DIGRA: forthcoming paper
Souvik Sunday, July 12, 2009Here's my DIGRA paper abstract. Here, I develop a salient point in my thesis and, in a dialogue with earlier commentary, explore the pattern(s) of time in videogames. The paper itself is work in progress and early comments are most welcome.
'Remembering How We Died': Memory, Death and Temporality in Videogames
Death is an intrinsic part of gameplay. On considering the role of killing, dying and negotiating the 'undead' in videogames, one cannot be faulted for noting in them an obsessive engagement with the act of dying. It is almost a prerequisite that the player's avatar has to 'die' many times in the process of unravelling the plot. Instead of the traditional tying and untying (desis and lusis) of narrative plots, held sacrosanct since Aristotle, videogame narratives are characterised by 'dying and undying'. The sense of an ending, as literary theorist Sir Frank Kermode calls it, is constantly frustrated by its absence in videogames. Western conceptions of ending, whether Hellenic or Judaeo-Christian, are based on telos and a linear temporality. In a culture where death is a grim finality and where resurrection is only possible by the divine, videogames seem to shockingly trivialise death by adding to it the perspective of multiplicity. Videogame theorist, Gonzalo Frasca, observes that from the perspective of real life, this reversibility can be seen as something that 'trivializes the "sacred" value of life'. This paper argues against such a conception and in doing so, it points to how videogames to a different but equally serious view of death and endings that has so far been largely ignored due to an occidental bias.
In Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy, belief in reincarnation is the norm rather than the exception. The multiplicities of death(s) is, therefore, not trivial. This, however, is not to claim a straightforward connection of the videogame endings with the rebirth cycle in these world-views, especially since there are many differences within and between them. Not to consider them at all, however, would skew the analysis, given that the characteristics of videogames though considered 'trivial' in a Western paradigm, actually connect to ideas that pre-date Christianity. The videogame protagonist, also called avatar (which requires a separate discussion), dies, lives and lives again; thus replaying the cycle of his or her existence. Within the context of the game-narrative, each death or ending is important: often, as Michael Nitsche states, death can be a way of exploring the game or of obtaining information about 'future' possibilities. That apart, each ending is connected to the assemblage that the game narrative forms. Despite their other mutual differences, in Vedantism and Buddhism the key idea of rebirth does not trivialise the event of death. Instead of a transmigration of an essence, Buddhism believes in a moment-to-moment process of rebirth dependent on the encompassing circumstances. The Gita states that 'the newly moulded inner nature will express in a new form.' The 'new' form is called avatar in Hinduism; gods are often (re)born in different reincarnations or avatars and this is part of the divine play or lila. The term avatar is rather freely used in game criticism as meaning 'player embodiment' which is but part of its original significance; its key connotations of reincarnation and immanent existence have so far been ignored.
While these non-Western perspectives indicate an alternative reading of death in videogames, their heavily moral and religious implications make any easy equation problematic. Their ideas of immanence, nevertheless, connect well to games where the same avatar re-experiences the game-world but differently, each time – a complex case of difference and repetition. This, importantly, also connects with current ideas in Western philosophy, such as Gilles Deleuze's understanding of immanence and temporality. The avatar in the game experiences events, including death(s), as actualisations of a virtuality of events. The actualisation takes place from within a combination of possible events, which in turn are determined by their spatial and temporal environments. Further, even as an actualisation takes place, the other iterations of the gameplay (such as other instances where the same section of the game was played) still remain quite 'real'. In the Deleuzian sense, this is a real virtuality or one that is 'never past either in relation to a new present or in relation to a present it once was.' For Deleuze, the different actualisations are like the dice-throws in a 'Divine Game', where they are multiple but at the same time partaking in the One. Following this, he proposes that the idea of death be treated 'less as a severance than an effect of mixture or confusion'. Traditional conventions of death are influenced by the idea of time as a chronological progression. When faced with phenomena such as videogames, where chronological progression gives way to more immanent structures; firmly believed in conceptions about death, memory and event are greatly problematised. With this in consideration, this paper will attempt to build upon the discussions on temporality already started by critics such as Jesper Juul, Barry Atkins and Nitsche. Carrying these forward both in terms of game studies and contemporary philosophical discourse, it will attempt to understand the importance of in-game death: as both immanent and imminent.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino