‘All Your Base Are Belong to Us’: Videogames and Play in the Information Age – Tom Apperley and Justin Clemens

This special edition of Refractory developed from a symposium at the University of Melbourne in September 2007, dedicated to—as the symposium subtitle has it—’videogames and play in the information age’. [1]. The title itself derives from the famous intro to the SEGA MEGADRIVE game Zero Wing (1991 Toaplan), in which the evil intergalactic mastermind appears on the holodeck of a gunship to gloat to the hapless Captain: “All your base are belong to us. Hahahahahaha.” The phrase rapidly became an enduring meme on online forums. We invoke it to encapsulate the ambiguity, weirdness, uncertainty, and intensity of videogames—their ubiquity, emphasis on violence and conflict, cultural hybridity, linguistic and narrative incoherence—and by means of these trajectories gesture towards their peculiar import and appeal.

The articles that we have collected from ‘All Your Base Are Belong to Us’ share a common concern, not just with videogames themselves, but with the centrality of the medium and play itself in the contemporary era. Variously designated as the information age, knowledge economy, network society, post industrial society, control society, postmodernity, and late capitalism, amongst other even more abstruse monikers, these terms—despite various nuances—collectively gesture towards new dominant social and economic relations that are underpinned by the ubiquity of computer technology. Where indeed do videogames sit in this morass?

Scholars have suggested a number of ways that videogames are a crucial nexus for understanding the contemporary epoch. They are closely tied to: immaterial labour (De Peuter and Dyer-Witheford 2005; Dyer-Witheford 2003; Kücklich 2005), new media literacies (Buckingham and Burn 2007; Salen 2008; Zimmerman 2009), simulation and spectacle (King 2002; Surman 2008), digital aesthetics (Bolter and Grusin 1999; Darley 2000; Manovich 2000), creative industries (Bruns 2008; Humphreys 2009; Kerr 2007), participatory cultures (Jenkins 2006; Marshall 2004) and economic globalization (Apperley 2008; Consalvo 2006; Lugo et. al. 2003). Videogames are now at the heart of the entertainment industry (Herz 1997), pedagogies (Gee 2003), military recruitment and training (Halter 2006), as well as in many other key zones of life. In this special issue, the contributors treat these issues with an extraordinary attention to detail, and accord them comparable levels of significance.

As the organisers of the conference, we invited specialists and graduate students working a range of disciplines to contribute to the study of videogames. If early modern capitalism globalised itself through commodities that we can now effectively summarise under the heading of ‘drugs’—sugar, spices, tobacco, opium, tea, and so on—contemporary ‘late capitalism’ is globalising itself with new media commodities. Downloads and podcasts, YouTube and Facebook: the neologisms and brandings of capitalist contemporaneity. If home computing, mobile phones, the internet, and so on, are technological necessities for functioning effectively in this millennium—just as early modern capital required its flotillas of ships and networks of roads, print and print-literacy—it is to a great and perhaps surprising extent that videogames are proving to be one of the key commodities driving new media expansion.

The great MMOs, massively multiplayer games, linking millions of people worldwide in real-time interactive environments, have perhaps no precedent in the history of entertainment technologies. These games typically bind manifold forms of play, decentralised global networks, technical knowledge and practical know-how together, transforming identities, skills, etc., in their dynamic interrelationships (see Consalvo 2007; Steinkuehler 2006; Taylor 2006). They not only demand new forms of proprioception, gesture, habitus, sociability, and thought, but have consequences for the structure and administration of both work and home life, for national governments and corporate governance (Castronova 2008; Kucklich 2009). As Paolo Virno notes, the contemporary ‘arena of struggle’ is:

rooted in the epoch in which the capitalist organization of work takes on as its raw material the differential traits of the species (verbal thought, the transindividual character of the mind, neoteny, the lack of specialized instincts, etc.). That is, it is rooted in the epoch in which human praxis is applied in the most direct and systematic way to the ensemble of requirements that make praxis human (Virno 2009, 131).

Videogames are clearly one privileged ‘arena of struggle’ regarding the seizure of human generic potentiality today, in which the ‘highest means’ (the extraordinary, historically-unprecedented dynamic centrality of technical innovation) are dedicated to ‘the lowest ends’ (the absorption of ‘human nature’ itself into the routines of capitalist investment).

