‘All Your Base Are Belong to Us': Videogames and Play in the Information Age
Editors: Tom Apperley and Justin Clemens
‘All Your Base Are Belong to Us': Videogames and Play in the Information Age
Editors: Tom Apperley and Justin Clemens
‘[U]se’ is a hopelessly ambiguous or wide word, just as is the word ‘meaning’, which it has become customary to deride.
(J.L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words)
Language, it is commonly held, describes or reports on some state of affairs. Statements can thus be evaluated as being either true or false depending on whether the depiction that they offer in fact corresponds to reality. This form of evaluation, whose seeming self-evidence is the source of its everyday currency, has also been the focus of philosophical speculation as to the limits and conditions of talking about things and the modes in which things condescend to be talked about. In investigating truth claims and verifiability, philosophers of language thus assumed themselves to be posing the question of language in general.
In the 1955 series of the William James lectures at Harvard University, philosopher J.L. Austin presented an alternative view which he took to be at least partially representative of wider currents and concerns in the philosophy of language. These talks, collected in book form as How to Do Things with Words, centre around the seemingly innocuous observation that there are more uses to which language can be put than the simple description of things or relations between things. It is indeed possible to do things with words: promising, commanding, purchasing, marrying and naming, for example, are actions and not descriptions. In saying ‘Sorry…’, one does not make a representation so much as an undertaking. To apologise is to perform an action. This means that questions about truth or falsity, granting their undoubted importance in certain philosophical contexts, are not the only, or the best, or the necessarily sufficient, approach to thinking about language. The realm of action offers another valid line of inquiry and indeed has led to the development of a field of research known as ‘speech act theory’.
Emphasising action is also the focus of Alexander Galloway’s recent contribution to videogame studies, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. He suggests that we: “Begin like this: If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions” (Galloway 2006, 2). What results is a theory of ‘gamic action’ in which both machine and human activity are integral to the composite form of the videogame. Paralleling Austin, Galloway too indicates a trend away from a straightforward notion of representation, but the argument here relates to images rather than words. In this case the term ‘gamic’ happens to be one of Galloway’s coinages, but if we in the expansive spirit of interdisciplinarity refer to a biology textbook it seems that the term has a history; it in fact derives from the Greek for ‘marriage’ and is an adjective indicating that something pertains to sexual reproduction.
Galloway’s term ‘gamic action’ is therefore doubly appropriate (or for the less charitable, doubly a bit of a stretch), as without the cybernetic feedback loop or ‘marriage’ of player and machine action, there is no play and no videogame. However in this respect, it may also be illuminating to re-pose the nature or ontology of the videogame as a marriage between image and action or perhaps a doing things with images. Referring to Space Invaders (Taito 1978), Galloway writes ‘The aliens are nothing more than a series of byte strips stacked together. This is math made visible’ (32). The ‘math made visible’ referred to here is therefore considered part—perhaps the most important and vital part, as it is an audio-visual medium under discussion—of the computer’s overall gamic action.  Just as Austin examines performative utterances in the course of delimiting a field in the philosophy of language that will become speech act theory, perhaps it is possible to amend Galloway’s programmatic statement for videogame studies and begin like this: if photographs are images, and films are moving images, then videogames are image-actions.
Galloway’s assertion that videogames are actions is indicative of a particular tendency in videogame scholarship that attempts to uncover the unique properties of the form by separating them from putatively representational media such as film and television. The idea is that once such specific and unique features are isolated, they will naturally be the focus of a relevant critical method. For ludologists, videogames are above all games; for Galloway, they are (gamic) actions; for Ian Bogost (2006), they are comprised of unit operations. Where such endeavours venture a general theory of what videogames are (an ontology of the form), a more Austin-inspired pragmatic approach would attend to how they are used—and in the case of an audio-visual medium such as videogames, used to create some unique aesthetic effects and structures.
Fully elaborating a correspondence between speech act theory and the image-actions of videogames would require the consideration not only of the former theory but also some general treatment of the relation of images and words. Although this would be an overly extensive endeavour in the current context, it is possible to draw from Austin’s work a starting point for talking about performative images based on a pragmatic sort of attitude eminently suited to a lecture series named for William James. It should also be noted that Austin himself, despite the title of his book and the subsequent development of speech act theory, was quite happy to include within his discussion non-verbal actions such as raising a hand to vote, nodding assent or kicking a goal.  Austin’s notion of performativity is thus wider than speech, and may be applied, in some respects and with due caution, to instances of both imagery and play.
What then does Austin do with words? Initially, he notes a distinction between two types of verbal utterance. The first type (designated as ‘constatives’) can be evaluated according to a true or false scheme—if someone asserts that the cat is on the mat, it is possible to check and see if this is in fact the case. The second, which turn out to be the utterances Austin is interested in, are what he dubs ‘performatives’. It is inappropriate to assign truth values to these utterances. Instead, Austin argues that they are actions and as such can be evaluated as successful or dysfunctional depending on whether or not the utterance satisfies and enacts certain conventional criteria. They are “subject to the usual troubles and reservations about attempt as distinct from achievement, being intentional as distinct from unintentional, and the like’”(Austin 1975, 110). Already, then, we have on the face of it a good fit for videogames, in which actions are typically evaluated in terms of whether they succeed or fail—either the player times the jump well, or Mario plunges into the pit—rather than whether they are true or false, a distinction which is generally held to be irrelevant. Austin alternately calls the former kind of evaluation the (un)happiness or the (in)felicity of an action.
Austin’s performative utterances can fail or be infelicitous in various ways and he clearly took some trouble in coming up with illustrations that would most pique the sensibilities of his Ivy League audience:
Suppose, for example, I see a vessel on the stocks, walk up and smash a bottle hung at the stem, proclaim “I name this ship the Mr. Stalin” and for good measure kick away the chocks: but the trouble is, I was not the person chosen to name it… We can all agree
(1) that the ship was not hereby named;
(2) that it is an infernal shame. (Austin 1975, 23)
The distinction between performative and constative is a matter of how each type of utterance is to be judged. For constatives, the appropriate standard is truth value, which is to be ascertained by procedures of verification. This, Austin asserts, has been a highly normative conception of the function (and indeed ontology) of linguistic utterances in the philosophy of language. By demonstrating the practical existence of multiple regimes by which utterances are judged (generalised in terms of ‘happiness’), Austin effectively opens a new field for inquiry into the nature of language and our relation to it. The cultural world already sanctions many alternative procedures for judging utterances, for recognising them as events rather than descriptions.
Performatives must be carried out by someone competent to enact them (such as an authorised celebrant to oversee a marriage ceremony, or a jurist to pronounce a legal judgement). They must be heard and recognised for what they are by the relevant people—it’s not much use for a policeman to say “I place you under arrest”, unless the suspect is nearby and in a position to be so prorogued. Austin calls this ‘securing uptake’ of the utterance by interested parties. The performative acts that Austin is honing in on, then, have a constitutively social character. These actions may not bring about a change in a physical state of affairs any more or less than they describe it (hence the oft-assumed difference between action and speech, doing and saying). Rather, such utterances serve to constitute and reconfigure social relations. In a similar fashion, the most an image-action can be said to do in a videogame may be to shift a small button and the distribution of some computer’s memory. Within the game’s own logic and conventions there may be great conceptual leverage when such objectively minute action proves decisive, whether happily or unhappily for the player.
The social character or aspect of performative utterances leads Austin into territory typically inclement to level-headed pragmatists—speculation about interiority and intentionality. Although issues related to securing uptake such as competence of authority may be evidenced by various socially sanctioned signifiers, Austin also attends to a more ambiguous species of infelicity in the form of feelings or thoughts. A performative such as an apology may fail in some sense, for example, if the person issuing it is insincere and in spite of their assurances does not in fact feel sorry for the events in question. Unlike cases in which the act itself is defective or invalid, in such instances the act is carried out satisfactorily, but the intention motivating it is suspect. Someone issuing a promise they have no intention of keeping is another apposite example—the promise is issued successfully, the speech act is performed. The outcome is certainly not ‘happy’, but the manner in which it is unhappy is different from a situation in which requisite conditions for successful performance do not obtain: the promissory note is lost, defective or issued by a party lacking in authority.
An interesting subset of these ‘insincere’ performatives are a class that Austin in fact excludes from his discussion early on as ‘non-serious’. These include performatives uttered under some kind of threat or duress—“we may even say the act was ‘void’ (or voidable for duress or undue influence)”—as well as utterances encountered in literary or dramatic contexts. It is, for Austin, specious to say that Walt Whitman enjoins the Eagle of Liberty to soar in the same way that two people may conclude the sale of a commodity, even though both are, technically, actions of the type under discussion:
a performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. This applies in a similar manner to any and every utterance—a sea change in special circumstances. Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use—ways which fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language. All this we are excluding from our consideration. Our performative utterances, felicitous or not, are to be understood as issued in ordinary circumstances.’ (Austin 1975, 22).
Subsequent commentators have looked askance at Austin’s exclusion and the ‘peculiar way’ in which such utterances are void. One gets the impression that Austin dips his toes in here but doesn’t much like the temperature. If performative utterances enact some given social convention, issues of power (duress) and the ‘sea change’ of poetic usage can be said to lie at the very origin of those conventions, as both provide vectors for the transmission of the collective behaviours and rituals of social control that underwrite individual speech events. Parasitic utterances may indeed be extraneous to the normal usage—in the sense that they delimit it.
It certainly seems strange to characterise as parasitic etiolation an apology inscribed in Hansard for State-sanctioned violence, or Whitman’s exhortation to the eagle of liberty to soar when compared, say, to my ordinarily worthless undertaking that I will indeed remember to buy some milk on the way home. Furthermore, the assertion that such usages are necessarily or always intelligibly parasitic upon normal speech acts may be hotly contested. Austin assumes this—rather appropriately, by fiat—but is it really so simple a matter to exclude parasitic utterances or determine ordinary circumstances? At the very least this would require that insincerity or parasitism signify in such a way as to be routinely distinguishable from normal usage. On the contrary however, insincerity may function precisely through its formal indiscernibility from sincere actions: as the open secret of a power relation or the licence of poetic address. While Whitman’s imperative to a metaphoric eagle may seem parasitic upon the normative situation of issuing a command or request to a real person (or eagle for that matter) who is present at the time of utterance, Swinburne’s to Whitman is both parasitic and sincere performative utterance, both licentious poem and sober solicitation of real action from a real human being:
SEND but a song oversea for us,
Heart of their hearts who are free,
Heart of their singer, to be for us
More than our singing can be;
Ours, in the tempest at error,
With no light but the twilight of terror;
Send us a song oversea! (C.A. Swinburne, To Walt Whitman in America)
Whether or not such instances of multiple register of address and framing suggest grounds for a substantive critique of How to Do Things With Words (or speech act theory in general) has been the topic of some debate. Here might be traced a theoretical horizon along which the parasitic is not arbitrarily excluded, but somehow integral. Perhaps part of the dilemma lies in the fact that poetic and political performatives are inaugural and foundational events, whereas Austin’s performatives derive their consistency and force from established social formulas—they are events insofar as they are satisfactory repetitions.
Whatever the ramifications for a theory of language use, there are two main points arising from Austin’s doctrine of performatives that have practical relevance for our attempt to characterise image-actions. First, the exteriority of performative utterances themselves, and alongside them that of signifiers of parasitism, are emphasised. The ‘happiness’ criterion that Austin advocates for the evaluation of performative utterances ought to distinguish them from the ‘truth’ criterion of constative statements. Performatives, therefore, are not judged according to a speaker’s assumed intention to have the meaning of their statement correlate to reality. Indeed, regardless of subjective intention, the performative is judged according to how well it invokes conventional, ritualised formulas. Such judgements rely less on interpreting the inner ‘meaning’ of the utterance, and more on relational, anaphoric, deictic and diacritical signs which establish, disseminate or rehearse criteria such as competence, authority, occasion and whatever other factors impend on the felicity of a given speech act. This is in fact Austin’s starting point:
It has come to be seen that many specially perplexing words embedded in apparently descriptive statements do not serve to indicate some specially odd additional feature in the reality reported, but to indicate (not to report) the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way in which it is to be taken and the like. To overlook these possibilities in the way once common is called the ‘descriptive’ fallacy (Austin 1975, 3).
Indication of circumstances, reservations and intentional attitudes involve the use of words which may not have a strictly grammatical function, but rather invoke socially immanent ritual requirements. So, in order to successfully perform an action, the utterer must adopt the socially sanctioned formula—the role the utterance is intended to enact or fulfil within a given speech community—and it is this collective intentionality which informs the structure to which the speech act must accede if it is to be judged felicitous. This sort of exteriorisation of intent is also acknowledged in Austin’s requirement for ‘uptake’ by relevant parties. Rather than an encoding/decoding model in which two interiorities communicate through external signs, the performative structures utterance and interpretation, production and consumption, all of which can be more or less felicitous. In what amounts to a broadly legalistic theory of language use, form constructs content as something that is precisely what it is because another (the requirement for uptake of the utterance) is duly informed. What you say governs what you mean and the letter is taken over the spirit—just as a shot that sails over the crossbar isn’t declared a goal simply because the player meant for it to crack into the netting. Notably, this calculable and judicial impartiality is reminiscent of how a computer judges the actions of a player, with right of appeal paralleled and conditioned by the last time he or she remembered (or had opportunity) to save the game.
The second relevant point I wish to raise correlates to the first and regards Austin’s exclusion of parasitic utterances. As noted, the fact that such utterances signify their parasitism—that they are intelligibly hollow or void—is a condition of possibility for their exclusion. The class of signifiers that designate, intelligibly, that what we are perceiving is an illusion, are devices that frame or punctuate a given presentation. A title, a proscenium, a generic convention, an index, an admission price, a caption, a picture frame, diacritical marks: these disparate signs operate at the margins and interstices of artistic performance in order to orient audiences. Such framing devices may thus help to provide a theoretical passage from performative utterances to the specific case of image-actions.
Consider that Austin’s synchronic analysis of language construes normal and parasitic usage as a relation of copy to original. Insincere usage essentially operates, above all, by representing sincere uses of performative procedures. In addition to the objections previously noted, then, such a conception is odd in this context because the overly simplistic descriptive fallacy is supposedly what Austin is taking to task through his notion of the performative. In How to Do Things With Words parasitic utterances are ultimately judged according to the veridical regime of constatives rather than in terms of performative felicity. Truth value returns in a secondary role in the form of the intelligible signification of parasitism. However we all surely know from experience that artistic performances can be more or less successful, and their audiences can emerge happy or unhappy in full knowledge of a want of truth value. Accordingly, rather than an absolute demarcation between framed and unframed situations (as if an unframed statement is even a potentiality), the analysis of performatives may in some sense be extended to the judgement of parasitic utterances. In place then of Austin’s immobile distinction may be elaborated a typology of framing devices which, by virtue of their intelligible signification of intentionality, their exteriorisation of putative inner attitudes, disseminate structures of performative judgement. Insincere perhaps, but this is the insincerity of play.
In order to further explore How to Do Things With Images, then, we will have to expand the discussion beyond Austin’s limitations and consider the way parasitic signs serve to ‘exteriorise’ various forms of intentionality. These limitations—the titular focus on words and the exclusion of parasitic utterances—are contestable on both methodological and historical grounds. Austin himself indicates that he was aware of the provisional status of his own conceptual boundaries, although he surely considered them necessary to circumscribe his argument. Regarding his initial goal of distinguishing performative and constative utterances, he admits that this would be possible only by isolating a given utterance from its circumstances and function. Near the conclusion of his lecture series, Austin admits: “Perhaps neither of these abstractions is so very expedient: perhaps we have here not really two poles, but rather an historical development” (1975, 146). By contrast, the historicity of image-actions can hardly be relegated to an afterthought as they are profoundly implicated in contemporary approaches to mass culture, motion and perception.
Austin appeals to a particular enunciative position in presupposing that the criteria for the judgement of performative utterances are immanent in a given speech community, always already disseminated through education and socialisation—in short, institutional forms which underlie the legalism of his theory. The focus is shifted to the context of an utterance, its role within a greater system that exceeds it, “The total speech act in the total speech situation is the only actual phenomenon which, in the last resort, we are engaged in elucidating” (Austin 1975, 148). What then can be said of a ‘total image action’? In the case of these performative images (as we have so far explored them) Austin’s default position is unavailable as the dissemination of criteria for judgement cannot be taken for granted. Videogames, in particular, demand constant re-assessment of audio-visual information on the part of players which amounts to the active apprehension of new rules in a dynamic environment. The attribution of players’ capacity to negotiate such complex virtual architectures to any naive naturalism or to an inherent capacity to intuit rules as if they were computers seems weak in comparison to the theory that performative images somehow signify their own criteria of judgement—the structures that govern success and failure, felicitous and infelicitous play. The total image actions in videogames require uptake by both a player and a technical apparatus. This might, to further paraphrase Austin, be termed the ‘total image situation’. The mechanisms by which uptake is assured would have to include both intertextual and contextual factors (generic forms, languages and visual codes), but also the aesthetic properties of particular image actions. It may be conjectured then that the parasitic, as a class of signs which (like the artistic frame) are by definition able to render intentionality intelligible, serve the same function in videogames.
If this hypothesis has merit, there ought to be some kind of correlation between types of image-actions and videogame genres because game genres tend to be organised around activity. While How to Do Things With Words may not be immediately useful for the consideration of parasitic or liminal signs, it does provide a potentially useful typology of action. Austin’s pragmatism is not just for show: he is level-headed enough to suspend the terms which have anchored his discussion once they seem to have led to impasse:
we were not always going to find it easy to distinguish performative utterances from constative, and it therefore seemed expedient to go farther back for a while to fundamentals—to consider from the ground up how many senses there are in which to say something is to do something, or in saying something we do something, and even by saying something we do something (Austin 1975, 94).
Rather than assuming there are only two distinct ways in which we formulate and judge utterances (as veridical or performative) or trying to examine what such statements are, Austin proposes a broad and nuanced spectrum of intentional performative utterances, of which the intent to describe is one particular variety.
It is fair to say that the resulting typology—with its unwieldy terms like ‘verdictives’ and ‘behabitives’—lacks the invigorating brio of the earlier lectures. These classes of action certainly seem remote from the context of videogames. Of greater interest is Austin’s shift of attention from what we do with words to how we do so. He nominates three classes: locutionary acts (in which to say something is to do something), illocutionary acts (where in saying something we do something) and perlocutionary acts (achieved by saying something). To perform a locution is to produce intelligible sounds, and is the basis of all such acts. Illocutions are locutions that carry a certain force in themselves due to social convention. Perlocutionary acts may achieve some given aim by various locutions and illocutions. Warning someone, for example, may be either an illocution or a perlocution. A warning may be carried out in the act of uttering the formula, saying “I warn you…”, issuing a yellow card in soccer or erecting a road sign, and would thus be an illocutionary act. A warning could however also be issued by an extended lecture or set of arguments, or relating a cautionary tale, or by shouting “Look out!” None of these latter actions are formal warnings which make use of a given formula, but the act of warning is still carried out by their performance—they are perlocutionary acts.
This distinction maps in an interesting (if admittedly somewhat impressionistic) fashion to that made by semiotician David Myers in his analysis of signs in gaming. Myers nominates two major videogame genres—action and adventure/RPG—by virtue of the fact that they correspond to two forms of semiosis: “The action genre is characterised by its use of first-order, denotative signs and the signification process that gives denotative signs values and meanings… The adventure genre is characterised by the use of second-order, connotative signs” (Myers 2003, 28). The adventure genre was eventually replaced by more complex roleplaying games. “Other common game genres—simulation, wargame, strategy—have histories long predating the history of electronic games, yet are, among electronic games, semiotically derivative of the action and role-playing genres”. In this scheme, games are designated by their tendency to use signs that either denote objects to be manipulated (action) or connote their context as functions within the game’s own logic (adventure). Thus, where a gun graphic in an action game denotes the physical properties and operation of a firearm, a gun in a RPG connotes a system, a certain semantically or statistically determined range of effectiveness. If we reconsider these genres from the point of image actions, the potential parallel becomes clearer. In an action FPS, the player pulls the trigger on their controller or clicks the mouse button, and in that action discharges their weapon. The denotative sign of the gun corresponds to a gaming version of the ‘illocutionary act’, and the felicity of the action is decided in the moment. On the other hand, a Final Fantasy X (SquareEnix 2001) player can command one of the characters in their party to strike a foe by selecting an appropriate icon. The character will act accordingly once their turn comes up, the attack’s degree of success being a function not of tactile adroitness so much as decisions made outside the individual action (equipment used, character stats, ‘buffs’ or ‘debuffs’ which respectively enhance or diminish capability): a sort of ‘perlocutionary’ act.
