Under the Mask 2009

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Once again at 'Under the Mask'. Can't believe that a whole year has passed since I first tested out my ideas on 'egoshooting' and 'becoming' in videogames. This year's conference was better organised and even more enriching and entertaining than it was last year. Some of the presentations, particularly Gavin Stewart's, Steven Conway's and Alec Charles's, I liked and benefited from more than the others. I missed Esther MacCallum-Stewart's paper because I went to hear Steven and Jenna, my co-presenter, later told me that I had missed the best paper in the conference. My loss, but the paper is online so I presume I can read it now. On the entertainment side of it, the constant repartee between Alec and Gavin was already expected from my experience of it last year. The philosophy of computer games as recounted by Ernest Adams (the keynote) certainly entertained although I strongly disagree with most of it. There was one of the usual 'magic circle' debates among the panelists; only this one led to Pride and Prejudice and speculations about whether it was possible to find Darcy's grave. I also enjoyed Esther's description of her WoW battle with the great Espen Aarseth himself. Last but not least, perhaps the most entertaining part was Jenna's adventurous GTA-style driving on the way back. (this is a long post so if you are just after the papers download them from here)

This posting will be in part a response to some ideas I either contest or wish to develop. It will also attempt to provide a general summary of the conference.

Philosophising on Computer Games: An Alternative Response to Ernest Adams

I do not know if there is a 'philosophy of videogames' but I work with two philosophers, in the main, to formulate my own thoughts on games; so though I won't go as far as to point to a 'videogame philosophy', I'll certainly agree that there is an imminent need to think about videogames philosophically. I went to (and presented at) the Games and Philosophy Conference at Potsdam, last year and I was happily rewarded with some of the most philosophically oriented discussions on videogames. When Ernest Adams opened his keynote address on the philosophical roots of computer games, I was expecting more of such discourse. Adams has always appealed to me in the way he bashes the academia for needlessly engaging in the ludology-narratology (non)debate and in the way he understands gameplay as 'difficult to define' rather than trying to define it within a set formula. Therefore, I was surprised when he tossed game studies (if there is such a thing) between the binaries of English and French philosophy as well as the classical and the Romantic.

Videogames, he says, are number-driven and logic-driven. Their orientation is more classical than Romantic. For Adams, videogames (those that tell stories, that is) do create a tussle between the classical and Romantic identities but even these can at best compare to Norse Saga or Victorian novels. Videogames have not had their Modernist or Postmodern text. To back this up, he considers the oft-cited 'postmodern' experience of the break in the fourth wall / magic circle (or whatever you will) and claims that it is not a break in the immersion ( how i hate the word ... shall we call it 'involvement' or something else, please?) because the player is never really immersed. So much for 'flow' and Cszikzentmihalyi (pronounced 'Chicks send me high') then, if one listens to Adams.

As I said earlier, I so disagree with a lot of what he says. Against the French / English philosophy binarism: according to Adams, the philosophy of videogames has nothing to do with Derrida, Bergson and Sartre (because they are French and inductive) and everything to do with Locke, Hume and Whitehead (because they are English and deductive). I am being flippant here but this is how such a binarism sounds. I am not sure what aspects of Bergson's works, Adams considers but he certainly does not take into account how Gilles Deleuze uses, quite effectively, Bergson, Whitehead and Hume to engage in supplementing each other's concepts. The watertight binarism certainly isn't a product of nationality; nor is there a clear-cut binarism of inductive versus deductive. Or even of Classical versus Romantic for that matter. Nietzsche, whom Deleuze reads deeply, says in Ecce Homo that The Birth of Tragedy is his 'most offensively Hegelian' book because of its dialectical opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysiac (roughly corresponding to Classical and Romantic). Nietzsche clarifies that he understands 'Greek tragedy as the Dionysiac chorus which ever anew discharges itself in an Apollonian world of images.' Adams's binarism, therefore, has been challenged and disproved in philosophical terms, over a century ago. He refers to David Thomas's (of 'Buzzcut' fame) article on gaming as belonging to Pre-Socratic philosophy, which Thomas understands as 'all is number' in a very limited sense. As Keith Ansell-Pearson comments, Nietzsche explicitly connects the Dionysiac with the concept of flow and Becoming as stated by Heraclitus, a key Pre-Socratic philosopher. Deleuze goes on to develop Nietzsche's reading into an idea of Becoming that is now of legendary proportion. In my last year's paper at UTM (as well as in many other papers), I have applied the idea of Becoming to videogames, especially to describe the involvement of the player and the machine. However, I digress ...

