersnatch (2018): Interactive film isn’t a new medium, but the amount of money media companies like Netflix are sinking into it definitely is (as of the writing of this essay, Netflix has produced 23 interactive films, most of them oriented to the youth audience). As Michael Chemers and I discuss in a forthcoming essay, interactive films resemble conventional narrative films in many ways, but their construction of plot, character, and empathy works and feels different. One particular difference—and the one that sets Bandersnatch apart from its interactive ilk—is the way they construct the relationship between audience and character. Yes, the choices we make are often about making the character, but just as often about making the character do something that amuses us. Though a first playthrough might take a kinder, gentler path, subsequent playthroughs tend to be more experimental, if not downright cruel. Charlie Brooker weaves that cruelty into the narrative, which focuses on a young, troubled, mentally ill game designer who is attempting to adapt a legendary choose-your-own-adventure-style gamebook into a videogame. Fionn Whitehead’s prickly performance eases our transition into “what if we tried this” sadism, though there is precious little attention paid to the way the story treats its female characters, all of whom treat Stefan with love and kindness.

 Halt and Catch Fire (2014-17)

The first season of this criminally underrated drama about life and love in the 1980s tech sector is the worst of the four, though it has its charms, particularly its fifth episode, “Adventure,” which happens to be a perfect example of the ways storytellers can tell stories with and about videogames. The episode’s title is a shortened version of Colossal Cave Adventure, and adapts that game in several ways. It does it diegetically: we see characters playing the game (indeed becoming obsessed by it, including the irascible Bosworth) and hear them talking about it. The game builds character: Yo-Yo is revealed to be a deeply knowledgeable player, so much so that he recognizes Cameron is playing it by the click-click-click of her keystrokes. 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 whom she recruits for her nascent gaming company. Finally, the game functions metonymically, too, establishing the early-1980s setting along with the furniture and costumes. But most importantly, it functions as a metaphor for the Cameron’s desire for a life that is bigger, riskier, and more rewarding.

Videogames shape much more than one episode. The fortunes of Donna and Cameron’s gaming company Mutiny is a primary plotline of the second season—as is the relationship of the two women, their different perspectives and priorities on gaming and community eventually undermining their business and poisoning their friendship. And I’d be remiss not to mention the episode in the third season in which Cameron and Gordon freeze out the kids so they can beat Super Mario Bros in a single, all-day, all-night co-play session. Director Michael Norris and writer Angelina Burnett (who produced the third and fourth seasons) capture the unique chemistry of sharing a couch and a videogame with an old friend.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Videogame arcades were weird. Though the ones I haunted in the 1980s never produced a player as good as Billy Mitchell, there was always one guy who thought he was the shit because he could play videogames like a god. Game skill was social currency in those musky-smelling dens of electronic iniquity. In addition to the personalities in the high-end Donkey Kong gamer community, Seth Gordon’s documentary also tells an early chapter in the history of competitive videogaming. It also teaches us about the embedded weirdo machismo that continues to shape the competitive gaming space.

 Westworld, Season 1 (2016)

In 2018, a series of videos were posted on YouTube, each of them showing different ways that players of Red Dead Redemption 2 could creatively abuse and/or murder an NPC suffragette. While players didn’t have to creatively abuse and/or murder the NPC, the fact that one could cast a pall over the proceedings for many players, though not enough to keep us from playing.

I feel that way about Westworld, HBO’s luxe television series about a full-immersion theme park where guests can live out their wildest Wild West fantasies. Though ostensibly focused on the suffering and emerging consciousness of two of the parks’ android hosts, Dolores and Maeve, that focus doesn’t seem to have suggested to the writers that they should be less objectified by the camera.

One could argue the contradiction is intentional, given that the action of the first season is ultimately controlled not by Dolores or Maeve, but by three men with specific and uncategorically masculine visions of how to play in Westworld: park director Dr. Robert Ford, William, and the heartless Man in Black. Spoiler alert: William is the Man in Black—the season has told one story in two overlapping halves: William’s first visit to West World and his latest, now in the guise of West World board member and in-park serial rapist and killer the Man in Black. William’s break to the bad is driven by an all-too-familiar flavor of male resentment about female agency in playful spaces.  These several concerns noted, I find Westworld to be one of the most engaging, compelling, and rewarding representations of videogames, videogame designers, and videogame players.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

One of the earliest forms of videogames were multi-user dungeons (or MUDs). Players in MUDs collaboratively developed text-based virtual worlds, usually with a fantasy or science-fiction theme, in real-time and according to mutually agreed-upon, though always evolving rules of storytelling. While this kind of improvisatory world-building is far less common in videogames nowadays, it is hardwired into some of the more playful projects of social media.

One such project is explored by Jane Schoenbraun in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. While the participants in the film’s viral “World’s Fair Challenge” share videos and media instead of typing words, they’re still co-constructing a digital world in which they present identities that are different than those they have in real life, identities that can become something fantastically other if they can just commit to the game.

The problem—a problem that the participants consider a feature, not a bug of the challenge—is that their performances bleed into their real lives. That’s where the thrill of the movie lives. Casey, JLB, and the other World’s Fair Challengers are playing by dangerous rules—what play theorist call “dark play,” play in which, as Richard Schechner puts it, “contradictory realities co-exist, each seemingly capable of canceling each other out.” Dark play, Schechner continues, often “subverts order, dissolves frames, breaks its own rules, so that the playing itself is in danger of being destroyed, as in spying, con games, undercover actions, and double agentry.” That’s the case here. Writer and director Schoenbraun perfectly captures the delicacy of dark play and the deep hurt that can be inflicted when the magic circle is shattered.

What have I missed?

Please let me know by leaving a comment! And thanks for reading!



Fast Cars, Macho Men, and Capitalism in Drift: American Car Racing Movies of the 1960s and 70s

November 10, 2022

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of playful literature and theater—not just games 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 games, game players, and game culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, though one that’s more focused on videogames rather than games more generally, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

Car-racing movies are a fascinating example of the stories we tell with, about, and around games. They’re certainly plentiful. IMDB lists 130 films under the category “car-racing,” a list that is neither complete—notably missing is Kenneth Anger’s experimental short Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)—nor includes movies that don’t focus on racing, but where racing is dramatically significant, as in Carnival of Souls (1962), Amarcord (1973), or Grease (1978). The earliest is 1913’s The Speed Kings, a bit of romantic fluff featuring two of the biggest racing stars of the era; the most profitable the Fast & Furious franchise, which has earned more than $6 billion in global revenue, up there with Harry Potter, James Bond, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

My exploratory dive into these movies is part of the research for a book I’m writing on the relationship between play and literature. If you’re interested in seeing what I’ve developed so far, you can find an essay on videogames in film here, on individual texts that center gameplay such as this essay on The Queen’s Gambit, and the forthcoming anthology I’m co-editing with Megan Amber Condis on the stories we tell with, about, and around videogames, though that won’t be on shelves for another year or so. To this point, I haven’t yet focused on my scholarship on a specific game—and car-racing movies seemed as a good place to start as any, particularly since they’ve received little attention from scholars, and my wife and I have recently become fans of Formula One, appropriately enough due to a documentary film series on the sport, Drive to Survive.

Before I dove in, I needed to trim the list—I wanted historical scope to my viewing, but didn’t have time to watch 130 movies, especially given that I wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort. So, I went with a hunch and decided to focus on the 53 films listed on IMDB between 1960 and 1980 (here’s the list), a period when sports, games, and movies underwent significant change—as did the automotive industry and the cultural significance of the car.

The movies I watched were a mix of the classic, the oddball, and the available, with strong bias towards English-language, U.S.-made movies. They varied in terms of the kind of racing they portray: Grand Prix, drag racing, stockcar, endurance, the figure eight, off-road, rebels versus cops, and so on. They varied in quality, budget, and audience, too: luxe affairs like Grand Prix (1966) and Les Mans (1971); grindhouse flicks like Fireball Jungle [1968] and Death Race 2000 (1975); gritty noir tales (The Killers [1964]); Lynchian death drives like Pit Stop (1969); middle-of-the-road melodramas (Winning [1969], Bobby Deerfield [1977], Fast Company [1979]); biopics (43: The Petty Story [1972], The Last American Hero [1973], Greased Lightning (1978]); documentaries like Seven Second Love Affair (1965) and One by One (1975); and bubblegum pop like Speedway (1968), Bikini Beach (1964), and the Herbie the Love Bug series (1968, 1974, 1977). And no, quality does not correlate with either budget or audience.

The hunch paid off. What I’ve written here reflects my initial thoughts on the films—it’s a genuine essay. If you’d like to take a look at my reviews of individual films, see LINK. I haven’t watched every movie on the list and only a dozen or so released after 1980 or before 1960, so this is all quite tentative. I invite you to share your perspectives, criticisms, and recommendations with me, either in the comments section or by reaching out to me on Twitter (@mike_sell).

There are four things that strike me about these films in terms of how they tell stories with and about the sport of car racing. They each speak to the relationship between the particular attitudes and athleticism of the sport and the industries in which they are embedded. They tell stories, both individually and as a body, about high-speed performance, individual achievement, and capitalism in drift.

Who they’re about: straight, white, macho men

These are movies about straight macho men doing straight macho things, most of which involves cars, though attractive, attentive women are almost always nearby. With few exceptions, the movies don’t offer much in terms of critical perspectives on either masculinity or patriarchy. There are exceptions—The Young Racers (1963), The Wild Racers (1968), and Winning come to mind. But in general, when these movies have something to say, it’s with masculinity, not about masculinity.

It is a profoundly precarious masculinity, a masculinity strapped into loud, dirty, fast machines, machines that break down, spin out, crash, explode, and burn, often quite spectacularly. It’s a masculinity encased in fireproof suits, helmets, and steel—and in bodies that are dirtied, battered, bruised, concussed, and broken. The dramatic conflict usually centers on whatever can intensify that thrilling precarity: dangerous people, unscrupulous capitalists, romance, grief, new technologies, rivalry, existential angst, the cops, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Though they are never gory, the obsession with damaged bodies and cinematic sensationalism aligns it with another subgenre of the period, so-called “splatter horror.” Herschell Gordon Walker’s Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) demonstrate a similar fascination with violence, the laboring body, and intense, anti-social modes of desire.

Two, these are stories about white men. Greased Lightning (1977), a biopic about Black American racer Wendell Scott starring Richard Pryor and directed by Michael Schultz, is the one exception. Vanishing Point (1971) co-stars Cleavon Little as blind DJ Super Soul, a performance I’ll discuss later, but for the most part, non-white characters are few and tertiary: Toshiro Mifune in Grand Prix (1965), George Takei in Red Line 7000 (1965), Benson Fong in The Love Bug (1968), Poncie Ponce in Speedway (1968), Chuck Daniel in Fireball Jungle, and those who appear briefly (often uncredited) as waiters, housecleaners, maids, and other menials. (If I’ve missed any movies or performers, please let me know!) The whiteness of these movies is neither surprising nor unique to car-racing movies—there were few opportunities for BIPOC artists in the film industry. The same can be said about automotive sports of the period, which, with a few exceptions, were segregated.

Whiteness is rarely explicit; rather, it’s ambient, systemic. It’s occasionally treated more directly, as with so-called “Hixploitation” flicks like Fireball Jungle and Checkered Flag or Crash (1977) that traffic in white-trash stereotypes. Confederate flags appear briefly in One by One, The Last American Hero, and Corky (1972), also on the posters for Corky and Eat My Dust! (1976), though no confederate iconography appears in the latter.

The third act of Thunder in Carolina (1960), which takes place at the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina, is literally festooned with the stars and bars of white supremacy, and the action concludes with as Mitch and Buddy driving into the sunset to the triumphant strains of “Dixie.” However, in general these are films in which the absence of people of color is what Toni Morrison might call a palpable absence, a purposeful and uncanny displacement.

How they tell their stories

If my first two critical takeaways concern who these movies are about, the second two are about how they tell their stories. To begin, these are action movies, and those that focus their dramatic attention elsewhere (i.e. melodramas like Winning and Bobby Deerfield) still have major action sequences. These are kinetic, noisy affairs, extravaganzas of movement, color, and sound. Crashes are mandatory, explosions if affordable.

Not coincidentally, car-racing films are drivers of technical innovation—and from the very start. The Speed Kings used car-mounted cameras to put the viewer in the middle of the action, sometimes pointed forward in point-of-view perspective, sometimes backwards to capture a driver and their agon. But the exemplar is Grand Prix. Rejecting the usual tricks of the genre (rear-projection screens and sped-up footage), Director John Frankenheimer and Director of Photography Lionel Linden devised a repertoire of camera angles, engineered a variety of on-board camera mounts (including one with a remote-control pan-and-tilt), made liberal use of helicopter shots to give the viewer a sense of the encompassing space of the action, and utilized split-screen compositions to take advantage of the ultra-widescreen format in which it was filmed.

Responsibility for capturing the action belongs as much to the editor as it does to the camera operator. The most technically adventurous example is The Wild Racers (1968), edited by Vera Fields, who would later work with Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, winning an Oscar for her work on Jaws (1975). I haven’t found a shot in the film that lasts longer than ten seconds, and diegetic sound is regularly out of synch with what we’re seeing. The effect is both disorienting and seductive, communicating both the dynamism of the Grand Prix race circuit and the proleptic psychosexual drive of its protagonist, Jo Jo Quillico. But even the most rushed and budget-constrained car-racing film aims to disorient and thrill.

The titillating thrills of these films aren’t just about the action. These are fetish films. The camera lingers over vibrating engines, buffed and gleaming chrome, grease-stained hands, sweaty brows, veiny forearms, denim-clad asses hanging out of the dark recesses of internal combustion. The key to this particular code of automotive pleasure can be found in Kenneth Anger’s short film Kustom Kar Kommados.

Anger’s description of the project could be a manifesto for the genre. The car, he writes, possesses a “dual aspect of narcissistic identification as virile power symbol and its more elusive role: seductive, attention-grabbing, gaudy or glittering mechanical mistress paraded for the benefits of his peers” (qtd. in Cargle 24). Its three-minute run is almost entirely focused on a good-looking young white man attending to the gleaming black and chrome surface of his custom car with a perfectly spotless white feather buff. The action is set against a vivid candy-pink backdrop that melts into the mirror-like black and silver of the vehicle.

For anyone who’s watched a bunch of car-racing movies, all of this is familiar to the point of being cliché, just a lot more up-front about what’s at stake. Most of the time, the kink stays well within the bounds of Hollywood convention and bourgeois taste. The gorgeous actors, immaculately tailored clothing, witty patter, and romantic complications of Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000 are kink for the department-store lingerie crowd. But sometimes, the kink is just plain kinky. David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979) features a scene that might have been stolen from a dog-eared copy of Penthouse Forum. While traveling to their next race, the FastCo team runs across two scantily clad, stiletto-heel-wearing hitchhikers.

Yes, seriously.

After checking out the crew members, the women jump into the team trailer for a round of “sexy” fun. “My boyfriend will kill me,” one of them purrs as motor oil is poured over her breasts, “He hates FastCo.” In the erogenous mise-en-scène of the car-racing film, women typically feature as prize, rewarding the winner with a kiss. When not a prize, they’re an ornament. Yes, there are a few movies in which, though initially positioned as prizes or ornaments, female characters subvert expectations.

Angie Dickinson’s turn as femme fatale Sheila Farr injects a note of menace into the proceedings. Mary Woronov’s Calamity Jane in Death Race 2000 (1975) is devious, dangerous, and entirely unconcerned with the men around her except as opponents. And there’s Darlene in Eat My Dust! (1976), the smarter-than-we’re-led-to-think rich girl Hoover wants to impress with his high-speed derring-do, but who’s just along for the ride. “It wasn’t me at all, was it?” he asks as she walks away into the Halloween night. Charlotte Rampling’s cameo in Vanishing Point (1971) has a different vibe but similar effect—she’s mysterious, almost spectral, promising a moment of sensual respite from the amphetamine-soaked drive that will take Kowalski to his death, but she disappears into the darkness and he returns to the road.

Finally, there’s Jack Hill’s Pit Stop. In a sequence that could have been directed by David Lynch, we’re introduced to Ellen McCleod, played by Ellen Burstyn in one of her first film roles. The scene begins with our anti-hero Rick walking towards us, the camera backing into some kind of storage room, broken arm in a sling, head reeling from a concussion. We hear a buzzing, crackling sound; light flashes from somewhere.

As Rick moves deeper into the space, we begin to hear a droning sound, though it’s unclear whether it’s diegetic. The shot switches to Rick’s point of view: a wall of cabinets, boxes, barrels, a fork lift, crackling light just beyond, the droning sound building in volume.

We then switch to a crane shot, the camera following Rick from above as he steps among shelves groaning with engine parts, tire rims, and tools. Rick steps into a room, the flash and crackle and drone reaching their peak. We see a figure in a welding mask, light and smoke broiling around them. Rick calls out, but his attention is drawn to the job, first in admiration, then confusion:  “That’s really nice. But it’s a 289. How come you don’t go with the 390?” The figure removes their mask; it’s a woman, hair cut short. “289 is 200 pounds lighter. Way we have that set up we get 350 horse power out of it.”

She puts the mask on the table, removes her coveralls, revealing her team uniform. Rick grows visibly confused and (judging from his raised eyebrow) titillated by the combination of knowledge, skill, and beauty. What I find fascinating about this sequence is that it positions a woman in the sanctum sanctorum of race-car masculinity, the garage, and, though it troubles the signs of gender, it doesn’t go for simple titillation. It’s the cinematic obverse of Kustom Kar Kommandos, a denial of the codes of straight-male visual pleasure. Ellen is neither a pin-up nor a pushover. Her agency as a character is established both visually and verbally, and that agency is sustained for the rest of the film.

The car-racing movie as Pop artifact

Kink duly noted, the genre’s obsession with surfaces feels very much of a piece with the broader Pop movement. Elvis Presley’s two car-racing movies Spinout (1966) and Speedway (1968) are the apotheosis: brightly colored, relentlessly blithe, at time horrific (in Speedway, Elvis’s best friend is a relentless sexual predator), profoundly cynical manipulations of the intertwined sign systems of racing, romance, and youthful hedonism. A more self-conscious, if no less nihilistic deployment of the Pop aesthetic can be found in Claude du Boc’s horny 1975 documentary One by One (1975), especially the scenes that juxtapose the intense professional focus and high stakes of paddock and pit with the commercial bacchanalia that surrounds it.

The Pop looks of these films is of course a conscious design decision—a choice to highlight signage and saturate color—but it also speaks to structural shifts in the sport, and sports more generally, that changed the way car races looked. Car racing in the 1960s was a sport transformed by the emerging industrial-entertainment complex, a globalizing automotive industry, and the relentless eroticization of the car and its associated parts by advertisers. Whether glamorous or gritty, the surfaces of car racing were increasingly organized by the iconography of corporate capitalism. A filmmaker wishing to tell a car-racing story without a bunch of ads in frame was going to have a hard time of it–and that was true pretty much from the beginning of the genre. The Speed Kings was essentially an ad for the sport, the product being the racers themselves.

It’s not clear why a storyteller would want to avoid it in the first place: the sport itself was a profit-generating venture from the start, made possibe by one of the iconic products of US industrialism: the car. That product was particularly iconic during the 1960s and 70s, featuring as prominently, glamorously, but also mundanely as other products of the era: cigarettes, television, whiteness, femininity. It’s in that erotic mash of commodity culture and the precarious white male body that we can detect a deeper aesthetic and philosophical connection to Pop: repetition.

Andy Warhol provides the most familiar examples. He not only created multiple versions of images, but displayed them to foreground similarities and differences among them.

On one hand, repetition communicates a democratic sensibility. Warhol speaks to this in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” Car-racing movies communicate a similar attitude. Though a car might cost a lot more than a Coke, it’s within reach of Everyman, the admen tell us, especially those with guts and a willingness to do a little weekend tinkering. The heroes of Greased Lightning and The Last American Hero (1973), both stories of true-life racing legends rising from the margins to the top of their sport, are Warholian figures, finding fame and fortune in industrial capitalism’s most desirable and dangerous product.

But it’s a dangerous rhythm, less an aesthetic than a drive. Repetition is the elemental aesthetic of the car-racing film, most evident when we’re in the middle of the race: every driver anonymized in the very moment of individual performance by fireproof suit, helmet, protective goggles, and automobile. Repetition is action in racing movies, the speed of the sport communicated with car after car passing in a blur and a roar. Drama becomes pure splatter in these moments, shedding recognizable trademarks for action painting and abstract expressionism. Saul Bass literalizes this in his brilliant title sequence for Grand Prix. Instead of following the normal convention of repeating a shot in temporal sequence (one engine after another, one hand after another, one car after another), Bass duplicates a single shot in a geometrically ramifying grid.

There’s something morbid about all this repetition. Bass’s grids appear before and during races—their rhythmic abstraction inextricable from disaster—cars crashed, bodies wrecked. The first time we see it in action precedes the grievous injuring of one racer and the concussive launching of another into the waters of Monaco’s Port Hercule. Death haunts the genre. By Brad Spurgeon’s count, of the 30 real-life racers that appear in Grand Prix in small roles, cameos, or as extras, 13 died in subsequent racing accidents. The documentary One by One pulls a particularly lurid on mortality. The film begins with a sequence showing a race official getting hit by a car while attempting to help a crash victim. A later sequence focuses on François Cevert and the luxurious life he enjoys on the Formula One circuit. Shortly after filming, Cevert would be killed in a horrifying crash at Watkins Glen, his body bisected by a safety barrier. During these two decades, some six dozen racers were killed in accidents (Wikipedia). But those account for only a tiny percentage of automobile-related deaths. In the US, driving fatalities rose from 36,399 deaths in 1960 to 53,543 in 1969, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The pain and horror haunting these films speaks to the more uncanny registers of Warhol’s work. We think of the Marilyn Monroe series, her face speaking to rubber-steamped exploitation, depression, and death. But perhaps the more apt comparison is the Death and Disasters series, which figures in its use of silkscreen printing and multiples the perverse relationship between singular, tragic horror and numbing statistical recurrence, most resonantly in the images he made of car crashes.

The race track as chronotope

One way to understand repetition is as an “affordance.” In her book Forms (2015), Caroline Levine defines affordance as “the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs” (6). To borrow two examples from Levine, glass “affords transparency and brittleness” and rhyme “affords repetition, anticipation, and memorization” (6). As I’ve explained in detail elsewhere, texts that adapt games often borrow the specific mechanics and procedures of those games, adapting them to move the narrative forward or create affective intensity.

The most obvious affordance of car racing is the race route itself.  Whether street circuit, drag strip, banked oval, road race, Grand Prix circuit, or figure eight, the most dramatic moments of a car-racing movie take place on the track and those moments are molded by the built-in drama of corners, chicanes, and straightaways. A movie in which the racing occurs on an oval track tells its story differently than a road race. The pit is a flexible dramatic device. In racing, the pit is the place where advisers and mechanics are set up to provide in-race repairs and adjustments. In car-racing movies, the pit provides a handy excuse for dramatic interludes in the kinetic action.