From this vantage it is possible to propose a generative account of videogame image actions which will simultaneously complicate Myers’ semiotic model and elaborate on Galloway’s assertion that ‘games are actions’. All activity in a game can be assumed to consist at the most basic level of ludic acts, for which to do something is to interact with a game apparatus. Ludic acts, like locutions, are the building blocks of the other forms of image action. There is no direct analogy for this variety of act in Myers’ semiotic account, but rather than denoting or connoting things within the game world, ludic acts are associated with iconic and indexical functions of the apparatus itself and the most basic forms of player interactivity (a keystroke, mouse movement, pulling a trigger, swinging a Wiimote—the equivalent of phonemes in language). Illudic acts are interactions in which something playful is done, and are associated with denotative semiosis. These acts tend towards tactility and an identification of audio-visual experience with the field of action, the FPS probably being the most representative genre.
Perludic acts are interactions by which something playful is done and are associated with connotative semiotic processes. Perludic acts tend to be informed more by cerebral than visceral experience as they require careful weighing up of connotations: networks and systems of signs that may not be reliant on denotation, at least in the way this latter term is used in semiotics — number games would be an example. Typically the player will perform the illudic act of selecting an icon, which will trigger a more complex action within the game world. This perludic act may be composed of an ensemble of ludic and illudic acts: instructing a Sim to tidy their room or make a meal in The Sims (Maxis, 2000) results in the performance of a set of individual and interlinked activities. This is not to imply that perludic acts are necessarily performed at a slower tempo than illudic acts: professional players of Starcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1996) are well known to perform hundreds of actions per minute (apm),each of which would be a perludic act issued to a unit or group of units through icons and hotkeys. This is a pace of interaction at least as fast-paced as in an action ‘twitch game’.
The typology of image actions is based on the following correspondences: Performative Utterance Semiosis Image Action Primary Generic Association Locution Iconic-Indexical Ludic Act The Gaming Situation Illocution Denotative Illudic Act Action/FPS Perlocution Connotative Perludic Act Adventure/RPG
Primary Generic Association
The Gaming Situation
The associations of image actions with game genres are only weakly correlative, especially as gaming has become more complex and techniques have been blended by designers attempting to provide varied experiences (pace Austin: ‘not two poles, but rather an historical development’). For example, in Doom (iD Software, 1993), the majority of the player’s activity is illudic gunplay and movement, but the use of blue or red keys to access various restricted parts of the level is connotatively abstracted and perludic. More recently, much of the gameplay of Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005) involves illudic acts in which the player guides their avatar’s weapon in an over-the-shoulder third person view. Movements of the controller are proportionally mapped onto the way the character’s aim moves across the screen, and the firearm is discharged simultaneously with a single button or trigger press. Both are illudic acts. On the other hand, over the course of the game the player also has certain context-sensitive opportunities to interact with the environment, such as leaping a low wall or using a ladder. These are generally enacted with a single button press which causes a considerably more involved set of actions than the illudic act of pulling a trigger —essentially, they activate a mini-cinematic in which control is briefly removed from the player. These sequences, which may also appear in boss fights as life-or-death tests of timing and skill, are perludic acts.
A second type of perludic act structures Resident Evil 4‘s weapon upgrade system. The player pays a mysterious shopkeeper for modifications to their weaponry, but they do not actually do any tinkering themselves. Thus the selection of upgrades is a perludic act. The ‘same’ act can be differentiated across titles: jumping is illudic in Super Mario Brothers 3 (Nintendo, 1985) as Mario leaps in response to the player pressing the appropriate button, whereas in Resident Evil 4 the jump is a vault to clear a low wall, the button for which is indicated by a context-sensitive icon on the screen. Illudic acts can flow into a single perludic act, such as in the hacking minigame of System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games, 1999). By manipulating nodes in a series of illudic acts, players can achieve the perludic act of hacking a computer. Even within a single game, an act can be either illudic or perludic: in Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008) the player can either use their weapons in the style of an action FPS or activate a RPG stat-based targeting system.
The focus on analysing games in terms of image actions is thus capable of presenting a variegated and nuanced account of gaming experience as both player agency and ludic structure. Each game constructs and elaborates on its regime of activity, and the fluidity of our ludic categories is in this light a merit (the system being more continuum or phenomenology than typology proper). This again raises the question of how the structures of felicity are communicated in what amounts to a total image act. Austin, faced with similar problems, is able to appeal to context, and analogously a good deal of explanatory mileage can be gained in the case of the gaming situation by the concept of genre. Players expect more illudic than perludic acts in a FPS, and vice-versa in a text adventure or a 4X game. However as I have pointed out, this is hardly a watertight correlation. It may then be surmised that in order to orient players to action and communicate ludic structures, games make use of parasitic signs. These most obvious example of such signs is the game interface itself. An action title will tend to minimise the presence of such signs through a HUD (heads-up display), or like the action-horror game Dead Space (Visceral Games, 2008), integrate the interface elements into the game world through a dose of sci-fi technobabble. By contrast, a screenshot from MMORPG World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) shows a plethora of customised icons and communications. If the presence of the frame indicates that a painting is parasitic, ‘hollow or void’, the disbursement of framing devices in games is similarly indispensable to the full characterisation of image actions. The salutary effect though is that narrativity and rule structure can be thought in a single flux, rather than as elements demanding distinct forms of analysis.
This opens up a very complex terrain which can perhaps be adumbrated through looking at seminal moments in gaming history—Myers’ action and adventure games—and the ways in which these pioneering works dealt with framing. The first truly blockbuster videogame, Toshihiro Nishikada’s Space Invaders, made it impossible for observers to ignore the Japanese contribution to the videogame industry. In the early arcades science fiction was the most prevalent influence. Martin Amis’ emphatically titled Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines (1982) depicted the arcade phenomenon tout court as an assault from outer space, and was replete with pulp images of clashing starships that could only stand in stark contrast to the abstracted, blocky graphics of the time. No doubt it was easier to visually depict the void of space than the claustrophobic caverns, forests and dungeons common in fantasy narratives. Furthermore, the action-oriented nature of arcade games, which measured precise repetition of illudic acts against an abstracted ‘outer’ space (the screen and its invisible grid or visible maze) in pursuit of an abstract goal (the high score) was suited to science fiction. Space was subordinated to the task to be performed within it, as were the Invaders who came from nowhere and did nothing save invade. Amis’ association between arcade and science fiction was not absolute—Tim Skelly’s vector-based Warrior (Cinematronics, 1979) which pitted a pair of armoured knights against one another provides an influential counter-example—but even here and in the main, arcade games concerned the control of space by entities defined largely by their functional capabilities and roles in the ludic alchemy of reducing dispersed objects into homogeneous ‘points’ or whatever other currency. They appear from nowhere and plunge headlong into the nowhen of number and score, rupturing the frame.
Fantasy, by contrast, concerns lineage and lineage does not allow space or time to remain simply abstract. The various treasures to be found in Colossal Cave Adventure (Crowther and Woods, 1976) were indeed measured in terms of a numerical value—entering the command “score” brings up an evaluative “If you quit now you would score x out of a possible y”—but each object contributing to said value is discovered in a unique place (or potential series of places) and acquired by an appropriate contextualised, perludic action (as opposed to an illudic action which can be peformed regardless of context). Compared to the action genre with its sci-fi inflection, in which the punctual execution of a small repertoire of actions guaranteed survival and the domination of an abstract outer space, the fantasy-oriented adventure game conjured a more voluptuous world through textual description. Although Crowther and Woods’ prose was minimalist and functional, the exploratory aspect alone served to add depth to the experience. The game-space was not confined to one screen or set of screens: players had to map their position relative to landmarks, creatures, objects and inscribe their progress within the game’s spatial regime rather than punching a torturously derived three-letter moniker into the high-score list outside the timeframe of each individual game session. The longer play time of adventure games created a different sense of engagement than that of the constant histrionic demands of the arcade, a sense that the space was coyly yielding up its secrets rather than trying to overwhelm the player, and fostered distribution in institutional and domestic contexts rather than public and commercial space.
In each case, the total image action—an aesthetic, ludological and performative category—is a function of the relation of illudic and perludic acts to the frame. The action game punctures the frame—a paradox, because the frame’s coherency is part of the genre’s commitment to illudic illusionism. The adventure presents nested frames linked with abstract values and perludic acts, but simultaneously seeks to reinforce the magic frame of a coherent fantasy world. The gaming situation and the total image action seems to be stretched, like a canvas, between these vectors. In and by taking account of the range of gaming’s image actions, we stand to gain significant insight into How To Do Things With Images.
Amis, Martin. 1982 Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. London: Hutchison.
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Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Baudelaire, C. 2001. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. J. Mayne. Phaidon Press: London.
Benjamin, W. 2006. Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bogost, I. 2006. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gadamer, H. 2004. Truth and Method. 2nd Revised Edition. London: Continuum.
Galloway, A. 2006. Gaming: Essays in Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of
Huizinga, J. 1970. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Paladin.
Myers, David. 2003. The Nature of Computer Games: Play as Semiosis. Bern: Peter Lang
Nietzsche, F. (1973) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
1 In Galloway’s taxonomy of action, this ‘making visible’ would be a ‘non-diegetic machine act’ which he sees as helping define and police or transgress the boundaries between a game and its outside.
2 Austin however does assume that speech acts are the ‘simplest’, paradigmatic or most straightforward examples, and the very term ‘locution’ along with the lectures series’ title leave no doubt that language is at the heart of his discussion.
3 Austin notes that a dissatisfaction with a purely representational (or for that matter purely grammatical) view in the philosophy of language considerably predates his own treatment. Wittgenstein is notable in this regard, but also the work of Immanuel Kant: First came the view, not always formulated without unfortunate dogmatism, that a statement (of fact) ought to be ‘verifiable’, and this led to the view that many ‘statements’ are only what may be called pseudo-statements. First and most obviously, many ‘statements’ were shown to be, as Kant perhaps first argued systematically, strictly nonsense, despite an unexceptionable grammatical form: and the continual discovery of fresh types of nonsense, unsystematic though their classification and mysterious though their explanation is too often allowed to remain, has done on the whole nothing but good… it was natural to go on to ask, as a second stage, whether many apparent pseudo-statements really set out to be ‘statements’ at all” (Austin 1975, 2).
 It is striking that the idea of a zone in which sincerity and insincerity are indistinguishable has extensive precedent in writing on play; commentators as diverse as Baudelaire (1995), Gadamer (2004), Huizinga (1970), Benjamin (2006) and Bateson (1972) have described the putatively frivolous activity of play in terms of a constitutive seriousness. Nietzsche goes so far as to make this attitude essential to maturity in one of his aphorisms: “Mature manhood: that means to have rediscovered the seriousness one had as a child at play” (1973, 94). The temporality posited in this re-orientation towards an anterior state acts to destabilise normatively linear notions of innocence and experience.
 In terms of rhetoric, irony in particular often does not signify its conflation of levels in terms of the meaning of the individual utterance, instead relying on contextual and intertextual positioning and structure to establish itself as a trope. In terms of politics and power relations, identical utterances are inevitably parsed by the social position of those uttering them, and many discursive formations are restricted in the first place to those privileged by education and status. A given class or other social group may only be able to speak in certain ways at all by the adoption of a form of ironic or overtly comic quotation.
 This legalism supports Austin’s insistence (presumably raised against positivism) that social conventions are ‘of course facts’, but also his assumption that in difficult or liminal cases ‘a judge could decide’ between various competing interpretations of the validity of a performative utterance.
Darshana Jayemanne researches and writes on videogame aesthetics. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
In the face of social imperfections, videogames are habitually condemned for their violent themes and role in debauching the innocence of the young (Buckingham & Bragg 2004). This article presents findings taken from a two-year funded project  that gathered young people’s viewpoints on ‘violent’ texts, ‘media effects’ research and the ‘politics of substitution’ (Jenkins 1992) representing longstanding agendas on censorship and morality that attach themselves to tragic events such as school shootings. Whilst offering a challenge to the large volume of methodological refinement that is ‘media effects’ research, the present research was in fact prompted by a sense of discomfort with the increasingly expansive nature of the word ‘violence’ itself and the manner it has unquestioningly and legitimately been employed to express what goes on in game spaces. Replacing attempts to accomplish social betterment through establishing videogames as the root of ‘causation’ (which then fuels and endorses the viewpoints of “moral entrepreneurs” Becker 1963) is a different tactic that seeks to detach discussion of videogames from a restricted and loaded vocabulary. This research is produced by combining an educational background in psychological knowledge and practice, together with a long established relationship with the analytical and theoretical devices of Game Studies. As a media psychologist, I argue that it is necessary to break from the major assumptions guiding modern science that includes a pervasive belief in the ability to “derive obdurate truths about the nature of the subject matter and the casual networks in which it is embedded” (Gergen 1992, 20). In the case of the capacity of media content to engender associations such as “the impetus for aggressive acts” (Geen 1994, 158), this paper examines whether the time has come for other voices to penetrate what has remained a one-sided debate.
State driven legislation, news media and advocacy groups have selectively utilised ‘effects research’ in order to express concern for an uncritical and non-resistant market of young people who, once exposed to videogame violence, develop aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours (Anderson & Bushman 2001; Anderson & Dill 2000; Gentile et al. 2004). Young people actively engaging with these texts have inevitably become stigmatized by the stereotypes implicit in such research and codified within ‘protective’ legislation as anti-social, unintelligent or non-creative (Morris 2004). Despite forming the readership of popular culture, young people are often denied a voice by “authorities and opinion makers” (Thompson 1998) in this one-sided discussion. Yet, with the new century, the level of sustained academic attention devoted to understanding the nature and implications of game players’ engagement with videogames has also rapidly increased. The development of definitional game taxonomies clearly alert us to their diverse characteristics as structured frameworks for play, but it is their implications for the experience of players that requires greater exploration with the demographics that constitute a ‘cause for concern’. We instead find that the pleasures that young people take from games are being condemned by research that has largely failed to engage directly with the texts of fascination and its surrounding cultures and broader still the notion of more diverse taste communities that require consideration of the individual choices employed by, and motivations guiding young people in their engagement with games.
In some senses it can be argued that experimental research has already been obliquely contested via the contrasting intentions that distinguish the scholarly focus of Game Studies, through its accounts of the cultural value of videogames, that have produced rich and varied examples of the social spaces of gaming (Klastrup 2003; Newman 2002), and the creativity attributed to participatory cultures that spontaneously form around various game texts (Burn & Schott 2004; Schott & Burn 2007). Yet, rarely have these accounts and perspectives encountered experimental research head on. As part of its strategic boundary work, Game Studies has so far neglected the focus of social science research in favour of demarcating the epistemological distinctiveness of its analytical frameworks and methodologies as most appropriate to its hybrid medium (Aaresth 2001; Frasca 1999). Indeed, reluctance to address the influence of violent content is also, in part, attributable to the subjective positions of the hybrid nature of scholars who began as game players for whom game playing has now also become a major focus of their academic pastime (Copier 2003).
The denigration of games by social commentators and advocacy groups is not easily dismissed as simply a rite of passage faced by each new medium. Each new strain also fortifies a generational rhetoric that is being legitimately employed in discussions of young people, in which this diverse group are routinely characterized and “spoken for” (Thompson, 1998). The players consulted for this research articulated similar concerns when one young male player stated: “As gamers the only real place we express our view would be the net, but you can’t have one gamer representative because there are so many of us and we are not an organisation, we are not a club.”
If the tradition of media effects research has taught us anything, it is that the debate remains principally an ongoing pursuit. There exists an indefatigable attitude that characterizes the persistent belief in the relevance of media content as an explanation for what is perceived as replicable violence. So pervasive and influential effects research has become, that it has produced a deep-rooted understanding as to how ‘violence’ should function as a research variable. Such understanding has regularly negated the aims and approach of the present research. This has been most evident by the ease with which news of the present research was absorbed into existing schematic frameworks for both exploiting and rebuffing academic approaches to understanding the experience of game-play. Despite issuing a press release outlining the distinctiveness of the present research study from the agenda of ‘effects research’, it was nevertheless reported as such (New Zealand Herald 9/10/06). As news it was inevitably identified as an opportunity to protract the “symbolic politics” (Jenkins 1992) lurking behind incidents such as school violence and juvenile crimes. On the other hand, game players responding to the press release online presumed the news constituted yet another example of a detached, misinformed attempt to chastise gaming.
Typically the first response from the game-playing public was condemnation: “I like how we spend money on stupid studies… whatever!! Just do something more productive” (Viphid 2006), based on the belief that funds were allocated to conduct “the same study over and over again” (some guy 2006). Yet, when it came to instigating discussions with players concerning their views very few well-formulated arguments against objections to game playing presented themselves. For players, it was a combination of never having been asked to articulate their viewpoints and not taking the debate seriously. Players affirmed their belief in their personal agency (Bandura 2001) and found the idea of persuasive power of games to be ludicrous. On the other hand, upon requesting a more considered engagement with the debate in order to formulate a response to detractors, responses were produced that signalled the true breadth of the debate, the convolution inherent in players/citizens/humans’ ability to articulate seemingly diverse practices and moral belief systems and the lack of explication that research has so far offered (“I’m simply pleased to see that the researcher seems to be genuinely interested in… computer gaming, not simply ‘researching’ to push a pre-determined agenda” NavyGothic 2006).
During this project, an exchange of ideas amongst game players was achieved via weekly game clubs that provided both regular-access to participants and permitted exploration of a range of game texts. The game clubs also functioned to permit direct and pseudo-longitudinal observations of game play and effortlessly allowed the initiation of discussions in response to play as it was experienced. Five schools throughout the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions of Te Ika-a-Māui (Aotearoa/New Zealand’s North Island) granted the project access to their students. Typically students were either attracted to the project through recruitment notices advertising the project, or participated as part of their class time for project-related academic subjects (Information Technology or Media Studies). Most of the game clubs were conducted on-site at the schools, with the exception of one school that allowed their students to attend a club on the university campus. Teachers invariably attended the first few sessions but then allowed the research to function autonomously. In total, sixty-one students (53 male and 8 female) participated in the research, which ran for the duration of a full school year.
In order to begin portraying young peoples’ relationship with games that utilise ‘violent’ content more precisely, theoretical insights from Game Studies regarding the form and nature of game texts, were also employed as a framework for understanding and exploring how the rule-governed systems of games invite, demand and permit different forms of conflict-based engagement. At the same time, a range of techniques were applied to assist players articulate their experiences, perceptions and interpretations of their game practices. For example, participants were asked to discuss footage of US news media coverage and analysis of the Virginia Tech shootings that quickly jumped to the conclusion that games were behind the tragedy (despite no evidence). Weekly ‘game clubs’ were organised in order to give the research greater access to participants and allow exploration of a range of game texts, identified and nominated by participants for their desirability and playability. Within ‘game clubs’ observations of game play (immersion, engagement and flow) together with focus group discussions and individual interviews constituted the key methods of data collection. This paper takes as its focus the issue of attaining a sense of what players comprehend and take from their playing experiences. In particular it asks whether it is appropriate to categorize what occurs in games as ‘violence’.
Findings were very rarely presented as discrete expressions, but were instead derived from a range of encounters that together possessed a connotative quality. This holds implications for how the project is disseminated, as work of this nature typically demands verbatim quotes as evidence for what is being argued. This would not be an unreasonable expectation given that the project carries the promise of delivering young people’s perspectives. However, it was not assumed that research participants “possess a preformed, pure informational commodity” (Gubrium & Holstein 2003) that could be extracted by simply asking questions and recording answers (Cicourel 1964). This subordinates the interpretive activity of the participants to the substance of what they report. Instead, what are presented as ‘findings’ often reflect an assemblage of different experiences with the same participants over time that emerged from witnessing their play, paying heed to conversations and our own participation in collaborative play. Beyond this players took further part in the analytical process when they were invited to evaluate the extent to which our analytical accounts were representative of the issues discussed and considered throughout the research process. Thus, while the remaining sections of this paper may present quotations from participant’s discussions, they should not be construed as the only data source associated with the meaning making process outlined here.
Throughout the project participants also determined which games were played, analysed and discussed. A number of consistent and popular choices were evident during the data collection phase of the project, such as Resistance: Fall of Man (Insomniac Games 2006), Dead Rising (Capcom 2006), Halo 3 (Bungie 2007) and Call of Duty 4 (Infinity Ward 2007). All games were rated R16 and played on either, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii consoles. The first two texts will be discussed here as they presented quite distinct motivations and pleasures for players.
As a first-person shooter (FPS) fantasy science fiction set in an alternative history that erases the Great Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II, Resistance: Fall of Man instead portrays the rise of the Chimera, a fictional alien race. The game packaging addresses players with the enticement: “When Russia closed their borders, we feared they were developing a weapon of unparalleled power. The truth was far worse…” It is revealed during the course of the game that the Chimera are extraterrestrial in origin who increase their numbers by infecting humans with a ‘mutagenic virus.’
