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.

(Spoilers)

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?

(Spoilers)

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!

EVENING 5: NARRATIVE SPACE 

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.

EVENING 5: THE SPACE OF PLAY

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.

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?

(Spoilers)

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)

UNIT 1: GAMES AND FICTIONS   

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.                                                                   

 EVENING 1: KEY CONCEPTS AND GUIDING QUESTIONS

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.

EVENING 2: WHAT IS A GAME?

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?”

(Spoilers)

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?

(Spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not from the 1980s

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

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

Climbing Mount Everest with Batman is my coffee and donuts

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

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

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

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

Bae Guevara

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

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

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

Bangs are peaky blinders for girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rubenesque

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

Not Rubenesque

Also not Rubenesque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gamey thought or three on Game Night

March 15, 2018

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

(Spoilers)

The Game meets This Is 40

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

     

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

Wait, where are the videogames?

No video games

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

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

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

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

Pac-Man fever

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

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

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

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

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

Romancing the meta

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

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

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

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

Ryan and Sarah, cheating

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not the fruit, but the Pac-Dots.

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

Videogames and literature: An annotated syllabus (Part 1)

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

(Spoilers)

TEACHING AND LEARNING BETWEEN VIDEOGAMES AND LITERATURE

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

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

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

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

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

      

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURSE OVERVIEW

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

I organized the course around two questions.

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

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

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

COURSE GOALS

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

WHAT DID WE PLAY?

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

But there are pragmatic reasons for my choices, too.

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

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

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

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

The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden, 2015)

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

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

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

Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012)

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

Device 6  (Simon Flesser/Simogo, 2013)

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

Dys4ia  (Anna Anthropy, 2012)

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

Gone Home (Steve Gaynor, 2013)

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

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

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

Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013)

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

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

Portal   (Valve, 2007)

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

With Those We Love Alive  (Porpentine, 2014)

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

The B list

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

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

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

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

WHAT DID WE READ AND WATCH?

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

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

Here’s the final list:

Jon Bois, 17776 (SB Nation)

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

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

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

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

Breaking Madden (the title is self-explanatory)

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

Westworld (HBO, 2016)

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

And, of course, lots of theory

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

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

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

 

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

(Spoilers)

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

(Not Wade Watts)

(Not Ernest Cline)

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

Gamifying trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do fanboys dream of electric sheep?

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

(From Ready Player One, Warner Bros. Pictures)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by martinacecilia)

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

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

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

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

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