The track provides a number of these affordances. Like the baseball field, the pool hall, the boxing arena, or the casino, the track is an elegant narrative geometry, divvying the drama among the drivers in their cars, the crews in the pit, and the spectators in the stands. The spectators and crew serve several useful narrative functions. They help us track the forward movement of the race, their heads turning to follow the action. Similarly, their dialogue tracks the drama, whether it’s the race announcer identifying who just crashed, the mechanic worrying out loud about tire wear, or the women commiserating over their shared fate as race wives. They also provide a way for sound designers to modulate the noise, shifting from the roar of racing to the urgent verbalism of the pit-stop confab.

In sum, the race route is what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a “chronotope,” a particular configuration of time and space that both supports and is produced by storytelling. In movies that adapt game affordances, this is typically enabled by the adaptation of the particular “constitutive rules” of the game. In other words, movies have to follow the same rules of everyone else who’s participating. In car racing, that’s the drivers, their crew, their friends and families, and the fans. Except that a movie can cut from one to the other.

The race track is a map of affect. Characters communicate feelings: worry, fear, horror, boredom, anticipation, elation. They do so differently depending on who they are. There’s the driver, typically stern if not blank-faced. There are the guys in the pit, their expressions modulated according to rank and experience. They’re the best informed, as the pit is a place where data is gathered and team-decisions made. There are the folks in the stands, cheering, gasping, shouting. They tend to be less analytic, more passionate. But regardless of where they’re watching the action from, they surrogate our feelings, amplifying or complicating our experience of the action.

Cleavon Little’s performance in Vanishing Point is a particularly interesting example of such surrogation. Little plays Super Soul, a blind DJ in a sun-bleached town in the middle of nowhere, Nevada. As Kowalski zooms westward, Super Soul updates the KOW audience on the situation, plays some truly heavy rock ‘n’ roll and soul tracks, and slips Kowalski coded tips on how to avoid police traps down the road. Little plays him as both shaman and shaker. After his radio station is wrecked by racist, pro-cop thugs, he changes his radio station’s name from its call sign (KOW) to the hero whose epic he’s been singing: “This radio station was named Kowalski, in honor of the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.” Though Super Soul has a narrative function comparable to the so-called “Magic Negro” trope, he also serves as a conduit to the community around him, providing information and soul.

The race track can serve as metaphor, too. Vanishing Point puts there’s in the title, referencing both the optical illusion produced by the intersection of straight road and horizon and Kowalski’s existential struggle.

His epic journey is defined by the route in terms of both its itinerary (Denver to San Francisco in two and a half days) and environment (the road network of the western U.S.). Following a similar route at similar speeds two decades later, Jean Baudrillard writes, “Speed is . . . the rite that initiates us into emptiness: a nostalgic desire for forms to revert to immobility, concealed beneath the very intensification of their mobility.” For Kowalski, as for Baudrillard, velocity is a ritual, “a space of initiation which may be lethal.”

In Pit Stop, Jack Hill treats the figure-eight, an absurdly dangerous track that requires drivers to pass through an intersection, as a figure for the Faustian bargain Rick strikes with team owner Grant Willard.

That shape is contrasted sharply when the scene shifts to the racers and their friends zipping and zooming across the endless white-sand curves of the Imperial Sand Dunes, a moment of almost lyrical intensity that enables Rick and Ellen to deepen their relationship. No longer bound to the figure eight, they can escape the bounds of their personal and professional loyalties.

Drifting into late capitalism

The car-racing film is about men modifying machines, using machines, and getting mangled, killed, or rendered undeniably attractive by machines. It’s a profoundly romantic genre: boy goes fast in car, car injures boy, boy adjust car, boy goes faster in car. Cyborg romance at dangerous speeds. It’s hard to find a movie one this list that doesn’t stage at least one scene involving guys talking technobabble while they massage bolts and wrestle with hunks of metal and rubber. They might not have a white feather buff like the young man in Kustom Kar Kommandos, but they know the feeling.

Sometimes the techno-babble is the entire focus, as in the documentary Seven Second Love Affair. Director Les Blank tells the story of a man/machine romance in the middle-class suburbs and drag strips of Southern California. Rick Stewart and his crew and family are portrayed in a way that reminds less of the Hollywood hero and more of garage tech-bros like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer fame. The death drive of the sport is no less evident here: drive, recalibrate and repair car and body, drive again, this time faster.

So, where does this lead us?

There’s a technique in racing called drifting. It’s when a driver oversteers into a corner at high speed, causing the car to enter into a controlled slide, the front wheels pointed in a direction opposite that of the turn, until the turn is complete. Car-racing movies are stories about straight white men drifting around late-industrial capitalism, talking technical statistics and personal grudges with like-minded obsessives with relatively identical chips on their shoulders and women on their arms. These are stories about straight white men attempting to control a slide through imminent disaster in a machine designed to turn the human being into velocit. It’s a lot of fun watching them do it—even more fun when they fail. It’s a classic return of the repressed–of industrial overproduction, designed-in obsolescence, the emergence of the Japanese auto industry, and the Civil Rights and feminist movements.

These are kinetic morality films for the narrow-minded. Infernal metal, rubber, and glass are the reward for those who fail. For the winners, the reward is more racing and, if they’re lucky, the girl.

Reviews: Fast Cars, Fast Movies 1960-1980

September 25 2022

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of playful literature—novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another games, game players, and game culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, though one that’s more focused on videogames rather than games more generally, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

This post compiles the reviews I’ve written on Letterboxd about car-racing movies released between 1960 and 1980, posted in the order I wrote them. I started watching these movies because I wanted to dig into sports movies that were off the beaten track, if you will, of most scholarship (i.e., movies about baseball, football, soccer, basketball). But before I dove in, I needed to cut my list—I wanted some historical scope to my viewing, but I didn’t have time to watch the 130 movies listed on IMDB under the tag “car racing”—and I knew there would be more I’d discover as I did my research.

I decided to focus on the 53 films listed on IMDB released between 1960 and 1979, a decision driven by my interest in a period when sports, games, and movies underwent significant and concurrent change, but also a period in which audiences could watch movies in diverse contexts. I haven’t watched every movie on that list and only a dozen or so released after or before, so my understanding of the history of the genre is limited and most of my comments here won’t be about history or will be a theoretical stretch.

The movies I watched represent a mix of the classic, the oddball, and the available. They vary in terms of the kind of car racing they portray: Grand Prix, drag racing, stockcar racing, endurance racing, the figure eight, etc. And they vary in quality, budget, and audience, from luxe affairs like Grand Prix (1966); grindhouse exploitation flicks like Death Race 2000 (1975); gritty noir tales like The Killers (1964); Lynchian death drives like Pit Stop (1969); middle-of-the-road melodramas like Winning (1969); documentaries like Seven Second Love Affair (1965) and One by One (1975); and bubblegum pop like Speedway (1968), Bikini Beach (1964), and the Herbie the Love Bug series (1968, 1974, 1977)—and no, quality does not correlate with budget or audience.

I will synthesize my thoughts on these movies in a future blog post, titled “Fast Cars, Macho Men, and Capitalism in Drift: American Car Racing Movies of the 1960s and 70s.”

One by One (1975)

The opening moments are something out of a horror film, the footage raw, grainy, a man running towards an F1 race car, a race marshall we realize, then two more marshalls across the road, a horrible droning sound is the only soundtrack, then wait . . . what? No one could survive that, could they?

This is an intense, intensely stylized exploitation documentary.

Director Claude du Boc assembles a hyperactive film representing the deep, dangerous, obsessive, horny weirdness of F1 racing in the 1970s.

An early sequence reads like an experimental pop film: a montage of road signs, track signs, paddock signs, medical center signs. Another sequence takes us to a beach where the soon-to-be-bisected François Cevert frolics with a topless woman as the camera lingers over the tops of other topless women whose consent to be filmed is likely legally dubious. Meanwhile, Stomu Yamashta’s score races alongside, veering from psychedelia to synth-amplified orchestral Verdi to hard rock to somethings else.

Kudos to narrator Stacey Keach for keeping a straight face and a steady baritone as he intones the most exquisitely horny bro-prose.

A truly weird film, sometimes genuinely beautiful to just look at and listen, as long as you accept that it’s about to go off course and immolate in pervy, death-obsessed voyeurism.

Le Mans (1971)

To quote Brian Tallerico, “Starting a film without a script isn’t the best plan of action.” While it advertises to be a sports drama, it’s essentially a documentary–at times, a truly spectacular documentary–of the 1970 24-hour Le Mans race. At which, to some arguable degree, a movie happened involving Steve McQueen.

That part of the movie is reticent, detached, oblique, mostly shots of people staring off into the middle distance or strolling about the race grounds. The climactic scene between McQueen’s Delany and Elga Andersen’s Lisa, both of them traumatized by the death of a racer the year before, is so cool, it’s sculptural. It lands the yearbook-worthy quote, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”

It’s René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser’s color-saturated, kinetic cinematography that’s the star here. Director Lee Katzin has them cover the entire Le Mans scene, from the corny carnival attractions to the packed campgrounds to the impossibly handsome drivers to the twists of a spanner. The cars are just so sleek and cool and hard.

There’s a pop sensibility here shared by Claude du Boc’s weird, frenetic documentary ‘One by One,’ a shared affection for the look and feel of the sport that could care less for the people involved. I kind of like that McQueen doesn’t care about the backstory any more than I do. If we’re not racing, we’re waiting for racing.

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

‘Ford v Ferrari’ is a movie acutely aware of its history, and that history is pure cornball. This is one of the reasons why I’ve included this movie, released in 2019, in this compilation of reviews.

To begin with, it’s a movie about the history of car-racing, telling the tale of a fateful moment in the European and U.S. automotive industry and its glamorous, greasy research-and-development arm. It’s got all the expected signifiers of ye olde 1960s in its carefully curated art direction, costume design, and music, minus the smoking, the Asian automotive industry, and Black people.

It’s also a movie about the history of car-racing movies. DP Phedon Papamichael cites two of the classics—’Grand Prix’ and ‘Les Mans’—as source code, providing the style and vocabulary to render the racing visceral and dramatic and coat it all in the look of big-budget, big-event 1960s cinema. And, not surprising for a specialist in cinematic masculinity like director James Mangold, it owes an equally evident debt to stories of sweat-slicked STEM-focused nerdboy masculinity like ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Apollo 13’, but also ‘The Martian,’ released just a couple of years earlier. When did Matt Damon become the spokesman for all that?

It’s a three-hander, each character representing a particular conflict between sexy masculinity and late capitalist cycles of innovation and retrenchment. We’ve got Ken Miles, nickname Bulldog, WWII veteran, grease monkey, speed demon, holder of principles, good family man always with a British-ism ready to hand. Then we’ve got Carroll Shelby, former grease monkey and speed demon who now designs and sells cars while channeling Tommy Lee Jones. Carroll is in uneasy détente with the industry, though his indy sensibility is running up against economic necessity. The third character is not a character per se, but an omnipresence, the Ford Motor Company, a composite monster of smartly cut suits, conference rooms, factories, and baritone corporate speak.

Ken and Carroll are old fighting friends, their bond cemented by the belief that cars are philosophy in machine form. This point is hammered home with a voiceover that is repeated twice, in Tommy Lee Jones, so we know it really matters: “There’s a point at 7,000 RPM . . . where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. Just disappears. And all that’s left is a body moving through space and time. 7,000 RPM. That’s where you meet it. You feel it coming. It creeps up on you, close in your ear. Asks you a question. The only question that matters. Who are you?”

Which is where the movie’s historical sensibility is most evident and strange. The car-racing movies of the 1960s and 70s often portray racing as an existential activity—to race is to defy death; to be a true racer is to escape all mundane and earthly bonds, to transcend the contingencies of love and engineering through pure speed. Sometimes, the “existentialism” of the car-racing movie is tacit, like the rebel-yell masculinity of ‘Thunder in Carolina’ or ‘Eat My Dust!’; sometimes articulate and dialogical, like ‘The Young Racers’ or ‘Grand Prix’; sometimes reduced to absurdity like ‘The Wild Racers’ or ‘Pit Stop’; sometimes downright mystical, like ‘Vanishing Point.’

‘Ford v Ferrari’ does it with cornball. The guys with the British and Texas accents (the synecdoches of rugged individualism in the face of bureaucratic collectivism) have their feelings hurt by the corporate villains, but come out the other side as good friends who get to keep making cars (and we might remember that Ford’s about to get its ass kicked by OPEC and Honda lol). They’re the ones who get a nice hot cuppa of fast-car existentialism at the end, Ken going out in a cloud of dust and fire, and Carroll and Ken’s son making crystal-clear to the audience that the most important thing about racing is the friends we make along the way. Also, custom-designed sport cars.

Grand Prix (1966)

I watched this as the third entry in an impromptu trilogy of “serious” European car racing films, the first Claude du Boc’s horny 1975 documentary ‘One by One,’ the second Steve McQueen’s hyper-cool ‘Le Mans’ of 1971. Each of these advertise their realism and authenticity, whether due to their documentary elements, their access to drivers and the broader racing scene, or their unconventional, innovative way of telling a story about racers and racing.

‘Grand Prix’ is a big-budget extravaganza filmed for what was the cutting-edge immersive technology of the mid-1960s, Cinerama. Cinerama was an ultra-widescreen process in which 3 cameras were projected onto a single screen whose edges curved towards the audience. Cinerama screens could exceed 100 feet in length and 35 feet in height and their theatres could hold 1000 ticketholders. ‘Grand Prix’ was filmed and projected in Super Panavision 70, which eleminated the need for 3 cameras without losing the immersiveness.

It must have been mind-blowing to see in its intended format, engulfed by the screen in a way contemporary IMAX can’t get near. Director John Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Linden pressed and invented and risked life and limb to capture some of the most visceral road action you’ll ever see on film, rivaling ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’ It’s the best of the three movies. But that’s also due to the Oscar-winning editorial work of Fredric Steinkamp et al. I find ‘Le Mans’ confusing when it comes to tracking the positions of the racers. That’s never the case here, especially on smaller, landmark-heavy courses like Monaco.

The story’s pretty good, too, a glamorous quartet of racers at different stages of their careers, each contending with their feelings for a glamorous, emotionally and financially independent woman (Jessica Walter, Eva Marie Saint, and François Hardy). Spoiler alert: only one of them works out in the end, and it’s probably not the one you want.

But what struck me the most about these three movies–something that du Boc’s film does to perfection–is the Pop Art sensibility. All three are fascinated by the vivid colors and graphic environment of European racing culture. But if ‘One by One’ and ‘Le Mans’ capture the muchness through a focus on the graphic quality of cars, signage, and the collision of elite and popular cultures, ‘Grand Prix’ goes for the serial approach. Saul Bass designed over a dozen split-screen sequences that express, in his words, “muchness.” It has an Andy Warhol quality, recalling the multiple Elvises and Marilyns and, of course, car crashes.

The multiplication of images here–of tail pipes and ratcheting wrenches and racers and more tail pipes and cars zooming across space and spectators–immerses us into the culture of reproduction that’s the essence of Grand Prix racing. A combination of braking and acceleration practiced again and again, victories achieved race after race, championships achieved year after year, automobiles manufactured to exact specification–the multiplication of images mirrors the multiplication of gestures and parts. Our eldest protagonist, played by Yves Montand (one of four, identical to the rest except for his age), is the one most aware of the existential costs of repetition, having lost friends and rivals to crashes over his years on the circuit. There’s a remarkable shot of him in his trophy room, visually engulfed by dozens of identical posters, trophies, and championship wreaths. He’s not trapped, but he can’t get out, a message underlined near the end of the film, when his ex-wife slips into the story and the back of the ambulance.

But seriously: get your biggest screen and your best speakers for this one. The opening race at Monaco and the closer on the banked curves of the pre-1969 Monza track are genuinely thrilling.

Also, I’m pretty sure this is where Adam Ant got his “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?” lyric for ‘Goody Two Shoes.’ And, yes, subtle inuendo follows.

Fast Company (1979)

Heartfelt is not a word I’d use to describe any other David Cronenberg movie, but it applies here. This is a straight-down-the-middle B-movie that pairs with any of the dozens of hard-rockin’ guy-centric car-racing flicks of the 1970s.

But it’s not an outlier in the Cronenberg filmography, as some have commented. The focus on weird, obsessive, no-apologies subcultures is as evident here as it is in, say, ‘Crash’ or ‘Videodrome.’ And there’s a scene just past the one-hour mark that is pure Cronenberg machine-horniness. The Fred Mollin score goes full sexy rock ballad as manly hands install and tighten and lube and a whole bunch of other stuff. Then there’s the scene where Billy cracks open a can of motor oil and pours it over the chest of one of the two high-heel-wearing hitchikers he picked up earlier in the day. “My boyfriend will kill me,” she purrs. “He hates FastCo.”

It’s corny fun, though Mark Irwin’s cinematography and Carol Spier’s art direction are spiked with moments of striking beauty. Seriously, there’s a shot of John Saxon walking away from a Cessna as the sun sets behind him that is just gorgeous. And William Smith’s performance as Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson is a classic tired-but-not-going-to-quit macho-man performance.

I think I just argued myself into giving this movie another star . . .

Speedway (1968)

Elvis plays a successful NASCAR racer with a penchant for generosity. Bill Bixby plays his best friend and agent with a penchant for spending his best friend’s money and violently harassing every woman who comes within arm’s reach. Nancy Sinatra plays an IRS agent who has come to the conclusion that she should give up acting.

‘Speedway’ is a racing movie only in the sense that racing provides visual flavor and roary, crashy interludes for the screwball comedy that fills the rest of the 90 minutes. To its credit, though, racing figures more significantly in the plot and design of the film than in, say, ‘Bobby Deerfield’ (1977). There’s something genuinely charming about the Speedway Hangout with its brightly colored convertibles/tables and go go girls. Credit to production designers Leroy Coleman and George W. Davis for recognizing the graphic potential of racing ads, posters, and other signage.

Vanishing Point (1971)

As much a fantasy epic as it is a racing movie, ‘Vanishing Point’ features top-tier stunt driving across an ethereal, unforgiving American Southwest, a kind of kinder, hippie-er less-anxious-about-the-end-of-the-Anthropocene version of ‘Mad Max.’

Barry Newman plays Kowalski as a stoic, speed-fueled Sisyphus, boulder replaced by a far better handling white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, a classic muscle car. His quest is simple: drive the car from Denver to San Francisco in three days, avoiding the police and sleep. His spiritual companion is a blind DJ named Super Soul, who broadcasts out of a dusty little one-street town with a giant broadcast antenna. Cleavon Little plays Super Soul like a shaman and his subplot–trying to keep Kowalski abreast of the current state of the police and his soul’s salvation–keeps K’s rugged individual anchored to social reality and a first-rate soundtrack.

As he drives, consuming speed to keep him going, the story becomes more and more dreamlike. The conclusion is kind of shattering, but also perfect.

‘Easy Rider’ meets ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’?
‘Smokey and the Bandit’ meets ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’?

Did I mention Charlotte Rampling appearing out of nowhere with high-level joint-rolling skills?

Bobby Deerfield (1977)

“Is it your rabbits? You found them?”

In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert thanked God that this wasn’t “a racing picture.” And he’s exactly right. Though Pacino’s character is a Formula 1 driver who regularly wins and never crashes, there’s little else to indicate that driving is what he does for a living. And there’s little in his character that suggests he’d be the type of person who would want to face death behind the wheel of a race car as opposed to any other death-defying professions such as bull fighter, trapeze artist, or old man in fishing boat north of Cuba.

The two racing sequences that bookend the film are desultory and fail to do the one crucial thing that any fast-car film must do: show the character of the driver through the driving. I expected more from director Sidney Pollack, cinematographer Henri Decaë, and editor Fredric Steinkamp. We don’t get the sense that Bobby drives with the absolute control he desires, that he approaches any other aspect of his life with that same drive, or that the crash he suffers was due to his growing willingness to be honest and open about his emotional life.

But that’s not the point of the movie. This is a gauzy, glamorous romance movie between two people facing death, the other an early incarnation of the manic pixie dream girl who, as the rules of said dream girls require, enables the sad boy to discover his soul.

An additional half star for Al Pacino’s truly cringey impersonation of Mae West. Yes, you read that correctly.

The Killers (1964)

“A man stood still while we burned him, and I’d like to know why.”

As part of a research project on the representation of games and sports in literature, I’ve been watching movies about racing and other speed-centered sports. No, this isn’t a racing movie like ‘Grand Prix’ or ‘Greased Lightning’–racing isn’t central to the plot. However, unlike ‘Bobby Deerfield,’ racing in this movie matters to character and design.

‘The Killers’ is a classic noir tale about a pair of ruthless killers played by Lee Marvin and, in a deliciously unhinged performance, Clu Gulager. It’s what those two do that forced the producers to turn what was supposed to be part of the prestigious NBC Project 120 television series into a movie. When they beat up a blind woman in the opening scene, you know you’re in for a ride, though top marks for improvisatory violence goes to the scene where they steam a guy alive in order to get him to talk. But it’s their first kill that gets the movie rolling: an ex-racer who, when the guns are pointed at him, doesn’t try to speed away.

Frankly, most of the racing scenes are pretty desultory, with all of the close shots of John Cassavetes’ Johnny done in rear-screen projection (apparently, he couldn’t drive worth a damn). However, director Don Siegel and designers Frank Arrigo and George B. Chan capture the grease and grit of garages and downticket race tracks. And they do some really clever things with color, notably with Angie Dickinson’s wardrobe, designed by Helen Colvig. We first see in her in a canary-yellow dress (Caution, Johnny!), later in a white dress with a red ribbon accent (with Cassavetes in foreground cast in a vibrant red, doing his best to see the signs), finally in a green dress when she’s at her most vulnerable.

But what really makes this a movie about cars and racing is the sense that the machinery is constantly on the verge of crashing or breaking and all the characters are doing their best just to get around the next corner without getting killed. Which, unfortunately, almost all of them fail to do.

The Speed Lovers (1968)

William F. McGaha wrote, directed, and starred (though doing none competently) in this film about ambition, temptation, and loyalty on the NASCAR circuit. Though the poster advertises real-life champion Fred Lorenzen as the star, he plays a minor role, the moral paragon to McGaha’s Scott Clayton.

The real fun is the villain, Pinkerton Bentley, with his sunglass-wearing thugs and bouffanted bevy of international beauties. His evil plan doesn’t make a bit of sense, but he’s enjoying every machinated minute of it.

Red Line 7000 (1965)

Though generally agreed to be one of his lesser films, ‘Red Line 7000’ is still a Howard Hawks film. The dialogue, chemistry, and melodrama purrs along as one would expect, though the plot, as Hawks himself admitted, was too tangled to sustain dramatic momentum. It looks great, too. Milton Krasner shot part of it before being replaced by Haskell Boggs. Edith Head designed the costumes. And it takes place at a swank Holiday Inn, giving the whole a bit of a “it’s happy hour somewhere” hangout movie vibe.