When discussing games such as Resistance: Fall of Man players revealed the tensions inherent within the hybrid modality of games, as their accounts shifted variably between assenting to the ‘prior’ of the narrative and the ‘present’ of its realisation. In doing so, players variously acknowledge the constant negotiation between traces of the “representational” as it is subsumed within, and evoked by the “orientational” and “presentational” truths operating within the game (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996). The ‘creative mutation’ of digital games are perceived partially as constituting a fictive space that contains a range of semiotic resources that corroborate an understanding of combat, that determines the flow and force of events. Yet, within this, a subtle blurring occurs, in which the imperative of the game and the modality of the FPS genre can often confound the knowledge that inheres the narrative backstory, and vice versa. For example, players picked up on how Resistance Fall of Man elicits and privileges advancement, momentum and incursion rather than the acts of occupation and colonisation in its assemblage, as this is more suited to the rules of the game system over the demands of warfare.
Players’ views revealed greater attentiveness to more immediate encounters with what were best characterised as existents, actors and settings (Chatman 1980). These are programmed, not with “hostile intents” (Juul 2001) but pose the greatest challenge, obstruction and threat to progress towards a winning state. In doing so, players’ engagements with player-to-game settings (such as Resistance: Fall of Man) are typically articulated, not as actions against discernable victims understood as “lives worth living” (Proctor 1995), but ‘schematic reasoning’ appropriate to particular orientation in a territory of scripts and rules — xpressed austerely by one player as: “when you’re killing people in a game you quickly start seeing them as just computer-like players”. Indeed, game history has shown us that it has not always been necessary for game players to engage with game narratives that utilise anthropomorphic representations, Missile Command (Atari 1980) being a case in point. What constitutes a ‘person,’ while understood, does not appear to be applied in such contexts irrespective of the representational attributes of the medium and the drive towards photo-realism employed by the industry. In making this point, employing a “concept of person as a purely moral concept” (Tooley 1973), it’s important to note that reference is being made here to discussions with players concerning exclusively war-themed or first-person-shooter games. This is in contrast to the role-playing genre which does indeed contain relationships that pre-exist the player (as protagonist), and which conform more strongly to conventional narrative, thus containing greater information on character situation, personal histories and personalities (Carr et al. 2006). Resistance: Fall of Man functions differently as the player is caught up in a brutal Darwinian struggle for survival against a superior race.
Observing game play in Resistance: Fall of Man underlined the intensity of the battle sequences that offer little time for players to linger on or explore alternative readings. The array of multiple resources or forces operating upon the player initiate a sentiment expressed by the game publicity, namely: “Never underestimate humanity’s will to survive’. Game semantics (narrative and plot) and syntax (oppositional forces and positions) combine to initiate a response that, regardless of ‘respawning’, calls into play a deep human predisposition to galvanize the “forward thrust of life” (Rogers, 1961). The key concern for players, as exhibited through game-play, was avatar-preservation rather than any premeditated malice or cruelty. As one player commented: “I kinda do whatever needs to be done, not more”. With only transitory refuge and a gun, cowardice is impossible, as the game conditions themselves trigger constant movement and repositioning whilst under fire and under threat from Chimera raids. One of the players interviewed for the research stipulated that “there’s violence and then there’s cruelty, which I believe are two different things… I try to avoid cruel games.” He went on to state that: “I don’t like the idea of, you know, torture, rape, pillage, you know the whole… I like the idea of killing but not the idea of cruelty, like in a cruel manner” For many players, war was a form of sanctioned blood-letting that is “legislated for by the highest civil authorities” and frequently obtains “the consent of the vast majority of the population” (Bourke 1999, 1) and a moral mode of engaging with the concept of killing and dying as opposed to games that offer contexts of contemporary inner city gang violence that entices the player to ‘become’ sociopathic.
The visual tropes constructed and employed by the developers of Resistance: Fall of Man clearly evoke Steven Spielberg’s (1998) resuscitation of filmic war re-enactment found in Saving Private Ryan, in which he shifted the genre into “new territories of verisimilitude” (Sturken 1997, 42). Spielberg applies a post-Vietnam representational logic that reflects the sensibility that “war is no longer about a greater good but becomes intensely personal. Kids in combat are simply fighting to survive, fighting to save the guys right next to them” (Sturken 1997, 68). The influence of Saving Private Ryan on games is evident in texts like the Spielberg produced Medal of Honor (DreamWorks Interactive 1999), and Call of Duty (Infinity Ward 2003) in which emphasis upon the ‘lone wolf,’ once typical of the FPS-genre, like Wolfenstein 3D (id Software 1992), is displaced in favor of preservation of the ‘unit.’ The visual and auditory compositions of Saving Private Ryan allowed audiences to experience the carnage of war, presenting a “new kind of dying… uncut and uncensored” (Sturken 1997, 68). Resistance: Fall of Man may immerse players in the encounters of conflict, but it does not offer the same gruesome spectacle of fallen men, injured or dying. Voyeuristic spectatorship is exchanged for activity, for the player to endure and survive its fast-paced, frenetic and hazardous spaces.
Players did however make references to other games during discussions such as R18 game F.E.A.R (Monolith Productions 2006)  that offered players what Kingsepp (2003), using Bahktin, calls ‘carnivalesque death’. This is death that highlights “the bloody, the gory and the grotesque” (Kingsepp 2003, 2-3). Through incorporating ‘reflex’ or ‘bullet time,’ a mode of play that simulates John Woo’s (1992) tea house shootout in Hard Boiled and popularized by The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers 1999), the game world of F.E.A.R. is decelerated, allowing the player to observe otherwise imperceptible events, such as the trajectory of bullets. While this creates a tactical advantage for the player during encounters, it also emphasizes the corporeality of that encounter. Doherty (1998, 69) has argued that, “far from being horrifying and repulsive… war on screen is always exhilarating”. Players’ appeared to share this sentiment. If violence is genuinely considered morally abhorrent, when imitated as an entertainment form, its status as an “authentic fake” (Eco 1986) or a “thicket of unreality” positioned between the player and the “facts of life” (Boorstin 1992) offers distinct pleasures that are embraced and revered as thrilling, intriguing and compelling. F.E.A.R. possesses a generic hybridity (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson 1985) that purposefully combines the distinctive stylistic flourishes of action films (“defeating the enemy with style,” F.E.A.R. developer Craig Hubbard) with the accentuated visceral nature and “pleasurable tensions” (Tudor 2002) associated with both Western and Japanese horror respectively.
When textual detail is exhibited in virtual combat, as for example, enemies stumble backwards having sustained a shot to the shoulder or are felled by a shot to the leg, it also serves to reconfirm the players’ embodied presence as they witness the impact and accuracy of their aim. Players articulated the experience less as a desire for carnage and blood lust, than as generating a sense of agency during their game-play experiences. Yet, by witnessing carnivalesque deaths that are more protracted, it is plausible to argue that the status of the enemy in games like F.E.A.R. is raised—which somewhat runs against the earlier argument that the existent is simply an obstacle. However, observations of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward) revealed how it not only employed confirmatory visual signifiers of player actions, such as blood spraying and staining, but that such textual detail could be experienced in a detached fashion during players’ use of long-range sniper rifles. Even so, sensory immersion is ruptured by reassertion of the ‘gameness’ of the game in the instant where existents disappear from the screen. Kingsepp (2003; 2007), when discussing Medal of Honor, makes the same observation, describing the event as ‘postmodern death’—similar to Baudrillard’s (1991) notion of a ‘clean’ war, owing to its highly sanitized media representation of death. Reconfirming players’ articulation of the experience of gaming that illustrated a folding, unfolding and refolding (Deleuze 1988) of representational, orientational and presentational forces, the imperative drive of the game is reaffirmed by clearing up obsolete existents rather than have the player wade through virtual corpses suggestive of an excessive slaughter. In doing so, the game’s ‘flow state’ (Csíkszentmihályi 1990) preserves the fragile illusion of the authenticity of a guerilla warfare experience in the face of its improbable scenarios and its over-reliance and utilization of existents as obstacles.
As an interactive re-fashioning of George A. Romero’s (1978) Dawn of the Dead, videogame homage Dead Rising directly mimics the context of Romero’s original violent satire by trapping the player in the shopping mall of a suburban morass. As an interactive text, the game further immerses the player in Romero’s apocalyptic vision through its ‘swarm technology,’ that surrounds the player with hundreds of slow moving flesh-eating zombies (anything up to 800 on screen zombies at a time). Dead Rising emerged as a significant and popular text as its accentuated and absurd digital bloodlust allowed players to cite the game text in critiques of ‘effects research’ that has fostered the popular characterization of the engrossed gamers as ‘zombie’.
Referring to Dawn of the Dead, Romero (1982) commented that ‘it carries things to such an absurd degree that we know it is absurd. Nothing I do will have a causative effect. No one is going to come out of [the film] and eat anyone.’ Yet, in 2006 Dead Rising was refused a rating in Germany by the Federal Verification Office for Youth Endangering Media, making selling the game a criminal offense. The experience offered by the game centres around Willamette Parkview Mall, which spreads the terror of a zombie infiltration across the mall’s multiple floors, themed areas, roller coaster, supermarket, movie theatres, park, and an underground maintenance tunnel system. The mall area itself contains six sections simulating the variety of shops all containing a wealth of interactive objects that can be used as weapons or improve the player’s health.
In contrast to Resistance: Fall of Man, player motivations to engage with Dead Rising significantly included the variety and forms of zombie deaths that Romero, and his special effects artist Tom Savini, describe having so much fun inventing and constructing. Zombie film deaths are commonly described as ‘gags,’ which invokes the harmless facsimiles of disgusting objects (e.g. fake vomit or excrement) or terrifying states (e.g. arrow through head) available for practical jokers to purchase. Indeed, the tools employed by traditional horror film productions (latex, fake blood etc.) are often put to use in comedic scenarios. For example, Dawn of the Dead contains a memorable zombie attack on a character who is sitting at a mall-based blood pressure reading device. In leaving just a dismembered arm attached to the machine, the zombies send the victim’s reading off the scale. Jamie Russell argues that the comedy so commonly associated with the zombie genre serves to exaggerate the horror “by making us even more aware of just how ridiculously vulnerable the flesh is” (2006, 95). Dead Rising too emphasizes the relationship between comedy and violence through the sheer variety of ways in which zombies can be creatively and often humorously halted. Utilizing the contents of the mall, zombie deaths can be inflicted with almost any item. Players were observed using golf clubs, cash registers, children toys, guitars and shower-heads (that sends a cascade of blood over the infected when inserted in the top of their head). Soccer balls may not kill zombies but they too were used effectively to pummel a crowd of the undead and clear pathways for their avatar. Merchandising too, is fittingly inserted amongst the malls artifacts made available to players, allowing the developers to slot in inter-textual references to other games (e.g. battle axe from Blizzard’s (2004) World of Warcraft) and films (a lawnmower allows the player to replay the infamous scene from Peter Jackson’s 1992 film Braindead).
Beyond the expected pleasures of the game, players also commonly experienced unanticipated enjoyment and reflection from their engagement with Dead Rising. Much like Resistance: Fall of Man, confounding the anticipation associated with acting upon a game environment and its possibilities for the player, the game text was again found imposing itself upon players. Thus, while players were drawn to factors, such the technical achievement of producing a fully accessible virtual mall that allowed both consumerism as play and the creative disposing of zombies, they were also able to reflect on the inherent satire that the game reproduces. Indeed it was difficult for players to avoid the games satirical intent when non-interactive cut-scenes containing the games underlying message disrupted the process of play. An example of this included the cut-scene that presented the owner of a supermarket, lamenting the death of consumerism over and above his own demise. As he faces death on the shop floor he asks: “Who will run it when I’m gone?” before crying out “my food, my sales… my customers”. The shop manager’s outburst was perceived and understood as placing greater emphasis on the preservation of the culture of consumption over the individual, suggestive that the manager had already lost his soul. Indeed, when questioned in interviews as to who the zombies are, Romero typically adopts Peter’s assertion from Dawn of the Dead, that ‘they’re us!’
Despite seemingly enticing the carnivalesque, Dead Rising offered players an enhanced digital encounter with Romero’s zombie-mediated critique of society’s value-structures. Unusually, little is lost in its translation from film to game. Instead, much is gained, as players are drawn into, and reflect upon the way the experience of ‘consumerism as play’ also leads to an equivalent of post-purchase dissonance. Recognizing too, the absurdity of limitless and inventive digital carnage. For players stigmatized by opinion makers for their investment in game texts, the extreme nature of the game only served to further illustrate what they perceive as the preposterous nature of claims made by moral entrepreneurs who unimaginatively and conveniently scapegoat interactive games in response to violent crime. Furthermore, in an age where malls, as self-promoted public spaces, have become anything but that, as evidenced by not only their design, but also the banning of teens that sport hooded sweatshirts (or hoodies) from shopping malls in countries like the UK, Dead Rising offers players an opportunity to resist the forces that control social spaces. Like the hard boundaries that confine and limit the players’ movements in games and life, the collective force of the zombie transforms them from soft boundaries to something more dense and impassable, something that requires resistance in order to unlock space and release themselves. The game player is pitted against the environment (Atkins 2003) as much as their antagonists. Survival becomes firmly connected to spatial mastery. As Aarseth has pointed out with reference to the game Myth (Bungie Software 1997), “when the chaos of battle erupts, efficient control is no longer possible” much then depends on how well the player has taken note of formation, landscape variation, and knowledge of enemy positions (1997, 11).
There is a necessity to acknowledge not only the participation of ‘authoritative voices’ commenting on the nature of violence and its relationship with gaming but also to accept and listen to the voices of game players. It also needs to be noted that they too are constrained by the discourse of legitimation employed by modern science, that have absolved the need for alternative modes of expressing the complex way in violence is applied within interactive texts. Public discourse around gaming has served to confine our thinking on, and accounts of, the way games appropriate violence in their themes, imagery and the performances they elicit. In doing so, we lack the means of accounting for the intensities that players experience that involve a complex dynamic between other mediated experiences such as contemporary cinema, the pleasures of game spectacle and special effects, as well as the intensities of the game performance itself that offers many obstacles for the player to overcome.
Players’ viewpoints were wedded to dominant public discourse surrounding gaming that often proved to be ill informed and incapable of capturing the content, nature and scope of gaming experiences. Reflexive weaknesses suggestive of a “naïve gaze” (Bourdieu 2000) are resolved through the performative potency of witnessing and engaging with players as they encountered and experienced the challenges assembled by developers’ and exploit the various forces of genre, historical knowledge and the competitive state of gaming. The research was able to highlight the richness of players’ taste practices in terms of what they were capable of acquiring from an experience with a single game text, yet there was also evidence of self-imposed taste boundaries and a dominant mode of appreciation, referring to the preference for the aesthetic of historical warfare. Even within a distinctive genre the paths to pleasure remained varied and intricate. Most importantly for this work, it has been possible to begin the process of ‘freeing’ players from the damaging effects of unthinkingly employing a ritualised discourse suggestive of an attachment to games founded on the desire and intent to kill and mutilate others.
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 ‘Videogame Violence: Understanding its seductions and pleasures for young people in New Zealand’ is funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand: Marsden Fund (06-UOW-042).
 The project only permitted the playing of R16 games during game clubs, but participants inevitably cited and discussed experience with other games that have been classified as R18.
Gareth Schott holds a PhD in psychology in which he specialized in critical psychology (social constructionism & post-modern theory). He is principally interested in the pleasures associated with new media technologies and the manner in which they mediate behavior and personal and social development. His most recent research, publications and conference papers have focused on the ‘players’ of, and cultures surrounding, digital and electronic games. Recent and ongoing projects include: female gamers and their relationships with game culture, game fandom, the textuality of videogames and videogame art. Gareth teaches in the Screen Media Program at Waikato University in Aotearoa/New Zealand and he is also a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the University of London (UK).
The Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) has over 11.5 million players worldwide and growing (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008), making it one of the most popular MMORPGs in the world. In MMORPGs, players purchase software and create a game character based on a limited range of preset options (their ‘role’ in the game), then use the character to explore and interact with hundreds of other players in a given server within a persistent virtual world, in which events continue to occur while the player is logged out of the game. In World of Warcraft, this persistent world takes the form of a fantasy realm of quest-exploration in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien as well as older European folk tales, and drawing particularly on the genre of the conflict-oriented, role playing game: warring factions, fantastical creatures, exotic natural landscapes, and basic differentiated character abilities and talents from which a player can select and then build upon in the course of his or her adventures.
What makes World of Warcraft so popular? How can we understand its global mass appeal? How do its ‘fantastical elements’ function to attract and sustain the intense interest of millions of users? In this article I argue that these elements overlay and cipher a gamic milieu that is infused with “social realism”— that is: “some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context… transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again” (Galloway 2004, emphasis in original). This concept of social realism provides a crucial means of interpreting the gamic and thematic elements of World of Warcraft as artifacts arising from a post 9/11 zeitgeist in which corporate privatization accompanies renewed justifications for geopolitical conflict and concomitant concerns over development and security (both security states and states of security). I argue that this occurs in two ways:
(1) the game draws on generic and historical elements which reproduce ideologically loaded elements and themes that constitute a neoconservative allegory of international relations;
(2) the way in which these are employed, in conjunction with other gamic elements, suggests that the game operates through an unstated discourse of ‘development’ based largely around a logic of utility, consumption, and an idealized form of labour and free trade.
These features are legible in World of Warcraft’s depiction of the moral and developmental attributes of different races, the historically-derived aesthetics of the game, and the context of conflict play (irreconcilable conflict between two factions consisting of a handful of major civilizations with essentialized traits). It is also infused throughout every aspect of gameplay: how players select and deploy their avatars, how socio-economic interactions transpire, and what is required of players in order to advance in the game.
This theme has already been explored by a number of scholars. Langer (2008) argues that World of Warcraft’s iconography replicates a system of othering that draws on historic and contemporary discourses of race and subject-object positioning as they occur within a hegemonic Western (particularly American) social ideology. World of Warcraft can therefore be read as an allegory of contemporary real-world geopolitics. Similarly, the capitalistic aspects of World of Warcraft are addressed by the likes of Scott Rettburg (2008), who argues that the game is a functional simulacrum of corporate ideology which celebrates market capitalism as it trains its players to hone skills and behaviors necessary for a corporate economy. Küklich additionally analyzes World of Warcraft in terms of the way in which it is a virtual world which functions as a social factory, “in which all social life is part of economic production, and economic production is suffused by social life” (2009, 348). Seen in this way, World of Warcraft not only replicates a mode of governmentality in which the virtual world is ‘naturalized’, but also displays salient features of global capitalism as they have arisen in an era of neoliberal economic policies.
This article seeks to build on these observations by integrating such analyses with a more detailed account of other salient features of World of Warcraft. The iconography and gameplay of World of Warcraft are not only, respectively, representative of discourses of othering in the former, and advanced capitalism in the latter. The goals and gameplay of World of Warcraft render the virtual world of Azeroth akin to what Samuel P. Huntington (1996) has described as “a clash of civilizations”, and treat play, labour, resource use and performance in ways that are strikingly akin to the ideology of economic and subjective privatization. What this article will demonstrate is the way in which these discourses are enmeshed in the game, representing the specific points at which neoconservatism and privatization intersect, where the goals and features of these overlapping, yet not entirely cohesive discourses combine to form a powerful set of ideological claims in which encounters with others are defined by either competition or extermination. World of Warcraft, in other words, stands at the ideological nexus of neoconservatism and privatization in its post-9/11 moment.
A complete survey of the philosophical and practical tenets of neoconservatism is obviously well beyond the scope or intent of this article, but we provide a brief sketch here. Although the term ‘neoconservatism’ is inherently contentious, it nonetheless has some features which are widely ageed-upon. Generally speaking, neoconservatism is rooted in classical liberalism insofar as its primary emphasis is on the promotion of individual rights and freedoms. The primary means of securing these rights is by pursuing neoliberal economic policies, as well as particularly through aggressive unilateralism to counteract ‘evil’ in the world, couched as violations of (liberal) human rights. Although there are myriad debates and examples to draw from here, a highly influential endeavor in this vein is Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), which could be said to epitomize contemporary neoconservatism. The basic premise of the book is that the primary generator of conflict in the new millennium is the religio-cultural differences between the world’s major civilizations, each vying for primacy: Western (Europe, Australasia and North America), Orthodox (the former Soviet bloc and Balkan peninsula), Latin American, Islamic, Hindu, Sinic (China and the Indo-Chinese diaspora), Japanese, and Buddhist (Mongolia, Tibet, and the rest of Indo-China) (possibly nine, as he tenuously includes Sub-Saharan Africa in the ‘African’ civilization). To this end, Huntington warned that some cultural and demographic features may be more likely to drive bloody conflict than others (particularly Islam). Understandably, this book was thrust into the limelight after 9/11, whereby the zeitgeist cast the emergence of radical Muslim terrorists and militant American unilateralism as a clash of civilizations (undoubtedly assisted by Chinese economic prowess and revamped authoritarianism in Russia). Indeed political rhetoric shortly after 9/11 often drew explicitly from the book’s terms, which are reputedly referred to with frequency in the halls of power—not only among neoconservative think-tanks in Washington, but also by Indonesian parliamentarians and Muslim clerics. Copies are reportedly even distributed among soldiers stationed in Iraq.