This is one reason why, in an only apparently paradoxical way, videogames are also ways of reimagining the new worlds that they are (Apperley 2007; Atkins 2003; Thomas and Seely-Brown 2007). Just as the traditional ‘high art’ forms—the old artistic and literary forms of poetry, sculpture, painting, music and so on—became in modernity non-mimetic reflections upon their own being and allegories of the conditions of their own emergence, so too do videogames project themselves as ciphered self-analyses of the astonishingly intricate varieties of relations made possible by new media (Wark 2007).

Sean Cubitt”s article functions as an introduction to some of the general issues pertaining to gaming and play. ‘Play’ has, of course, been a topic of near-universal interest for twentieth-century philosophy, sociology, and history, from Johan Huizinga”s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1970), Roger Caillois’Les jeux et les hommes (1961) and Mikhail Bakhtin”s work on carnival (1984), through Ludwig Wittgenstein (2009) and his notion of ‘language games’, all the way through to Jean Baudrillard (1983) and Giorgio Agamben (2007). ‘Play’ can now be seen to be in play (so to speak), across the entire range of human (and non-human) interests, from sexual or libidinal play to the most constrained forms of preparation for ‘work-readiness’.

Cubitt masterfully delves into twentieth century theory to critique the general rubric of ‘play’ itself, suggesting that rather than focusing on contemplation, play demands a mode of understanding that can perceive how it is vigorously connected to everyday life. ‘A Critique of Play’ explores play and its significance through a sequence of phenomenological analyses of specific games and their practical-intellectual requirements. From solitaire to simulations, Cubitt tracks some of the mutations in the relationship between the player, the game and its environment, arguing that contemporary gaming, having lost all bonds with any ‘nature’ it may once have been in communication with, can no longer be seriously considered an essentially radical phenomenon. Rather, the new forms of play are new ways of failing to come to terms with the contingencies of human life: death, suffering, personhood.

Jeff Sparrow turns to the age of the declining British Empire to draw historical and conceptual links between war and play in the training and education of young men in Australia in the years immediately before World War One and the current status of videogames as the mode par excellence for recruiting and training youths for contemporary contexts. In ‘The Code Which Governs War and Play’, Sparrow draws on historical sources to show how different codes of play are directly instrumentalised by political war machines, in order to produce the sorts of bodies and mentalities that can transition easily, almost naturally, from peace-time urban life to deterritorialised war. If the twentieth century opened with a vast social enthusiasm for masculine, physical sports that would provide the fodder for the first full-scale industrial world war, the century closed with a new form of game—the videogame—which itself proves to be militarised ‘all the way down’, as it were.

The two articles that follow examine how players reinforce and form identities, in relation to and through videogames. Susan Greenfield (2008: 203), in a chapter of The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, ‘Being Nobody’ argues that videogames herald an end to identity by creating a generation of ‘nobodies’, where process has triumphed over content, thereby annihilating narratives of personal identity. Gareth Schott and Dean Chan would disagree, for their player-centred research suggests that players produce—as well as reproduce—quite definite identities through digital games. In fact digital game scholarship has examined a number of ways that issues of identity intersect with videogame play, particularly regarding: gender (Cassell and Jenkins 1998; Kafai et. al. 2008; Yates and Littleton 2001), race (Barrett 2006; DiSalvo et al. 2008; Everett 2005; Nakumara 2009; Squire 2008; Sze-Fai Shiu 2006; Thomas 2008) and sexuality (Consalvo 2003; Consalvo and Dutton 2006). Chan, a veteran scholar of games and race (Chan 2006; Hjorth and Chan 2009), explores the use of ‘gamer’ identity in relation to American-born Chinese youths, arguing that despite various stereotypical depictions of ‘Asianess’, videogames offer diasporic Chinese youth a “productive ludic space for negotiating projected desires”.