Adams's claim about the player's immersion, i partly support. I have often likened immersion to a dip in the Ganges - under water and fully out of contact with the outside world. That does not happen in games, says Adams and I totally agree. However, if it does not happen in games, neither does it happen in books and movies as Adams seems to claim. Normally I have to challenge the other extreme argument that claims that games are like the Holodeck - hence, this new claim is rather amusing for me. Typically, then this would problematise even the relocation of the fourth wall (after Steven's paper, I shan't say 'breaking' ever again) - for Adams, the experience does not include the deep involvement that Esther pointed to while describing her deep gaming experience which made her oblivious to other passengers on the train. In sum, Adams makes a rather extreme claim for the game experience and it is one that does not account for the deep involvement. I believe that extreme and dialectically opposite positions should consider the experience as being more processual and engage with ideas such as Becoming to explain this.

These problematic conceptions also prompt Adams to conclude that videogames are sans their Modernist or Postmodernist examples and should rather be compared to Pre-modernist literature. However, any literature student will know that chronology does not work as a categorising element in literature - not any more. Consider the Modernist and Postmodern implications of Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones. One more point that I cannot resist making although it is a sort of digression.

Adams claims that Victorians did not use their machine to create art. He has probably forgotten Ada Lovelace who wished to use Babbage's Analytical Engine for 'poetic programming' or weaving artistic patterns with music (in other words, being a computer DJ). Babbage himself used to impress his guests with automata built to entertain. Cultural Babbage offers many examples as does my own article on the subject. Even in the 'steampunk' novels that Adams refers to, there are ample examples: in The Difference Engine, John Keats (otherwise famous in our world) earns his living as a 'clacker' (hacker/programmer) who programs for the cinema.

To return to my main contention, however. Adams neglects many videogame titles that do not correspond to the Norse saga structure that he sees in Duke Nukem or Quake. Many games problematise the idea of good and bad binaries. Max Payne, Stalker (which Adams was consulted on), Fahrenheit, GTA etc in their own ways relate to current theoretical and philosophical positions. In yesterday's conference, ironically most of the philosophers discussed by the presenters were French and postmodern (i use this term loosely and rather unhappily). I've just found out that Adams' paper was first published in 2004 - a year before I started my PhD. It is to my discredit that I did not find it earlier - or else I would challenged it more substantially within my thesis. However, even in in 2004, there were games like Blade Runner that would, in essence, challenge the simple story structure that Adams claims for videogames. It just shows how important it is to start studying the stories in videogames in more depth instead of endless quibbling over things like player studies versus game studies.

Steven Conway Relocates the Fourth Wall

Steven if you are reading this, then you'll see that the masthead of Ludus Ex is all about what you said in the conference. 'I was in a computer game. Funny as hell it was the most horrible thing i could think of'. In fact, even in RL (which one of Sherry Turkle's respondents calls 'another window') I sometimes feel a relocation of an imaginary 'fourth wall' (or nth wall) which in a Phildickian way seems to surround us (assuming that life is an ARG, ha ha).

Back to academic blogging (see i've already relocated the fourth wall).Snap!