Here it is important to note that Huntington’s book is emblematic of the neoconservative rendering of global power blocs and conflicts, but neoconservatives were frequently divided over the extent to which liberalism should be promoted as a means to combat the potential rise of fundamentalism. This aspect was amplified in the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush Administration, which, although clearly drawing on Huntington’s rendering of the parameters of and impetus behind global conflict, recast the conflict in much starker terms—good and evil, with us or against us—although rarely followed through on the full implications of these absolute yet not entirely clarified differences (for example, clearly leveraging Islamaphobia for political purposes while also stating that war was not with Islam or Muslim cultures more generally). Rendering the world in such ways, particularly in times of war, necessarily entails othering, where cultural and racial traits may be conflated with an array of ethics such as ‘hard work’ and other forms of capitalistic discipline (cf. Nelson 1998). Such discourses are not entirely new, but the compression of individual discipline and American ‘civilization’, under a banner of tacit white hegemony and shaped for capitalistic interests, took on a new urgency and character with the advent of the War on Terror (Kusz 2007). Further, as Stempel (2006) argues, these qualities are placed within a fundamentally moral universe, whereby there is a sense of moral superiority based on American exceptionalism. This includes the uniqueness of American institutions, moral certitude, and economic and military power (which nonetheless is intimately linked with Judeo-Christian, European antecedents). In some senses, then, the discourses of 19th century imperialism are recast in the 21st century under the terms ‘globalization’ and ‘War on Terror’ (see Pilger 2002).
In this respect, neoconservatives of the post 9/11 era took to heart Huntington’s warnings about civilizational clash (particularly in the case of Islam), but rejected the notion that liberalism is not universal and may be inimical to certain cultures, pointing to examples like Japan—a culturally distinct nation which nonetheless harbors multiple features of Western liberalism in its economic and governmental institutions. In short: all civilizations have the equal right to exist and operate equally well on their own terms, so long as this is via universal democratic values (which implies liberal institutions and economics); but the West is the most powerful and advanced (in every respect) and must act in order to make the world a more just and peaceful place. In certain respects it is a teleological viewpoint: what makes the West ‘better’ is the stability and prosperity afforded to it by the full spectrum implementation of institutions and policies based on liberalism. To this end, neoconservatism might be summarized as relying on four related claims:
(1) each civilization has essential cultural traits;
(2) different civilizations have reached different levels of development, which in some renderings may have a moral quality;
(3) each civilization must deal with non-state actors who threaten the security and integrity of the state system (which may be another way of saying the security and integrity of business);
(4) since all civilizations are vying for primacy, we must know who ‘we’ are and which values should prevail in this struggle (meaning liberal values).
This article argues that these notions are incarnated and exemplified by World of Warcraft, on a number of levels.
World of Warcraft is a game that draws heavily on elements that have come to be commonly understood as part of the fantasy genre. Significantly, this fantasy context “provides a rationale for the way that the player-character is assigned a particular, predetermined, morally and emotionally loaded history and identity” (Krzywinska 2005). As such, it portrays a world which closely resembles the technology and social order of medieval Europe, with a few elements of other times, peoples and locales mixed in (more of which below). There are more advanced technological items, like crude robots and firearms, but even these are affixed within the largely medieval look and feel of things.
Azeroth is a world populated by a huge array of creatures, both friendly and dangerous, and magic and enchantments and play an integral role. When the player first starts the game, they are asked to create a character, and must choose to belong to one of two factions, Alliance or Horde. A player can create many different characters, but can only play in the same server as a character in one faction or the other—if a player wishes to play a character from the other faction, they must play on a different server. Each faction consists of a number of ‘races’. For the Alliance, there are Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves, Night Elves, and Dranei (somewhat demon-ish looking creatures with more or less blue skin). For the Horde, there are Orcs, Trolls, Blood Elves, Undead, and Tauren (based somewhat on minotaurs).
In PvP (player versus player) servers, players who belong to different factions may kill each other on sight (and interestingly cannot understand each other as they speak different languages—or rather whatever is typed by a player from one faction comes out as gibberish to a player from the other faction). One can expect imminent death if one wanders into the heart of enemy territory: if an Orc comes within sight of the high level guards (non-player game characters) who patrol the Alliance city of Stormwind, that Orc will be pursued and probably killed. This is the overarching context of play: exploring a world full of friendly and hostile creatures/players, wherein the faction to which one belongs determines whether such figures are to be dealt with through cooperation or through combat.
The differentiations between the game’s races illustrates the ways in which, despite ostensible parity between race and class abilities, there is nonetheless an inferred hierarchy in the way Horde and Alliance races are depicted. Langer (2008) argues that the iconography of the races in World of Warcraft, drawing on referents to real-world cultures, replicate a ‘familiar’ versus ‘other’ dichotomy, in which Alliance is familiar and Horde is the other. First this is reflected in the extent to which each race resembles real-world peoples, via elements such as culture, accents, and other signifiers. The Tauren, for instance, have a cultural aesthetic that is clearly drawn from American Indian cultures: there are totem poles, dwellings that look somewhat like a cross between a teepee and a wigwam, and references to elders (as a druid, a player must also fulfill a quest in which s/he is given a ‘vision guide’ that resembles a wolf). In such ways the allegorical links become clear in all of the races:
[T]rolls correspond directly with black Caribbean folk, particularly but not exclusively Jamaican; tauren represent native North American people (specifically Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes); humans correspond with white British and white American people; and dwarves correlate to the Scottish… certain cues such as hairstyles and body shape suggest that orcs represent colonial depictions of black people in general, and the undead seem to represent a sort of ‘pure’. Otherness centered in Kristevan abjection… [while] Blood elves, the newest Horde race, seem on the surface to upset the familiar/foreign schema of the factions, but I would argue that they are portrayed largely as analogues to drug addicts, particularly narcotics addicts, a class of people who are marginalized within white Western society rather than locked outside of it. Gnomes, draenei and night elves have similar sliding significations, with the night elves in particular seeming at times to represent a stereotyped East Asianness, with their Japanese torii gates and their ‘Darnassus Kimchi’ (Langer 2008, 89).
More problematically, these allegorical links are accompanied by descriptions of racial traits in which Horde races are frequently described as being ‘savage’ or corrupted in some way, as well as being ostensibly ‘ugly’ in the case of Orcs, Trolls and the Tauren, who are large, animalistic creatures replete with tusks, horns, and famously among the Trolls, bad breath—meanwhile Alliance races are afforded the moral complexity to avoid such essentialism. Therefore the allegorical links are extended to every aspect of the depiction of each race, with the result of delineating ‘familiar’ from ‘other’ in ways that have real world referents. But of course this hierarchical delineation does not end with race-based subject-object positioning.
The dichotomy between the races is not merely one of familiar versus other on racial/cultural terms. Alliance races also possess other artifacts which have been historically linked with advancement or development: Gnomes are brilliant engineers and are in the process of mechanizing their weapons as this edition of World of Warcraft begins (they have even built menial robots); Dwarves have crafted crude, but able guns; all three are clearly superior building engineers compared to their horde counterparts. In short, the Alliance (though possibly not the Night Elves) show all the signs of being on the verge of industrialization. The Horde races, meanwhile, possess no firearms, and have weapons that are sturdy but very crude. The game’s implicit backstory implies that the Horde have superior numbers and physical prowess on their side against their lack of technological wizardry—Tauren, Orcs and Trolls are all significantly larger in numbers than any of the Alliance races.
There seems to be a strategy in these passages to allow players to identify with the plight of these races while still acknowledging the way in which they were linked with savagery and evil both within the fantasy genre and with previous incarnations of Warcraft—a canon that one presumes this game may be trying to leave behind in the interest of cultural relativism. This sort of framing and use of language has a well-established history, akin to what Dickinson, et. al (2006) describe as “landscapes of looking”: the rhetoric and symbolism that is inscribed on historical and cultural sites, particularly in the (re)construction and representation of marginalized peoples. Further, museums and memorials for American Indians in particular invite a “respectful, but distanced observational gaze” (Dickinson et. al. 2006, 27), that frequently invokes a notion of ‘nobility’ as a means of assuaging white guilt over what many now believe to be genocide, and cannot help but be brought into a discourse of exoticism, memory and “technological looking” from the point of view of the majority (Dickinson et. al. 2006, 34-40). I am not suggesting here that Blizzard Entertainment looked to museum displays for inspiration, although that this discourse is well known and even taken for granted in the United States (where Blizzard Entertainment is based). Again, this persistent ‘museum display’ suggests that, while weighted with despair over the near (as well as successful) obliteration of whole cultures and peoples, also stresses the ‘nobility’ of these marginalized groups in the face of inevitable defeat at the hands of technological and economic superiority, and gives due credit to the achievements of less ‘advanced’ societies.
Thus there is a direct link made between ugliness, brutishness, etc. and a ‘lesser’ stage of technological development. The much more handsome, mannered, and good Alliance, by contrast, appear to be more ‘advanced’. Given the conflict-centered narrative of World of Warcraft and the game’s extensive homage to real world peoples in real history, establishes a clear hierarchy where the winner is—to some extent predetermined—and the ‘good guys’ wield superior technology, which the ‘bad guys’ can only combat through the superior power of their own brute force and morally questionable tactics and magic. Crucially, the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is rooted in mutual mistrust. Open warfare is the only means through which differences can be resolved (there is little, if any, reference to diplomacy). It is the combination of these particular elements of the text that resembles the features of the clash of civilizations if read a certain way. Like the neoconservative world, World of Warcraft is divided between various cultural blocs, and there is an inferred hierarchy here that (perhaps unwittingly) resembles earlier Orientalist discourses and is bound up with a discourse of development.
All that said, to say that Humans or their Alliance counterparts are inherently the privileged or natural locus of identification is to oversimplify this text, as well as being a somewhat limited rendering of the way in which both the game and the genre allow for a multiply positioned stance. Certainly such motifs are problematic, but it should be noted that there is otherwise no ostensible difference in the relative power of either faction here: for players of the same level, they will have subtly different, but altogether comparable abilities, since all races have comparable levels of military might and magical powers. Most players tend to have characters who are both Alliance and Horde, and a well known truism among players is that although brand new players tend to gravitate toward human characters as their first character, experienced players tend to prefer to play (and identify with) Horde. What is in fact far more problematic is the manner in which the gameplay mechanics of World of Warcraft establish a particular relationship between race and Azeroth itself.
For all intents and purposes, each race is a state power: they have a ‘home’ territory and outposts in ‘contested’ territory, and crucially, they each have unwanted populations within their home territories, which include what are effectively either tribal populations or dangerous insurgents in the form of cults and crime syndicates. Numerous quests entail eliminating these groups, who occupy the hinterland. Barbarian creatures are intelligent enough to make weapons, construct villages, and have some understanding of magic, but who appear not to have a very advanced culture, economy or discernible language (or perhaps it is not worth knowing). Other organizations are powerful and ‘civilized’, but do not have resources comparable to the ‘state’ actors. Although there seems to be a development hierarchy among the races of Azeroth, each of the races matters in the outcome of the game’s storyline and as stated above are afforded some legitimacy in terms of their right to exist and their ability to wield significant power to such ends. In addition to holding territory, each race has a relatively complex history, social structure, and economy; in short, the races are not merely states, but civilizations.
No such privileges are afforded to other intelligent life in Azeroth: they have little say in world affairs, have little ability to protect themselves from the wanton incursions of ‘superior’ invaders, and there is little sign of anything more than either a subsistence or parasitic economy. Nor is it ever suggested that the state of things could or should be otherwise. This lack of agency therefore makes them little different from the ‘wild’ creatures and plants that populate Azeroth, to be exploited by the civilizations in whose territory they dare to exist. Indeed the relationship between such groups and the races is explicitly colonial: they are not there merely to be dominated and exploited, they are there to be repeatedly killed so that their killers can take their stuff. Indeed, as with all resources in Azeroth, their chief value is in their ability to endlessly regenerate—they are killed over and over in order to provide money and goods for players from each civilization. One gets the sense that the tribal groups are ancient and indigenous to the areas they occupy and have been colonized by one or more of the races, although this is not made explicitly clear. In most cases, in fact, it seems as if these groups share indigeneity with a race in their territory, but have ended up on the wrong end of ‘progress’ with lesser military and religio-magic power as well as lower population. This implicitly justifies a race’s domination of these groups: presumably they are intelligent and have had access to the same resources over the same time period, and they did not ‘do’ anything with it. So it is that the land and its inhabitants are used in a quasi-imperialistic manner, for the purposes of expanding the influence and self-preservation of the dominant culture.
Such themes are not without precedent. The entire notion of thinking of lands and peoples as resources to be exploited is of course a widely critiqued notion. In recounting the history and effects of (chiefly European) colonialism, theorists note that domination of colonized peoples was not merely military or economic, but also hegemonic and discursive. Discursive domination in particular dealt not only with the discourse of authority wielded by colonial administrators, but also in the very way in which the colonists conceptualized the world, be it according to a discourse of essentialized subject/object positioning (Said 1978), or the problems associated with attempting to undermine this sort of discourse while at the same time having to draw on it and work within and against its terms (Spivak 1988). Further, since the collapse of European empires, such discourses continue to be replicated through media and usually are wrought in conjunction with other discourses concerning notions of global development according to Western terms, and according to a teleological, evolutionary and rational techno-capitalist understanding of ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ (Rist 2002). Such notions are so ideologically ingrained as to be naturalized, to the extent that even ostensibly economic terms carry the weight of a culturally-derived notion of history and progress.
Intriguingly, there are aspects of the way the game configures the player that can at once undermine an overt reading of the text in this way and yet at the same time ingrain it further. That is to say, the player’s guilt can be assuaged, no matter how much genocidal and ecological havoc they raise: all creatures always respawn (that is, reappear) after a relatively short period of time, and thus they are ‘always’ there, and can never be wiped out. Naturally this has to be the case, as otherwise the first player to complete a quest wherein they must destroy a certain number of creatures or sentient cultures would denude the world, and nobody else would get to complete such a quest. However, we should not discount the underlying message here: that all creatures and resources in Azeroth are effectively limitless, exist solely for the players’ use (and ultimate gain), and that this is the natural order of things. To that end, whatever it is these creatures do, they will ‘always’ be doing it, as there is little if any sense that they are meaningfully caught up in the narrative of global struggle among the races, and are not brought along, technologically or narratively, into linear history—they are not only without a knowable history, but exist out of time.
The conceptual framework of World of Warcraft, therefore, reiterates that there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’, that there are inherent and seemingly irreconcilable cultural differences drive conflict, and participation in this by individuals is inevitable—a participation in which consumptive self-interest and the civilization’s survival are conflated. In short, ‘civilization’ is fused with race, centered in a particular geographic area, and linked to a particular (and somewhat essentialized, homogenized) rendering of religio-cultural symbolism, within which the individual must participate in particular normative ways. And as in Clash of Civilizations, the different civilizations in World of Warcraft are each afforded their own cultural uniqueness which is valued across the board—but in the end we know who the good guys are. But of course this theme of exploitation, utility and hierarchy is not merely a feature of the thematic elements of the game—it is a central feature of gameplay.
To be sure, these correspondences do not necessarily imply effects nor are they likely to be an interpretation that leaps to the fore of every player’s understanding of the game. Further, I do not wish to state that the game has been built from contemporary context—it is clearly a fantasy, set in a fantasy world. Nonetheless such correspondences are noteworthy, given possible interpretations under certain social and gamic auspices. King and Krzywinska (2006), for example, argue that on the one hand, such contextual elements may completely recede to the background, particularly during gamic activity in which play requires task-oriented concentration, or by contrast, when it is routinized. However, such contextual elements may have more resonance (in certain cases directly affecting interpretation, meaning-making and player performances) given different social contexts, the generic and political interests and knowledge of the player, and those aspects of “games-as-playable-texts” that bring this context to the fore (King and Kryzwinska 2006). It is in this manner that I suggest, World of Warcraft has a degree of “social realism” (Galloway, 2004), because it ideologically fits the cultural moment of post-9/11 discourses, while also drawing on discursive and historical allegories concerning culture and notions of development, technology, and the teleology of ‘progress’. It is the social realism of a virtual world that is an allegory for the ‘real’ world—not only in terms of allegories for contemporary cultures, but also (particularly) an allegory for how the world ‘works’. In fact it is a particularly distilled and enhanced allegory by virtue of being, as Aarseth (2008) argues, a playworld far more akin to a theme park than a fictive world—its relatively small size and highly evocative elements underscore its status as a representational rather than material space. Where the correspondences to neconservatism are merely interpretive, however, the vast bulk of gameplay—indeed the primary locus of gameplay—is a direct application of the ideals of privatization.
First of all, when I say ‘privatization’ I am referring not only to the economic principles of privatization, but also the way in which the individual is privatized — the subject is separate from society and its structures, individual happiness and success is the goal of life, and this is achieved through individual merit. Therefore individuals must “seek individual solutions to socially created problems, and to implement such solutions individually, with the help of individual skills and resources,” and where the purpose of life “is presented as maximal consumer satisfaction, and life success [is] an increase in each individual’s own market value” (Bauman 2008, 20-21). Under this rubric, failed individuals have only themselves to blame for their own lack of achievement, and although happiness is defined through success and conflated with economic achievement, there can never be a maximum cap on this—a situation in which conspicuous consumption, one-upmanship and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ have tremendous social and ecological consequences. As Ann Rippin aptly puts it: “Consumption leads not to surety and satiety but to escalating anxiety. Enough can never be enough” (2007, 127).
Nonetheless this ideology is at its core idealistic and purports to emancipate and empower individuals: each person can succeed on the merits of his own labour, of which they are largely in control. This ideology is quite often tied to free market ideals in which governmental regulations, particularly via the welfare state, are seen to impinge on freedom insofar as they deplete the wealth of those who work hard and strive in life, redistributed to people who are not exercising their full human potential. Crucially, an individual’s participation in the marketplace, while encouraged, must not be coercive, and the fundamental impetus behind social interaction is free trade on a micro-scale: individuals entering into negotiations with each other with equal standing and for mutual benefit, based on supply and demand, and where governmental bodies do not interfere with the natural laws of the market. And of course ‘the market’ dictates prices only according to that which is marketized, meaning that values are set amorally: a situation in which there is no discrimination, but there may also be overlooked costs to things that are under-marketized or for which there is no set price (like the ‘cost’ to the environment of production). This is Ayn Rand’s universe of maximal freedom based on the application of individual capabilities, where individuals must bear the brunt of responsibility for both success and failure, social welfare and freedom is best sought and maintained through everyone applying themselves, and ‘safety net’ social structures not only encourage sloth, but actively inhibit the freedoms, destroy the wealth, and are parasitic of the labour of society’s most ambitious and talented contributors. The general ethos, therefore, is one in which individuals who apply their efforts and abilities are rewarded by an increase in economic and social capital. This ethos, interestingly, is foundational to gameplay in World of Warcraft.
The ostensible point of World of Warcraft is to create a character which the player advances through the game, and in this advancement the player goes on adventures, explores the world, and meets other people. The activity anchoring this, around which most gameplay takes place, is going on quests. Quests typically ask players to acquire something (whether it is artifacts, information, or what have you) in exchange for a reward. These rewards can be in the form of compensating the player with gold (the currency of World of Warcraft) or artifacts that directly benefit the player (armor, weaponry, scrolls, and other valuable materials). It is in the player’s interest to go on quests partly in order to explore the world (and occasionally, in sharing quests with others, having the satisfaction of completing these tasks with other people), but mainly so that the player can improve oneself through the acquisition of goods and gold harvested from killed creatures (called ‘drops’) and ‘advance’ in the game by improving one’s character. Indeed rewards are almost entirely utilitarian, almost never altruistic—even in quests in which the player is being asked to ‘help out’ a character, the player is notified upfront that s/he will be rewarded in specific ways. The player also acquires experience points by completing quests as well as every time a player kills something, makes something, or finds something. Accumulating experience points is how players achieve higher levels, through which players become more powerful and are therefore able to explore more of the world and go on more quests. This practice of constant advancement is called ‘leveling’, and it ultimately becomes the primary fixation of most players.