It’s reminiscent of another racing melodrama, ‘Grand Prix,’ released the next year and to much greater (and deserved) fanfare. Both tell the stories of three drivers at different stages of their racing careers negotiating the racing circuit and troubled love. Unlike ‘Grand Prix,’ the racing scenes generally lack authentic drama. Yes, there are plenty of gasp-inducing crashes, but also plenty of rear-screen projection. But the fundamental problem is that Hawks doesn’t succeed with the two other things a sports movie has to do besides capture the intensity of the racing action: make moments of competition central to the drama and make athletic performance an expression of character.

There’s still a lot to like in the melodramatic tangle. James Caan, in one of his first film roles, is underutilized, but magnetic. Laura Devon is a knockout as Julie, the sister of the team’s director (the first of two roles involving men who suffer violent amputation of their hands). I’d argue there’s a coded queer relationship between Holly and Lindy, co-owners of a popular lounge. It’s brief, Holly goes straight at the end, but the relationship makes thematic sense only if it’s a mix of business and romance.

I’m stretching, for sure, but a queer reading does add a dash of irony to the ending. “It’s a hell of a way to make a living,” Holly says to Gabrielle and Julie as we watch A.J. Foyt’s car lose its brakes and tumble end over end into the infield.

The Young Racers (1963)

To pull off a good racing movie, you need to do three things:
1) Communicate the intensity of the sport;
2) Make the sport central to the story and the production design;
3) Make the driving an expression of character.

It’s not an easy trick. ‘Le Mans,’ for example, nails (1) but the plot is shapeless (2), and Steve McQueen’s performance is stoic to the point of inexpressivity, so the connection between character and athletic performance fails (3). The Elvis movie ‘Speedway,’ in contrast, lands them all. (This does not mean that ‘Le Mans’ a worse movie than ‘Speedway,’ as there are many other factors to consider.)

‘The Young Racers’ is a top-tier car racing movie, among the best of the genre. Director Roger Corman’s command of his craft is evident throughout, R. Wright Campbell’s script is philosophical without feeling phony, and Floyd Crosby’s camerawork is no-nonsense and not a rear-projection screen in sight. The racing footage has a visceral, documentary feel and while onboard camera shots are infrequent, they’re thrilling.

The whole is glamorous, soapy, serious fun. We follow the bromance of Joe and Steve across the European Grand Prix circuit, starting and ending in Monaco. Joe is a hot shot champion, a cocksure, womanizing cad, but increasingly aware of the consequences of his actions. Steve is one of those consequences; Joe had a dalliance with Steve’s wife and humiliated her in public. A racer turned novelist, Steve’s going to get his revenge by writing a book about Joe that will humiliate him. But the plot takes a twist as the two become confidants then teammates.

Bonus points to Campbell for refusing the hackneyed ‘driver facing death’ trope that’s ubiquitous in racing movies and a lazy way to inject existential intensity into the proceedings. The existential intensity in ‘The Young Racers’ doesn’t come from the racing, but from the relationships among the characters: Joe and his wife, Joe and his brother, Joe and Steve. And unlike, say, ‘Bobby Deerfield,’ those relationships are never absent from the action on the track.

Jump (1971)

On the face of it, ‘Jump’ (aka ‘Fury on Wheels’) is just another macho-centric, semi-existentialist, exploitation dirt-and-drivers flick.

Tom Ligon plays Chester Jump, son of a Southern dirt farmer, owner of a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, and possessed of a drive to be the fastest racer on the stock-car circuit. “You don’t understand me,” he tells one of his girlfriends. “I got something going. I’m made to drive for a living. I’m gonna do something about it, too!”

Quentin Tarantino describes ‘Jump” as “hilarious and very satirical.” It’s definitely the former, at least sometimes, with top marks going to Lada Edmund Jr. as Enid, Jump’s big-haired, hard-drinking, long-legged lover, and Logan Ramsey, who chews his way through all scenery in sight as the sleazy owner of the garage that serves as the setting for the third act. But except for Ramsey, Joseph Manduke doesn’t let his actors sit in the stereotypes–at least not for long. Jump may be egotistical and hedonistic, but he works hard and his blue eyes see through every con job. This all too earnest and heartfelt to be satire.

When it comes right down to it, Jump’s an idealist. It runs in the family. His sister Mercy is single-mindedly dedicated to Jesus. She doesn’t work, she doesn’t help her mother or father on the farm. She reads the Bible 24/7. She’s the spiritual to Jump’s mechanical.

But they both live in a world that is transactional top to bottom. There’s not a character who doesn’t harass Jump about money, whether its his father chiding him for leaving the barn light on, his mother begging for a handout, his girlfriend asking for rent money, his other girlfriend berating him for chasing away customers before they pay, or the bombastic owner of the garage that convinces him to work for car parts. Jump buys in only as long as he has to–and walks away when the deal gets complicated by personal connections or long-term debt.

The last shot we see is Jump walking through the smoking remains of a demolition derby, away from his battered red-white-and-blue Chevy. He’s refused the big time and the big money in favor of the smash and grab.

The Wild Racers (1968)

“I’m Jo Jo Quillico, king of the hillico. And they call me Jo Jo cuz I got the mojo.”

It’s useful to contrast ‘The Wild Racers’ with ‘The Young Racers,’ another American International Pictures/Roger Corman production released three years earlier. Both are about the world of Grand Prix racing. Both explore the tension between the romantic and athletic lives of their protagonists. Both have a distinctly existentialist vibe. And both feature thrilling footage of the European Grand Prix tour. But they differ fundamentally in the way they treat what they share.

‘The Young Racers’ is melodrama, ‘The Wild Racers’ something more akin to the French New Wave. Rather than dramatic movement toward emotional climax, WR explores a tone and a question: “Jo Jo who?” Played winningly by Fabian, the answer is, “I’m Jo Jo Quillico, king of the hillico. And they call me Jo Jo cuz I got the mojo.” But the real answer is, “Just another good-looking racecar driver.”

‘The Young Racers’ is an existentialist film in the glamorous Sartre/Camus/Beauvoir vein–great clothes, great cars, lots of cigarettes, all in chiaroscuro. The point of reference in WR is Hemingway, captured most vividly in the scene where Jo Jo and Katherine attend a bullfight. “You don’t understand the spiritual angle of the bullfight,” he tells her. This isn’t a film about family, self-reflection, and honesty (that’s YR’s thing), but about one man’s quest for tough-guy independence.

And unlike the racing in ‘The Young Racers,’ here the racing isn’t an expression of character or conflict, but a spectacle of a piece with the beautiful people, glamorous locations, clothing, food, wine, and music. Which isn’t to say that it fails to be a perfect expression of Jo Jo’s character and conflict. Jo Jo is a sexy cypher. Like the protagonist of ‘Downhill Racer,’ he’s a man without qualities, beautiful and fast and not much else

What sets ‘The Wild Racers’ apart is Verna Fields’ editing and Phil Thomas’s sound design. There’s hardly a shot in the film that lasts as long as ten seconds, and most are far shorter. This is a racing film that races. We often hear sound and dialogue from a scene that occurs chronologically later than the scene we’re watching, an example of proleptic sound. Or different scenes are intertwined, their dialogue combined to emphasize a theme, an example of convergent sounds. It’s a remarkable cinematic achievement, perfectly communicating Jo Jo’s inability to ever live in and appreciate the moment or the people he’s with. He’s always trying to get ahead of us.

Thunder in Carolina (1960)

“Look, Stoogie, you just don’t eat peanuts in the pits!”

This is one of a half dozen car-racing movies that were tagged by Quentin Tarantino in a 2013 interview as among his faves. It stars Rory Calhoun as Mitch Cooper, a down-on-his-luck stock car racer who teaches a young mechanic how to drive while hitting on that same mechanic’s wife and smoking an astonishing number of cigarettes.

These early 1960s movies often struggle to portray the motivation to race as something bigger and more meaningful than personal kink. To its credit, ‘Thunder in Carolina’ doesn’t waste much time working out those details, anchoring Les’s growth as a racer to a growing rivalry, though he seems mostly oblivious to what’s happening between Mitch and his wife.

But then the scene shifts to Darlington, South Carolina, and the Southern 500. A panning shot at the pre-race party lands on a massive confederate flag. And the pre-race parade features a Marine Corps band playing “Dixie,” a funnycar surrounded by gamboling clowns in blackface, and dolled-up white girls on a float festooned with rebel flags. And the final shot of the movie shows Mitch and his buddy Buddy (played by Alan Hale Jr. aka The Skipper!) driving down the road to the triumphant strains of, you guessed it, “Dixie.”

Wait. Has this been about rebels and lost causes the whole time?

Probably not. This is a bad movie in so many ways: acting, editing, script, and cinematography are barely competent (director Paul Helmick was a much stronger Assistant Director). I’d characterize the rebel yell stuff as an ideology of convenience. It has its moments, for sure. The racing footage is workmanlike, particularly the opening race with the camera slung low, cars racing past, kicking up dirt and dust. There’s a lovely sequence in the South Carolina hills when Mitch gives Les his first racing lessons. And top marks for the scene where Mitch slaps a bag of peanuts out of the hand of one of his mechanics. Poor Stoogie . . .

Seven Second Love Affair (1965)

The car-racing movies of the 1960s and 70s are a medley of straight, macho masculinity. But with few exceptions (i.e., The Young Racers [1963], The Wild Racers [1968], and Winning [1969]), they don’t offer any kind of critical perspective on either. By and large, they are movies about straight macho men doing straight macho things, most of which involve straight women and greasy, noisy machines.

That’s the case with this short, vivid, very cool documentary, one of the early works of writer/director Robert Abel and cinematographer Les Blank. It tells the story of a few weeks on the California drag-racing circuit, focusing on x-ray technician by day, fuel-dragster driver by night and weekends, Rick Stewart.

As with every other car-racing movie, I watch this with a keen sense of not watching it where it was intended to be watched. Sometimes it’s pure noise and visual spectacle; sometimes it’s quiet and sensitive. One of the best moments of the latter is when Rick tells the story of his first crash while wife Ruby watches patiently (she’s heard this story before), then describes urging Rick to get right back in the saddle. One of the best of the former is the breathtaking crash that draws the movie to its conclusion and hastened Rick’s retirement.

There are two ways this movie strays from the conventional romantic existentialist tough-guy mold of other race-car movies. First, Rick’s family is always on the scene and that scene is generally the garage of their house, a house they couldn’t have afforded without their persistence on the circuit. While the obvious story Abel tells is about drag racing, the less-obvious story is about a (white) middle-class family, part of a rising generation of white-collar workers.

Which is the other interesting thing Abel does that diverges from almost all other car-racing movies. This is the story of entrepeneurs and innovators, staying up all night in their garages tinkering and talking shop. Rick and his crew, including their children (all boys) are the internal-cumbustion-engine version of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. These are nerds making stuff they love, single-mindedly sinking time, sweat, and cash into making a machine that expresses perfection.

Roadracers (1959)

There are three things a great car-racing movie needs to do to be great. The driving needs to be vivid and visceral, the driving needs to matter to the story, and the driving needs to express the evolving dramatic conflict.

‘Roadracers’ does all of this, but with a script that feels like it might be a parody of Freud. Rebuffed again by his father, Rob tells his mother, “I’m gonna smash him the way he smashed me. And it’s gonna be where it hurts him the most [long dramatic pause] on the track.” Cut to mother, looking at first proud then disdainful: “Well, don’t expect me to watch it. I never want to see you in a car again!”

It’s barely an hour and a quarter long, but director Arthur Swerdloff still finds time for Marian Collier to sing a romantic ballad in the local hot rod lounge. The script is bad, the cinematography is clumsy, and the acting relentlessly weird.

But the racing action is outstanding. The movie switches between melodrama at the hot rod lounge and high-octane action at the Riverside International Motor Raceway (a legendary track that is now a shopping mall). The serpentine desert track provides DP Carl Guthrie all the angles he could possibly want. Rear projection is used prudently and done really well (I was fooled for a while). The camera continually changes view to capture the action, sometimes encompassing a landscape with cars twisting and turning across it, sometimes going mobile, most memorably in a shot that swoops low, crossing at bumper-level from driver to passenger side just in time to capture a rival closing with a roar.

And the racing action is dramatic. Because it all takes place on the same track, I grew familiar with it, so the racing felt moored to a stable reality. And because of all of the Freudian sturm und drang, each race matters.

‘Drive to Survive,’ but produced by Ed Wood.

Pit Stop (1969)

Imagine if David Lynch directed a total bad-ass car-racing movie.

Jack Hill’s ‘Pit Stop’ (aka ‘The Winner’) tells the story of Rick Bowman, an amoral drifter who finds himself drawn into a Faustian bargain with wealthy race team owner Grant Willard and the deadly world of Figure 8 stockcar racing. It’s a two-hander, the antagonist one Hawk Sidney, the nihilistic, shit-talking, hard-dancing star of Willard’s team, played by a soulful Sid Haig.

The chemistry between (Jake Cahill lookalike) Dick Davalos and Haig is profound. Davalos is stoic, square-jawed; Haig incendiary. Look for the scene where Hawk apologizes to Rick for a wrecking his Ford Fairlane and thrashing him into the ER: it’s a master class in masculinity, Hawk struggling to find words not because he can’t tap into the emotion, but because he knows that a single wrong step will crash the moment into macho bullshit. This is when Hawk becomes the moral center of the film–Haig’s giant eyes following Rick’s every step towards damnation.

As good as the story is, the production’s better. Hill and cinematographer Austin McKinney nail the punk-rock, destruction alley kink of the Figure 8. McKinney’s black and white photography casts everything in greasy lusciousness, his camera dwelling as lovingly on levers, dented fenders, and whirring belts as it does his actors. One of those–Ellen Burstyn in an early non-TV role–is introduced in a sequence that is as Lynchian as anything David Lynch has ever done–a weird, unsettling, badass, sexy, cybernetic moment of machine-modification and desire.

I’m fascinated by how storytellers adapt the particular mechanics of games and sports to storytelling. Here, it’s the Figure 8 track, a Dante-esque setting if there ever was one, the damned roaring around and around. It’s also a metaphor for Rick’s narcissism.

There’s a moment in the film when the claustrophobic violence of the Figure 8 is left behind, the scene shifting to white sand dunes, d cloud-scudded skies, and dune buggies hauling ass in all directions. It’s a bold, breathtaking moment–a respite from Rick’s journey to the depths.

Not just a brilliant racing movie, but a brilliant movie full stop.

The Love Bug (1968)

“We all prisoners, chickie-baby. We all locked in.”

Full disclosure: I was raised on a diet of live-action, B-grade Disney movies. I liked them all. I forgot how likeable ‘The Love Bug’ is. It’s a truly goofy movie with Disney stalwarts Buddy Hackett, David Tomlinson, and Joe Flynn (who’s great in Kurt Russell nerd adventures like ‘The Barefoot Executive’).

Don’t know the story? A sentient Volkswagen with superautomotive powers befriends some humans, two of them friends, two falling in love. Lots of physical comedy. Bubbly, colorful, looks like everyone’s having fun.

Hackett’s character Tennessee Steinmetz is a fascinating concoction. He’s a Pacific Rim persona. Though he hails from New York, he attained enlightenment in Tibet. “I discovered my real self,” he tells his buddy, down-on-his-luck Jim Douglas. He speaks Cantonese, enabling him to earn the trust of a wealthy Chinese-American, played by Benson Fong.

He’s also an artist. One of the sets is dominated by his workshop, which, in turn, is dominated by a sculpture he’s built out of the parts of a deconstructed Studebaker. His mechanical knowledge and spiritual enlightenment have made him attentive to the implications of technology. Early in the movie, Tennessee warns Jim about the dangers of sentient technology: “We take machines and stuff ’em with information until they’re smarter than we are.” Which is the lesson Jim ultimately learns: he’s a lousy racer–his success is all due to Herbie, who duly whisks Jim and Carole to their honeymoon.

The Love Bug: Rise of the Machines.

Another thing I love about ‘The Love Bug’ is its adaptation of the physics and routes of car racing. There are more than a few car-racing movies which show or reference boys (and only boys) playing with toy cars (my favorite is the opening credits of Roger Corman’s ‘The Young Racers’). The movie does to Herbie what kids do with cars: roll them, crash them, smash them, throw them, anthropomorphize them, make the boy and girl love each other with them. This is a perfectly childish representation of automotive fantasy

It’s also a low-key great San Francisco movie with a hilarious easter-egg in the middle. Producer Bill Walsh made Herbie’s number 53, the same number as Los Angeles Dodgers great Don Drysdale. Burn.

Eat My Dust (1976)

“I’m not going with Hoover, he’s just taking me for a little ride!”

As much a classical farce as it is a racing movie, ‘Eat My Dust!’ is also, at times, a deeply romantic, even lyrical film.

Directed by Charles B. Griffith (writer of classic Roger Corman flicks like ‘The Wild Angels,’ ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ and ‘Death Race 2000’), it tells the tale of the rebellious son of a rural California sheriff desperate to impress a girl with his rebelliousness and driving skills.

It’s silly, silly stuff, stuffed with the bizarre situations, character types, and slapstick violence we want from classical farce, but without a whiff of cruelty towards anyone involved. There’s real affection for the characters and the actors, even those who are no more than types. This is especially notable when it comes to Darlene, the girl Hoover wants to impress but who, ultimately, is just there for the ride. “It wasn’t me at all, was it?” he asks as she walks away into the Halloween night. Darlene has been in charge the whole time–and she knows it.

That final note of melancholy echoes the several deeply romantic, almost pastoral sequences in the film, my favorite being when Hoover and Darlene run out of gas and have to push their car to an abandoned farm. Eric Saarinen’s photography and David Grisman’s (yes, that David Grisman) score shift the movie out of high gear into something innocent and lovely.

There’s something soulful here that I didn’t expect, something that puts ‘Eat My Dust!’ up there with some of the best racing movies. Soufulness without self-seriousness–like some of the best farces.

N.B. The posters for ‘Eat My Dust!’ show Ron Howard wearing a cap with the confederate flag. In the movie, he doesn’t.


The Gaming Gaze: Some Playful Thoughts About The Queen’s Gambit

November 20, 2020

This is the seventeenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of playful literature and theater—not just games 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 games, game players, and game culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, though one that’s more focused on videogames rather than games more generally, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

SPOILERS! In this post, I discuss pretty much all of the major moments in the series. Watch first, then read. And please leave a comment. I’d love to read your thoughts on all of this.

Like just about everyone else these days, I’ve found The Queen’s Gambit perfectly delicious. The seven-episode Netflix miniseries created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott is the epitome of bingeworthy television. The script is propulsive, dropping story beats with clockwork precision. It’s gorgeous to look at, thanks to the camerawork of Steven Meizler, the production design of Kai Koch, and the spellbinding costumery of Gabriele Binder. And then there’s Anya Taylor-Joy, playing our brooding hero, the wunderkind chess player Beth Harmon. Those enormous anime eyes of hers are a sight to behold—and fascinating fodder for a blog post about the relationship between games and literature!

It’s a timely story, too. The Queen’s Gambit is about a woman who plays games, plays them brilliantly, and plays them despite the skeptics and hapless helpmeets who surround her—almost all of them men, more than a few enthusiastically sexist. It’s the kind of story that our culture needs now—a reminder of how women have been and are treated in game culture, and an inspiration for girls and women to play more. I particularly liked the relationship between Beth and her mother, played brilliantly by Marielle Heller. Despite her own troubles, she supports Beth unconditionally and affirms her desire to play. Finally, the series is a perfect example of what I call “Playful Literature”: a story about a game, a game player, and a game culture, told with a playfulness of tone and structure that rhymes with the game it portrays.

An old-fashioned story

That said, it’s all rather old-fashioned. And I don’t mean the clothing, furniture, and music of mid-century modernity. The Queen’s Gambit is an old-fashioned fairy tale. Beth is an archetypal orphan who discovers magical powers, a key to the castle, and a host of helpers and hindrances on her path to glory. It’s an old-fashioned sports movie, too. We’ve seen this plucky, obsessive, troubled underdog in countless films, from the mythic The Natural (1984) to the gritty The Wrestler (2008) to the adorable Bend It Like Beckham (2002). And it’s an old-fashioned chess movie, too, sharing with both fictional and documentary films a fascination with children who play and the costs the best players must pay to win: Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), The Luzhin Defense (2000), Brooklyn Castle (2012), Pawn Sacrifice (2014), Queen of Katwe (2016). Like these, The Queen’s Gambit centers its story in the dramatic sweet spot among the formal beauty of chess’s rules, its arcane rituals, and the disorder and pain of life outside the sixty-four squares of the board.

However, unlike the tortured souls in The Luzhin Defense and Pawn Sacrifice, The Queen’s Gambit treats all that ugliness with the lightest of touches. As historical as it might seem, the facts of the matter tell us that Beth would have been treated far more cruelly by the players and institutions of chess. In 1963, grandmaster Bobby Fischer told an interviewer, “They’re terrible chess players . . . I guess they’re just not so smart . . . I don’t think they should mess into intellectual affairs, they should keep strictly to the home.” While Fischer’s misogyny may have been exceptional in its virulence, his peers (including Grandmasters Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov, the latter a consultant on the show) have shown little compunction opining on women’s ability to succeed in the sport. Similarly, Beth’s addiction to tranquilizers and booze are treated with rather jaw-dropping glibness–she shakes them off as if they were no more than a perfectly tailored shift dress. But that’s part of the point. The Queen’s Gambit is “happy melodrama,” as Julia Turner put it in a recent Slate Culture Gabfest episode. While it titillates us with the typical tropes of tragedy, the series ends in tear-jerking triumph. Beth leaves the pills and alcohol behind. She overcomes her anxieties to beat the best player in the world. And she magically transforms the sexism of her sport into a scrum of hirsute fanboying Brezhnev-era chess-obsessives.

The Queen’s Gambit as playful literature

But it’s not those bearded boardgamers who fascinate me. It’s Beth’s eyes. Those eyes are a constant motif of the series—and it’s biographical bookends. The last words Beth’s mother says to her are, “Close your eyes.” And Beth’s eyes are the focus of the last image we see before the final series credits, peering at us with coy predatory pleasure and inviting us to play.

And it’s right there, as I stared back into Taylor-Joy’s eyes, that I found myself realizing that the show was a fascinating example of Playful Literature.

As I’ve explained in a previous post (though focusing on videogames) and in a forthcoming article in [Arts] magazine, there are seven tropes that define the genre of Playful Literature. The Queen’s Gambit uses three of them. The first, diegetic representation, is obvious. This is a story about chess, the players who play it, and the culture surrounding it. The second is fairly obvious, too. The series represents games figuratively. Chess is a metaphor. Beth says so quite frankly to an interviewer after she wins her first major tournament: “It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.” That metaphor circulates in the many moments when the day-to-day chaos and constraints of Beth’s life are contrasted with the stately order of the game and the calm, calculating cognition required of those who would master it.