I liked the way in which Conway spoke of the relocation of the fourth wall rather than the breaking of it. He basically proved previous commentators wrong in one neat slash and numerous examples from other media that many game critics hadn't considered. The examples are too many to recount and I sincerely wish I could share his presentation with the readers of Ludus Ex. However, he spoke of how Max Payne refers self-reflexively to its identity as a videogame and how Psycho-Mantis 'reads' the player's mind in a faux-psionic way and makes the player perform acts outside the game in order to defeat him. Other critics would call this being pulled 'out of the game' but Conway contends that it is instead an extension of the game. It could be a contraction or the expansion of the fourth wall but it is still the maintenance of the 'as if' that the play involves. I am not one for magic circles or Hamlets on Holodecks, but Conway, if I read him right, is not either. As far as the play is concerned, I think the idea of the relocation is spot on. To illustrate this in terms of Brechtian 'alienation effect' (Snap! Correct me if I err, Steven. I am not writing like an academic now. The punctuation is intentional and many 'rap' poets relocate the fourth wall thus), in the game, the spectator is being reminded of a reality A that is different from the game's reality B while existing in another reality C which corresponds closely and almost resembles reality A. I agree with the concept of relocation also because it implicitly negates any final watertight (or even semi permeable) boundary which we have to 'break'; instead it shifts the experience to a different level of Becoming. This fits in with my conception of a Deleuzian Becoming, as well.

I was only intrigued that Conway does not refer to Gonzalo Frasca's use of the concept of the 'spect-actor' as borrowed from the drama of Augusto Boal. In a sense, Frasca also seems to support the relocation argument on a more general scale. Frasca talks of 'outmersion' where the player is conscious of being involved in the game and then he describes 'meta-outmersion' where the player is simultaneously conscious also of being 'outmersed'. If the spectator is simultaneously the actor, this is a constant process and the wall (or whatever imaginary membrane) of the act does not really break but it is relocated. All said, however, this is was a very interesting paper from Conway and I would certainly like to read more.

Shifting Boundaries: Gavin Stewart's Presentation on Paratexts and 'Inanimate Alice'

The other paper that I will briefly discuss in Gavin Stewart's. I had never heard Gavin present but I always had a deep respect for his work when he was at my university (i even called him 'sir' for the first two times i met him, he reminds me). Gavin spoke about a website called Inanimate Alice, Genettian ideas of paratext (as (mis)used by Mia Consalvo) and Bioshock game covers. The talk woke me up to the fact that I usually unconsciously take in so much from game covers. Must add this to my post-doc plan. Gavin also eloquently pointed to how even non-game objects are ludic to a degree, as they require. Inanimate Alice can, therefore, be a ludic entity at times. Similarly, ARGs can be a 'real life' entity as well as a ludic entity. It is also interesting to note how the paratexts of games affect our readings and play and also how games themselves work as paratexts. Finally, the often neglected (in my previous theoretical work, especially) element of the market needs to be considered in-depth. I will need to explore this further in my own research and thinking.

General Observations

First, I'd like to thank the organisers for having invited us (Jenna and me). The interest that the event evoked among the many gamers (you wouldn't use this term if you were there at yesterday's debate) was very encouraging. Among the other papers, I enjoyed Alec Charles' paper (thanks for thanking me about 'egoshooters'; credit also goes to my friend Mark Butler). The concept of 'hailing' in Althusserian terms has already been used by Will Slocombe in his essay on ludic agency (Digital Gameplay ed. Nate Garrelts). I am not sure I agree. I've said a lot of about agency already. Click here for an example. Of the others, I thought Maria Baecke could have developed her interesting study a bit more and also that the paper on gamer mothers could have been more representative and supplied more details. I was happy to meet Philip Lin who presented on a somewhat similar topic as ourselves -- the US Army and 'militainment'. Philip is developing his PhD plan now: all the best. Adrienne Shaw presented a interesting case study of Finnish gaming and how it relates to the global experience. We should see more of these coming up... soon, hopefully. Finally, I must say I was slightly disappointed by Vicente Gandasgui's paper on spectatorship. I am not sure King Kong is the best example for game-film comparison and Gandasgui did not seem to be aware of ground-breaking work on cutscenes (such as Rune Klevjer's) and dismissed them by saying that his friends find them boring so they really don't count as parts of the game. He also missed key research in the area – especially by Tanya Krzywinska (who is also a film theorist in her own right) and Michael Nitsche. I am sure he will develop his research further as he progresses with his research in what is a very interesting topic.

And so we came away from 'Under the Mask' driving through the heavy spray, tired but quite satisfied with a great gaming day.

All the papers are now available here.

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