Although to be sure a significant part of the appeal of World of Warcraft (in certain respects its primary appeal) is exploring a fantastical world and socializing with other people in/through it, the means of doing this is best achieved by leveling in some capacity—it is an activity that compels exploration, compels interaction, and compels most relations (social and transactional) with other players in the game. Indeed in the experience of most players (and certainly this author), most ‘friends’ in the game are acquired not by chatting up other characters in the game (which is borderline unacceptable behavior), but rather by sending out calls for assistance on a quest—once the other person proves to be a useful and amiable companion, friendships are frequently struck up. Similarly, although it is a common experience for people to join and remain in guilds for social reasons (the stream of green-coloured guild chat in one’s window is a constant source of entertainment and camaraderie), higher level players may find that their guild is much more akin to their workplace, where their labour is constantly required for the benefit of guild members interested in going on difficult quests and raids, and where operations are run by a hierarchy that resembles a corporate structure (Rettburg 2008).
I say ’labour’ here rather than play because for all intents and purposes this is what playing for leveling is: labour for which the reward is personal advancement, and through which a person acquires both social and economic capital. Indeed even for players who have ‘made it’ by attaining the highest possible level, there is the potential for constant advancement. Some high level players flaunt their wealth and status through the acquisition and display of the rarest and most expensive items, as well as donning items like ‘town clothes’ which are different from the battle attire their character would otherwise wear. Further, every so often Blizzard releases expansion packs and raises the level to which one can rise, setting the bar ever higher. But of course this is what players want—as leveling and new stuff forms the core of play, this is also what keeps people interested and part of what players find gratifying. But it is also clear that in this situation playing the game is engaging in a form of labour, through which one advances and improves one’s character. This can be rendered quite literally in the gamic function of World of Warcraft’s ‘professions’: skills that players can develop to compliment their game character, which include things like tailoring, blacksmithing, alchemy, jewelcrafting, and others. Using these professions, players can create their own material or render their services for other players, which can be used for specific instances of gameplay or result even in accumulating real-world capital (more on this below).
This point becomes particularly clear upon closer examination of the economic activity of Azeroth. Within the game there are numerous auction houses, where players can buy and sell goods. Such goods may include ingredients for spells and potions, raw materials such as leather, basic health necessities like food, worked or value-added goods such as weapons that players have made special powers for, extremely rare drops, and items like fine clothing that are mere status symbols. As with any market, items that are both rare and highly sought after fetch the highest prices, skewed in price only to the extent that items which can only be used by high level players fetch higher prices because it is assumed that high level players have more gold. Players may also trade with each other directly, in whatever arrangement they deem mutually beneficial. To this end Azeroth is a free market proponent’s ultimate fantasy: there is no regulation of trade, all individuals have equal standing in the market and can enter into economic relationships of their own volition, and the wealth and standing of each individual is almost directly proportionate to their labour.
Although the game does not force or even ask players to take part in this economy, most players will almost certainly find it necessary to do so because of the structure of the game. As one example, as a player advances, quests tend to require travel over longer distances. Therefore one can spend a very long time jogging across whole continents, often through dangerous or at times monotonous areas with which the player is already familiar. The solution to this irritating feature is to buy a mount, first a terrestrial creature and ultimately some type of flying creature, that permits the player to travel significantly faster than on foot—and these are not cheap. The quickest way to acquire the funds to do this is through a mixture of ‘grinding’ (accruing experience, artifacts, and gold by staying in one location and continually killing creatures as they respawn) and selling things at auction. Therefore in order to be able to go on greater quests, a player may have to put tremendous amounts of time and effort into accruing the necessary capital, items and experience that makes questing a less frustrating and onerous activity. So it is with many other near and long term goals within the game, whereby the player may be grinding in order to level up, which allows the player to complete one quest, the reward for which is an item of high value that can be sold at auction, the funds with which the player may purchase another item which the player needs in order to complete another quest—and so on and so forth.
So just as in the real world labourers are confronted with a situation in which working to live becomes conflated with living to work, the player may find himself unable to discern the difference between leveling in order to improve one’s character and improving one’s character in order to achieve the next level. Indeed there is a kind of doubling effect here for some players, in that the demand for character building in World of Warcraft is great enough that World of Warcraft gold has become a real-world commodity, meaning that the outcome of their gaming labour can have real-world economic value. In extreme cases this has given rise to “gold farming” (more on this below) in which players or player bots grind or farm gold all day to sell on the black market (Dibbell 2007; Steinkuehler 2006; Taylor 2006a) and in one infamous instance a woman who sold her own body in exchange for 5,000 gold (Wachowski 2007). Of course, the irony here is that although labour in World of Warcraft could in theory have a set price, activities tend to transpire as if it does not or cannot. Since leveling up is a goal unto itself, and constitutes the main purpose and activity of the game, it is for all intents and purposes the only thing that the player can do. Gamic labour is what makes the game ‘fun': the challenge, camaraderie, and aesthetic appeal of the tasks the game sets, to the extent that this compelling work may become addictive. Indeed, as Scott Rettburg argues, “the principle reason why Blizzard has been able to build such a large and devoted audience for their flagship product is in fact because it offers a convincing and detailed simulacrum of a process of ‘becoming a success’ in a capitalist societies”(2008, 20).
Here it is worth reiterating that this entire system is based on a world with effectively limitless resources. Miners, lumberjacks and hunters abound—but hillsides are not moved, trees never fall, and game is bountiful. Indeed, as noted above, creatures in Azeroth can be killed ad infinitum, since they and whatever resources they contain via drops continually respawn. In fact the only potentially exhaustible resource is labour—whether there are enough people in the server to make the in-game economy run smoothly, whereby goods can be acquired relatively cheaply and easily. And labour, as it turns out, is cheap and plentiful indeed. Of course, maintaining a game of this type would be impossible without this functional structure—a truly resource-depleted Azeroth is an unplayable Azeroth. However it is worth pausing to consider other ways the game could have been oriented, like for instance through resource acquisition and conflict-based play concerning these resources. Certainly in the original version of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment 1994), which was a strategy game, it was possible to denude a map of its resources. The role playing function therefore significantly alters the nature of resources in Azeroth.
The orientation toward role playing therefore has a (perhaps unwitting) politics. First, a character’s power and status is a function of level and the goods the character has acquired in the process—power and status is obtained through individual accumulation, and indeed constant acquisition and increased power and status amount to the same thing. This is of course a predominating feature of innumerable games, from the more literal suburban accumulation of The Sims (Maxis 2000), to the more abstract accumulation of power-ups, lives, points and coins in Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega 1991). But the features of the MMORPG go further, whereby the gamic structures and the concomitant community inculcate in individual players a constant need to advance in the game via leveling for the greater status and potency this affords, and that the economic basis for an individual’s success is based on a world of truly limitless resources, and on the ability of the player to exploit these resources without ecological or political consequences. Obviously this closely resembles the ideal form of the ideology of privatization, as rendered above: individual, autonomous, and self-directed labour yields rewards commensurate with one’s efforts, which results in increased power and status (measured by affluence), inculcates highly visible and competitive forms of accumulation to which there is no end, and is ultimately based on an amoral market in which nothing has value unless and until it is marketized, with the result that some social and ecological effects of capitalism are disconnected from the production process.
This is the social realism of privatization in World of Warcraft: it is not ‘realistic’ as such, but rather is a fantasy that replicates the dominant paradigmatic context of the vast majority of players, a political reality which they may buy into to varying degrees. The fantasy that players are engaging in is wielding magic or weapons is superficial, the gameplay is focused on the player’s capacity to become wealthy and achieve status purely as a function of the input of their labour—an ideologically resonant notion to which most players can probably relate. Rettburg (2008), suggests that World of Warcraft essentially a simulacrum of the corporate work environment. However, I suggest that the game also obscures and denies other realities of the corporate work environment—players cannot be laid off, mobs do not diminish in value or abundance, and so on. Any activities or situations that disrupt the positively resonant aspects of the game, therefore, are most unwelcome.
Unfortunately, even in World of Warcraft the liberal ideals of privatization run into more sober economic realities, including the real-world socio-economic circumstances in which players are able to turn the system to their advantage. One example of this is power gaming: exploiting the rules and features of character traits as well as devoting untold hours to leveling as quickly as possible, which some players consider a form of cheating or, at least, that power gamers are a little too involved in the game, and thereby make things a little less fun for others (see Taylor, 2006b). There are social aspects of this, as well: not only are players encouraged to be competitive in their acquisition, they may find that they have to keep up with their peers in order to keep them: I have personally had the experience of losing touch with World of Warcraft ‘friends’ who progressed far enough ahead of my character that I could no longer be involved in the same quests, and therefore I was effectively barred from socializing with them because I could not go where they went—the level barrier functioned as a social barrier, replicating a humiliating feature of class and social position in the real world.
Perhaps the most striking example, however, is the practice of gold farming. As briefly alluded to above, gold farming is the nominally elicit practice of hiring players and/or creating bots to mine gold or grind in an area, and having accumulated this gold, sell it in the ‘real’ world marketplace to World of Warcraft players who do not wish to spend time doing this themselves. The practice represents an intrusion on the fantasy in the first instance because it means some players can become ‘wealthy’ within World of Warcraft without having ‘earned’ it—instead, they have used a priori superior capital to literally buy their way into high status. Moreover the process itself almost always relies on a means of production that is a common feature of advanced capitalism: Third (or Fourth) World labourers who must play the game purely instrumentally for long hours under poor conditions for poor pay, whose labour is exploited by the owners of the means of production, i.e. the owners of the computer ‘shop floor’ and their representatives to First World customers (see Dibbell 2007).
Meanwhile, beginning players therefore have a tougher time getting ahead and may find themselves having to solicit help in killing grinding bots or gold farmers in order to be able to do ‘legitimate’ grinding or gold farming themselves. Although Azeroth’s respawning creatures are never exhausted per se, the time it takes to await their regeneration effectively results in competition over limited resources, if one is to factor labour time as a limiting factor. Furthermore, gold farmers therefore present a challenge to autonomous labour in World of Warcraft, because, as Nakamura notes, “If late capitalism is characterized by the requirement for subjects to be possessive individuals, to make claims to citizenship based on ownership of property, then player workers are unnatural subjects in that they are unable to obtain avatarial self-possession”(2009, 141)—because the avatars on which they are working (and through which they labour) are not ‘theirs’, they are effectively alienated from their labour.
But not only are the injustices and inequalities of capitalism apparent in this respect, they are linked, both allegorically as well as literally, to racist discourses: resentment of gold farming quickly degenerates into racist disparagement of gold farmers, who are commonly thought to be (and not infrequently are) Chinese (Nakamura 2009; Brookey 2007; Steinkeuhler 2006). Effectively, they are the unwanted illegal workers who are ‘ruining’ the local economy and culture, but whose labour is in high demand—a striking, yet entirely predictable replication of the transference of the ‘unwanted’ aspects of late capitalism onto migrant labour. Some players have even taken to profiling and policing areas where gold farming is known to occur, Minuteman-style—surely it is only a matter of time, if it has not occurred already, before players are paid to do this on a permanent basis. And yet this resentment is understandable, since the practice directly affects skilled labour: it skews the market in which some players can lay claim to making a living off of the profession of one or more characters. This is in fact yet another facet of late capital, the collapse of play into labour, that in this case takes on the features of a Baudrillardian tragicomedy: “What do I do for a living? Well, I used to work as an alchemist in Azeroth, but the Chinese put me out of a job.” Therefore affects and effects of advanced capitalism (exploitation, inequality, resource scarcity, pitting workers against each other) and its concomitant discourses (racism, development, advancement, privatization) are replicated in World of Warcraft—the fantasy once again becomes an elusive illusion, dissipated by the harsh realities of the logic of capital. The game moves from simulation to simulacra.
World of Warcraft exhibits several features of a Western-oriented social ideology in its iconography and mode of gameplay. However this includes not merely salient features of an allegorical iteration of familiar and other (Langer, 2008), or aspects of corporate ideology (Rettburg, 2008) and governmentality (Küklich, 2009). Looked at in further detail, these and other elements of World of Warcraft resemble the claims and features neoconservatism and privatization: different race-cultures in Azeroth are essentialized, but perhaps even more problematically there seems to be a development-based hierarchy here that conflates primitivity with savagery and evil. Further, the depiction of the relationship between these races resembles aspects of a neoconservative understanding of global conflict. In all of these elements there is a conflation of a nominally imperialistic notion of global conflict on the macro level with the individual praxis of (lethal) martial power and accumulation on the micro level. The gamic elements, meanwhile, epitomize and inculcate an idealized form of privatization, whereby all of the promised myths of capitalism are delivered: individual, limitless advancement through one’s own labour, drawing on limitless resources and engaged in a truly free market. More to the point, the work of exploiting these resources is usually done by request (via a quest) and one’s domination of the subaltern creatures of Azeroth is therefore linked with the security of the race/faction to which one belongs. So there is a kind of doubling here: using the land and its inhabitants for one’s civilization is also using them for one’s own selfish, insatiable desire for accumulation and advancement. Moreover, violence against other groups is ideologically justified, whether because they present a threat or they are inherently inferior due to their state of development. In short: labour, consumption and what could be interpreted as imperialism are conflated in the same activity.
What the game highlights, therefore, is how certain aspects of neoconservatism and privatization have contrapuntal, if not wholly congruent, logics. What ties together neoconservatism and privatization is a firm belief not only in an Enlightenment view of the rational subject with inalienable human rights, but also the fact that humans act in self interest—in fact are selfish—and therefore commonly accepted values (based around a framework of classical liberalism) must be instilled and upheld in order to avoid violent chaos. Since such values rely on and are instilled by liberal systems, democratic freedom and economic freedom are frequently conflated. Obviously these are not wholly overlapping worldviews, but they have common adherents, most notoriously in George W. Bush’s administration, through which these adherents found common cause and application in a post-9/11 context. In this way civilizational essentialism, unilateralism, and the promotion of free trade (as well as, domestically, individualist rhetoric and attempts to deregulate and dismantle the welfare state) become enmeshed. World of Warcraft might therefore be read as a distillation of the point at which neoconservatism and privatization intersect in the post-9/11 moment. The game in fact exposes the ties between these notions: how certain aspects of their logics are congruent, and how these notions are in fact intertwined. To this end, the game intensifies the ideological features of both neoconservatism and privatization, and replicates real-world dichotomies between ‘competition’ (i.e. those we recognize as game competitors and who we wish to beat yet must engage with—meaning in the real world other civilizations and in World of Warcraft other races) and ‘extermination’ (i.e. those who cannot even be recognized as competitors and so may be destroyed—meaning in the real world terrorists and history’s ‘losers’, and in World of Warcraft both subaltern creatures and gold farmers).
Furthermore, the game’s aesthetics and mechanics indulge a form of social realism in which players act out the underlying logic of the neoconservative world order while at the same time labour in a simulacrum of idealized privatization (and having to confront the downsides of this ethos as they are made manifest in the virtual world). Perhaps most importantly, the locus of these ideological elements is the conflict play: the labour to which one commits is near constant killing. As one might cynically say about the twinning of neoconservatism with privatization in the real world, perpetual war is not a bug, it’s a feature—it is a means not only of exercising civilizational power, but also of perpetuating global capital. In fact, building up martial power and applying it to extract wealth (directly or indirectly) is the only way to do it. As mythologies of warcraft go, perhaps this is the biggest game of all.
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Kyle Kontour is a doctoral candidate in Media Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His current research concerns ideological notions of military service, simulation, and masculinity vis-à-vis the military entertainment complex, specifically regarding first person shooter combat games.
Asian American gamers are, paradoxically, both hypervisible and out of sight. The presence of American gamers of Asian descent especially in game arcades, tournaments, and Internet cafes is often noted in online gaming forums. This dominant stereotypical perception of Asian American ubiquity and prowess is often circulated at the expense of diasporic subjectivity and agency. These gamers are generally spoken for, elided, and seen through by others. Writing on the ‘Asian Stereotype’ in his blog at the 1-Up games community portal, Jason Ng (2005) sums up this predicament when he identifies the ways in which he is inscribed by his friends as a specifically racialised gamer. It would appear that the figure of the Asian American gamer by and large remains ossified in the liminal representational space between the historically over-determined ‘model minority’ and ‘yellow peril’. After playing and enjoying a Japanese-designed game which Ng owns, a friend enthusiastically declared, “Jason, I am so glad you’re Asian because I would never thought of getting or playing this game. Only Asians can come up with this stuff!” There is, however, a discernible change of tune and logic when he happens to start winning in any given game. In such circumstances, he is jokingly told: ‘“God, Jason! Stop being Asian.” These friendly injunctions emblematise longstanding preconceptions of Asian creativity, dexterity, and exceptionalism in gaming while succinctly outlining the cross-cultural politics of damning with faint praise.
Asian American gamers are also out of sight in another sense. They represent a subject that is, to date, rarely discussed within game studies. This article goes some way towards redressing this gap by initiating a consideration of Asian American gaming cultures and play practices. The discussion also has broader applications. This preliminary analysis addresses both the potentialities and problems inherent in any attempt at identifying and discussing the ethno-cultural constituencies of gamers and their play practices. A central issue here is the twinned politics of self-naming and socio-cultural categorisation. There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘typical’ Asian American gamer. It is similarly impossible to homogenise the diversity of American gamers of Asian descent into a single, cohesive community of gamers with uniform preferences and play practices. At the same time, however, as Ng’s commentary perspicuously illustrates, discrete and discernible sets of cultural meanings are ascribed and become attached to this particular grouping of gamers.
Critical attentiveness to the interrelationship between cultural context and the vernacular practice of gaming complicates any attempt at narrowly defining gamers in overarching national terms. Indeed, Asian American specificities highlight the importance of continuously interrogating such national fictions. Who do hegemonic American national imaginaries include and exclude? Why are certain national subjects rendered hypervisible and out of sight? Writings by and on Asian American gamers serve in this article as situated contexts and discursive sites for examining contemporary idioms and practices of racial identity formation in the United States. This hermeneutical approach is underpinned by the premise that gamers do not play in a ludological vacuum; they are first and foremost social beings. By offering such a meditation on the localised constituencies of play, this article contributes to a broader conversation within games studies about the need to cultivate differential frameworks for analysing communities, practices, and types of gamers, and their complex relationship to the wider socio-cultural and spatio-temporal milieu.
I focus on the politics and practices of racialised dis/identifications in my tentative mapping of Asian American gaming cultures. These forms of race-based identification (or affiliation) and ‘disidentification’ (or repudiation) are examined with reference to a wide range of case studies. My analyses of an AsianWeek feature article on Dennis Fong the renowned former professional gamer, the controversy surrounding Shadow Warrior (3D Realms 1997), and debates about Asian stereotypes on Jason Ng’s blog illuminate the differing contexts and forms of these racialised representational politics. At the same time, the affective dimensions of Asian American gaming also need to be considered, particularly when actual play practices and preferences are factored into the equation. The interrelationships between gameplay, affect, and racial identity are examined in relation to Chi Kong Lui’s review of Saiyuki: Journey West (Koei 2001) and Michael Nguyen’s commentary on playing Vietnam War videogames. The cultural politics of being (an) Asian (gamer) in America are thereby simultaneously examined and emblematised in this article as an ongoing dialectic of positioning and being positioned, naming and being named, playing and being played.
Dennis Fong (a.k.a. ‘Thresh’) is arguably the highest profile Asian American gamer. He is a former world champion in Doom (id Software 1993) and Doom II (id Software 1994) and Quake (id Software 1996) and Quake II (id Software 1997); plus he has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, prizes, and endorsement deals with Microsoft and Diamond Multimedia as a professional gamer over the five-year period between 1995 and 1999. Most famously, he won a Ferrari 328GTS at a Quake tournament held at the 1997 E3 Expo. During this period, he also wrote a monthly column in PC Gamer magazine and authored several game strategy guides. Since retiring from professional gaming in 2000, he has been voted the ‘Top North American E-Sports Figure of All Time’ by the E-Sports Entertainment Association. At the time of his retirement, Fong and his brother Lyle had already founded GX Media, a parent company that owned several key online gaming portals, game sites, and ancillary companies including Gamers.com (which was set up by the brothers in 1996), FiringSquad.com, and Lithium Technologies. GX Media steadily grew into a profitable company with over seventy-five employees by 2000. Gamers.com was eventually sold in 2001 while the other subsidiaries become separate incorporated entities such as Lithium Technologies, now headed up by Lyle Fong. In 2002, Dennis Fong co-founded Xfire, an instant messaging and social networking website for gamers. In April 2006, Viacom acquired the company for US$102 million.