Which leads to the third trope, which is a bit more difficult to ascertain, but is by far the most fascinating: procedural representation. Procedural adaptation is a formal technique in which a game procedure, mechanic, or “feel” is remediated from one medium to another. Perhaps the most obvious example would be the “respawn” mechanic that we see in Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Russian Doll, and Happy Death Day.

It’s on the level of procedural representation that The Queen’s Gambit reveals not only its curious attitude towards women gamers, but also its own historical character–not how it represents history, but how it figures the tensions and contradictions of our own moment. Beth’s eyes are an immaculately shadowed and mascaraed portal into a kind of political unconscious of recent gaming history—specifically, the history of men thinking about and watching women play games and the particular ways that playing games plays games with that watching. Which takes us to the question of “the gaze.”

The gaming gaze

In feminist theory, there is a concept known as “the male gaze.” Simply put, the male gaze describes the way art, literature, and culture constructs women as objects of visual pleasure for men. This is particularly evident in movies. In her classic 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey describes how classic Hollywood films both visually objectify women and construct differential agency for the men and women in them. Not only are women sexualized, but are denied the ability to take action. It’s not just the way they’re looked at by the viewer, but also the way they’re looked at by the men in the movie. Women are objectified by both camera and character. The “cinematic gaze” eroticizes women and film itself.

The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of how Beth Harmon discovers, masters, and reverses the male gaze. The story begins in an all-girls orphanage run by women. This is significant. The two men who work there are functionaries, and neither of them looks at the girls in a way that would suggest sexualization. Though the male gaze is absent in the Methuen Home, the disciplinary gaze is not. Beth and the other girls are under constant surveillance. But Beth’s friend Jolene teaches her how to sneak about, avoiding the eyes of head-mistress and orderly alike to get high and play chess.

It’s when Beth is adopted that she learns what it is to be looked at as a woman by men. Though she embraces fashion, recognizing the power of glamor, she refuses to play the reindeer games of alpha-mean-girl Margaret and her Apple Pi club, all of them intent on looking beautiful to men. Yes, the producers of the show can’t resist lingering over Beth’s body at times, most gratuitously when Beth surrenders to drugs, drink, and rock ‘n’ roll and dances in her underwear. And Beth herself learns to manipulate the male gaze–and the limits of that ability: she fails to recognize that Townes is gay, and is stung when Benny informs her that sex is out of the question.

But the male gaze is not the only gaze in play in The Queen’s Gambit.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the gaze works in tabletop games and tabletop game culture. Players of card games, board games, paper-and-pencil games, dice games, and so on know that the eyes play a key role. They are a primary source of information. We look to see where tokens are placed and calculate their advantages and disadvantages. We look to identify our cards, the cards on the table, the cards we can see and not see. We look to see the spaces on the board and calculate their offensive and defensive possibilities. The gaming gaze is an informative and calculative gaze.

But there is another dimension to the gaming gaze, which involves desire and excitement. This is most evident in Poker, a game of secrecy and deception. The moment-to-moment labor of Poker involves calculation, of course: the odds that a player has a specific combination of cards or might acquire a specific card from a draw, and so on. But the real fun—and the delicious dramatic tension—of Poker is in watching the other player’s performances and crafting one’s own, in playing a daring bluff, detecting an opponent’s tell, keeping one’s cool when a turn of cards goes one’s way or doesn’t. Yes, the “gaming gaze” is every bit as objectifying as the male gaze, but its energies tend to be directed towards purely strategic ends and is understood by the players to be a fair and legal part of the game. Does the gaming gaze lack erotic charge? Certainly not. Even a casual perusal of movies featuring high-stakes card games demonstrates quite the opposite. The gaming gaze provides the perfect fodder for dramatic storytelling. There is a kind of “eroticism” to the gaming gaze in that it involves desire, seduction, satisfaction, and denial.

Which is what makes the chess matches in The Queen’s Gambit so glorious! The cinematic and dramatic tension of these sequences is generated entirely by watching players watch and seeing what they’re watching. We see it again and again: the camera lingering on their eyes, then shifting into rapid shot-reverse-shot sequences that show them calculating possibilities of play.

But the gaming gaze in The Queen’s Gambit is inseparable from the male gaze—both the gazing eyes of the men in the series and our own eyes as we watch Beth and watch her being watched. The sexism of chess culture isn’t just shown in the disrespect of the men, but the way they look at Beth. This is true of many gaming cultures; most notoriously, videogame culture, where sexual harassment remains a widespread problem and sexist tropes continue to be used by designers. However, The Queen’s Gambit takes pains to distinguish the gaming gaze from the male gaze. This is perhaps most evident when Beth schools a young Russian chess prodigy, countering his sexist microaggressions by drawing his gaze away from the board and towards her, causing his attention to fail and costing him the match.

The extrication of the gaming gaze is most visually fascinating when it comes to the series’ most enduring image: Beth staring at the ceiling and seeing a chess board, pieces moving magically at her mental command.

Indeed, that hallucinatory chessboard is the subject of its own heroic subplot. Isolated and frightened at Methuen Home, seeing a chess board provides her comfort and agency. Isolated and unsure when she joins her adopted family, she tears the canopy of her four-poster bed so she can see the ceiling.

And her victory over her nemesis Borgov follows the moment she is able to invoke the imaginary chessboard in public, without the aid of drugs, without concern for others. Not coincidentally, this is the moment when the men in the room stop looking at Beth, when they follow her gaze, when they seek to see what she sees.

But, of course, they cannot. Which is why the conclusion of the series—with that undulating scum of bearded gamers and that final, seductive invitation from Beth’s eyes and voice—is perfect.

And perfectly problematic. For at that moment, the camera positions us as both player (gazing at Beth from the position of the unnamed, greybeard from an all-male chess community) and viewer. Beth returns that gaze. But is the gaze she’s returning fully divorced from the male gaze? I’d argue that it doesn’t. Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes and lips and perfect skin are as gorgeous and as perfectly eroticized as they’ve been throughout the series. The typical conventions of female beauty remain in play. But perhaps there is a different kind of eroticism informing our gaze at this moment, a more egalitarian kind of eroticism, the eroticism of fair play. Which I’m kind of into, and think we all ought to try.

Procedural loneliness in Spike Jonze’s Her

NOTE: This post is no longer available, as the materials will be published as part of an essay, “What is a videogame movie?” in the open-access journal [Arts]

September 29, 2019

This is the fourteenth 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?

Her isn’t about videogames

Spike Jonze 2013 Her isn’t a movie about videogames. Her is about loneliness.

1917 and the Emergence of Videogame Cinema

NOTE: This post is no longer available, as the materials will be published as part of an essay, “What is a videogame movie?” in the open-access journal [Arts]

January 26, 2020

This is the fifteenth 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?

Among the year’s most-honored films is 1917, Sam Mendes’s harrowing tale . . .

Playful Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 1)

July 6, 2020

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of gameful literature and theater—not games 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?

This post is the first in a series that describes the graduate course I taught in the Summer of 2020 on the subject of “Playful Literature.” In this post, I describe the big ideas, questions, and topics of the course.

Jorge Luis Borges, a cat, and a labyrinth

Building the backstory

 Though there may be a few curmudgeonly holdouts among us who ask, “Is that really literature?” the majority of those who teach and study in English departments are tolerant of texts that aren’t printed on paper or that use more than words to tell a story, create a memorable image, or provoke a feeling. Personally, I’ve always thought about literature in expansive terms. I was never into “literature” when I was a kid, though I was a voracious reader and watcher. As an undergraduate English major in the late 1980s, I took courses on film, feminism and popular culture, and romance novels, and I freely mixed creative writing with theory. Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, I played Dungeons & Dragons and videogames and played and watched sports.

The kinds of texts that counted for me as “literary” continued to expand during my years in graduate school, where I studied drama, the avant-garde, and Black American literature and culture. Each of these traditions complicate in one way or another what is conventionally understood as the “literary text.” To be an effective reader of dramatic literature, for example, you need to know theatre history and what it takes to stage a play. You need to go to the theatre and watch the players play. To understand the avant-garde, you have to engage with texts that don’t work in normal ways. You’re trying to figure out how to read Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) . . .

A page from “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (1897)

. . . parole in libertà, the closet dramas of Gertrude Stein, concrete poetry . . .

Mary Ellen Solt, “Forsythia” (1966)

and Fluxus event texts.

Yoko Ono, “Lighting Piece” (1955)

If you study Black American literature, you study the full range of Black American literatures—not only the novels of Toni Morrison, the plays of August Wilson, or the poetry of Langston Hughes, but the blues, spirituals, stand-up comedy, and the diverse oral traditions of the African diaspora.

More recently, I’ve grown interested in the literatures associated with digital and computational technologies: interactive fiction, digital poetry, and, especially, videogames. I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses on videogames as literature, written a few essays, co-authored a book on technology and theatre, and am developing an anthology on literary representations of videogames, videogame players and designers, and videogame cultures. To do all that, I’ve had to learn a lot about games, including the history of boardgames and card games, game theory, and the principles of game design.

Meanwhile, I’ve been playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons—as a player, gamemaster, and teacher. I’ve had the opportunity to observe Olivia Maderer incorporate roleplaying games in their composition classes. And I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that big stack of boardgames that my family and I acquired over the last couple of decades, many of them heavy on worldbuilding.

So, what does all this add up to?

What if we included in a single genre literary works that represent games and the people who play them (for example, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock), works that incorporate game strategies into their formal structures (“Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch), and games, especially games that tell stories?

That’s exactly the question I wanted to answer in the graduate course I designed for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Literature & Criticism 2020 graduate summer program. And I named that question “Playful Literature.” (Well, actually, the original name of the course was “Playable Literature,” but my thinking evolved during the run of the course.)

Designing the game

Game designer Eric Zimmerman has declared the 21st century the “Ludic Century.” He argues that our world is increasingly shaped by information systems that require forms of playful interaction, though often without our consent or the opportunity to understand the implications of our play. For example, I play a (thoroughly unenjoyable) game with my insurance provider. The rules are simple: If I complete a certain number of health-related tasks (such as getting a physical or completing a mental-health survey), I pay less for my healthcare. Gamification is increasingly common in industrial design, marketing, labor management, and education, but also in less savory fields, such as recruiting young people to extremist political organizations.

Zimmerman believes that one way to increase consciousness and agency within these kinds of playful information systems is to develop and teach multiple kinds “gaming literacy”; in other words, knowing how games work and how they shape our intellectual and emotional engagement. But games are far more than rules and mechanics. Games are fictions—they represent ideas, people, places, social relations, and ideas. Games are embedded in culture—indeed, being a skilled player of games is often one of the ways we decide who is in a group and who is not (as anyone who’s ever been chosen last for a ballgame understands). Not surprisingly, games enjoy an enduring presence in literature—think of chess in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, card games in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock or Austen’s Mansfield Park, croquet in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, roulette in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, and videogames in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and Gibson’s The Peripheral, to name only a very few. And, finally, there are the many genres of literature that require the audience’s active and playful engagement: collaborative storytelling, dramatic literature, surrealist poetry, interactive fiction, videogames, postmodern fiction, and tabletop roleplaying games.

Is it possible to think of all these things as a single genre of literature? If so, how would we define it? What would be its boundaries? How might a concept of playful literature expand and complicate our understanding of literacy, both the literacy we associate with traditional reading and writing activities, but also the literacy we associate with games and play? For example, how would an improved understanding of how games work and how people play them help us be more sensitive readers of traditional literary texts? Or vice versa: How would an improved understanding of how games and game players are represented in literary works help us be more sensitive players and analysts of games, whether board games and role playing games or the gamified systems of the early twenty-first century?

I think these are fascinating and important questions. And that’s why I designed this course.

 I focused the syllabus around three questions:

  1. What is “Playful Literature”?
  2. What are the best methods to analyze, historicize, criticize, and evaluate “Playful Literature”?
  3. How can “Playful Literature” be effectively incorporated into the classroom?

I designed the course to fit within two significant constraints. First, it had to be taught online, as we were still in quarantine. This meant less time to meet and discuss, as only a sadist would require students to spend two and a half hours, four days a week on Zoom. And it meant that our weekly small-team play sessions had to happen virtually, rather than around a table. My choice of games was shaped by that constraint. Second, the course was taught in four weeks as part of our summers-only masters and doctoral program curricula. Were I to teach this in a standard twelve-week, face-to-face format, I would have made different choices concerning primary texts and added at least three more units. At least one of those would have been focused on queer texts and queering strategies, whose absence from this syllabus became increasingly annoying and embarrassing as the semester progressed.

I divided the course into six content areas:

  • Defining games and play
  • The histories of playful literatures
  • Games as literature, including boardgames, tabletop roleplaying games, Surrealist poetry games, and collaborative worldbuilding games
  • Literature as game, focusing on the “open work” and interactive fiction
  • Games in literature
  • Playful literature in the classroom

Before the semester began, I surveyed the twelve students, half of whom were enrolled in our masters program, half in our doctoral program. In addition to practical questions concerning their access to reliable wi-fi, their learning goals for the course, and so on, I asked about their experience with games. Almost all were familiar with board games, 75% with card games, about half with tabletop roleplaying games, a third with interactive fiction, and about three-quarters with videogames. The level of familiarity with each game genre was varied. For example, three of the students who were familiar with tabletop roleplaying games were active Dungeons & Dragons players, and one of them had experience as a game master. The other two had played it in the past. This meant that I needed to approach each game text with the beginner in mind—but with expert peers available to help.

Not wishing to waste valuable Zoom time with lecturing, each week, I recorded one or two short, thoroughly charming introductory videos that provided critical context, explanations of key concepts, brief overviews of readings, and core questions. We met as a whole group twice per week for an hour and a half on Zoom. I divided the group into four-person teams, which met once a week on Zoom for two hours for “playful praxis sessions” during which we played games and developed ludonarratological analyses of them. Students wrote brief responses to each unit’s readings on collective Google Docs and responded to each other’s writings on the same. For their semester projects, they wrote a conference-length essay, curated a ten-item annotated bibliography, and designed a lesson plan that integrated Twine storygame design into literary instruction.

The students made the course a success. They were everything a teacher could want, providing energy, preparation, engaged thoughtfulness, intellectual generousness, out-of-the-box critical angles, and diverse responses to our texts. The quality of their participation was all the more remarkable given that we took this course during the COVID-19 quarantine, so everyone was balancing the intensity of the course with the many personal and existential challenges caused by the pandemic. My tentative answers to the questions of the course evolved significantly as we worked together, and I will be citing many of them individually in these posts, and in the work that emerges from this in the future. My thanks to Olivia Faiad, Maria LaRotonda, Emily O’Donnell, Jesse Rice, Danielle Rishell, Sarah Cheatle, Kevin Ellis, Emily Griff, James Irby, Zebadiah Kraft, Christopher Shenk, and Allen Shull.

The strategy

For this series of blog posts, I will annotate each of the eight course units and four playful praxis sessions, detailing the questions, summarizing and critiquing our readings, describing the key discoveries and critical problematics that we explored, and reflecting on texts and issues that we might have explored if we had had more time.

The course units are as follows:

  1. What is a game? What is play? And what does this have to do with literature?
  2. The histories of playful literature, part 1
  3. The histories of playful literature, part 2
  4. Literature as game, part 1: The open work
  5. Literature as game, part 2: Interactive fiction
  6. Games in literature
  7. Playful literature in the classroom, part 1: Expanding our conceptions of literacy
  8. Playful literature in the classroom, part 2: TPACK and SAMR

And our playful praxis sessions:

  1. Boardgames (Catan)
  2. Tabletop roleplaying games (Dungeons & Dragons)
  3. Twine
  4. Surrealist writing games
  5. Collaborative worldbuilding (The Quiet Year)

I welcome your comments and suggestions, and would be thrilled to collaborate with you on future versions of a Playful Literature course!

“So, why aren’t you in a more entertaining scenario?”: A critical review of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

December 28, 2018 (updated January 3, 2019)

This is the thirteenth 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?

Warning: Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers!

Fans of speculative fiction—whether novels, movies, or videogames—anticipate with delight the sharp, alienating discovery that starts every story. How will this world differ from our own? How are its rules different than our own? Will it be a world where every moment of our lives are recorded and rewatched at will? Will it be a world where parents monitor and control their children’s every experience? Or one in which criminals can be sentenced to relive the terror they inflicted on their victims—and do so for the entertainment of others? Or maybe this is a story in which characters discover that they are not the agents of their own destinies, but are mere toys, played with by unreachable powers?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the movie-length release from director David Slade and writer Charlie Brooker, doesn’t just give viewers one of these estranging delights, but all of them (and more). In this respect, Bandersnatch continues the self-reflexive turn in Black Mirror that we saw in the concluding episode of its fourth season, “Black Museum”, which follows its main character on a tour of some of the gnarlier plot devices of earlier episodes.

But the best and most disarming shock of Bandersnatch happens before the story even starts. Not only is this a movie-length story, but it’s a fully interactive movie, a true cinematic choose-your-own-adventure book. The film occasionally pauses and asks the viewer (though I guess that makes us a player now) to make a choice for the protagonist. While riding the bus, does Stefan listen to The Thompson Twins or a Now That’s What I Call Music! mix tape? When Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) grows frustrated with the progress of his videogame project, does he throw his tea at the computer or shout at his father? It’s a surprisingly complex operation and fascinating to watch . . . I mean play. Did they really film two scenes so that I could choose Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes for breakfast? And did they do it again so that our choice appears on a television commercial at the end of the movie? Yes, my friends, they did. During my first playthrough . . . er, viewing . . . I counted about 40 choices, exclusive of a couple of recursive loops. There are several different endings and a kind of rudimentary scoring system, too (concerning how highly your game is rated by the twit on a weekly news segment). If you’re interested in seeing how it all plays out, you can check out this compendium of fan-created guides and plot diagrams.

This makes Black Mirror: Bandersnatch a double-good example of “videogame literature.” On one hand, it is a movie about videogames. Stefan is an up-and-coming videogame designer who has landed his first big chance at publishing his work. We watch him as he struggles to complete his game, as he crunches to get it done by deadline. We see characters play videogames and those games provide a sense of historical specificity to the episode, placing us squarely in the era of PC classics like Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord and Jumpman. We watch Stefan watch a television show about videogames (the one with aforementioned twit). On the other hand, Bandersnatch explores the meaning of videogames, both for those who play them and for the broader culture. Videogames function as metaphors in the episode—of Colin’s death, of Stefan’s trauma, and of our collective desire to be entertained by the suffering of others. (For a detailed explanation of what “videogame literature” is, see my post.)

But back to the experience of the pleasurable shocks of speculative fiction. The second one we get with Bandersnatch is a bit more mundane, simply a matter of establishing the setting for the story. For this episode of Black Mirror, we’re not in the future, but in the past, 1984. For aficionados of paranoid fiction, the reference to George Orwell is obvious. But this is not an Orwellian story. There is no authoritarian state looming over the struggles of young Stefan, no boot on the neck, no 2 + 2 = 5. And while we can take Stefan into a mind-bendingly paranoid storyline involving a secret research project, the authorities here are first and foremost the old-fashioned archetypes of mommy and daddy, mommy in this case played by Stefan’s therapist Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe), daddy by Stefan’s daddy (Craig Parkinson). Cementing the Oedipal framework, Stefan harbors a deep emotional trauma involving the death of his mother, a death caused by his intemperate love of a toy rabbit taken by his father out of fear the boy would be insufficiently masculine.

(I am sorely tempted to analyze the penile pun of the software company that has purchased Colin’s game—Tuckersoft—but I will defer.)

If Orwell proves something of a phantom, other writers have a more durable presence in the episode. Lovers of Lewis Carroll will recognize the beastly creature in the title. The “frumious Bandersnatch” appears three times in Carroll’s writings, twice in Through the Looking Glass and once in his poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” And there is a decidedly “frumious” monster in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and a magical mirror, too! The Carroll reference can be read in a couple of ways. Through the Looking Glass was a commentary on children’s literature. Similarly, Bandersnatch is a commentary on movies—specifically, on the medium of streaming cinema. Stefan eventually discovers that we are making decisions for him and, in response to his panicked query, we can, if we wish, tell him we’re watching him on Netflix. Paranoid humor ensues. The Carroll reference is ironic in a second way. In addition to being frumious, the Bandersnatch is notoriously difficult to catch, but, if caught, is vicious. We recall the Banker in Carroll’s poem who accidentally fell upon one and, despite his offers of a “large discount . . . a cheque (Drawn ‘to bearer’) for seven-pounds-ten,” found himself quickly turned to bloody ribbons. I’ll return to whether Stefan (or we) catch the beast and what damage, if caught, it causes.

(See it there on the left?)

The other writer with significant presence in the episode is Philip K. Dick. A reference to my favorite Dick novel, Ubik, appears in the scene in which Colin (Will Poulter) offers Stefan the choice of taking a dose of high-quality acid (or drops one, unrequested, into Stefan’s tea). Beyond the hippy-trippy, psychedelic-paranoia stuff, the spirit of Dick is most evident in the movie’s representation of Stefan’s struggle with mental illness and in its exploration of the evergreen conundrum of free will versus determinism.

Stefan struggles with mental illness and the therapy and medicines that are prescribed him. His therapist Dr. Haynes urges him to explore his trauma, to re-tell the story of the toy rabbit, the insensitive father, and his mother’s death. Stefan complains, “What good does it do, going over things again and again?” But Haynes perseveres: “Think carefully. You really might learn something new.”

Stefan’s struggle with his mental health is complemented by the multiple metaphors of limited agency in the episode, several of them tied to videogames, videogame play, and the culture of videogames. One of the first decisions we make for Stefan is whether he will work on his game by himself or with members of the Tuckersoft team. If we choose the latter, the result is a bad game and a restart. “Sorry, mate,” Colin japes, “Wrong path.”

There is, of course, the genre of game Stefan is developing, a branching narrative. The figure of the branching narrative is the most important in the episode. Stefan has many choices to make, but most of them are binary. Does he say, “Yes” or “Fuck yeah!”? But the simplicity of the specific choices are counterbalanced by the struggle to make sense of the decision system as a whole. As anyone who’s designed a branching narrative knows, things can get out of control quickly. And that’s the case here. Stefan struggles not only to make his game work, but to get it done. There are too many branches to explore.

Another figure of limited agency is the maze. Stefan’s branching narrative looks like a maze when we see it diagramed. And it is nested within a 3-D maze game reminiscent of Wizardry. The legendary maze-runner Pac-Man makes a cameo. During their acid trip, Colin explains that the “PAC” in Pac-Man stands for “Program and Control.” “He thinks he’s got free will,” Colin rants, “but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume. He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his head.”

Towards the end of the game . . . er, movie . . . Stefan has increasing difficulty understanding what is real and what is fake. At one point, he finds himself on a movie set, the set of, you guessed, it, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. The decision we instructed him to take—to leap out the window—isn’t in the script. “You’re not scripted to jump out, see, Mike?” the director tells him. Philip Dick would find all of this perfectly amusing.