In the article ‘I”m Ok’, Schott, another experienced game scholar (see Carr et. al. 2006; Schott and Horrell 2000; Schott and Kambouri 2003), tackles the question of violence in videogames; through an examination of young people”s own responses to ‘violent’ videogames, discourse about videogame violence, and to attempts to censor ‘violent’ videogames. Schott employs ethnographic methods, using both observations and interviews conducted in ‘game clubs’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand to argue that adolescent players develop complex modes of discussing and understanding videogame violence that are not congruent with either psychological science or ‘panic discourses’.

Darshana Jayemanne demonstrates how performance and image coincide, or are impelled to coincide, in the radical interfaces required for the new equipment. In the article, ‘How To Do Things With Images’, Jayemanne ingeniously repurposes one of the strongest concepts to emerge from English ordinary-language philosophy, that of the ‘performative’. For J.L. Austin, the coiner of the term and its first great theorist, a ‘performative’ utterance was to be strenuously distinguished from the ‘constative’ statement. Whereas the latter presented itself as a statement of fact or, at least, a statement which could be adjudged true or false, the former was rather an act which integrally affected the situation in which it was uttered. Emblematic uses of the performative are thus the naming of a baby or a ship (‘I hereby launch the good ship Stalin’) or the marriage ceremony (‘I declare you man and wife’), whereby the utterance actually does something in and to the world, transforming the status of its object. Jayemanne adapts this insight to the study of the use of images in videogames, showing how the status of the image (of a gun, for example) differs according to the gameplay context. If there are, of course, always ambiguities and exceptions, this adaptation nonetheless enables Jayemanne to make suggestions such as: “Players expect more illudic than perludic acts in a FPS, and vice-versa in a text adventure or a 4X game”. Such an optic enables more nuanced accounts of just what goes on in the design and play of contemporary games.

In ‘Neoconservativism and Privatization in World of Warcraft’, Kyle Kontour develops an intriguing criticism of the game mechanics of the world”s most popular pay-to-play MMORPG. Analysing the game at a global and procedural scale, Kontour suggests that a particular ethos of neoconservatism and privatization is inscribed into the game. This, he points out, at first sight may seem to run quite contrary to the “fantasy” aesthetics and themes of the game. The ideological alignment of real economics and the fantasy world is synchronized to such an extent that the official fantasy is subject to further disruption by profiteers in the form of entrepreneurial gold farmer and real-money traders. The fantasy frame, in fact, turns out to be a kind of ‘poisoned chalice’, which, as it envelops its vast and diverse user-base in a supernatural neo-medieval environment, enforces forms of interactive behaviour perfectly correlated to neo-liberal economic practices.

Finally, we have included a sample of still images from the Australian-based new media art collective BabelSwarm, who in 2007 received the largest grant ever for a multimedia artwork inside Second Life (Linden Labs 2003), from the Australia Council. The artwork sought to draw on ancient global images of incommensurabilities within communication (above all, that of the Tower of Babel) and merge them with recent theories of systems of control and events of emergence.

Despite the force and insight of these contributions to game scholarship—running from philosophical existential themes through economic and military concerns all the way to the subtleties of art and image-design—this special edition of Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media can only touch on some of the key issues shaping videogaming today. At the very least, we, as editors, hope that the contributions collected here both help to confirm just how crucial videogaming is to the contemporary world, as well as extending the existing research on the topic.

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Notes

[1] The one day symposium was funded by the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne and an Academic Activity Grant from the School of Graduate Studies, University of Melbourne.

Author Bios

Thomas Apperley is a researcher and consultant on new media technologies. His previous writing has covered videogames, mobile telephones, digital literacies and pedagogies, and the digital divide. With Christopher Walsh he is the co-founder and co-editor of the journal Digital Culture & Education (http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com). Until mid 2009 he was a Research Fellow in Literacy Education at Deakin University, he now works as Lecturer in the Media and Communication program at the University of Melbourne.

Justin Clemens has written extensively on contemporary culture and cultural theory, including Avoiding the Subject: Culture, Media and the Object (Amsterdam University Press 2004) with Dominic Pettman. His most recent book is Villain (Hunter Publishing 2009). With Christopher Dodds and Adam Nash, he has produced two major artworks in SecondLife: Babelswarm (http://www.babelswarm.com 2008) and Autoscopia (http://www.autoscopia.net 2009). He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Comments

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