AsianWeek published a main feature article in 2002 on ‘The Gaming Revolution’ in which Fong is introduced as: “A 24-year-old, Chinese American, multi million-dollar-start-up-owning CEO, driving around his new Ferrari in the posh San Francisco suburb of Marin, Calif” (King 2002). This new face of the gamer is a paragon of upward socio-economic mobility. Such an impression is reinforced by the article’s accompanying image of Fong. It is, if anything, a heroic portrait. The main photograph is taken from a low viewpoint so that we look up at Fong as he fixes his gaze away from the camera towards the middle distance. The overall depiction of Dennis Fong ripples along the historical grain of repressive representations of the Asian American community which, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, was simultaneously celebrated and demonised as the ‘model minority’. However, the context for this particular contemporary representation of Fong’s undeniable success deserves additional consideration. Founded in 1979 and based in San Francisco, AsianWeek is the only English-language, pan-ethnic print and online newsweekly focused on Asian/Pacific Islander American issues. In the article on Fong, the publication’s rhetorical practices of community pride and self-affirmation rub against the dense weight of model minority ideology to produce an example of the emergent vernacular of “new ethnic exceptionalism promoted by Asian transnational elites” (Ong & Nonini 1997, 329).
The model minority image of Asian Americans as a successful case of ethnic assimilation (that would, in particular, be held up to African Americans and Latinos) has since the 1970s coexisted with and reinforced a representation of the Asian American as the gook. As Robert G. Lee (1999, 11) points out: “The rapid growth of the Asian American population [in the 1970s] and its apparent success render the model minority, like the now-mythic Viet Cong, everywhere invisible and powerful”. Lee (1999, 11) traces how the model minority figure within the United States imaginary continued to evolve in the 1980s and 90s to resemble a ‘cyborg’ who is “perfectly efficient but inauthentically human, the perfect gook”. Hence, the contemporary enunciation of ethnic exceptionalism is an act of refutation and self-affirmation born out of specific histories of racialisation and minoritarian self-identification. Following Stuart Hall’s (1993, 395) influential characterisation of identity politics, this strategic enunciation can be in part understood as a ‘positioning’ and not an ‘essence’. At the same time, however, this mode of identification cannot completely escape its racialised ontology. The rhetoric of ethnic exceptionalism as a mode of self-identification and as a measure of self-worth ineluctably affirms and oppresses in the same breath.
Paradoxically, then, despite the fact that “Asian American discourse articulates an identity in reaction to the dominant culture’s stereotype, even if to refute it, the discourse may remain bound to and overly determined by the logic of the dominant culture” (Lowe, 1996: 71). The narrator in Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel The Woman Warrior best encapsulates this dilemma of self-representation and the impossible purist quest for authenticity when she pointedly asks:
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies? (Kingston 1989, 5-6).
The role of the social construction—and, more to the point, the complicated entanglement—of images, narratives, places, temporalities, and texts in determining the lived experience of ethnic and racial identity is highlighted in this famous quotation. It follows that what is at issue here in this article is the disentangling and interrogation of specific representations of the Asian body politic in the American digital gaming context that effectively interpellate Asian American gamers as such, hailing them into agentive action.
One game in particular has elicited a strong critical response from Asian Americans that has spanned the past decade since the game’s release in 1997. Developed by 3D Realms in the United States, Shadow Warrior has been lambasted for its cross-cultural representational politics. Elliott Chin columnist for Computer Gaming World magazine reviewed the game in 1997 and called it “a perfect example of a game that is patently offensive in its racial humour and, even worse, shows great ignorance about its very own subject matter: East Asia and ninjas” (Chin 1997, 221). He criticises the use of cultural stereotypes in the game, particularly the depiction of the main playable character Lo Wang as a Chinese ninja with a thickly accented voice (done by a white actor affecting a stereotyped accent) who eats fortune cookies as health pick-ups and shoots zombies that are wearing coolie hats. Observing this hyperbolic melange of Asian stereotypes, Chin wearily concludes, “It’s bad enough to use blatant stereotypes in a game’s design, but 3D Realms can’t even get their own stereotypes right” (221).
After reading Chin’s review, Scott Miller and George Brousard (1997), who were at the time President of Apogee Software (the publisher) and President of 3D Realms (the developer) respectively, wrote an open letter addressed to him, which was also published on the Apogee website. Both men made their unified position crystal clear: “Anyone we’ve offended has probably taken this game way too seriously. If this game offends you or anyone, go play another game. We won’t mind” (Miller and Brousard 1997). Compelled by the unapologetic and flippant justification of the game by the Caucasian production team, the most vociferous objections to Shadow Warrior have subsequently emanated from Asian American scholars. For Jeffery Ow (2000, 54), such limited and stereotyped characterisations replicate problematic “master narratives based on racism and colonialism”. For Anthony Shiu (2006, 115), Shadow Warrior constitutes a game-text “where the stakes very much reside in who decides what a racialized body can mean, what it can signify, and why it is still of value to us”. Such criticisms represent important acts of critique, contestation, and political agency. At the same time, however, are these Asian American critiques of the in-game representations possibly complicit in reinforcing and perpetuating the staid racial stereotypes under interrogation?
This conundrum lies at the heart of any serious consideration of the potential for mobilising individual and collective agency and critique within Asian American gaming. On this point and at this juncture, it may be useful to dwell on the influential Asian American cultural theorist Rey Chow’s (2001) argument about the representational and self-representational quandaries posed by the machinations of ‘coercive mimeticism’. From her perspective, coercive mimeticism infers:
a process (identitarian, existential, cultural, or textual) in which those who are marginal to mainstream Western culture are expected… to resemble and replicate the very banal preoccupations that have been appended to them, a process in which they are expected to objectify themselves in accordance with the already seen and thus to authenticate the familiar imagings of them as ethnics (107).
Western society whereby the person is expected to come to resemble what is recognisably ethnic. In this regard, Asian American critiques of Shadow Warrior, which are often articulated from an expressly personalised and racialised position, are indeed complicit with the object of their interrogation and intimately bound up in the vicious cycle of coercive mimeticism. The im/possibility of ever breaking out of this vicious cycle in turn becomes the core consideration. For Chow, possessive investments in the performativity of ethnicity—be it as a mode of self-identification or an act of parodic critique and subversion—are futile and ultimately remain complicit in confining the ethnic to a delimited and prescribed role: “The fashionable talk these days of performing ethnicity… is in part the mimetic enactment of the automatized stereotypes that are dangled out there in public, hailing the ethnic” (110). For this reason, she is highly critical of the legitimacy of self-referentiality as “a resistive, liberatory, and thus corrective form of discourse (aimed at setting us free from the fetters of conventional representation)” (113). Chow goes so far as to contend that self-referentiality might even be a form of false consciousness:
The trap that many fall into when they turn to self-referential genres as a way out of metanarratives, out of the crime of speaking for others, is that of the age-old realist fallacy, which allows them to attribute to self-referentiality the capacity for an unproblematic representation of reality, in this case, the reality of the self (113).
Therein lies a manifest problem. Chow’s theory itself becomes a totalising narrative that potentially freezes ethnicised subjects into abject inaction: They are damned if they don’t and they are especially damned if they do. The historical and locative underpinnings as well as the affective dimensions of different forms of self-referentiality deserve to be more carefully appraised. For example, her argument disavows the strategic utility of reflexive positionings as part of a vital process of self-actualisation in projects of decolonisation and self-determination. By collapsing and subsuming a variety of social experiences under the broad rubric of coercive mimeticism, Chow proffers a planar sampling that largely dehistoricises and decontextualises the subjects of her inquiry. Within this framework, Asian American identity becomes a stranded identification.
David Eng presents a useful alternate perspective that allows for the agentive expression of identities and identifications without glossing over attendant issues arising from the yoking of social identities to political intentions, which is the central problematic importantly brought to the fore in Chow’s analysis. As he explains:
In Asian American political struggles it is thus crucial that we do not conflate our conflicted identifications with our desired identities. To understand this distinction—to understand that identification is the mechanism through which dominant histories and memories often become internalized as our own—is to understand that we are all borrowers and thus not pure. It is to underscore that our social identities as well as our political intentions are not irreproachable, that political agency while a necessary goal must be continually interrogated for its slippages, thought of more as a variable process than a permanent position (Eng 2001, 26).
One subsequent way to articulate these slippages and variable processes is to speak of Asian American identity as a reflexive mode of coterminous identification and disidentification. It is worthwhile returning to Jason Ng’s blog on the ‘Asian Stereotype’ to elucidate this mode of politicised agency. As previously discussed, Ng is palpably aware of stereotypical preconceptions about the Asian gamer. It may be said that he also recognises the coercive pressures on him to mimetically perform to a cookie-cutter racialised gamer identity. His sardonic commentary on how he has decided to respond to these conflicting demands from his friends encapsulates the discursive vacillations between actively identifying and proactively dis-identifying as such:
It’s hard to prove to my friends that I’m not as good as they think I am but at the same time, I don’t see why I have to. I know a bunch of better gamers who can easily declare victory over me and coincidence or not, they are Asian as well. Perhaps it’s a conspiracy or perhaps [it’s] the strict diet of white rice, sea food, and MSG that sharpens out thumbs or perhaps it’s something else. All I know is that my friends are a bunch of silly cats and I guess I can say that I, too, am glad that I’m Asian. The rain of racial slurs and insults will continue among us while more of my nongaming friends continue to admire the genius that is known as WarioWare Twisted [a wacky Japanese-designed game which supposedly only Asians can come up with].
The ensuing banter in the comments section of Ng’s blog entry is even more instructive on the polemical uses of rhetorical self-referentiality. One running gag among the respondents consisted of measuring themselves to dominant stereotypes. bitterazngurl starts with: “i’m good at math. AND played the violin (and its dirty cousin, the viola). i guess i just set our people back a thousand years”. methodmadness simply states, “For the record, decent at math, don’t play any musical instruments, do have a black belt in tae kwon do. I’m 2/3 of a stereotype. :)”. clarkspark instead declares, “I love martial arts and acrobatics. I like math too HAHAH, but I do suck at RTS’s [real-time strategy] and DDR [Dance Dance Revolution] whew”. In a post titled “GO BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY… AND THEN GET ME SOUVENIRS”, niko-sama writes: “You have to admit there is pretty strong evidence for stereotypes, that’s why they exist. However, I suck at math and play no instrument. But boy do I looove rice and eating dog!” Recognising the sender of the message, BurikiONE remarks: “How typical of you Niko. LOL! Don’t forget about the chocolate meat. Mmmmmmmm”. Elsewhere, Joe Keiser contributes: “I will also put my heritage down for the record; I am half-Chinese, half-Caucasian. Whether or not this has effected my (rather good) math grades in the past is highly speculative”. Aerin brings an important gendered dimension to the discussions: “Thanks for airing the Asian stereotype grievances, I am not good at math (taking that test tomorrow and I’m completely terrified) and at most platformers, but I do fit the ‘Chick gamer’ stereotype—I like RPGs [role-playing games] and puzzles a LOT. Got a problem with that?! Heh”. At one point, Ng chimes in with his observation that “most of the replies here are from a(n) (silly) Asian. OHMYGODZ, WE DO STICK TOGETHER”.
Ng’s blog entry obviously struck a chord with his Asian American gamer peers. They have clearly used this specific occasion in early November 2005 to rally, by choice, around an issue that they are all obviously affected by or, at the very least, are aware of. What is especially striking to me is their dextrous play with the idea of the stereotype. Acknowledging partial and provisional social half-truths for what they are, they mobilise a form of jocular in-group play that emphasises the contingent malleability of racialised identification as well as how such identification intersects with and is shaped by other aspects of social life. They clearly recognise the stereotype for what it is—and what it is patently not. Such collectivist expression by this small group of Asian American gamers engagingly demonstrates the possibilities (however contingent and situational) for speaking up and laughing out loud against the strictures of coercive mimeticism.
The polemical and politicised uses of diasporic Asian self-referentiality come into focus in the following two articles under discussion. Written by Chi Kong Lui (2002) and Michael Nguyen (2004), these are not merely racial identity confessionals. Instead, both articles draw attention to how biographical referentiality can be situationally invoked to identify persistent experiential gaps and contradictions within the hegemonic national imaginary.
GameCritics.com is an independent games webzine that prides itself on presenting a diverse range of perspectives and opinions from writers of different backgrounds, often publishing game reviews from multiple viewpoints provided by two or more critics for each game. As its joint founding editor, Chi Kong Lui has himself contributed numerous reviews. One game prompted him to go into considerable biographical detail, as evident in the opening paragraphs of his review of Saiyuki: Journey West (Koei 2001):
For bi-cultural children growing-up in the United States, it’s not easy to be proud of their ethnicity. The popular media and education system has a funny way of influencing impressionable young people into believing a distorted and Eurocentric brand of patriotism. This often leaves children of minority backgrounds often feeling ashamed and wanting to renounce their natural heritage in favor of being just like everyone else on TV, a white-bred American. That’s how it was for me growing up in the town of Jackson Heights, New York. When I was 10-years old, I would have gladly taken a Big Mac over a Steam Pork Bun; I thought President Ronald Reagan would kick Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s ass in a heartbeat; and I idolized Nolan Ryan rather than no one actually (I didn’t even know of a single Chinese athlete at that time).
In spite of the nationalistic brainwashing I had endured for years, I still managed to fall in love with story and characters of the distinctly Chinese mythical novel ‘Journey To The West’ to which I was exposed to in bits and pieces thanks to my non-English speaking parents. The epic tale of grotesque demons, immortal Gods, magical mysticism, and perilous adventure proved to be too alluring and unmatched in imagination by anything I had seen from Western sources (A giant beanstalk and a goose who laid golden eggs? Give me a break.) Most of all, I was enamored with the brave and mischievous antics of the revered Son Goku protagonist whose ideals were drastically different and far more complex than those of the Saturday morning super-heroes I had grown up watching.
Since those pubescent years and now as a rabid fan of videogames, I always found it surprising there was never a visible videogame directly based on the ‘Journey To The West’ novel…Thankfully, Koei, a company internationally renown for taking pivotal Asian histories and turning them into richly complex war simulations and action-fighting games, shared a similar foresight and decided to produce and release Saiyuki: Journey West for the aging PlayStation console (Lui 2002).
Interestingly enough, Lui’s articulated grievances hark back to the quotation from The Woman Warrior: “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” The difficulties inherent in the lived experience of social contradiction are clearly exemplified in his acerbic tone. Lui’s sense of ‘Chineseness’ and Chinese tradition has been forged both on familial ground and in response to perceived societal norms and circumstances. This sensibility has also been formed simultaneously through and in spite of popular culture. His narration gives voice to the type and range of imag(in)istic desires born out of specific material conditions and social circumstances. His response also partly stands for the experiences of a demographical and generational constituency within Asian America, those who have non-English speaking parents. These variegated concerns shape and inform the needs and subsequent expectations of this gamer. For Lui, the availability of this game in the United States and the possibilities for play that it engenders is irrefutably significant; it offers a productive ludic space for negotiating projected desires.
But what happens when the projected desires for certain types of gameplay and game settings become manifestly fraught? In an article originally published in Viet Weekly, Michael Nguyen (2004) offers a reflective commentary on the prospect of playing games based on the Vietnam War. He prefaces his comments with a consideration of the representational politics in gaming:
The Medal of Honor series, whose previous games had taken place in Europe, released a game last year that focused on fighting against the Japanese, and some worried about how the Japanese gaming crowd would take it.
At the time, I thought the issue was overblown, and in the end, the game actually did well in Japan. As I played these war games, I never sympathized with the other side. “It’s in the past,” I thought. “And it’s just a game. Besides, they (the Germans) were evil. End of story.”
When I heard that games based on the Vietnam War were being made, I was excited. But after returning from a trip to Vietnam, I started to wonder how I would be affected by playing a video game based on the Vietnam War.
This moment of recognition—an enforced engagement with that oft-spouted “imagine if it happens to you” adage—has an affective consequence. Nguyen is compelled to reflect on his own contingent ethics of consumption. He continues:
A lot of war games feature multiple players, and I often read racist comments against the Japanese from other players when I played Medal of Honor regularly a couple of years ago. This never really bothered me.
But I started thinking that if I were playing a Vietnam game, I might take offense to hearing similar talk.
At the base of Nguyen’s concerns with Shellshock: Nam ’67 (Guerrilla Games 2004) is firstly, as a game that is set during the Vietnam War (complete with profanity, gore, and, as he puts it, “the ‘comforts’ of indigenous females”); and, secondly, as a Vietnamese American gamer who desires to play this game. He articulates his anxieties as follows:
While I don’t expect that playing Shellshock will make me cry, it will be a little strange to kill other Vietnamese people, even if they are fictional. Will I feel the temptation yell racist slurs about the Vietnamese while under fire? Will I have an opportunity to shoot down POWs or torch villages? What if I shoot down someone who looks like someone I know, or worse—what if he looks like me?
I do want to play this game. From what I’ve read about it so far, I expect it to be quite good. And I want it to be as haunting and realistic as possible. In a way, it’s another way to get closer to understanding what it meant to live through that war.
And honestly, as much as I love video games, I’ve never been as affected by one mentally as I have by a book or movie. I do wonder what will happen when my dad sees me playing it. I wonder if I’ll see any Vietnamese characters and hear them speak Vietnamese. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear the Viet Cong shout orders in Vietnamese and be able to understand it and use it to my advantage? That would be a nice irony.
Through his hesitations, speculations, and affirmations, Nguyen’s account powerfully captures the range of affective vacillations following on from his self-recognition as a specifically ethnicised gamer. His closing sentiments are especially telling. Like Lui, he too wants to claim a possessive (re)investment in his ethnic identity. Both their accounts nonetheless make clear the processes, conditions, and contingent circumstances under which the desires to explicitly identify as such are created and how these decisions are made.
The collective utterances by and about Asian American gamers discussed in this article function to foreground how “dialectical processes of disciplining and self-identification are produced at the intersections of regulation by nation-states and individuals’ attempts to circumvent or redirect control as well as to (re)imagine their lives in different visions of modernity” (Nonini & Ong 1997, 25). In addition, this study proffers a consideration of diasporic Asian gaming as ‘a site of cultural forms that propose, enact, and embody subjects and practices not contained by the narrative of American citizenship’ (Lowe 1996, 176). Games are thereby not just a medium through which gamers can reflect on or lay claim to their own ethno-cultural positionings. More to the point, as Lui’s and Nguyen’s accounts forcefully demonstrate, gameplay can itself become an affective pedagogical space for variously validating and troubling the gamer’s own sense of identity.
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Shiu, A. S. 2006. What Yellowface Hides: Video Games,Whiteness, and the American Racial Order. The Journal of Popular Culture. 39 (1): 109-125.
 The 2007 conference of the Digital Games Research Association (www.digra.org), the peak body for game studies research, provided a clear sign of this topical multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary orientation. The “Situated Play” conference in Tokyo encapsulated a broad range of recent and ongoing international studies on the locative aspects of games culture and play practices.
 I am reproducing verbatim all their expressions, spellings, emoticons, and other idiosyncrasies to accurately reflect their manifest posturing and sense of savvy and sardonic play.
 Real-time strategy (RTS) networked computer games—such as StarCraft (Blizzard Entertainment 1998)—and Dance Dance Revolution (Konami 1999), a popular rhythm action arcade game, are often colloquially linked to diasporic Asian gamers.
Dean Chan teaches at the School of Communications and Arts, Edith Cowan University. His research focuses on diasporic Asian cultural production (especially visual arts, comics and graphic novels), East Asian digital gaming and Asian transnationalism. He has published on Asian gaming cultures in journals including Games and Culture, International Review of Information Ethics, Fibreculture Journal and EnterText. He edited the collection Gaming Cultures and Place in the Asia Pacific (2009) with Larissa Hjorth.
The concept of play has been a touchstone for cultural studies since the translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on carnival (1968), a natural and liberating resistance to domination. As the neo-baroque constructs its spectacles, it requires a spectacular, unquestionable depiction of both Evil and the Good (Bather 2004). Articulated as it is with the markets for consumer goods, through product placement, tie-ins and merchandising, all pitched at the youth market, play offers itself as the royal instantiation of good. The ludic may well be instinctual, but only in the same way that hunger and sex are instinctual. Humans, mammals, are born with an interest in play, but that interest is as thoroughly socialised, as thoroughly historical, and as thoroughly open to exploitation as the other primal forces acting on the human psyche. Play can no longer be thought of as an instinctual revolt against domination, a kind of instrumental irrationality. Instead, like hunger or sex, it has become an integral element in the imbrication of the somatic into the social. Integral to the management of creativity in the sunrise industries, play is also a privileged vehicle for socialisation into the contemporary. To be specific, contemporary capital opposes evil not with good but with innocence; and play constitutes the single most manipulable tool for the construction of innocence, on screen and in life. The predilection of postmodernism for play in all its guises is inadequately critical. Which kind of game? Are all games equally and essentially good or are there distinctions to make between them and histories to tell? Is the celebration of play merely a reaction to the imagined high seriousness of modernism? Is there a cultural task remaining, to build new modes of play?