Regardless, all this drug-dosed epistemological tomfoolery is ultimately beside the point. Black Mirror has always been concerned not so much with how media shapes our relationship to power. Thirteen of the 19 episodes of Black Mirror are about entertainment media—videogames, television, social media, virtual companions, virtual reality, and so on. That’s the case with Bandersnatch. For all of its trippy pondering of epistemological uncertainty and the possibility that our lives are simply an extended experiment in trauma induction, Bandersnatch is, in the final analysis, a commentary on entertainment. When Stefan tries to explain to Dr. Haynes that he’s being controlled by a 21st-century entertainment technology called Netflix (presuming we chose that particular branch of the narrative), she asks, “So, why aren’t you in a more entertaining scenario?”

Maybe not for him, but definitely for us.

We’re entertained by Stefan’s struggle to manage his mental health. We’re entertained by the silly little choices we make for him. We’re entertained by the possibility that we can make Stefan do something stupid, or violent, or self-destructive. We’re entertained by the hand-to-hand combat between Stefan and his double-baton-wielding therapist, by the arch jokes about Netflix, by the unfolding narrative of paranoid control.

Let’s not forget a couple of key details. The book on which Stefan’s game is based was written by a man who, after repeatedly dosing himself with high-octane hallucinogens, brutally murdered his wife, using her blood to repeatedly paint an inverted, rectilinear Y on the walls of his home, an iconic representation of branching narrative and the false choices they present. Colin’s suicidal leap off his high-rise balcony juices sales for his new game Nozhdyve. Similarly, as he sits in prison, serving time for the murder of his father, Stefan watches a reviewer judge his game as “a morbid curiosity at best.” All three creators attempt to transform their trauma into art. All fail. But we get the fun of it.

But is it truly fun? Is this an entertaining scenario? One of the lures of literature built around branching narratives is the desire to fully explore all the possibilities. After completing my first playing (er, viewing) of Bandersnatch, my first thought was to rewatch (er, replay) it and make different choices, to explore all possible branches, to see whether I might get a different ending. But as I considered the possibility, the old adage about madness came to mind. Wouldn’t I just be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different to happen? And I started to think about my media-consumption habits more generally. Binging episodes. Grinding games.

Which led me, oddly enough, to a question: Why is Black Mirror: Bandersnatch set in 1984?

Again, it’s not about Orwell. And it’s not about the whole paranoid, Dad’s-a-secret-scientist-and-I’m-in-an-experiment-that’s-also-a-Netflix-movie that can be found in one of the narrative branches. That’s just smoke and mirrors.

When the movie (or is it a game?) ended, my first thought was that it was asking some difficult questions about whether we can know the system in which we exist, the social, economic, medical, and emotional systems that make us who we are, that shape the decisions we make, and give us the tools to understand ourselves and our world. It was about the stakes of knowing the system, of recognizing its evil. It was about the risks we run when trying to get outside the system.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that Stefan’s effort to know the system, to work out all the branches of the narrative he’s creating and the narrative he’s in, is fruitless. Stefan can’t work out all the bugs. In several of the episode’s endings, Stefan’s game is released in incomplete form, and he’s left rotting in jail, raving. I don’t have the time or the will to watch Bandersnatch a dozen times. That’s not a grind I want to grind. But regardless of whether he or we are able to figure out how the system works, all that bingeing and grinding is generating profit for Netflix and funneling more and more data into the privileged figure of agency and control of our moment: the algorithm.

Understanding the rules of the game isn’t the point. The big question is whether we play the game at all, because this game is part of a bigger game, the game of data collection and marketing.

Which leads to a final question relating to the most paranoid of the game’s branches. What happens to Stefan’s mother and his memories of her when it is revealed to him that his life was nothing more than an experiment? What happens to the guilt he feels about his mother’s death, the anger he feels towards his father’s refusal to abide by her desire to raise a sensitive child? What happens to Dr. Haynes, Stefan’s surrogate mother? Why does she suddenly change from a sensitive, empathetic, insightful therapist to a trained assassin and then an actor on a set? Bandersnatch’s treatment of women is troubling, in a good way. As the epistemological uncertainty increases, so does the unreliability of the women in Stefan’s life. Both his mother and Dr. Haynes change from emotionally potent figures to actors playing roles. The issues that Stefan needs to address–the gnarled knot of emotional trauma and neurochemical issues that his father and therapist have been urging him to take seriously, that Stefan has been taking seriously–are revealed as tricks to keep him locked into a sci-fi experiment.

The last time I saw Stefan, he was stuck in his cell, watching a televised review of his “morbid curiosity” of a game, while he repeatedly scratches the icon of the branching narrative onto the wall. He’s there not because of the decisions he or we have made (or didn’t make). Stefan is there because he failed to deal with the facts of his situation. He cannot escape his guilt for his mother’s death. Are there other endings for Stefan? Yes, but what does it matter? He cannot escape his mental illness. He cannot stop hating himself. He cannot stop hating his father. His desire for escape—for a solution to the puzzle, for the right sequences of moves to get out of the maze—is the source of his suffering. Stefan will never catch the Bandersnatch, but it’ll end up eating him anyway.

The simple fact of the matter is that this isn’t a very entertaining scenario, at all.

Videogames and Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 5)

December 19, 2018

This is the twelfth 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?



What we read:

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Marie-Laure Ryan, “Tuning the Instruments of a Media-Conscious Narratology 

What we watched:

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (director Edgar Wright)

Drew Morton, “From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim

 What we did:

This session marked the third and final part of our exploration of space, videogames, and fiction. We were becoming . . . thoroughly . . . spaced . . . out.

Moving on.

A quick review: in the first part of the unit, we approached space with the idea that it was fundamental to videogame fictions. When videogames tell stories, they tell them in and with space. Space is to videogames what words are to poetry. For our second evening LINK, we explored the spaces around videogames: family rooms, arcades, live streams, and arenas. We played games and read fiction and theory that explored the ways that videogames, interpersonal relationships, and our bodies are intertwined.

Thus, having thought about (1) games as spatial fictions and (2) play as an activity that always occurs in space, it was time to turn to the question of media; specifically, media as a space of play.

What do I mean by media as a space of play? Visit your local videogame store and what do you see? In addition to videogames, consoles, controllers, headsets, and the like, you’ll probably find t-shirts and mugs, mini-figures, replica weapons, special editions of Monopoly and Risk, posters, stickers. This isn’t just clever cross-marketing. These objects imaginatively extend the space of a game’s fiction from in-game to in-world. Here, we see all kinds of ways for us to play with different media.

In other words, we see in such stores the ways that play is distributed across media.

This kind of distributed play is increasingly typical of videogames. Consider Overwatch. While I rocket around in my hot-pink mech suit, I can participate in the live in-game chat, trading tactical information, talking trash, or just gossiping with my teammates. When I’m not shooting other avatars in the face (or, better yet, booping them into Deadlock Gorge), I can dance, gesture, affix graffiti-like stamps to apply to walls and floors, and shout catch phrases, allowing me to play with others in non-violent, often humorous ways. There are whole subcultures surrounding these affordances. There are legends of a small, but passionate BDSM community that has repurposed Overwatch avatars and emotes so they can “get their dom off” while playing a “healslut.” In sum, I can choose how I play the game, distributing my performance across the various in-game media and affordances.

I can distribute my play of Overwatch in ways that don’t involve a controller or headset. I can browse Blizzard’s official website, keeping up with changes in the game’s mechanics and avatars, reading digital comics and watching videos about my favorite characters (D.Va and Lucio, of course), getting news about upcoming in-game and in-real-life events, and communicating with other Overwatch fans. I might visit fan-run sites to discuss strategy and tactics or check out fan-produced fiction and art, machinima, or cosplay. I might tune into the latest match between the Guangzhou Charge and the Paris Eternal, two of the professional teams vying for this year’s world championship and the $1 million prize that comes with it. I can log onto my favorite Reddit forum to participate in the vibrant LGBTQ+ Overwatch community. For sure, this isn’t “playing a videogame” in the strict sense, but it is definitely playful, and for someone who’s interested in the relationship of videogames and literature, this kind of mediated activity is profoundly interesting.

In fact, I’d argue that the emergence of distributed play is far more significant to the history of videogames than the growth of computational power.

Henry Jenkins has a name for this kind of distributed, playful storytelling: convergence culture. As he describes it, convergence culture is a phenomenon in which content circulates “across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders” (3). What makes it specifically playful is that the circulation of content “depends heavily on consumers’ active participation” (3). Jenkins argues that convergence culture isn’t just a shift in the technology of media circulation and consumption, but a full-fledged “cultural shift” in which “consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (3).

A perfect illustration of convergence culture and the kinds of stories that can be told in it is the Scott Pilgrim franchise. We took a close look at the fourth volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s multi-volume graphic novel. I chose that volume because it shows Scott finally coming to terms with his actions and it fleshes out the character of Roxie and her relationship with Ramona. We watched Edgar Wright’s film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which flattens Roxie and her relationship with Ramona). And we took a look at a couple of YouTube videos of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (we couldn’t figure out how to access the game itself).

Our first guide through the twists and turns of this tale of transmedia storytelling was Drew Morton, who’s video “From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim” is wicked smart and you should watch it as soon as you have a moment. (And you should check out his book, too!)

There are two takeaways from Morton’s video. First, transmedia storytelling is an historical phenomenon, the consequence of tectonic shifts in the structure of the media market; specifically, the rise of super-massive media conglomerates like Viacom-Paramount (1994), Disney-ABC (1995), and NBC-Universal (2004). At the time he produced his video (2012), TimeWarner (now WarnerMedia), owned HBO, Turner Broadcasting, CNN, Warner Bros., WB Interactive, DC Comics, and Time Magazine. This helps explain why The Matrix franchise was marketed across so many media: feature films, animated shorts, DVDs, websites, videogames, web, comics, and books. TimeWarner saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by making a lot of different Matrix franchise products.

But transmedia storytelling is more than just a marketing strategy.

Which leads to the second takeaway from Morton’s video. Transmedia storytelling reflects the desire of creators like the Wachowskis (creators of The Matrix) to tell stories in new ways, with new tools. Morton argues that the last three decades have seen the emergence of a distinctive “transmedia style.” The most obvious characteristic of this style is “remediation.” Remediation is defined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin as “the representation of formal or stylistic characteristic(s) commonly attributed to one medium in another.”

The Scott Pilgrim franchise is a perfect example of this transmedia style. The stories told by O’Malley, Wright, and Paul Robertson (lead on the Scott Pilgrim videogame) all feature the same characters, settings, and themes, but also share a repertoire of visual and audio elements, which they borrow from each other and from other texts.

O’Malley’s comic remediates videogames, music, and manga.

Wright’s movie remediates music, videogames, and other movies (I love the Bollywood battle).


And, of course, it also remediates O’Malley’s comic. This makes Wright’s movie “a remediation of a remediation.”

Isn’t this just fan service and product placement? For sure. But that’s not the only driver of transmedia style. As Morton explains, “There’s a different interpretive lens applied with each remediation, as the artist adapts the previous medium into another.” While transmedia style is no doubt a marketing strategy of mega-corporations like Alphabet, Disney, Comcast, and Bertelsmann, it is just as evident in the work of slash fiction writers, cosplayers, and indie game developers like the good folks at Cardboard Computer, the makers of the several texts that we studied during the second night of our unit (and that will be the subject of the next post in this series). In other words, transmedia storytelling is a way to tell different kinds of stories and tell them in new kinds of ways.

Which brings us to a question. Whether a transmedia story is told by a high-power film director or an indie artistic collective, it is still a story. And it is the responsibility of literary critics to engage such stories with empathy, intelligence, and critical acumen. But how can we do that work when the text we’re examining is not one text, but many; not one medium, but several?

Morton helps us think about (1) the historical forces innovating storytelling and (2) the kinds of tools creators and consumers have at their disposal to do that storytelling. But his analysis of transmedia storytelling doesn’t help us when it comes to the close analysis of individual stories. If Wright’s movie applies a different interpretive lens to Scott Pilgrim’s story than O’Malley’s comic or Robertson’s videogame, then how exactly does that change how we experience the characters, themes, conflicts, settings, point of view, and tone?

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the movie and the comic. Both represent the post-adolescent, self-absorbed, pathologically carefree, decidedly male worldview of Scott Pilgrim. Both of them make clear that Scott’s choice to live life as if it were a videogame is a symptom of his immaturity and irresponsibility. But where O’Malley’s comic lays out the causes and effects of that worldview and shows Scott and his friends coming to terms with it, Wright leans into it and makes Scott’s pilgrimage a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl thing.

This isn’t just a matter of authorial choice. The differences are driven in part by the media. The manic editing, countless Easter Eggs (well, actually, someone did count them), relentlessly witty visual and audio effects, and verbal derring-do of Wright’s movie makes it a lot of fun. But there’s a contradiction to Wright’s telling of the tale that discomfits me. I can’t decide if Wright is satirizing the gamerboy attitude or serving it. Honestly, it feels like he’s doing both, trying to have his cake and lie about it, too (Portal reference there).

Contradictions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The contradiction between a text’s form and content can be a source of humor, irony, and insight. But I don’t see that in Wright’s movie. I don’t see critical irony in the two-dimensional female characters or the way those characters serve as little more than a vehicle for Scott’s journey. This is not the case with O’Malley’s comic, which is as visually and verbally inventive as Wright’s movie. However, there’s something about the comic book medium—its two-dimensionality, its lack of sound, its inherently fragmentary structure, the tension between word and image, the particular reading practice it requires from us—that sharpens the satirical edge.

So, while understanding the historical causes and formal characteristics of transmedia style is vital to thinking about transmedia storytelling, it isn’t as useful when we want to dig into plot, character, conflict, setting, point of view, tone, and so on.

To further sharpen our thinking about transmedia storytelling as literature, the students and I relied on Marie-Laure Ryan, a maven in the field of media-centered narrative studies. In “Story/Worlds/Media: Tuning the Instruments of a Media-Conscious Narratology,” Ryan asks, How are stories shaped by the medium through which they are told? We know that “the choice of a medium makes a difference as to what stories can be told, how they are told, and why they are told” (25). What is that difference?

Ryan suggests we think in terms of three registers of analysis: semiotic substance, technical dimension, and cultural dimension.

The semiotic substance of a medium is, simply put, its sensorial aspects: image, sound, language, and movement, for example (29). The Scott Pilgrim comics use words and images to tell the tale. The movie uses words, images, and sound. The videogame uses images, movement, sound, and haptics.

The technical dimension of media helps us to tell one medium apart from another in terms of “media-defining technologies . . . but also any kind of mode of production and material support” (29). Drew Morton describes a moment in the Scott Pilgrim production history that illustrates this idea well. When film production began in 2009, O’Malley hadn’t written the ending yet—an ending that would resolve the big question of whether Scott would end up with Ramona or Knives. Wright went ahead and filmed an ending, but test screenings didn’t go well. So, he and O’Malley consulted and went with the ending that we now see in both the comic and the movie. In other words, the demographic and economic forces surrounding film production pressured O’Malley to choose his ending. In Marie-Laure Ryan’s terms, one technical dimension shaped the other.

Finally, the cultural dimension allows us to differentiate media in terms of the “institutions, behaviors, and practices that support them” (30). Videogames are a distinct media form in terms of their semiotic and technical dimensions, of course, but also in terms of the multiple subcultures that surround them. We might think here of the differences between hardcore and casual gamers or RPG players and FPS stans. Or we might think again about the ending of the Scott Pilgrim narrative, an ending that was unacceptable to the audience sought by Universal, but might have been perfectly acceptable to readers of the kinds of comic books that O’Malley writes.

Having identified the three dimensions of media, Ryan describes three methods to analyze them. First, we can take a semiotic approach, which would focus on things like “language, image, sound, movement,” etc. both individually and in combination (30).

Let’s say we wanted to analyze the way diversity is represented in Overwatch. For sure, we’d want to talk about the backstories of the various characters—the fact that they come from different parts of the world and have different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and species. But we’d also want to talk about how these differences are constructed semiotically: how the African characters are made to sound different from Americans, and how Americans sound different from Australians, and how Australians sound different from Latin Americans. We might talk about how the women are constructed to move differently than the men, how the white characters look different from the non-white characters, and so on.

Second, we could take a technical approach, which focuses on how a given technology “configure[s] the relationship between sender and receiver” or on the specific cognitive demands of a given “material support” (30).

Playing Overwatch on a console is different from from playing on a PC. Playing with a controller tends to be less precise than with a keyboard and mouse, so Blizzard provides console players “aim assist,” which automatically slows down crosshair movement when it scans over an opponent. Turning works differently, too, the console version being significantly slower. Thus, it’s easier to flank your opponents when playing on Xbox or PS4. How does this affect storytelling? On PC, snipers are more dangerous, so characters like Widowmaker are more threatening and, arguably, glamorous. On console, flankers are more dangerous, so characters like Tracer and Reaper enjoy greater status.

Third, we can employ a cultural studies approach and investigate the behaviors of individuals and groups or the formal and informal institutions in which narratives are produced, circulated, and consumed.

There are immediately recognizable differences between the culture of Overwatch on console versus PC. PC players have easier access to audio chat and can also communicate to each other via text, typing on their keyboards. The ease of communication likely contributes to the more toxic atmosphere of PC Overwatch. PC players also have access to game updates in advance of their release on console, allowing them to provide feedback to the game’s developers. As a result, the PC Overwatch community feels more like a traditional “hardcore” community. (Thanks to Psyche at MMOGames.com for breaking these differences down!)

So far, so good. We have the tools to map these “distributed” narratives and analyze each transmedia narrative as a unique conjunction of semiotic signaling, technology, and culture. But we also need to think about the larger structure in which each narrative component of the transmedia story fits. For that, Ryan tells us, we need to think in terms of “storyworlds.”

How do the semiotic, technological, and cultural affordances of a specific medium enable the stories told in that medium to communicate a sense of coherent and consistent reality? How does what we are watching, reading, playing, or hearing create for us the feeling that the story we’re experiencing takes place in a coherent, consistent universe, even when the kind of experience we’re having is as different as a 250-page novel and a shelf full of action figures?

She suggests that storyworlds are composed of the following elements:

  • Existents: “the characters of the story and the objects that have special significance for the plot” (34)
  • Setting: “a space within which the existents are located” (35)
  • Physical laws: “principles that determine what kinds of events can and cannot happen in a given story” (35)
  • Social rules and values: “principles that determine the obligations of characters” (35)
  • Events: “the causes of the changes of state that happen in the time span framed by the narrative” (36)
  • Mental events: “the character’s reactions to perceived or actual states of affairs” (36)

Each storyworld element is constructed and communicated differently, depending on the medium in question. A novel communicates the mental events of a character differently than a movie. A theater performance communicates the social rules and values of its characters differently than a videogame. Each medium has different capacities when it comes to representing the elements. Action figures are pretty lousy at communicating setting. A videogame is really good at communicating physical laws.

A given text will emphasize one or more storyworld element differently than another text. For example, when we play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we focus mostly on setting and events. As Link, we explore Hyrule, discovering dungeons, villages, characters, and so on. As we explore, we also learn about events that took place before we awoke from our slumber. And as we explore, we cause events to happen that change the present. In contrast, when we play Link in Super Smash Bros, we focus mostly on the physical laws and social rules and values of the game. We use the specific movement, attack, and defense abilities of Link to attack other characters, evade their attacks, gather resources—all of this in order to win the game.

A given text will construct a different interpretive framework around each storyworld element. For example, in both the comic book and movie version of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, the crucial storyworld elements are characters, events, and mental events. Both versions construct a storyworld in which a young man embarks on a heroic journey in which he confronts and defeats the former lovers of a woman he desires and, in so doing, grows as a human being and wins the love and respect of that woman. But, as we discussed earlier, the ways that O’Malley and Wright construct these for the reader and spectator, respectively, create a rather different interpretation of Scott’s journey.

Finally, a given text places specific obligations on and fulfills specific expectations of those who read, watch, or play it. In other words, a given text requires different kinds of cognitive, imaginative, and physical activity from those who read, watch, or play it.

In sum, Ryan teaches us how to identify the specific media characteristics and storyworld strategies of a given work. This enables us to do valuable kinds of comparison-and-contrast analysis with the transmedia text. This not only allows us to get a better sense of how the text constructs its storyworld, but also what it asks us, as readers, spectators, and players, to do (42).

Having reached the end of our evening, it was time to rev up our engines, check the map, and get on our way to Kentucky Route Zero, which is the subject of the next post in this series.

Videogames and Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 4)

December 18, 2018

This is the eleventh 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?



What we read:

Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas, “Queering Human-Game Relations”

Hugh Howey, “Select Character” (PS2P)

Austin Grossman, “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” (PS2P)

Robin Wasserman, “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” (PS2P)

What we played:

Porpentine, With Those We Love Alive

Device 6

What we did:

When I teach students to critically read a literary text, I always start with the text itself. We meticulously inspect the thing, identifying its various formal features—its metaphors, themes, image patterns, narrative structure, and so on. But we never stop there. Understanding a text’s form is just a start. From there, we move into context and ideology. We don’t let that literary text exist in its own special world. I believe that literary texts are intertwined in layered, multifaceted, sometimes difficult-to-detect ways with other texts (sometimes intentionally, as is the case with “intertextual storytelling”), as well as with ideology, history, institutional discourses, the identities and literacies of readers, and so on.

Every text, to recall French critic Julia Kristeva, is an “intertext.”

Some videogame critics don’t like this idea. For these, any talk of history, ideology, politics, gender, or race is a distraction from the thing that matters: understanding how the game works as a game.

Formalism isn’t always intentional. For example, Jesper Juul’s concept of “incoherence” (which I discussed in the last part) is incredibly useful if you’re interested in relating videogames to their players and the wider world in which play occurs. But Juul himself doesn’t explain how incoherence might be approached in terms of, say, gender or class or place.

Just like I do with novels and plays and movie, I believe in a broader definition of the videogame. I believe effective videogame criticism must start with the game itself, but must take into account the contexts in which games are made and played.

This evening was dedicated to mapping the space of play in terms of the ideological, personal, technological, and political forces that shape the experience of videogames. First, we explored how games gamify the physical and social space around the player. Second, we explored how games are embedded in our emotional, ethical, and interpersonal lives. And finally, we utilized queer theory to expand and complicate what we had developed into a more comprehensive, speculative, politically engaged conception of play space.

The object in our hands

We began with a discussion of Device 6, a cool little phone game created by the Swedish developer Simogo. Device 6 is a mash-up of a visual novel and a puzzle game. We play as Anna (well, mostly as Anna, because sometimes the game makes the player part of its fiction), a woman who awakes one fine day, minus memory, on a mysterious island reminiscent of the 1960s television series The Prisoner. We explore the island, encounter various puzzles, some of them head-scratchingly devious, solve said puzzles, and proceed, attempting to solve the big puzzle: Who is Anna and why is she on this island?

To begin, what makes Device 6 a useful entry into an expanded concept of videogame space is the way it gets us to play with text. We don’t just read the text. Sometimes, the text is a path. Sometimes, it is code. Sometimes, it is an object that must be manipulated in some way. (If you want to get a sense of what this is like but can’t play it on your own device, check out this video.)