In the game of patience, or solitaire, you submit your will to the fall of the cards, a kind of lexicon; and to simple rules, the grammar. The first and most primitive delight of patience is a flirtation with luck. The meaninglessness of each card is part of the purity with which it can speak, the purity of mathematical probability, cool as numbers themselves. What makes patience special is the solitary pursuit of order, the way the cards and the rules governing them exert that fascination that can have you playing for hours, losing sense of surroundings, lost in this abstraction. Games and mathematics share the capacity to lose their devotees in structured play without the need for human figures as points of identification. In play as in mathematics, we lose ourselves in a world, not an alter-ego or a function. In the case of patience, this world is scarcely even a mise-en-scène: the décor is Spartan and, to some extent, despite its symbolic origins, practically invisible. The patience world is in this sense almost entirely formal, like mathematics, reliant on the shuffle to produce that variance in the starting point that gives each game its unique geometry. Once the rules have been internalised the central skill demanded is pattern recognition, and it seems to be the satisfactions associated with that skill that make the game so capable of drawing in the player. The changing patterns, the pattern of change and the way the final order draws the game toward itself can take over the whole of consciousness—or perhaps initiate a kind of unconsciousness. This unconsciousness, however, is pre-Freudian, belonging to that mid-nineteenth century discovery, through the practices of mesmerism: “that human beings owe a surprisingly large proportion of their cognitive and behavioural capacities to the existence of an ‘automatic self’ of which they have no conscious knowledge and over which they have little voluntary control” (Miller 1995, 27-8).
Alternatively, this mesmeric unconsciousness evokes even older mental practices. As Roger Caillois insisted, in the wake of André Breton, certain forms of play are linked specifically to sacred technologies (Caillois 1968).
In a world which takes pleasure in worldly conditions and which is made unrestful by the sense-objects, he dwells in solitude indifferent to worldly conditions, as one who has attained his object, who is tranquil in his heart. The solitary man then drinks the nectar of the Deathless (Ashvagosha’s “Nanda the Fair” extracted in Conze 1959, 106).
Brahmanic meditation begins in this self-loss. The perfect, enclosed time of the game of patience allows a loss of time but also a loss of that absolute moment of mortality. Consider the way our engagement in patience, in mathematics, in computer programming or solo computer gaming loses the sense of a goal, an end, an audience, to become a practice which is pure, abstract and valuable for its own sake, without reference to other people, to worldly conditions, to sense-objects or to the finality of death. Whether the techniques be spiritual or mathematical, hypnosis or games, the outcome is profoundly similar. In patience, as in math or programming, there is a sense of achievement in completion, the restitution of order, the closing of a symmetry. In that satisfying closure, there is also a return to the self and with it the step outside the game world. The world we leave behind—the sorted cards, the solved problem—is the pledge that we still exist beyond its confines. Yet it is also the mark of the capacity we have to move from the real world of the self into the patterned universe of the meditative game and our ability to surrender selfhood for the trance of the not-self. While there may be an ‘ontological’ basis for play in the innate tendencies and instinctual life of mammals, and while the social quality of play may be natural, that we no longer live, as a species, in the natural world is clear from the modulations of the game of patience. In our time and in Western cultures, the drift has been towards an individualistic engagement in play. If Eugen Fink (1968) is right in his provocative aside that play may contain in it a description of the universe, then it is a description which includes the role of the describer, a description embodying the individualism of contemporary Western culture and centring the universe on the individual perspective. Nor is it any individualism that is in play, but an individualism formed in those symptomatic qualities of solitaire: the abstracted contemplation of enclosed, formal but randomised, timeless worlds predestined towards order. Solitaire derives from its contemplative history as well as its reconstitution in such exemplary contemporary forms as handheld computer gaming and software authoring, the satisfactions of truth, a truth which is limited to the world of the game, which that world makes possible, and which today replaces the satisfactions of classical narrative with the joys of pattern-recognition and the total mapping of a world controllable according to regimes of truth that no longer hold good of the lifeworld.
In competitive games like chess, backgammon and cribbage, the structure of the endgame is so familiar that it can be foreseen at least a few moves in advance: the teleology of victory is prefigurable from the constellation of pieces well before the final move. Like patience, such games gravitate towards a destiny that draws the pieces towards it, but with the difference that the presence of an opponent interposes new vicissitudes in the trajectory towards the empty board. Backgammon, for example, unlike chess, is a zero-sum game, one in which there are always a winner and a loser, yet the symmetry of the board as much as the repetition of games in some ways minimises the sense of victory or defeat, while the presence of the dice adds to the play that random quality which gives the player the impression of playing not only a human opponent but the chaotic force of the dice. It is then a shared environment composed of rules and chance which the players have in mutual possession: in all but the most professional tournaments, the goal is more a good game than a convincing series of victories. Within the game world, there is infinite variety. Seen from outside, however, there is only the endless repetition of the same narrow set of rules. The unification of variation and repetition is however too narrowly defined and has too few rules too inflexibly applied to generate evolution, not least the evolution of new rules.
From the point of view of the solitaire player, the addition of an opponent appears only as a further randomising factor in the game, like an extra shuffle of the pack, adding complexity to the fundamental goal of restituting order in the chaotic flow of cards and pieces. The humanity of the opponent is in a certain kind of play less relevant than the mere fact of competition. The allure, in this sense, is not conviviality but the abstract pleasures of pattern and its repetition, of a timeless destiny in which the end is present in the beginning, and the abstraction and formality which once again promotes meditative withdrawal from the world, its distractions and its friendships. Mathematical studies of games tend towards theories of winning, the origins of probability theory in the works of gambling-obsessed Pascal and the doomed profligate Evariste Galois. By way of contrast, the classic works on play which have informed cultural studies approaches deploy a more instinctual and even mystical sense of play as natural derived from Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais and the carnival. “During carnival time”, wrote Bakhtin, “life is subject only to its own laws” (1968, 6). But Bakhtin also, like Eugen Fink (1968) and, rather earlier, Johan Huizinga (1949), stressed play’s social aspects. What an inspection of patience and backgammon seem to suggest is that, while the pleasures of mutuality are available to the player, they are not always taken up, and that contemporary gaming has a tendency to encourage the meditative and formal aspects of play rather than their conviviality.
The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer makes the crucial distinction between: “the forms of play discovered and created by men, and the uninhibited movement of play exhibited by superabundant life”. He concludes:
It is precisely because what we encounter in the creative forms of art is not merely the freedom of caprice or of the blind superabundance of nature, that their play is capable of penetrating all the dimensions of our social life, through all classes, races, and levels of cultural attainment. For these our forms of play are forms of our freedom (Gadamer 1986, 130).
In their resolution of the dialectic of freedom and constraint, the artistic, artificial forms of play at work in art are universal expressions of what remains a human essence, an essence at odds, as it is in Bakhtin, with repressive culture and allied to the realisation of a fundamental humanity. It is curious that Gadamer, writing in a period of violent contestation over the nature of democracy and legitimacy in Germany, could have so misunderstood his own distinction: the way in which play, as formal reconciliation of freedom and constraint, was already becoming a central technique of corporate management. Historically it is very hard to find an example of the carnival of life that is not circumscribed by both a time and a place: the studies of Peter Burke (1978) and Le Roy Ladurie (1979) for example describe the immense powers brought to bear on the maintenance of carnival boundaries, while contemporary examples abound in the management of carnivals from Notting Hill to Rio de Janeiro. Bey’s influential anarchist tract even defines the utopian moment of political carnival as a specifically temporary autonomous zone (Bey 1991).
If even the ‘superabundant’ can be locked within a spatial and temporary horizon, how much more so is it possible to contain and control artificial playworlds, whose horizons are bounded by rule-governed anarchy in pursuit of order? The meditative lure of the timeless and deathless trance may well take its origins in some spiritual or unconscious functioning of human nature, but as that nature is profoundly socialised and constructed in the contemporary world, its ‘natural’ function, like the sexual instinct, is open to reconstruction in the image of the epoch. For contemporary consumer society, that image is a mirror of a deep, solipsistic individualism. Even conviviality is remade in the competitive team structure of modern corporate management strategies.
In some ways, we should welcome the emergence of such horizontal structures: within the horizon of the playworld, there is something very like democracy, even if it is a democracy centred on the solipsistic egoism of the player’s ‘I’. The strategy emerged from a struggle against hierarchical management structures in an effort to produce corporate cultures with a greater depth of involvement and ‘ownership’ in the interests of increasing managerial access to employees’ creativity and decision-making. The strategies of play have been moved into the workplace, at first in sunrise industries like computer engineering and software design (see for example Kidder 1981; Levy 1994; Moody 1995), soon after in highly mobile and adaptable industries like advertising and public relations, and more recently into the broad range of increasingly networked corporations. In all sorts of ways the rhizomatic structure of the new corporation has learnt from chaos theory and even from the radical political philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari (1972, 1980). Manuel Castells’ study of The Network Society (1996; see also Castells 1997a, 1997b) demonstrates that corporate culture today incorporates the rhizome—the democratic webwork of interconnected networks—which for Deleuze and Guattari characterised the resistant culture outside the state and its static, located model of determinacy. Critical Art Ensemble (1994, 1996) add that the corporate culture has acquired the nomadic quality of rootless creativity which likewise Deleuze and Guattari see as typifying resistant cultures. To me this signals that the universe of play—structured randomness, rule-governed anarchy—is no longer a utopian force but a property of contemporary capital. We cannot look to gaming or chaos for an exit from contemporary oppression without seeing already ensconced in perpetual play the dishevelled pizza-and-coke fuelled, beer-bash and baseball culture of Silicon Valley, the party animals of the new Hollywood.
It would be rash to say that play has no part in the future, or that because the revolution must be virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale. But it is equally foolhardy to believe that play, uncritically naturalised, equated with a liberated human essence and deprived of its history, can generate a magical community and a utopian conviviality. It is particularly dangerous in an era in which play has been naturalised as the relation people take up towards a denatured human environment, and in which what is ultimately in play is their identity.
For the purposes of argument, and without pretending that we have some privileged access to the origins of play, let us agree that once upon a time, either in infancy or lost in the history of the species, there existed a natural form of play. Natural play we would consider to have certain basic properties, following the ideas of Huizinga, Bakhtin and Gadamer. Such play would be extravert, involving the player in the environment. It would involve the exploration of time and space without boundaries or rules. Somehow, over the ages, and through who knows what shifts of emphasis and in response to what travails, there emerged the spiritual play evoked still in the game of patience. Here almost every aspect of natural play has been negated. The extravert has become introvert. Play comes to be defined by its common boundaries with the mundane. It has abandoned the exploration of time and space in favour of a timeless present. There, in the newly bounded playworld, it pursues truth, in the sense that play becomes an instrument of meditation, a pursuit of self-loss in an external entity, whether that be God, mathematics or the deck of cards. Of course, the self itself has histories and indeed geographies. The self that was lost when Bacon proposed that reason should subordinate itself to nature rather than dogma is a different self to that which Gautama Buddha sought to release from the mire of illusion. Yet the techniques of meditation and truth-play are deeply similar in structure: to lose the old certainties that define the self in an oceanic truth.
A similar process of negation is involved in the genesis of the form of play which it seems dominates corporate culture. We are still involved in techniques of absorption and in a bounded and timeless playworld, but now the goal of play is self-realisation in the face of a more thoroughly alienated environment, both natural and human. The players seek neither to meld with others nor to subordinate themselves to a greater external environment, but to ratify their existence as separate, definite and defined individuals. Such play is simulation because it involves the abandonment of the sense of truth. Losing the sense of some reality beyond the self, the self loses its sense of depth and becomes superficial, a creature of surfaces. Yet it retains from the spiritual disciplines of truth-play the timelessness of the eternal playworld, its abstraction from mundane space and from the rigours of history, rigours which include the players’ own deaths. Suffering and death were already excluded from the world of truth-play: that was the point of meditation. Truth-play and simulation-play share, in this way, an abstraction from the body, a kind of mentalism stressing the separation of psyche and soma, with the body reduced to an element of that environment which has become external to the self. But where the environment was the great container of the not-self in truth-play, simulation-play is simply another void against which the player strives in the effort at self-realisation. The external is even more external now than it was in the regimes of science or religion.
The transnational culture of corporate simulation-play is configured around the solipsistic individual. The regimes of both truth and simulation depend upon a divorce between self and environment and an opposition between them, the former submitting itself to a larger external truth in regimes of representation as well as absorption, the latter denying the very existence of what it regards as other to its own representations. This summary of the analysis is not, however, an adequate reason for undertaking it: as the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach has it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point is to change it” (Marx 1975, 423). So the first step towards a new form of play would be to try to negate this opposition of self and environment, not by stressing irrational body against rational mind (itself only a mirror image of the dominant form) and so challenging the privilege given to mind, but to negate the distinction between self and environment by attacking the concept of self.
The geneticist R.C. Lewontin sets about correcting some misapprehensions concerning Darwinism by noting two critical factors:
First, while there is, indeed, an external world that exists independent of any living creature, the totality of that world should not be confused with that organism’s environment… Second, every organism, not just the human species, is in the constant process of changing its environment, both creating and destroying its own means of subsistence (Lewontin 1995, 131, 134).
A phrase used in fleshing out this argument is especially relevant to the discussion of emergent game forms: “Because organisms create their own environments we cannot characterise the environment except in the presence of the organism that it surrounds” (Lewontin 1995, 133). An ecological game is then one in which the act of externalising and objectifying the environment as other is broken down by insisting on the mutuality of production, the interaction of multiple users to produce an evolving rule-set.
Such a game would devolve upon situated and personal existence and memory. In some ways, like pain or death or hunger, these qualities are incommunicable, yet their incommunicability is the grounds of communication in an individualistic culture. It is precisely because of their obdurate reality that we are urged into the endlessness of sign-making. Their importance lies in the way their reality functions as the dialectically ineluctable antithesis of the playworld. Like hunger or desire, memory forces us outward from purely internal experience toward communicative interaction with the environment which it informs. The playworlds of simulation emphasise at times the extremes of bodily sensation—the grotesque, the sexual act, pain, even boredom—as a mode of resistance, but that resistance is doomed to be the mirror of dominance as long as it remains trapped in the strictly personal, individual and incommunicable. Such an evolving, mutual interaction is perhaps at play, in play, and reformulating play in the online environment.
The new, communicative, ecological play derives then from the failure of either truth-play or simulation-play to answer the fundamental questions from which they have arisen: the questions of death, suffering, personhood. To open the boundaries between self and other, natural or human, is to reintroduce the temporal dimension, to free the post-self to both the pain and the glory of its shared temporality. Without the endless present of the Deathless, the time of the game might be freed from the closure of destiny that governs our archetypal games of patience and backgammon, the same closure that governs classical narrative construction tailored towards its ending. Yet even in dismantling the borders between self and environment (the green world or the human environment of the city) it retains from its forebears the rule-governed structure of artificial play. This is what makes such technologically mediated, communicative play fundamentally different from the Edenic carnival, and renders it human because it becomes again communicative. While the task of cultural studies involves of necessity the description, analysis and critique of actually existing worlds, to retain the utopianism that shaped its beginnings it must also confront the utopian dimensions of cultural practice. The emergent forms of cultural play are one way in which we can undertake that part of our work. To escape the playpens of corporate culture, we need more than celebration of what is—that is the job of advertising and public relations. We need also to register the critical utopianism that shows us how we might produce a future, rather than the indefinite continuation of the timeless present.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Trans H. Iswolsky, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Bather, Neil. 2004. Big Rocks, Big Bang, Big Bucks. New Review of Film and Television 2(1): 37-59.
Bey, Hakim. 1991. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchism, Poetic Terrorism. Autonomedia: New York.
Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. 1994. Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity. trans P. Camiller. Sage: London.
Burke, Peter. 1978. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Temple Smith: London.
Caillois, Roger. 1968. Riddles and Images. Trans J. Mehlman. In Game, Play, Literature, edited by J. Ehrmann, 148-158, Beacon: New York.
Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture volume One, The Rise of the Network Society. Blackwell: Oxford.
Castells, Manuel. 1997a. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture volume Two, The Power of Identity. Blackwell: Oxford.
Castells, Manuel. 1997b. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture volume Three, End of Millenium. Blackwell: Oxford.
Conze, Edward, ed. 1959. Buddhist Scriptures. Trans E. Conze. Penguin: Harmondsworth.
Critical Art Ensemble. 1994. The Electronic Disturbance. Autonomedia: Brooklyn NY.
Critical Art Ensemble. 1996. Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas. Autonomedia: New York.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1972. L’Anti-Oedipe (Capitalisme et Schizophrénie I). Editions de Minuit: Paris.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1980. Mille plateaux (Capitalisme et Schizophrénie II). Editions de Minuit: Paris.
Fink, Eugen. 1968. The Oasis of Happiness: Towards an Ontology of Play. Trans Ute and Thomas Saine. In Game, Play, Literature, edited by J. Ehrmann, 19-30. Beacon: New York.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1986. The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Trans N. Walker. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Huizinga, Johan. 1924. The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. Trans. F. Hopman. Penguin: Harmondsworth.
Kidder, Tracy. 1981. The Soul of a New Machine. Penguin: Harmondsworth.
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Lewontin , R.C. 1991. The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology. Penguin: Harmondsworth.
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Moody, Fred. 1995. I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year with Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier. Coronet: London.
Sean Cubitt was born in Lincolnshire of Irish parents. He studied at Queens’ College Cambridge and McGill University, Montreal. In the 1980s he worked freelance in art schools, community arts, journalism, the Open University and as National Organiser for the Society for Education in Film and Television. He spent the 1990s in Liverpool, where he became Professor of Media Arts at Liverpool John Moores University, and was involved in developing the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). In 2000, he moved to New Zealand with wife Alison and dog Zebedee, where he was Professor of Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato. In 2002 he was appointed Honorary Professor of the University of Dundee. He now holds dual nationality with New Zealand and the UK. In July 2006 we moved to Melbourne.
In 1908, the head of Melbourne’s Wesley Grammar School, Dr Watkin, explained that “as [boys] strove on the football field or the river, so it might be that in the near future they would have to fight for their motherland, their King and the Commonwealth” (Crotty 2001, 87). A few years later, with Watkin’s grim future already at hand, the Old Wesleyian Alan Gross expressed a similar sentiment in ‘Young Chivalry’, a poem for the school magazine. It praised the experience accumulated in “many a bloodless field and fray” as an introduction to “the code which governs war and play” (Crotty 2001, 87). In 2005, Retired Marine Colonel Gary W. Anderson, a defense consultant and former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, enthused to the Washington Post about the importance of a different kind of play in preparing young men for battle. Computer gaming was, he said, transforming the youth into ‘new Spartans’: “Remember the days of the old Sparta when everything they did was towards war? In many ways, the soldiers of this video game generation have replicated that, and that’s something to think about” (Vargas 2006).
If the games described by Colonel Anderson looked quite different from those recommended by Watkin and Gross, so too was the relationship posited between play and war. At Wesley in the years before the Great War, sport mattered because it instilled character. For Anderson, games like Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie 2001) and Full Spectrum Warrior (Institute for Creative Technologies/Pandemic Studios 2004) were important, first and foremost, because they fostered particular skills likely to be useful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the similarity in the rhetoric is not purely accidental, since the US military’s growing relationship with computer gaming rests, in part, on the utility of military-themed games in reviving a distinctly Edwardian discourse of militarism.
In his Making the Australian Male, Martin Crotty describes how from the mid-nineteenth century Australian public schools, like their English counterparts, abandoned the promotion of godliness and scholarly achievement in favour of a new curriculum centred on sport. From the 1860s onwards, the ideal pupil was no longer a pious bookworm but a cricketer, a footballer or rower. Sporting heroes strode the grounds ‘like gods’ and games became compulsory as the masters aggressively promoted student athleticism (Crotty 2001, 87).
The new emphasis was, more or less explicitly, a reaction to a perceived degeneration brought by modernity. Educationalists fretted about a stunted and enfeebled generation, with the sturdy bushman of the colonial era allegedly giving way to the shallow-chested dyspeptic of the city. Australian schoolmasters occasionally blamed this deterioration upon the sickly influence of the southern climate but more often they identified the problem with modern life itself. Sport was a response, intended to make youth physically stronger, yet its promotion of good health was secondary to its spiritual and ethical mission. School games fostered valour, honour, loyalty and honesty—all traits threatened by the values of industrial civilisation.
Gross’ title ‘Young Chivalry’ exemplifies the common association of sport with idealised pre-industrial virtues. By the turn of the century, Australia had become one of the most urbanised countries in the world, and the hustle and bustle of its metropolis papered, many observers thought, over a spiritual emptiness, in which traditional authority and social norms had been eroded by commerce and prosperity. Where the commercial world knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, school games honoured the gentlemanly amateur. The sporting field reproduced an earlier, more organic order, with a place for everyone and everyone (of course) in their place. If Australia’s new prosperity turned men into indistinguishable cogs in an industrial machine, athleticism allowed for individual accomplishment even as it bonded the sportsman to the team and its supporters.