Device 6 also makes us aware of the device in our hands—the phone or pad. We swipe the screen, rotate the device this way and that, at one point holding the phone up to a mirror to read backward text. We don’t just play the game on the device, we play the device itself.

And it makes us aware of our position within networks of power and information. At the end of each chapter, Device 6 breaks the narrative frame and directly addresses the player. We are asked to take a brief survey, for example, or asked to divulge personal information. The game makes us aware of our phone’s interconnectedness with larger networks of power and information.


Ultimately, Device 6 gamifies the spaces of videogame play: the space defined by text on a screen, the space of our bodies interacting with the videogame device, the space of data and social networks.

Literature about videogames

Having established the ways a game might incorporate spaces outside the game text itself into its rules and procedures, we moved onto a discussion of three short stories from one of my favorite collections of videogame literature, Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams’s Press Start to Play.

Hugh Howey’s “Select Character,” Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World,” and Robin Wasserman’s “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” are about videogames that exist in uneasy and uncertain relationship with the worlds of those who play them.

Stories about the blurred boundaries between videogames and reality are common in videogame literature, so common it’s cliché. We see the trope in the first videogame literature (Tron [1982], Wargames [1983], Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash [1992]) and the most recent (Westworld [2016-present], Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle [2017], Video Game High School [2012-present], Ready Player One [2011]). Why this trope is so common is a subject for another time.

All three stories for this evening explore the blurred boundaries between real life and game life, but map that blurred boundary within troubled emotional and interpersonal spaces.

“Select Character” is about a new mother who ekes out a bit of daily self-care by playing her husband’s first-person military shooter. “What I liked about this game is that you could do whatever you wanted,” she tells us. “Except play as a woman, of course” (490). On a whim, she decides not to follow the game’s macho military narrative, following instead a path of non-violence and generosity, a challenging task in a game designed to reward headshots. On this particular afternoon, her husband discovers that she’s been playing. He’s thrilled, but when she shows him what she’s been doing, he’s confused. “You know the purpose of the game is to score points, right?” he asks (493). What she plays, instead, is “the game within a game. My little solace. A walled-off courtyard with five raised planters. And inside each one, a mix of flowers and vegetables. My flowers. My vegetables” (497).

Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” is an enigmatic little narrative, intertwining the story of a player character in a post-apocalyptic interactive text game with the story of a young man attempting to survive the inexorable, bruising decline of his family, friendships, and hope. I like how Grossman frames his tale: the narrator found the game Fresh Prince of Gamma World “rattling around the mainframes of Somerville Community College” (412). The game has no historical value, no connection to a larger gaming community. “Written in outdated PASCAL, the code base was just a bunch of data and a homebrew parser for input, eccentrically architected. The game itself is uncredited” (412). Indeed, the story the narrator tells is a story of playing the game in the past. He no longer has access to it and when he searched for it, he tells us, “all I could recover were code fragments posted to a defunct Usenet board devoted to retro games and a user named go4it69 who did not respond to subsequent emails” (412). I also love way Grossman uses the space of the page. The world of the game is represented in one font, the “real world” of the player in another.

As Grossman intertwines the two narrative threads, he also intertwines these font shifts, and when the story ends, we are left with this enigmatic landscape.

“The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” delves deep into the fantasies of masculinity that underwrite so many players’ passion for gaming—and the melancholy that so many players work hard to avoid and deny.

The protagonist of Wasserman’s “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” is a lonely, self-isolating woman who falls in love with a fellow female instructor at a private high school. The story is set in 1988, and the protagonist, Lizzie, is struggling with becoming an adult, with the loss of her liberal optimism, and with pain she feels about the friends she has lost to HIV-AIDS. The sci-fi twist of the story is that the game of Oregon Trail Lizzie plays in order to spend time with her lover without causing undue suspicion is causing actual illness, injury, and death to her students, family, and friends.

Wasserman’s story is an excellent example of what I call “procedural adaptation”: The duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc. In this case, Lizzie’s efforts to win the game mirror her increasingly self-centered, instrumentalist attitude towards those around her. In the same way that she denies the humanity of the people in her in-game pioneer party, she denies the humanity of her students, her family, and, ultimately, lover. “This is what it feels like to survive, Lizzie told herself. It felt lonely, but it was what she’d chosen, she thought, so she must have wanted it that way.”

Our discussion of these stories marked the moment when we began to think seriously about why literature about videogames is as important as videogames themselves. Howey, Grossman, and Wasserman map the shadowy, shifting spaces in and around videogames the way only fiction can. They map spaces of memory, consolation, jealousy, and rage. They map spaces of sharing, desire, betrayal, and regret.

And they remind us that, while not all videogames tell stories, every videogame player has a story to tell.

Queering human-game relations

To review, this evening started by exploring how games gamify the spaces around us by talking about Device 6. We then delved into how games insinuate themselves into our lives—and vice versa—by discussing the short stories by Howey, Grossman, and Wasserman.

It was time to tie these ideas together, and to help us in that, we turned to Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas’s essay “Queering Human-Game Relations.” I can’t recommend this essay strongly enough and urge you to read it or watch the live (and unabridged) recording of their keynote to the 2014 Queerness & Games Conference.

Clark and k (merritt k is now her preferred name) investigate how videogames function as representational systems, how players relate to games and other players, and how videogames replicate and complicate normative ideologies of gender and sexuality. To accomplish this, they explain how games can be “queer” and how players and play communities can engage in “queering” practices.

NOTE: If you’re not familiar with the terms “queer” or “queering” as they’re used by academic critics, the first thing to know is that neither term should be used casually, especially if you’re straight (which I am). Even in the LGBTQ+ community, the term can sometimes be controversial, even though the “Q” in “LGBTQ+” stands for “queer.” I’ve been chastised on more than a few occasions for using the word, usually in situations where I was unable to provide a full background on the term or failed to alert my audience to the hazards of using it casually. I proceed here with semantic caution.

Typically, when we call a game “queer,” we speak to the game’s content: the presence of LGBTQ+ characters, for example. While Clark and k agree that queer content in games is important, they don’t want to stop there. As Clark explains, “Queer is a word in a constant process of mutation, inherently unfixed.” Further, “it’s inextricably bound up with the idea of resisting dominant, naturalized narratives and categories . . .” Storylines and characters are important, yes, but videogames are much more than storylines and characters.

It’s relatively easy to identify a queer character or a same-sex romance, but “it’s not as easy to pin down what exactly a queer mechanic looks like.” As k explains, “Taking a mechanical or rules-based approach to queerness is harder than looking at narrative . . .”

They build on the work of Miguel Sicart, a game scholar who argues that playing a game is an inherently ethical activity, especially when it involves, in Clark and k’s words, “playing with, testing, and perhaps even rejecting” the premises and processes of the game. Designers can do that, too. Clark and k cite the work of Paolo Pedercini and Avery Alder, who design games that make us aware of the way games reinforce dominant, damaging values. They cite Edmond Chang and Robert Yang, who are concerned with “how rarely conversations around queerness and difference in games delve to the level of code.”

That’s where Porpentine’s gorgeous, creepy, and deeply moving Twine game With Those We Love Alive comes in. I don’t want to give too much away. Go and play it. It’s free and doesn’t take long. You can find it here. While I love the story that Porpentine tells, what I love most about it is the way the game pushes against my desire for progress. The first time I played the game, I felt stuck. There were periods where I just kept doing the same thing over and over. I wasn’t progressing. I was getting bored, frustrated. Then I realized that that was the point.

In a sense, the game glitches both the narrative of heroic overcoming and game mechanics that treat the gameworld like a puzzle. The world of WTWLA is not a puzzle to be solved, but an emotional situation to be endured.

I also love the way WTWLA incorporates my body into its mechanics—it literally asks players to gamify their breath and their flesh. We’re asked from time to time to draw on our skin, to inscribe sigils that memorialize significant moments in the game. You can see a gallery of player sigils here. There is something intensely embodied about drawing on our own skin. And there is a thrill to walking out in the world with these enigmatic sigils on our hands and arms and legs. We bring our experience in Porpentine’s world into our world.

WTWLA is a perfect example of a “queer” videogame. It reminds us that, if we’re going to talk about how games represent gender and sexuality, we need to talk about content (storyline, characters, themes, dialogue, settings, etc.), but we also need to talk about mechanics (choice, movement, leveling, agency, etc.) and player performance—what players do, what they imagine they’re doing, who they’re doing it with, where they’re doing it.

Clark and k want us to think about how power works in games. They want us to think about open-world games like Skyrim and Minecraft, worlds players “are almost completely free to modify at their whim, one whose only other inhabitants are violent monsters and animals whose bodies can be used for various purposes.” They want us to think about the ways games reward goal-oriented behavior, what Paolo Pedercini calls the “aesthetic form of rationalization.” They want us to question the idea that games teach us that failure is okay—that when we fail, we must try and try again. They remind us, “For kids on the receiving end of losses, especially kids made to feel incapable in other realms, the experience of failure isn’t one of freedom or escape. It’s a reinforcement, a reminder.”

Clark and k want us to be open to different kinds of games but also to different ways of playing games: “Mutating, breaking, and twisting games are valuable actions insofar as they help make visible our assumptions about play. As Pedercini puts it, this is a ‘slow and collective process of hacking accounting machines into expressive machines.’” If we can do this, then maybe games really can help us play our way out of game space into a better future.

The Bittersweet Pleasures of Patriarchy Lite: A Reconsideration

July 25, 2018

This is the tenth 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?”

Note: “The Bittersweet Pleasures of Patriarchy Lite” was originally published by Kill Screen, the print and online magazine founded by Jamin Warren and Chris Dahlen. Shortly after the essay’s publication in the Fall of 2015, Kill Screen ceased publication. Concerned about the precarity of the site and my work, I’ve chosen to republish it here, though I’ve taken the liberty of making several changes that reflect some of the ways my thinking about irony, masculinity, and male-centered media has evolved and, more importantly, my sense that the moment of “Patriarchy Lite” is decidedly in the past tense.


Historically, patriarchs haven’t been fond of irony. Snark doesn’t mix well with either sanctimony or self-righteous terror. Irony is the bitter delicacy of disempowerment. The ironist works quietly, on the margins, drawing sly attention to hypocrisy, absurdity, venality.

The ironist enters a toilet in an art show (that was Marcel Duchamp’s move with Fountain). The ironist places a photo of Judy Garland on a makeshift bedroom altar; in the candlelight, they find sacred beauty in Judy’s eyes, in her addiction to pills and booze, in her mordant romances (that’s the classic move of gay camp). The ironist imitates the imitation to make us laugh at the artifice of the natural (that’s Dave Chappelle’s blind, black white supremacist Clayton Bigsby).

The ironist typically doesn’t do derring-do, doesn’t go for the gun. The whispered aside, the arched eyebrow, the double entendre—that’s more the style.

But the powerful and privileged eventually acquired a taste for the stuff. In a 1989 Spy magazine cover story, Kurt Andersen and Paul Rudnick call out a veritable “irony epidemic” rolling across Reagan’s America. The wealthy and upwardly mobile—we once called them Yuppies—stole the sly humor of avant-garde art, gay camp, and ethnic humor and ruthlessly pasteurized it into “Camp Lite.” The cultural dreck of the 1950s and 60s was transmogrified into “something to be pined for, something cute and pastel-colored and fun rather than racist and oppressive and un-air-conditioned.” Think vintage Hawaiian shirts, Leave it to Beaver lunchboxes, calling the wife the “old lady” as she rolls her eyes and cuffs the “old man” on the shoulder, neighborhood viewings of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.

The epitome of Camp Lite was air quotes: “the quintessential contemporary gesture that says, We’re not serious.”

But the irony epidemic didn’t just infect the upwardly mobile. Its hardiest mutation survived among a rising, albeit self-consciously “alternative” class of powerful and privileged. For a certain sort of alienated youth in the 1980s, less willing or able to ignore the demolition of the U.S. middle class, AIDS, Iran-Contra, hair metal, and the other brutal bullshit of the Reagan era, irony was a bulwark. Think Heathers, Bill Griffin’s Zippy the Pinhead, Devo. As a straight, middle-middle-class white boy living in a basic-cable cul-de-sac of Cincinnati, irony wasn’t an escape from politics or history, but a tool for finding them. For my friends and me, the air quotes signaled, We may be paying for this, but we’re not buying it.

Irony of ironies, when the millennium turned, we were the ones selling it.

Who is “we,” you might ask? Well, if you’d asked this in 2015, I’d say it was culturally informed, theoretically savvy, cis-white-male culture creators. In other words, folks more or less like me. But now, in 2018? In light of the Trump administration’s jaw-dropping attack on political and representational norms, in light of Breitbart, Fox News, and social-media bots, the market leaders in irony are no longer the makers of late-night television and cool videogames. They still look a lot like me, these “Fake News” followers, but their goals are decidedly un-ironic. But back to our story . . .

The Typhoid Mary of the epidemic was David Letterman. Like so many other Generation X-ers, I savored every dish he and his crew cooked up: the stupid pet tricks, Chris Elliott bits, 10-story bowling ball drops, all of that perfectly seasoned air-quoted awkwardness. Even as Letterman’s market grew among those dastardly Yuppies, I knew in my heart that he was still winking at me. I got the joke behind the joke. Of course, like so many other things I enjoyed in my youth, Letterman isn’t so fun now. Have you seen the gruesome little supercut of Letterman hitting on his female guests? Or his on-air response to the guy who attempted to blackmail him for harassing his female staff? Letterman ironized the genre (late-night talk show), the medium (television), and the culture (celebrity-gilded consumerism), but the air quotes never quite made it around patriarchy.

The same for videoames. The year Spy proclaimed the irony epidemic, a mass gaming culture had emerged from the debris of the 1983 crash. But Sega, Nintendo, Atari, NEC, Brøderbund, and other hard- and software companies were hedging their bets, designing and marketing the most un-ironic vision of power one could imagine. This was the grand era of the “Damsel in Distress” and “Woman in the Refrigerator” tropes. As Anita Sarkeesian shows, game designers compulsively deployed the same narrative hooks over and over again. Female characters were bundled away in ropes and chains, tossed in locked rooms, gut-punched, mutilated, and murdered to spur the white, heterosexual, cis-male hero to leap into action. I’d like to imagine that I played those games with some sort of critical distance, but honestly it’s not easy to make air quotes when your fingers are curled around a controller.

But I tried. Even when I was conscious of how backwards those games were, I knew there was something important about them, something that transcended the goon mentality of the market. I could figure out the trick with the air quotes, maybe.

Times have changed, as have consciousness, culture, the law, and the market. Sexual harassment is a meaningful legal category now and sexual predators are being called out, though victims still struggle to be taken seriously and the more powerful victimizers are still able to maintain their immunity. I teach videogame studies at my university and do so with the tools of feminism, critical race studies, and postmodernism.

A new attitude towards masculinity emerged in U.S. culture during the first decade and a half of the 21st century, a new style of being manly, a new way of telling the stories of men, a new way of playing power. Masculinity became ironic. Let’s call this antigenic drift in the irony virus “post-masculinity,” or, with a fist bump to Andersen and Rudnick, “Patriarchy Lite.” Think moustaches, The Colbert Report, Mad Men, Louis CK, Obama in mom jeans, Judd Apatow’s bromances. Think Donald Trump’s hectoring, spray-tanned fist-pumping. Think BioShock Infinite and Braid.

The masters of Patriarchy Lite were the children of the irony epidemic, the first scions of Generation X. Stephen Colbert was born in 1964, Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) in ‘65, Louis CK and Judd Apatow in ’67. The lead designer for BioShock Infinite, Ken Levine, was born in ‘66, Braid’s Jonathan Blow in ’71. (Unfortunately, I don’t know who designed Obama’s jeans.) This was a generation of men—and they were, almost exclusively, men, though Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, and Michelle Wolf played the game brilliantly—raised on stupid pet tricks, SCTV, Super Mario, and white hetero male privilege. They were expertly educated, too. Except for Louis CK, the son of Harvard grads, each attended an elite U.S. university. The masters of Patriarchy Lite could talk the beat-structure of a good masturbation joke and the choreographic nuances of a silly walk, but could also throw down feminism, critical race studies, and postmodernism, too. Oh, and sexually harass the women who work with them (looking at you, Louis.)

Not surprisingly, the dominant tone of Patriarchy Lite was ambivalence—that most ironic of emotions. And not surprisingly, the focus and source of those mixed and shifting feelings was manhood. Viewers of The Colbert Report were invited to simultaneously adore and be abashed by the chauvinist ravings of Colbert’s faux right-wing persona. They were expected to watch Don Draper drink, smoke, and fuck with an alloyed attitude of superiority, astonishment, and envy. They were meant to adore Apatow’s child-men because their masculinity was so vulnerable, self-conscious, talkative, pitiful. Never mind that they were also bountifully accoutered with the old-fashioned privileges of the patriarch: vintage collectibles, real estate, social networks, beautiful women.

The aesthetic correlative of ambivalence was juxtaposition, contrast, the mash-up. Louie plays like a conventional sitcom one moment, an indie film the next. In BioShock Infinite, we pause before a beautifully rendered statue of Rosalind Lutece and listen to a voxophone recording of a girl describing her admiration for a female scientist. A bit of plucky feminism and nuanced world construction to whet the appetite for the next high-caliber murder spree. Braid juxtaposes the exhilaration that comes from finally—finally—executing a sequence of leaps and bounces with moments of meditation on the small, poignant tragedies of youthful love.

The mash-up aesthetic of Patriarchy Lite reflected a pragmatic attitude towards the contradictions of our moment, a feeling that, as both creators and consumers, we had to make do with what’s available because there wasn’t an alternative—or perhaps the alternative wasn’t as fun. The intellectual ambitions of BioShock Infinite were both enabled and circumscribed by the market for first-person shooters. They were designed to promote forms of “critical play.”  Mary Flanagan coined that term “critical play” to describe games that subvert player expectations, but the term also applies to the strategies that players use to stress and strain the mechanics and tropes of a game. And it applies to the mixed emotions that come from playing an ideologically repulsive game and deriving both pleasure and critical insight from it.

Hating your cake and eating it, too.

Readers, spectators, and videogame players who aren’t straight, white, cis males learned long ago how to get into a text at the same time as they kept their distance from it. In the first couple of decades of the 2000s, it seemed the straight white guys were learning to do it, too. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. Playing videogames with women and queer people was one of the ways I learned how to critically play. But that kind of critical sensibility can also add spice without changing the dish. The Apatowean bromance, for example, spoke at once to a desire to explore more deeply the feelings of love and friendship men can have for each other—but it also showed a stubborn unwillingness to think beyond the clunky conventions of 1980s rom-coms.

So, this wasn’t just pragmatism, a sense of making-do with the best one could get. Like the larger geek culture of which it is a part, Patriarchy Lite was stuck on the trashy treasures of childhood. Only a child of the irony epidemic would dream of designing a first-person shooter that takes on white supremacy, American exceptionalism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and quantum mechanics. An abiding fascination with childhood pleasures is characteristic of Braid, too. Tom Bissell captures it in the Atlantic profile of Blow: “Braid is a game about jumping on shit—and that Jon was audacious enough to take the platformer and make that into a grand statement about human existence is incredible.” Incredible, indeed. The discerning player relishes the game’s clever twists on familiar mechanics, its bountiful easter eggs and witty intertextual references. I felt a glow of geek tribalism when I saw that World 4-1 was titled “Jumpman” and laughed out loud when I saw the Donkey Kong echoed in its first screen (here’s a link to a playthrough). And I felt Blow’s frustration with players who don’t get it, who don’t see the big philosophical issues in play when we do something as simple as jump on a goombah, who don’t see themselves in that dapper little jumpman, who don’t give a shit that they don’t.

But this kind of sanctimony was just one more symptom of air-quoted masculinity: the obsession with boyhood hobbies was secured by the childish insistence that everyone else take those obsessions very, very seriously. Were he not so humorless, Blow would fit right in with Apatow’s tinkering, bong-hitting man-boys. Jason Segel’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall could just as well have been designing Braid as composing his puppet-opera Dracula. The triumphant premier of A Taste for Love could have been Levine’s 2008 PAX keynote. They’re the kinder, gentler, woke cousins to the Star Wars: The Last Jedi fan boys who drove Kelly Marie Tran off social media and who, with the utmost earnestness, started raising funds to remake the film themselves.

No less than Camp Lite, Patriarchy Lite was a creature of cultural and historical contradiction. It existed because critical consciousness about gender, sexuality, and race gravely outpaced political and social change, but couldn’t avoid hearing the criticisms of women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community. Indeed, it sometimes seemed critical consciousness was about to lap the culture it criticized. Patriarchy Lite existed because, with the exception of 4chan trolls, cloistered right-wing suburbanites, fanboys, and the majorities of most school boards, statehouses, and city councils in the U.S., everyone knew it was wrong that women, people of color, and the queer don’t make as much money as straight white men, are under-represented pretty much everywhere, aren’t fairly or accurately portrayed in textbooks, and are routinely beaten, abused, raped, and sexually harassed. Patriarchy Lite existed because what we knew about power was far ahead of the material facts of power.

Camp Lite was an expression of unmitigated privilege, of voraciousness without regard to cultural provenance, historical context, craft, or good taste. Camp Lite was designed to avoid consciousness, to abdicate sympathy.

Patriarchy Lite, to the contrary, honored and rewarded sensitivity, honored and rewarded critical consciousness. It was wholly in tune with the resistant, innovative spirit of gay camp, avant-garde art, and ethnic humor.

But for all of that, Patriarchy Lite still kept the focus on the boys.

BioShock Infinite has been justly criticized for its hamhanded handling of race, the Vox Populi’s justified war against white power, and the character Daisy Fitzroy. But what else should we expect? The game was never really about race, class, or imperialism. All that fustian about Wounded Knee, the Boxer Rebellion, Manifest Destiny, worker’s rights, and American Exceptionalism? Bait for the third act’s switch into bad old-fashioned family romance. It was always about Booker. It was always about Daddy.

Braid incisively anatomizes Tim’s neurotic, self-serving character. Further, as we piece together the game’s jigsaw puzzles, scan the books arrayed across cloud rooms, decode the allegory of mechanics and visual design, we come face to face with masculinist ideologies embedded in game genres and gaming culture. But think about what we have to do to get there. The counterintuitive, obdurate puzzles jibe with the precious, self-aggrandizing confessionals in those little books. As much as I enjoy the game, at times it feels like I’m in a writing workshop with that guy. (You know that guy, right?) Like BioShock Infinite, Braid assumes that the foibles of a petulant, manipulative, navel-gazing boy-man matter to the world. Matter as much as nuclear war. Seriously? Yes, very, very seriously.