The sporting cult was consciously violent. The headmasters frowned on tennis and other ‘effeminate’ pastimes, and the rough-and-tumble encouraged on the field extended even to the spectators (Crotty 2001, 50; 87). In 1905, after, a school football game between Wesley College and Melbourne Grammar descended into an all-in brawl, Melbourne Punch explained: “The lad who can give and take blows in an hour of excitement and trial is likely to make a stronger man and a better one for the world’s work than the other who has been carefully nurtured on the lines beloved by old maiden aunts, and who shrieks in anguish from all contests involving hard knocks.” (Lemon 2004, 145).
Yet sporting violence was not, in and of itself, intended to cultivate martial skills. No headmaster suggested that techniques developed on the football field or the cricket pitch possessed a direct military application. Instead, the giving and taking of blows helped distinguish the playing field from the world around it. Precisely because everyday life was insipid and bloodless, the physical clashes of a manly sport mattered: these bloodless frays developed the character necessary for the ‘world’s work’.
The British poet Norman Gale put it like this:
See in bronzing sunshine
Thousands of good fellows,
Such as roll the world along,
Such as cricket mellows!
These shall keep the Motherland
Safe amid her quarrels;
Lucky lads, plucky lads,
Trained to snatch at laurels! (Mangan 1981, 192)
Though the sporting cult was officially championed in public schools, it was never simply imposed from above. On the contrary, schools without a robust games program saw their enrolments plummet, with the boys themselves often agitating for football or cricket teams (Crotty 2001, 87). Sport delivered something to its participants; its pleasures were real.
This is the context for the Edwardian understanding of war as a game. War, like sport, was violent but like sport it was ennobling.
The Australian W. H. Fitchett did as much as anyone to popularise Imperial patriotism amongst the boyhood of the commonwealth prior to the Great War. Fitchett’s 1897 book Deeds That Won the Empire sold an astonishing 100 000 copies, and his subsequent publications (Deeds that Won the Empire (1897), Fights for the Flag (1898); The Tale of the Great Mutiny (1899), Wellington’s Men (1900), Nelson and his Captains (1902) and the rest, circulated throughout the commonwealth in vast numbers (Zainu’ddin 1981, 512).
Fitchett enthused about war in the same way as the schoolmasters enthused about sport. In his introduction to Deeds that Won the Empire, he describes writing the book to ‘renew in popular memory the great traditions of the Imperial race to which we belong’. Like the public school masters, he sought to overcome contemporary degeneration—what he calls the ‘pallid, cold-blooded citizenship’ of the modern age. His books presented stirring tales of past battles in order to foreground the virtues under threat from modernity: the stories celebrate, he says, “the qualities by which the Empire, in a sterner time than ours, was won, and by which, in even these ease-loving days, it must be maintained”.
Fitchett does not pretend that war is not violent. It has, he says, “a side of pure brutality”. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—war inoculates youth against the decadence of the age. “What examples are to be found in the tales here retold”, he writes, “not merely of heroic daring, but of even finer qualities—of heroic fortitude; of loyalty to duty stronger than the love of life; of the temper which dreads dishonour more than it fears death; of the patriotism which makes love of the Fatherland a passion” (Fitchett 1897, 6).
Fitchett’s exultation of war’s transformative power was no individual idiosyncrasy. With the Great War was actually underway, Prime Minister Billy Hughes famously celebrated the conflict in very similar terms. War has, he explained: “saved us from moral, aye, and physical degeneration and decay, by which we were slipping down with increasing velocity into the very abyss of degeneration. [We] were becoming flabby, and were in danger of losing the ancient qualities which made the race. This war has purged us and is still purging us like the glorious beams of the sun” (Walker 1972, 105).
If sport and war served a similar function, it is not surprising that, in many respects, the training for one resembled the training for the other. Military drill had developed during the Napoleonic Wars initially to enable the firing of muzzle loading rifles in packed formation. By 1914, modern weaponry had rendered the practice obsolete. Yet if drill no longer helped men fire, it was regarded as crucial to shaping their characters: a way of transforming an atomised collection of enfeebled civilians into a regiment of warriors. (Holmes 1986, 36; Keegan and Holmes 1985, 43). In the British army during the Great War, each man accordingly spent an astonishing third of his training practicing drill. One soldier explained: “We sloped, ordered, presented, trailed, reversed, piled arms and did everything possible with them except fire them. With rifles we marched, counter-marched, wheeled right and left, inclined and formed squads and about turned until we were streaming sweat and weak in the knees with exhaustion” (Winter 1978, 39).
Obviously, recruits also learned to shoot, to bayonet and throw bombs but these specific proficiencies mattered less than the development of a martial spirit. Battle, it was thought, depended upon character. Just as sporting training did not develop any particular military skills, neither necessarily did military training. Indeed, in many respects, the two were similar. “Discipline, mental, moral, ethical… the voluntary submission to one master, the self-surrender to one aim, the conversion of self into part of a machine, devoid of free agency, the working and training for weeks and weeks, to uphold the honour of the school, college or university” (Crotty 2001, 64). The passage comes from an article written for St Peters about school rowing—but it might just as well have been by an army officer explaining the utility of drill.
That stress on character helps explain the tremendous literature of disenchantment that emerged from the war. In the trenches of France, sporting heroes dreaming of chivalry and cavalry charges confronted aeroplanes, tanks and chemical weapons: technological wonders that recreated the logic of the factory on the field of battle. Sport might have provided a space beyond the market; war patently did not. Rather than restoring the values of the past, the war massively accelerated the future: fighting in an artillery unit proved less like playing rugger and more like working at a foundry or a brickworks, except that productivity was measured in corpses.
Most obviously, the war did not allow individuals to express their inner heroism. The vast majority of casualties came from shell fire, against which ordinary soldiers could no nothing but hide. Famously, this was not a conflict in which men did things: it was one in which things were done to men (Dyer 1995, 47). Writing from Gallipoli, the Australian Captain Shepherd noted that “glorious charges, magnificent defences, heroic efforts in this or that direction all boil down to the one thing: the pitting of human beings against the most scientific machinery and the result can be seen in the papers” (Gammage 1974, 81).
Just as industrialised production at home had stripped labour of its traditional skills, industrial warfare rendered the warrior’s craft menial and meaningless. “Chivalry here took a final farewell”, wrote the German soldier Ernst Junger: “It had to yield to the heightened intensity of war, just as all fine and personal feeling has to yield when machinery gets the upper hand. The Europe of to-day appeared here for the first time on the field of battle.” (Junger 1975, 110). Ernst Toller explained:
Instead of escaping the soul-killing mechanism of modern technological society, they learned that the tyranny of technology ruled even more omnipotently in war than in peace time. The men who through daring chivalry had hoped to rescue their spiritual selves from the domination of material and technical forces discovered that in the modern war of material the triumph of the machine over the individual is carried to its most extreme form (Leed 1979, 30).
This was, in other words, a ‘work-war’—less about flags and drums, more about alienated labour—and so almost unrecognisable (Coker 2004, 5). As a Private Neaves wrote home from France to his brother in 1916, “it’s simply scientific murder, not war at all” (Gammage 1974, 182).
Colonel Anderson’s enthusiasm for video games reflects the very different attitude to military training developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Though an excessive reliance on drill proved remarkably persistent (Strachan 2006, 225), the American military theorist SLA Marshall prompted a shift in thinking when he claimed that a significant proportion—perhaps even the majority—of American soldiers did not actually fire in combat (Marshall 1947, 54). Debate about Marshall’s research ushered in a thoroughgoing revision of combat training in the USA and, eventually, the rest of the world (Grossman 2000, 18).
Today, modern militaries provide realistic simulations of actual battle, intended not to shape the recruit’s character but to induce in him a conditioned response. The modern soldier opens fire, not because his training has transformed him into a chivalric warrior, but because he has rehearsed the act of aiming and firing at a moving target until it becomes a reflex performed without conscious thought. The American writer David Grossman, who has both defended and developed Marshall’s theories into the modern era argues:
Men and women who served in the US military since the Vietnam era were universally taught to shoot at man-shaped silhouettes that popped up in their field of view, thus ingraining in them a conditioned response. The stimulus appeared and they had a split second to respond. Stimulus response, stimulus response, stimulus response. Hundreds of repetitions. When an enemy soldier popped up in front of our troops in Vietnam, the enemy was shot and killed, reflexively, without any conscious thought (Grossman 2004, 76).
Elsewhere, he writes:
Every aspect of killing on the battlefield is rehearsed, visualised, and conditioned. On special occasions even more realistic and complex targets are used. Balloon-filled uniforms moving across the kill-zone (pop the balloon and the target drops to the ground), red-paint-filled milk jugs, and many other ingenious devices are used. These make the training more interesting, the conditioning stimuli more realistic, and the conditioned response more assured under a variety of different circumstances (Grossman 1996, 254).
If the Edwardian saw combat (like sport) as counterposed to the stifling routines of industrial production, the training Grossman advocates seems self-consciously Fordist. In his memoir of the Iraq war, Generation Kill, Evan Wright explains: “Once the initial excitement wears off, invading a country becomes repetitive and stressful, like working on an old industrial assembly line: the task seldom varies, but if your attention wanders, you are liable to get injured or killed”. Under such conditions, conditioned responses prove tremendously effective. Wright reports the account given by one of the soldiers in his squad in the aftermath of an engagement: “It was just like training. I just loaded and fired my weapon from muscle memory. I wasn’t even aware what my hands were doing” (Wright 2004, 231).
Compare the description provided by Sergeant Sinque Swales of killing an Iraqi in Mosul:
It felt like I was in a big video game,’ he says. ’It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! The insurgents were firing from the other side of the bridge… We called in a helicopter for an airstrike… I couldn’t believe I was seeing this. It was like Halo. It didn’t even seem real, but it was real (Vargas 2006).
Swales appears in the Washington Post alongside Colonel Anderson with his testimony used as evidence that off-the-shelf video games like Halo: Combat Evolved are, in and of themselves, preparation for combat, a notion that Anderson and other quoted military officials seem happy to endorse. Elsewhere, Grossman makes the argument in even stronger terms, contending that the responses conditioned by first person shooting games provide a natural training for real firefights. “Violent media games”, he writes, “are murder simulators, except when police officers and soldiers use them for training, in which case they are combat simulators” (Grossman 2004, 76).
One does not have to accept such a straightforward equation between gaming and murder to recognise that, in a digital age, the kind of training previously provided by balloons and red-paint-filled milk jugs will, quite obviously, increasingly come from computerised simulations. If home video games are not themselves a preparation for combat, they are, in that sense, a preparation for combat preparation: a FPS might not train a gamer for Mosul but it bears an obvious relationship to the Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer, a simulation on which recruits practice firing M16 rifles against a computer screen (Vargas, 2006).
Yet a too narrow focus on the techniques of battle preparation obscures a more important argument about how a point-and-click understanding of combat blurs the distinction between training and recruitment. From the late 1990s, for instance, the army sponsored a research project called the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, which conducted research and hired game companies and movie studios. The best known outcome was Full Spectrum Warrior, originally created with millions of dollars of army money explicitly as a training module for urban warfare. The incredibly successful commercial version was a spin-off, in which a simple cheat-code changes the program into its military counterpart. Some military officials complained that Full Spectrum Warrior project was a failure, since the company involved produced a satisfying experience for gamers only by compromising on the requirements of a usable training program. Yet if the game did not deliver as a training simulation, it proved wildly successful in popularising the army brand amongst the crucial demographic of teenage males—and this was surely part of the original design brief, since the Full Spectrum Warrior website contained, in its first months, a direct link to the US army recruiting site (Halter 2006, 232) .
There is, of course, nothing new about the military working closely with the entertainment sector to promote recruiting. Ed Halter notes: “the first Hollywood film to win Best Picture, a sky romance called Wings, was made with the co-operation of the Army’s Air Corps. Top Gun, the 1986 Tom Cruise aerial vehicle—produced with the assistance of the Navy—reportedly increased enrolment by a ridiculous 400 percent; the Navy even set up recruiter tables at movie theatres once they knew what was happening” (Halter 2006: 232). Even the infinitely less glamorous Australian military makes its personnel and equipment available for television or movie productions that in its opinion will foster ‘army values’.
Yet the playability of games brings a quite new dimension to this process. Take America’s Army (U.S. Army 2002), the remarkable FPS developed and distributed free by the US military. One study showed that almost thirty percent of those who clicked on the America’s Army homepage (at which the game can be downloaded) also visited the real-life recruitment page, while nineteen percent of the soldiers joining the Military Academy in 2003 acknowledged playing the game. Since launching in 2002, the project has been extraordinarily effective as a recruiting tool, with “more success than any US military-recruitment campaign since the Uncle Sam I Want You ads in World War II , with nearly eight million people registered to play worldwide as of January 2007” (Power 2007). As David Nieborg points out: “For over four years the game has ranked high in the list of most played FPSs, attracting and retaining a considerable group of a couple of hundred thousand dedicated players. Every couple of months the game is significantly updated, with bug fixes and the addition of new maps, weapons and training elements” (Nieborg 2006).
From the point of view of recruitment, computer games like America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior possess a tremendous advantage over Hollywood productions because their game play so readily re-enchants those elements of war that so disillusioned a generation of Edwardian public school boys. The very title Full Spectrum Warrior illustrates the process. ‘Full-spectrum dominance’, of course, refers to the US military’s drive to command all aspects of the battlefield: ground, sea, air and sub-surface, as well as the electromagnetic spectrum and information space. By definition, this implies a level of social and technological sophistication incompatible with any traditional notion of warriordom. In any real sense, a soldier in a twenty-first century war possesses less individual control over the battle than at any other time in history, as (in theory at least) the conflict rages simultaneously in space, under the ocean and in cyberspace.
Yet gaming, like sport, relies upon individual agency. By gaming battle, the player in America’s Army or Full Spectrum Warrior reverses the logic of the Great War: war is once again experienced as the individual doing things, rather than having things done to him or her. Even when the simulation replicates the most fearsome components of twenty-first century warfare, these are presented merely as adjuncts to the player’s choices and decisions, rather than as the machinations of an industrial order entirely outside any individual control.
If the Great War was ‘not war at all’, ‘scientific murder’ functions entirely differently in the game format. After all, one of the compromises made by the designers of Full Spectrum Warrior involved increasing (rather than decreasing) the number of firefights, since war only seemed like war to gamers if they could mow down of entire armies of electronic foes.
Even the grittiest digital representations of war only foster its re-enchantment since, in a game, the touches of ‘realism’ provided by a skilfully rendered corpse or a bombed landscape make the play more rather than less meaningful. Ernst Junger famously complained that, in modern times, the soldier had “exchanged heroism’s iridescent mantle for the dirty smock of the day labourer” (Leed 1979, 30). Yet a realistic rendition of a soldier scrabbling in mud becomes, in a computer game, a signifier of authenticity rather than ennui. Even tedium, in other words, can be enchanted, as Nick Yee (2005) has noted. America’s Army famously simulates not only combat but enlistment and training (the 2005 console version is subtitled ‘The Rise of a Soldier’), transforming the notorious monotony of basic training into gameplay.
The playability of battle fosters a distinctly Edwardian sense of war as an experience that reintroduces chivalric virtues absent from a mundane suburban world. America’s Army is explicitly based around the transformation of civilians into soldiers, with successful players represented as the embodiment of archaic martial codes. “I am an American Soldier,” explains one screen. “I am a Warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.”
Much of the text might, in fact, have been written by Dr Watkin: “In the game, as in the Army, accomplishing missions requires a team effort and adherence to the seven Army Core Values. Through its emphasis on team play, the game demonstrates these values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage and makes them integral to success in America’s Army.” David Nieborg notes that the game developers have gone to extraordinary length to build these values into the fabric of the game, with various modifications prohibiting activities seen to be in conflict with them (Nieborg, 2006).
While America’s Army encourages individuals to play in teams over the internet, it also presents an array of what it calls ‘Real Heroes’—avatars based on authentic military officers. The ‘Real Heroes’ interact with the players in various ways, while giving details of their own adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather than the foul-mouthed, porn-watching, amphetamine-and-junk-food gobbling hip hoppers portrayed in Evans’s account, these ‘Real Heroes’ are honourable warriors who talk earnestly about the nobility of service. For instance, a certain Major Jason Amerine explains: “In Afghanistan, I commanded American and Afghan soldiers, each fighting for his own nation and his people, yet united in a common cause as they entrusted one another with their lives. There is no greater courage than for people to fight side-by-side against the terrible odds they faced with such impenetrable faith in one another”.
The game provides context for Amerine’s experiences by explaining that “the Taliban had also fallen in league with Al Qaeda, providing Osama Bin Laden a sanctuary from which he and his lieutenants could hatch new terrorist plots and within which they could recruit and train new generations of terrorist myrmidons”.
The recruits to the modern American military come from working class families. They are disproportionately black and Hispanic. They do not, one imagines, generally talk about terrorist myrmidons falling in league with each other. Rather than replicating the speech patterns of real recruits, the game employs the peculiar cod-feudal vocabulary that Paul Fussell (1981, 22) graphs from the early years of the Great War, in a diagram produced in part below.
|A friend is a||comrade|
|A horse is a||steed, or charger|
|The enemy is||the foe, or the host|
|To conquer is to||vanquish|
|To attack is to||assail|
|To be earnestly brave is to be||gallant|
|To be cheerfully brave is to be||plucky|
|To be stolidly brave is to be||staunch|
|Bravery considered after the fact is||valor|
|The dead on the battlefield are||the fallen|
Such terms would seem risible in newspaper accounts of the catastrophic wars actually waging in Iraq and Afghanistan but within America’s Army the antiquated rhetoric seems fitting to the chivalric values the players live out. Indeed, within the game-world, it is words like ‘Abu Ghraib’ or ‘Haditha’ that possess no meaning whatsoever whereas the vocabulary of Edwardian militarism (‘I am a Warrior’) appears natural and appropriate.
In that respect, the pleasures of the game replicate those of public school sport. America’s Army provides a digital world of full of meaning and purpose, with easily comprehensible hierarchies and a set of values so clear that they can be summarised on the screen when the program starts up. The game is a space of atavistic utopia, where, in contrast to the outside world, the player can become an individual hero while remaining part of the larger community of the ‘army’.
Yet if America’s Army and similar program recreate war along the lines of Edwardian sport, they do so with an important difference—the experience exists only within the game world. Norman Gale’s ‘good fellows’ were socially validated for their cricket score, in a way that the skilled gamer is not, despite the army’s sponsorship of the ‘the Global Gaming League’. The player of America’s Army might live out ‘army values’ on their computer but no-one—not even game developers—suggest that video games foster character in the real world. On the contrary, insofar as ‘computer games’ and ‘character’ appear in the same context, the usual implication is that gaming is, in fact, degenerative: it is linked to childhood obesity, communication disorders, social isolation and so on.
This does not, however, impact of the value of the games to the real army. The militarists of the Great War genuinely believed that character mattered to battle—and, for that matter, that battle produced character. The modern military does not. It is happy for recruits to play games structured around dreams of young chivalry but, as has been discussed, it actually understands genuine combat as an almost autistic process, in which muscle memory matters more than heroism.
If playing America’s Army convinces a teenager that the secret space of meaning and purpose and value can only be understood by the military, the game has done its job. Wilfred Owen probably aimed at someone very much like W.H. Fitchett when he attacked those who repeated “the old lie” to “children ardent for some desperate glory” (Owen 1986, 99). But Owen’s words seem even more appropriate to Fitchett’s digital descendants.
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Jeff Sparrow is the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence, the editor of Overland and a Research Fellow at Victoria University.
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’. . 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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 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.
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.
Babelswarm is a real-time 3D and audio art project built in the virtual world of Second Life. It was the winner of the Australia Council’s first Second Life arts residency, and was launched simultaneously in-world and at the Lismore Regional Gallery in New South Wales, Australia. Overwhelmingly complex, extraordinarily diverse, Second Life is like a summation of all previous media technologies. Audio, video, programming, archiving, and so on and on, are all able to be deployed within it, in radically unprecedented ways.
Activated by the voices of visitors in the realworld gallery and chat messaging from virtual visitors in Second Life, a swarm of letter cubes – programmed to seek out their original word position—slowly builds a morphing, virtual Tower of Babel. This tower is constructed from the utterances of visitors to it, constantly reconfiguring itself according to the artificial intelligence of the individual letter forms.
|Figure 1 BabelSwarm#1||Figure 2 BabelSwarm#2||Figure 3 BabelSwarm#3||Figure 4 BabelSwarm#4||Figure 5 BabelSwarm#5|