How has the irony epidemic mutated in the Trump era? In some respects, it has entirely lost its sense of critical consciousness. Trump and his base are perfectly aware that their claims to moral superiority and historical destiny are full of shit, but they don’t give a shit about being full of shit. The fan boys who complain about comic books getting “political” embrace the abuse heaped upon them as a mark of their virtue. But irony has also fractured. The segmentation of the cultural market has divided ironists the same way it has segregated the connoisseurs of GMO-free burrito-bowls from the Triple Whopper crowd. And there are any number of people who have given up irony altogether, recognizing the way it distances us emotionally from the crimes of our moment. Those are the people who march and run for office. For those with no taste for patriarchy, be it lite or full-calorie, there are alternatives: movies, games, television, and comics that keep an eye on gender, class, and race without getting stuck on snark. But most of all, the privilege that allows someone to ironically cite sexual harassment is no longer getting away with it, at least not as much as it used to.

But the most welcome development in the irony epidemic is its reappropriation by the communities that did it first and best. This is exemplified by a segment that regularly appears on Late Night with Seth Meyers, “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” As Chance Solem-Pfeifer describes it, “Late Night writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel alley-oop the punchlines to shelved monologue jokes, or as Meyers puts it, ‘jokes that due to my being a straight, white male would be difficult for me to deliver.'” Here, the irony belongs to Ruffin, who is black, and Hagel, who is lesbian, and the subtext of Meyer’s privilege is brought right to the top. And though Meyers may still be in the center of the picture, he’s framed by Ruffin and Hagel. They aren’t just cited. They’re there.

But here’s the rub: the colonizer’s still in the middle. Though the self-pitying fanboys and aggrieved suburban white dads will tell you otherwise, it’s still a great time to be a straight, white cis-male with a premium education, marketable tech skills, thousands of hours of game play under the belt, and the dozen other privileges, big and small, of the white, heterosexual cis-male with a great smile and a way with words. A little guilt and self-consciousness sets it all off nicely.

It feels a lot like classic Patriarchy Lite. Run and gun, jump and smash, kill the boss, get the girl. But do it “critically,” do it “historically.” Do it in air quotes.

Videogames and Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 3)

June 23, 2018

This is the ninth 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?


UNIT 2: SPACE                                                                                                

When I started studying videogames as an academic subject a few years ago, one of the first essays that caught my attention was Henry Jenkins’s “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.”

As a literary critic, I liked the way he called out the so-called “ludologists” for their overly narrow conception of storytelling. At the same time, he chastised literary critics who insisted everything was a story. He argued, correctly, that there are all kinds of videogames that don’t tell stories, and we don’t need to pretend they do. (BTW, this doesn’t mean that all videogames don’t construct fictions—as Jesper Juul explains, they all do.) I also liked Jenkins’s suggestion that videogames are part of “a much older tradition of spatial stories” that includes the travel fantasies of Tolkien and L. Frank Baum and as the make-believe stories that kids improvise while playing make-believe in backyards and bedroom blanket forts.

As I’ve continued to study, I’ve evolved my understanding of videogame space, particularly as I’ve grown to know the field of New Media Dramaturgy (for an overview of NMD, see this lecture by Peter Eckersall from the 2018 Summer NEH Institute on Digital Technologies in Theatre and Performance Studies), and the work of performance scholars like Kiri Miller, whose book on dance videogames is fracking brilliant (for a taste of her work, see her lecture from the NEH Institute). But Jenkins’s essay still holds a place on my syllabi.

This unit of my course was composed of four evenings, the first of which explored and applied Jenkins’s argument. The second, third, and fourth evenings branched into broader concepts of videogame space: the “space of play” (the personal and interpersonal spaces around the videogame player) and “the space of media” (a space that networks videogame play with film, online social environments, television, and other industrialized media).

Here, I annotate the 5th and 6th evenings. Coming soon, the space of media!


What we read:

Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”

Espen Aarseth, “Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games”

What we played:

Gone Home

Kentucky Route Zero (Act 1)

What we did:

We began the evening with a review of Jenkins’s “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” using Gone Home as our application text. According to Jenkins, there are four ways videogames construct spatial narratives:

1. Environmental storytelling. Videogames tell stories by putting players in settings. These communicate not only important narrative information (where and when the game takes place), but also tone and theme. Gone Home is an excellent illustration of this kind of storytelling. It establishes the when and where, the tone, and several themes of the game the moment we open the front door.

The house is spacious, but unsettlingly so. The foyer is full of shadows. The lights flicker. We hear rain and thunder and . . . is someone upstairs? We feel small and out of place. As both a player and character, the space feels unsettled and alien. That’s environmental storytelling.

The portrait of the Greenbriar family is inviting, but tucked in a distant corner (see it way over there, on the left?). Like us, it’s overwhelmed by space and shadow, voiceless, enigmatic.

When we approach, we are cued into the historical setting, both by the clothing and hair of the people in the portrait, but also the answering machine on the cabinet—a piece of antiquated technology. Environmental storytelling? Yep.

Now, let’s contrast the foyer with Sam’s room. This is a small space, cozy, colorful, full of varied, layered patterns. Unlike the impersonal foyer, here it’s all Sam. We read her snarky rebelliousness in the pirate flag, the detourned pages of magazines taped to the locker door. But we also see the distance she’s building between her and her parents. In the midst of all this expressiveness, there is a locked door. Sam’s hiding something from her family—and from us. But it also feel like she wants us to unlock that door, doesn’t it? You got it: environmental storytelling.

2. Intertextual storytelling. Videogames tell stories by referencing other texts. We sometimes call these “Easter Eggs.” Gone Home is full of SNES videogame cartridges, VHS tapes of classic sci-fi movies and TV series, mixtapes with tracks by Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile.

Intertextual storytelling can extend to entire genres. The Mason home is one big reference to the gothic: it’s a spooky, full of hidden passages and family secrets. Gone Home also references first-person shooters. Gone Home’s lead designer, Steve Gaynor, earned his chops working on BioShock games and that’s evident here. The labyrinthine, poorly lit corridors communicate quite clearly that there may be something big, bad, and dangerous hiding around the next corner.

If the VHS tapes and mixtapes help to communicate themes and give insight into character, the references to the gothic and FPSs do something more subtle. Ultimately there isn’t anything supernatural in this house and there’s not a monster to be shot. But there is a lot of fear: fear of Sam’s sexuality, Terry’s abuse, of a family in danger of falling apart. The fear we feel as a player in this gothic FPS space rhymes with Katie’s fears about her family. As our feelings change about the space, so do Katie’s about her family. When we complete the game, the house is fully explored, no mysteries remaining, no ghosts or monsters found. When Katie finds the final journal entry, she realizes that Sam, Terry, and Janice are going to be all right.

3. Embedded storytelling. This is storytelling created with in-game texts that require a player to discover them: letters, audiologs, and other in-game objects that a player has to discover and activate in some fashion. Gone Home is festooned with these: Sam’s audio journals are the most obvious. We hear these when we click on specific objects the pocket of a jean jacket, a cassette tape, a photograph, etc. If we don’t find them, or if we find them but don’t click on them, we don’t hear the journals.

4. Emergent storytelling. Videogames are a temporal art form. When we play, we first do this, then we do that, then we do that other thing, then yet another thing. Our actions move the story forward. In some games, this can be quite linear—we’re on “rails.” However, we often have freedom to decide which path we’ll take. If we choose to take the path on the left versus the path on the right, our story will be different. If we choose to treat an NPC kindly or cruelly, our story will be different. If we choose to be a wizard or a warrior or a rogue, our story will be different.

In Gone Home, we can choose the order in which we explore the rooms, and this will affect our understanding and experience of the overall narrative. For example, the first time I played it, I didn’t discover the secret room tucked behind the staircase in the foyer until quite late in the game.

Now that’s environmental storytelling! This is a creepy little room! If I had been a more industrious clicker, I might have found it, and what I saw in that room would have colored my experience of everything that followed. The suspicion I had that the house was haunted would have been turned up to 11.

One of my favorite moments of spatial narrative in Gone Home combines all of these.

When I first entered the room, it was dark, so I turned on the light. Immediately, I recognized it as a bathroom.

And then I turned and saw the crimson splashed across the bathtub. My first assumption was that someone had attempted or succeeded at killing themselves (oh, jeez). This is environmental storytelling.

As I approached, I was relieved to discover that there was no body in the tub. And I noticed a small bottle on the floor. When I picked it up, I discovered it was a bottle of hair dye—red, like what was on the tub.

When I picked up the bottle, I triggered one of Sam’s audio journals, which describes the night Lonnie helped dye her hair. That’s embedded storytelling. (And I might not have picked it up at all, simply noting that it was hair dye. That would be emergent storytelling.)

This was the first time the game clearly signaled to me that my feelings as a player about this space were connected with my character’s feelings about Sam and Sam’s sexuality. Why was I afraid? Why was I assuming this would all end badly? I realized I needed to adjust my attitude and needed to stop moving through this house in fear of ghosts, worried about jump scares, watching my sixes.

Allegories of space

Espen Aarseth’s essay “Allegories of Space” isn’t as accessible or obviously useful as Jenkins’s, but it’s worth a read, as it alerts us to one of the unique but analytically challenging characteristics of videogames as a medium.

Building on the work of philosophers Anita Leirfall and Henri Lefebvre, Aarseth argues that videogame space is always symbolic space, but it’s symbolic in two ways. It’s symbolic in the sense that it represents a space that is recognizable to us. We play with a farm, a stack of blocks, medieval Florence, a grid filled with words, the sprawling landscape of Skyrim, a maze with four ghosts and lots of dots, etc. We can call that “representational space.”

We also play in another kind of symbolic space, a code space, a space of rules, algorithms, mechanics, and procedures. We can call that “system space.”

Anyone who has ever played an open-world videogame and run into an invisible wall that won’t let you climb that enticing mountain has run into the difference between system space (the rules that govern where we’re allowed to go) and representational space (the landscape that invites us to explore).

Anyone who has ever wondered why their character can’t simply jump up on that box understands the difference between system space (we’re not allowed to jump) and representational space (but the box is shorter than we are!).

In sum, “spatial representation in computer games is ambivalent and doublesided: it is both conceptual and associative” (163). In other words, it both a system space and a representational space. Typically, that doublesidedness is either smartly reconciled by the designers, and players hardly notice it. Other times, it’s not, but that’s okay, that’s just part of playing games. And still other times, the designers want us to be aware of it—want the ambivalent, doublesided nature of videogame symbolic space to inspire critical thinking.

That’s the case with Kentucky Route Zero. The relationship between system space and representational space is one of the game’s main themes. KR0 tells the story of people damaged by the systems—historical, economic, psychological, ideological—that shape their lives. It tells the story of individuals and communities traumatized by the collapse of the coal industry, by the degradation of the brain’s memory systems, by the takeover of neoliberal economic policy. And it communicates that theme by continually shifting the kinds of spaces we play in—shifting both the representation of space and the systems that determine how the player moves through them.

Sometimes, we control a humanoid avatar and guide them through spaces that look like gas stations, abandoned coal mines, lonely stretches of highway, museums, repurposed churches, and so on. We move through those spaces by pointing and clicking. Wherever we point and click, we see a little horseshoe ring around a stake (such a cool little touch!), and our avatar will move there. Many of those spaces contain objects that we can click on and gain information about the space or our relationship to it.

Sometimes, these spaces are displayed frontally, appearing more or less two-dimensional (as is the case with the picture above).

At other times, these spaces are shown to us in isometric view, providing a more three-dimensional perspective.

And at other times, those spaces are presented through text. We explore these spaces by clicking on one of several choices, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. These spaces are not represented visually but textually. They are also “system spaces” in the sense that our exploration of the space is determined by a limited set of textual options. If we ignore what we read in each line and consider only the system of line choices, an abandoned building . . .

. . . is identical to the space of a poem . . .

. . . is identical to a conversation with a friend who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimers.

These are all conceptual spaces.

There are other kinds of representational/systemic spaces in Kentucky Route Zero. We sometimes play non-humanoid avatars; for example, a wheel that represents a truck moving across a map of part of Kentucky. As with our human avatar, we move the wheel by pointing and clicking on the map. But this space is abstract, more obviously a system space. It looks like the maps we find in a navigation app. The roads have numbers or names. Landmarks and locations appear as our avatar approaches. These are represented as icons.

We move a similar non-humanoid avatar through the transdimensional road system known as “Route Zero.” This map works differently. Landmarks are symbolic in nature (The Bottle, The Still, The Crystal, The Pendulum), and instead of turning north or west, we move clockwise or counterclockwise, a bit like opening a combination lock.

We also move a giant eagle, which represents Julian, the brother of Ezra. Though we travel across the same map as we do with our truck, we look at that map in a very different way. Rather than looking for roads and intersections, we look for natural landmarks—lakes and rivers.

Finally, we sometimes move across the map with our ears. In one of my favorite parts of the game, we are tasked with traveling to a location that is revealed to us not by any visual cues, but by sounds emitted by our in-truck radio.

Again, Kentucky Route Zero is about systems: the systems of economic inequity, the systems of roads and wiring, the systems of memory and forgetting, and the systems of videogames themselves. When we enter Mammoth Cave in Act 3 and discover a computer, and we then play a game on that computer about being in a cave playing a videogame, we’re not just encountering a twee bit of postmodern ironic self-referentiality (though it is definitely that). We’re also confronting the tension between the vulnerable, corruptible, beautiful, banal stuff of our lives and the deep systems that commodify, consume, appropriate, and destroy it.

Aarseth wants us to recognize “spatial representation in computer games [is] a reductive operation leading to a representation of space that is not in itself spatial, but symbolic and rule-based” (163). And in Kentucky Route Zero, that reductive operation hurts.

Aarseth teaches us that, if videogames tell their stories in spatial terms (through environmental, intertextual, embedded, and emergent techniques), they also tell their stories in terms of rules and systems. And if we don’t know the rules of the game, we’re not playing the game, the game is playing us.


Videogames and literature: An annotated syllabus (Part 2)

June 23, 2018

This is the eighth 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?


Teaching and learning in the interface between media

As I explained in a previous post, my interest in videogame studies has evolved recently towards novels, short fiction, television series, movies, and graphic fiction that represent, in some way or another, videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. As a result, when I teach videogames, I try to create a dialogue between videogames and literary texts. This syllabus represents my first classroom efforts to do that, to energetically integrate the study of videogames as a powerful form of imaginative media into literary studies. In so doing, I hope to gain better understanding of how our society is making sense of the impact of videogames on how we think and feel about ourselves, technology, community, and play. And I hope to gain a better understanding of how the unique characteristics of videogames are enabling us to think about who we are, how we participate in our communities, how we might imagine ourselves differently.

In the first part of this multi-part post, I described the course overview, the core questions, the objectives, and the ludography and bibliography. Here, I delve into the week-to-week details of the first half of the course.

Note: This was a graduate-level course attended by masters- and doctoral-level students. We met once a week. If I were to adapt this syllabus for, say, an upper-level undergraduate course that met twice a week, I would probably cut a third of the readings.

And one more, especially important note: I work with some of the best students in the world. The success of this course was due in part to a small group of graduate students who have worked with me intensively over the last couple of years as students, as graduate assistants, and as members of IUP’s Critical Play Union, a group that organizes scholarly and play events and that, currently, is leading interactive-fiction workshops at regional middle- and senior-high schools. And the rest of the credit goes to the group as a whole. My thinking and teaching evolved as a result of my time with them. Due to privacy policies, I can’t name them here, but they were brilliant.

Speaking of students, I surveyed them in advance to gauge their level of experience with videogames. All but one were experienced players, though their tastes varied widely. Only two had played indie, “queer,” or “serious” games. Only three had any experience with the scholarship and criticism of games—and that from taking a previous course with me or participating in the activities organized by our game studies organization, the Critical Play Union.

A couple of abbreviations you’ll find below: Chainmail Bikini (CB), Press Start to Play (PS2P)


The first unit of the semester focused on the relationship of games—understood broadly as rule-based interactive systems but also frameworks in which players play and experiences that can shape our identities and relationships—and fiction. Over several weeks, we approached that relationship from several angles, in a variety of contexts, and by playing games as well as reading and watching literature about games.                                                                   


What we read:

Jesper Juul, Introduction to Half-Real   

Bianca Batti, “Bridging the Gap: Literary Studies, Game Studies, and Where I Fit In”

James Paul Gee, “Pleasure, Learning, Video Games, and Life: The Projective Stance”

Maggie Siegel-Berele, “Battle for Amtgard” (CB)

What we played:                        

Davey Wreden, The Beginner’s Guide (play to completion)

What we did:

For our first meeting, I wanted to get students thinking about three things.

First, what Jesper Juul considers an essential aspect of the videogame medium: its “incoherence.” Normally, we think of the term “incoherent” as a negative. When someone is acting incoherently, it’s time to get them to the hospital or check their phone messages. Something’s wrong.

Juul uses the term differently. As he explains, there is a fundamental, even productive tension in videogames created by the lack of clear fit or cooperation among (1) rules and fiction, (2) the game and the player, and (3) the playing of a game and the context in which play occurs. He uses the example of Mario’s three lives. There is no narrative reason for Mario to have three lives—he’s just an everyday plumber with an outstanding vertical leap and thick skull. Players simply accept three lives as part of the game. The relationship between game and fiction is therefore “incoherent.”

For Juul, incoherence is a bit like what literary scholars call “suspension of disbelief.” But incoherence can also be about ludic literacy and technological convention. When we first start playing a game or play with a new type of game controller, for example, we are acutely aware of the lack of fit between our bodies and minds and the game we’re playing. Finally, incoherence can be an ideological or social tension. What is the connection between the moments when I’m playing a game and the moments when I’m grading papers or waiting in line for coffee? The essays by Batti and Gee, the graphic short story by Siegel-Berele (about her experience as a woman in the long-running fantasy battle game Amtgard), and Davey Wreden’s rather creepy videogame provided several ways to think about the distinct but overlapping dynamics of incoherence and how players negotiate them.

Second, I wanted to emphasize “fiction” as opposed to “narrative.” When we discuss videogames as literature, we tend to focus on storytelling. But not all games or works of literature tell stories. Juul focuses instead on the broader conception of “fiction” and I like that. “Fiction,” he writes, “is commonly confused with storytelling. I am using fiction to mean any kind of imagined world . . .” (122). Fictions are constructed by videogame designers, for sure, but they are also constructed by players as they play and by the larger culture in which play occurs. These fictions might be ideological (“There’s nothing sexist or racist or homophobic about the fact that most game protagonists are cis white males”) or critical (“I’m going to imagine Bro-Shep is gay”) or creatively (“I’m writing a poem where I ship Tracer and Pikachu”).

With this broader concept of fiction in mind, we can approach The Beginner’s Guide, for example, as a text that gets us thinking about the fictions that are constructed within games, as well as the fictions that players create to make games mean what they want them to mean. Fictions, in The Beginner’s Guide, are the tools used by some players to exert power over the stories that other people tell—and sometimes over those people, too. In contrast, Siegel-Berele’s short graphic story nests the in-game fictions of the battle game Amtgard within larger ideological fictions about gender and the ass-kicking women who are bored and annoyed by those fictions.

Third, I wanted to encourage us to think about videogame criticism as more than just analytic essays with endnotes. In her essay, Bianca Batti courageously explores the anxieties that can plague scholars who want to study videogames, especially those who work in universities and don’t have tenure. That honesty is complemented by an unshakeable commitment to reaching a broader audience, to get more people involved in the conversation about videogames, and to be involved in more conversations. That requires the scholar to use many voices and seek out unconventional platforms—blogs and “middle-state” publications, for example.

A page from Maggie Siegel-Berele, “Battle for Amtgard” (http://maggiesiegelberele.blogspot.com/2011/04/amtgard-in-two-pages.html)

Siegel-Berele’s story tells the story of women, both individuals and communities, being undermined by male privilege and successfully overcoming that oppression through the exercise of game skill and the creation of empowering feminist and queer coalitions. James Gee underlines the importance of pleasure and learning and the need to find ways to effectively talk about them. And, finally, Davey Wreden alerts us to the hazards of pleasure and the ethical swamps that critics enter when they attempt to intervene and control the meanings of videogames and the fictions they construct.


What we read:  

Jesper Juul, Chapter 2 from Half-Real    

Jon Bois, 17776

Rachel Ordway, “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CB)

What we watched:          

Westworld (episodes 1 and 2)

What we played:

Tom McMaster, Horse Master: The Game of Horse Mastery

What we did:

As the title of the evening’s lesson suggests, we spent our time figuring out what makes a game a game. That’s a surprisingly complicated, appetizingly philosophical question, just the thing for a bunch of nerds who love to complicate and philosophize, which we were! As with our first evening, we relied on Jesper Juul for the framework and critical terms, then applied them to texts that illustrated his concepts but also complicated them.

Juul draws a line between videogames and what he calls the “classic game model.” The latter refers to the way “games have traditionally been constructed” for the last 5000 years (23). A “classical” game has the following:

  • Rules
  • A variable, quantifiable outcome
  • An outcome that is defined by a particular set of qualities: “The different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some positive and some negative” (36).
  • Player effort.
  • Player attachment to the outcome. We care about what happens while we play.
  • Negotiable consequences: “The same game . . . can be played with or without real-life consequences.” (36)

In addition (and following through on his three-part definition of “incoherence”), he argues that any good definition of a game needs to account for “(1) the system set up by the rules of a game, (2) the relation between the game and the player of the game, and (3) the relation between the playing of the game and the rest of the world” (28).

Videogames deform the classical model in several ways. For one, the computer often does much of the work of defining and enforcing the rules as well as determining game outcomes, thus removing from play the palpably human work of enforcing the game’s system—work that belongs to everyone at the table or a duly appointed official. Further, the power of computers allows game developers to construct far more rule systems than a conventional game would accommodate. We think here of the multiple interlocking rule systems of FIFA 18, for example, that govern the physics of ball movement, weather, field friction, avatar performance, and the enforcement of rules. Additionally, videogames sometimes do not have definable endings or outcomes. World of Warcraft, for example, not only never really ends, but allows the players to define what they want to do and how they want to do it forever and ever and ever . . .

(By the way, did you hear about the new expansion? Supposed to be great!)

The readings and games for the evenings were, in various ways, fictions about games, stories that explored how games work and how they fail to work. Rachel Ordway’s comic “Choose Your Own Adventure,” for example, tells the story of three kids who really want to play roleplaying videogames but aren’t allowed to, so they make up their own game using the toys and boardgame pieces they find in their basement. Jon Bois’s 17776 deploys the conventions of speculative fiction, altering two fundamental physical laws to make the storyworld work differently, and then explores the impact of that alteration on how we play and enjoy the game of football. Tom McHenry’s interactive fiction game Horse Master nests a simple pet simulator game in a fictional spec-fic world in which fame and fortune can be won by cultivating, week by week, the perfect beast for an international competition. But to do so, the character commits themselves to poverty, addiction, and the sacrifice of the creature they’ve raised. With the first two episodes of Westworld, we worked to identify the several kinds of games cooked into the amusement park and the several kinds of gamers who visited it.

This session also marked the first steps we took towards what might be called a “ludological” approach to literature. We asked ourselves, how might an understanding of the principles and dynamics of game play—whether classic or videogame—allow us to better understand the formal principles of novels, movies, television shows, poems, and plays, even if they weren’t in any way “about” games?

There’s a moment in Horse Master, for example, when the player is allowed to stop making the day-to-day granular decisions about which characteristics of their horse they way to improve. Instead, they simply follow the recommendations of the game itself. McMaster’s self-conscious incorporation of this common “metagaming” strategy is a smart comment on the ways players can evade the effort required by games and, in so doing, diminish the ethical issues that a game like Horse Master raises.

Similarly, because we were able to identify the several kinds of games built into the Westworld amusement park, the different kinds of players who visited or worked in it, and the games the series was playing with us as viewers, we were able to develop a more intensive and detailed understanding of the themes, conflicts, and questions the series was exploring.

EVENING 3:   GAME < – – – – > FICTION 1

What we read:  

Jesper Juul, Chapters 4 and 5 from Half-Real

What we played:

Kim Swift, Portal

Michael Townsend, Amir Rajan, A Dark Room

Anna Anthropy, Dys4ia

What we did:

Having established what a game is and how videogames both follow and diverge from the “classical” model, it was time to focus on “fiction.” Again, we relied on Juul to guide us into the big questions and to avoid making overly broad claims. I appreciate his point that the relationship of rules and fiction in games is “complementary, but not symmetrical” (121). Even more, I find useful his point that the players of games play a central role in that fiction. It is the player who, through the performance of play, provides the “coherence” between rules and fiction. This is true of all fiction, of course. There is no work of fiction that achieves a complete representation of the world it portrays: “all fictional worlds are incomplete” (122). But the particular nature of a videogame’s incompleteness puts a special responsibility on those who play them to imaginatively fill in the gaps.

That responsibility comes in many forms depending on the kind of game we’re playing. When we play chess or poker, we are in a world where royalty and royal factions exist, but we generally don’t do anything with that story stuff. When I play Super Mario Galaxy (2007), I’m delighted by the worlds I visit and take seriously Mario’s duty to restore power to Rosalina’s Comet Observatory, defeat Bowser, and rescue Peach, but I could imagine any number of other storyworlds that could justify the labor of making an avatar run and jump for very different reasons (looking at you, Portal). When I play Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), I can, if I wish (and I do wish, I do!) dive deep into the game’s lore, spend hours developing friendships and romances with non-player characters, even make decisions that aren’t in my best interest strategically but that make sense in terms of my character.

And the way we manage that responsibility depends on how the fiction of the game is designed and communicated. Juul: “A game cues a player into imagining a fictional world,” and they do so in a variety of ways (134-35). He counts the following: graphics, sound, text, cut-scenes, packaging, haptics, rules, player actions and time, and rumors (134-39).

We spent a lot of time on that last bit. By “rumor,” Juul intends the various kinds of information a player might get from sources outside the game—from friends, magazines, and the like. This is where Juul’s book shows its age. Published in 2005, Half-Real’s analysis of the rules-fiction dynamic doesn’t account for the intensely social, cross-platform, networked nature of game play. As I argued in a previous post, when we play videogames, we don’t just play the game itself, but play a network of texts, and play not only as players, but as forum respondents, cosplayers, live streamers, students, and so on. Indeed, I would argue that we can play videogames even when the screens and computers are turned off.

I chose the games for the night—Portal, A Dark Room, and Dys4ia—because they constructed the relationship of rules and fiction in distinct ways and rules/fiction ratios. Portal, for example, would be a great game even without the hectoring sarcasm of GLaDOS and reminders that the cake is a lie. In contrast, the game play of Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia is simple, even rudimentary. The center of the player’s experience of that game concerns how we construct a coherent relationship among the various minigames and how we come to recognize the subjectivity of the designer. Dys4ia’s gameplay is found in the meta. Finally, A Dark Room lures us into a complex set of resource-management and –development procedures, the fun of which proves surprisingly effective as a way to obscure the brutality of what we’re doing and, in a twist ending, recognizing who we are.

EVENING 4: GAME < – – – – > FICTION 2

What we read:                    

Chainmail Bikini, ed. Hazel Newlevant

What we did:

The final evening of our first unit was dedicated to identifying, exploring, and evaluating the critical methods that might be used to criticize works of literature that represent videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. Unlike previous evenings, we dedicated ourselves to literature on the printed page, the short graphic stories about women players in Hazel Newlevant’s Chainmail Bikini anthology.

We held on tight to Juul’s concept of incoherence, which was proving surprisingly useful—particularly when it was grafted with the tools of literary criticism. I defined the following as useful applications of incoherence in the study and criticism of videogame literature:

  • To help us better understand the cognitive and performative aspects of videogame play.
  • To help us more precisely identify the relationship between rules and fictions in a given game and be more attentive to how each fills in the gaps of the other.
  • To enable us to identify shortcomings in games, whether that’s due to poorly designed rules, procedures, and mechanics or a narrative that isn’t told well. And by poorly, we included narratives that affirm the limited perspectives of straight, white, European men or that promote concepts of play that affirm racist, homophobic, misogynist, elitist worldviews.
  • To promote innovative theorizing. Incoherence is where we can locate particularly significant forms of ideological and performative work. Particular forms or moments of incoherence can inspire ways of defining videogame genres in ways that run against the grain of conventional marketing schemes.
  • Finally, incoherence is one way we can gain insight into the important social, cultural, and creative work of videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture.

But before we got to work theorizing videogame literature, we had to deal with a more fundamental issue. There is very little written on the subject of literature about videogames. And what has been written doesn’t address the kinds of “big picture” questions that must be asked and answered any time we attempt to define a body of literary texts as a genre:

  • What are the specific characteristics of “videogame literature”?
  • What are the common themes, questions, and issues explored by “videogame literature”?
  • How does the concept of “videogame literature” account for cultural difference, historical change, audience expectation, the economic structures of production and reception, and so on?

This was the evening that I introduced the seven tropes of videogame literature, which I’ve covered in detail in a previous post.

A significant part of the class meeting was given to small teams who were tasked with tracking those seven tropes across Chainmail Bikini’s diverse stories and then sharing and developing discoveries. I don’t want to take up space going over the details of what the students found and what we generated afterwards, but I was thrilled to discover that the tropes I had defined proved to be effective analytic tools, particularly when used along with feminist and queer theory (which were the obvious ones to use with stories that focused on women and girls, straight and otherwise). Regardless, I urge you to check out Chainmail Bikini and try out the tropes for yourself! I’d love to hear about what you discover!

Why videogames (should) matter to the humanities

This is the seventh 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?”


Note: I gave this talk on March 27, 2018, as part of the IUP English Department’s Faculty Spotlight speaker series. My thanks to the department and, especially, Drs. Oriana Gatta and Todd Thompson for organizing the series and my talk.

This essay was originally titled “The Play’s the Thing: Exploring the Interface Between Literature, Theater, and Videogames.”

But that title, which was a working title (and, frankly, nicked from my blog), really wasn’t working. For sure, I want to talk with you about videogames, about the pleasures and possibilities of playing videogames, about videogames and literature, about videogames and theatre, maybe even drop a reference to Hamlet. But I realized as I was writing this that I wasn’t addressing the most important question any writer has got to address before they write a single line:

So what?

In light of that shortfall, I’ve retitled this afternoon’s talk to get right to the question that matters the most: “Why do videogames matter?”

The thing is, while I’m always happy to come up with a title that’s shorter and more to-the-point, this title doesn’t work all that well, either. It leaves a crucial question unanswered:

Matter to whom?

To those who play them? To historians? To high-school English teachers? To those thinking about designing a videogame studies minor at a large regional public university? To the students in this room who are attending to earn extra credit?

So, here’s one way to answer that question:

Videogames matter to A LOT of people.

According to various marketing analyses (see this and this), between 1.8 and 2.2 billion people play videogames on a regular basis. In other words, about 1 out of every 4 people on our planet regularly play videogames. I find that number pretty thoroughly stunning, particularly when we break those numbers down by region. Here’s a chart that offers some intriguing perspectives on the global reach of videogames and videogame culture.

This chart tells us a few things–a few fascinating things. First, the percentage of people playing games in each region tells us a lot about what wealth and privilege mean in a digital era. Wealth is not just about access to food, water, security, and opportunity, but access to information. One marker of wealth and privilege is reliable access to the internet and all the internet provides a person and their community. Second, the chart shows us that, if people do have access to the internet and everything that implies (computers, steady electricity, a reasonable level of security, virtual community, and so on), a lot of them are going to play videogames. According to the chart, about half the people who have access to the internet play games, a statistic that holds true across regions, with the exception of China.

As an English Professor, as someone who has committed the better portion of his life to the Humanities, these numbers tell me that if you’re interested in understanding global culture, if you’re interested in how people around the world think and feel and communicate and imagine and play, you need to care about videogames. If you have ambitions about spreading critical consciousness to a global community—whether that consciousness is about economics, gender, culture, ideology, whatever—you need to care about videogames. If you believe that imagination and creativity can make the world a better place, or a worse place, you need to care about videogames.

Let’s move the focus more locally, to the United States, to communities in Western Pennsylvania, to our family rooms and kitchen tables. And the good news is . . . It’s time for more statistics!

According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2017 report, 2 out of 3 U.S. households are home to at least 1 person who plays videogames for 3 or more hours a week.

The average age of those persons is 35.

About equal numbers of men and women play videogames (the EESA does not provide information about those identify as neither male nor female). Yes, men and women tend to favor different kinds of games, but men and women play all kinds of games, regardless of genre.

According to the ESA, there are 2,858 videogame company locations, and these are located in 365 of the 435 congressional districts in the US.

So, one way to answer the question, “Who cares about videogames?” is, “Lots of people care about videogames in lots of places.”

And it’s hard not to agree with film director (and videogame writer) Guillermo del Toro when he says, “I think video games are going to completely take over storytelling in our society. Video games are not a fad. They are absolutely a narrative form and a medium that is already evolving and recognized as a narrative form . . .”

But the fact is that there are more people who DON’T care about videogames than do, lots more. And unfortunately the people who don’t care about videogames tend to be the ones who matter most. They are the people who buy into the myth that videogames are violent, who don’t understand why their children should take a course in videogames or get a minor in videogame studies even though they don’t plan on a career in the videogame industry. They are the people who tend not to understand that every person in the country should understand how games work.Because if you don’t understand how games work, then you’re going to get worked by games.The best answer to the question is “Videogames SHOULD matter to all of us.”

When I say this, I’m not trying to spread the gospel of first-person shooters and massively multi-player role-playing games and history simulators and point-and-click adventure stories about losing a child to cancer and interactive-fiction storygames about dystopian worlds where humans have their dreams stolen from them.

Actually, I kind of am doing that.

One of the things I’ve learned over the last five years of teaching and studying videogames is that most people—including people who play a lot of videogames—have a very limited understanding of what a video game is. In the same way that I use my time with students in a literature class to introduce them to texts and authors they might never encounter otherwise, when I teach videogames, I try to get non-players curious about the genre, players more knowledgeable about how games communicate, and everyone aware of how much really great stuff is out there, if you just take the time to look.

Videogames come in all shapes and flavors. There are games where we shoot and run and hide and kill. There are modest little games that take only a moment’s thought, a little time, a modicum of skill, and engage only a small portion of our subjectivities. And there are beautiful, moving, richly conceived videogames that require the engagement of our hearts and minds, that demand from us the kind of time we might spend with Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, the effort that we might put into Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts or John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. There are games that drill down into themes that matter to all of us: the insidious nature of greed, the banal facts of mortality, the ethics of war, the struggle to maintain friendship when time and pain strain every reason for being friends. And these games require us not just to confront these realities, but be responsible within those realities.

But those realities, those responsibilities are shaped in specific ways by the medium. If I’m interested in exploring the complexities of human consciousness over the long course of a human life, the haiku is not the first choice I would make. But if I wanted to capture a moment of ephemeral beauty—ice crystals melting on a crocus blossom—the haiku is the right tool for the job.

Videogames are about problems and systems. Whatever a designer attempts to do with the medium, whatever content they attempt to explore and communicate, the medium pressures the creator towards systematization and the construction of meaningful problems for the player to solve. And whatever a designer attempts to do, the experience of the user will be interactive. When we play videogames, we are part of the problems, part of the systems. When we play, we exert agency within those problems and systems. And that is what makes videogames so significant to our moment. Because if there’s one thing all of us need to care about—whether as teachers or citizens—it’s the nature of agency within complex informational systems.

Agency is a theme of some of my favorite games. I think, for example, of Spec Ops: The Line, which takes the conventional formula of the military shooter, mixes in the plot and themes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and forces us to confront the realities of military intervention and neo-imperialism. We don’t just read about atrocity, we encounter it, we are implicated in it, we contend with our role in it.

Or BioShock Infinite, in which we discover that we are both hero and villain, both a fighter in the struggle to overthrow an imperialist, racist city-state and, through a sci-fi twist of fate, the dictator who rules that city-state with a bloody hand.

Or Life Is Strange, where we play a high-school girl, a promising photographer struggling to understand who she is, what friendship is, and how to shoulder the burden of loving others. The decisions that Max Caulfield makes are not just her decisions. When our friend Kate is teetering on the edge of the school roof, intent on taking her life, she is there because of the decisions we, the player, have made.

Okay, time to be straight with you—well, maybe “queer” with you is the better way to put it. Because, as I was telling you about these amazing games, I kept wanting to tell you about games that don’t cost millions of dollars to make and market. You see, the statistics I’ve discussed are generated by the Entertainment Software Association, a trade organization that represents the biggest videogame companies around the world. Not surprisingly, it’s an organization that concerns itself only with the commercial side of the videogame industry.

The ESA doesn’t represent independent game makers who post their games on sites like itch.io.

The ESA doesn’t represent the people who participate in queer game jams like the annual QUILTBAG jam organized by Zoë Quinn and Todd Harper or the games that are designed during queer game jams.

The ESA doesn’t represent academic game-designers like Paolo Pedercini or IUP’s own Rami Shaaban.

The ESA doesn’t analyze or promote games that do more than “entertain.” So, when I talk about games that drill down into the questions, problems, and challenges that face us as friends and lovers, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, as voters and activists, as people with jobs and student debt and lousy health insurance and addiction problems, as people who find beauty in the small and significance in the little noticed, I want to talk about games produced by independent developers, queer designers, and hobbyists. These are games produced on little or no budget, games that are free to play or whose designers ask you to give what you can.

I want to talk about Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest, a game that allows us to play a character living with depression, struggling through everyday life, attempting to create and secure agency despite everything working against her creativity and security.

I want to talk about That Dragon Cancer, created by Ryan Green, Josh Larson, and Amy Green to share their experience of raising a small child with terminal cancer.

I want to talk about Paolo Pedercini’s The McDonald’s Videogame, an “anti-advergame” that satirizes the unsustainable and corrupt practices of the contemporary mass-production food industry.

I want to talk about Elizabeth Hunter’s Something Wicked, a game designed by a theater historian to enable players to experience the bloody violence of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and therefore be more sensitive readers and viewers of that play.

I want to talk about Toby Fox’s Undertale, which takes the conventions of the computer role-playing game and turns them on their head, compelling the player to confront the consequences of their decision to kill monsters and steal their possessions.

I want to talk about the kinds of games IUP Communications Media instructor Dr. Ramy Shaaban and his students are designing to help medical professionals do their jobs better.

And I want to talk about the kinds of games created by the students of Indiana Area and Franklin Regional middle and high schools.

This past March, a team of faculty and graduate students from the IUP English Department, the Center for Digital Humanities and Culture, and the Critical Play Union led a series of creative-coding workshops with middle and high-school students at Indiana Area and Franklin Regional School districts. We’ve taught them to create storygames with Twine—just like the one we played earlier, only the students’ are much better. To create a fun storygame, a designer has to know how to tell a good story AND how to write effective code. And they have to contend with the constraints and possibilities that certain kinds of stories exert on code and vice versa. Educators often talk about how to integrate the Humanities with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The students in our workshops are imagining and creating right there, right there in the interface between the Humanities and STEM, demonstrating every instance why the Humanities are vital to the future of STEM and vice versa. And even more importantly, they’re demonstrating that creativity and imagination are vital to the future of both.

(Want to play them? Visit the website my talented team put together to showcase student work.)

I guess we can call this SHTEAM, which allows me to trot out my half-baked Sean Connery impersonation. My friend Dr. Gina Bloom of UC-Davis prefers THAMES, recalling the river that runs through London. Dr. Bloom is a perfect example of the kind of work that can be achieved by artists, humanists, and scientists working together. She and her team have created a virtual performance simulator called Play the Knave, which allows 1 to 4 people to perform scenes from Shakespeare. As they do so, their movements are captured by a projector and cast into virtual recreations of Elizabethan-era theaters, their avatars dressed in historically accurate ruffs, feathered caps, bodices, doublets, hose, and gowns. (Want to learn more? Check out the Play the Knave website.)

But back to my question: Why do videogames matter? To this point, I’ve been digging into the issue of “who”: who cares about videogames and who makes videogames. But there’s another question that we need to think about, a question I find absolutely fascinating and of fundamental significance to the future of the medium and our understanding of it:

What is a videogame?

This may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you, but that’s not an easy question to answer. The conventional definition is “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.” But that definition is full of holes. What is a game? What does it mean to play a game? What about games that are played by listening and making sounds or by touching and moving? (One of my favorite essays on this question is “Defining the Videogame,” by Veli-Matti Karhulahti.)

For example, some people would argue that one of my favorite games, Gone Home, isn’t a videogame. You take on the role of a young woman, arriving home after a trip to Europe, and discovering that your mother, father, and younger sister aren’t home. You walk around the house, looking at various objects, opening doors, listening to music, reading your sister’s journal entries. There’s very little challenge, nothing to kill, nothing to jump over or climb. But it is entirely engrossing, deeply moving, and one of the best texts about a young woman’s coming of age and coming out of a closet that I’ve ever experienced.

Most people would disagree with me if I argued that Nam June Paik’s 1976 installation TV Buddha is a videogame. But it has all the elements of a videogame. There’s a screen, a viewer, a problem to explore and a space in which to explore that problem. I think that counts as a videogame–or at least it counts as part of the history of the videogame, part of the conversation about consciousness, technology, and play. And I think if we do count it, we might think of different ways to think about, make, and play videogames.

In their essay, “Queering Human-Game Relations,” Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas ask us to consider the multifaceted relationships that surround videogames, what we expect of videogames, and what we expect of those who play them. Kopas writes, “Games are cultural fantasies of the way things work. Through play—not just through representations or images—we tell stories about how we believe or want to believe the world works.” Thus, these fantasies need to be thoroughly explored and understood, whether those fantasies are about super-powered heroes or about sinking into a perfectly immersive virtual reality or about beating our friends and family in competitive games.

So, yes, it’s vital that we understand exactly what a videogame is, because videogames are systems that engage our imaginations and our desires. But that understanding doesn’t just concern videogames. 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.” Videogames are, at heart, interactive systems that govern and evaluate performance.

Queer game designer and critic 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.”[2] 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.

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.

Being playful does not mean being naïve about the hazards posed by the technologies of performance, surveillance, and data processing. Performance theorist Jon Erickson argues that scholars, critics, and practitioners of performance must remain alert to the ways that new technologies and paradigms of performance mortgage our minds, bodies, and imaginations to regimes of “social efficacy,” “organizational efficiency,” and “technological effectiveness.”[3] These matrices of technology, ideology, and social convention, he continues, force us all to constantly perform, whether under the watchful eye of employers, the law, or marketers. There is no better example of that than the recent news that 50 million Facebook accounts were pillaged by the big-data political firm Cambridge Analytica based on strategies invented by the makers of Farmville.

As Lila Thulin reports in her Slate story, concerns about Facebook had been voiced by privacy advocates for years. And long before the “personality test” that enabled Cambridge Analytica to access those accounts, there was Farmville, whose launch in 2009 marked the start of a new wave of videogames that used various psychometric indicators and user information to make the game more appealing and more fun. And for it to be fun, you shared your personal data, allowing your achievements to be sent to your contact list as notifications and your consumer data to be sold to third parties.

On this farm, we’re raising carrots, corn, tomatoes and neo-Nazis

Personality profiles, Facebook games, Buzzfeed polls—these are just micro-level manifestations of the macro-level process called “gamification.” Gamification is defined as “the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts . . . to improve user engagement, organizational productivity, flow, learning, crowdsourcing, employee recruitment and evaluation, ease of use, etc.”

My least favorite videogame in the whole world, ever, is the game I play with my health insurance company where I earn points by doing various healthy things, varying from getting a physical to lying on a survey about the abject depths of my existential despair. Given the amount of points I’m going to earn, my upcoming colonoscopy is apparently a boss fight.

(Public Service Announcement: Get a colonoscopy. They save lives.)

When we speak about what a videogame is, we need to be conscious of the complex, multifaceted, networked nature of play. 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.

Which leads to the last question that is begged by my title.

If videogames matter, then how should that mattering be represented in a university curriculum?

I share the feeling expressed by Alex Layne when he writes, “It’s shocking to me that videogames aren’t more central to [digital humanities], particularly when they deal with new media, technology, and culture.” In “What Can the Digital Humanities Learn from Feminist Game Studies?” Elizabeth Losh advocates a closer look at how feminist designers have challenged the mechanics, themes, and player cultures of videogames, challenging the long-standing hegemony of men and masculine ideologies. She writes, “Feminist game scholars have done important work on protocols, market forces, technoculture, datification, instrumentalism, opportunism, and online aggression, as well as on appropriation, domesticity, reciprocity, collective agency, community building, and empathy. They have also successfully built networks, collectives, and collaboratives. However, feminist game studies also benefited from the fact that during the past three decades feminist scholarship transformed both science and technology studies and film and television studies.”

Resisting the pull to “big data” digital humanities, Losh advocates thinking small, thinking of data quirks, the messiness of individual responses within systems, the innovations that continually occur when creative problem-solving is carried out not only by consumers of data, but those who create those systems. A focus on videogames, in short, focuses the work of humanities scholars on forms of digital culture that interface with individuals, player culture, community interventions, “actions styles,” and forms of agency that don’t fit well the typical focus of Digital Humanitarians.

In other words, Digital Humanities is exemplified by a 7th-grader creating a Twine storygame about their alcoholic brother, by feminist videogame streamers, by queer game jammers, and by kids teaming up to stop a racist player from harassing players of color in a chat channel. These critical-creators need to be given a space next to digital archivists, the text miners, and big-data analysts.

So, if I were a Dean of a College of Humanities and Social Sciences at a mid-sized public university, and I had donors interested in dropping half a million dollars to support the digital humanities, I would insist that we design a curriculum that not only included videogames, but was constructed around videogames, that emphasized videogame design and analysis as part of history and art history and sociology and English, that emphasized combination of creative practice and critical/historical analysis, that provided a space for people to play together and learn to play better together, that there be a place to share what we create and share our ideas.

If videogames matter to so many people in so many ways, then it’s time universities start caring about them, too.

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?


 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.


(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?”


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)

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?



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 other posts, I’ll delve into the week-to-week schedule.


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.


  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.


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.


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?”


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?”


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


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.”


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.



[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